Recommend books on the history of Great Britain

I wasn’t sure whether to ask about books about English history, British history, or what.

I’m going to London in a couple of weeks. I’ve been a few times beofre, but usually didn’t have much time to myself. This time I will, and I plan on visiting a lot of museums and the like. The problem is, I don’t know a whole lot about the history of Great Britain, particularly pre-19th century. I have probably picked up a little more than the average American, but that isn’t saying much. I suspect some of the sights and artifacts I’m likely to see would have a little more impact if I understood their place in the grand scheme of things.

So - any good books that will catch me up quickly? I realize this may be a tall order, considering the long history involved, but if anyone’s got some favorites, I’d be grateful for the suggestions.

The Oxford Illustrated History of Britain by Kenneth O. Morgan.

A Shortened History of England by George Macaulay Trevelyan.

British History for Dummies by Sean Lang.

Also, the BBC television documentary series A History of Britain, available in a five-disc DVD set. Your public library may have it, or you can rent it from Netflix.

The series is also based on three terrific books by historian Simon Schama (who narrates the series). They’re highly recommended.

After you finish those you will get all the jokes in 1066 and All That.

Glad to hear that, I bought the three volumes from my book club but haven’t started on them because they were out of stock of the second volume. I also enjoyed the series on the Beeb.

If you’d like a more in-depth look at English history (maybe afer you come home?) Alison Weir has written a set of excellent, engaging books spanning from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Henry VIII. I’m a little over halfway through The Wars of the Roses now.

Winston Churchill’s HISTORY OF THE ENGLISH-SPEAKING PEOPLES … you can stick to the UK parts.

I agree, though, with Dr Fidelius: 1066 and all that is the best short version of English history, with only two dates and a few memorable kings, and it goes right up to the end of history.

Not by anyone outside of England they’re not. His TV series was much criticised as not being so much a history of Britain, but of England, plus mentions of the rest when they were of consequence to England. Scotland vanishes from sight for thousands of years, Wales hardly gets a look in. Everything is related in terms of what it meant to England.

He also managed to refer to Elizabeth I of England as British, and England as an island nation. :rolleyes:

It can’t be an easy task producing a cohesive history of an island that for most of history has not been a unified nation. But Simon Schama certainly didn’t manage it. He should have stuck to what he knows; the history of England and forget the pretence of a British History.

I went recently for the first time. I didn’t know I was going until a few weeks before, so I only had time for the Dummies book mentioned above.

It got the job done. I knew who was who and why certain places were noteworthy.

Well, I’m outside of England, and I recommend it. So there’s that. I was also talking about the books, not the series, and the books do go into Scot and Welsh history a bit more than the BBC-produced screen adaptation, although you are correct - the emphasis is on English history.

Your problem, essentially, is a nitpick. If the books had been titled “A History of England” would you still have a problem? Because you can pretend they are. All it takes is to mentally change one word. You seem to be attaching far too much importance to a trio of history books - they are supposed to be just three books among many, not the final word on British history. I certainly don’t see any pretence here, just some well-researched and extraordinarily well-written popular history.

I don’t consider definitions of nations a ‘nitpick’ in historical terms. A resident of Israel should appreciate this more than most.

Of course not.

Interesting. Are there any other words I should “mentally change” in this history? With this little trick I can get the books to say anything I wish!

I’m not attaching any importance to it, or casting doubt on it’s accuracy or value. Just saying that as a history of Britain, which is what it claims to be, it concentrates on one part to the practical exclusion of the rest.

If anything, this demonstrates the problem the OP faces in deciding which history to read. Every historian has their own take on things, and the history of Britain is long and complex. Any book that tries to tackle it whole is brave indeed.

You might consider Peter Ackroyd’s London: the Biography. Obviously a London centric view of history, but if given thet’s where you’re heading, you might enjoy the more specific references to places/streets/monuments etc that you’ll be able to visit.

I’d have to second Tracy Lord’s appreciation of Alison Weir’s books: I think they’re great (although IANAH). Quite a lot to read before a holiday, though.

I’d go for “This Sceptred Isle”, which gives you the Romans to the Victorians in one handy volume, just right for orientating (!) your historical perspective.

It even mentions the Scots and the Welsh a bit, so that’s alright then.

The name of a nation is hardly a nitpick. The name of a book, is.

Futile Gesture’s comments illustrate the problem of writing the history of a country that has only been unified for around 200 years from the point of view of the dominant partner. What would be interesting would be recommendations of histories that give appropriate recognition of the Irish, Scottish and Welsh contributions to British history.