While I mostly review fantasy and sci-fi books, I do actually read a lot of non fiction – history and popular science, mostly.
Although I don’t review on my blog, I do on Goodreads and Amazon – for me, they’re a little trickier to review than fiction.
Here are 10 history books I’m planning to read in 2022. If anybody would like to do a buddy read of one or more of them, give me a shout. That’d be fun!
This coming year I want to really get a feel for and knowledge of the 500 year period of English history from approximately AD 800 to AD 1300 (and slightly beyond with the final book). Whilst I own history books looking at different periods in different continents, this is the period I’m most interested in. I realised though that I actually know much less about this fascinating era than I do about the Napoleonic Wars, The Roman Empire or The First and Second World Wars.
The first 3 books deal with the Vikings – a topic I am relatively knowledgeable on but really want to solidify that. I listened to the audiobook of Viking Britain: A History by Thomas Williams last year which was really good. So, I’m going to start off with…
1. River Kings – Cat Jarman
A brilliant new history that dramatically reassesses how far the Viking world extended.
Dr Cat Jarman exposes the unexpected routes that Viking travel and trade took – and how these kings of the river were frequent travellers of the Middle East and the Silk Road.
One June day late in the eighth century, Norse seafarers arrived at the English island of Lindisfarne. They waged a savage attack on its unsuspecting abbey, and with this, the Age of the Vikings was born. These roving pillagers spent the next few hundred years raiding and trading a path across Northern and Western Europe. Except, that’s not quite true. It’s just a convenient place to start the story – a story that has seen radical new discoveries over the past few years.
Dr Cat Jarman works on the cutting edge of bioarchaeology, using forensic techniques to research the paths of Vikings who came to rest in British soil. By examining teeth that are now over one thousand years old, she can determine childhood diet, and thereby where a specimen was likely born. With radiocarbon dating, she can ascertain a death date down to the range of a few years.
In 2012, a carnelian bead came into her temporary possession. River Kings sees her trace its path back to eighth-century Baghdad, discovering along the way that the Vikings’ route was far more varied than we might think, that with them came people from the Middle East, not just Scandinavia, and that the reason for all this unexpected integration between the Eastern and Western worlds may well have been a slave trade running through the Silk Road, and all the way to Britain.
River Kings is a major reassessment of the Vikings, and of the medieval world as we know it.
2. Children of Ash and Elm – Neil Price
The Viking Age – between 750 and 1050 – saw an unprecedented expansion of the Scandinavian peoples. As traders and raiders, explorers and colonists, they reshaped the world between eastern North America and the Asian steppe. For a millennium, though, their history has largely been filtered through the writings of their victims. Based on the latest archaeological and textual evidence, Children of Ash and Elm tells the story of the Vikings on their own terms: their politics, their cosmology, their art and culture. From Björn Ironside, who led an expedition to sack Rome, to Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir, the most travelled woman in the world, Price shows us the real Vikings, not the caricatures they have become in popular culture and history.
3. Aelfred’s Britain: War and Peace in the Viking Age – Max Adams
In 865, a great Viking army landed in East Anglia, precipitating a series of wars that would last until the middle of the following century. It was in this time of crisis that the modern kingdoms of Britain were born. In their responses to the Viking threat, these kingdoms forged their identities as hybrid cultures: vibrant and entrepreneurial peoples adapting to instability and opportunity. Traditionally, AElfred the Great is cast as the central player in the story of Viking Age Britain. But Max Adams, while stressing the genius of AElfred as war leader, law-giver, and forger of the English nation, has a more nuanced and variegated narrative to relate. The Britain encountered by the Scandinavians of the ninth and tenth centuries was one of regional diversity and self-conscious cultural identities: of Picts, Dal Riatans and Strathclyde Britons; of Bernicians and Deirans, East Anglians, Mercians and West Saxons.
4. The Norman Conquest – Marc Morris
An upstart French duke who sets out to conquer the most powerful and unified kingdom in Christendom. An invasion force on a scale not seen since the days of the Romans. One of the bloodiest and most decisive battles ever fought. This riveting book explains why the Norman Conquest was the single most important event in English history.
