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The Best History Books of 2018

recommended by Paul Lay

From female spies during the English Civil Wars to the enduring distinctiveness of Iran, there is much left to be understood about history globally. Editor of History Today Paul Lay recommends the best history books that hit the shelves in 2018.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

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How was 2018 as a year for history books?

I wouldn’t say it’s been a vintage year. You get cycles, and there’s been a fair amount of repetition. You still see a lot of periods overdone while some, like the seventeenth century, are barely reaching a mainstream audience. There’s a lot of talk about global history and there has been some change with more Chinese history, more African history, but in terms of reaching a wider audience, I don’t think there’s been that much.

There’s no shortage of specialist books, but what we look at here—and it’s one of the things we do with our prize, the Longman-History Today book prize—are books that have real scholarly rigour, books that are really serious history, but are well-written and engaging enough that they can reach a wider audience. That’s the Holy Grail, and there aren’t that many books this year that have done that.

There have been a few benchmark books in the last couple of years. Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads was important: it sold a million copies globally, which is absolutely astonishing for a book of that nature and on that subject. You also see people like Mary Beard, Tom Holland and Bettany Hughes reach a wide audience. On the whole there haven’t been many of those kinds of books this year, with one or two exceptions, which we might talk about.

Yes, so which book do you want to start with, which of your choices do you think most fits the bill of that kind of book?

I suppose, when it comes down to it, there isn’t really anyone better than Diarmaid MacCulloch. He is someone who is capable of reaching that Holy Grail of serious scholarly material, but who can also communicate it to a wider audience. He’s done it several times before. He did his history of Christianity and a history of the Reformation. Both are major scholarly books—syntheses I suppose—but what I think he’s absolutely brilliant at is the historical biography.

He did two that really won him followers. One was a biography of Thomas Cranmer, who was so important to both the religious and literary life of this country with his Book of Common Prayer. He was a complex, sometimes quite unlikable figure, but hugely important to this country’s history. Then he wrote what I regard as one of the best history books of the last few decades, which was his Tudor Church Militant. It’s about Edward VI who (at least in the popular view) had been seen as the bit that happens between Henry and Mary and Elizabeth.

What Diarmaid MacCulloch did was refocus on this brilliant intellectual child and his milieu, the people around him, whereby radical Protestantism came to Britain. We can’t really talk about Henry VIII as being a Protestant in any real sense. He remained pretty much a Catholic in terms of his beliefs, despite his battles with the Pope. That’s not true of Edward, who was a militant Protestant and transformed the country in his very, very brief reign. It could never quite return to being the Catholic country it was during Henry VIII’s reign. Although you had the Marian reaction to that and then Elizabeth’s more pragmatic view of religion, those seeds had been sown and they would remain there for centuries. So that was a really important book.

Then the next thing he wrote was this greatly anticipated biography of Thomas Cromwell. Diarmaid MacCulloch was influenced by Geoffrey Elton, who wrote The Tudor Revolution in Government, which depicted Thomas Cromwell as this reformer and bureaucratic genius. I’m not sure if, when MacCulloch started writing the book, he was aware that Hilary Mantel was writing her novels. Suddenly, Thomas Cromwell became a figure that was widely known, perhaps more widely known than he has been for centuries, because of Mantel’s fictionalization of him. So MacCulloch’s book couldn’t have been better timed, because we are now familiar, at least in part, with the story of Cromwell.

Now we have this scholarly but very accessible biography which will be the definitive life of Cromwell for many years to come. It has all the qualities that we’ve come to expect from MacCulloch: it’s rigorous in terms of its scholarship, but it’s also beautifully written and it does, I think, make a change. It transforms the character of Cromwell from this brilliant bureaucrat we saw with Elton into a slightly shadowy figure. Cromwell is a person who is very real in his Protestant faith and conviction, but he’s also given opportunities because of Henry’s crises over succession and a male heir, his serial marriages and adulteries. He seems to navigate between the gaps.

Also, as Peter Cook said about David Frost, “he rose without trace.” He was quite lowborn—the son of a yeoman who was a brewer and a tavern keeper in Putney—although, because of the Wars of the Roses, a lot of the people who were part of the aristocracy were themselves new in that position. So this was a period when a bright young man could make an impact and take advantage of the flux and fracture and fragmentation that was still part of this world. And he was an absolutely brilliant linguist. He seems to have mastered several languages. He was an autodidact, but very well-travelled.

