The best books about early medieval Britain

Why am I passionate about this?

I am an Associate Professor of medieval history at Robinson College in the University of Cambridge. One exciting aspect of research about early medieval Britain is that there is always more to discover and understand, whether from artefacts being uncovered in archaeological excavations (like the Staffordshire Hoard), or from manuscripts that languish in archives and libraries across Britain without a modern translation and commentary. The books on this list—which offer insights into different aspects of early British life—are some of those that have captivated me most over my years of reading.

I wrote...

Edward the Confessor: The Sainted King

By David Woodman,

Book cover of Edward the Confessor: The Sainted King

What is my book about?

The reign of Edward the Confessor is best known for the way in which it ends, that is with a succession crisis that led to the famous events of 1066. But such a focus obscures many important aspects of Edward’s life: his rise to power after prolonged exile from England, his winning over of people to his cause, and his harnessing of a sophisticated and powerful administration. Edward is further interesting for the influence he exerted even after his death, going on to be sainted in unusual circumstances and to be one of the heroes of Henry III (d. 1272), who rebuilt Westminster Abbey with Edward’s tomb at its heart, where it remains to this very day. This biography attempts to provide the full story of Edward’s life and legacy.  

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Bloodfeud: Murder and Revenge in Anglo-Saxon England

David Woodman Why did I love this book?

I first read this book as a student and found it utterly enthralling.

Having grown up in Durham myself, I’ve long been interested in the history of the north of England. Bloodfeud vividly portrays early eleventh-century Northumbria, at a time when King Cnut had just taken control and was trying to impose his authority.

The book plunges you into the politics of the Northumbrian aristocracy and some of the ways in which Cnut approached the governance of this part of the English kingdom. The sources on which Fletcher relies are scanty and complex, but he masterfully brings them to life. 

By Richard Fletcher,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Bloodfeud as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

On a gusty March day in 1016, as King Canute was completing his subjugation of the north of England, he commanded the appearance of teh greatest of his northern subjects, Earl Uhtred of Northumbria, at a place called Wiheal, probably near Tadcaster in Yorkshire. Uhtred had been loyal to Canute's predecessor, Ethelred the Unready, but realized that Canute had an overwhelming upper hand, and came with forty retainers to Wiheal to make his submission. However, as Richard Fletcher recounts in his opening to this book, "Treachery was afoot". Uhtred and his men were ambushed and slaughtered by an old enemy…

Book cover of Queen Emma and Queen Edith: Queenship and Women's Power in Eleventh-Century England

David Woodman Why did I love this book?

Queen Emma, wife to both Æthelred the ‘Unready’ (d. 1016) and then to Cnut (d. 1035), and Queen Edith, wife to Edward the Confessor (d. 1066), lived through some of the most turbulent and interesting politics of the early medieval period.

We are permitted unusual access to their lives through eleventh-century texts either directly about them (the Encomium Emmae) or commissioned by them (the Vita Edwardi). Stafford wonderfully brings to the fore their pivotal roles in English politics across the eleventh century, and, in doing so, shines the spotlight on the position of women in medieval society more generally. 

By Pauline Stafford,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Queen Emma and Queen Edith as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Through detailed study of these women the author demonstrates the integral place of royal queens in the rule of the English kingdom and in the process of unification by which England was made.

Book cover of Winters in the World: A Journey through the Anglo-Saxon Year

David Woodman Why did I love this book?

In this sparkling book, Eleanor Parker combines lyrical prose with learned observations, to enable us to access how those in early medieval England felt about the different seasons of the year, and indeed how they connected with nature in general.

With astute readings of early poetry and prose texts, Parker reawakens the everyday life of the Anglo-Saxons while at the same time showing us our roots.     

By Eleanor Parker,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Winters in the World as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winters in the World is a beautifully observed journey through the cycle of the year in Anglo-Saxon England, exploring the festivals, customs and traditions linked to the different seasons. Drawing on a wide variety of source material, including poetry, histories and religious literature, Eleanor Parker investigates how Anglo-Saxons felt about the annual passing of the seasons and the profound relationship they saw between human life and the rhythms of nature.
Many of the festivals we celebrate in Britain today have their roots in the Anglo-Saxon period, and this book traces their surprising history, as well as unearthing traditions now long…

Book cover of Alfred the Great: Asser's Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources

David Woodman Why did I love this book?

This book provides an accessible translation of one of the most important texts to have survived from the reign of King Alfred the Great.

Having acceded in 871, Alfred’s early reign was beset by Viking raids before a military victory in 878 afforded the king some respite in the 880s. But peace was shattered in the early 890s with the return of the Vikings from their raids on the continent. It was at this point, in 893, that Asser, a Welsh cleric in service at Alfred’s court, first published his account of Alfred’s life.

Asser takes us to the heart of Alfred’s court at a period of high political tension with details about Alfred’s life and his abilities, all with one principal aim in mind: to win over his readers (particularly the Welsh) to Alfred’s cause, and thus to save the kingdom from further Viking inroads.

By Asser, Simon Keynes (translator), Michael Lapidge (translator)

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Alfred the Great as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Asser's Life of King Alfred, written in 893, is a revealing account of one of the greatest of medieval kings. Composed by a monk of St David's in Wales who became Bishop of Sherborne in Alfred's service and worked with him in his efforts to revive religion and learning in his kingdom, this life is among the earliest surviving royal biographies. It is an admiring account of King Alfred's life, written in absorbing detail - chronicling his battles against Viking invaders and his struggle to increase the strength and knowledge of his people, and to unite his people at a…

Book cover of Making Money in the Early Middle Ages

David Woodman Why did I love this book?

It is electrifying to handle a coin from the early medieval period.

A typical coin from late tenth-century England will be made of silver, will have the king’s name, title, and bust imprinted on one side, and the name of the moneyer and of the mint on the other. These details alone raise questions: how was the coin used and by how many people? Where was it accepted and what kind of goods could it buy?

Rory Naismith, a leading historian and numismatist, provides answers to these questions and illuminates the development of the coinage system from the fall of Rome in the fifth century right through to the twelfth century. And his focus is exceptionally broad, taking in much of north-western Europe. It is an invaluable account that transforms our understanding of how money was actually used in the early medieval period.   

By Rory Naismith,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Making Money in the Early Middle Ages as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An examination of coined money and its significance to rulers, aristocrats and peasants in early medieval Europe

Between the end of the Roman Empire in the fifth century and the economic transformations of the twelfth, coined money in western Europe was scarce and high in value, difficult for the majority of the population to make use of. And yet, as Rory Naismith shows in this illuminating study, coined money was made and used throughout early medieval Europe. It was, he argues, a powerful tool for articulating people's place in economic and social structures and an important gauge for levels of…

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By Sammy Stein,

Book cover of The Wonder of Jazz: Music that changed the world

Sammy Stein Author Of Fabulous Female Musicians

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Why am I passionate about this?

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