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33 best books for history lovers: BBC History Magazine’s Books of the Year 2021

From fast-paced spy thrillers and moving family sagas to dramatic reimaginings of historical epochs, we asked historians to tell us which new history books they have enjoyed the most in 2021

Books 276 Xmas 21_Opener credit Rosalind Jane

In the Christmas 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine, 11 historians selected their favourite historical page-turners published in 2021. First to choose is historian and author Tracy Borman, whose books include Crown & Sceptre: A New History of the British Monarchy (Hodder & Stoughton, 2021)

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1

The Tudors in Love: The Courtly Code Behind the Last Medieval Dynasty by Sarah Gristwood

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Just when we think we know everything about the Tudors, along comes a book that turns that all on its head. Reading Sarah Gristwood’s The Tudors in Love: The Courtly Code Behind the Last Medieval Dynasty (Oneworld) feels like being given the cypher to decode the letters between Mary, Queen of Scots and her Catholic conspirators. For the first time, there are satisfying answers to such conundrums as why Henry VIII took six wives and why the male favourites of Elizabeth I worshipped her as a goddess, even in her old age. The prose is as seductive as the subject matter. Be prepared to fall in love.

2

The King’s Painter: The Life and Times of Hans Holbein by Franny Moyle

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Staying in the Tudor age, the celebrated painter Hans Holbein brought Henry VIII and his courtiers to life, and his startlingly realistic portrayals still give us insights into their character as well as their appearance. Yet the man himself has, for the most part, remained a shadowy figure. Franny Moyle puts this right in her stunning biography, The King’s Painter: The Life and Times of Hans Holbein (Apollo), which evokes the painter and his world as vividly as a Holbein masterpiece. As well as propounding theories about his best-known works, she presents him as a true polymath.

3

The Dissolution of the Monasteries: A New History by James Clark

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Finally, The Dissolution of the Monasteries: A New History (Yale University Press) by James Clark is an impressively detailed study that yields a rich harvest. Clark has unearthed a wealth of overlooked details to challenge centuries of controversy and misconception, and provides a welcome new perspective on Henry VIII, his “henchman” Thomas Cromwell and other powerful members of the court, as well as the people whose lives were forever blighted by the destruction they wrought.


Simon Sebag Montefiore is a historian, author and broadcaster. His books include Written in History: Letters that Changed the World (2018) and The Romanovs 1613–1918 (2016, both W&N)

4

The Story of Work: A New History of Humankind by Jan Lucassen

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The Story of Work: A New History of Humankind (Yale) by Jan Lucassen is a brilliant, magisterial multi-millennial tour de force of world history from Sumerian villages to today’s iPhones. Filled with fascinating ideas and facts, it’s essential reading for our strange times.

5

Extra Life: A Short History of Living Longer by Steven Johnson

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Steven Johnson provides a gripping and lucid history of how, in a century, humans have cured epidemics, elongated life and reduced child mortality in Extra Life: A Short History of Living Longer (Riverhead). As much a tale of campaigners, philanthropists and activists as genius scientists, his account is full of original thinking. It promises to change the way you see life itself today.

6

Empire and Jihad: The Anglo-Arab Wars of 1870–1920 by Neil Faulkner

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Then there’s Neil Faulkner’s superb, compelling and exuberantly written history of Britain’s Arab Wars in Empire and Jihad: The Anglo-Arab Wars of 1870–1920 (Yale). It’s filled with fascinating but sensitive portraits and cliché-busting, balanced analysis. Radical but nuanced, Faulkner changes the way we think about the subject, and is as damning of the Mahdist rebels as Victorian empire builders.

7

The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber and David Wengrow

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The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (Allen Lane) by David Graeber and David Wengrow is a spectacular, flashy and groundbreaking retelling of human history, blazing with iconoclastic rebuttals to conventional wisdom. Full of fresh thinking, it’s a pleasure to read and offers a bracing challenge on every page.


Andrew Roberts is the author of George III: The Life and Reign of Britain’s Most Misunderstood Monarch (Allen Lane, 2021)

8

The Making of Oliver Cromwell by Ronald Hutton

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The Making of Oliver Cromwell (Yale) had me spellbound. Ronald Hutton weaves a convincing story of the rise of Cromwell from an extraordinarily slender number of sources. The way in which he weighs the evidence for each theory about the young Cromwell exhibits the finest aspects of the historian’s profession. Similarly, he makes a strategically confusing civil war easily comprehensible. The product of a lifetime’s study, the book has changed my view of the Lord Protector. I am panting for the second volume.

