There are few time periods as fascinating as the Middle Ages, and thanks to some imaginative and talented authors, immersing yourself into the medieval world is as simple as picking up an historical novel. But which titles are worth the read? Below, are 30 great historical novels about the Middle Ages that you can be sure are both endlessly interesting and wildly entertaining.
There is a good reason why Bernard Cornwell has been declared the “reigning king of historical fiction” (USA Today). After all, he is the author of two books on our list of great historical novels about the Middle Ages. In Agincourt Cornwell reimagines the epic battle in which Henry V of England defeated the French with English determination and the debut of the longbow.
The Archer’s Tale
The Archer’s Tale kicks off Bernard Cornwell’s bestselling Grail Series. The book introduces a young archer named Thomas and his harrowing survival of a brutal raid on his village. We follow his journey through France and the Holy Land on his search for the Holy Grail.
Blood and Beauty
Author Sarah Dunant is best known for her books about the Italian Renaissance. But her novel Blood and Beauty proves Dunant is just as appealing with medieval matters. Blood and Beauty is the story of the infamous Borgias: Cardinal Rodrigo, who buys his way into the papacy of the Catholic Church; Cesare, Rodrigo’s intelligent, but cold, son; and Lucrezia, the daughter tragically used as a political pawn.
The Cathedral of the Sea
Ildefonso Falcones’ The Cathedral of the Sea is often called the Spanish The Pillars of the Earth. This international bestseller is set in Barcelona during the 14th century. It tells the story of Arnau Estanyol, who comes to Barcelona in an attempt to gain his freedom. Arnau joins the powerful stone-workers guild and contributes his skills to the construction of the titular cathedral. Things become complicated, however, when Arnau falls in love with a forbidden woman and is called in front of the inquisitors.
Company of Liars
In Company of Liars, author Karen Maitland brings to life the dangerous and terrifying world of England in 1348. Nine travelers, brought together by nothing more than chance and luck, each have something to hide. Part Canterbury Tales and part The Decameron, Company of Liars is an edge-your-seat medieval mystery with a thrilling ending.
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court
Mark Twain’s classic A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is one of the best known, and most beloved, historical novels about the Middle Ages. It was also one of the first books to explore the concept of time traveling. When a typical Connecticut yankee is hit in the head during a brawl, he wakes up to find himself in the court of King Arthur. Over the course of an entertaining and humorous plot, the yankee attempts to industrialize and Americanize 6th-century England.
The Greatest Knight
William Marshal is a poor knight for whom nothing is going quite right. William saves the life of Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine and is appointed tutor to Prince Henry, the volatile heir to the English throne. Suddenly a royal favorite, William must navigate a difficult world in which danger and jealousy are commonplace, in order to solidify his career and bring honor to himself and his family. Marshal, who actually existed, has been nicknamed “The Greatest Knight” by historians. He’s thought to have inspired the character of Launcelot in the King Arthur legend.
Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press effectively ended the Middle Ages and ushered in the Renaissance. In Gutenberg’s Apprentice, debut novelist Alix Christie brings to life the entire story with fantastic detail. The novel switches perspectives, from Gutenberg himself to the youthful Peter Schoeffer, the son of Gutenberg’s resentful financier. Gutenberg struggles to overcome mechanical difficulties and takes on the Catholic Church. Peter finds himself stuck between his actual father and the inspiring father figure for whom he works.
The Harrowing, by historical fiction novelist James Aitcheson, takes place during the little-known “Harrowing of the North.” This is when the newly crowned William the Conquerer brutally put down a violent rebellion in Northumbria. Perhaps inspired by The Canterbury Tales, Aitcheson tells his tale from the perspectives of five Harrowing survivors who must band together to survive. The book is wildly entertaining. Readers who value historical accuracy are sure to appreciate the author’s careful attention to detail.
Set in 14th century Britain, Katherine is the story of Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt, the two royals who produced the vast majority of England’s royal family. Author Anya Seton is a great writer who paints vivid images of a time period often ignored by historical novelists. Though it’s a sweeping love story, Katherine features medieval staples like Geoffrey Chaucer, the Black Death, knights in battle, and Edward III and the rest of the Plantagenets.
