Researching Fourteenth Century England with Ian Mortimer

I have always been fascinated with medieval English history, ever since I was a young boy. However, during my Australian education in both school and university I rarely had the chance to study the history of my country of birth, which as an adult has only served to heighten my interest in the subject area.

A couple of years ago I decided, for my second NaNoWriMo, to write a novel set in fourteenth century England, roughly based around the ascension of Edward III to the throne, the beginning of the Hundred Years War, and the path of destruction left by the Great Plague in 1348, while trying to include subplots that would reveal the lives and lifestyles of a range of different people across English society from the same time period.

It sucked. My novel, I mean. Apart from the fact that I scrambled to write it in under a month and it was probably a quarter of the length it needed to be (as my idea behind it was quite ambitious), the main problem that held me back was a distinct lack of research. Since writing this initial draft, I have been trying to squeeze in research into this period of history when I have spare time, and one author in particular has been very useful – Ian Mortimer, a historian with an expertise in this very century of British history. So I thought I’d share some of his amazing books I have been consulting lately.

The Time Traveller’s Guide To Medieval EnglandΒ 

I’ll be honest – I saw the title of this book, and knew I had to buy it then and there. The detail in this book is incredible, as Mortimer explores every aspect of life in the fourteenth century, such as the sights, sounds, smells, the food, the clothes, the law, hygiene and disease, the landscape and means of travelling, the beliefs and values, even what to do for entertainment. The book is broad in focus, examining people from all walks of life, from the royals and noblemen, to the peasants, and everyone in between, and the descriptions are so vivid you can easily conjure the imagery contained within. This is what really grabbed me about this book – even though it is a history book, it is written so well it could be enjoyed by even the least history-inclined readers! A must-read, and perhaps the most useful out of all the books I own when it comes to my research.

The Perfect King: The Life of Edward III, Father of the English Nation

Just asΒ The Time Traveller’s Guide To Medieval England is the definitive work on the general history of fourteenth century England, this book is the definitive work on Edward III, without a doubt. This incredible biography tracks his life, from a young boy forced to grow up too fast, to the young man who ascended to the throne after overthrowing the temporary rule of Roger Mortimer (who supposedly murdered Edward II), to the confident young King who taxed his people more than any ever king and started a war that would last for over a century. Despite all of this, Edward III united England in a way the country had never seen, and is now considered to be one of the most brilliant and influential monarchs of all time. This biography not only explains the historical aspects of his kingship, but also attempts to understand who he was as a person, as a son, husband, father and friend. The problem with a biography this detailed, for me, is to try and figure out how to use so much information and slim it down to fit inside the rest of my novel. But it is an incredible read, entertaining and enlightening.

The Greatest Traitor: The Life of Sir Roger Mortimer, Ruler of England 1327 – 1330

Roger Mortimer is a fascinating character (and quite possibly a long lost relation of the author of these books…but I digress). After escaping the Tower of London in 1323, he sailed to France, where he eventually was joined by Isabella, the Queen of England, wife of Edward II, and mother of Edward III. They returned later with an invading army, and very quickly the first deposition of a British monarch had taken place, with Mortimer taking power (although Edward III officially was King, he held no real power initially). According to many historians, Mortimer then murdered Edward II in a most brutal manner – by placing a burning hot poker in a place best not to mention (especially if you are eating as you read this). This biography explores the full evil genius of this man, including his appeal to the likes of the Queen, while at the same time exposing just why he was so terrifying to his enemies, and ultimately how he lost his power. Again, the detail in this book is simply astounding, and the writing so good you’d almost think it were a novel.

Do any of these books sound like the sort of thing you would like to read?

Do you own any history books like this that hone in on a very small but significant part of history? Do you prefer these kind of history books or do you prefer those broader in scope?

29 thoughts on “Researching Fourteenth Century England with Ian Mortimer

  1. I remember being completely fascinated with the unit we did on Medieval England in sixth grade social studies. I agree, it was a very interesting time period, although I clearly haven’t done the research you have. The Time Traveler’s Guide looks great!

    • Naww, I wish I studied it that young. I honestly don’t think I studied it at all during my nearly 20 odd years of education. The closest I came was a Medieval Literature course at uni (which was quite cool – we looked at a lot of the Arthurian Tales, as well as classics like Beowulf). I think that’s why as an adult I have taken to the subject so ferociously haha.
      The Time Traveller’s Guide is a great one – he followed it up with a book called Medieval Intrigue, and I am pretty sure he has written a similar Time Traveller’s Guide on Elizabethan England more recently too. πŸ™‚

      • That’s a shame! Medieval Lit sounds interesting, although I think I would be super intimidated by the language. Or is it less archaic and confusing than I imagine it to be?