9

Roman Britain’s Missing Legion: What Really Happened to IX Hispana? by Simon Elliott

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Simon Elliott’s Roman Britain’s Missing Legion: What Really Happened to IX Hispana? (Pen & Sword) is a detective-style whodunnit that aims to discover the fate of the legendary Ninth Legion (Legio IX Hispana) after AD 108. Was it lost on the Rhine, or in the east of the empire, or in Caledonia (as Rosemary Sutcliff posits in her novel The Eagle of the Ninth)? I won’t spoil it by telling you what Elliott reveals, but he explains things satisfactorily, while also leaving open a few loose ends and doubts.

10

The Radical Potter: Josiah Wedgwood and the Transformation of Britain by Tristram Hunt

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The Radical Potter: Josiah Wedgwood and the Transformation of Britain (Allen Lane) sees Tristram Hunt argue that Josiah Wedgwood was epicentral to the transformation of Britain in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. A truly astonishing combination of inventor, entrepreneur, artist and promoter, Wedgwood somehow managed to be “Potter to Her Majesty” Queen Charlotte, while also a supporter of both the American and French Revolutions. This is a remarkable book from a historian at the top of his game.


Suzannah Lipscomb is a historian, author and broadcaster, whose recent books include The Voices of Nîmes: Women, Sex, and Marriage in Reformation Languedoc (Oxford, 2019). She is also co-editor, with Helen Carr, of What Is History, Now? (W&N, 2021)

11

Elizabeth Stuart: Queen of Hearts by Nadine Akkerman

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Nadine Akkerman’s Elizabeth Stuart: Queen of Hearts (Oxford University Press) is an extraordinary biography of a much-maligned and much-forgotten queen. Elizabeth Stuart was the daughter of James VI and I, sister to Charles I, and Queen of Bohemia as wife to Frederick V, Elector Palatine. Akkerman knows her archive as few have ever done, and demonstrates how to resurrect an early modern woman.

12

Hidden Hands: The Lives of Manuscripts and Their Makers by Mary Wellesley

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Mary Wellesley’s Hidden Hands: The Lives of Manuscripts and Their Makers (Riverrun) is a gorgeously written debut work from a historian of great talent. In it, we encounter the “alchemy of parchment”: the manuscripts that make the dead speak to us as if they were yet alive. It’s an exquisite meditation on the role of chance, the obscurity of individuals, and the nature of history itself.

13

The Ruin of All Witches: Life and Death in the New World by Malcolm Gaskill

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Malcolm Gaskill’s The Ruin of All Witches: Life and Death in the New World (Allen Lane) is simply one of the best history books that I have ever read. It tells the story of a confessed witch who accused her husband of the same crime in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1651 – four decades before the famous witch trials in Salem. Gaskill vividly depicts life in early colonial New England and brilliantly uses witness depositions to piece together a thrilling narrative. His deeply imaginative, empathetic and yet empirical exploration of a past moment of crisis is history at its finest.


Helen Carr is the author of The Red Prince: The Life of John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster (OneWorld, 2021) and co-editor, with Suzannah Lipscomb, of What Is History, Now? (W&N, 2021)

14

The Anglo-Saxons: A New History of the Beginnings of England by Marc Morris

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The Anglo-Saxons: A New History of the Beginnings of England by Marc Morris (Hutchinson) is a sweeping but detailed analysis of the Anglo-Saxons over a period of six centuries. Morris explores the art, architecture, religion and politics of the people who populated much of Britain after the Romans left. This period is often called the “Dark Ages”, but, by illuminating the creative, martial and societal achievements of these people, and in his reinvigoration of characters of the period – whether real or legendary – Morris shines a fresh light on the Anglo-Saxon age as the epoch of medieval history.

15

Storyland: A New Mythology of Britain by Amy Jeffs

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Reading Amy Jeffs’ Storyland: A New Mythology of Britain (Riverrun) feels like listening to a bard orate mystical stories of the world that was. Erudite and lyrical, Jeffs takes readers by the hand and encourages us to join her as she guides us through the mystical landscape that is indelibly woven into the fabric of our everyday lives. This book will make you stick your walking shoes on and get outside to breathe in the history of this ancient land.

16

The Penguin Book of Feminist Writing edited by Hannah Dawson

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From the 15th-century writings of Italian poet and author Christine de Pizan to present-day writers such as bell hooks and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, The Penguin Book of Feminist Writing (Penguin), edited by Hannah Dawson, rounds up the voices of women from across history to discuss the meaning and practice of feminism. This is a book that every person should read: the multiplicity of voices from various times and spaces allows women of the past alongside women of the present to be noisy about why feminism matters. It is a collective masterpiece.


