Desmond Seward (born 22 May 1935, Paris) is a British popular historian and the author of many books, including biographies of Henry IV of France, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Marie Antoinette, Empress Eugenie and Napoleon's Family. He specializes in Britain and France in the late Middle Ages. He lives in the English countryside on the Berkshire-Wiltshire border.
Seward's father was William Eric Louis Seward, MC (1891-1975), a Franco-Irishman and industrialist in France whose experiences as a World War I aviator in Palestine were documented by his son in Wings over the Desert (2009). Born in Paris into a family long established at Bordeaux, Seward was educated at Ampleforth in North Yorkshire and at St Catharine's College, Cambridge. He has written extensively on medieval France, also about the military religious orders on which he is considered an authority. Seward is fluent in French and reads Italian, Latin, medieval English and Norman French. He is noted for conducting research on primary sources at relevant foreign locations, and has written historically-oriented travel books. His work has been translated into ten languages including Hebrew and Japanese.
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- The First Bourbon (1971)
- The Monks of War: The Military Religious Orders (1972, new edn 2000, Spanish trans 2004)
- Prince of the Renaissance (1973)
- The Bourbon Kings of France (1976)
- Eleanor of Aquitaine (1978)
- The Hundred Years War (1978, new edn 1996)
- Monks and Wine (1979, French trans 1982)
- Marie Antoinette (1981)
- Richard III (1983, new edn 1998)
- Naples (1984)
- Italy's Knights of St George (1986)
- Napoleon's Family (1986)
- Henry V (Henry V as Warlord; 1987)
- Napoleon and Hitler (1988, Russian translation 1996)
- Byzantium (with Susan Mountgarret, 1988)
- Metternich (1991, German translation 1993)
- Brooks's: A Social History (jt ed with Philip Ziegler, 1991)
- The Dancing Sun: Journeys to the Miracle Shrines (1993)
- Sussex (1995)
- The Wars of the Roses (1995)
- Caravaggio (1998, Japanese translation 2000)
- Eugénie (2004)
- Savonarola (2006)
- Jerusalem's Traitor (2009, Hebrew trans 2012)
- Also called: Josephus, Masada and the Fall of Judaea (da Capo, US, April 2009)
- Wings over the Desert: In Action with an RFC pilot in Palestine, 1916-18 (Haynes Military, July 2009)
- Old Puglia: A Portrait of South Eastern Italy (with Susan Mountgarret, 2009)
- The Last White Rose: The Spectre at the Tudor Court, 1485-1547 (Constable, 2010; aka The Last White Rose: The Secret Wars of the Tudors).
- Knight SMOM, 1978
- Knight Constantinian St George (Parma), 2001
- Medal Benemerente (Royal House of Bourbon-Parma), 2003
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Seward's work has been mainly well received by critics as offering the general reader a balance of readability and modern scholarship. The First Bourbon, a biography of Henry IV, founder of the Bourbon dynasty, was described by Dame Veronica Wedgwood in the Daily Telegraph as a "sympathetic and well balanced portrait, drawn with a vigorous enthusiasm suitable to the subject … a most enjoyable and useful biography of a great man." History Today called it "An admirable book. Here a great success story … is not only told with much verve and pellucid readability, but above all is told from within the age itself."
The Hundred Years War: The English in France 1337-1453 was rated "a well written narrative, beautifully illustrated, and which takes into account most recent research. It is also a good read." in the view of Richard Cobb writing in the New Statesman. The New Yorker noted that "Mr Seward shows us all the famous sights of those roaring times …and illuminates them with an easy scholarship, a nice sense of detail … and a most agreeable clarity of style."
Richard III: England's Black Legend proved controversial due to the author's rejection of the modern argument that Richard's 'black legend' was no more than Tudor propaganda. Members of the Richard III Society took issue with Seward's description of the king as ‘a peculiarly grim young English precursor of Machiavelli’s Prince.' The biographer Kenneth Rose, writing in the Daily Telegraph in June 1983, claimed that it was their dearest wish that Seward be horsewhipped outside Brooks's Club in St James's. A.L. Rowse however described the book as ‘a sensible, reliable account.’ John Julius Norwich judged it ‘perhaps the best, and certainly the most readable, of recent biographies.’ In August 2014 the Folio Society published an updated edition of Richard III: England's Black Legend in the light of evidence from his skeleton. Seward argues that the savage way in which Richard was hacked to death demonstrates how much he was hated and that, with the proof of a crookback, this strengthens the case for Shakespeare's portrait being not so very far from the truth.
Seward, a conservative Roman Catholic, was criticised in The Independent by Frank McLynn for credulity in endorsing such religious phenomena as the “sun dancing” spectacle at Fátima in Portugal and elsewhere. Other reviewers disagreed, The London Evening Standard noting that "This is not, however, a book of credulous modern piety, but an example of that much more interesting English literary genre, the journey as a means of personal discovery." The Tablet concurred, observing that Seward had approached the subject as a sceptic but was "honest about the fact that his journey is also in part a search for reassurance for his own faltering faith"
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