Seward, Desmond 1935–

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Seward, Desmond 1935–


Born May 22, 1935, in Paris, France; son of William Eric and Eileen Seward. Education: St. Catharine's College, Cambridge, B.A. Religion: Roman Catholic.


Home—Brighton, England. Agent—Andrew Lownie Literary Agency, 17 Sutherland St., London SWIV 4JU, England.


Historian, writer.


The First Bourbon: Henry IV, King of France and Navarre, Gambit (Boston, MA), 1971.

The Monks of War: The Military Religious Orders, Eyre Methuen (London, England), 1972, Viking Penguin (New York, NY), 1996, published as The Monks of War: The First Religious Orders, Archon (Hamden, CT), 1972.

The Bourbon Kings of France, Constable (London, England), 1973, Barnes & Noble (New York, NY), 1976.

Prince of the Renaissance: The Life of Francois I, Constable (London, England), 1973, published as Prince of the Renaissance: The Golden Life of Francois I, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1973.

Eleanor of Aquitaine: The Mother Queen, David & Charles (Newton Abbot, England), 1978, published as Eleanor of Aquitaine, Times Books (New York, NY), 1979.

The Hundred Years War: The English in France, 1337-1453, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1978, republished as A Brief History of the Hundred Years War: The English in France, 1337-1453, Robinson (London, England), 2003.

Monks and Wine, Crown (New York, NY), 1979.

Marie Antoinette, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1981.

Richard III: England's Black Legend, Country Life Books (London, England), 1983, F. Watts (New York, NY), 1984.

(Selector and author of introduction) Naples: A Traveller's Companion, Constable (London, England), 1984, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1986.

Napoleon's Family, Viking (New York, NY), 1986.

Italy's Knights of St. George: The Constantinian Order, Gerrards Cross (Buckinghamshire, England), 1986.

Henry V as Warlord, Sidgwick & Jackson (London, England), 1987, published as Henry V: The Scourge of God, Viking (New York, NY), 1988.

Napoleon and Hitler: A Comparative Biography, Harrap (London, England), 1988, Viking (New York, NY), 1989.

(With Susan Mountgarret) Byzantium, Harrap (London, England), 1989.

(Editor, with Philip Ziegler) Brook's: A Social History, Constable (London, England), 1991.

Metternich: The First European, Viking (New York, NY), 1991.

The Dancing Sun: Journeys to the Miracle Shrines (travel), Macmillan (London, England), 1993.

The War of the Roses through the Lives of Five Men and Women of the Fifteenth Century, Viking (New York, NY), 1995.

Sussex (travel), Pimlico County History Guides (London, England), 1995.

Caravaggio: A Passionate Life, Morrow (New York, NY), 1998.

Eugenie: The Empress and Her Empire, Sutton (London, England), 2003.

The Burning of the Vanities: Savonarola and the Borgia Pope, Sutton (London, England), 2006.

Contributor to periodicals, including History Today. Seward's books have been translated into multiple languages.


Desmond Seward is one of a small group of historical writers who regards narrative as an essential part of the historical process, looking back to Edward Gibbon, the eighteenth-century English historian best known for his work The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Many of Seward's books are concerned with various aspects of England's centuries-old history of conflict with France. Maligned reputations have been attached to several of the key players on both sides of this ongoing antagonism, and Seward's books, which include The Bourbon Kings of France, Richard III: England's Black Legend, and Napoleon and Hitler: A Comparative Biography, often attempt to shed new light on these leaders and their deeds.

Born in France in 1935, Seward belongs to a Franco-Irish family that have been wine merchants in Bordeaux since the 1860s. He was educated in England by the Benedictine monks of Ampleforth and at St. Catharine's College, Cambridge. He still regards France as his second home. He saw the publication of his first work in 1971 with The First Bourbon: Henry IV, King of France and Navarre. Another of his early works is a biography of one of France's sixteenth-century monarchs, Prince of the Renaissance: The Life of Francois I. The work chronicles the life of the ruler who was best remembered as a patron of the arts. Vincent Cronin, writing in the Washington Post Book World, termed Seward's effort "a sound, brilliantly readable short life."

The Monks of War: The Military Religious Orders, published first in 1972, is the book Seward considers his most important work. It is thought to be the first general history of the Templars, Knights Hospitallers, Teutonic Knights, and other religious orders published since the eighteenth century. Additionally, Seward wrote a number of other books on French history—or English history in regard to France—over the next decade. These include The Bourbon Kings of France, a biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine, and The Hundred Years War: The English in France, 1337-1453, which appeared in an American edition in 1978. In the latter work, Seward explains how the acrimonious war over a variety of typical causes—disputed territory, paying tribute, fishing rights—helped England rise from a small nation to a formidable power. Young men went to France during wartime, Seward reveals, not just to fight but to augment personal wealth—helped in part by the French nobility, who rode into battle with their family jewels and willingly paid ransom when captured. A New Yorker reviewer praised the work, noting that the author writes of all the major events and people, "and illuminates them with … a most agreeable clarity of style."