Norwegian writer and Nobel laureate Sigrid Undset brings to life this epic tale of a passionate young woman living in 14th-century Norway. The titular Kristin breaks tradition when, as a student at a convent school, she falls in love with the charming Erlend Nikulaussøn. Against everyone’s wishes, Kristin and Erland marry, and the novel follows their tumultuous life together in an era and place that is both fascinating and harrowing.
The Lady and the Unicorn
In The Lady and the Unicorn, bestselling author Tracy Chevalier weaves a fascinating tale around the famous medieval tapestries known by the same name. Rooted in fact, but mostly fiction, Chevalier’s story follows the six mysterious tapestries, from their commission by a French nobleman, to their arrogant designer Nicolas des Innocents, and finally to the Brussels workshop where they were carefully woven. With each step of their evolution, Chevalier brings to life Europe in the 1490s and reveals the most intimate secrets of these world-famous, real-life tapestries.
Susan Fraser King
Readers can immerse themselves in 11th century Scotland in this great historical novel about the Middle Ages. Author Susan Fraser King reimagines the story of Lady Rue, the last female descendent of Scotland’s royal family, as she is forced to marry a warlord named Macbeth. Rue must learn to navigate marriage, motherhood, and treacherous Scotland as she faces challenges like Viking invasions, Saxon threats, and the terrifying ambition of her husband.
The Long Ships
Frans G. Bengtsson
Red Orm, the plucky hero in Frans Gunnar Bengtsson’s The Long Ships, is only a child when he’s kidnapped by the Vikings. He’s taken by the Spanish Moors, escapes to Ireland, and helps to overthrow the king of England by the time he’s finally able to return home to his native Denmark. But returning home isn’t as simple as Orm might have expected. Historical fiction fans will love Bengtsson’s adventure-packed novel, and unique view of early Medieval Europe.
Mistress of the Art of Death
Fans of mysteries are sure to love Ariana Franklin’s Mistress of the Art of Death. This national bestseller follows Adelia, a female forensics expert living in medieval Cambridge, England. Adelia is summoned by King Henry II to investigate a series of brutal murders. She must outwit some of the most powerful figures of her time in order to save a local Jewish population which has been wrongly implicated.
Barry Unsworth’s Morality Play is another medieval mystery that is sure to capture the imaginations of modern readers. This national bestseller follows a small drama troupe through rural England. The troupe decides to break tradition and reenact the events of a recent murder, rather than a more religious play as expected of them. They find themselves stuck in the middle of a powerful political feud.
The Name of the Rose
The Name of the Rose has become a modern-day classic. It takes place in a wealthy Italian monastery in 1327. The novel opens with the news that a number of the monastery’s brothers are suspected of heresy. As soon as Brother William of Baskerville arrives to investigate, there is a series of strange deaths. To solve the many mysteries that have occurred, Brother William collects evidence and translates secret ciphers. He uses his vast knowledge of Aristotle’s logic, Aquinas’s theology, Roger Bacon’s empiricism, and other medieval staples of learning.
The Once and Future King
The Once and Future King is T.H. White’s classic retelling of the legend of King Arthur. All of the story’s best elements are included — Merlyn the magician, knights embarking on grand quests to prove their nobility, forbidden romance, and of course, magic. White puts his own spin on the legend, ensuring a delightful read that belongs on any bookshelf.
The Other Boleyn Girl
Anyone with an interest in the Middle Ages is likely to be familiar with the story of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. What’s less familiar is that Anne had an older sister, Mary, who also experienced a torrid affair with the king. In The Other Boleyn Girl, bestselling novelist Philippa Gregory reimagines the story of Henry VIII from the perspective of Mary. Extending from Mary’s experiences as a pawn being forced into the king’s bed, to the years immediately following her sister’s beheading, The Other Boleyn Girl is an entertaining glimpse the story for which there are few known facts.
