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6 Must-Read Books About British History

By August 25, 2017Literature

As with our previous article focussed on the history of America, this list of historical non-fiction offers a no-holds-barred look at what made the UK what it is today.

Contrary to what many of us were taught in school, British history was not all glory and pride… Much of what made us ‘great’ was built upon the backs of oppressed and disenfranchised innocents. From well before the ‘Great Roman Empire’ to the ‘Great British Empire’ and beyond, British history is both fascinating and horrifying in equal measure.

Let us not forget what this country was built upon, and let us always remember why threads of racial and class prejudice still run through our societies today.

The following list would be a great start for any budding historian intent on having a honest and true account of how Great Britain became the mixing pot of cultures and communities it is today.




“British history is traditionally regarded as having started with the Roman Conquest. But this is to ignore half a million years of prehistory that still exert a profound influence. Here Francis Pryor examines the great ceremonial landscapes of Ancient Britain and Ireland – Stonehenge, Seahenge, Avebury and the Bend of the Boyne – as well as the discarded artefacts of day-to-day life, to create an astonishing portrait of our ancestors. This major re-revaluation of pre-Roman Britain, made possible in part by aerial photography and coastal erosion, reveals a much more sophisticated life in Ancient Britain and Ireland than has previously been supposed.”

“The complete set of all three paperback volumes of Simon Schama’s compelling history of Britain. ‘History clings tight but it also kicks loose’ writes Simon Schama at the outset of his epic three-volume journey into Britain’s past. Disruption as much as persistence is its proper subject. So although the great theme of British history seen from the twentieth century is endurance, it’s counterpoint seen from the twenty-first must be alteration. Change – sometimes gentle and subtle sometimes shocking and violent – is the dynamic of Schama’s unapologetically personal, grippingly written history, especially the changes that wash over custom and habit, transforming our loyalties. From early England and the Tudors through the British Wars of the 17th century to the rise and fall of the British Empire, award-winning historian Simon Schama illuminates British history through a variety of historical themes and key British characters.”

“In this first full-scale treatment of Britain’s relationship with the surrounding oceans, Glen O’Hara examines the history of British people’s maritime lives and, in turn, the formation of British cultural identities. A lens through which to view British life, Britain and the Sea spans more than 400 years, beginning in 1600 and taking us through to the present day. Tying together every aspect in the development of Great Britain, from state formation, industrialization and modernization, through to histories of transport, migration, slavery, warfare and crime, this book illustrates how the rich tapestry of Britain’s narrative was decided not among the fields of the ‘green and pleasant land’, but out at sea.”

“Drawing on new genealogical research, original records, and expert testimony, Black and British reaches back to Roman Britain, the medieval imagination, Elizabethan ‘blackamoors’ and the global slave-trading empire. It shows that the great industrial boom of the nineteenth century was built on American slavery, and that black Britons fought at Trafalgar and in the trenches of both World Wars. Black British history is woven into the cultural and economic histories of the nation. It is not a singular history, but one that belongs to us all. Unflinching, confronting taboos and revealing hitherto unknown scandals, Olusoga describes how the lives of black and white Britons have been entwined for centuries.”

“In the eighteenth century, India’s share of the world economy was as large as Europe’s. By 1947, after two centuries of British rule, it had decreased six-fold. The Empire blew rebels from cannon, massacred unarmed protesters, entrenched institutionalised racism, and caused millions to die from starvation. British imperialism justified itself as enlightened despotism for the benefit of the governed, but Shashi Tharoor takes demolishes this position, demonstrating how every supposed imperial ‘gift’ – from the railways to the rule of law – was designed in Britain’s interests alone. He goes on to show how Britain’s Industrial Revolution was founded on India’s deindustrialisation, and the destruction of its textile industry. In this bold and incisive reassessment of colonialism, Tharoor exposes to devastating effect the inglorious reality of Britain’s stained Indian legacy.”

“Pauperland is Jeremy Seabrook’s account of the mutations of poverty over time, historical attitudes to the poor, and the lives of the impoverished themselves, from early Poor Laws till today. He explains how in the medieval world, wealth was regarded as the greatest moral danger to society, yet by the industrial era, poverty was the most significant threat to social order. How did this change come about, and how did the poor, rather than the rich, find themselves blamed for much of what is wrong with Britain, including such familiar-and ancient-scourges as crime, family breakdown and addictions? How did it become the fate of the poor to be condemned to perpetual punishment and public opprobrium, the useful scapegoat of politicians and the media? Pauperland charts how such attitudes were shaped by ill-conceived and ill-executed private and state intervention, and how these are likely to frame ongoing discussions of and responses to poverty in Britain.”




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