Seward skipped ahead to the eighteenth century for his biography Marie Antoinette. He chronicles the life of this despised French queen—Austrian by birth—who was beheaded by the guillotine during the French Revolution. Marie's profligate spending and haughty attitude have long been seen as the sparks that helped ignite the radical sans-culottes and initiate the overthrow of the French monarchy, but Seward sheds a more balanced light on the royal figure. As his biography recounts, Marie Antoinette grew up virtually illiterate, was married at age fourteen to an unkempt and lazy prince, and soon found that spending money was an easy way to relieve boredom. Seward shows her transformation into a more respectable middle age; despite her other flaws, the queen was a good mother and loyal to her friends, and husband Louis XVI eventually grew to respect her. In her last years, Marie Antoinette tried to save the French monarchy through a variety of ruses, but in the end was sentenced by a revolutionary tribunal. Seward, wrote Christopher Hibbert in the Spectator, "retells lucidly and sensibly the sad, dramatic story of this woman whose dignified and courageous behaviour towards the end of her life did so much to mitigate the follies of her earlier years."

Seward's Richard III received a fair amount of press, perhaps in part because its publication came just prior to the 500th anniversary of a particularly gruesome event in the history of the English succession. As Seward's biography recounts, King Richard III was the last of the Plantagenet dynasty, a man who usurped the throne after his brother's sudden death. As William Shakespeare would recount in his play about King Richard, the man's grip on power was solidified by the mysterious disappearance of the two nephews who stood between him and the crown of England. The legend of the two princes in the tower has long been a staple of popular British history and fiction, including Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time, and Seward's text addresses several of these other accounts of Richard's ascension and somewhat barbarous reign. Seward told CA that he is "firmly convinced that Richard was every bit as evil as Shakespeare's portrait, though perhaps not hump-backed." New York Times Book Review critic Wendy Smith called the biography "a well-written and colorful account of an intriguing period in English history."

In Napoleon's Family, Seward presents the untold tale of the French emperor's numerous and involved relatives. Napoleon Bonaparte was actually an Italian, educated in France, who rose to power in the aftermath of the French Revolution. After successfully conquering large parts of Europe, he then installed his family members as rulers and plundered France's treasury to enrich everybody—especially his mother. According to Seward, the rapacious, sexually promiscuous Bonaparte clan were "half-savage squireens, scarcely more than peasants with coats of arms." Napoleon's Family also recounts the clotheshorse tendencies of his wife, the Empress Josephine; the story of Louis, his venereal disease-riddled brother; the tale of another brother, the ruler of a small German kingdom who once staged a nude opera at his castle; and the life of a sister, whom Seward describes as "the greatest hussy imaginable." Napoleon's Family received unanimously positive reviews. Book World contributor Michael Kernan praised the book's "precision, wit and remarkable clarity," while Globe and Mail reviewer David Lancashire termed it "entertaining social history—the story of these social mountaineers hewing their way to the top reads like a nineteenth-century supermarket tabloid."

Seward penned yet another biography of a legendary historical figure from England's past in Henry V as Warlord, published in the United States as Henry V: The Scourge of God. The title of the American edition reflects the moniker the ruler gave himself over the course of his nine-year reign in the early fifteenth century. Henry won enormous successes on the battlefield, much of them, as Seward asserts, through the furtherance of more refined weaponry. Invading France in 1415, he reignited the sputtering Hundred Years War and achieved victory at the notorious Battle of Agincourt. A few years later he married a French princess, but the union did little to curb the animosity between the two kingdoms that had resulted from the English army's pillage of the French countryside. Again, Seward's subject matter was previously immortalized in the Shakespearean play that bears his name; the bard's dramatic portrayal helped make Henry V a revered figure in English history. The revisionist Henry V sets out to show another, less charitable side of Henry V, depicting him, as Seward told CA, "as a near psychopath." As Spectator reviewer Christopher Allmand noted, Seward's book "reflects some of the latest scholarly research on the king."

Seward's Napoleon and Hitler gives evidence of the remarkable similarities between the two conquering despots. Both were emigres in their respective domains whose greatest military folly was to invade Russia—a step that eventually led to each leader's downfall. Seward posits that both Napoleon and Adolf Hitler, in their individual quests for control over Europe, were essentially attempting to subdue a powerful English empire. Each possessed an enormous ego, which drove both men to embark on ambitious and deadly military campaigns. Seward also discusses the creation of internal totalitarian machinery within the regimes of both Napoleon and Hitler that had been unknown up until their respective points in history. A reviewer for the Economist pointed out that Seward's hypothesis in comparing the two dictators is the book's singular fault—"equating the two men … makes the horror of the Holocaust merely relative," the reviewer believed.

The War of the Roses through the Lives of Five Men and Women of the Fifteenth Century marks Seward's return to the subject of late medieval English history. The book looks at the internal battle that raged in England, in the years after the death of Henry V, between two opposing royal houses, Lancaster and York, through the intertwined biographies of five key players. One was a courtier whose attempt to save a boy-king from the opposing faction resulted in his own death; another was the mother of a future Tudor king who managed to shape a truce between the two sides. Another key figure in Seward's historical chronicle was the mistress of a king who served as a spy; the earl of Oxford and a future archbishop round out Seward's quintet. An Economist reviewer concluded that the work "succeed[s] in bringing medieval England to life," and an Independent reviewer maintained that Seward "directs his readers fastidiously and dramatically through the plots, the dynastic marriages, the murders and the exiles … and the result is history as compelling as any novel."

