William Wilberforce: The Life of the Great Anti-Slave Campaigner William Hague (HarperCollins, £25)

Wilberforce was at the very heart of the abolition of the slave trade. If you looked for a person facing insurmountable odds, you would not find a greater figure in British history. You would have to be there to feel the violent enmity of the traditionalist who had drawn his wealth from this mercantile madness. The sweet-voiced Wilberforce challenged the inhumanity of it all, two centuries after the triangle trade had been developed. Others were out there in the field - John Newton, Thomas Clarkson - but it was Wilberforce who put up the great battle in Parliament. Hague is becoming a biographer of extraordinary wit and power - Wilberforce being a natural literary successor to Pitt the Younger, whom Hague dramatised in his last book. In a year that has revived all the horrors of the African slave trade, in which Britain played a leading part, Hague has opened up a wider perspective with his focus on the degradation that ultimately touched a nation.

Prince Rupert: The Last Cavalier

Charles Spencer (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, £20)

The English Civil War gets its dash of military legend from the involvement of Prince Rupert of the Rhine. Vain and ruthless to an unforgettable degree, this royalist cavalier deserved much better than to be led by the weak and vacillating Charles I, who lost his head to Cromwell. One could say that Rupert was born to war - the third child of Elizabeth of Bohemia, daughter of James I, he was forced to make a snowbound escape when he was only a few months old. I nominated Spencer's study of the Battle of Blenheim as history book of the year and Prince Rupert seems to have been waiting for him - a symbol of both bravery and brutality. His "unresistible" courage even touched the heart of Parliamentarians after his victory at Powick Bridge. Charles's ablest commander, he could never enjoy life as a courtier. His swashbuckling style did not endear him to many Royalsists. Spencer's brilliant evaluation, primarily within the setting of the civil war, wears a passionate cloak. Take the ride with him and you will be rewarded.

Inquisition: The Reign of Fear

Toby Green (Macmillan, £20)

"A grand piece of theatre" is how Toby Green describes the auto-da-fe, the trial of prisoners in Mexico City. This was a glittering procession that took a month to prepare and concluded with the garrotting and burning of heretics. Its fearful pageant and display of corrupt power were at the heart of the Spanish Empire and its instrument of protection.

Green stands at the gates of the Inquisition with a turnkey in his descriptive hands. He unfolds a vast array of bizarre detail within and beyond the courts that tried Jews, Muslims and Christians for offences ranging from treason to sodomy. Most importantly, the book reminds us that its notoriety extended to four continents - the Inquisition flourished in such far-flung corners as Goa and Angola, let alone in the fertile grounds of Peru and Brazil.

The author enlightens us across the centuries - from the time of Ferdinand and Isabella to the Napoleonic Wars - on medieval terror and torture, a foundation for the tragic consequences of history of which we are so familiar. This study of the inquisition is a portrait of a monstrous abuse of power.