The best historical fiction books on the perils of life at the English court, c. 1483-1547

Who am I?

I'm a History professor at a Canadian university. My research focuses on long-dead English sailors. I’m interested in how they “navigated” the challenges of their lives ashore and afloat. I’ve written a number of books and articles. My first book, Tides in the Affairs of Men: The Social History of Elizabethan Seamen, 1580-1603, examines the lives of seafarers during a period of intense maritime activity. If you want to “meet” those in the maritime community, this is the book for you. Since its publication, I’ve followed many of those sailors from the Elizabethan period into the early seventeenth century. I’m writing a book on diet, disease and disorder in the East India Company.

I wrote...

Tides in the Affairs of Men: The Social History of Elizabethan Seamen, 1580-1603

By Cheryl Fury,

Book cover of Tides in the Affairs of Men: The Social History of Elizabethan Seamen, 1580-1603

What is my book about?

The age of maritime expansion and the Anglo-Spanish War have been analyzed by generations of historians, but nearly all studies have emphasized events and participants at the top. This book examines the lives and experiences of the men of the Elizabethan maritime community during a particularly volatile period of maritime history. The seafaring community had to contend with simultaneous pressures from many different directions. Shipowners and merchants, motivated by profit, hired seamen to sail voyages of ever-increasing distances, which taxed the health and capabilities of 16th-century crews and vessels. International tensions in the last two decades of Elizabeth's reign magnified the risks to all seamen, whether in civilian employment or on warships.

The books I picked & why

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The Daughter of Time

By Josephine Tey,

Book cover of The Daughter of Time

Why this book?

A classic novel that explores whether Richard III was responsible for the murder of his nephews, the Princes in the Tower. Tey tries to show readers that the case against the vilified king isn’t as open and shut as we may assume. Although this novel is a bit dated (given that it was published over 70 years ago), it is still an interesting “who done it?” 

I found a copy of this book at my grandmother’s house (where I found much to nurture my love of British history) and read it when I was in my early teens. It was a revelation in terms of the detective work that is historical research. Even for those who aren’t hardcore history nerds, this book is a thought-provoking read and a cautionary tale about accepting historical legends at face value. 

The Sunne in Splendour

By Sharon Kay Penman,

Book cover of The Sunne in Splendour

Why this book?

Much like Tey’s book, the author raises questions about Richard Plantagenet and whether he was the much-maligned monster of Shakespearean imagining. I love SKP’s books as they draw you into the narrative and keep you entertained for hundreds of pages. 

I started reading every novel of Penman’s I could get my hands on when I was in my PhD. Reading had become a chore – something I did for my research. I had forgotten how to read for fun. My roommate in grad school had been a librarian and reminded me that books weren’t just something you “mine” for information. I am grateful she introduced me to Sharon Kay Penman’s works. 

Both Tey and Penman’s books were published decades before the discovery of Richard III’s body under a Leicester car park in 2012. A detailed autopsy did answer some of our questions about whether he had a misshapen body portrayed in his black legend. Even so, questions remain about Richard’s character. These books remain relevant because there is still reasonable doubt in the case against Richard as a murdering uncle. 

Autobiography of Henry VIII

By Margaret George,

Book cover of Autobiography of Henry VIII

Why this book?

Margaret George has written a number of historical fiction books. I have enjoyed them all but this is by far my favourite. I readily admit that I’m not a fan of Henry VIII, not just because of how he treated his wives and mistresses but also how he bent his kingdom to suit his own needs and vanities. However, George’s sympathetic telling humanizes the man that Charles Dickens called “a blot of blood and grease upon the History of England.”  

The Other Boleyn Girl

By Philippa Gregory,

Book cover of The Other Boleyn Girl

Why this book?

Much about Mary Boleyn’s life is unknown. She had a brief time in the spotlight when she was a mistress of Henry VIII but she has been eclipsed by her sister Anne who played the courtship game for much higher stakes: the crown of a queen consort. Anne is a controversial Tudor figure who inspires both love and scorn. Mary was relegated to her sister’s shadow in life and in history.  

Both the book and the movie have been criticized for Gregory’s lack of historical accuracy but they are works of historical fiction. And it’s hard to deny the sheer readability of the prolific author’s books. In the novel and in real life, the Boleyn sisters were thrown into the vicious vortex of court politics by their ambitious kin and were victimized by men and forces outside their control. 

Bring Up the Bodies

By Hilary Mantel,

Book cover of Bring Up the Bodies

Why this book?

Although Wolf Hall is the better-known and lauded novel, my preference is for the second book of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy. The author’s focus is Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s ruthlessly efficient first minister who came to prominence after Cardinal Wolsey fell from grace for his failure to solve the King’s “Great Matter.”  I admit I’ve never warmed to Cromwell, although he has been praised by illustrious Tudor historians such as GR Elton. Certainly, he was instrumental in freeing the King of his papal shackles and all that followed in the wake of England’s break from Rome. That being said, the Cromwell of the historical record hardly seems sympathetic. He was one of the wiliest serpents in the snake pit of the Tudor court. Mantel’s books attempt to show a more human side of Henry VIII’s right-hand man.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in King Henry VIII, war, and Richard III of England?

5,309 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about King Henry VIII, war, and Richard III of England.

King Henry VIII Explore 25 books about King Henry VIII
War Explore 166 books about war
Richard III Of England Explore 6 books about Richard III of England

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The English People at War in the Age of Henry VIII, Dissolution: A Matthew Shardlake Tudor Mystery, and Jane the Quene if you like this list.