What history books should go on your Christmas wish list this year? In the Christmas 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine, historians Michael Wood, Rana Mitter and Catherine Nixey discussed their top history books of 2022.


Below they have nominated nine bonus books they particularly enjoyed this year, from historical fiction gems to unsung heroes. Four other historians have also shared their favourite historical reads from 2022.

Watch the full Books of the Year 2022 discussion, or listen to the 2022 Books of the Year podcast.

And if you’re looking for Christmas present ideas, read our rundown of the top 20 gifts for history lovers.

First to choose is broadcaster and professor of public history Michael Wood, whose latest book is a revised edition of In Search of the Dark Ages (BBC Books, 2022)


Winters in the World: A Journey through the Anglo-Saxon Year, by Eleanor Parker

A lovely guide to the world as the Anglo-Saxons saw it. They may have lived 1,000 years ago but, as Chaucer remarked, they “did as well in love as men do now”. Shiver with delight!


The Secret Diaries of Charles Ignatius Sancho, by Paterson Joseph

Sancho is such an intriguing figure: musician, essayist, anti-slavery crusader, one of the great voices of the 18th century. But how did he become who he was? Starting with his birth on an Atlantic slave ship this is a glorious imagined account.


The Escape Artist: The Man Who Broke Out of Auschwitz to Warn the World, by Jonathan Freedland

This book tells the incredible tale of Rudolf Vrba, who escaped from Auschwitz and brought the Allies a detailed account of the horrors. The heart-pumping, terrifying narrative starts with him hiding under a petrol-soaked woodpile for three days while guards search the camp for him.

Rana Mitter is professor of the history and politics of modern China at St Cross College, University of Oxford. He is also one of the presenters of Free Thinking on Radio 3


Guru to the World: The Life and Legacy of Vivekananda, by Ruth Harris

This is a deeply researched and compellingly argued biography of Swami Vivekananda, one of the first Indian religious thinkers to become known in the west, and one of the makers of modern India.


Peach Blossom Spring, by Melissa Fu

A story that remains little-known in the west, the devastation visited on refugees within and from China during the Second World War is told to moving effect through the eyes of a young boy.


Dancing on Bones: History and Power in China, Russia and North Korea, by Katie Stallard

This gripping story of how Russia, China and North Korea draw on their histories of wartime to create nationalism in the present day is essential reading if you want to understand the self-belief of the powerful autocracies of the world.

Catherine Nixey is a classicist and a writer for The Economist. She is the author of The Darkening Age (Macmillan, 2017)


Magnificent Rebels: The First Romantics and the Invention of the Self, by Andrea Wulf

There is no collective noun for artists but if there were it should be a quarrel. In this marvellous history, Andrea Wulf tells how Romanticism – along with numerous feuds – was born in the small German town of Jena.


After Sappho, by Selby Wynn Schwartz

Reading Sappho’s poetry is at once wonderful and frustrating: so much has been lost to history. The same, this book argues, might be said of all women’s stories. In frequently beautiful prose, it fills in some gaps.


The Mad Emperor: Heliogabalus and the Decadence of Rome, by Harry Sidebottom

This is a biography of a debauched emperor who fed his guests blue food and was carted about in a wheelbarrow pulled by naked women. Allegedly. Like all bad people, he makes for great history. Excellent fun.

Andrew Roberts is a historian whose latest book is The Chief (Simon & Schuster, 2022)


A History of Britain in 100 Maps, by Jeremy Black

Jeremy Black’s A History of Britain in 100 Maps is a beautifully produced and very well-written exposition of what the gems of the British Library’s hugely extensive map collection can tell us about our history over the past thousand years. The range of charts covered goes from before the Mappa Mundi – the vast map of the then-known world created in the 13th century and now held in Hereford Cathedral – all the way up to the current Covid-19 pandemic. Black takes us through scores of maps, all sumptuously illustrated, showing how useful they are in helping us understand the past.


Conspiracy on Cato Street, by Vic Gatrell

Conspiracy on Cato Street explores in gripping detail the plot of February 1820 to assassinate the whole cabinet and start a revolution the year after the Peterloo massacre. Gatrell sympathises as much as possible with the desperation the doomed plotters felt that drove them to such a decision. The plot was the most murderous for over two centuries – since the gunpowder plot – and here finds its perfect historian.


Overreach: The Inside Story of Putin’s War Against Ukraine, by Owen Matthews

Owen Matthews’ superb book Overreach: The Inside Story of Putin’s War Against Ukraine explores how Vladimir Putin came to the near-insane decision to invade Ukraine. He explains it largely in terms of the growth in power of ultra-nationalist ideologues around the dictator, just as Putin himself embraced an appallingly skewed view of Russian history. It is a true page-turner that has clearly cost the author friends, and will be used by all serious writers on the current Russo-Ukrainian War as the first draft of its history.