That seems to be part of the reason for his rapid rise—his knowledge of Italy and Italian.

Yes, because Henry is dealing with the church in Rome. He’s also dealing with Francis I in France. England is very much part of Europe, of Catholic Christendom at this time. So it’s extremely useful.

Cromwell rides on the back of Cardinal Wolsey, whom he is loyal to even when Wolsey meets the crisis that ends in his execution. What you see in this ‘rising without trace’ is that people underestimate him. He’s rather cunning. I always think of the famous Holbein painting of Cromwell which is in the Frick Collection in New York. He’s facing a portrait of Thomas More across a fireplace. He’s More’s nemesis, in a way. More looks very confident. He’s totally at home in the robes of state, whereas Cromwell looks slightly furtive, slightly anxious or even paranoid. It’s a brilliant study of the two men.

By the time Cromwell has risen, it’s almost too late to do anything about him. It’s only when his son marries the queen, Jane Seymour’s sister, and he’s given a title, that suddenly the resentment really comes out. Then he’s on quite slippery ground and it all goes horribly wrong between the death of Jane Seymour and the arrival of Anne of Cleves. That’s a disaster for him and he ends up having the same fate as Wolsey, his mentor.

I saw Diarmaid MacCulloch at a talk at Blackwell’s bookshop in Oxford the other day. He said that not many of the letters Cromwell wrote survive, which might also be why he seems a bit shadowy, because you don’t see what he’s written—only what others have written to him.

It’s a real problem. I think about half of the letters and correspondence are available in the National Archives, so considering what a letter-writer he was, there’s an enormous amount that’s missing. It’s a jigsaw puzzle, and Diarmaid MacCulloch acknowledges that fact and is very open about it.

“Even in death, he is loyal to the king.”

It’s brilliant that it doesn’t appear to affect the book. Even though he’s hamstrung in terms of the correspondence, probably the best thing about the entire book is the way he constructs the network Cromwell builds up. Cromwell has no official title for much of this period; he has no specific position someone can point to like chancellor or chief minister—and yet he is able to build this network. This is where you see the genius of bureaucracy, the mastery of information. And, of course, he’s also helped by the fact that we’re living through this period of flux. When the dissolution of the monasteries comes, he suddenly has this vast resource with which he can bribe, or pay people off, or convince doubters to be on his side, to support him and the king. Because he’s also very loyal to Henry VIII. That’s the other thing that you find: even in death, he is loyal to the king.

So on balance, after reading it, did you like him?

I think people in this period tend to choose between Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell, and I’ve always been sympathetic to Cromwell. There is something admirable about this working-class boy made good and one has to admire his skill.

Countering that, he doesn’t seem to be particularly well-liked. Take his relationship with Anne Boleyn, for example: he supports Anne because she is on the right religious side. She is an evangelical Protestant, like he is. She’s part of that circle of young, modern people who seek to transform the country with these new ideas. But she doesn’t warm to him at all, and there’s something approximate to cruelty in the way he makes sure Anne is destroyed. I think it’s always been there in the background, but that’s something that emerges from the book. He’s quite vengeful.

“There’s something approximate to cruelty in the way Cromwell makes sure Anne Boleyn is destroyed”

But that, again, might mirror the paranoia, the furtiveness, the fragility of his situation because he’s a new man. I’d urge anyone who’s interested in Tudor history to read this book because it is magnificent. Like everything Diarmaid MacCulloch writes, it’s beautifully written. It’s the third in a trilogy, in a sense, with Cranmer, Edward VI and now Thomas Cromwell.

Shall we talk about the opium book, Milk of Paradise, next? I think of the ones you’ve chosen, it’s probably the most readable.

Lucy Inglis is a brilliant writer. We’ve had quite a few books on a single subject, going back to Cod by Mark Kurlanksy. There have been many inferior versions of this method, where a person just takes a thing and then writes what is often quite a predictable history around it. That’s absolutely not the case with this book.

This history of opium has two things which are really important in history at the moment: geographical and chronological depth. It goes right back to the Neolithic period where, in a place near Barcelona, there is some evidence of opium use. It’s unclear whether it’s for medical or religious purposes or maybe a combination. She looks at opium in its various forms: poppy seeds, morphine and heroin and, in doing so, it becomes a genuinely global history.

