With the prospect of Britain’s exit from the EU looming over the heads of every one of its inhabitants, now is a good a time as ever to reflect upon the history of what is one of the most historically fascinating collections of monarch-ruled land situated on this plane. Unlike the comparatively infantile United States, the history of Britain began in the Palaeolithic period of mankind, and is best described as ebbing and flowing (at times violently so) of conflict and cooperation between the inhabitants of its various isles.
This article’s focus is on the 10 best History of Britain books out there, with titles covering in various levels of detail the rise of Great Britain, its early history, its classical, medieval, and early-modern period, and other crucial aspects of one of the most powerful nations on earth.
A Short History of England
While Simon Jenkins’ book here isn’t a history of Britain, per se, its concise and terse style manages to cram a fair bit of detail and factual accuracy in its relatively small size. This book is just 280 or so pages long, and considering Jenkins had well over 1000 tumultuous years of wartime, peacetime, industrial expansion, and the building of an empire to cover, he’s done pretty well at skirting the line between succinct and detailed.
If you’re looking for a detailed history of certain periods of the British empire, then this book won’t quite cut it for you. However, it’s a fantastic whirlwind journey through England’s ups and downs over the centuries, containing a serious quantity of dates, times, locations, and events. This collection of facts often comes at the expense of wider context, but I would certainly recommend this book for those looking for an introduction into both England’s history over the centuries, as well as its role in the wider British Empire and the many conflicts it engaged in over the years.
A History of Modern Britain
An historian and author that requires very little introduction, Andrew Marr is a titan of historical scholarship with many titles. One of the most compelling of these titles is his unparalleled journey through the history of modern Britain. This book’s focus is on Britain after 1945, and paints a detailed picture of a society slowly gravitating towards consumerism, mass production, and of the exponential expansion of industry. Following the war, Marr goes on to cover in great detail the political happenings in Britain as the entire world descended into the thick fog of the cold war.
If you’re looking for a military history, firstly you’re looking at the wrong period, but also at the wrong book. Marr focuses quite intensely on the state of politics and politicians in the post-war period, making this a political history more than a military or societal one. The book takes the reader up to the end of the Blair administration, and at 600 pages, it’s a pretty dense read even for the avid fan of the history of Great Britain.
British History For Dummies
The For Dummies series of books shouldn’t be written off without consideration, particularly if you consider the kind of breadth and depth on offer in British History for Dummies and its accompanying Britain cheat sheet. When I say breadth, I mean it: this book covers Britain’s history from the ice age to the end of Blair’s Britain. It is effectively a moderately-detailed reference book that can be used to deepen one’s knowledge somewhat about the course of British history, though it shouldn’t be mistaken for or used as a scholarly source of historical knowledge pertaining to British history. You wouldn’t get away with consistently referenced this book in a dissertation, for example.
The light humour in the book makes the history of Great Britain a more entertaining read than many comparatively serious texts. Expect to learn the general framework of Britain’s monarchy over the years and throughout the ages, as well as an introduction to the industrialisation of Britain as well as its prior age of colonisation and imperial pursuits.
Fifty Things You Need to Know About British History
I wouldn’t envy the task of choosing 50 of the most important people, things, or events that are essential to know about the history of Great Britain. This job has been performed excellently by Hugh Williams in this book, however. I found this book to be a distillation and a skilful refining of some of the most important people from the most significant periods of British history. The organisation of the fifty points into certain themes makes for even easier classification and navigation through the book, too.
His book’s sections range from the roots of Britain, which covers topics like ancient Britain and Roman occupation, all the way through to the theme of battle. This latter theme comprises many of the most pivotal battles and conflicts in British history such as Agincourt and the Falklands War. Further topics are on offer too, with this book covering vital items like the founding of the NHS, the English language, its poets and literature, through to imperialist Britain. The breadth of this book is astounding, but its detail and depiction of each of the time periods it talks of are also hugely engaging.
A History of Ancient Britain
Britain’s isles have hosted inhabitants for close to a million years. Intermittent ice ages punctuated an already tumultuous history filled with tradition, monarchy, and what would later become one of the most powerful empires on the face of the earth. It is Britain’s ancient period that Neil Oliver’s book focuses on, and it does so with all the detail and charm you’d expect from an author whose book went on to spawn its own BBC television series of the same name.