Sathnam Sanghera is a journalist and author of books including Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain (Viking, 2021)

17

We’re Here Because You Were There: Immigration and the End of Empire by Ian Sanjay Patel

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In 1948, the British parliament did an extraordinary thing: it passed a law enacting what had been true for decades – that anyone born in the empire had the rights of a British citizen. The legislation formally granted 600 million people from across the planet the right to emigrate to Britain. That was far more than the number of white people living in Britain, and around 10 times today’s British population. In We’re Here Because You Were There: Immigration and the End of Empire (Verso), Ian Sanjay Patel explains what happened between this moment and the Windrush scandal, when British citizens of colour found themselves being deported to nations they didn’t know. It is the best possible guide to an essential history.

18

Imperial Nostalgia: How the British Conquered Themselves by Peter Mitchell

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At times, it can feel that the culture wars aimed at sowing division in Britain are going to tear us apart. Peter Mitchell’s fantastic Imperial Nostalgia: How the British Conquered Themselves (Manchester University Press), however, provides grounds for optimism and teaches us that the answer is to be informed – and there is no more erudite guide than Mitchell.


Alex von Tunzelmann is a historian and screenwriter. Her most recent book is Fallen Idols: Twelve Statues That Made History (Headline, 2021)

19

Cuba: An American History by Ada Ferrer

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Ada Ferrer’s Cuba: An American History (Scribner) is an epic, gripping account of the unique island nation, from before the arrival of Christopher Columbus to the 21st century. Ferrer puts Cuba’s troubled relationship with the United States at the centre of her narrative, which makes her book enlightening for scholars of both nations. Since I wrote my book Red Heat: Conspiracy, Murder and the Cold War in the Caribbean (Simon & Schuster, 2011), I’ve often been asked to recommend an accessible book on the longer history of Cuba. I’m delighted to have found one that is so intelligent, so nuanced and so thoroughly researched.

20

What Is History, Now? co-edited by Helen Carr and Suzannah Lipscomb

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I’ve been enraptured by What Is History, Now? (W&N), a collection of essays edited by Helen Carr and Suzannah Lipscomb. They have put together a diverse and distinguished selection of voices to update the discussion of history started by Carr’s great-grandfather, EH Carr. (I have an essay in it too, but please don’t let that put you off!) Many of the chapters have spurred me to broaden and deepen my own perspective in aspects of history which I haven’t always considered.


Rana Mitter is professor of history at the University of Oxford. His books include China’s Good War (Belknap, 2020)

21

The Gate to China: A New History of the People’s Republic and Hong Kong by Michael Sheridan

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Michael Sheridan’s The Gate to China: A New History of the People’s Republic and Hong Kong (William Collins) takes one of the biggest stories of the last year – the Chinese crackdown on Hong Kong’s freedoms of speech and assembly – and places it in historical context. Sheridan’s gripping, richly researched history sheds a highly critical light on those British officials of the Thatcher era who seemed to favour Beijing’s autocracy over the promotion of liberal values, and movingly recounts the brief hopes of Hong Kong’s reformers whose democratic enlightenment has turned to darkness.

22

The Gun, the Ship and the Pen by Linda Colley

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Liberal reform also plays a central role in Linda Colley’s lucid and erudite The Gun, the Ship and the Pen (Profile), which shows how constitutional reform went hand in hand with conflict to create a modern imperial world. Constitutions brought law and new freedoms around the globe, but they also marginalised many groups, including women and people of colour. One of the most fascinating elements is Colley’s take on how Japan’s Meiji Constitution inspired reform in many parts of the late 19th century non-western world, including Turkey and China.

23

Daring to Hope: My Life in the 1970s by Sheila Rowbotham

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The history of a historian is at the heart of a deeply compelling story about the making of our own times. Sheila Rowbotham is a pioneer of women’s history, and her new book Daring to Hope: My Life in the 1970s (Verso) uses her own experiences as a framework for explaining an era of sweeping social change. From inspiring cleaners to unionise, to bringing socialism and feminism together through the writing of a new kind of social history, Rowbotham’s humanity and craft shines through.


Olivette Otele is a historian and professor of the history of slavery at the University of Bristol, and author of African Europeans: An Untold History (C Hurst & Co, 2020)

24

Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War by Howard W French

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Histories of transatlantic enslavement taught in schools in Europe and North America have tended to start with European traders and sea captains. Shifting our gaze, Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War (Liveright) by Howard W French challenges us to rethink the birthplace and premise of debates about modernity. Impeccably written and highly stimulating, it engages with centuries of world history and places people of African descent at its heart.