What I found particularly interesting were the medical advances in the Arab world, with people like al-Razi and al-Kindi. She looks at its use as an anaesthetic and as an analgesic. It was actually used in Baghdad in the form of pills to treat, amongst other things, leprosy. Al-Kindi, who was an important physician in Basra, had a table whereby he could calculate the dosage, what quantities worked with different ailments and how much was dangerous and an overdose. That was extraordinary and I hadn’t read that before. It was also used as medicine during the plagues that affected Europe and Asia.

“She looks at opium in its various forms: poppy seeds, morphine and heroin and, in doing so, it becomes a genuinely global history.”

But then there was a shift. It was the Mughals who were among the first people—or at least the first people recorded—to use opium for pleasure. There’s a Mughal emperor, Jahangir, who is basically incapable of doing anything after he’s had his combination of opium and wine. So we start seeing opium addiction. There’s a phrase she quotes: ‘There is no Turk who would not buy opium with his last penny.’

As far as Europe is concerned, the turning point seems to be in the mid-seventeenth century. That’s when Thomas Sydenham creates laudanum, which becomes the means of taking opium for pleasure rather than medicinal purposes. There’s still a medicinal element there, but now people are taking it for intoxication. You have things called ‘Paregoric’ and ‘Dover’s Powder,’ which are ways of selling opium in a commercial form and people like Coleridge taking it.

In terms of modern heroin addiction, I was quite surprised to find it wasn’t until the 1940s, when there was concern about a heroin epidemic in Chicago. There’s Charlie Parker and people who become addicted to it and it spreads through urban conurbations in the United States.

It’s still feeding into this rich cultural source with the Beat Generation. The most famous poet—if you want to call him that—is William Burroughs in the Naked Lunch. He’s an addict right up to his death really, in his 80s, and he becomes this bard of heroin. There’s a romanticization of heroin—albeit a gritty romanticization—that continues with the Keith Richards figure and heroin chic. That’s perhaps abated in recent years, but was certainly there in the seventies and eighties.

I find the global aspect of the book very appealing. As she writes somewhere in the book, “opium knows no borders.” It covers a huge period—5,000 years. Apparently opium “was one of mankind’s earliest attempts at genetic engineering.” I was going to add that if you’re going to follow a single commodity, opium is quite a rich subject—it touches the history of the medical profession and syringes and the setting up of pharmaceutical companies. She takes you through everything, really, and how it all fits together.

Absolutely. It’s that thing of ‘only connect’, and she’s just so good at making connections. It’s a very, very wide-ranging book and it’s beautifully written. Despite the subject matter, you never feel overburdened by it. It’s always fascinating and she’s got a very good turn of phrase. She’s one of the best. If only all historians could write like Lucy Inglis.

So as we’re on the global theme shall we talk about Iran next? This is Iran:  A Modern History by Abbas Amanat who is a professor at Yale. So this is looking at 500 years of Iranian history, so also quite ambitious in scope.

It’s an enormous book, in excess of 1,000 pages; I think we can call it a tome. He’s been working on it for 20 years at least and it reflects a lifetime’s learning: he is one of the leading scholars of Iran.

It begins in the sixteenth century when, after nearly a millennia of foreign rule, Iran re-emerges as a state with Shah Ismail I and the establishment of the Safavid dynasty. From the book, you get just how turbulent Iran’s history has been. During this period, there were something like five dynasties, three revolutions, just as many civil wars and serial—if short-term—foreign occupations.

“Iran’s faith has this extraordinary culture underlying it that long predates Islam”

What I found very interesting is the central role of the Shiite faith and why Iran stands out so much in the Islamic world. It’s not just that it’s a different culture and language, the Persian aspect of it. The Shiite faith is a more Cavalier faith, compared to the Roundhead, Sunni version that you find in, say, Saudi Arabia. The Sunni version is embedded in the austere world of the desert. Iran’s faith, although we understand it as fundamentalist, has this extraordinary culture underlying it that long predates Islam. There’s still a great pride in that Persian history. It acts as ballast for the stability of the country and unifies it, in a way, despite all the suffering.

