What are the best history podcasts to listen to on History Extra right now? We dug through our archives to discover our top 10 most listened-to episodes. Featuring interviews with notable historians, broadcasters and authors - on topics ranging from Magna Carta to the battle of the Atlantic - these podcasts are not to be missed
Next week marks a landmark moment for the History Extra podcast: we’re broadcasting our 500th episode. To mark the occasion, we’re releasing one podcast every weekday next week – with guests including Helen Castor, Ian Kershaw, Tracy Borman, Mary Beard and Dan Jones.
But if you can’t wait until then to get your history fix, why not have a listen of our top 10 most listened-to episodes to date*?
A year in medieval England
First published Oct 15, 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?
Fun fact alert: Helen Castor taught Dan Jones at Cambridge University
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”.
“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.
You can learn more about ancient Egypt at our 2018 York History Weekend, find out more here.
The Romanovs and King Arthur
First published: Jan 28, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
The battle of the Atlantic and the history of Spain
First published: Dec 3, 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.
*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.