25

What Britain Did to Nigeria: A Short History of Conquest and Rule by Max Siollun

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Staying in Africa, Max Siollun’s What Britain Did to Nigeria: A Short History of Conquest and Rule (C Hurst & Co) focuses on colonisation. Siollun disentangles the complex political and economic knots of colonial administration and their consequences on Nigeria’s societal organisation. Laying a solid ground for understanding the dialogues, pushbacks and forced collaborations that are at play when communities are under duress, Siollun forces us to delve into the nuances that are an integral part of colonial histories.

26

America on Fire: The Untold History of Police Violence and Black Rebellion Since the 1960s by Elizabeth Hinton

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Elizabeth Hinton’s timely and disturbing America on Fire: The Untold History of Police Violence and Black Rebellion Since the 1960s (William Collins) tells the story of racial unrest and police brutality in the US since the 1960s. Hinton delves into the spiral of police violence and the ways in which it has been supported by the political arena, documenting how it has been ignited by black communities’ demands for equality. Equally alarming were the ways in which peaceful socialising led to unsolicited police attention and harassment that inflamed the black population. Hard-hitting but essential.


Tom Holland is an author whose most recent book is Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind (Little, Brown, 2019). He is co-presenter, with Dominic Sandbrook, of the podcast The Rest Is History

27

The Wordhord: Daily Life in Old English by Hana Videen

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Hana Videen’s The Wordhord: Daily Life in Old English (Profile) is a wonderful book that blends linguistics with a survey of everyday life in Anglo-Saxon England. If you want to know why music was known as dream-cræft, what was meant by sawel-dreor – “soul blood” – or the origins of our days of the week, then this is for you. It constitutes a veritable leornung- hus: a “learning house”.

28

Brothers in Arms: One Legendary Tank Regiment’s Bloody War from D-Day to VE Day by James Holland

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Brothers in Arms: One Legendary Tank Regiment’s Bloody War from D-Day to VE Day (Bantam Press) tracks the progress of a tank regiment, the Sherwood Rangers, from D-Day to the Second World War’s dying days. Brilliantly researched and unsparingly detailed, it gives a portrayal of the Allied victory in Europe that I found revelatory. Certainly, I had no idea that the fighting had been quite so brutal. The book is simultaneously heart-stopping, panoramic and moving. And I am not saying that because James Holland is my brother…


Nick Rennison is the author of books including Carver’s Truth (Corvus, 2016) and 1922: Scenes from a Turbulent Year (Oldcastle Books, 2021)

29

Daughters of Night by Laura Shepherd-Robinson

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Laura Shepherd-Robinson’s Daughters of Night (Mantle) is a thriller set in 1780s London that opens with the discovery of a murdered woman in Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. The victim has been found by Caro Corsham, the spirited daughter of a banker, and she forms an unlikely alliance with investigator Peregrine Child to seek out the truth about the killing. However, events lead her into danger and a confrontation with her own family’s darkest secrets.

30

Black Drop by Leonora Nattrass

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Black Drop (Viper), Leonora Nattrass’s hugely enjoyable debut novel, also takes place in the British capital, but a decade later, as the government gazes anxiously across the Channel at revolutionary events in France. Foreign Office employee Laurence Jago stumbles into a world of treason and conspiracy when he discovers the body of a fellow clerk and begins to suspect up-and-coming politician George Canning of murder.

31

Circus of Wonders by Elizabeth Macneal

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Elizabeth Macneal’s successful debut of 2019, The Doll Factory, explored some of the odder corners of Victorian England, a milieu to which she returns in her second novel, Circus of Wonders (Picador). Her heroine, Nell, is a country girl, singled out by the birthmarks that cover her skin, whose life is transformed when she is seen by travelling showman Jasper Jupiter. He whisks her off to London to join his show, where she becomes a daring aerialist. Soon, her fame eclipses his own. Nell’s relationship with Jasper’s brother, haunted by his experiences in the Crimean War, further complicates Macneal’s plot.

32

Rose Nicolson by Andrew Greig

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Another remarkable woman trapped by the circumstances of her birth gives her name to Andrew Greig’s Rose Nicolson (Riverrun). As 16th-century Scotland is riven by religious and political divisions, student poet Will Fowler is drawn to the freethinking Rose, the daughter of an impoverished fishing family, but class differences and the turbulence of the times dictate both their fates.

33

Cathedral by Ben Hopkins

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Ben Hopkin’s Cathedral (Europa Editions) is a powerful work of the imagination. One of the year’s most ambitious and expansive novels, it’s an epic story of life in an invented German city during the medieval period. The fortunes of Hopkins’ many characters – from a visionary architect to a Jewish trader threatened by Gentile greed – are shaped by the building, over decades, of a new cathedral.