This book’s scope covers from the very first instance of humans inhabiting the isles through to the waning of the Roman Empire in around the 5th century. Woven into the text are frequent references to historical sources and artefacts (as one would expect from an historian with Oliver’s credentials), as well as some smile-inducing humour and anecdotal tales from Oliver himself. There’s somewhat of an exaggerate focus on Scotland of course, but a text from an author with Oliver’s archaeological experience and historical prowess is simply too good to put down.
The Greats Who Changed the Course of British History - 2nd edition
While many general histories of Great Britain, from ancient to modern, focus on a top-down approach to their accounts, Atkinson’s book demonstrates a rich knowledge of some of the greatest and most influential people. This results in a bottom-up approach to the history of Great Britain, focusing on each charismatic, influential, or significant carrier and working outwards and upwards in order to put each in the context of British history, while simultaneously providing a snapshot of the time in which each of these greats lived.
The origins and lives of significantly influential figures are included here. Expect to read about historical figures ranging from William Shakespeare to James Cook. You’ll read about natural historians such as Darwin and his discoveries, through to monarchs like Henry VIII and even up to modern times with Princess Dianna. Though the biographical framework of this book precludes it from being a traditional, broad-approach take on British history, its focus on historical figures makes the details much easier to digest.
The Usborne History of Britain
Ruth Brocklehurst’s broad-scope work approaches the subject of Britain’s history in a chronological fashion. Its jurisdiction falls between two points on a very large scale, beginning with Britain in the Ice and, and finishing up with a chapter on post-war Britain.
The table of contents of this book is an impressive one, opening with a chapter on the people of Britain, and going on in chronological order to cover the Britain of pre-historic times, moving on to Roman Britain, the Middle Ages, Georgians, Victorians, the 20th century, and onto to war-torn and post-war Britain.
An epic task has been undertaken by the author here, but this book manages to exist as more than just a collection of cold facts, dates, and uninvolved perspectives of events. Its narrative manages to accurately paint a picture in the reader’s mind of how ordinary people lived, and in many cases survived during each time period. The detail here is impressive, covering everything from the shape of Britain’s society to the clothes that its inhabitants wore during the various time periods, as well as various detailed passages on major figures throughout Britain’s history.
An Utterly Impartial History of Britain (or 2000 Years of Upper Class Idiots In Charge)
John O’Farrell’s writing style in this book has been compared to that of Horrible Histories, with the book itself being touted as a “Horrible Histories written for grown-ups”. Before I continue, I must point out that this isn’t by any means a factually-accurate historical document. In fact, its tone is largely sarcastic in nature, with the entire of its content acting as a satirical and humorous take on the history of Britain. Though it does present a chronological framework of its subject, it doesn’t go into tremendous amounts of detail regarding political theories and historical narratives.
If you know your British history, then it will be more likely that you will enjoy this title. This is largely because of its satirical nature, with many of its jokes hinging on the presumption that you know when sarcasm is being used and have a few shreds of understanding regarding context. That’s not to say there aren’t facts in the book. Expect detail about places, events, names, and time frames, but the work here needs to be taken with a pinch of salt and a serious dollop of humour.
Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World
In Empire, Niall Ferguson has managed to provide a well-researched and skilfully written account not of British history in general, but with a serious focus on the makings of its empire. It can be easy to forget, speaking and living in modern Britain that is, that this collection of small islands once commanded a sizeable empire stretching from the Americas, through to its Australian and New Zealand territories. At its peak, its naval power was recognised throughout the world as the very best, and it seems that Ferguson has done an excellent job of explaining how this came to be.
This book is as much about factors accounting for the rise of the empire as it is about its eventual decline. The subject matter isn’t the easiest to read; Britain’s history isn’t exactly one of diplomacy and peaceful negotiation, after all. One needs to bear in mind Ferguson’s bias here, however, which sees a many of his works and writings lean towards the defense of British Imperialism.
The Making of Modern Britain
Another Andrew Marr spectacular now, and this time it’s The Making of Modern Britain. This is a book focused on post-war Britain, specifically with regards to its recovery from the war and the move from Edwardian social circles to the rise of Westminster politics. This isn’t just a political history, however. Its chapters delve into Britain as a society, as people began to ponder questions about their role in society as a whole, and a multitude of other issues and worries that troubled the politicians and society in general up to the modern day.
This is still a politics-oriented text, however, and people not hugely interested in the details of the politics may not enjoy the fact that political focus often overshadows the societal aspects of modern British history. This book should be read for Marr’s journalistic, historical, and political knowledge alone, however, with his account of the 1900s to present day is one of the most fascinating I’ve ever read.