In 1998, Seward published the biography of Italian baroque painter Michelangelo da Caravaggio. Though Randy Gener in the Lamda Book Report criticized Caravaggio: A Passionate Life for concluding that the artist was not gay, he conceded that the book "lucidly lays out how Caravaggio's strange, wildly capricious behavior was shaped by a milieu rife with public hangings, terrible plagues, religious vices … and barbarous practices." By contrast, Donna Seaman in Booklist felt that "Seward's emphasis on Caravaggio's religious convictions goes much further in explicating the power of his art and the nature of his soul than speculation about his sexuality."

With Eugenie: The Empress and Her Empire, Seward gathers the details of the life of Eugenia de Montijo, who went on to become the wife of Emperor Napoleon III. Born in Spain, she was raised in Paris, and the family friends included the great writers, musicians, and artists of the time, such as Chopin and Balzac. For nearly two decades Eugenie was the most powerful woman in Europe, and Bismarck, the English ambassador to France, called her "the only man in Paris." She cared deeply for the poor of France, and she refused a fortune in jewels offered by the City of Paris, asking that the money instead by used to support an orphanage for girls. She acted as a diplomat on France's behalf and promoted the country's trade, yet whenever a problem arose, the French typically blamed Eugenie, the Spaniard, much as they had Marie Antoinette, an Austrian, and Catherine de Medicis, a Florentine. Eugenie, who was also part British, spent the last half of her very long life (ninety-two years) in England as a Dame Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire.

The Burning of the Vanities: Savonarola and the Borgia Pope is Seward's study of Girolamo Savonarola, the puritan preacher born in Ferrara, Italy, in 1452, who went on to oppose not only the excesses of Renaissance Florence but also the abuses of the Roman Catholic Church, which ultimately led to his excommunication. His enormous power over daily life and politics was ended when the Church finally tried him and had him burned at the stake. In reviewing Seward's biography in the Spectator, Jonathan Keates wrote: "His wider application of Savonarola's story to the whole issue of morality and government has an inescapable contemporary resonance. Politics may have brought about Fra Girolamo's downfall, but a few politicians with his soul would not nowadays come amiss."

In addition to his many historical works, Seward is also the author of a number of travel books, including the illustrated travelogue Byzantium, authored with Susan Mountgarret; Sussex; and The Dancing Sun: Journeys to the Miracle Shrines, a guidebook to shrines of the Virgin Mary.



Booklist, November 1, 1998, Donna Seaman, review of Caravaggio: A Passionate Life, p. 462; April 15, 2001, Ted Hipple, review of Napoleon and Hitler: A Comparative Biography, p. 1574.

Chicago Tribune Book World, October 10, 1982, review of The Hundred Years War: The English in France, 1337-1453, p. 12; July 27, 1986, Michael Kernan, review of Napoleon's Family, p. 3.

Church Times, November 17, 2006, Nicholas Cranfield, review of The Burning of the Vanities: Savonarola and the Borgia Pope.

Contemporary Review, September, 2004, review of Eugenie: The Empress and Her Empire, p. 186; spring, 2007, review of The Burning of the Vanities, p. 127.

Economist, April 22, 1972, review of The Monks of War: The Military Religious Orders, p. 72; July 11, 1981, review of Marie Antoinette, p. 91; August 2, 1986, review of Napoleon's Family, p. 8; June 24, 1989, review of Napoleon and Hitler, p. 86; August 26, 1995, review of The War of the Roses through the Lives of Five Men and Women of the Fifteenth Century, p. 73.

Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), February 14, 1987, David Lancashire, review of Napoleon's Family.

Independent, July 15, 1995, review of The War of the Roses through the Lives of Five Men and Women of the Fifteenth Century, p. 6.

Lamda Book Report, December, 1998, Randy Gener, review of Caravaggio, p. 24.

New Yorker, February 26, 1979, review of The Hundred Years War, p. 123.

New York Review of Books, October 7, 1999, Ingrid Rowland, review of Caravaggio, p. 11.

New York Times Book Review, August 5, 1984, Wendy Smith, review of Richard III: England's Black Legend, p. 19.

Observer, March 12, 2006, review of The Burning of the Vanities.

Spectator, April 24, 1976, review of The Bourbon Kings of France, p. 25; August 22, 1981, Christopher Hibbert, review of Marie Antoinette, p. 19; December 12, 1987, Christopher Allmand, review of Henry V as Warlord, p. 35; February 28, 2004, John Jolliffe, review of Eugenie, p. 32; April 15, 2006, Jonathan Keates, review of The Burning of the Vanities.

Washington Post Book World, November 28, 1973, Vincent Cronin, review of Prince of the Renaissance: The Life of Francois I.