Plus: here are our top picks from 2020…

In the Christmas 2020 issue of BBC History Magazine, 10 historians selected their favourite historical page-turners published in 2020. First to choose is Gareth Williams. Williams’ most recent book is Unravelling the Double Helix: The Lost Heroes of DNA (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2019)…

34

War Against Smallpox by Michael Bennett

Smallpox

Two books that resonated with me this year cover different eras in the 200- year campaign to defeat smallpox, one of humanity’s greatest scourges. Michael Bennett’s War Against Smallpox (CUP) explains how vaccination conquered the world in the quarter-century after Edward Jenner introduced it in the 1790s. It’s an incredible journey, with walk-on parts for Napoleon, Jefferson and the tsar of Russia.

 

35

The Great Inoculator by Gavin Weightman

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Gavin Weightman’s The Great Inoculator (Yale) looks at variolation, the bizarre 18th-century precursor of vaccination. Patients were deliberately infected with smallpox (not the harmless cowpox  used in vaccination), hoping to confer protection against future attacks. Amazingly, it worked, notably in the hands of Daniel Sutton, a non-medical entrepreneur, who marketed his secret method as “safe, quick and pleasant” and apparently variolated more than 10,000 people without a single death from smallpox. He built up a huge franchise but later lost out to plagiarists and ultimately vaccination. His story isn’t “untold”, but Weightman relates it with clarity and verve.

 

36

Agent Sonya by Ben Macintyre

AgentSonya

For my last choice I want to jump to 1949 when, without warning, the USSR exploded an atomic bomb. Behind the leaking of atomic secrets to the Soviets was Ursula Kuczynski, a pro-communist German Jew known to her English neighbours as “Mrs Burton” and as “Sonya” to her Red Army bosses. As related by Ben Macintyre in Agent Sonya (Viking), her espionage career took her to China, Poland, Germany and England. The cover blurb claims her story “has never been told”. In fact, a translation of Kuczynski’s autobiography appeared in 1991, but, as expected, Macintyre makes this a riveting and thought-provoking read.


Chosen by Tom Holland. Tom Holland’s latest book is Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind (Little, Brown, 2019)

37

Sicily ’43 by James Holland

Sicily

I hope I will not be accused of undue nepotism when I nominate my brother James Holland’s Sicily ’43 (Bantam) as a revelatory read. The latest in a series of books that trace campaigns of the Second World War, it combines the experience of men (and occasionally women) on the ground with a searching analysis of the tactical and strategic layers of an operation that, in this brilliantly detailed study, is redeemed from the enormous condescension of posterity.

 

38

The Story of China by Michael Wood

China

I also hugely enjoyed Michael Wood’s The Story of China (Simon & Schuster), a book that is learned, lyrical and astonishingly comprehensive in its scope. It was exactly the single volume history of this brilliant and remarkable civilisation that I had always dreamed of finding.

 

39

Thebes by Paul Cartledge

Thebes

The art of fusing scholarship with readability is similarly evident in Paul Cartledge’s history of Thebes (Picador), a city that has always been the ugly duckling of ancient Greek history. The great value of this book is that it enables us to see the Thebans not through the eyes of their enemies, but as they themselves would have wished to be seen.

Finally – a slight cheat – I would like to recommend the Patreon account of the brilliant scholar of Old English, Eleanor Parker, whose blog and tweets have long been a source of particular delight to me. Subscribers to her Journey Through the Anglo-Saxon Year account receive regular and seasonally appropriate posts on the rhythms of the Anglo-Saxon calendar: full moons, feast days, the cycles of sowing and reaping. In this strange and fractured year, I have found Parker’s posts a source of comfort and – dare I use the word? – joy.

I only hope that some enterprising editor has subscribed to her account and will commission her to transcribe it into a book.


Chosen by Priya Atwal. Atwal is the author of Royals and Rebels: The Rise and Fall of the Sikh Empire (Hurst, 2020) 

40

Stealing from the Saracens by Diana Darke

saracens

Grounded at home during the ‘Great Lockdown of 2020’, the summer and autumn months brought with them a surprising gift: the opportunity to read and reflect deeply, thanks to some particularly wonderful historical writing. Travelling abroad was not an option while I was living with vulnerable family members, but Diana Darke’s Stealing from the Saracens (Hurst) transported me to some of the grandest architectural sites of Europe. It vividly reveals how many of the continent’s most iconic Christian buildings are deeply inspired by medieval Islamic, ‘Saracenic’ influences. Darke’s message that “no society exists in isolation, and everything is connected” feels all the more moving as we live through a global pandemic.

