The best 16th century books

4 authors have picked their favorite books about 16th century and why they recommend each book.

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A Tudor Turk

By Rehan Khan,

Book cover of A Tudor Turk: The Chronicles of Will Ryde & Awa Maryam Al-Jameel

This riveting Young Adult novel sets the action on a stage in which “East” and “West” are not divided as typically imagined, but intertwined economically, politically, and culturally. Moses’ staff has been stolen from Topkapi Place and a team of Ottoman janissaries is sent on a mission through Italy and England to recover it. The team is made of free and formerly enslaved men and women hailing from rising empires and those lost. Their struggles offer a searing account of the Ottoman, West and North African, and European dependence on the trade of enslaved human beings. And while the theft of the staff of Moses may seem fanciful, its possession confers imperial power and thus is the perfect object to ask from who was it truly stolen and to whom should it be returned.

Who am I?

I'm a retired historian of early Islam and writer of historical fiction set in medieval Iraq, Turkic, and Persian lands. I write and love to read novels that “do history.” In other words, historical fiction that unravels the tangles of history through the lives of its characters, especially when told from the perspectives of those upon whom elite power is wielded. My selections are written by authors who speak from an informed position, either as academic or lay historians, those with a stake in that history, or, like me, both, and include major press, small press, and self-published works and represent the histories of West Africa, Europe, Central and West Asia, and South Asia.

I wrote...

The Unseen: The Sufi Mysteries Quartet Book Three

By Laury Silvers,

Book cover of The Unseen: The Sufi Mysteries Quartet Book Three

What is my book about?

It is 908 CE, the waning days of the Sunni Abbasid caliphate. A body is discovered in Baghdad shot in the exact manner of Shia martyr slain some two hundred years earlier. Many suspect the murder signals a coming attack on the Shia community. The city is on edge as political, religious, and personal factions are exposed, sending the caliph’s army into the streets. Ammar and Tein, detectives with Baghdad’s Grave Crimes Section, and Tein’s sister Zaytuna, have to clear the case one way or another before violence erupts. The investigation offers no easy resolution as the three seek out the killer among those vying to gain power over the meaning of the past for the future, not just caliphal authorities and scholars, but also old women, children, and wayward sons.

Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England

By Alan Macfarlane,

Book cover of Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England

Originally published in 1970, this was another foundational text for me and other witchcraft scholars of my generation.

It grew out of Macfarlane’s doctoral thesis focusing on Essex, which had been supervised by Keith Thomas, whose own great book, Religion and the Decline of Magic (much of which dealt with witches), came out the following year. Even then, the historian Macfarlane was on his way to becoming an anthropologist – a transition visible on every page of this fascinating book.

But its overriding character is that of a work of sociology. Social science models helped to impose interpretative order on the kind of archival information dug up by C. L’Estange Ewen, and connected a rise in witchcraft accusations to a number of strains in late-sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century English life, especially economic strains.

Although their interpretations differ in substance and emphasis, Macfarlane and Thomas are still associated with a paradigm…

Who am I?

I am an Emeritus Professor of Early Modern History at the University of East Anglia and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. I taught history for many years at several UK universities, and I was the Director of Studies in History at Churchill College, Cambridge. I am the author of six books, including Hellish Nell: Last of Britain’s Witches and Witchcraft: A Very Short Introduction. His latest book, The Ruin of All Witches: Life and Death in the New World, will be published in November by Penguin. I live in Cambridge, England, and I am married with three children.

I wrote...

Witchfinders: A Seventeenth-Century English Tragedy

By Malcolm Gaskill,

Book cover of Witchfinders: A Seventeenth-Century English Tragedy

What is my book about?

By spring 1645, two years of civil war had exacted a dreadful toll upon England. People lived in terror as disease and poverty spread, and the nation grew ever more politically divided. In a remote corner of Essex, two obscure gentlemen, Matthew Hopkins and John Stearne, exploited the anxiety and lawlessness of the time and initiated a brutal campaign to drive out the presumed evil in their midst. Touring Suffolk and East Anglia on horseback, they detected demons and idolaters everywhere. Through torture, they extracted from terrified prisoners confessions of consorting with Satan and demonic spirits.

This is the chilling story of the most savage witch-hunt in English history. By the autumn of 1647 at least 250 people—mostly women—had been captured, interrogated, and hauled before the courts. More than a hundred were hanged, causing Hopkins to be dubbed ‘Witchfinder General’ by critics and admirers alike. Though their campaign was never legally sanctioned, they garnered the popular support of local gentry, clergy, and villagers. While Witchfinders tells of a unique and tragic historical moment fuelled by religious fervour, today it serves as a reminder of the power of fear and fanaticism to fuel ordinary people’s willingness to demonize others.

