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 England
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 as 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?