The best books on medieval Britain

Marc Morris Author Of The Anglo-Saxons: A History of the Beginnings of England
By Marc Morris

Who am I?

I fell into medieval history from the moment I arrived at university, when I looked at a lecture list that included the Norman Conquest, King John and Magna Carta, Edward I – in short, the subjects of the books I have gone on to write. The attraction for me was that the medieval centuries were formative ones, shaping the countries of the British Isles and the identities of the people within them. After completing my doctorate on the thirteenth-century earls of Norfolk I was keen to broaden my horizons, and presented a TV series about castles, which was a great way to reconnect with the reality of the medieval past.


I wrote...

The Anglo-Saxons: A History of the Beginnings of England

By Marc Morris,

Book cover of The Anglo-Saxons: A History of the Beginnings of England

What is my book about?

The Anglo-Saxons traces the turbulent history of England in its formative centuries. It explains how its earliest rulers fought relentlessly against each other for glory and supremacy, and then were almost destroyed by the onslaught of the Vikings. It explores how they abandoned their old gods for Christianity, established hundreds of churches, and created dazzlingly intricate works of art. It charts the revival of towns and trade, and the origins of a familiar landscape of shires, boroughs, and bishoprics. It is a tale of famous figures like King Offa, Alfred the Great, and Edward the Confessor, but also features a host of lesser-known characters - ambitious queens, revolutionary saints, intolerant monks, and grasping nobles. Through their remarkable careers, we see how a new society, a new culture, and a single unified nation came into being.

The books I picked & why

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Conquests, Catastrophe and Recovery: Britain and Ireland 1066–1485

By John Gillingham,

Book cover of Conquests, Catastrophe and Recovery: Britain and Ireland 1066–1485

Why this book?

This is a fantastic introduction to what was going on in the British Isles during the medieval period. The scholarship is up-to-the-minute, the writing is witty and engaging, and it is teeming with original ideas. It’s not a political history, plodding predictably from one reign to the next, but a sweeping overview, covering diverse topics such as the decline of slavery, the rise of parliament, kingship and queenship, religion, education, leisure, crime, and chivalry.

Conquests, Catastrophe and Recovery: Britain and Ireland 1066–1485

By John Gillingham,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Beginning with the Norman Conquest of England, these tumultuous centuries and their invasions shaped the languages and political geography of present-day Britain and Ireland.

The Irish, Scots and Welsh fought their battles against the English with varying success - struggles which, like the events of 1066 in England, produced spectacular upheavals and left enduring national memories. But there was still a common enemy: the Black Death - still the greatest catastrophe in their history.

There were significant advances, too. Hundreds of new towns were founded; slavery, still prevalent until the twelfth century, died out; magnificent cathedrals built, schools and universities…


The Song of Simon de Montfort: The Life and Death of a Medieval Revolutionary

By Sophie Thérèse Ambler,

Book cover of The Song of Simon de Montfort: The Life and Death of a Medieval Revolutionary

Why this book?

I was trained as a historian of the thirteenth century, and three of my books have been on thirteenth-century topics. One of the most influential figures in this period was Simon de Montfort, earl of Leicester, who first befriended and then rebelled against King Henry III, reducing the king to a cipher and effectively ruling in his place. Montfort was also highly controversial, driven by a mix of high-minded altruism and personal ambition that divided people at the time and still has historians arguing to this day. Sophie Ambler tells his tale in an exciting fashion, emphasizing the violence and the drama, but this is also a book with real academic ballast. In particular, it brings out how different Montfort was by virtue of being raised in southern France during the Albigensian crusade, and why political violence in England increased in the wake of Montfort’s own bloody demise.

