Gift Ideas for History Lovers: My Top 5 History Reads of the Year

It can be hard to know what to get the history lovers in your life when it comes to Christmas, especially if, like me, they’re interested in more than one period. If you need a bit of inspiration this year, then here’s a list of 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.

Jane Austen Investigates: The Abbey Mystery, by Julia Golding

Whilst this is technically a children’s fiction book, it is well suited for Jane Austen fans of all ages. A teenage Jane Austen turns supersleuth when mysterious goings-on happen at Southmoor Abbey, where she has been sent to be a companion of Lady Cromwell for a week. It’s written in a very entertaining way and is a satirical version of a Gothic novel, full of many hints of the real Jane which will be recognised by hardened fans. It’s also a good way to introduce younger readers to the world of Jane Austen. This has definitely been one of my favourite books and I found it quite hard to put down! If you would like to know a bit more, I recently wrote a review for Love British History, which can be found here.

The Real Falstaff: Sir John Fastolf and the Hundred Years War by Stephen Cooper

This book places the Hundred Years War in the context of John Fastolf, the man Shakespeare used as inspiration for his Falstaff character. It successfully blends military history and social history with the personal life of John Fastolf. It gives you a great understanding of how Fastolf fit in and influenced the world around him until his death in the 1450s, including a focus on the homes he built for himself. All in all, a very interesting read and shows just why Fastolf isn’t recognised enough.

Sitting Bull: His Life and Legacy by Ernie LaPointe

In this book, Ernie LaPointe, great-grandson of the legendary Chief Sitting Bull, tells the real story of his famous ancestor. This is a biography with a difference. It’s written in the traditional style of Lakota oral history. This makes it read very differently to other books, but feels true to the person of Sitting Bull. It also makes it easy to read. Again this is up there with one of my favourite books of all time as it is full of emotion but is also education in the respect it shows just how complicated history has portrayed Sitting Bull. I wrote a review of this earlier in the year, so please do take a look here if you’re interested.

Before the Crown by Flora Harding

This is another fiction book, but this time an adult one. I was recently given this by a friend as a gift, so I would definitely recommend gifting this one. It tells the story of how Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip fell in love during the war and the lead up to their wedding on the 20th November 1947. Whilst this isn’t my usual time period, my friend obviously remembered that I have a personal connection to the Queen’s wedding day as my mum was born on the exact same day. I feel this has captured a young Elizabeth and Philip well and is also a very easy read. This would definitely be a good choice for any Royal fan!

Saving Mona Lisa: The Battle to Protect the Louvre and Its Treasures from the Nazis

Again this isn’t my usual time period, but I read this mainly because I have been a regular visitor to the Louvre, but was unaware of the troubles the museum had had during the Second World War. Whilst this is a non-fiction book, it does read more like an action or thriller story as the museum staff risked their lives to protect the treasures in their care. Again this makes it an enjoyable read and really focuses on the individuals involved and their sacrifices, as well as the personal achievements and recognition they had after the war ended. I recently wrote a review of this, which can be found here.

3 Year Anniversary and Jane Austen’s Bath

This week marked the three anniversary of the blog. I would just to take the chance to thank all the followers, readers and supporters over those three years. It honestly means a lot that people read and love the content I produce. Whilst this is a hobby, history, and sharing it with others, is my passion. I hope you’ll continue to enjoy the stories I write about for many more years to come.

I have some podcast contributions coming up over the next few months, which I can’t wait to share with you. They will focus on my research into the life of Anthony Woodville, which if you’re a regular follower of the blog, you’ll know I’ve been doing for many years now. It’s very exciting and I’m just glad to share his life with people as he is definitely an underrated figure of the Wars of the Roses.

Last week I went on my first holiday since the pandemic started. We went to the lovely Georgian city of Bath. I last went for a long weekend in the summer of 2019, so it was good to spend a bit more time there to explore the area more. The oldest surviving outdoor swimming pool in the UK, Cleveland Pools, is also in Bath. If you would like to learn more, feel free to read a previous post I did on the swimming pool by clicking here.

