Looking for a history fix? Why not have a listen of our top 15 most listened-to podcast episodes to date from HistoryExtra*?
A year in medieval England
First published: 15 October 2015
Published 800 years after the signing of Magna Carta, our most popular podcast episode of all time sees Cambridge historian Helen Castor interview medievalist Dan Jones about what life was like during the tumultuous year of 1215. It was a pivotal year in English history, but Jones and Castor don’t just focus on the obvious event in question. Expect grisly anecdotes of the nature of warfare; a discussion of medieval swearing; and an exploration of the best ways to siege a castle. Plus, was King John really as bad as history has portrayed him to be?
Did you know?
Helen Castor taught Dan Jones at Cambridge University
Ancient Rome special
First published: 12 November 2015
In our second most listened-to podcast, classical historian and broadcaster Mary Beard joins us to talk about her one-volume history of Rome, SPQR (2015). The book casts a fresh light on the basics of Roman culture, covering topics including slavery, migration and democracy. It’s a broad take on Roman history, but as Beard suggests: “If you want to understand the Roman empire, you cannot go into it though a history of its individual characters.”
We also speak to bestselling historical novelist Robert Harris about some of the challenges of writing ancient Rome in fiction. Harris reveals why he is so fascinated with historical figure Marcus Tullius Cicero – one of the key characters in his acclaimed Cicero Trilogy – and explains how the Roman statesman was “very modern in his sensibility”.
The amazing history of Egypt
First published: 7 January 2016
“You name it, they mummified it!” Achieving third place in our list is this lecture on ancient Egypt from our 2015 History Weekend. Professor Joann Fletcher takes listeners on a whistle-stop tour of the remarkable civilisation, covering topics ranging from the pyramids to Cleopatra.
The Romanovs and King Arthur
First published: 28 January 2016
Two very different topics feature in podcast number four on our list. First up is historian and author Simon Sebag Montefiore, who joins us to talk about the remarkable Russian ruling dynasty, the Romanovs. Later on in the episode, archaeologist Miles Russell pays a visit to Tintagel Castle in Cornwall, which has long been associated with one of Britain’s most powerful legends: King Arthur.
Simon Sebag Montefiore in conversation about his book, ‘The Romanovs’. (Photo by Helen Atkinson for BBC History Magazine)
Lenin and the Russian revolutions
In this double-whammy Russian special, Catherine Merridale recounts Lenin’s famous 1917 train journey across Europe to Petrograd, where he took command of the Bolsheviks. Meanwhile, we speak to Helen Rappaport about some of the foreign nationals then living in Petrograd who witnessed the year’s revolutionary events.
The Last Kingdom and Agincourt
First published: 28 October 2015
Fans of the TV drama The Last Kingdom are sure to enjoy this podcast with historical novelist Bernard Cornwell, whose Saxon Tales books provided inspiration for the BBC series.
Also in this episode, which was published approximately 600 years after the battle of Agincourt, Professor Anne Curry shares the latest thinking about the medieval clash. If you want to know exactly how Henry V led England to victory during the Hundred Years’ War, this is the podcast for you.
The battle over Henry VIII’s will
First published: 4 February 2016
An hour-long podcast about a historical legal document couldn’t possibly be interesting… or could it? Coming in at number six, Dan Jones returns to our top 10 podcast list with this fascinating episode about Henry VIII’s will. He talks to Tudor expert Dr Suzannah Lipscomb about the remarkable 16th-century document, which had great ramifications for 16th-century England and is still hotly debated today.
Tudor expert Suzannah Lipscomb, who in 2016 featured in a podcast on Henry VIII’s will with historian Dan Jones. (Photo by Frank Monks for BBC History Magazine)
Middle East history special
First published: 25 February 2016
During this Middle East history special, Kanishk Tharoor and Maryam Maruf highlight some of the antiquities and landmarks that have been destroyed in recent years during conflicts in Iraq and Syria. From sculptures and shrines to tombs and temples, it’s an intriguing window into the emotional connections people have with items and places of historical significance.
Later in the episode, we’re joined by historian Tom Asbridge to explore the events of the third crusade. It was one of the most dramatic episodes of crusading history, pitting the Muslim sultan Saladin against England’s Richard the Lionheart. Asbridge, for his part, skilfully examines the conflict from both sides.
A history of red hair and amazing animals
First published: 10 December 2015
Given the popularity of the Tudors, with their famously flame-haired locks, is it any surprise that a podcast on red hair features so highly in our rankings? In this episode, Jacky Colliss Harvey reveals the fascinating history of red-headedness from ancient times through to the present day.
Staying on the theme of the weird and wonderful, our second podcast guest Stephen Moss describes several extraordinary species that have changed our world. His examples range from the fascinating to the frankly bizarre: did you know, for example, that some people – “mainly nuns, apparently” – used to make costumes for fleas?
The Norman Conquest
First published: 13 October 2016
On the eve of the 950th anniversary of the battle of Hastings, medieval historian Marc Morris tells the story of William the Conqueror’s dramatic victory in 1066. It’s perhaps one of the best known dates in English history, heralding the end of Anglo-Saxon rule and the start of the Norman era. Morris vividly recounts the run up to the battle, and explores its profound legacy for England.
Tudor monarchs and a medieval civil war
First published: 2 June 2016
Tracy Borman talks to us about her book The Private Lives of the Tudors, which reveals the true characters of Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, Mary Tudor et al. Meanwhile, we pay a visit to Kenilworth Castle in the company of medieval historian Nicholas Vincent to discuss the events of the Second Barons’ War.
Read popular articles by Tracy Borman
Benjamin Franklin in London
First published: 11 February 2016
Historian and author George Goodwin talks to us about his book, Benjamin Franklin in London, in an interview that was recorded at the American Founding Father’s former London home.
Muslims and Jews in the 16th century
First published: 10 March 2016
Historian Jerry Brotton describes how Elizabethan England formed an important relationship with the Islamic world. He then goes on to tell the story of Venice’s Jewish ghetto, which was created 500 years ago.
The Knights Templar
First published: 14 September 2017
In this special extended-length episode, historian Dan Jones returns with Suzannah Lipscomb to discuss his new book The Templars, which explores the rise and fall of the medieval military order who became the stuff of legend. Read: Dan Jones on the rise and fall of the Knights Templar
The battle of the Atlantic and the history of Spain
First published: 3 December 2015
Last, but by no means least, broadcaster and historian Jonathan Dimbleby explores the battle of the Atlantic, the Second World War naval clash that was critical to the outcome of the conflict. So critical in fact, that “had the Allies not won the battle, we would not have won the war.”
Also this episode, we are joined by producer Marion Milne to discuss her BBC Four TV series on Spain through the ages. It’s an intriguing introduction to some of the key moments in Spanish history, from the golden age of the Córdoba Caliphate through to the Spanish Civil War and dictatorship under General Francisco Franco.
Rachel Dinning is Digital Editorial Assistant at HistoryExtra
*While these podcast episodes have been referred to as our most listened-to episodes to date, we currently only have access to statistics from November 2013 onwards. Our podcast has been running since 2007. This list is accurate as of 15 May 2020