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The Best Books of 2021: History

Posted on 3rd November 2021 by Mark Skinner

Whether it's excavating the roots of British folklore with Amy Jeffs, tunnelling under the Berlin Wall with Helena Merriman or waging tank warfare alongside James Holland, bring the past to vibrant life courtesy of our hand-picked selection of the very finest history books of 2021.

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Art historian and printmaker Amy Jeffs brings a fresh perspective to the mythology that flows through Britain for an enlightening, transporting survey of the stories that suffuse our landscape and have shaped its people.
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A deeply fascinating glimpse into the murky world of prehistory, Professor Roberts deftly deconstructs what we can learn from seven burial sites of the earliest Britons.
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The noted archaeologist and author of The Fens takes a meticulously researched journey through British and Irish prehistory through fascinating profiles of fifteen ancient landscapes and the early humans who inhabited them.
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Nuanced and meticulously researched, Traitor King is an unflinching exploration of the dramatic and controversial lives of Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson after his abdication by the author of The Mountbattens.
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This mighty biography of the supposedly dull English sovereign highlights both the turbulence of his reign and the measures he set in place for transforming the monarchy as Ridley offers the definitive portrait of George V.
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£35.00 £31.99
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Roberts' magisterial, revisionist biography of the controversial George III debunks much of the popular discourse about the monarch's incompetence and the nature of his mental state, painting a persuasive portrait of a shrewd and courageous leader.
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From Roman Britain to twentieth-century picket lines, the popular author and broadcaster mines a rich seam of social history in the compelling tale of how coal powered the British nation.
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Vividly evoking all the political turmoil of fourteenth-century England and Europe, Carr traces the life and character of John of Gaunt, the brother of The Black Prince and father to Henry IV, in this utterly compelling work of narrative history.
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Shining a light on Britain’s Dark Ages, Morris traces six centuries of Anglo-Saxon dominance and the transformative effect figures such as King Offa, Alfred the Great and Edward the Confessor wrought on these isles.
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£20.00 £18.99
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Investigating how objects and artworks that speak to Britain’s long historical connection to the Orient have been written out of the national narrative, Manji uncovers numerous fascinating stories ranging from Turkish mosques at Kew Gardens to Persian canon in rural Wales.
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In captivating prose filled with chilling detail, Morgan chronicles the legal history of homicide, showing how killers, victims, lawyers and judges have all played a part in making the UK murder law what it is today.
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A timely and eye-opening piece of historical research, Renton’s unflinchingly honest book about his family’s history as slave owners encourages white Britons to take a long hard look at their country’s imperial past and its consequences for the present day.
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Tracing a path from the Spanish Armada through to the Glorious Revolution via the Civil War and the Republic, Jackson's monumental account of England's most tumultuous century is immersive narrative history of the highest order.
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The acclaimed historian provides an entertaining and accessible tour of the British monarchy from 1066 to the present day, chronicling both the institution's historic change-making power and its modern ability to adapt to changes from without.
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As richly beautiful as it is informative, Hidden Hands’ skill is in bringing to life not only the works that are so essential to our literary and cultural history but the men and women – their quiet lives often unregarded – who created and preserved them.

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Tinniswood follows up his engrossing interwar history of the English country house The Long Weekend with this rollicking, fully illustrated account of how these venerable institutions adapted and survived in a rapidly changing post-war world.
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In captivating prose, Fraser chronicles the events that led Caroline Norton, a nineteenth-century poet and pamphleteer, to become a pioneering women’s rights activist at a time when married women and their children were considered their husband’s property.
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A rollicking history of England in the twenty-first century, All In It Together takes in austerity, Brexit and coronavirus alongside Lily Allen, the Olympics and The Great British Bake Off in a breathless and pacey narrative.
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Combining the lives of famous figures like Shakespeare, Pepys and Bacon with the personal testimony of anonymous Londoners, Lincoln paints a vivid, multi-layered portrait of the capital on the cusp of becoming an urban powerhouse.
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An absorbing new history of the Irish Civil War that brings home both the devastation wrought by the conflict and its troubled and complex legacy in gripping and highly informative prose.
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Chronicling the decades of immense transformation in Ireland from 1958 to the present day and rooting the political to the personal with immense insight, We Don't Know Ourselves is a myth-dispelling, razor-sharp analysis of Ireland's recent past from the author of Heroic Failure and Three Years in Hell.
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Placing female characters at the heart of the action, Higgins deftly recasts the seminal Greek myths as highly relevant narratives for our own age of catastrophe and confusion.
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Examining representations of the Twelve Caesars through over 2,000 years, Beard's beautifully eloquent and stunningly illustrated volume makes eye-opening connections across history.
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Following on from her celebrated podcast Tunnel 29 and drawing from a wealth of Stasi documents and in-depth interviews with the surviving escapees, the award-winning BBC journalist chronicles the incredible true story of a secret get-away tunnel dug under the Berlin Wall in 1962.
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In this authoritative and gloriously narrated history spanning four hundred years, Srathern explores both the city of Florence and the people who gave birth to the Renaissance.
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The perfect history book for anyone travelling to France. Packed with information from the Sun King to Monet, via chateaux and artists’ cafes, this is an adroit whistle-stop tour illuminating the very essence of La France.
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Charting the path of imprisoned female resistance fighters from the horrors of concentration and labour camps to the ultimate bid for freedom through war-torn Europe, The Nine is a powerful testament to courage, resilience and friendship.

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Tracing her life from a happy childhood in Hungary to the harrowing losses experienced in Auschwitz, Lily Ebert’s memoir is a heart-breaking and unforgettable reminder of both the importance of remembering the Holocaust and the incredible power of hope.
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Mixing history, politics and personal stories of the people he meets on his travels, the author of the acclaimed In Europe delivers a powerfully humane, splendid panorama of Europe’s first two tumultuous decades of this century.
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A Belgian writer and performer with a huge following around Europe, Bart Van Loo brings an energy and pace to a rollicking history of the state of Burgundy which incorporates an unforgettable cast of vibrant, eccentric and Machiavellian figures in a riveting dance for power and influence.
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Through the prism of the famous Innsbruck Café Schindler, this immersive slice of family history unspools a compelling panorama of Europe in the first half of the twentieth century and the oft neglected fate of Austria-Hungary’s Jewish population.
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A vivid and deeply researched account of the birth of Germany as a nation state, Blood and Iron maps the era of great social upheaval that had a dramatic and lasting impact on the course of modern history.
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Providing a network of connections between cultures across time, Neil Oliver brings his talent for observing and curating the past to a revelatory and engaging new anthology of personal life stories that reveal a unique perspective on specific historical events.
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With his customary swashbuckling elan, Jones embarks upon a thunderous new history of the Middle Ages that thrillingly chronicles the tensions between East and West that shaped the modern world.
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From the medieval Chinese postal system to the invention of meringues, the podcaster and author of Dead Famous answers fifty historical queries from the public in this riotously entertaining and endlessly enlightening volume.
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An exciting collaboration between the late American anthropologist and renowned activist David Graeber and British archaeologist David Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything radically overturns the enlightenment project, recasting our distant ancestors as socially and emotionally complex human beings, and offers radical lessons for how we might rethink society and our future.
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From the author of the bestselling Chernobyl comes a riveting dissection of the strategies, misjudgments and brinkmanship that marked the Cuban Missile Crisis – four weeks in 1962 that brought the world closer to nuclear Armageddon than it has ever been before or since.
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A timely refutation of the prevailing western narrative of the Ottoman Empire, Marc David Baer’s engaging and original new history explores the rich diversity, cultural legacy, ruthless ambition and bloodthirsty rule of a world-changing dynasty from its roots to its demise.
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Richardson recounts one of the most thrilling stories in archaeological history in bravura style, as a working-class boy-turned-scholar discovers a vanished city, dabbles in espionage and takes tea with all-powerful rulers.
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From the eruption of Vesuvius to the Covid-19 pandemic, Ferguson’s cogently argued volume offers a new way for governments to respond to disaster in a rapidly changing, globalised world.
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From prehistoric wooded habitats to present day luxury furniture, Ennos carves a fascinating narrative of the many ways wood has contributed to human life and culture.
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Charting the events and psychological effects of witch-hunting in a small community of early settlers in 1650s Massachusetts in gripping and thought-provoking prose, The Ruin of All Witches reads like a haunting real-life folktale.
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From Chinese dragon robes to Viking auguries, Findlay traces the fascinating history of fabric across the globe and through the centuries in this addictive volume packed full of remarkable trivia and insight.
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The bestselling author of The Surgeon of Crowthorne and The Map that Changed the World transforms the seemingly-dry topic of land ownership into a panoramic global history that goes to the heart of history, heredity and human rights.
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Impressive in scope and originality and incisively challenging the accepted narratives, Colley’s fascinating global history explores how written constitutions and new modes of governance formed around the world in the wake of mass literacy and mass warfare.
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The author of The Madman's Library presents a consistently surprising, immersive and visually stunning atlas of the worlds of gods, monsters, myth and the afterlife from different cultures throughout time, featuring an array of maps, art works and introductions to the angels and demons of our wildest imagination.
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The master historian of the Second World War produces another nail-biting volume that reads with the pace and style of fiction, this time spotlighting the brutal battle of attrition that secured Malta’s survival.
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The bestselling author of Normandy ’44 recounts the heroism of the Sherwood Rangers, an elite tank regiment blooded in the deserts of North Africa, who played a pivotal role in D-Day and the final months of the Second World War.
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The bestselling author of Talking to Strangers returns with an eye-opening volume that explores a group of idealistic strategists whose well-intentioned plans and technological innovations veered in a new direction after the outbreak of the Second World War.
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From the author of Crucible of Hell comes a remarkable story of improbable heroics and derring-do in the first ever authorised history of Britain’s Special Boat Service which helped to turn the tide of the Second World War.
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From the author of Spitfire and Lancaster comes the gripping story of the Tornado aircraft during the First Gulf War, as numerous aircrews proved their mettle with incredible courage and daring.
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A riveting dissection of Hitler’s greatest strategic mistake and the operation that turned the tide of the Second World War in the Allies favour, Dimbleby examines Barbarossa from all angles with a sweep that is positively cinematic.
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A compelling, unflinching study into the various imperial projects of the Axis powers, Blood and Ruins explores the ambitions of global expansion that played out in the Second World War, rife with crime, barbarity and torture.
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Drawing from previously classified records, diaries and testimonies from the survivors, The Pathfinders charts the remarkable efforts of the men and women who used technical innovation to elevate RAF Bomber Command and helped to turn the tide of the Second World War in the Allies’ favour.
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From Martha Gellhorn to Lee Miller, Going with the Boys is a fascinating group biography of six female war correspondents, determined to unmask the truth and illuminate stories of human interest in the midst of the horrors of the Second World War.
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The author of SAS Band of Brothers and Zero Six Bravo lifts the lid on seven courageous escapes from enemy territory in this thrilling chronicle of wartime derring-do.
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With a meticulous attention to the latest research and fascinating first-person accounts from the First World War, Lloyd explores the conflict on the Western Front through a fresh focus on tactical developments and technological innovation.
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A riveting account of ambition, folly and derring-do, Operation Jubilee uses first-hand testimony, analysis of military strategy and a wealth of archive material to tell the dramatic tale of the 1942 Allied attack on the German-occupied port of Dieppe.
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Turning the spotlight on one of the key figures of the British Secret Service, Helen Fry’s fascinating and deeply researched biography is a revelatory investigation into the life and career of Thomas Kendrick, the Second World War’s ultimate Spymaster.
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