Best Historical Non-Fiction – 16th century edition

My tweep Christopher Leathley and I indulged in a marathon history discussion on Twitter last night, with loads of book recommendations, and that has inspired me to write a blog post on my favorite non-fiction books.

Since 16th century British history is my favorite, I’m starting there.  When assessing these books I take into account the following things: quality of the research, quality of the analysis, readability.  Almost all of the books on this list are so well-regarded they show up frequently in the reference pages of other books on the era, always a good sign.

James V by Jamie Cameron

If you are looking for a well-researched biography on James V, this is the one. There may be others out there that are as good, but I have not yet been exposed to them.

The Life & Death of Anne Boleyn by Eric Ives

It’s surprisingly difficult to find biographies of Anne Boleyn that are both well-researched and offer interesting analysis.  This book is by no means my favorite non-fiction book, or indeed my favorite on Anne Boleyn (because, honestly, I have yet to read a biography of Anne Boleyn that I feel is spectacular), but I found this book to be a useful enough resource that I have a first edition copy in my collection.  I particularly like the fact that Ives is careful to note his attributions, or at the very least the texts on which he is basing his ideas. There are assertions made by the author that I don’t entirely agree with -the available evidence on Anne Boleyn’s early life is quite slim and as a result almost all biographies on her are largely extrapolated. Overall a well-researched biography. I think some of Ives’ conclusions seem over-confidently stated, but for all that this is the best of the most recent crop of Anne Boleyn biographies.

The Boy King: Edward IV and the Protestant Reformation by Diarmaid Macculloch

I’m particularly interested in the Edward IV’s brief reign, and just generally in the Protestant Reformation. When it comes to scholarship on the Protestant Reformation, these days Diarmaid Macculloch is the man (references to his work on these topics literally dominate the field) and this book is a wonderfully well researched.

James IV by Norman MacDougall

Everything I said about the James V book above applies to this one, unsurprisingly as they are published in the same series. I would be quite interested to know if there is another James IV biography that is as well-regarded as this one as I haven’t been up to date on this field for the last five years.

Queen Katherine Parr by Anthony Martienssen

As far as I know, this is the only biography of note on Queen Katherine Parr. I badly want someone to write a brilliant book about her, even more than I want one on Anne Boleyn. I personally think Katherine Parr has been unjustifiably relegated to the rule of Henry’s nursemaid when in fact she played in important role in the politics of the country both before and after his death, was the only one of Henry’s wives to write and publish, and was every bit as impassioned about the Reformation as Anne Boleyn.  I personally think that Parr had far more influence on Elizabeth I than she’s given credit for and I would love to see this topic thoroughly explored.  There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this biography by Martienssen, he’s working on the slimmest of available evidence, but when evidence is in short supply, good analysis becomes even more important and I feel there’s more room in this field for discussion.  (But I am not up to date on academic writing in this area. I’m sure there are many fascinating doctoral theses on these particular subjects.)

The Rough Wooings: Mary Queen of Scots 1542-1551 by Marcus Merriman

Now we’re cooking with gas! I *adore* this book. The period of Edward IV’s brief, minor reign is an absolutely fascinating one to me, filled with a high-drama combination of religious and political upheaval.  This book focuses entirely on England and Scotland’s tempestuous relationship during this period and it is fantastically well researched and written.

The Anglo-Scots Wars 1513-50 by Gervase Phillips

If you are a fan of Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond chronicles and want to know more about the real-life military history that informed those books, then look no farther than this one. It’s a very well-researched book that focuses entirely on the military aspects of Anglo-Scots relations during the mid-16th century (whereas Merriman covers a tighter time period and broadens the scope to include diplomatic relations). If you’re looking for descriptions of the various battles and skirmishes that happened in this period, this is the book for you. Warning: it is absolutely a military history and is very detailed which means it can be… dry.

Elizabeth: The Struggle for the Throne by David Starkey

I don’t always agree with Starkey’s analysis but I don’t think anyone can fault his scholarship. I like this book because it focuses on the time before Elizabeth became queen, an era of English history I find particularly interesting and which is underrepresented in biographies on Elizabeth I.

Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII by David Starkey

I feel slightly resigned by all the Starkey that’s on my list (in fact, almost all of his books are in my collection – insert eye roll here). The truth of the matter is that during a certain era, Starkey’s scholarship was absolutely (if, I think, justifiably) dominant. The quality of his research is excellent and what I particularly like about him is his analysis. I do not always agree with him, but I appreciate how well he makes his arguments. If you have Alison Weir’s book on the same subject, I beg you to give either this or Antonia Fraser’s book a try. I’m going to be classy and refrain from telling you my feelings about Alison Weir’s scholarship and writing. I’m just going to imply them. (And if you’re feeling generous and want to buy me a hardback first edition copy of the Fraser for my birthday, which is on August 18, I would gratefully accept it.)

The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn by Retha Warnicke

Yes. Two books on Anne Boleyn are in my list.  That’s because, as I mentioned with Parr, when the evidence is slim, it’s really important to have different analyses to draw upon. This book is older than the Ives book and has its own flaws of assumptions and overly confident assertions. I wish both authors would have taken more time to debate the merits of the evidence on Boleyn and offered better justifications for their own theories but often that simply does not happen in mass-market style biographies. So far no one (that I know of) has written a truly excellent biography of this most infamous of Henry VIII’s queens. I cannot say that I favor one book over the other, but I will say that if you choose to read either and do not have a thorough grounding in the subject matter or available evidence, take these biographies with a grain of salt. There is simply not enough data to confidently state certain things about Anne Boleyn as fact. Anyone who tells you otherwise is, well, selling you a story.

EXTRA CREDIT: To Be Read Books

Every now and then, when I have a chunk of cash to spend, I invest in my collection. The following books were purchased based on the fact that they are more cited by other academics and mass-market writers than any other books on the subject matter. I have not read them so am unable to provide my own take.

The Chronicle and Political Papers of King Edward VI, edited by W.K. Jordan

Edward VI: The Young King by W.K. Jordan

Edward VI: The Threshold of Power by W.K. Jordan

The Oxford Martyrs by D.M. Loades

The Reign of Mary Tudor by D.M.Loades


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