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British History - looking for a good read

A little history lesson is requested!
The more time I spend planning trips to England, reading the RS forum and actually being in England, the more interested I become in better understanding the impressive, complex and interesting history. I'm naturally wired to be a reader/researcher, as I'm sure many of you would also identify, and am asking for recommendations on any good books you may have read that covers this topic in a readable way (not too slow or dry given the topic). Any recommendations would be very much appreciated.

Posted by
8889 posts

I think you have bitten off more than you can chew here. What period do you want? Pre-Roman / Roman / Dark Ages / Medieval / Tudor / 1600's (Civil War and conflict between Monarch and Parliament) / 1700's (rise to European and World power) / Industrial Revolution / Napoleonic wars / 1800's (rise of industrial cities, social change, slow move to universal franchise, Empire) / WW1 / Inter-War Years / WW2 / Post WW2?
And do you want English, Scottish or Irish history, they can be very different?

It all comes in layers. You only have to go to somewhere like Dover. Roman lighthouse + Medieval Castle + Martello tower (Napoleonic war watchtower) + WW2 tunnels.
Or London: Wren churcesh built after the Great Fire of 1667, turned into a roofless shell by WW2 bombing.

I suggest a trip to a library or a good book shop. a general history will be very sketchy.

Posted by
1942 posts

I loved reading 2 books by Dan Jones: The Plantagenets and The Wars of the Roses. The Plantagenets was excellent and very readable, The Wars of the Roses, a little less so. I think the history of the Roses is more confusing and I didn't follow it as well. But, overall Dan Jones, a historian of the Middle Ages, brings these important years in English history to life in vivid detail. Highly recommend these books.

Posted by
1848 posts

There’s an awful lot of it - any period preferred?

Have a look at Simon Schama’s History of Britain, three volumes

  • At the Edge of the World? 3000 BC–AD 1603
  • The British Wars 1603–1776
  • The Fate of Empire: 1776–2001

There’s also an accompanying BBC TV series which you could track down on DVD.

Posted by
4364 posts

There are some very good BBC history documentaries hosted by David Starkey, Simon Schama, Lucy Worsley and Dan Snow. Some of these can be found online and there are also books to accompany some of the series.

Simon Schama covers a more general overview of history, David Starkey and Lucy Worsley tend to concentrate on the Monarchy and Dan Snow's main interests lie in warfare. All worthwhile viewing in my opinion.

If I was to choose books covering an overview of British history it would be Simon Schama's History of Britain volumes 1,2 and 3.

Posted by
3091 posts

I also vote for Simon Schama . Another excellent series on DVD is " The Story of England " , written and presented by Michael Wood .

Posted by
2121 posts

I loved A History of the Plantagenets in four volumes by Thomas B. Costain. In fact, I read all four books twice. They cover a large swath of medieval English history and read like a novel.

Posted by
865 posts

If you're interested in social history ("daily life" stuff), Liza Picard's books are very readable. Ian Mortimer's Time Travellers Guides are good too.

Posted by
712 posts

Michael Wood is our go-to guy on history. His 'In Search Of The Dark Ages' book and TV series was brilliant! However any of his stuff is worth digging out. My wife who is the history buff, has no time for Simon Schama I'm afraid, but does enjoy David Starkey as do I and we are both fans of the fabulous Lucy Worsley, who has a gift for making complex issues easy to understand.

On a lighter note, I especially enjoyed John Farrar's '1000 Years of Annoying The French'! A good, funny, if inaccurate book on British History is the kids book '1066 and All That' and the more recent 'Horrible Histories' are a more factually accurate easy (aimed at kids, but....) read.

Happy Reading!

