The best books throwing light into the Dark Ages

Who am I?

I spent much of my childhood living close to Whitby Abbey and heard many stories of the famous Saint Hilda. As a mother of three, I began writing stories, initially to entertain my children, and eventually published many historical stories for children and young adults – twice shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal. I moved back to the Whitby area in my 60s determined to write for an older age group and indulge my lifelong fascination for the Anglo-Saxon period. I took the half pagan Fridgyth character from my Young Adult adventure mystery – Wolfgirl - and developed her role as a warm, curious, flawed, investigator. I'm working on a third Fridgyth the Herbwife novel.

I wrote...

A Swarming of Bees

By Theresa Tomlinson,

Book cover of A Swarming of Bees

What is my book about?

An atmospheric murder mystery set in the wind-blown monastery of Abbess Hild. The decisive and life-changing decision taken at the Great Synod is swiftly overshadowed as the monastery is ravaged by a deadly plague. Fridgyth, the half pagan herbwife, starts to suspect that all the deaths are not from the sickness. Despite Hild’s stern warnings ‘not to meddle,’ Fridgyth cannot control her curiosity and frustration. Risking her warm friendship with the abbess, she sets off to investigate. 

‘A herbwife on a mule may go where warriors cannot – she may see what warriors cannot see and hear what warriors cannot hear!'

The books I picked & why

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Absolution by Murder

By Peter Tremayne,

Book cover of Absolution by Murder

Why this book?

I read this book many years ago - loved the strong female protagonist and was impressed by the writer’s detailed knowledge of the period, which must have come from vast research. The setting was familiar to me, as I had spent much of my childhood within view of Whitby Abbey. Though utterly fascinated by the story, I had a somewhat different take on what might have happened there in the year 664 and felt inspired to try my own hand at a historical murder mystery.

Peace-Weavers and Shield Maidens: Women in Early English Society

By Kathleen Herbert,

Book cover of Peace-Weavers and Shield Maidens: Women in Early English Society

Why this book?

I first came across this short book when researching for stories set in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria. Kathleen Herbert, (herself a historical novelist) provided not only excellent information, but also a practical vision of the period specifically from a woman’s point of view. It is easy to read and presents the information in an accessible way; perhaps one of the earliest books focussed on women’s history.

The Sins of the Father

By Annie Whitehead,

Book cover of The Sins of the Father

Why this book?

This is the second book in an exciting series. I loved the first book, which told the story of the fierce Mercian King Penda! The Sins of the Father focuses on the life of Penda’s more sensitive, less warlike son, Ethelred. Annie Whitehead (who is also a respected historian) brings vibrantly to life many of the people and places that I’m interested in, more from the point of view of the ancient Kingdom of Mercia, rather than Northumbria. Familiar characters appear and I find it so interesting to view them from a different angle. These books are not murder mysteries, but utterly fascinating historical novels, which vividly capture both the humanity and battles for power in the ancient kingdoms.

The Song of Heledd: At the Hall of Cynddylan

By Judith Arnopp,

Book cover of The Song of Heledd: At the Hall of Cynddylan

Why this book?

This is another historical novel set in my favourite time period AD 600’s, this time in Powys. The main character is Heledd – a peace-weaver bride, she is human, flawed, compelling, and courageous. The background detail is vivid and well researched, but what I love most about this book is the lyrical style of writing, which may almost give the reader the sense that the story is being sung,  reflecting with feeling and humanity, the real Anglo-Saxon poetry that has come down to us. Here is a powerful sense of sadness, regret, and gathering doom, lifted by moments of pure joy – a true lament!

The King in the North: The Life and Times of Oswald of Northumbria

By Max Adams,

Book cover of The King in the North: The Life and Times of Oswald of Northumbria

Why this book?

Good research is so important to me and this is the historical study that I’d recommend to anyone who wants to know more about the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Northumbria. Max Adams has studied the period in detail, but his style of writing is easy to read and sometimes exciting, so much so that I almost felt that I was reading a novel. I love the way Max Adams suggests various possible scenarios, from the written evidence, studies, and archaeology that we have. This is a perfect research book for a novelist, wanting to bring the time period to life. I found that I couldn’t put the book down, once I’d started reading it.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the Dark Ages, the Middle Ages, and Wales?

5,810 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the Dark Ages, the Middle Ages, and Wales.

The Dark Ages Explore 8 books about the Dark Ages
The Middle Ages Explore 243 books about the Middle Ages
Wales Explore 24 books about Wales

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Anglo-Saxon England, History of the English Church and People, and The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles if you like this list.