For those of you who may have had a lil’ snoop around my blog, you may have discovered that I am a real bookworm! I love books – especially history books. Whether they be popular history books, autobiographies or historical novels, you are sure to find it crammed onto by bookshelf somewhere!
If not… then I’ll probably be carrying that book everywhere I go in my handbag, (because you never know when you’ll have a spare five minutes whilst on your travels)! Or you may spot it placed on my bedside table, as I believe there is nothing better than a little read both at the start and the end of the day.
In other words, books are my life! To celebrate my love of books – and because it just happens to be World Book Day! – I thought it would be a good idea to share with you a list of my all-time-favourite history books. As you can imagine, it has been extremely difficult to narrow it down but I have finally managed to choose just 10 books, which I regard as some of the best history books ever written! Of course, you may not agree with me… but I hope that this list may inspire you to delve into some other books which you have yet to read, to tempt you to re-read a book which you have also enjoyed and now want to pick up again?
1. ‘The Six Wives of Henry VIII’ by Alison Weir:
I love, love, love Alison Weir’s ‘The Six Wives of Henry VIII’! For those of you who have read my review on this book, I’m sorry that you are once again subjected to my fan-girl ramblings.
Alison’s beautiful biography on Henry VIII’s fantastically fascinating six queens, was the book which kick-started my love for history all those years ago.. My teenage self was already intrigued by those ‘Terrible Tudors’, yet as soon as picked up this book I was well and truly hooked!
Alison Weir’s deep passion and respect for these six women shines through every page, which ultimately – (and thankfully!) – rubbed off on me too. ‘The Six Wives of Henry VIII’ provides its readers with an exquisitely detailed and emotive account of the women behind that infamous rhyme: “Divorced, Beheaded, Died; Divorced, Beheaded, Survived’. It may be through their disastrous marriages to Henry VIII that these women became renowned in English history, but Alison persuades her readers to view these queens as extraordinary women in their own right.
Ok, so this biography may be a little dated now – (something which Alison acknowledges and hopes to amend). Yet this does not stop ‘The Six Wives of Henry VIII’ being an incredibly gripping read, which should belong on every history-lovers’ bookshelf. Despite the hundreds of history books that I have read and enjoyed since, Alison Weir’s ‘The Six Wives of Henry VIII’ remains my most treasured. This is simply because it is a book which has inspired me so much, and continues to inspire me to this very day.
2. ‘That Woman: The Life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor’ by Anne Sebba:
Time and time again, I am tempted to re-immerse myself in Anne Sebba’s phenomenal biography of ‘That Woman: The Life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor’.
Wallis Simpson is undoubtedly one of history’s most controversial heroines. In her own lifetime, and even to this very day, people are torn between whether to sympathise with a targeted, misunderstood Duchess, or to condemn a woman whose ambitions almost triggered the ruin of the British monarchy?
I’m sure any biographer would be understandably daunted by Wallis Simpson’s highly controversial and colourful story. Yet Anne Sebba should be commended for composing such an unbiased and eye-opening and considerate full-length account of Wallis’ life. ‘That Woman’ takes its readers through every chapter of Wallis’ compelling tale, beginning with her unassuming origins in Baltimore; through her two failed marriages, and finally delving into her dubious marriage to – and consequential exile with -the one-time-king Edward VIII.
After reading – (or re-reading!) – ‘That Woman’, I am still undecided as to whether I love or simply admire Wallis Simpson. This is a testament to Anne’s warts-n-all portrayal of the infamous Duchess of Windsor. Yet this book certainly leaves you yearning for more and succeeds in feeding the allure which surrounds Wallis’ legacy. Whether you love women’s history, monarchical history, 20th century history… or simply seeking a good read, then ‘That Woman’ is the book for you. It is the biography for this bewitching character, who even 30 years after her death, continues to divide opinion and mystify historians.
3. ‘Dunkirk: Fight to the Last Man’ by Hugh Sebag-Montefiore:
Again, I have already written and posted a review of Hugh’s ‘Dunkirk: Fight to the Last Man’, and I have praised it to the skies to anyone who would care to listen. Even now, I still kick myself that I allowed this book to remain unread and gathering dust on my bookshelf, for an embarrassing amount of time… I should have read it sooner, and I’m already counting down the days when I can read it again!