How to Live

By Sarah Bakewell,

Book cover of How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer

Nietzsche said; “Only those with very large lungs have the right to write long sentences.” Montaigne was of the same opinion. He pre-dated Nietzsche in couching his philosophy simply and clearly in short, sharp aphorisms. Like Nietzsche’s aphorisms, they are often very funny.

Who am I?

I am fascinated by humanity’s search for meaning. That is what I am exploring as I read philosophy and as I write my biographies of extraordinary individuals. Sue Prideaux has written award-winning books on Edvard Munch and his painting The Scream, the playwright August Strindberg, and the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. She acted as consultant to Sotheby’s when they sold The Scream for a record-breaking $120 million.

I wrote...

I Am Dynamite!: A Life of Nietzsche

By Sue Prideaux,

Book cover of I Am Dynamite!: A Life of Nietzsche

What is my book about?

Friedrich Nietzsche is one of the most enigmatic figures in philosophy, and his concepts—the Übermensch, the will to power, slave morality—have fundamentally reshaped our understanding of the human condition. But what do most people really know of Nietzsche—beyond the mustache, the scowl, and the lingering association with nihilism and fascism? Where do we place a thinker who was equally beloved by Albert Camus, Ayn Rand, Martin Buber, and Adolf Hitler?

Age of Atrocity

By David Edwards, Padraig Lenihan, Clodagh Tait

Book cover of Age of Atrocity: Violence and Political Conflict in Early Modern Ireland

Notorious for its violence, the 17th century is also a time of sweeping change. Change ignites resistance. When I first started researching Irish history, I was well aware of Cromwell’s march, and soon discovered much more and perhaps worse. How could people survive under constant threat and fear? How could humans justify such cruelty? This book examines several horrific events, the people and the policies that allowed them to happen—in the interest of learning from history that which we should never repeat.

Who am I?

Nancy Blanton is an American author of Irish descent. She’s written three award-winning Irish historical novels and has a fourth underway. A former journalist, her focus on the 17th century derives from a history lesson about Oliver Cromwell, weariness of Tudor stories, decades of enlightening research, and a little help from supportive friends in County Cork.

I wrote...

When Starlings Fly as One

By Nancy Blanton,

Book cover of When Starlings Fly as One

What is my book about?

Based on a true story of the 1641 Rebellion and Ireland's longest siege, When Starlings Fly as One is not a classic hero’s journey, but a story of war, struggle, spirit, and survival—a story of two sides.

Secretive and often bold, Merel de Vries seeks only escape from the English nobility she serves. When Rathbarry Castle is besieged by rising Irish clans, she faces an impossible choice: allegiance to owner Sir Arthur Freke, loyalty to new-found love Tynan O’Daly, and inner yearnings belonging to her alone. Merel insists she can help—but no one will listen. When opportunity comes, can she truly do what her spirit urges? Or, will a sudden betrayal change everything?

Abortion in Early Modern Italy

By John Christopoulos,

Book cover of Abortion in Early Modern Italy

Who would have thought Catholic Italy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries would have tolerated widespread abortion? John Christopoulos brilliantly shows that, despite the moral proscription and legal prohibition of abortion from church and state leadership, women across the social spectrum from elites to peasants practiced abortion with the tacit or explicit support of key people in their communities. Compelling mini-narratives about individual women’s abortion stories are interwoven with an expert analysis of the legal, religious, and scientific knowledge and attitudes.

Who am I?

Like most people, I find the history of sex and everything associated with it fascinating! It’s often been difficult to document and interpret the complexities about heterosexuality, gender identity, and same-sex desire as well as women’s reproductive health which is intimately (although not exclusively of course) linked to sex. We are in a golden age of fantastic work on so many aspects of the history of sex. Apart from the intrinsic interest of these books, I think they provide such an important context for our very lively and often very intense contemporary legal, political, and cultural debates over sex in all its forms.

I wrote...

Sex in an Old Regime City: Young Workers and Intimacy in France, 1660-1789

By Julie Hardwick,

Book cover of Sex in an Old Regime City: Young Workers and Intimacy in France, 1660-1789

What is my book about?

Our ideas about the long histories of young couples' relationships and women's efforts to manage their reproductive health are often premised on the notion of a powerful sexual double standard. Yet in seventeenth and eighteenth-century France, young workers had the freedom to experiment with intimacy as part of courtships, they routinely had sex before marriage, and their communities were quick to support young women whose beaus refused to marry them when they became pregnant. Young couples were sometimes not ready to get married when they became pregnant. They tried a wide variety of ways to interrupt reproduction, or in our terms to get an abortion, or to move the baby off the scene after its birth.

