The best books on early English history

Stephen Arnott Author Of Leofric: Sword of the Angles
By Stephen Arnott

Who am I?

We know so little about early English history that it’s a period often ignored by novelists who prefer to set their tales in eras that are a little more fleshed out and familiar to their readerships. This is a shame as, though much has been lost, there is still plenty to discover, and England’s ‘dark age’ offers us a rich seam of untold stories. By combining research, scholarship, and imagination an author can strike a literary light that will illuminate even the darkest corner.

I wrote...

Leofric: Sword of the Angles

By Stephen Arnott,

Book cover of Leofric: Sword of the Angles

What is my book about?

Denmark, AD 520. Fearing invasion, Cynefrid, the King of Angeln, summons a muster of fighting men to his eastern stronghold. Thegn Eadwig and his nephew, Leofric, answer the call, but they quickly become embroiled in the intrigues of the kingdom and a violent encounter leads to Leofric being charged with murder. This bloody act heaps ruin on Leofric and his family, and he is forced to flee to a remote sanctuary where he recovers his strength and plans the revenge that will ultimately reclaim his birthright.

The books I picked & why

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The Little Emperors

By Alfred Duggan,

Book cover of The Little Emperors

Why this book?

Alfred Duggan is one of those authors I stumbled across by accident (a random discovery at my local library) a man whose books I immediately started collecting once I’d finished his first. His novels are impeccably researched and he’s one of the few authors I know who seem to slip effortlessly into the minds of their characters, offering an authentic viewpoint of their world through their eyes. This novel is set in the dying days of Roman Britain and uses what few historical details are known of the period to give us a completely credible tale of the ‘little emperors’ of the Romano-British administration as they attempt to cling to power after the departure of the last legions to the Continent.

The Winter King

By Bernard Cornwell,

Book cover of The Winter King

Why this book?

Bernard Cornwell is best known for his Sharpe series and, more recently, the seemingly never-ending Last Kingdom collection, but The Winter King is, in my opinion, his crowning achievement, the first in a trilogy that attempts to set the stories of King Arthur into an authentic Dark Age historical context. Cornwell does the job brilliantly, re-telling the Arthurian legend through the recollections of an ancient Christian monk, Derfel Cardarn (a Saxon no less) who in his youth was a warrior in Arthur’s retinue, a member of his Round Table. Arthur, Merlin, Lancelot, Guinevere, and the rest of the Arthurian host are presented to us in a wholly believable way and, even knowing how things turn out, it’s an enthralling tale that you should not miss.

Sarum: The Novel of England

By Edward Rutherfurd,

Book cover of Sarum: The Novel of England

Why this book?

Sarum is an incredible work that charts the history of the British Isles from the end of the Ice Age to modern times. It sounds like too much to pull off, but Rutherford does a wonderful job of it by restricting the story to the area around 'Sarum’ (Old Sarum) the name of the earliest settlement of the historic city of Salisbury. The story charts the progress of six local families as they march through the centuries, from their origins as Stone Age hunter-gatherers, though the building of Stonehenge, the arrival of Rome, the Norman Conquest, the creation of Salisbury Cathedral and so much more. It’s a rich tapestry, expertly woven. Once you’ve picked up one of Rutherford’s epics, you’ll be sure to want more.

The Long Ships

By Frans G. Bengtsson, Michael Meyer,

Book cover of The Long Ships

Why this book?

Something of a forgotten classic, this used to be the most widely read novel in Sweden. Though not strictly a book about English history, the story describes the impact of the raids of the Northmen on England through the eyes of our protagonist, Red Orm, and details his adventures in Moorish Spain, Ireland, Sweden, and the Byzantine Empire. This is a classic tale of exploration and discovery that also manages to present us with a very believable view of the late 10th-century world, especially that of Anglo-Saxon England during the reign of Ethelred the Unready. If you enjoy high adventure and have any interest in the Vikings and the culture that bore them this is an excellent addition to your library.

The Evening and the Morning

By Ken Follett,

Book cover of The Evening and the Morning

Why this book?

A prequel to the famous best-seller The Pillars of the Earth this book follows the fortunes of three disparate characters as they navigate the perilous Viking-riven world of 10th-century England. Although some of Follett’s books are considered ‘light’ reading by many he’s a meticulous author who enjoys his period research and always presents his readers with stories as rich in historical accuracy and verisimilitude as they are in drama and intrigue. A broad cast of characters gives us a view of life from all the strata of English (and Norman) society: from noblewoman to slave; craftsman to monk. A long, long book that will leave you wanting even more.

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