Bath is famous for it’s surviving Georgian architecture, as well as being the home of Jane Austen for many years after her father retired from his role as Rector of Steventon in 1801. She is the main reason for our trip. We had tickets to take part in the promenade, just one of many events of the Jane Austen Festival. We were due to go last year, but like many other things, it was cancelled. I can tell you though, it was well worth the wait and all the preparation! My sister sewed both of our costumes, other than a velvet jacket I wore. Her effort truly paid off and I think she did amazingly. The route we took was around an hour’s walk from the Holbourne Museum, which doubles as Lady Danbury’s house in Bridgerton, to the Parade Gardens, which over look the River Avon.

Just some of the participants of the promenade, Author’s own image

There were around 300 or more people all in Regency/Late Georgian costume and it was certainly a fantastic sight to see! I would totally recommend visiting Bath during the Jane Austen Festival, which takes place for 10 days, starting from the second weekend in September. If participating isn’t your thing, I would certainly recommend lining the parade route for a look. As many people I know have said, it was like looking at a period drama. We’re hoping to return next year and take part again, also hopefully joining in with the Country Ball where you can participate in some Regency dancing. If Jane Austen is someone you are interested in, I wrote a short post about the significance her writing brought to wounded and fighting soldiers during World War One. If you would like to learn more, please click here.

The last part of my trip I would like to mention is our visit to the village of Lacock. Lacock is a National Trust village that still looks much as it would have done around 300 years ago or more. It’s looked after by the National Trust, but people still live in it. However, it’s most famous for appearing in many period dramas. My favourite ones that have been filmed here are Downton Abbey and Cranford. Most importantly, it played the part of Meryton in Colin Firth adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Lacock Abbey on the edge of the village was once the home of the Fox Talbot family. Henry Fox Talbot was one of the pioneers of photography. He created the earliest surviving photonegative in 1835.

Jennifer Ehle and Adrian Lukis as Elizabeth Bennet and George Wickham in the 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. The village shown as Meryton is Lacock in Wiltshire

To learn more about the Jane Austen Festival and Lacock Village and Abbey, please click the following links:

Lacock Village and Abbey

Jane Austen Festival

Regency Christmas

For a recent job interview, I had to research into how Christmas was celebrated during the Regency period. The Christmas we know today was largely developed by the Victorians and it was interesting to see whether or not Christmas was celebrated differently before then. So, with exactly 100 days to go until Christmas Day, I thought it would be a good time to look into how Christmas was spent during the early nineteenth century.

391503
Samuel Collings, ‘Christmas in the Country’ (1791), Private Collection/Bridgeman Images

The Christmas period was celebrated for a lot longer than it is today. Society was still predominately reliant on agriculture, the Christmas period lasted for a month, from December 6th till January 6th, as it was too cold to be working out in the fields. This meant that it was seen as a season of charity and giving as it was a hard time for the poor who wouldn’t be working during this time.[1] The Christmas season was also one where begging was informally accepted and casual money giving increased due to the understanding that the poor were unable to fend for themselves during this time of seasonal unemployment.[2]

December 6th was a day of gift giving to mark the beginning of the Christmas season, but other notable days of the season included Christmas Day, St Stephen’s Day, which later became known as Boxing Day and most important of all was January 6th, known as Twelfth Night.

