The best books about Westminster Abbey

Many authors have picked their favorite books about Westminster Abbey and why they recommend each book.

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By Marion Turner,

Book cover of Chaucer: A European Life

I love this book despite feeling frustrated by the excessive detail. Turner brings Chaucer’s cosmopolitan world and diverse literary works to life by focusing on places and spaces significant to him. I especially enjoyed the chapter on Households, where Chaucer was sent to serve in his adolescence, like many of his contemporaries, as page-boy, valet, entertainer, general factotum. I also learnt about his international travels, as a diplomat, prisoner of war, member of Parliament, and the sadness of his unfulfilled private life.

The last two chapters recount Chaucer’s final year living in the precincts of Westminster Abbey, his sudden death, relatively obscure burial, subsequent reburial in Poet’s Corner, and elevation as Father of English Literature, which Turner controversially challenges, placing him in a European cultural background.

Who am I?

I didn’t enjoy my first degree in Modern History and Political Science and it took twenty-five years and another MA in Women’s History, Gender, and Society, before my enthusiasm was rekindled. I’ve always believed it’s important to know where we come from, as well as the history of our country, and I don’t just mean wars, laws, and politics – but the lives of ordinary people, men, women, and children, because finally, we discover that our hopes, aspirations, and challenges are not so very different to the people who lived 500 years ago. I’m also passionate about the reality of women’s lived experience in all periods of history.

I wrote...

Life in a Medieval Gentry Household: Alice de Bryene of Acton Hall, Suffolk, C.1360-1435

By ffiona Perigrinor,

Book cover of Life in a Medieval Gentry Household: Alice de Bryene of Acton Hall, Suffolk, C.1360-1435

What is my book about?

When I discovered Dame Alice’s household accounts for 1412/13, the daily lists of food served, ale brewed, and bread baked were not exactly exciting, until I noticed the horses. The numbers fed in her stables varied every day indicating continual traffic to and from this gentry household. Why, I wondered, were all these people visiting a middle-aged Suffolk widow?

Finally, I managed to identify over half her named guests, and so was able to paint a vivid portrait of the lives of ordinary people in the medieval countryside, of their festivals and feast days, marriages and monuments, family loyalties and betrayals, life and death, rhythms of the working year and the changing scene in the wider world beyond the household. Who said accounts were boring?

The Projective Cast

By Robin Evans,

Book cover of The Projective Cast: Architecture and Its Three Geometries

Robin Evans was a versatile architectural historian and theorist who died too young. This highly original and unusual book, published after his death, is about the relationship of geometry to architecture, and how methods of drawing, including perspective and orthographic projection, can influence what is conceived and built. I admire the way in which Evans, unlike many architectural historians, is able to combine deep scholarship with a working practical understanding of how buildings are made, and how they are used in practice. There has been no other recent writer on architecture with so subtle a mind.

Who am I?

If I was asked to describe the central theme of my life's work in a phrase, it would be 'geometry in the arts'. I'm an architect originally, now a professor in London, and have always loved drawing and the art of perspective. In the 1990s I became fascinated with the idea that Johannes Vermeer used the camera obscura, an obsession that led to my book Vermeer's Camera. I'm now working on Canaletto's Camera. And I have ideas for yet another book, on perspective, to be called Points of View. I've chosen five books on these topics that I've found most thought-provoking and inspiring.

I wrote...

Vermeer's Camera: Uncovering the Truth Behind the Masterpieces

By Philip Steadman,

Book cover of Vermeer's Camera: Uncovering the Truth Behind the Masterpieces

What is my book about?

Over 100 years of speculation and controversy surround claims that the great seventeenth-century Dutch artist, Johannes Vermeer, used the camera obscura to create some of the most famous images in Western art. This intellectual detective story starts by exploring Vermeer's possible knowledge of contemporary optical science, and outlines the history of this early version of the photographic camera, which projected an image for artists to trace. By analysing the perspective of Vermeer's paintings, I have been able to reconstruct his studio and provide exciting new evidence to prove that Vermeer did indeed use the camera.

Richard III

By Annette Carson,

Book cover of Richard III: The Maligned King

This is a compelling and comprehensive study of Richard III’s reign. Annette Carson examines the events as they actually happened, based on the evidence of the original sources. In place of assumptions so beloved of traditional historians, she instead dissects motives and actions in light of the historical facts. Carson dares to investigate areas where historians fear to tread, raising many controversial questions and encouraging readers to think again.

Who am I?

I am a British writer/producer with a 30-year interest in Richard III (1452-1485). A visit to Bosworth Field, the penultimate battle of the Wars of the Roses changed my life irrevocably. This haunting place captured my imagination and with it the story of the last Plantagenet monarch who died fighting in this small corner of Leicestershire for crown and country.

I wrote...

The Lost King: The Search for Richard III

By Philippa Langley, Michael Jones,

Book cover of The Lost King: The Search for Richard III

What is my book about?

Whilst researching Richard III for a biographical screenplay, in 2004 Philippa Langley visited the site of the Greyfriars precinct in Leicester. Here King Richard had been buried after Bosworth. Fifty years later, at the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the grave was lost and the king’s remains believed to have been thrown into a nearby river. 