The voices, pleasures, perils, and reproductive challenges of young couples are vividly captured. Local courts, Catholic clergy, and neighbors, kin, and co-workers all pragmatically supported young couples in these relationship and reproductive struggles.

The Sterkarm Handshake

By Susan Price,

Book cover of The Sterkarm Handshake

In The Sterkarm Handshake, the device for time travel is simply a tube; not magical, but scientific, down which modern ruthless developers travel back to 16th century Scotland. Here they meet with equally ruthless highlanders. The scientists are planning to plunder Scotland’s resources (the 16th-century locals have been plundering roundabout for years), and of course, the modern developers run into problems. As in all books of this genre, the characters who travel through time may want to fit in or may choose to reject what the past has to offer. 

The heroine, like similar time-travellers, falls in love with a long-dead character and here, there’s also the possibility of the 16th century Scots coming up the tube to 20th century England – a good twist. There are also some very satisfying links between past and present, moments where you smile and think, Ah, how clever!

Who am I?

The house I grew up in was haunted. I believe that we shared the space with other people who’d lived there before us. I longed to communicate with them and to see them – but I never did. The closest I ever got to those spirits, was hearing a marble roll across the floorboards of my bedroom; I was alone in the room, the room was carpeted, but the sound was unmistakable. Perhaps it was the little boy whose lead soldiers we’d unearthed in the garden? I never knew. I never found a way of slipping through the shadows to join him, though I desperately wanted to.

I wrote...

Stone Underpants

By Rebecca Lisle, Richard Watson (illustrator),

Book cover of Stone Underpants

What is my book about?

Pod has a problem. His bottom is bare and there's a cold wind blowing! Dad suggests he makes some stone underpants but they're no good. Pod can't run, kick or bend with stone underpants holding him back. Pod tries different materials to warm his bottom, each with their own drawbacks. Will he ever make pants that are comfy and warm?

A hilarious look at the valiant efforts of a stone age boy to keep his bottom warm.

The Elizabethan Image

By Roy Strong,

Book cover of The Elizabethan Image: An Introduction to English Portraiture, 1558-1603

Strong is the undisputed doyen of Elizabethan painting. As Assistant Keeper (1959-67) and Director (1967-73) of the National Portrait Gallery and then Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum (1973-87), he devoted the better part of thirty years to groundbreaking exhibitions and publications on the Tudor court. His writings, more than anyone else’s, are what led me to Tudor art. This book distills the essence of Strong’s many seminal works from a long and distinguished career, but adds glorious new colour photography and generous nods to the art historians who have come after him. Strong wears his learning lightly, making this an ideal gateway text for anyone seeking a way into the world of Elizabethan painting and portraiture.

Who am I?

I have been fascinated by the Tudors since childhood – in spite of, or perhaps because of, the fact that I grew up in the American Midwest, where Tudor artefacts were few and far between. A family holiday to England, when I was fourteen, sparked the beginning of a life-long love affair, which I have been lucky enough to turn into a career focused on all things Tudor. After receiving my PhD from Yale University, I took up a post-doctoral fellowship in England, at Warwick University, with which I have been affiliated ever since. I am currently an Honorary Reader at Warwick and working on a new book, on Hans Holbein.

I wrote...

Nicholas Hilliard: Life of an Artist

By Elizabeth Goldring,

Book cover of Nicholas Hilliard: Life of an Artist

What is my book about?

Nicholas Hilliard (c.1547-1619) was the first English-born artist to acquire a reputation for excellence both at home and abroad: court painter to Elizabeth I, he counted the Medici, the Valois, the Habsburgs, and the Bourbons among his Continental admirers. Although Hilliard worked in a wide range of media, his fame derives from his miniatures: exceptionally detailed portraits executed in watercolour on vellum, many no larger than a modern watch-face. In this illustrated biography, I have tried to reveal both the man and the artist, tracing Hilliard’s personal struggles and rise to fame, his quest to become the social equal of his sitters, his role as teacher to the next generation of English painters, and his influence on writers like John Donne. 

The Sorcerer's Tale

By Alec Ryrie,

Book cover of The Sorcerer's Tale: Faith and Fraud in Tudor England

A neglected classic of popular history. This book taught me things about the history of magic that now seem so obvious and important that I wonder how I missed them before. Ryrie tells the story of the fraudulent magician Gregory Wisdom, whose deception of a Tudor nobleman led to allegations of attempted murder by witchcraft. More broadly, he reveals a world in which the widespread acceptance of occult phenomena made counterfeit magic alluringly credible, and charlatans co-existed with “genuine” practitioners of magic. I know of no other book that describes the twilight world of fake and real sorcery with such vividness and insight.

Who am I?

