• A London Student

Inspiring books about impressive individuals

Updated: Nov 15, 2020

01

Here be Dragons by Sharon Penman

I first got lent this book by a teacher, and from then I was captivated, about history, about the Princes of Wales, oppressed by English Kings and about the woman in the middle, the mediator. This woman was Joan, Lady of Wales. This book really inspired me, and is an incredible tale, a love story, of power and conflict at at time when one of the most hated and violent kings in history ruled England (King John). But the feat in writing the book was even more impressive; Penman managed to write a book about a character that little is known about, at a time before many of the tools that we can use today, and bring the life of Joan out of the shadows for the very first time in an account which is mostly accurate to this day.

02

The Other Boleyn Girl by Phillipa Gregory

Before reading this, all I knew about the Boleyns was that Anne had become Queen of England, and Catherine of Aragon divorced, so the basic school history. I didn't know about the struggles of the divorce, what Catherine must've been going through and what the general life of court was actually like, all through the eyes of a mysterious figure, a mistress of the king, Mary Boleyn who was caught up in the ambition of her family. This was one of the books that sparked an interest in figures who were always there, but just out of the limelight, or right in the middle and completely forgotten about. It also created another passion: a lifelong hatred of Henry VIII, something that you may hear more of in the future, and will have already noticed from the post 'My Hatred of Henry VIII'

03

Queens Consort by Lisa Hilton

This was a book that I read much later, but was just as important: it gave me an insight to the changing role of a queen consort and the challenges that they all had to go through, right from the first Norman Queen, (excluding Emma of Normandy) Matilda of Flanders up to Anne Neville. Despite all living at different times, they all had one thing in common; strength, only achieved through constant struggle and peril. Something that is very inspiring to us today who suffer much less and have a better life. It sucked me in so quickly, pages upon pages of information purely on my passion and a brilliant overview of Medieval History.

04

Katherine Swynford by Alison Weir

This book is more of a role model to me than anything else. It has been my ambition for a while now to give Joan, Lady of Wales her own biography, but even thinking of the struggle that it will be to do this has been a dampener on my spirit, yet this book is a perfect example of how to take someone who hasn't been a well known figure out of the shadows and mystery. It gives Katherine Swynford, who was a key part of Medieval England, much of the credit is that she is due and shows who she is to the world, something that many people deserve but don't get, and for that reason gets a place on my top inspirations.

05

The Summer Queen by Elizabeth Chadwick

Somewhere on this list there had to be a book about Alienor of Aquitaine (#alienorofaquitane), who may not have been a forgotten figure (which is my ultimate passion) but my awe for her grows with every account and tale of her life that I read. I could've put many books about Alienor in this slot, but this one is slightly different: it is a tale of her life before Henry FitzEmpress (to become Henry II), as a girl and as a woman as the wife of Louis VII of France. As mentioned by Chadwick at the end of the second book in this series, Alienor is often called one of the most powerful women of the middle ages, and a woman ahead of her time, yet a more accurate saying would be that she was a woman of the time, striving to make the most of the circumstances she was faced with and live in a male dominated world, a lesson of endurance of which we could all learn something. It was also this book that got me thinking about recognising these women as who they were, not the anglicised, modernised version of their names; it was Chadwick who used the name Alienor in her book instead of Eleanor.

06

King John by Marc Morris

Now, I can imagine your reaction to having a book about King John on this list, however, I put this on more to do with the quality of the book and pure style of Marc Morris which is very evident in how he portrays and analyses John's reign (also, for anyone who is starting to get a sense of my particular interests, it was nice to hear about the feats Llewellyn Fawr and Welsh history of the time (not so much his defeat at the hand of John in 1211 however!)). So maybe this book is on the wrong list, maybe it should be on a list dedicated to masterpieces or impressive histories, not impressive individuals as the history that unfolds isn't inspiring.... (it could still be called impressive, in the same way that William I was ruthless but a good ruler, John could be seen as 'impressive' even if he was a disastrous monarch!). It does contain information about forgotten figures and inspiring characters as well, as there were many of them at the time, although in a different format to many of the others on the list.

07

Catherine of Aragon by Giles Tremlett

You may have worked out by now that I have an obsession with Catalina of Aragon, but she deserved this biography. I do often get a little bogged down when reading biographys instead of novels about these characters, however, this biography was captivating, focusing on Catalina and Catalina alone (and a bit on Princess Mary but I think that that is allowed!). As a child, I read one book on the Tudors, and basically thought that I knew everything possible... I could not have been more wrong. As I find with most elements of history, the more I know, the more I realise that I don't know, and this book once again proved to me quite how accurate that view was, and opened up new historical paths of intrigue to my map, particularly about Spanish history. As much as I was horrified about finding out about Henry's treatment of Catalina, I was also truly shocked about Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabel of Castile's treatment of the Moors back in Spain (also how Ferdinand and Henry VII didn't care about Catalina enough to back down from the bartering table after Arthur's death).

08

The Black Prince by Micheal Jones

Most people have at least heard of the Black Prince; his death led to one of the only instances in history where the throne has skipped a generation, and gone from grandfather to grandson. This book certainly brought the Black Prince out of the shadows, and while his whole life may not have been inspiring, he certainly acquitted himself well in the early years, earning his spurs as a teenager at Crecy (sorry about the lack of an accent in Crecy) and went on to win the major battle of Potiers just ten years later. A brilliant soldier... But would he have been a brilliant king? That is always the question when it comes to might-have-been-monarchs... like William Atheling, (who drowned in the White Ship with a whole generation of Nobility) like Henry the Young King (son of Henry II and Alienor of Aquitaine) like both Edward of Lancaster (although that is probably a straightforward 'no' to the ability of a monarch question) and Edward V, ( perhaps he is a little different as he was King but never ruled...) and like Prince Arthur (that was a real tragedy). But back to the point... There is a lot of the Black Prince's life that needed uncovering, which has been done successfully in this book

Often lists like these come in groups of five, or ten, but I have stuck with eight, simply because it is different. Now, if I praised Sharon Penman even more in this blog, I would have to rename it 'The Sharon Penman Fan Club', however, let it be noted that I could've easily filled in this list simply using Penman's novels, as they all are about impressive individuals and are definitely inspiring.


And finally, in case you are wondering, the cover image depicts a medieval map, where the unknown sections were marked as 'Here Be Dragons', places such as Wales, hence the book title, and the reason why I have put it up (Here Be Dragons is still my top book)


All books mentioned were:

Here be Dragons by Sharon Penman

The Other Boleyn Girl by Phillipa Gregory

Queens Consort by Lisa Hilton

Katherine Swynford by Alison Weir

The Summer Queen by Elizabeth Chadwick

King John by Marc Morris

Catherine of Aragon by Giles Tremlett

The Black Prince by Micheal Jones


#forgottenfigures #joanladyofwales #alienorofaquitane #catalinaofaragon #thebattleofcrecy #blackprince