Historyland’s Top Five History Books from 2018

Once more good people, books flooded my reading list last year in such quantities that at times I found myself swimming in them. In total I think I read one, maybe two books that was not related to research or that I had not been asked to review. My undying thanks goes out to all the wonderful author’s and publicists who have given me the opportunity to indulge in what I love to do. So now I present my five favourite history books from 2017, there’s no particular order here but here they are in the order they were posted.

Isabella of Castile. Giles Tremlett.
‘For its blend of grandeur, cruelty, drama and sheer unrepentant passion nothing can match the history of the Spanish Empire. And it all started with a young strawberry blond Castilian girl named Isabella. This wonderfully produced book will engross you to the very finish’.

The Late Lord. Jacqueline Reiter.
‘The Late Lord is a confident, elegantly written biography, rooted in iron clad fact, rarely ever straying from what cannot be substantiated. I think it also brings to the fore the wider strategy Britain adopted to defeat France. Brilliantly highlighting, at the same time, the life of a man who represents a substrata of British statesmen and aristocrats during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. This book does much to retake lost ground, questioning what has been taken for granted, and bringing a much needed spotlight of unbiased scholarship to a fascinating and tragic life.’

Time Traveller’s Guide to Restoration Britain. Ian Mortimer.
‘Ian Mortimer’s Books are so brilliant. Not because they bring the past back to life, but because they prove that there was once life in the past … The Time Traveller’s Guide to Restoration Britain maintains the high standard of the series, with Mortimer’s usual verve and humour. An eye opening tour that thoughtfully opens up, not a world lost, but a world gone by’.

Koh I Noor. William Dalrymple and Anita Anand.
‘A book that shines in its ability to string together thousands of years of history, involving politics, war, personalities and rivalries into a fluid tale. In many ways parting the mists of myth that surround the diamond. A highly readable, exciting and poignant work, that cleverly tells the history of the diamond and at the same time using it as a vehicle to tell the history of India’.

Tartan Turban. John Keay.
‘This … is a story that is worthy of motion picture treatment. Few lives could have been so heroically flawed and so madly eccentric or so deserving of notice, but at the same time it was a life played in a sort of gaudy, inglorious, undertone, because Gardiner never stepped fully into the limelight in his own lifetime. Happily we now have John Keay’s book to bring this fascinating character back into focus’.

Happy reading in 2018 everyone.

Book Review: The Northwest Passage Overland. E.C Coleman.

Very witty… sometimes downright absurdly ridiculous… exciting and well described. This… tale… of an earnest and enquiringly Doctor, a lazy but courageous Viscount, and their formidable Canadian guides attempting to map a route to the Canadian goldfields will absorb the long winter nights and infuse them with a spirit of old time adventure. Continue reading

Book Review: The strategy of victory by Thomas Fleming.


“solid and entertaining military history of the strategic side of the American Revolution,”

* Hardcover: 304 pages
* Publisher: Da Capo Press (26 Oct. 2017)
* Language: English
* ISBN-10: 0306824965
* https://www.amazon.co.uk/Strategy-Victory-Washington-American-Revolution/dp/0306824965

Continue reading

Book Review: The House of Beaufort by Nathen Amin.

Book ISBN 9781445647647
Book Format Hardback
pages 336 pages
Publication Date 15 Aug 2017


The cover is attractive, and striking. Heraldry on a plain background is a winning combination. The pages are light and the text is relatively small. It has one 16 page section of 40 colour images with an average of 2 – 3 pictures per page, mostly of magnificent castles and buildings and one family tree.

As grand families go, the Beauforts are one of those clans that are always there but never quite steal the limelight. Alongside Plantagenets, Lancastrians, Yorkists, and Tudors they are the supporting character, the means to an end. Without the Beauforts there could be no Tudors.

Nathen Amin has seen this and realised that this family, whose standards are nevertheless prominent in many battles, and whose matriarchs and patriarchs are key players in history and legend, doesn’t often get much more than a background survey in much of medieval scholarship.

By writing this book he has been able to dig deeper, and shows us with an erudite and strong narrative, how the illegitimate son of John of Gaunt began a dynasty that eventually, via a roundabout route, captured the throne of England.

The book covers the latter end of the 14th century up into the late 15th century, the cast is large and changeable, huge and confusing political events loom large. Rebellions, Wars with France, and the big one for England, the Wars of the Roses.

The story is essentially underpinned by a family trying to maintain itself by a diehard defence of the House of Lancaster, and the struggle down to Margaret Beaufort to ensure the family stayed afloat.

For the King’s descended from the house of Lancaster, the Beaufort’s were their most natural allies. The line descended from a Royal bastard (adopt a Sean Bean accent if you will) flourished only so long as the house of Lancaster ruled, becoming Earls, Dukes and Cardinals due to their loyal support. This close connection saw them become inextricably intertwined with the great and good. This also made them prime targets of Yorkist aggression during the Wars of the Roses.