The art, the architecture, the music are all very distinctive. You have the poetry of Saadi and Hafiz, which is very sensual. It’s this Persian love poetry and this intoxication. There’s even the eulogizing of wine and Shiraz itself, the name of the grape, is in Iran. It’s contradictory.

You get this sense of Iran’s distinctiveness compared with other leading lights of the Islamic world. Iran and Saudi Arabia couldn’t be more different, even though they both proclaim Islam. That, I think, is very pertinent to the current crises in the Middle East.

Often, Iran is presented to the West as a twentieth-century phenomenon. We see it through the prism of the Shah and the Revolution or the Mosaddeq coup or the Constitutional Revolution that happened in 1905. Those are important to know about, but we don’t usually see how the foundations are much, much richer, much, much deeper and much more contradictory and complex. If you understand the previous four centuries, Iran’s twentieth century makes so much more sense. That’s the real revelation of this book. I should say that the twentieth century is also told really well—probably around a third of the book is devoted to the twentieth century.

The book is a challenge. It requires a great deal of effort—it’s not beach reading. And there are a few errors in the text, which I think are being cleared up for the next edition. They can be quite annoying. But it’s a really invaluable survey. With the 40th anniversary of Revolution coming up, you’d never get a better master class in understanding Iran.

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I’m just about old enough to remember seeing the Revolution happen. At the time, people knew it was important, but I don’t think any of us could see just how groundbreaking it would be. It was a return of radical Islam and this major player to the world stage. Iran has come to the forefront again. It has huge foreign power now, especially in the Middle East. It has played an integral role in what’s happened in Syria.

The telling of that deeper history makes you realize the strength of the culture. Because of that grounding, it’s stress-tested, to a certain extent. It reminds me of Russia: if a country has a real sense of its past, a real sense of its identity, it’s much more capable of suffering. To have survived an awful lot makes a country quite a formidable presence. Iran is probably in a better state now than it has been for quite a long while. It’s certainly very influential, and if you look at the diaspora as well, it’s a remarkable culture. This book is definitely the best instruction you will get into it—in the English language, at least.

Perhaps Donald Trump should read it for a better understanding of Iran?

I think quite a few world leaders should read it. It is immensely valuable. At History Today, we’ve had articles in the past that we’ve run and we’ve concentrated on the twentieth century. But this really gives you a much deeper view of Iran and explains a great deal about the country and its culture.

One of the things he mentions is that Iran was one of the few non-Western countries that preserved its sovereignty in the age of high imperialism, so it was quite robust at that point.

Yes, what it conveys is just how robust that culture is, which is what makes it so formidable.

Let’s talk about your next book, which is about female spies. It’s called Invisible Agents: Women and Espionage in Seventeenth Century Britain and it’s by Nadine Akkerman.

I read this as much out of duty as pleasure because this is my period, the mid-seventeenth century, the Civil Wars, the Protectorate. I probably would say this, but this is one of the most important periods in English and indeed British history and it’s not very well known by the wider public. I’ve wondered why that’s the case because it has such extraordinary characters.

A theory I’ve always had is that one of the reasons why the mid-seventeenth century is not popular among readers is the absence of women in major roles. In Tudor times, with Henry VIII, you have Anne Boleyn, Catherine of Aragon, Mary and Elizabeth. There are prominent female figures, whereas during the seventeenth century, with Charles and Cromwell, men dominate. There’s an absence of strong women, at least to the layperson. What Nadine Akkerman does is concentrate on these invisible women. That’s why it’s such a good title—because women are so invisible in this period in the public sphere. Men literally couldn’t imagine that women were capable of being spies or intelligencers.

There are some great stories in the book. There’s one about Alexandrine, Countess of Taxis. She has a house in Brussels, and a Stuart agent who’s there is having his letters intercepted. He talks to her and says something like, ‘Who is doing this? It couldn’t be you, because of your honesty, your dignity and your sex. You just wouldn’t be capable of doing it.’

But Alexandrine has this commercial network and she’ll sell this stuff to the highest bidder. She’ll sell to Catholics; she’ll sell to Protestants. She has no real loyalty to anyone. It’s very amusing. It’s a classic lesson in what so many historians have overlooked—which is not just what historians have overlooked, it’s what people at the time overlooked as well.