Pale Rose of England
In Pale Rose of England author Sandra Worth explores the “what ifs” surrounding one of the Middle Ages’s biggest mysteries: what really happened to the two York princes in the tower? Worth’s novel revolves around the popular theory that in 1497, young Richard Plantagenet — once the heir to the throne of England — returned to the Court of Henry VII as Perkin Warbeck. But rather than experiencing an instant coronation, Perkin is labeled an imposter and charged with treason.
Pillars of the Earth
Ken Follett’s epic Pillars of the Earth is a lengthy book, yet it’s a page turner that reads almost like a movie. The bestselling novel follows an appealing cast of characters over the decades it takes to build a grand Gothic cathedral in the fictional English town of Kingsbridge.
A Plague on Both Your Houses
A Plague on Both Your Houses is one of the titles in Susanna Gregory’s bestselling mystery series involving the medieval adventures of Matthew Bartholomew. A physician during the Middle Ages, Bartholomew is especially skilled at investigating deaths and murder. But when the Black Death hits home, Bartholomew must set aside his recent investigation into a string of suspicious deaths and fight for his own survival.
Donna Woolfolk Cross
Rumors of a female pope have existed for nearly a thousand years. In Pope Joan, bestselling author Donna Woolfolk Cross personalizes the legend about a gutsy young woman who disguises herself as a man in order to be called “Pope.” Though the novel is, of course, fiction, Cross includes all of the major historical arguments for Joan’s actual existence. The result is a fascinating read that you’ll want to explore further when the final page has been turned.
The Ruby in Her Navel
The Ruby in Her Navel, the second book by Barry Unsworth to make our list of great historical novels about the Middle Ages, takes place in the relatively peaceful years following the Second Crusade. When Thurstan Beauchamp, a civil servant of the king, is sent to investigate a conspiracy, his loyalties are tested. Thurstan is an ambitious and faithful member of the king’s court, but reconnecting with his childhood sweetheart may change all of that.
Ismail Kadare’s novel won the Man Booker International Prize upon its initial publication, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that it’s included on our list of great historical fiction novels. On the surface, The Siege recounts the fictional attack on a Christian citadel in the mountains of modern-day Albania by the Ottomans. But dig a little deeper. Kadare has managed to compose a timeless tale about such themes as war, religion, and the crushing ambition of empires.
The Wake tells the story of a barely organized group of guerrilla fighters as they attempt to fight back against William the Conqueror after his 1066 invasion of England. Besides being both well-written and wildly entertaining, The Wake is uniquely written in “shadow tongue.” This is Old English that has been updated and made understandable to the modern reader.
When Christ and His Saints Slept
Sharon Kay Penman
The intriguing title of this novel by Sharon Kay Penman refers to the epic battle between Maude, the Countess of Anjou and rightful heir to the English throne, and her cousin Stephen, who seized it from under her. When Christ and His Saints Slept reimagines their decades-long battle for England, the political string pulling of the many nobles behind the scenes, and the ways in which England burned under the struggle.
The White Queen
Philippa Gregory’s bestselling series about The War of the Roses kicks off with The White Queen. This great historical novel is an enthralling and addictive reimagining of the life of Elizabeth Woodville, the real-life woman who rose from widowhood and obscurity to become the Queen of England. After marrying King Edward IV in secret, Elizabeth finds herself struggling to survive in a world where danger lurks around every corner.
Wolf Hall takes place in 1520s England. It was during the tumultuous point in history when Henry VIII is determined to annul his marriage to Katherine of Aragon, and marry the unpopular Anne Boleyn. The novel recounts the famous story from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell, one of the few people surrounding the king to truly understand the danger such an action would bring about. An international bestseller, Wolf Hall was awarded both the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction.
World Without End
This sweeping epic is the follow up to Ken Follett’s beloved Pillars of the Earth. Taking place 200 hundred years later, World Without End catches up fans of the series with the same town of Kingsbridge and its beautiful Gothic cathedral. Through new characters and a familiar setting, Follett paints an exquisite portrait of daily life, faith, and progress in a time that tends to be defined by greed, warfare, and the Black Death.