The Song of Simon de Montfort: The Life and Death of a Medieval Revolutionary

By Sophie Thérèse Ambler,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Song of Simon de Montfort as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A biography of one of the Middle Ages' most controversial, reckless, and heroic figures

Born in France in the early thirteenth century to a crusading father of the same name, Simon de Montfort traveled to England in his adulthood, where he claimed the earldom of Leicester and ingratiated himself into King Henry III's inner circles. Initially a trusted advisor, Simon's good relationship with the king did not last. Frustrated by the increasing injustice meted out to his subjects, Simon would go on to rebel against him, marching on the king's hall at Westminster and leading England's first revolution, and imposing…


The First English Empire: Power and Identities in the British Isles 1093-1343

By R.R. Davies,

Book cover of The First English Empire: Power and Identities in the British Isles 1093-1343

Why this book?

When I arrived in Oxford in 1998 to begin my doctorate, I knew a bit about English medieval history, but almost nothing about the histories of Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. That deficiency was corrected by Prof Rees Davies, at whose feet I was lucky enough to sit. Earlier that same year Rees had delivered the prestigious Ford lectures in Oxford, and they were published two years later as The First English Empire. Deeply learned, but also beautifully written, they are a powerful meditation on centuries when English power expanded aggressively into the rest of the British Isles, and the effects this had on national identities, which continue to resonate to this day.

The First English Empire: Power and Identities in the British Isles 1093-1343

By R.R. Davies,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The First English Empire as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The future of the United Kingdom is an increasingly vexed question. This book traces the roots of the issue to the Middle Ages, when English power and control came to extend to most of the British Isles. By 1300 it looked as if Edward I was in control of virtually the whole of the British Isles. Ireland, Scotland, and Wales had, in different degrees, been subjugated to his authority; contemporaries were even comparing him with King Arthur. This was the
culmination of a remarkable English advance into the outer zones of the British Isles in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.…


Citadel of the Saxons: The Rise of Early London

By Rory Naismith,

Book cover of Citadel of the Saxons: The Rise of Early London

Why this book?

In my own writing I’ve recently ventured into the Anglo-Saxon period, so I know how hard it is to conjure the history of these early medieval centuries from the meagre source material that survives. Rory Naismith manages this brilliantly in his highly engaging history of London in the centuries between the end of Roman Britain and the Norman Conquest. Naismith’s earlier books are on coins and coinage, but he does not allow his specialism to pull the book off balance. It’s a comparatively short volume, but it provides a comprehensive overview of the emerging capital, and it wears its considerable learning lightly.

Citadel of the Saxons: The Rise of Early London

By Rory Naismith,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

With a past as deep and sinewy as the famous River Thames that twists like an eel around the jutting peninsula of Mudchute and the Isle of Dogs, London is one of the world's greatest and most resilient cities. Born beside the sludge and the silt of the meandering waterway that has always been its lifeblood, it has weathered invasion, flood, abandonment, fire and bombing. The modern story of London is well known. Much has been written about the later history of this megalopolis which, like a seductive dark star, has drawn incomers perpetually into its orbit. Yet, as Rory…


Stephen: The Reign of Anarchy

By Carl Watkins,

Book cover of Stephen: The Reign of Anarchy

Why this book?

The reign of King Stephen (1135–1154) was characterized by chaos and disorder, as he and his cousin Matilda fought over the succession to the English throne. This makes it a challenge to offer a coherent account, but Carl Watkins succeeds where others have failed in his short history of Stephen’s reign. The whole book, minus its academic endnotes, runs to under 90 pages, but it packs a considerable punch, thanks to Watkins’ elegant and enviable prose style. 

Stephen: The Reign of Anarchy

By Carl Watkins,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

'Stephen risked being seen as a man who never quite transcended the essential flawed-ness of his claim to be king. His actions betrayed uneasiness in his new skin'

Remembered as a time in which 'Christ and his saints slept', Stephen's troubled reign plunged England into anarchy. Without clear rules of succession in the Norman monarchy, conflict within William the Conqueror's family was inevitable. But, as this resonant portrait shows, there was another problem too: Stephen himself, unable to make good the transition from nobleman to king.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the Middle Ages, London, and nobility?

7,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the Middle Ages, London, and nobility.

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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The Wolf and the Dove, 1415, and The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England if you like this list.