Great Books For History Lovers
My love of history grew out of my love of reading. I can’t tell you the last time I read a book — fiction or non — that was set after 1960. Actually, the majority of what I read is set decidedly earlier, too, in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. My particular interest focuses on European and American history, for both historical fiction and non-fiction. Therefore, my suggestions here are centered in these regions. Bookmark this page for a list of some of the best fiction books for history lovers!
Must Read Historical Fiction Books
Atonement by Ian McEwan
Ian McEwan’s symphonic novel of love and war, childhood and class, guilt and forgiveness provides all the satisfaction of a brilliant narrative and the provocation we have come to expect from this master of English prose.
With beautiful writing and heart-wrenching twists of fate, Ian McEwan’s Atonement is a haunting account of life during World War II. Delving into issues of class and childhood trauma, Atonement is at once a historical novel and utterly timeless.
The Agincourt Bride by Joanna Hickson
Her beauty fuelled a war. Her courage captured a king. Her passion would launch the Tudor dynasty. When her own first child is tragically still-born, the young Mette is pressed into service as a wet-nurse at the court of the mad king, Charles VI of France. Her young charge is the princess, Catherine de Valois, caught up in the turbulence and chaos of life at court.
I listened to Joanna Hickson’s The Agincourt Bride as an audiobook in a matter of days. It was a quick and fascinating listen, with well-developed characters and thoughtful writing. Hickson covers an earlier era than many of the other popular historical fiction writers, which makes this novel extra interesting to me.
The Confessions of Catherine de Medici by C.W. Gortner
The truth is, not one of us is innocent. We all have sins to confess. So reveals Catherine de Medici, the last legitimate descendant of her family’s illustrious line. Expelled from her native Florence, Catherine is betrothed to Henri, son of François I of France. In an unfamiliar realm, Catherine strives to create a role for herself through her patronage of the famous clairvoyant Nostradamus and her own innate gift as a seer.…
I came across this novel around the time I discovered Reign. Intrigued by Catherine de Medici, both because of Megan Follow’s portrayal as well as her Italian roots, C.W. Gortner’s novel The Confessions of Catherine de Medici basically called my name.
A relatively quick read, this is a great option if you want a bit of a historical fiction primer on the queen without the density of a non-fiction text.
The Constant Princess by Philippa Gregory
“In her addictive new novel, [Gregory] turns her eye to Katherine of Aragon, a princess who became Queen of England — all by dint of a well-kept secret.” — Marie Claire
While often critiqued for historical inaccuracies in her writing, Philippa Gregory is a bestselling author for a reason. Her writing is interesting, entertaining, and based in a clear passion for history.
The Constant Princess was one of the first historical novels of Gregory’s that I read, and it remains one of my favorites. Before this, I hadn’t had much interest in or knowledge about Katherine of Aragon beyond her replacement by Anne Boleyn as Queen of England. Gregory manages to create an entirely lifelike and human portrayal of Katherine, giving the reader a glimpse into the tumultuous Tudor court through Katherine’s watchful eyes.
Katherine of Aragon, the True Queen by Alison Weir
Bestselling author and acclaimed historian Alison Weir takes on what no fiction writer has done before: creating a dramatic six-book series in which each novel covers one of King Henry VIII’s wives. In this captivating opening volume, Weir brings to life the tumultuous tale of Katherine of Aragon, Henry’s first, devoted, and “true” queen.
Alison Weir is one of my favorite non-fiction historical writers, so it’s no surprise that I also enjoy her works of fiction.
Weir tends to focus on Medieval royal women, particularly in the Tudor era. Katherine of Aragon, The True Queen is a great starting point for anyone looking to learn more about the wives of Henry VII through a historical fiction lens.
The King’s Witch by Tracy Borman
“A story weaved around real-life characters by an acclaimed historian . . . Vivid . . . Everything you would want to read in a novel, ranging from palatial royals and intrigues to betrayals to a love story . . . Knowledgeable and entertaining.” — Washington Book Review, “Essential Novels for This Summer”
A historian like Wier, Tracy Borman brings years of historical experience to her writing.
Borman is currently England’s joint Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces and Chief Executive of the Heritage Education Trust. Her extensive knowledge and academic ability is readily apparent in The King’s Witch, a winding tale about a young healer woman in James I’s English Court.
If you are looking for detail about everyday life in the years following Elizabeth I’s death, The King’s Witch is for you. This one get’s bonus points because it’s part of a trilogy, so there’s even more to enjoy!
Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey by Fiona Countess Of Carnarvon
The real-life inspiration and setting for the Emmy Award-winning Downton Abbey, Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey tells the story behind Highclere Castle and the life of one of its most famous inhabitants, Lady Almina, the 5th Countess of Carnarvon.
After a recent re-watch of Downton Abbey, I was reminded of this great historical read I devoured a few years back. Technically, this is a biography and is considered non-fiction, but it reads like fiction so I’ll leave it in this round up.
If you’re a fan of Downton Abbey, or you are just interested in what life was like in a sprawling English estate, then Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey by Fiona Countess Of Carnarvon is a great option. Plus, it’s really interesting to read about the family’s ties to the Egyptian pyramid tomb excavations.
The Lady of the Rivers by Philippa Gregory
“The ethereal magic threaded throughout the story. . . .contrasts nicely with the power politics.” — Booklist
If you liked Starz’ The White Queen and The White Princess, then I highly recommend Philippa Gregory’s The Lady of the Rivers.
This particular novel follows the life of Elizabeth Woodville’s mother, Jacquetta, Duchess of Bedford. Jacquetta’s upbringing, her mythical ties to the river goddess Melusina, her relationship with the ill fated Joan of Arc, and her ascension through English royalty are fascinating.