 

41

The Human Cosmos: A Secret History of the Stars by Jo Marchant

cosmos

What connects us all more than the stars in the sky? Jo Marchant’s fascinating book, The Human Cosmos: A Secret History of the Stars (Canongate), is a “long history of knowledge that people have gleaned from the stars”, as well as a “glimpse into the mental universe of our ancestors”. A beautifully written blend of scientific and historical scholarship, it also makes a passionate case for why we need to peel our eyes away from our smartphones and look up to the skies more often, to recover a connection with our ancestors and restore our collective wellbeing.

 

42

The King and the People: Sovereignty and Popular Politics in Mughal Delhi by Abhishek Kaicker

KingPeople

I was deeply impressed by Abhishek Kaicker’s The King and the People: Sovereignty and Popular Politics in Mughal Delhi (OUP). In this delightful, highly readable book, Kaicker offers up a pioneering study of popular politics during Mughal rule. You’ll be amazed at how much shoemakers and coffee contributed to the making of sovereignty in early modern India!


Chosen by Keith Lowe. Lowe’s most recent book is Prisoners of History: What Monuments to the Second World War Tell Us About Our History and Ourselves (HarperCollins, 2020) 

43

Britain’s War: A New World 1942–1947 by Daniel Todman

Britains war

As ever, scores of books about the Second World War were published this year. For me, the pick of the bunch was Daniel Todman’s Britain’s War: A New World 1942–1947 (Allen Lane) – the second volume in his magisterial history of Britain during this most pivotal moment in 20th- century history. Todman covers the military events in detail, but he also deals with the social and economic costs of the war, the huge shifts in party politics, changes in religious thinking, class consciousness, attitudes towards empire, women’s rights and much more. Virtually no aspect of British life is left untouched.

 

44

Crucible of Hell by Saul David

Crucible

Focusing on the other side of the world is Saul David’s brilliant Crucible of Hell (William Collins), a harrowing account of the battle of Okinawa in 1945. The attention to detail in this book is exemplary: we see the conflict from just about every angle – Japanese as well as American – drawn from eyewitness accounts and declassified documents. Okinawa is a battle too often neglected in western narratives of the war despite being, in David’s account, directly responsible for Truman’s decision to use the atom bomb later that summer.

 

45

Shakespeare in a Divided America by James Shapiro

DividedAmerica

Putting aside the Second World War, one of my other favourite books this year was James Shapiro’s Shakespeare in a Divided America (Faber & Faber). In seven self-contained essays, Shapiro describes the issues that have repeatedly torn the United States apart over the past 200 years – using Shakespeare as his lens. It sounds contrived, but if you want to understand some of the deeper, historical issues behind this year’s car-crash of an election, Shapiro’s book is an excellent place to start.


Chosen by Suzannah Lipscomb. Lipscomb is the author of The Voices of Nîmes: Women, Sex and Marriage in Reformation Languedoc (OUP, 2019) 

46

The Light Ages by Seb Falk

LightAges

Firstly, I’d nominate Seb Falk’s book, The Light Ages (Allen Lane). It’s stunning: both exquisitely written and so very clever. By following the life of one little-known monk, John of Westwyk, Falk opens up for us the sophisticated and utterly different ways in which people in the Middle Ages thought and makes us question our assumptions about the medieval past.

 

47

The Fall of the House of Byron by Emily Brand

Byron

Equally outstanding in sheer quality of prose and scrupulosity of research is Emily Brand’s The Fall of the House of Byron (John Murray). This gripping tale of scandal through three generations  of the Byron family will finally put pay to any idea that the Georgians were boring. Instead, we’re given a tale of murder, seduction, incest, elopement and shipwreck, all centred around the crumbling Newstead Abbey: just gorgeous.

48

Inge’s War by Svenja O’Donnell

Inges war

Family history is also at the centre of investigative journalist Svenja O’Donnell’s Inge’s War (Ebury). Part history and part memoir, this engrossing and moving read exposes the secret shame and suffering of those on the wrong side of history and, in so doing, unearths a vitally important story from the Second World War. Its revelations and thought- provoking reflections have stayed with me.

49

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

Hamnet

I must mention Maggie O’Farrell’s wonderful Hamnet (Tinder Press), which superbly evokes the 16th century as she recreates the family life of Shakespeare and the death of his only son. It may make you cry, but you will not be able to put it down.