Assessing the original evidence at every turn, Marc Morris goes beyond the familiar outline to explain why England was at once so powerful and yet so vulnerable to William the Conqueror’s attack. Why the Normans, in some respects less sophisticated, possessed the military cutting edge. How William’s hopes of a united Anglo-Norman realm unravelled, dashed by English rebellions, Viking invasions and the insatiable demands of his fellow conquerors. This is a tale of powerful drama, repression and seismic social change: the Battle of Hastings itself and the violent ‘Harrying of the North’; the sudden introduction of castles and the wholesale rebuilding of every major church; the total destruction of an ancient ruling class. Language, law, architecture, even attitudes towards life itself were altered forever by the coming of the Normans.
Marc Morris, author of the bestselling biography of Edward I, A Great and Terrible King, approaches the Conquest with the same passion, verve and scrupulous concern for historical accuracy. This is the definitive account for our times of an extraordinary story, a pivotal moment in the shaping of the English nation.
5. The White Ship: Conquest, Anarchy and the Wrecking of Henry I’s Dream – Charles Spencer
The sinking of the White Ship is one of the greatest disasters in English history. Here, Sunday Times bestselling author Charles Spencer tells the real story behind the legend to show how one cataclysmic shipwreck changed England’s course.
In 1120, the White Ship was known as the fastest ship afloat. When it sank sailing from Normandy to England it was carrying aboard the only legitimate heir to King Henry I, William of Ætheling. The raucous, arrogant young prince had made a party of the voyage, carousing with his companions and pushing wine into the eager hands of the crew. It was the middle of the night when the drunken helmsman rammed the ship into rocks.
The next day only one of the three hundred who had boarded the ship was alive to describe the horrors of the slow shipwreck. William, the face of England’s future had drowned along with scores of the social elite. The royal line severed and with no obvious heir to the crown, a civil war of untold violence erupted. Known fittingly as ‘The Anarchy’, this game of thrones saw families turned in on each other, with English barons, rebellious Welsh leaders and Scottish invaders all playing a part in the bloody, desperate scrum for power.
One incredible shipwreck and two decades of violent uncertainty; England’s course had changed forever.
6. King John – Marc Morris
King John is one of those historical characters who needs little in the way of introduction. If readers are not already familiar with him as the tyrant whose misgovernment gave rise to Magna Carta, we remember him as the villain in the stories of Robin Hood.
Formidable and cunning, but also cruel, lecherous, treacherous and untrusting. Twelve years into his reign, John was regarded as a powerful king within the British Isles. But despite this immense early success, when he finally crosses to France to recover his lost empire, he meets with disaster. John returns home penniless to face a tide of criticism about his unjust rule. The result is Magna Carta – a ground-breaking document in posterity, but a worthless piece of parchment in 1215, since John had no intention of honoring it.
Like all great tragedies, the world can only be put to rights by the tyrant’s death. John finally obliges at Newark Castle in October 1216, dying of dysentery as a great gale howls up the valley of the Trent.
7. A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain – Marc Morris
This is the first major biography for a generation of a truly formidable king – a man born to rule England, who believed that it was his right to rule all of Britain. His reign was one of the most dramatic and important of the entire Middle Ages, leading to war and conquest on an unprecedented scale, and leaving a legacy of division between the peoples of Britain that has lasted from his day to our own.
Edward I is familiar to millions as ‘Longshanks’, conqueror of Scotland and nemesis of Sir William Wallace (‘Braveheart’). Yet this story forms only the final chapter of the king’s astonishingly action-packed life. Earlier Edward had defeated and killed the famous Simon de Montfort in battle; travelled across Europe to the Holy Land on crusade; conquered Wales, extinguishing forever its native rulers, and constructing – at Conwy, Harlech, Beaumaris and Caernarfon – the most magnificent chain of castles ever created. He raised the greatest armies of the English Middle Ages, and summoned the largest parliaments; notoriously, he expelled all the Jews from his kingdom. The longest-lived of all England’s medieval kings, he fathered no fewer than fifteen children with his first wife, Eleanor of Castile, and after her death he erected the Eleanor Crosses – the grandest funeral monuments ever fashioned for an English monarch.