Gregory really plays up the water goddess relation in this novel, as well as the practice of alchemy and other such mystical craft. It makes me very interested to read more non-fiction on Jacquetta.
The Last Kingdom (Saxon Tales Series 1) by Bernard Cornwell
This is the exciting – yet little known – story of the making of England in the ninth and 10th centuries, the years in which King Alfred, his son and grandson defeated the Danish Vikings who had invaded and occupied three of England’s four kingdoms.
As a huge fan of The Last Kingdom, Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Tales Series has been on my to-be-read list for some time. I’ve only just started it, but am already really enjoying it, so I’m sharing it here as well.
The series follows Uhtred, a dispossessed early Middle Ages nobleman, raised by the Danish Vikings. It covers the reign of Alfred the Great, and Uhtred’s relationship with the early English monarch and developing state.
Like the Tracy Borman recommendation above, Cornwell’s Saxon Tales Series has the added benefit of quantity as well as quality. There are 13 books in the series. Better get reading!
My Antonia by Willa Cather
“No romantic novel ever written in America, by man or woman, is one half so beautiful as “My Ántonia.”” — H.L. Mencken
Not a traditionally historical fiction read, My Ántonia is a mainstay of early 20th century American literature. It covers the Bohemian immigration story of Ántonia Shimerda, who arrives in Nebraska with her family near the end of the 19th century.
Typically, My Ántonia is considered part of Cather’s “Prairie Trilogy,” three novels that are linked thematically, rather than by characters.
The Other Queen by Philippa Gregory
“Mary’s hell-bent assuredness combines deliciously with brisk chapt ers and rich historical detail. Indulge.” — People
I am fascinated by all things Mary Stuart, so this was one of my earliest Philippa Gregory reads. The Other Queen illustrates the doomed Scottish queen’s years of captivity in England at the hand of her cousin, Elizabeth I.
The novel is told in first person, rotating between characters — Mary and her two “hosts” (read: jailers), George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, and his wife, Bess of Hardwick.
The novel is definitely sensationalized, but entertaining historical fiction nonetheless. It is interesting to read into the characters’ thoughts, even if they are largely speculative.
The Outlander Series by Diana Gabaldon
This stunning blend of historical romance and time traveling adventure has captured the hearts of millions of readers around the world and catapulted author Diana Gabaldon to the top of the New York Times best seller list. Outlander introduces an exhilarating world of heroism and breathtaking thrills as one woman is torn between past and present, passion and love.
Of course, I couldn’t create a list of books for history lovers without including Outlander!
This time traveling romance is a genre defying read that blends history, romance, and science fiction. All the while, though, it really manages to retain it’s…reality, in a strange way?
Outlander follows the story of Claire Randall, former British combat nurse who finds herself transported through time into the 18th century Scottish Highlands. I invite you to read more about the series in my FAQ post here.
The Paris Wife by Paula McLain
“A beautiful portrait of being in Paris in the glittering 1920s–as a wife and as one’s own woman.” — Entertainment Weekly
The Paris Wife follows the romance of Ernest Hemingway and his wife Hadley through a whirlwind courtship, wedding, and cross-Atlantic relocation. The couple is swept up into Paris during the 1920s Jazz Age with cameos from other famous names in the era, such as Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
The novel illustrates the growing pains of the relationship, and emphasizes Hadley’s attempts to retain her sense of self alongside Hemingway.
Shadow on the Crown by Patricia Bracewell
Based on real events recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Shadow on the Crownintroduces readers to a fascinating, overlooked period of history and an unforgettable heroine whose quest to find her place in the world will resonate with modern readers.
Shadow on the Crown, the first in a trilogy that follows Emma of Normandy as she leaves France for England in 1002, is an entertaining and robust tale.
The novel is based on recorded events from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. If you’re interested in The Last Kingdom or the Saxon Tales from Bernard Cornwell, this is a great title to add to your list.
Available through Amazon.
Three Sisters, Three Queens by Philippa Gregory
“Nobody shines a light on the women of Tudor history like Philippa Gregory… Meticulously researched and deeply entertaining, this story of betrayal and divided loyalties is Gregory on top form.” — Good Housekeeping (UK)
Three Sisters, Three Queens was my first Philippa Gregory novel, and I really enjoyed the Audible audiobook (more on that here).
This particular historical fiction book deals with three important women in the Tudor dynasty and is set in the years immediately following the Wars of the Roses. The book follows Katherine of Aragon, Mary Tudor, and Margaret Tudor. The former was the first wife of Henry VIII and the latter two were his sisters.
Gregory does a masterful job weaving the lives of these three women together. By the end of it, you will feel as if you know them all personally.
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
“Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is a startling achievement, a brilliant historical novel focused on the rise to power of a figure exceedingly unlikely, on the face of things, to arouse any sympathy at all . . . . This is a novel too in which nothing is wasted, and nothing completely disappears.” –Stephen Greenblatt, The New York Review of Books
Hilary Mantel is a world maker when it comes to the court of Henry VIII. This novel — and series — is dense with detail. But that density is absolutely fascinating.
Mantel captures in incredible detail the rise and fall of Tomas Cromwell, left-hand man to King Henry VIII, throughout the Wolf Hall Trilogy (whose execution anniversary happens to have been the day that I was writing this round up).
Wolf Hall is the first book in the series. It covers many of the key players in the Henrician court, including Anne Boleyn, Thomas More, and Jane Seymour. It also served as the basis for the 2019 Masterpiece Classics Wolf Hall miniseries, with the indomitable Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn.
Do you have a favorite historical fiction book that isn’t on this list?
Let me know in the comments!
*This Books for History Lovers list was originally published on July 28, 2021. It was most recently updated on May 2, 2022.