This world is a little bit like the world of Thomas Cromwell. It’s quite fragmented. It’s a place where you can step through the cracks. There are some great details in the book about spying in general. We’ve tended to concentrate in the popular imagination on spies in the Elizabethan world, but in the period of the Civil Wars, there’s some great stuff. The book talks about Oxford, which is Charles’s capital at the time. The parliamentarians would put little pieces of paper in holes and they’d be picked up by ‘gardeners’, brought back and left in a ditch just outside the city where they’d be picked up. The book is very good on tiny, fascinating details, and also at conveying the high stakes. Being a spy was incredibly dangerous.

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There’s one particularly gruelling episode recounted by Akkerman which begins with a man called Anthony Hinton. Hinton is a member of the Sealed Knot, a clandestine organization—largely incompetent, it should be said—that tries to build a network of resistance to Cromwellian rule and the Protectorate.

It’s not very good at this: many of its people are louche, drunken or just not very able figures. Anthony Hinton is arrested for carrying correspondence from Susan Hyde, who is quite highly placed within the circle. Eventually, at the Restoration, her brother, Sir Edward Hyde, becomes the chief minister of Charles II. She’s  investigated and although it’s claimed that there’s no torture during the Cromwellian period—which I think is right—it’s nevertheless a very brutal episode. She is stripped; she’s interrogated; she has an almost complete mental breakdown. She’s left catatonic. It’s an appalling experience, and she dies a week later.

Although one of the things she points out is that women quite often get off scot-free because nobody can believe that they are spies.

Yes, it’s safer than it is for the men. The example with Susan Hyde is atypical in terms of brutality towards a female spy. Coming back to the title, ‘invisible agents,’ it simply wasn’t thought that women were capable of doing this, though they were at it all the time.

It’s quite a scholarly work. Perhaps more could have been done to give it a narrative thrust, but it’s so revelatory in terms of scholarship that it’s worth persisting. Maybe now this groundbreaking work has been done, others will carry on.

You were saying this is your period, and people aren’t generally that familiar with it. If somebody were looking for a popular history or introduction to it, what would you recommend?

There’s a small book by Blair Worden called The English Civil Wars which is quite good. But if you just concentrate on the Civil Wars, you don’t see how we got there and you don’t see what the consequences are. So the best book if you really want to understand this period, I would say, is probably by Austin Woolrych. It’s called Britain in Revolution. It’s a well-written, really brilliant overview of the whole period. It explains how it began. It’s a very good chronological narrative of the war. You also get the idea of the Cromwellian Settlement and the problems there were and why the Restoration happened.

It’s also quite good on the idea of ‘revolution’ because it has two meanings, really. We tend to think of it in the modern sense: a revolution being a break with the past. Whereas to the seventeenth-century mind, a revolution was a restoration. It is literally the revolution of a wheel.

“We tend to think of ‘revolution’ in the modern sense: a revolution being a break with the past. Whereas to the seventeenth-century mind, a revolution was a restoration.”

So is it a revolution that happens when Cromwell comes to power? It’s very difficult to argue that it’s a revolution in the modern sense—like the French Revolution—because it’s so imbued with religion. Or is it a revolution when Charles II comes back? I suppose you do have a turning of the wheel, but it’s never quite the same again. The king never has the power that Charles I was trying to find in his personal rule.

The other thing that is misunderstood about the Civil Wars is that we tend to view Charles as the reactionary and Parliament as the radical, progressive force. Actually, I think it’s the other way round. It’s Charles who’s trying to build something new, because he’s seen European absolutism and wants to build that kind of absolute monarchy in England. That was a modern thing. It’s the Parliamentarians who want to return to what they constantly call ‘the ancient constitution’; the Levellers want to get rid of ‘the Norman yoke.’ It’s much more ambiguous than we tend to think, from our twenty-first-century perspective.

Last on your list is Power, Pleasure and Profit by David Wootton. Tell me about this book.

This is by far the most challenging book on my list. David Wootton is one of the best intellectual historians we’ve got. He began as a historian of atheism, writing a brilliant short book about Paolo Sarpi, who was a Venetian humanist. Rather like England, Venice had an ambivalent relationship with the Pope. It was excommunicated in a papal interdict at the beginning of the seventeenth century and Sarpi became an apologist for the Venetian state.

