My Top 5 History Reads of 2022

As an avid reader, I usually can’t name all the books I read in a year, but as the majority of them have a history theme, I thought I would share my top five history books that I’ve read this year. It’s a mixture of different periods and some fiction and non-fiction, so hopefully there’s something for everybody there.

To Hell on a Fast Horse by Mark Lee Gardiner

If you are a fan of the Wild West, this one will be for you. It is a dual biography of the famous outlaw, Billy the Kid, and Pat Garrett, the sheriff that shot him dead in 1881. This book does help address some of those myths in an even and balanced way, particularly in terms of the biography of Billy the Kid, that was written by Pat Garrett himself, as it focused on Pat’s motivations behind his writing. It has a very journalistic and easy to read writing style, despite the many names, events and locations that are mentioned throughout. I would definitely recommend this as I found it very hard to put down. You can find a full review I wrote earlier this year here if you are interested in find out more.

The Earth is All that Lasts by Mark Lee Gardiner

I’ll be honest, this book was by far my most favourite read of the year. I was also lucky enough to be given a review copy of this by the author. It was shipped out to me all the way from America. A huge thank you for that too! I think, just like the book on Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett, that this is one of those books you won’t forget reading. This one is another duel biography, but this time of the Lakota chiefs, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. Sitting Bull is one of my favourite historical heroes, so I was very much looking forward to reading this. I wasn’t disappointed in the slightest! It is a very emotive and sometimes uncomfortable read, as it tells of the gruesome reality of how settlers took over the plains. For this reason, as well as it showing the Lakota viewpoint, it is an important read. As I said in my review ‘this is the written equivalent of what Dances with Wolves was for the big screen, in that it very much shows the Lakota viewpoint, which is not shared often enough’. For that reason, I feel this is one of the most vital books to understand the final years of freedom for the Lakota. You can find my previous review of it here.

Black Tudors by Miranda Kaufmann

This book tells the stories of ten Africans who lived in Tudor and Stuart England. Each example shows that whilst they were in a minority, you could find Africans in a variety of different roles during this period. A personal favourite of mine was Jacques Francis, who was a salvage diver for the Mary Rose, the flagship of Henry VIII’s that sank off the coast of Portsmouth. The writing style is incredibly accessible and creates a personal narrative not only for the examples given, but also for those Africans in similar circumstances who can only briefly be discovered in documents such as parish registers. All in all, this is a very entertaining and informative book, which has quite clearly been based on meticulous research. I have written a full review of this here.

A Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley

At the beginning of the year, I was reminded of a book I haven’t read since my childhood by an author who once lived in the countryside of Derbyshire, close to where I live. Whilst this is technically a children’s fiction book, it is well suited for all ages, and is based on real life events. First published in 1939, it tells the story of teenage girl, Penelope, who is sent to live on her aunt and uncle’s farm, once owned by Anthony Babington, an important Derbyshire landowner, who became embroiled in a plot to put Mary Queen of Scots on the throne. The girl manages to move between her own time and the 1580s and even meets Anthony Babington himself. Can Penelope alter the course of history or not? It is a slow starter, but once you get into it, this book does become somewhat all consuming and certainly triggers a lot of emotion.

Julian of Norwich: A Very Brief History by Janina Ramerez

This tells the story of Julian of Norwich, a medieval anchoress who shut herself away in a church in Norwich. It discusses her religious writings, as well as providing context to the times in which she lived. Once again, this is another reread, but I loved it just as much this time as I did before. I first came across this book after the author (a favourite historian of mine) did a TV documentary about trying to find the lost original manuscript version of Julian’s text. Sadly it still hasn’t been found, other than a fragment later edited. The author certainly has a special way of explaining things and making things accessible to an audience and this book is no exception. It is especially good at analysing the importance and legacy of Julian, who is now largely a forgotten figure. In the words of Julian herself, All shall be well, all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.

I know this was meant to be a post about my must read books of the year, but as we are on the countdown to Christmas, I thought I must share my favourite historical themed film to watch in time for Christmas.

The Man Who Invented Christmas:

This film showcases how Charles Dickens really wrote A Christmas Carol, which is now synonymous with how we celebrate Christmas. As a Dickens fan of many years, I must admit I love this film and Dan Stevens plays the author very well. It shows off his eccentricities brilliantly, whilst also detailing the tragic backstory of his time in the blacking factory that Dickens himself tried to hide his whole life. I have always been fascinated by the way Dickens kept note of names and places for his books, as well as how he re-enacted his stories to audiences during readings. The film does show this wonderfully. It also has a fantastic cast, full of wonderful British actors. If you have any interest in A Christmas Carol, or Dickens himself, this is a must watch. I have watched this many times and never seem to bore of it!

The King’s Lover: Motherhood and Sexuality at the Court of Edward III, Guest Post by Gemma Hollman

In this latest guest post, I am honoured to welcome Gemma Hollman for part of a book tour to promote her latest book, The Queen and the Mistress: The Women of Edward III. The book tells the story of the women in Edward’s life, his queen, Philippa of Hainault, and his mistress, Alice Perrers. It shows how two very different women, from very different backgrounds, were able to make their way in the royal court.

Gemma Hollman is a historian and author who specialises in late medieval English history. Her previous book, Royal Witches: From Joan of Navarre to Elizabeth Woodville, was published in 2019. When not working in the heritage sector, she also runs a history blog, Just History Posts, which features many different periods of history.

Being a woman in medieval England could be tricky. Society was run by men, and whilst women could and did have freedom and power, there were lots of conflicting social pressures placed upon them. They should be pious, quiet, affable, submissive, and fertile, but many women were also expected to be clever, able to run an estate or business in her husband’s absence, wise to politics and diplomacy and otherwise be an asset in a marriage.

One part of being a woman which was viewed with the most suspicion was her sexuality. Women were seen as emotional creatures, would-be-Eves just waiting to lead men into temptation and sin. Women could control men with the lure of the bedroom, and so they were seen as a danger. This danger was particularly heightened with the women who found themselves around the king – even his wife and queen.

British (English) School; Edward III (1312-1377); The Queen’s College, University of Oxford; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/edward-iii-13121377-223628

Philippa of Hainault was the wife of Edward III for four decades, and she amply fulfilled her duties as consort by providing a vast number of children and heirs for her husband. But though their sexual attraction was clear, Philippa knew well not to flaunt her sexual status at the king’s side. Her mother-in-law, Queen Isabella, had come under scandal during her effective regency of England for taking a lover, and her potential pregnancy by this man was what ultimately led to Edward III to rebel against her and seize the reins of power for himself. Philippa had seen the damaging effects of a loose woman in power, and she was happy to demonstrate that she did not have undue influence over Edward because of her position in his bed. On one occasion when the couple were travelling their kingdom, they stayed at a monastery. The resident monks were uncomfortable with the king and queen sharing a bed in their religious institution, and Philippa happily agreed to stay in separate accommodation so as not to insult her hosts.

But though Philippa downplayed her sexual hold over the king, she profited greatly from her position as a mother. By caring personally for her children instead of placing them in separate households, she obtained extra lands and income in order to pay for their upkeep. The close relationships she cultivated with her children gave her influence over them and their extended network later in their lives. And even the image of Philippa as mother was used as propaganda in pieces of history. One of the most famous stories of Philippa’s life places her as a heavily pregnant woman pleading at the feet of her husband to spare the lives of the Frenchmen of Calais who had come under Edward’s wrath. The visceral image of a pregnant queen gave Philippa great political currency, and she was apparently able to succeed in intervening in politics in a way that none of the lords of Edward’s council were able to as a result.

Queen Philippa of Hainault begging her husband, Edward III to spare the lives of six burghers in 1347, coloured lithograph (1914), Wikimedia Commons

Whilst Philippa had found a way to carefully navigate the power and suspicion that being a lover of the king entailed, towards the end of her life another woman was to take up this mantle. Alice Perrers was one of Philippa’s ladies-in-waiting and not long after her arrival at court she became the king’s only known mistress. As a young, lower-class woman who was causing the king to sin in adultery, Alice was in a far more immoral position than Philippa. Philippa’s position as the king’s partner was sanctified by marriage and her coronation, blessed by the church, but Alice could not be further from this. Though the couple kept their relationship secret during the lifetime of the queen, it still nonetheless resulted in three children. Once Philippa died, Alice was thrust into the limelight of Edward’s court as he became more open to sharing the place Alice had in his heart.

Though Edward was very much in love with Alice and lavished her with attention and gifts, others were more conflicted by her position. As the only woman who now shared Edward’s bed, powerful men across Europe recognised Alice’s influential position and they were not shy to petition her for help. But many also found her undue influence distasteful. Thomas Walsingham, a monk and chronicler, criticised Alice’s ugly appearance and shameless behaviour as a loose woman, attributing her rise in favour with Edward to witchcraft and good luck.

Detail of Ford Madox Brown’s painting, ‘Chaucer at the court of King Edward III’ (1856-68), depicting Alice Perrers and Edward III, National Portrait Gallery via Wikimedia Commons

As if Alice’s position as a mistress was not bad enough, she had no qualms reminding those around her exactly how she gained her influence with the king. During her downfall and trial in Parliament, the men of Edward’s household described how Alice sat at the head of the king’s bed beside him, and how Edward sometimes seemed to change his mind overnight – a suggestion that a certain woman had entered his bedroom that night and changed it for him. Alice directed orders to the men around her from the same bed that she slept in with the king, and this overt reminder of her sexuality was severely disapproved of. Alice was not ashamed of her sexuality and the power it brought her, and this was brought into sharp contrast with the behaviour of the queen before her.

Ultimately, the womanly behaviour of both women was reflected in their subsequent legacies. Philippa was seen as the ideal queen who never mis-stepped, who blessed the kingdom with her generosity and fecundity, whilst Alice was despised for being a power-hungry woman who used sex to her advantage and had none of the shame and modesty a woman of her time should have. In looking back on their legacies and attempting to find their real stories, we need to remember just how important gender roles were in their reputations amongst their contemporaries – and make sure this doesn’t unfairly colour our modern opinion of them.

For UK readers, Gemma’s second book, The Queen and The Mistress: The Women of Edward III is out now, you can buy it from Amazon. For American readers, the book is due for release in Spring 2023.

You can find Gemma’s site here: http://www.justhistoryposts.com/.

You can find Gemma’s Facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/JustHistoryPosts

You can also find Gemma on Twitter here: @GemmaHAuthor

Robbery of Edward I’s Treasures from Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey has had a long history of royal ceremony and patronage, ever since its rebuilding between 1042 and 1052 by Edward the Confessor. The Westminster Abbey that we know of today was again rebuilt by Henry III in the 13th Century, and it was this rebuilding that made it a place of safety for the crown jewels. A vaulted chamber known as the Pyx Chamber was used to house the royal treasures, including the crown jewels, alongside others belonging to the monks who called the abbey home. This chamber was considered the best place to house the treasury as it was a medieval equivalent of a high security bank vault.[1] With the monks in charge of these precious items, along with many keys to the strong vault doors, it’s easy to see why this site was chosen.

Chamber of the Pyx, Westminster Abbey, London (2012), Wikimedia Commons

However, in 1303, the unthinkable happened; the treasury was robbed and in a most miraculous and somewhat laughable way. The man responsible was Richard Podlicote or Pudlicote. He was a merchant who had previously been working in Flanders before returning to England. He clearly had motive as he had previously been arrested and forced to pay £14 (nearly £10,000 in today’s money) towards King Edward I’s debts in Bruges.[2] Whilst this may sound harsh to us, it was a common right of medieval kings to force Englishmen living abroad to help pay debts.

In his confession, Pudlicote revealed how he had managed to do the robbery. It took him 98 days (roughly 3 months), between Christmas and just after Easter, to dig a tunnel under the abbey grounds.[3] He said he knew where he was going because he had done a smaller scale robbery before, taking silver dishes and drinking vessels.[4] After getting through to the chamber, he spent a whole day deciding what he wanted to take. The items were more than he could carry and so, on his way out under the cover of darkness, he left some of it under a nearby bush, which he came back for the following night.[5]

With the passage of time, we’re not entirely sure just how many things Pudlicote stole, but we do know some of the higher status items he did and did not steal. The crown jewels themselves were left alone, probably because they were too high profile.[6] One item which was possibly stolen as it was reported missing and was never seen again is a crown taken from the dead body of the Welsh Prince, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd after his death at the Battle of Builth in 1282.[7 After being taken by the English, claims began to circulate that this crown had once belonged to King Arthur, who the Welsh royals claimed as their ancestor.[8]

Contemporary image of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd wearing his crown during a ceremony of him paying tribute to Henry III (1267), Wikimedia Commons

Amazingly, the crime wasn’t discovered until early June as on the 6th, Edward I ordered an investigation into the robbery.[9] Perhaps it wouldn’t have been discovered for a lot longer if it hadn’t had been for the pawnshops and brothels the treasures ended up in. The pawnshops in their desperation to be rid of the stolen goods, offered them to nobles and others of high standing. These men were among those who knew about what these goods were and where they had come from.[10] The truth of what had happened in Westminster Abbey began to unravel and it led to Pudlicot, who was found with between £2,000-£2,200 (around £1.5 million pounds in today’s money) worth of stolen goods on him.

Despite being a previous offender, and how long it took him to dig, as well as being in or around the scene of the crime, Pudlicote claimed the monks were not involved and didn’t know of his endeavours.[11] I’m not sure that really adds up, especially as 48 monks were arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London for a brief stay, but they were never formally punished, instead they were released on Edward I’s orders.[12] It seems to be a large coincidence, so there must have been some insider help. Whatever the truth, Pudlicote was sentenced to death in November 1303.

Painting in Westminster Abbey thought to be Edward I (2019), Wikimedia Commons

The theft changed how the crown jewels were kept, something which can be seen right up until the present day. The remaining treasure was briefly placed in the Tower of London whilst the Pyx Chamber was reinforced.[13] In the later 1300s, a new and more permanent home was built in the Tower of London specifically built to house the jewels. Whilst that building is not the building currently used for that purpose, as that has long been lost, it started the tradition of the Tower being the residence of the crown jewels.

The debts of Edward I, which were a major motive for the crime, were enormous. On his death in 1307, they amounted to £200,000, nearly £142 million in today’s money. The amount is so phenomenal amount it’s virtually unthinkable. Considering this, it’s no doubt that the majority of these debts were still unpaid by the time of Edward II, the son of Edward I, 20 years after.


[1] Ross, D., ‘Westminster Abbey Chapter House and Pyx Chamber’, Britain Express, https://www.britainexpress.com/attractions.htm?attraction=4723; ‘Pyx Chamber’, Westminster Abbey,  https://www.westminster-abbey.org/about-the-abbey/history/pyx-chamber

[2] Rouse, R. and Rushton, C., The Medieval Quest for Arthur (Stroud: The History Press, 2016), p. 101.

[3] Rouse, R. and Rushton, C., The Medieval Quest for Arthur, p. 101.

[4] Ashbee, J., ‘Robbery of the King’s Treasure at Westminster Abbey’, English Heritage, https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/chapter-house-and-pyx-chamber/history-treasure-at-westminster/

[5] Ashbee, J., ‘Robbery of the King’s Treasure at Westminster Abbey’, English Heritage, https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/chapter-house-and-pyx-chamber/history-treasure-at-westminster/

[6] Rouse, R. and Rushton, C., The Medieval Quest for Arthur, p. 101.

[7] Rouse, R. and Rushton, C., The Medieval Quest for Arthur, pp. 91-92.

[8] Rouse, R. and Rushton, C., The Medieval Quest for Arthur, pp. 91-92.

[9] Ashbee, J., ‘Robbery of the King’s Treasure at Westminster Abbey’, English Heritage, https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/chapter-house-and-pyx-chamber/history-treasure-at-westminster/

[10] Rouse, R. and Rushton, C., The Medieval Quest for Arthur, p. 101.

[11] Ashbee, J., ‘Robbery of the King’s Treasure at Westminster Abbey’, English Heritage, https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/chapter-house-and-pyx-chamber/history-treasure-at-westminster/

[12] Rouse, R. and Rushton, C., The Medieval Quest for Arthur, p. 101; Keegan, V., ‘Vic Keegan’s Lost London 139: The great royal jewels heist of 1303’, On London, 13 April 2020, https://www.onlondon.co.uk/vic-keegans-lost-london-139-the-great-royal-jewel-heist-of-1303/

[13] Keegan, V., ‘Vic Keegan’s Lost London 139: The great royal jewels heist of 1303’, On London, 13 April 2020, https://www.onlondon.co.uk/vic-keegans-lost-london-139-the-great-royal-jewel-heist-of-1303/