Twelfth Night was celebrated in much the same way as Christmas Day is celebrated today. It was a day full of feasting, games, partying and drinking. It was seen as the big blowout to mark the end of the Christmas season.[3] The main tradition of Twelfth Night cake. It is seen as the traditional precursor to the present-day Christmas cake.[4] It was made from the leftovers of all the puddings eaten over the Christmas period and was elaborately decorated with icing and figurines.[5] As Twelfth Night was celebrated by whole households the cake was shared by everyone.[6] Both a dried pea and dried bean were placed into the cake and whoever found them would be the King and Queen for the day, no matter what social standing they had normally.[7]

Wassail was the traditional drink that was consumed over the period and was a form of mulled punch.[8] It was traditionally consumed in a large bowl called the wassail bowl which was drunk from by all (as seen in the above image).[9] It was this specific Christmas tradition that was blamed on creating disorder and revelry at a time when merry making should not be allowed to turn into promiscuity.[10] It was often passed around by Christmas carollers in exchange for food or small amounts of money. I recently first tasted this at a Maritime festival where tasters of it were being passed around. It has a rather strong taste and it’s no wonder why people associated it with drunkenness!

Decorations were always put up on Christmas Eve as it was deemed as unlucky to put them up before then. A yule log was chosen that would be big enough to burn for the whole season. A part of it was always kept to help light next year’s one too. The main theme of decoration was always evergreen and holly, but kissing balls were made from different materials, including mistletoe, ivy, spices, candles and ribbons. All of these had to be down and burned after Twelfth Night to avoid bad luck for the rest of the year.[11]

The thing I find the most intriguing about how Christmas was celebrated during the early nineteenth century is how contemporary issues influenced it. Between 1780 and 1815, Christmas was thought to have been in a downward spiral due to the horrors of the French Revolution and the subsequent wars with the French meant that people couldn’t afford to celebrate the season as well as they had done previously.[12] Fears rose of Christmas traditions fading with the increase of industrialisation, despite it being was seen as a symbol of English identity.[13] And yet, Christmas also had its critics, for the drunkenness and revelry associated was seen as a threat to order.[14] Yet, the Regency period was the last time Christmas was celebrated for an extended period because industrialisation would soon end the rural way of life.[15]

[1] Ratcliffe, J., ‘An 18th-Century Christmas’, http://www.julieratcliffe.co.uk/an-eighteenth-century-christmas/

[2] Hitchcock, T., ‘Begging on the Streets of Eighteenth-Century London’, Journal of British Studies, 44.3 (2005), p. 485.

[3] Johnson, B., ‘A Georgian Christmas’, https://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK/A-Georgian-Christmas/

[4] Johnson, B., ‘A Georgian Christmas’, https://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK/A-Georgian-Christmas/

[5] Early Modern England, December 22nd 2013 http://www.earlymodernengland.com/2013/12/georgian-christmas-an-eighteenth-century-celebration/; Leach, H. M. and Inglis, R., ‘The Archaeology of Christmas Cakes’, Food and Foodways, 11.2-3 (2003), p. 146; Shaughnessy, J., ‘Leftover Cake and the First Christmas Tree: A Georgian Christmas’, https://blog.findmypast.co.uk/a-georgian-christmas-dinner-1503656888.html

[6] Early Modern England, December 22nd 2013 http://www.earlymodernengland.com/2013/12/georgian-christmas-an-eighteenth-century-celebration/

[7] Ratcliffe, J., ‘An 18th-Century Christmas’, http://www.julieratcliffe.co.uk/an-eighteenth-century-christmas/

[8] Johnson, B., ‘A Georgian Christmas’, https://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK/A-Georgian-Christmas/

[9] Shaughnessy, J., ‘Leftover Cake and the First Christmas Tree: A Georgian Christmas’, https://blog.findmypast.co.uk/a-georgian-christmas-dinner-1503656888.html

[10] Connelly, M., Christmas: A History (London: I.B. Tauris & CO LTD, 2012), p. xii.

[11] Johnson, B., ‘A Georgian Christmas’, https://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK/A-Georgian-Christmas/

[12] Connelly, M., Christmas: A History, p. 6.

[13] Connelly, M., Christmas: A History, pp. 9-10 and 15.

[14] Mattern, J., Celebrate Christmas (New York: Enslow Publishing Inc, 2012), p. 24.

[15] Johnson, B., ‘A Georgian Christmas’, https://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK/A-Georgian-Christmas/