Ian

Posted by
1187 posts

Edward Rutherfurd has written several novels which cover many areas of Great Britain and Ireland. His treatment is similar to Michner starting in prehistoric times to modern era. His method is to follow different clans or families through the timeline with their different experiences and with intersecting coincidences. The ones I have read are "Sarum" about Stonehenge and Salisbury, "London" from early settlers, Romans, Middle ages...etc., "The Forest"...the New Forest, Jacobites, the Train...etc. and the "Princes Of Ireland" mostly the history of Dublin. There is enough "real" history to satisfy but told in a wonderful story telling manner.

Posted by
1586 posts

You have received many good suggestions for books on specific eras., but when I am exploring a new topic I like to begin with a broad overview, then focus on the aspects which most interest me. My suggestion: first, go to a library and read the Encyclopedia Britanica article to get an overview of this huge topic. ( I would suggest doing that on-line, but the EB is not a free site.) Next, watch the Simon Schama DVDs. Then, enjoy all the tons of books on the era or locations that interest you. Rutherford's Sarum is very enjoyable, so is Follett's Pillars of the Earth, even though both are fiction. It's been years since I read the series, but I also enjoyed Winston Churchill's History of England (4 volumes).

Have fun exploring. I have been wallowing in English history books for forty years.

Posted by
2785 posts

Another vote for Rutherfurd's novels.

Posted by
707 posts

I would also recommend anything by Dan Jones. I have enjoyed biographies by John Guy. If you are looking for a readable several volume history, starting from the earliest days, I would recommend Peter Ackroyd's series. The first book is called "Foundation." The series is up to the 4th book now (and the Battle of Waterloo).

Posted by
126 posts

Wow! You guys are fantastic, thank you!

I didn't really have a set period in mind because it is such a vast topic so was truly wanting exactly as you've provided - broad starting points along with authors and their styles. Something I value about the forums is how I can read something you all have written that was unknown or I was only peripherally aware of and suddenly find such an interest that I am compelled to learn more.

I read the forums every day and am such a fan of you all. Your generosity, patience and humor are invaluable to those of us with less experience and I am grateful for the suggestions here as well as all of the lessons I've learned. I sincerely thank you for the thoughtful time and energy you continue to offer.

Posted by
4697 posts

Aw shucks, MNFerst, you're too kind!

I studied British history in college but I'm at a loss for a readable one-volume survey that would suit your needs. Looking at Amazon I saw several books that might be fine, but I don't know about the authors. I don't know Schama's work but he has a very good reputation. A good general principle would be to look for something by a journalist or former journalist, rather than an academic, to introduce you to this big subject. Journalists are generally better writers who can convey more information in fewer words. How about a search through your public library catalogue, and a browsing session there to see what appeals to you?

Novelists like Rutherfurd and Follett can make periods and events come alive, and at least those two research their work very carefully, so the part that isn't fiction is reliable.

My Amazon browse did come across this timeline, very basic but well designed. It could help you put a lot of references in context.

Posted by
3091 posts

Another series on DVD , is " In Search of Shakespeare " , one of Michael Wood's best pieces . It focuses on the period of the rise of the Reformation in England and the religious power conflicts in Marian and Elizabethan England .

Posted by
17 posts

Foundation by the English author Peter Ackroyd. It's a very readable one volume covering the tribal groups of the British Isles up through the Tudor Period (Elizabeth I).

Posted by
48 posts

Churchill's History of the English Speaking Peoples is a good introduction to English history beginning with the pre-Roman period. Churchill is a very good writer and his histories are as enjoyable to read as any novel. There is an abridged version of the four volume set available on Amazon for $12. I read both and you could probably do with the abridged version if you are going to also read some of the other suggested works. You can get Kindle versions of the four volume set for $10 each. This work includes some history of English speaking peoples not directly related to British history which you can skip. For example there is a fairly lengthy discussion of the American Civil War.

Posted by
126 posts

You guys, I honestly thought you would tell me it was too big a subject to find anything readable - I'm surprised by the number of quality options! The plan was to go to the library this weekend while my husband was enjoying the local hunting opener but I had some appointment cancellations today and couldn't resist using the time to start digging into your suggestions. I thank you and I'm guessing Amazon thanks you!