I fell in love with history when I saw how it led to alternative ways of seeing the world – ways of understanding things that are now largely abandoned. I do not believe in “dangerous spirits.” But I know that people much smarter than me once took them for granted and thought carefully about their various activities. My work tries to recreate this lost intellectual landscape. In books like Strange Histories and The Devil: A Very Short Introduction, I have done my best to map out this landscape for general readers. This complements my academic role as Professor of Early Modern History at the University of Worcester.  

I wrote...

Strange Histories: The Trial of the Pig, the Walking Dead, and Other Matters of Fact from the Medieval and Renaissance Worlds

By Darren Oldridge,

Book cover of Strange Histories: The Trial of the Pig, the Walking Dead, and Other Matters of Fact from the Medieval and Renaissance Worlds

What is my book about?

Strange Histories is an exploration of some of the most extraordinary beliefs that existed in the late Middle Ages through to the end of the seventeenth century. Presenting serious accounts of the appearance of angels and demons, sea monsters, and dragons within European and North American history, this book moves away from "present-centred thinking" and instead places such events firmly within their social and cultural context. By doing so, it offers a new way of understanding the world in which dragons and witches were fact rather than fiction, and presents these riveting phenomena as part of an entirely rational thought process for the time in which they existed.


By Denise Mina,

Book cover of Rizzio: A Novella

I was given this as a present at the launch of my book on Mary. I took it home and devoured it the next day. It’s a short, punchy, and very immediate version of a single incident in Mary’s story: the dreadful murder of David Rizzio. Denise Mina does what I most admire in writers of historical fiction and somehow fills the story with suspense, although you know with your head how the story ends.

Who am I?

I was utterly uninspired by history at school—couldn’t see the point of it at all—but then I discovered Jean Plaidy’s books and realised history was about people, real people. Dorothy Dunnett propelled me headlong into a fascination with sixteenth-century Europe, a period full of larger-than-life characters and an unusually high number of strong women. Mary Queen of Scots, Elizabeth I, Catherine de Medici, Mary of Guise, Hurrem Sultan (wife of Suleiman the Magnificent): they wielded real power. And Mary Queen of Scots was so young—it makes her the perfect starting point to interest young readers in history. I hope I’ve done her story justice.

I wrote...

The Amazing Life of Mary, Queen of Scots: Fact-Tastic Stories from Scotland's History

By Gill Arbuthnott, Mike Phillips (illustrator),

Book cover of The Amazing Life of Mary, Queen of Scots: Fact-Tastic Stories from Scotland's History

What is my book about?

Mary became Queen of Scots when she was six days old and Queen of France at sixteen. At eighteen she returned to Scotland, newly widowed, to rule a fractious country divided by religion while trying to maintain a cordial relationship with Elizabeth of England. How many eighteen-year-olds could have pulled that off? She was doing pretty well until she fell in love with her handsome, dashing, and utterly unreliable cousin Lord Henry Darnley—and everything went downhill from there. 

The Amazing Life of Mary, Queen of Scots tells Mary’s story through the eyes of Alec, a young servant. Full of facts about life in sixteenth-century Scotland, it’s a great introduction for children to Scotland’s most fascinating monarch.

The Voices of Morebath

By Eamon Duffy,

Book cover of The Voices of Morebath: Reformation and Rebellion in an English Village

Eamon Duffy’s justly acclaimed ‘microhistory’ transports us away from the world of bishops, parliament and the court in order to track, across four crucial decades, the experiences of a tiny village on the edge of Exmoor in Devon, based on meticulous recordings in the ‘church book’ by the long-serving parish priest. It is a story in miniature of the tragically destructive aspects of the Reformation, but also an uplifting one in its depiction of the capacity of ordinary people to survive and adapt.

Who am I?

Peter Marshall is Professor of History at the University of Warwick, co-editor of the English Historical Review, and the author of nine books and over sixty articles on the religious and cultural history of early modern Europe. His authoritative account of the Reformation in England, Heretics and Believers, was awarded the Wolfson History Prize in 2018. Peter is a native of the Orkney Islands, and currently writing a book on the islanders’ experiences in the Reformation era.

I wrote...

Heretics and Believers: A History of the English Reformation

By Peter Marshall,

Book cover of Heretics and Believers: A History of the English Reformation

What is my book about?

Centuries on, what the Reformation was and what it accomplished remain deeply contentious. Peter Marshall’s sweeping new history—the first major overview for general readers in a generation—argues that sixteenth-century England was a society neither desperate for nor allergic to change, but one open to ideas of “reform” in various competing guises. King Henry VIII wanted an orderly, uniform Reformation, but his actions opened a Pandora’s Box from which pluralism and diversity flowed and rooted themselves in English life.

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