David’s real breakthrough book, in terms of reaching a wider audience, was called The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution, which is full of bravura writing and interesting detours that he’s particularly good at. There is an entire chapter on ‘the fact.’

This book, Power, Pleasure and Profit, is incredibly ambitious because it tries to address a change in humanity during the Enlightenment, when the secular is emboldened. People in the West turned their backs on Aristotle and Christ—who had underpinned rationality and morality up until then—and started to think in a Benthamite, utilitarian way about cost and benefit.

So you have people like Hobbes, Locke, and Voltaire who are interested in the selfish motives of human beings and the way in which you can build an infrastructure around those selfish motives that makes them beneficial. It’s an interesting book because the Enlightenment has become fashionable again—I’m thinking of Steven Pinker, and even Jordan Peterson.

But, in a sense, it’s life reduced. Pleasure is good and pain is bad. The old morality, where something was worthwhile in itself, is replaced by, ‘Does this hurt? Then it’s bad. Does this feel good? Then it’s good.’ It’s a very reductionist mentality. There’s one passage where he writes, “The real transformation was not in the world of ideas; it was in the lives and behaviour of people who had come to accept that virtue, honour, shame and guilt counted for almost nothing; all that mattered was success.”

That has a very modern aspect, but in this profit and loss calculation it also seems like we’ve lost something. I think about this in terms of Brexit where, for many people, if you tell them they’ll lose something economically, they still think it’s worth it. It goes back to what we were saying about Iran, that a culture that’s very, very strong and deep is incredibly resistant, it can endure, it can overcome. Whereas I think Wootton is arguing that this culture of profits and losses is very, very fragile because it’s not really built on anything. It’s not built on the idea that some things are worth doing just because they’re worth doing or someone is good because they’re good. There’s always got to be a reason.

The book is very much concerned with Britain and the Scottish Enlightenment. People like Adam Smith in particular are important to it. I don’t think David has looked at the Continental tradition, which tends to be more metaphysical. If you think of people like Kant or Marx, their writing tends to have, for want of a better word, a more religious, deeper meaning. Even Voltaire, who Wootton does refer to, is an Anglophile really. He’s one of the citizens of nowhere. David talks about that quite a lot—the citizens of somewhere. Why would people vote for Brexit? Why would people vote for Trump? They must be irrational, they must be bad—whereas there may be deeper reasons that are almost, I wouldn’t say spiritual, but just not simply a profit-and-loss calculation. That’s what—I think— David is exploring in this book.

Of course, he goes on endless digressions, as David always does. In themselves, they’re fantastically entertaining. There’s an interesting character called Kenelm Digby who links a lot of things together because he’s there in the mid-seventeenth-century. He’s a Catholic acquaintance of Oliver Cromwell, a key member of the Royal Society, and the inventor of the modern wine bottle. So he’s quite an eclectic figure. But the main people are Hobbes, Locke, Voltaire, Adam Smith, those Enlightenment philosophers.

David always takes you on a ride. You read it once and you’ve probably understood 5-10 per cent of it, but you reread it and go back to certain passages. The book is based on a series of lectures he gave at Oxford. There’s things where you think, ‘Oh yes, that’s absolutely right’—real epiphanies—and then you’ll see something and go, ‘Hang on, that can’t be true. That’s mad.’ It’s just so full of ideas. It’s always stimulating and it’s always well worth persisting with David.

Are you convinced by the argument he puts forward?

I think his diagnosis is convincing, with the caveat that he’s largely writing about an Anglophile tradition. The cure, I don’t know. There does seem to be a reaction against that simple economic rationalism we’ve had for about 30 years or so, whereby money is everything and as long as GDP keeps going up and people’s wages keep going up, that will be enough. It doesn’t feel that way at the moment, as though that is enough. He’s examining a profound shift then in the light of a profound shift now, and so the book feels very, very timely. The problem is we know where they went, but we don’t know where we’re going. So it’s difficult, but it might be useful for navigating the present. Not that history ever repeats itself.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

December 19, 2018

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Paul Lay

Paul Lay

Paul Lay is the editor of History Today. He is the principal host of the annual London History Festival and judge of the Longman/History Today book prize.

Paul Lay

Paul Lay

Paul Lay is the editor of History Today. He is the principal host of the annual London History Festival and judge of the Longman/History Today book prize.