Following an intuitive experience in a car park in the Greyfriars precinct, The Lost King tells the story of Langley’s years of research and belief that she would find the church and grave in this exact spot, as historian Michael Jones tells of Richard's 15th-century life and death. The Lost King is now a major motion picture starring Sally Hawkins and Steve Coogan. (Previously titled: The King’s Grave: The Search for Richard III)

The Palliser Novels

By Anthony Trollope,

Book cover of The Palliser Novels

While walking through a Barnes and Noble some thirty years ago, I stumbled upon Anthony Trollope—probably because he took up about three whole shelves. Curious, I chose one of his fifty novels and then another and another until I concluded that he is undoubtedly one of the most underrated authors in the English language. Both of his series—The Chronicles of Barsetshire and The Pallisers—make Downton Abbey look like upstairs/downstairs-lite. Highly recommended! 

Who am I?

As the author of a historical/mystery/romance series that has won over sixty international awards in multiple categories, I’m attracted to books that cannot be pinned to one genre. I love sweeping sagas with elements of all three, perhaps because I was so immersed in classic literature as a kid and fascinated by stories of the past. I suspect I may have once lived in the 1930s and, having yet to discover a handy time machine lying around, I have resorted to writing about the era as a way of getting myself back there. I am, not surprisingly, addicted to period dramas and big band music. 

I wrote...

A Girl Like You

By Michelle Cox,

Book cover of A Girl Like You

What is my book about?

Henrietta Von Harmon works as a 26 girl at a corner bar on Chicago’s northwest side. It’s 1935, but things still aren’t looking up since the big crash and her father’s subsequent suicide, leaving Henrietta to care for her antagonistic mother and younger siblings.

In desperation, Henrietta takes a job as a taxi dancer at a local dance hall, and just when she’s beginning to enjoy herself, the floor matron turns up dead. When aloof Inspector Clive Howard appears on the scene, Henrietta agrees to go undercover for him and is plunged into Chicago’s grittier underworld. While she attempts to uncover a potential serial killer, little does she know that the Inspector is keeping his secrets of his own.

This Sunrise of Wonder

By Michael Mayne,

Book cover of This Sunrise of Wonder: Letters to My Grandchildren

This book was given to me by an Anglican priest in Valparaiso, and it’s probably been the single biggest influence on my thought of anything I have ever read. It is a series of letters from Mayne to his grandchildren, explaining his view of the world. It’s a bit quieter than Annie Dillard’s exuberant sense of enchantment, but no less filled with wonder. It’s packed full of quotations from other authors, gleaned from a lifetime’s reading. The title is a quote from GK Chesterton, "At the back of our brains, there is a forgotten blaze or burst of astonishment at our own existence. The object of the artistic and spiritual life is to dig for this sunrise of wonder." 

Who am I?

I did a master's in Environmental Policy, and at the end of that year, I thought, "this is all very well, but there’s no point designing these policies if no one wants them." My response to the environmental crisis is to try to open people’s eyes to the beauty and wonder of Nature. If you pay close attention, you start to develop an expansive sense of the ordinary: Creation is stranger, more mysterious, and more wonderful than we can imagine. This in turn helps us to love the world more deeply, and we tend to look after things that we love. 

I wrote...

Talking Through Trees

By Edward Picton-Turbervill,

Book cover of Talking Through Trees

What is my book about?

Talking Through Trees was supposed to be a rather dry history of the gardens in St John’s College, Cambridge, but what came out when I sat down to write it was altogether more unexpected. The book is a rhapsody on the trees in the college’s garden, flowing between anecdote, history, biology, poetry, and philosophy. It was augmented by 35 wonderful woodcuts produced by Angela Lemaire for the book and printed by hand at the Old Stile Press. My favourite lines are "A tree is a river in reverse. A river converges on its trunk, and a tree diverges from its source. Humans are both wood and water, since our arteries are trees, and our veins are rivers."

This book is available here.

Marriage A-La-Mode

By John Dryden,

Book cover of Marriage A-La-Mode

This is a sparklingly funny play. I love its contemporary freshness, its fleetness of foot, and its irreverence. It satirizes the fashion for all things French among London’s social climbers. It sugars the pill of all that satire by bringing a fast-paced plot to a comic ending of marriage and reconciliation. It taught me that writers in seventeenth-century England like the play’s author, John Dryden, were importing words and ideas from France as they sought to trace a middle way between a servile mimicry of French culture and an insular rejection of it. 

Who am I?

I have long been struck, as a learner of French at school and later a university professor of French, by how much English borrows from French language and culture. Imagine English without naïveté and caprice. You might say it would lose its raison d’être My first book was the history of a single French phrase, the je-ne-sais-quoi, which names a ‘certain something’ in people or things that we struggle to explain. Working on that phrase alerted me to the role that French words, and foreign words more generally, play in English. The books on this list helped me to explore this topic—and more besides—as I was writing Émigrés.

I wrote...

Émigrés: French Words That Turned English

By Richard Scholar,

Book cover of Émigrés: French Words That Turned English

What is my book about?

Émigrés examines the continuing history of untranslated French words in English. It asks what these words reveal about the fertile but fraught relationship that England and France have long shared and that now entangles English- and French-speaking cultures all over the world.

The book demonstrates that French borrowings—such as à la mode, ennui, naïveté, and caprice—have, over the centuries, “turned” English in more ways than one. It invites native Anglophone readers to consider how much we owe the French language and asks why so many of us remain ambivalent about the migrants in our midst.

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