Posted by
1128 posts

The Oxford Illustrated History of Britain is what I used as a textbook in a survey course on British history in college. I still have it, 20 years later. It's a pretty good survey of each period of British history and doesn't dwell on endless lists of kings or battles.

Posted by
6499 posts

1000 Years of Annoying the French is by Stephen Clarke, not by John Farrar. (Clarke often came and did events at the English-language bookshop I worked at here in Paris, I remember when it came out.)

Posted by
126 posts

Interesting to see some of these text books make the list - thank you!

Kim, I appreciate the clarification - I was working my way down the list and was approaching that title very soon!

Posted by
206 posts

I liked John O Farrell's An Utterly Impartial History of Britain (or 2000 Years of Upper Class Idiots in Charge.)

I have the Simon Jenkins book and am reading it now. I also agree that the Ian Mortimer time travelers guides are awfully good.

Posted by
256 posts

Just about anything by Allison Weir, Lucy Worsley or Suzannah Lipscomb.

Posted by
712 posts

Kim - thanks for the correction. I was clearly confusing it - and badly at that - with John O Farrells book about Upper Class idiots which I've also giggled through.

Posted by
12189 posts

So far I have bought two of the recommended books for my iPad Kindle reader. Thanks for the inspiration!

Posted by
12320 posts

I recommend these:

  1. Mejia, jr, A. The Modern British Monarchy,

  2. the classic , Taylor AJP. English History, 1914-1945.

  3. Wilson, T. The Myriad Faces of War: Britain and the Great War, 1914-1918.

  4. Steiner, Z. Britain and the Origins of the First World War.

Posted by
3173 posts

Churchill's History of the English Speaking Peoples is a good
introduction to English history beginning with the pre-Roman period.
Churchill is a very good writer and his histories are as enjoyable to
read as any novel.

My recommendation too. It's the best of the best.

Posted by
16 posts
Posted by
366 posts

Not books, but I have discovered youtube has a boatload of documentaries on English history. They are from the BBC, Lucy Worsley and many others. One fun one I watched recently was about hidden killers in the Tudor home, Edwarden home and post war home. Each is a separate show.

However, be careful. It is a rabbit hole and you can get hooked and spend way to much time having way to much fun :-). Personal experience speaking!

Posted by
126 posts

To close the loop: I've settled on starting with Simon Jenkins and Churchill. I also checked out some of your video recommendations only to find that I've seen Lucy Worsley when PBS has aired things like "A Very British Murder", etc. As you've said - she's lovely. I'll continue to dabble in the more historically focused videos you've suggested as well. Thank you again for all of the wonderful advise - I've printed the suggestions and plan to stay in this reading lane for some time!

Posted by
336 posts

There is also WOLF HALL and its sequels, dealing with Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell, Ann Boleyn, etc. They are fiction, but as far as I've heard, they stick closely to actual events. (There's also a BBC series for the first book.)

Posted by
3318 posts

These books are not quite as "heavy-duty" as the excellent, straight non-fiction texts that have been mentioned but I'll go out on a limb and suggest these...
Phillippa Gregory is a British historian and PhD researcher who knows her stuff and has written an amazing series of books dramatizing the lives of the royal women who have lived over the many centuries of the British royal family. She has put them into the context of the times in which they lived and is so talented at adding detail that only comes from her depth of knowledge of the various time periods she studies. Yes, they are dramatized but the history is quite excellent while being page-turners at the same time. She is best known for the book that was made into a movie called "The Other Boleyn Girl" but she has many others spanning the centuries...they are pretty addictive once you start reading!
Might be something on the lighter side once you've waded through some of the tomes in the lists above!

Posted by
1139 posts

A little known villain (or not, depending on your point of view) is highlighted in 'the Greatest Traitor' by Ian Mortimer. A wonderful read.