The best books on medieval Britain

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

The Books I Picked & Why

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

By John Gillingham

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.


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

By Sophie Thérèse Ambler

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.


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

By R. R. Davies

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.


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Citadel of the Saxons: The Rise of Early London

By Rory Naismith

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.


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Stephen: The Reign of Anarchy

By Carl Watkins

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. 


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