        • The language isn’t too intimidating. I mean they’ve translated it of course because the old English was not even remotely recognisably anything we would call English now. A lot of those older stories from that period are in verse still, which I find can get tedious when you’re reading it for long periods of time, but on the whole it’s quite easy to grasp, not really confusing I don’t think.

  2. I’ve just finished a new biography of Thomas Becket by John Guy. I kinda like the focused, detailed histories of individuals I didn’t even know I wanted to know about. Becket is case in point. I’m astounded that enough original source material exists to write a 500 page biography from, in the first place. Isn’t that astounding- 900 year-old letters? Enough of them to create a picture of the man who wrote them or about whom they were written. I’m also astounded that I really really really wanted to read all 500 pages about a man who died 900 years ago.

    Cool post. Thanks.

    • Wow, that is amazing! I think that is the same thing that amazes me, that so much information can be gathered about these people who lived so many centuries ago, enough to make these quite big biographies (the Edward III one is well over 500 pages too). The Thomas Becket one you mention sounds really interesting, I may have to add that one to the list in the near future as well. πŸ™‚

  3. I need to read more history, i really do. I mean i do lots of family history but just working out how people actually lived in the different time periods would be fascinating.

    • There are some great books on different periods of history. My favourite British history book of all time is John O’Farrell’s book “An Utterly Impartial History Of Britain, or 2000 Years of Upper Class Twits In Charge.” It’s just so funny, but quite informative too. πŸ™‚
      The thing with history is…there’s so much of it! I have been studying it for years, reading it for years, and I teach it, but I still feel like there is so much more I am yet to learn.

  4. The book I’m currently reading you would probably find interesting, it’s fiction but it’s based around people and events of the 14th century. It’s called Katherine by Anya Seton and she did a lot of research about 14th century for the book. There is a list of people and books that formed her research as well.

    • Ahhh I have heard of that book actually. It sounds interesting, I might have to add it to my reading list, because I do need to read more fiction set in this period as well, seeing as though I am writing fiction myself – I can learn just as much from fiction as nonfiction! πŸ˜€

    • Yeah the first book is awesome, and I think is interesting regardless of how much or little you know about that era of England! The other two are more if you find yourself super-interested in that particular era, as I did once I learned about all the drama of the first three Edwards.

  5. The Greatest Traitor sounds like something I might enjoy picking up sometime, I too wanted the chance to study medieval English history in university but since I wasn’t a history major I was restricted to the more boring broad sweeping European history classes.

    • Oh, see even European history I would have enjoyed. We pretty much had access to either Ancient History (and then focusing almost entirely on Greek and Roman history), and the Modern history was almost entirely Australian history, with the exception of one course which was an Australian and Canada comparative history. And while I enjoyed these courses, I would have loved to have just studied more of the world. But at least now we can study these things in our own way and at our own pace, I figure. πŸ™‚
      I’ve only skimmed through The Greatest Traitor so far but it does look really good from what I have read, and I have already gained a lot of information from it, so I imagine it will be better when I sit down and read it fully, and take it all in. I want to get to grips with the character of Roger Mortimer because I dare say he had more of an influence over Edward III as a young man, than Edward’s (rather useless) father ever did, despite his obvious loyalty towards his dad.

  6. The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England sounds fascinating; I may have to add it to my TBR queue on Goodreads! Thanks for sharing πŸ™‚

    • It is a good book that one – it’s the sort of book that can definitely spark a bigger interest in the subject area, too (which is dangerous and exciting all at the same time). πŸ™‚

      • Haha! I hear that… that’s OK, I’m constantly adding books to my TBR queue, (I think it’s over 400 at this point) so I’ll have plenty of reading to look forward to over the next few years! hehe

        • Hahaha, yeah I imagine my TBR list is somewhere around that length too (I actually have several TBR lists I am yet to synchronise out of fear). But as you say, it’s nice to know we’ll never run out of things to read πŸ˜€

  7. I absolutely need The Time Traveller’s Guide To Medieval England .I love medieval English history too but never really focused on the subject though. And this books sounds just perfect.

    • That was my reaction when I first saw that book too! When I get around to it I want to buy Medieval Intrigue, which really seems to be a sort of sequel book to the Time Traveller’s Guide. This is a great book, especially to gain a good holistic understanding, as it focuses on that one century but in detail. It’s great. πŸ˜€

  8. The Time Traveler’s Guide sounds fascinating. I always like a more personal take on history. It makes the subject far more interesting and, from a writer’s perspective, gives more of a feel for the time as opposed to those old dry textbooks. I recommended this post to a friend who writes Historical Romance. I’m sure that at some point she will set a story in Medieval England, so she will appreciate knowing about some good history books. πŸ™‚

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