The best historical fiction books that sent me straight to Google to find out more

The Books I Picked & Why

The Other Boleyn Girl

By Philippa Gregory

Book cover of The Other Boleyn Girl

Why this book?

This book, for me, is where my interest in history really began. To say I loved history at school would be a lie; it was often drab, political, and really quite dry (sorry teachers). But there were always snippets of history lessons that grabbed my attention – the Vikings, the Great Fire of London, and of course Henry VIII and his six wives. Which of us doesn’t leave school aware that there was a king who had six wives and beheaded two of them, even if we can’t remember which two! The Tudors was the one thing that did grab my interest and I did remember all the wives; in fact, I was fascinated by Anne Boleyn and as a young adult buying historical fiction, Anne was the subject of many of the books I read. 

And then Gregory wrote her book on The Other Boleyn. Anne had a sister – who knew! I certainly didn’t. So, I read the book and immediately my mind went off imagining all the other women who had lived that were on the sidelines of our history lessons but were just as interesting. It piqued my interest and off I went finding out all I could about Mary Boleyn. It had only planted a small seed at that stage, but that is certainly where my interest in women in history began. And on top of that, it’s a really great book! 

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By Maggie O'Farrell

Book cover of Hamnet

Why this book?

To say I love this book is an understatement. I think it’s fair to say my interest in Shakespeare has always been about Shakespeare the man and the period he lived in, rather than an interest in his writings. I appreciate them as the great literature that they are but that’s about as far as it goes. And of course, I have heard of Hamlet – who hasn’t? But when I picked up this book, I approached it with no knowledge at all of what it was about; in fact, I’m ashamed to say I didn’t even connect Hamnet to Hamlet in any way more than a passing thought about the similarity of the words.

Having read this, I now know that this book is about the true story, imagined as fiction of course, of the death of Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet – a son I never knew he had. But it is also so much more than that. We are introduced to Shakespeare’s world, his wife Anne, his parents, his children, and I was enthralled. Historical fiction sometimes gets a bad press because it is an imagining of events. But of course it is, it has to be, and great historical fiction can transport you straight into another time in a way that non-fiction doesn’t always do. I didn’t want this book to end, and when it did, it led me straight to google to find out more about Shakespeare’s family, particularly Anne Hathaway in whom Maggie O’Farrell has created a character I definitely want to know more about.

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Anna of Kleve, The Princess in the Portrait

By Alison Weir

Book cover of Anna of Kleve, The Princess in the Portrait

Why this book?

Of all the six wives of Henry VIII, it is fair to say that Anne of Cleves is often considered the least interesting. We have Katherine – the stoical first wife; Anne Boleyn – the Mistress who lost her head; Jane Seymour – Henry probably loved her most and she died giving him his much-longed-for son; Katherine Howard – young, flighty, and careless who also lost her head; and Katherine Parr who loved another and managed to out-live Henry and her marriage to him. And then in the middle, there’s Anne of Cleves – dull (Henry thought so too), who he divorced and packed off to the country. No story there.

But in Anna of Kleves, Weir really brings her alive and gives us a living, breathing version of who she may have been. From her days before Henry, to her survival instincts both during and after her marriage, I came to realise that the reason we think her dull is because her story is never really told. Alison Weir is a first-class historian so although this title is fiction, we can rely on the fact that much of the story is drawn from fact. And once again, it made me want to find out more about Henry VIII’s least desired wife!

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By C.J. Sansom

Book cover of Tombland

Why this book?

At the time of writing, this is believed to be the last in the Shardlake novels and I, for one, am already missing them. I have loved every one of the books in the series, following the adventures of the lawyer/crime solver Matthew Shardlake and his assistants Jack Barak and Nicholas Overton. The author has a real way of bringing the Tudor age to life and as a reader you are instantly transported into the 1500s with Sansom’s descriptive and quite brilliant writing. As a general recommendation I could have picked any of the Shardlake novels but under the heading of books that made me want to know more, the reason I have selected Tombland specifically as one of my top 5 books is the author’s focus on the peasants’ revolt in Norfolk in 1549.

The rebellion was led by a man named Robert Kett and although I had vaguely heard the name, I knew little about him or the reasons for the revolt. And it is this revolt that not just forms the backdrop to the latest Shardlake murder investigation but throws the protagonist and his friends right into the heart of the action. The author even includes a Historical Essay in the book on reimagining Kett's Rebellion and long after I had reached the end of the book and was mourning the end of Shardlake (not literally, he lives on, as I do in the hope Sansom will write about him again), I was off into the internet reading all about Kett and the uprising.

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By Anya Seton

Book cover of Katherine

Why this book?

Written in 1954 by American author, Anya Seton, this is the story of Katherine Swynford, long-time mistress and eventual wife of John of Gaunt. John of Gaunt was one of the sons of Edward III and although they lived in a time slightly earlier than my usual period of interest, for the study of a female protagonist, this book is still one of the best. I love Katherine’s story; from the minute I started this book I was captivated by a woman who went against society to stand by the man she loved. And whether you approve of her life choices or not, she led a fascinating life that I can spend hours speculating on and imagining. Katherine has not been the subject of many writers and although reading this book led me quite nicely to her other appearances in Alison Weir’s Katherine Swynford: The Story of John of Gaunt and his Scandalous Duchess and Anne O’Brien’s The Scandalous Duchess, both brilliant books, I’m sure they would both agree with me that this first glimpse into Katherine’s life given by Seton is still the best. It certainly made Katherine a favourite subject of mine and one I constantly go searching for more information on from time to time.

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