Today people are still obsessed by who the Royal Family is descended from and who they ally themselves with, adding a layer of significance to this examination of the vague vicissitudes of history. All of this is outlined and examined in this stellar biography of a medieval family, itself a window into the way dynastic politics worked in medieval times.

Questions like how strong was the Beaufort – Tudor claim that rescued the family, and the enemies of York from disaster? Is the character of the scheming cardinal Beaufort just another cliche dreamed up by Shakespeare?

Surprisingly but rather pleasingly, the book doesn’t go all the way to Bosworth, although it could. It stops rather naturally with Tewksbury and its grisly aftermath. Because it was here on the battlefield and on the executioners block that the House of Beaufort came to an end. Yet the purge failed to stamp out the spark of Lancastrian resistance held within the veins of Margaret Beaufort’s son.

Where Beaufort ends Tudor begins, and indeed there is a pleasing symmetry in the final words of the book where the author deftly ties up the rich artery of family and national history that he has tapped. It begins with the bastard son of a Duke, and ends with another, this time the illegitimate son of a Beaufort, the cousin to the future Tudor King.

I would hazard that no reader of 15th century English history will want to miss this book.


Book Review: Valentine Baker’s Heroic Stand and Tashkessen 1877. Frank Jastrzembski.

Imprint: Pen & Sword Military
Pages: 202
ISBN: 9781473866805
Published: 12th June 2017


In 1880 there were probably two popular military hero’s in Britain, Chinese Gordon and Valentine Baker, both would die associated with the epithet “Pasha” after their names, and both would die in North Africa. Continue reading

Book Review: Nashville 1864 by Mark Lardas.

Author: Mark Lardas
Illustrator: Adam Hook
Short code: CAM 314
Publication Date: 19 Oct 2017


This is an efficient, fairly standard appraisal of a neglected part of a famous conflict, replete with the mechanics of campaigning, sprinkled with battles rather than being dominated by them. There are interesting photographs throughout. Maps and extensive orders of battle, the main ORBAT section taking up 6 pages. The main battles are covered, as are the main raids. Highlighting a vast selection of unsung hero’s. Most notably the northern officers, who are for the most part all neglected today. All accompanied by some mesmerising original artwork from Adam Hook.

The American Civil War is a fertile ground for examining campaigns proper, instead of just the way battles were fought. It can be said that Battles are small campaigns and campaigns are large battles, in that a campaign is an extended engagement of which general actions form only the terminus or a punctuation. Indeed some campaigns flow effortlessly into field battles without much interruption.

The American civil war is also instructive to the military student in the use of cavalry in the post Napoleonic 19th century. Indeed it shows how indispensable cavalry could be in a wider realm. Here, though they were rarely effective on the field, commanders would rest their plans sometimes entirely on having strong cavalry forces to scout, screen and raid. This is dramatically put on show in this campaign.

John Bell Hood’s attempt on Nashville in 1864 was the last gasp of the Army of the Tennessee, and some think the last gasp of the Confederacy. It saw a bewildering series of engagements and manoeuvres as the battered western army of the South slowly wore itself out to the point that when Union commander George Thomas attacked the Confederates were in no fit state to resist.

The importance of this campaign lies in the “what if”. The author suggests this could have been a game changer for the confederacy if they’d won. Personally I don’t see allot of room for that eventuality in the way it turned out, as General Hood proved unable to move fast enough or with enough success or secrecy to secure his early objectives. Allatoona Pass being a notable example. Nevertheless if for a moment we imagine that Hood did everything right and his opponents did everything wrong, it still wouldn’t have changed the outcome, not alone. However if a victory at Nashville created the opportunity for forces in the east to land a decisive blow, forcing Grant and Sherman out of the south then Lincoln would probably not have survived politically and the war would likely have ended on a matter of terms. You see how many “what if’s” such a scenario requires.

The narrative here isn’t terribly polished, with allot of unnecessary repetition in terms of names and places. It’s also a little light on the use of contemporary quotes, unlike other Osprey titles nowadays, which a replete with short excerpts, this one, although highlighting a particularly interesting source only really uses quotes in a few places.

Adam Hook is a long time Osprey illustrator, his exciting, neat style is well suited to colourful uniforms and panoramas. I always appreciated his work in the books about warfare in America. Of special note are his paintings in the Saratoga campaign book. Recently he’s been illustrating allot of Tactical books, he’s very good at doing birds eye view, mini figure battles. You get to see this here in the painting of the Battle of Franklin, which works a little like an extra map. My favourite, and the illustration that really mesmerised me was the painting of J.B. Forrest retreating from Johnsonville. Painting scenes in the dark is notoriously hard, but Hook has pulled it off brilliantly, capturing a proper moment as union supplies burn like a wild fire over the horizon. That lividly burning cloud, lit by the fires below, helps tell the story.

In sum this is a very efficient and enlightening read, that shines in its effective coverage of a campaign, and the mechanics of campaigning rather than a discussion of a series of battles, with some super illustrations.