Chosen by Tracy Borman. Borman’s latest book is the third instalment of her King’s Witch fiction series, The Fallen Angel (Hodder, 2020) 

50

Queens of the Crusades: Eleanor of Aquitaine and her Successors by Alison Weir

Queens

The book that I most anticipated this year was Alison Weir’s Queens of the Crusades: Eleanor of Aquitaine and her Successors (Jonathan Cape). The second instalment of her England’s Medieval Queens series, it tells the story of five “towering female figures” of the Middle Ages who broke the mould of the dutiful queen consort. They were crusaders, rebels, seductresses and intellectuals – forces to be reckoned with in their own right. Told with all of Weir’s characteristic verve and exceptional eye for detail, this book should find its way into every history lover’s Christmas stocking.

 

51

Tudor Textiles by Eleri Lynn

Textiles

From royal rebels to royal fashion. Dress expert Eleri Lynn’s lavishly illustrated volume Tudor Textiles (Yale) shines a light on the dazzling beauty and extravagance of court fashion and décor. In raiding the sumptuous Tudor royal wardrobe, Lynn has uncovered some real gems: from Henry VIII’s tapestries which were worth more than the crown jewels, to the recently discovered dress thought to have belonged to Elizabeth I – the only one of her 1,900-strong dress collection to survive.

 

52

Mistresses: Sex and Scandal at the Court of Charles II by Linda Porter

Mistresses

Royal adornments of a rather different kind are brought to life in Linda Porter’s Mistresses: Sex and Scandal at the Court of Charles II (Picador). The sexual exploits of the “Merrie Monarch” provided ample fodder for diarists such as Samuel Pepys, but they are not the main focus here. Instead, Porter provides a set of impeccably researched pen portraits of the seven women who dominated the king’s life. Allowing the women to take centre stage for a change makes for an engaging and enlightening read.


Chosen by Yasmin Khan. Yasmin Khan teaches at the University of Oxford. She has recently been presenting Britain’s Biggest Dig on BBC Two alongside Alice Roberts 

53

Royals and Rebels: The Rise and Fall of the Sikh Empire by Priya Atwal

Royals and Rebels

A brilliant book from this year that is full of surprising stories is Priya Atwal’s Royals and Rebels: The Rise and Fall of the Sikh Empire (Hurst). Atwal has managed to craft a very fresh and page-turning history of the origins and demise of the Sikh kingdom, which gives a lot more attention to the role of Ranjit Singh’s wives and children than many previous accounts of his life. In particular the story of Jind Kaur, the young regent and mother of Prince Duleep Singh, and her struggle to maintain his crown in the face of British imperial power, is very moving. These were tough and ingenious Punjabi women.

 

54

Time’s Monster: History, Conscience and British Empire by Priya Satia

Time's monster

My second nomination, Priya Satia’s Time’s Monster: History, Conscience and British Empire (Allen Lane), turns the lens on history as a subject, asking how we have told the story of empire in the past. The author offers a scholarly and analytical interpretation of how historians themselves have framed the ways that empire is understood in British history writing – from John Stuart Mill to EP Thompson.

55

Black and British: A Short, Essential History by David Olusoga

Black and British

And to the present day: David Olusoga is the best possible person to write Black and British: A Short, Essential History (Pan Macmillan). This new, updated edition of his 2016 book is aimed at younger readers, and it appears at a time when many people are debating the best ways to tell histories of empire and race in the classroom. Olusoga describes it as “the book I wish I had been given to read when I was at school”, and I couldn’t agree more.


Chosen by Simon Sebag Montefiore, whose latest book is Voices of History: Speeches That Changed the World (W&N, 2019)

56

Hitler: Downfall 1939-1945 by Volker Ullrich

Hitler

One of my favourite books from 2020 was Hitler: Downfall 1939-1945 (Bodley Head). Volker Ullrich’s superb and supreme new biography, while complementing other classic biographies of the dictator, is also fresh, up-to-date, shrewd and beautifully written. I think it’s the best biography of Hitler written so far.

 

57

The Weirdest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous by Joseph Henrich

Weirdest

I also really enjoyed the intriguing idea behind The Weirdest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous (Allen Lane) by Joseph Henrich. He argues that “Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, Democratic” people are atypical, because the west was formed by exceptional processes that helped Europe dominate the world post 1750. The result is a brilliant performance – accessible, playful and scholarly, turning conventional history on its head and approaching it in a new way.

58

The Decline and Rise of Democracy: A Global History from Antiquity to Today by David Stasavage

Democracy

In fact, it would make a perfect companion piece for David Stasavage’s readable, intriguing and academic The Decline and Rise of Democracy: A Global History from Antiquity to Today (Princeton) – an outstanding volume that analyses the development of democracy and autocracy in a refreshing and relevant way.