I will admit here and now, that initially I was intimidated by this book and any references to military history of any kind. My understanding of the military past is poor, (even at the best of times!), so the thought of reading a book which focuses solely on one military event didn’t really appeal to me.
It wasn’t until the release of Christopher Nolan’s amazing blockbuster ‘Dunkirk’ (2017), that my attitude towards this period of history changed. I found myself determined to find out more about the evacuation of Dunkirk, which saw over 300,000 British and Allied troops miraculously rescued from the clutches of Nazi Germany when all hope seemed lost. If the evacuation of Dunkirk had not been an unexpected success, then it is questionable as to whether Britain would have been capable of fighting the Nazis further, and all hopes of winning World War Two would have been dashed. In other words, without the evacuation of Dunkirk – which was in reality a defeat for Britain and her Allies – then Europe would have become a very different place.
The build up to the evacuation – as well as the evacuation itself and its aftereffects – is obviously a very chaotic, intense and confusing period in history. So many people were involved, and even today so many ‘what-ifs’ remain to be puzzled over. Yet Hugh Sebag-Montefiore’s incredible account of Dunkirk does all of the hard work for you. I was pleasantly surprised by how enjoyable and easy ‘Dunkirk: Fight to the Last Man’ was to follow. Hugh may jump all around Europe and follow various divisions throughout the book, yet the regular reference to maps, pictures and step-by-step chapters allowed the tale to flow effortlessly. It is because of this incredible achievement, that I not only gained a wealth of understanding concerning this momentous period in history, but I also developed a deeper level of respect and admiration for all the servicemen, politicians and civilians involved. Hugh’s dedication and passion for the story of ‘Dunkirk’ has proven to me that this is a moment which should never be forgotten, and it is because of this that ‘Dunkirk: Fight to the Last Man’ is undeniably one of my favourite history books of all time!
4. ‘Auschwitz: The Nazis and the Final Solution’ by Laurence Rees:
Now, I have always been a huger admirer of Laurence Rees’ work. His extensive research into the dark mindset of Nazi Germany and the horrors of the Second World War, has been vital in our understanding of this period. ‘Auschwitz: The Nazis and the Final Solution’ is one of Rees’ earliest books, as well as one of his most acclaimed.
The story of Nazi Germany’s most infamous concentration camp is undeniably a dark subject to read about. ‘Auschwitz’ unveils a graphic, honest and horrific insight into the Nazis’ terrifying persecution of the Jews, alongside the other social groups whom they also deemed to be inferior. Laurence Rees’ reconstruction of the camp’s history is groundbreaking and unsurpassable, simply because he uses the invaluable testimonies from the last surviving persecutors and victims in his book. In a few years time, the evidence from people who were actually there, will no longer be available to histories. You will therefore never get your hands on a more superior account of the Holocaust.
Laurence does an exceptional job in recreating the monstrosity which was Auschwitz. It was so vivid at times, that I couldn’t help but put the book down for a time because it was becoming too ghastly. Auschwitz eventually dominated the web of Nazi death camps which were dotted around Europe. Life within the camp and the gruesome acts of cruelty, (which were carried out on a daily basis towards thousands of innocent men, women and children), was so graphically recreated by Rees, that you could not fail to be effected by it.
‘Auschwitz’ opens your eyes to the disastrous consequences of war. A greater insight is gained into the mindset of the Nazis and what ultimately drove them to commit such terrible crimes against humanity. In parallel to Rees’ research into the criminal and political aspects of life at Auschwitz, he also focuses on the sometimes surprising emotions and behaviours which were experienced by everyone who became associated with Auschwitz. Alongside the inevitable feelings of hate, despair and grief, ‘Auschwitz’ brings to the fore the moments of love, hope and forgiveness which was demonstrated by many prisoners during and after their imprisonment.