In this book, Marc Morris examines afresh the forces that drove Edward throughout his relentless career: his character, his Christian faith, and his sense of England’s destiny – a sense shaped in particular by the tales of the legendary King Arthur. He also explores the competing reasons that led Edward’s opponents (including Llywelyn ap Gruffudd and Robert Bruce) to resist him, and the very different societies that then existed in Scotland, Wales and Ireland. The result is a sweeping story, immaculately researched yet compellingly told, and a vivid picture of medieval Britain at the moment when its future was decided.
8. Powers and Thrones – Dan Jones
An epic reappraisal of the medieval world–and the rich and complicated legacy left to us by the rise of the West–from the New York Times bestselling author of The Templars.
When the once-mighty city of Rome was sacked by barbarians in 410 and lay in ruins, it signaled the end of an era–and the beginning of a thousand years of profound transformation. In a gripping narrative bursting with big names–from St Augustine and Attila the Hun to the Prophet Muhammad and Eleanor of Aquitaine–Dan Jones charges through the history of the Middle Ages. Powers and Thrones takes readers on a journey through an emerging Europe, the great capitals of late Antiquity, as well as the influential cities of the Islamic West, and culminates in the first contact between the old and new worlds in the sixteenth century.
The medieval world was forged by the big forces that still occupy us today: climate change, pandemic disease, mass migration, and technological revolutions. This was the time when the great European nationalities were formed; when our basic Western systems of law and governance were codified; when the Christian Churches matured as both powerful institutions and the regulators of Western public morality; and when art, architecture, philosophical inquiry and scientific invention went through periods of massive, revolutionary change. At each stage in this story, successive western powers thrived by attracting–or stealing–the most valuable resources, ideas, and people from the rest of the world.
The West was rebuilt on the ruins of an empire and emerged from a state of crisis and collapse to dominate the region and the world. Every sphere of human life and activity was transformed in the thousand years of Powers and Thrones. As we face a critical turning point in our own millennium, the legacy and lessons of how we got here matter more than ever.
9. The Crusades – Dan Jones
A major new history of the Crusades with an unprecedented wide scope, told in a tableau of portraits of people on all sides of the wars, from the New York Times bestselling author of The Templars.
For more than one thousand years, Christians and Muslims lived side by side, sometimes at peace and sometimes at war. When Christian armies seized Jerusalem in 1099, they began the most notorious period of conflict between the two religions. Depending on who you ask, the fall of the holy city was either an inspiring legend or the greatest of horrors. In Crusaders, Dan Jones interrogates the many sides of the larger story, charting a deeply human and avowedly pluralist path through the crusading era.
Expanding the usual timeframe, Jones looks to the roots of Christian-Muslim relations in the eighth century and tracks the influence of crusading to present day. He widens the geographical focus to far-flung regions home to so-called enemies of the Church, including Spain, North Africa, southern France, and the Baltic states. By telling intimate stories of individual journeys, Jones illuminates these centuries of war not only from the perspective of popes and kings, but from Arab-Sicilian poets, Byzantine princesses, Sunni scholars, Shi’ite viziers, Mamluk slave soldiers, Mongol chieftains, and barefoot friars.
Crusading remains a rallying call to this day, but its role in the popular imagination ignores the cooperation and complicated coexistence that were just as much a feature of the period as warfare. The age-old relationships between faith, conquest, wealth, power, and trade meant that crusading was not only about fighting for the glory of God, but also, among other earthly reasons, about gold. In this richly dramatic narrative that gives voice to sources usually pushed to the margins, Dan Jones has written an authoritative survey of the holy wars with global scope and human focus.
10. The Plantagenets: The Kings who made England
Eight generations of the greatest and worst kings and queens that this country has ever seen – from the White Ship to the Lionheart, bad King John to the Black Prince and John of Gaunt – this is the dynasty that invented England as we still know it today – great history to appeal to readers of Ken Follet, Bernard Cornwell, Tom Holland
England’s greatest royal dynasty, the Plantagenets, ruled over England through eight generations of kings. Their remarkable reign saw England emerge from the Dark Ages to become a highly organised kingdom that spanned a vast expanse of Europe. Plantagenet rule saw the establishment of laws and creation of artworks, monuments and tombs which survive to this day, and continue to speak of their sophistication, brutality and secrets.