 

59

Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran and the Rivalry That Unravelled the Middle East by Kim Ghattas

BlackWave

Lastly, I loved Kim Ghattas’s colourful, grim and gripping Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran and the Rivalry That Unravelled the Middle East (Wildfire), which uses the Iranian Revolution and other events of 1979 to show how the Middle East turned towards extremism and intolerance.


Chosen by Kehinde Andrews, professor of black studies at Birmingham City University. His books include Back to Black: Retelling Black Radicalism for the 21st Century (Bloomsbury, 2018) 

60

A Kick in the Belly: Women, Slavery and Resistance by Stella Dadzie

A Kick in the belly

Transatlantic slavery is one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented periods of history. Stella Dadzie offers a much-needed corrective by centring on the experiences of black women forced into the plantation system in A Kick in the Belly: Women, Slavery and Resistance (Verso). The horrors of enslavement, its impact on Africa, Britain’s central role, and most importantly, the fierce resistance both on the African continent and in the Americas are all evocatively drawn out. Contrary to popular narratives, black women were active agents in this history.

 

61

Obeah, Race and Racism: Caribbean Witchcraft in the English Imagination by Eugenia O’Neal

Obeah

In order to enslave Africans, many slave-owners tried to violently erase all connections between the enslaved and the African continent. In Obeah, Race and Racism: Caribbean Witchcraft in the English Imagination(University of the West Indies Press), Eugenia O’Neal explores how traditional African beliefs were maintained and became a key source of resistance. O’Neal also examines how these beliefs were ridiculed, becoming proof of African inferiority, which still echoes into the present day.

 

62

The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X by Les and Tamara Payne

malcolm X

Malcolm X is one of the most talked about and misrepresented figures of the 20th century. In The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X (Viking), Les and Tamara Payne offer a detailed portrait of Malcolm’s family, life and politics that makes clear how much his voice is needed today. The book also provides a detailed history lesson of the America that produced Malcolm, from the rise of the Ku Klux Klan to the importance of the Garvey movement, and the complicity of the state machinery in maintaining an unjust social order.


Nick Rennison selects this year’s best historical fiction. Rennison is the author of Carver’s Truth (Corvus, 2016)

63

The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton

Devildarkwater

Few historical novels this year were as boldly imaginative and colourful as Stuart Turton’s The Devil and the Dark Water (Raven). In the 1630s, a ship leaves Batavia in the Dutch East Indies for Amsterdam. On board is an East Indies Company bigwig and his entourage. Murder, mystery and possibly supernatural phenomena plague crew and passengers alike. As the ship sails into increasingly troubled waters, Turton’s plot grows ever more extravagant and bizarre, but his grip on his readers’ attention never slackens.

64

The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Mercies

Set in the same century, but worlds away from Turton’s baroque adventure, Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s debut novel for adults, The Mercies (Picador), charts the experiences of women from a remote Norwegian island, who have lost their menfolk during a terrible storm, following the arrival of a witch-hunting new magistrate. Hargrave’s heroine, Maren, forms a bond with the magistrate’s oppressed young wife as he doubles down on his increasingly violent persecutions in an unusual, memorable tale.

65

A Room Made of Leaves by Kate Grenville

roomofleaves

Kate Grenville’s intelligent, insightful novel, A Room Made of Leaves (Canongate), also features a woman obliged to cope with the inflexible pride and paranoia of her husband. In the recently established penal colony of New South Wales, Elizabeth Macarthur struggles with the demands of an unhappy marriage and slowly discovers her true self amid the initially alien landscapes of a new world.

66

The Abstainer by Ian McGuire

theAbstainer

Grenville’s character is based on a real-life pioneer of white Australia, and Ian McGuire’s The Abstainer (Scribner) similarly has a plot inspired by genuine historical events. It is set largely in Manchester in the 1860s, after three Irishmen, Fenians committed to the struggle to free Ireland from English rule, have been hanged. World-weary policeman James O’Connor and Irish-American assassin Stephen Doyle, who is intent on revenge for the hangings, stalk one another through the city’s streets and beyond in a gripping story of violence, obsession and the urge for retribution.

67

Execution by SJ Parris

Execution

Meanwhile, espionage in the Tudor era has provided the backdrop for the sequence of enjoyable historical thrillers by SJ Parris, who has turned Giordano Bruno, the 16th-century heretic and philosopher, into an engaging hero. Execution (HarperCollins), the latest in the series, sees Bruno once more in the employ of Elizabeth I’s spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham, and playing a dangerous game as an undercover agent amid conspirators plotting to assassinate the English queen. Parris combines vivid details of Elizabethan life with an ability to create intriguing characters and sustain a thoroughly entertaining narrative.


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This content first appeared in the Christmas 2021 and Christmas 2020 issues of BBC History Magazine