Olivette Otele is a historian and the author of African Europeans (Hurst, 2020)


Lourenço da Silva Mendonça and the Black Atlantic Abolitionist Movement in the Seventeenth Century, by José Lingna Nafafé

For centuries, volumes about the history of the transatlantic slave trade focused on European abolitionism. But this has changed in recent decades, with scholarship concentrating on American and Caribbean emancipation movements and key figures. In Lourenço da Silva Mendonça and the Black Atlantic Abolitionist Movement in the Seventeenth Century, José Lingna Nafafé examines the trajectory of an abolitionist prince who spearheaded the legal battle and debates about emancipating Jewish people, indigenous Americans and black Christians in the 17th century.


Legacy of Violence, by Caroline Elkins

Nafafé’s outstanding volume underlines a long history of brutality that echoes Caroline Elkins’ Legacy of Violence. Elkins’ sharp analysis explores how violence became a useful tool for the British empire. The book successfully examines how physical, cultural and even archival violence were practices that have been carefully curated and transmitted from one generation to another.


The Last Colony, by Philippe Sands

The price paid by those who resisted the British empire was exemplified by the controversial decision to expel islanders from the Chagos Archipelago, a British Overseas Territory in the Indian Ocean, from the late 1960s. In The Last Colony human rights lawyer Philippe Sands shares a troubling and profoundly humane account of the islanders’ battle to return. It highlights the difficulties faced by those who simply wished to live in a peaceful manner, in a world where the legacies of Britain’s colonial past are still highly disputed.

Helen Carr is a historian, writer and producer. Her latest book is The Red Prince (Oneworld, 2021)


Heaven on Earth, by Emma J Wells

The imposing cathedrals that pepper Europe are treasure troves of history, but they are also crucibles of human stories. In Heaven on Earth, Emma J Wells flexes her scholarly expertise by shining a light on the histories of 16 great European cathedrals and the people who built them.


Essex Dogs, by Dan Jones

I greatly enjoyed Dan Jones’ Essex Dogs. This is his first foray into novels – and he’s taken the move in his stride, producing an epic piece of unputdownable historical fiction. The book encapsulates the lesser-known guerrilla-style warfare that took place during the first stage of the Hundred Years’ War. The story is told through the eyes of the “Essex Dogs”, a mercenary band of brothers who took part in the 1346 campaign under Edward III that culminated in the battle of Crécy. You feel the filth on your skin and the fear of the sword in this first instalment of Jones’ hotly anticipated trilogy.


Fierce Appetites, by Elizabeth Boyle

Finally, I’d nominate Fierce Appetites by Elizabeth Boyle. This raw, revealing and frequently laugh-out-loud funny memoir artfully weaves Boyle’s own darkest experiences with her scholarship on early medieval Irish prose. She speaks candidly of addiction and motherhood, and explores how these human experiences appear in Irish mythology; ancient and dark but also utterly dazzling.

Nick Rennison is the author of 1922: Scenes from a Turbulent Year (Oldcastle Books, 2021)


Booth, Karen Joy Fowler

Few historical novels this year are as ambitious and as absorbing as Booth by American writer Karen Joy Fowler, rightly longlisted for the Booker Prize. This saga of the dynasty that produced both America’s greatest 19th-century actor and a presidential assassin builds slowly towards the climactic moment when John Wilkes Booth shoots Abraham Lincoln. In a work of great depth and imagination, Fowler provides an epic depiction of a nation and a family divided.


That Bonesetter Woman, by Frances Quinn

Frances Quinn’s That Bonesetter Woman is much lighter than Fowler’s book but no less engaging. Quinn’s unlikely heroine, Endurance “Durie” Proudfoot, arrives in Georgian London intent on making her way as a bonesetter. Despite the obstacles put in her way by male doctors envious of her skill, and distractions provided by an unscrupulous seducer out to defraud her, she refuses to be beaten in an uplifting, thoroughly enjoyable tale of an underdog biting back.


Act of Oblivion, by Robert Harris

The arrival of a new novel by Robert Harris is always worth celebrating, and Act of Oblivion is no exception. Set in the 1660s and 1670s, it follows the fortunes of two regicides, Edward Whalley and William Goffe, both signatories to Charles I’s death warrant in 1649. In flight from the dubious justice of the restored Charles II, they exile themselves to colonial America – but one dogged investigator is determined to track them down. Harris’s historical thriller summons up a convincing past with his usual skill and inventiveness.


These selections first appeared in the Christmas 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine


Rhiannon DaviesSection editor, BBC History Magazine

Rhiannon Davies is section editor for BBC History Magazine and our Tudor ambassador, writing a fortnightly newsletter in which she shares the latest Tudor news, anniversaries and content with her audience. She also regularly appears on the award-winning HistoryExtra podcast.