‘Auschwitz’ is therefore more than a history book – it is a book which has the power influence the way we understand human responses and the true consequences of war. It is because it is so insightful, so informative, so honest and so unique, that ‘Auschwitz: The Nazis and the Final Solution’ is a book which I will always remember reading, and will undoubtedly turn to again-and-again.
5. ‘The Queen’s Fool’ by Philippa Gregory:
“Whats’ this?! A historical novel?! A novel by Philippa Gregory… and not ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’ either?”
Yes, you did read that right. I have indeed included one of Philippa Gregory’s historical novels in my list of all-time-favourite history books, and yes that novel is not her most celebrated work ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’.
Now, I’m not expecting everyone to agree with my choice of ‘The Queen’s Fool’. I will always argue that historical fiction – whether it is written by a historian or not – should always be read with a pinch of salt. The historical record certainly doesn’t give us all of the answers, and so writers are sometimes forced to use their imaginations in their efforts to compose an interesting story.
Philippa Gregory may be a historian, but whilst she is writing historical novels she will undoubtedly use artistic licence in order to create a successful story for her readers. Some may argue that Philippa is abusing her position as a historian, by blurring historical truth with fantastical fiction within her writings. Yet, I will counter that Philippa is excelling as a successful novelist – her primary role – and has prevailed in sparking an interest for the past amongst a vast audience. How many other historians can claim to have achieved that, hey?
Admittedly, I haven’t read ‘The Queen’s Fool’ for many years now. The last time I flicked through its pages, I was a headstrong teenager who fell head-over-heels in love with all things ‘Tudor’. Philippa’s novels were therefore an instant hit in my eyes, and I undoubtedly appreciated ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’ despite its many inaccuracies. Yet her later tale of ‘The Queen’s Fool’ was ultimately my favourite from Philippa’s Tudor series.
‘The Queen’s Fool’ takes it readers back to the reign of Queen Mary I. We follow the character of Hannah, a young Jewish girl hiding from the Inquisition. Hannah is tasked by Robert Dudley, to spy on the future Queen Mary. Hannah is gradually enveloped into the schemes and intrigues of Mary’s reign, which is incredibly refreashing. For once Mary I takes centre stage, unlike her glorified Tudor relations such as Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.
Hannah’s story is fascinating in itself, yet I particular enjoyed Philippa’s depiction of Mary. Instead of portraying a miserable tyrant, whose sole intent was to burn heretics and immersing herself in her Catholic faith, ‘The Queen’s Fool’ presents Mary as a sympathetic and extremely endearing individual. Mary’s humiliating phantom pregnancies become devastating to read, and her failed efforts to rule in her country’s best interests are not only admired but also heartbreaking. ‘The Queen’s Fool’ transforms Bloody Mary into a loveable heroine – (a testament to Philippa’s great writing skills I think)? You suddenly wish for May to succeed as Queen and to enjoy a happy ending, yet of course history never did run smoothly.
Elizabeth Tudor also makes regular appearances in ‘The Queen’s Fool’, yet in contrast of Mary’s character Elizabeth comes across as more cold-hearted and is initially less likeable (surprisingly)!
Eventually, Elizabeth is admired as a strong female heroine, but still Mary’s story dominates throughout. By the end of this book, I remember being so moved by Mary’s plight that I couldn’t help but look upon her reign in a more positive light. It is because of this book that I find it impossible to view Mary as ‘Bloody Mary’. Instead, ‘The Queen’s Fool’ possessed the power to transform my perception of Queen Mary as a great lady, who was dealt a poor hand in life, yet still overcame that to become England’s first queen in her own right. It is because of this influence – (which still impacts upon me today, as I still dream of seeing Mary’s achievements widely recognised) – that Philippa Gregory’s ‘The Queen’s Fool’ has a well-deserved place within this list.
I hope that you enjoyed reading about my favourite history books (so far)! Did you see any of your treasured history books on the list? Are you inspired to read any of the books mentioned above? Have you got any history books which you would like to recommended as a fabulous historical read, which is well worth getting your teeth in to? If so, please do feel free to let me know! I would love to hear from you guys and hope to add more books to this list in the very near future!