If nothing else, 2011 will perhaps be remembered as a year of tyrannies overturned.
The outstanding history book of the year must be Nicola Shulman's Graven With Diamonds (Short Books, £20), a perceptive work of radiant scholarship which not only restores the place of the poet Thomas Wyatt in the English canon, but brilliantly evokes the thrilling and often dangerous role of poetry at the court of Henry VIII. Wyatt's life, as courtier, spy, lover and diplomat, was extraordinary enough, but what makes Shulman's work such a joy is the revelatory urgency with which she engages with language.
The context for the claustrophobic glamour of the Henrician court is established in Thomas Penn's Winter King: The Dawn of Tudor England (Allen Lane, £20). The "dark prince", Henry VII (right), is mostly remembered for his stinginess; Penn engages with his statecraft to produce a compelling study of a ruthlessly uncompromising monarch whose dynasty depended on making a very little royal blood go a long way. The Tudors have been sexy for too long – both these books make an engaging case for re-examination of the paranoid dictators whose reigns birthed the English Renaissance.
This period is also reconsidered in Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began (Bodley Head, £20), the story of the 15th-century "book hunter" Poggio Bracciolini, whose discovery of the last manuscript of Lucretius's On the Nature of Things gave life to Italian humanism. Faith and materialism are also confronted in Simon Sebag-Montefiore's Jerusalem (Weidenfeld, £25), a city whose history has always been dualistic; a physical reality and spiritual ideal. In the hands of a less dexterous and lucid writer, 3,000 years of conflict might be daunting, but Sebag-Montefiore pulls it off with captivating elan.
The palimpsests of European history are stripped away in Norman Davies's Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half Forgotten Europe (Allen Lane, £30). This intriguing and provocative book reconfigures the continent's story as a sequence of little known decline and fall. The Empire of Aragon and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania are fascinating and timely destinations. Sic transit gloria Merkel ....
Claire Tomalin's Charles Dickens: A Life (Viking, £30) takes the opposite tack to Davies, in making the apparently familiar strange. Dickens is one of the few writers about whom everyone knows something, yet Tomalin's writing is so fresh and her research so rigorous that even the most knowledgeable Boz fan will find something to amaze them. John Sutherland's Lives of the Novelists (Profile, £30), an ambitious collation of the history of literature in 294 vignettes, gives three-and-a-half pages to Dickens (and leaves out poor Wyatt), but proves delightful for dipping and discovery.
The gallimaufry approach to history can be frustrating, but Neil Macgregor's exhilarating A History of the World in 100 Objects (Allen Lane, £20) works like a museum, cannoning the reader through place and time in a series of unlikely and revelatory juxtapositions. From Inca llamas to jade cups from Samarkand, Macgregor blows the dust from the cases and makes his pieces live. Rachel Campbell-Johnston's Mysterious Wisdom: The Life and Work of Samuel Palmer (Bloomsbury, £25), by contrast, is a resolutely English story. Palmer was a founder member of the Ancients, Britain's first self-conscious artistic brotherhood, and Mysterious Wisdom is an exquisitely written case for his philosophical and technical progressiveness, and a poignant story of a modest life aflame with spiritual ambition.
Jeanette Winterson's autobiographical Why be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (Cape, £14.99) also functions as a history of an almost forgotten mode of British working-class life, where "women in headscarves take string bags to buy bottles of stout". A world without credit cards, telephones or cars will soon seem as foreign to us as one of Davies's forgotten kingdoms, yet Winterson, too, is concerned with language, and mourns the loss of familiarity with the Bible, Shakespeare and Donne, which even the less educated would once have taken for granted. Her marvellous book, like Shulman's, is testimony to the power of words to fight oppression.
Lisa Hilton's new book, The Horror of Love: Nancy Mitford and Gaston Palewski in Paris and London, is published by Weidenfeld
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies