First awarded in 1972, the Wolfson History Prize is awarded annually to authors who excel in writing readable and scholarly history which is suitable for a general audience. Past recipients of the prize have included Ian Kershaw, Martin Gilbert and Mary Beard.
History Extra spoke to each of this year’s shortlisted authors on the challenges of their projects, their writing tips and techniques, and why they feel that writing accessible history is important…
Lyndal Roper, author of Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet (The Bodley Head, 2016)
Lyndal Roper has been working on her book about Martin Luther for 12 years, which she calls “a ridiculously long time”.
“I’ve always been fascinated by Martin Luther,” she explains, “not just because he is the reformer who split the western church, but also because he had such fundamentalist views about women and their place.” The author, who is a fellow and regius professor of history at Oriel College, University of Oxford, read Luther for at least half an hour a day while working on the book, as well as spending time in all the places Luther had been. While these experiences aren’t in the book, they were important for fuelling Roper’s imagination. “I had to have those places and societies in my head, as it were, when I was writing,” she explains. “I also had to get to know all the people with whom Luther was involved: this meant finding out about them, reading their letters, finding portraits of them, and reading between the lines of the correspondence to get a sense of the emotions at work.”
“It’s been a love-hate relationship!” she adds, though she explains that she felt she had to understand her subject fully in order to understand how the legacy of his views on gender have shaped the world.
Roper says she writes not just for fellow academics, but also for her friends – independent writers, artists, novelists, pastors, civil servants, and historians who work on different periods. Story telling is very important to her, and she says a challenging part of the writing process was deciding which order in which to tell the story. The accessibility of the work is also an significant factor, as Roper warns that if writers can’t achieve that, history will become insular and academic. “As historians, we gain so much from the insights and reactions of non-historians,” she explains. “I don’t see a conflict between academic research and writing to entertain. With Luther, the material itself was so amazing and interesting that I could just let it speak for itself.”
Sasha Handley, author of Sleep in Early Modern England (Yale University Press, 2016)
Sasha Handley is immensely flattered to be following in the footsteps of many of her favourite authors, “from Alexandra Walsham and Evelyn Welch to John Brewer and Keith Thomas”.
A senior lecturer in early modern history at the University of Manchester, Handley first began thinking about the need for a history of sleep in 2006, just after she had completed her PhD. “I decided that the time was ripe for historians to address this neglected dimension of human experience. Sleep consumes almost one-third of our lives, and its practice is essential to our physical and mental health, to our work, relationships and emotional lives,” she says. “It is also a ubiquitous feature of human life that cuts across periods and places – that’s an incredibly rich seam for the historian to mine.”
Figuring out how to research the subject was a challenge; Handley’s investigation saw her become familiar with a wide range of source materials, from household inventories and recipe collections to dilapidated linen bed sheets and night-caps. Meanwhile, frequent conversations with the public, “whether in the classroom, on a train, or in a pub”, were helpful in framing why the history of sleep matters. “Sleep has an obvious point of connection with our own lives, and so it has been immensely helpful to think about how familiar and yet how strange historic sleeping practices appear in today’s society and culture,” she says.
Handley also explains that it has been helpful to read “authors that write captivating history without patronising their readers. It always helps to modulate between captivating personal stories that are rich in colour, life and detail, and the bigger picture within which these stories make sense”.
The author also takes inspiration from the ‘History Workshop’ movement of Raphael Samuel, who believed that good history was an inherently collaborative enterprise that grows from, is created by, and engages with a wide and diverse public. “Good history does not just take place within universities: it can flourish in many different sites and in many different hands – sharing that history as widely as possible allows it to live, grow and inspire,” Handley says.
Matthew Strickland, author of Henry the Young King, 1155–1183 (Yale University Press, 2016)
Matthew Strickland’s study focuses on a figure he calls “the lost Plantagenet” – Henry, the eldest surviving son of Henry II. Known as the ‘Young King’, Henry became king following his coronation as co-ruler with his father in 1170. Strickland, who is a professor of history at the University of Glasgow, explains: “As its principal heir, he was one of the most important figures in the great Angevin empire, yet unlike his brothers Richard and John, he has largely been forgotten.”
“Much of his life could have come from the pages of a romance,” he adds. “Married at the age of only five to the daughter of the king of France, Henry was brought up in the household of Thomas Becket, schooled in arms by William Marshal, the greatest knight of his age. He won great renown as the epitome of chivalry and a roi-chevalier, above all from his enthusiastic patronage of and participation in the tournaments that flourished in northern France. Yet his life was also blighted by tensions and tragedy.”
Beyond a new telling of Henry’s life, Strickland also aimed to explore the nature of 12th-century kingship, ideas of co-rule and succession, the mechanisms of rebellion and of political rehabilitation, chivalric culture and the conduct of warfare and the tournament. “My aim was to ground young Henry’s life firmly within the political and cultural world of the later 12th century, to give the reader a picture in the round,” he says.
Writing a biography automatically provides a developing story, says Strickland, particularly since there are many incidents of high drama in the life of the Young King. However, a particular challenge was knowing how much background material to give the reader. “I think it also helps to let the sources speak for themselves as much as possible, and for the reader to hear the voices of contemporaries,” he says.
“History is inextricably bound up with identity, but studies of the past help to both illuminate and sometimes to challenge cultural assumptions. History also serves to give a long-term context for more current political or social problems, as well as reminding us of a common humanity.”
Daniel Beer, author of The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars (Allen Lane, 2016)
“The past is a fascinating place to explore,” says Daniel Beer, a senior lecturer in history at Royal Holloway, University of London. “In the book, I tried to communicate my own sense of excitement in discovering long-forgotten stories of exiles, insurgents, fugitives and bounty-hunters in dusty archival files.”
Beer’s study explores how, from the beginning of the 19th century up until the Russian Revolution, the tsarist regime exiled more than one million convicts – common criminals, political radicals and their families – to its prison continent in Siberia.
“I was just about to teach a seminar on 19th-century Russian history when I was contacted by the Wolfson Foundation and completely taken by surprise,” Beer says. He was particularly honoured to have been shortlisted in the centenary year of the revolution. “I was trying to weave together individual narratives to tell a bigger story of the Siberian exile system. The fates of individuals caught up in the system illuminate the wider administrative and political issues of a relatively weak state attempting to pursue a grand project of penal colonization. But these individual stories actually mattered in and of themselves, as they influenced public opinion both in the Russian empire and abroad. They came to shape the way that some Russians viewed their own government as repressive and illegitimate, and embraced violent struggle as a means to overthrow it. So the exile system is an important part of the history of the Russian Revolution.”
Beer explains that it can be very easy to lose sight of the long-term forces that shape states and societies. “In the case of my book, many of the tensions that continue to animate Russian politics can be traced back through the history of power, punishment and dissent over at least the last two centuries. I also think that learning about a period that seems so very different from our own enables us to look afresh at the big dilemmas with which we still struggle today. The kinds of challenges which the tsarist state failed to meet (how to cope with crime, political opposition and even terrorism, and how to effectively manage and maintain public support for penal systems) are still challenges that confront us in 2017.”
Chris Given-Wilson, author of Henry IV (Yale University Press, 2016)
Sandwiched between Richard II and Henry V, Chris Given-Wilson believes that the figure central to his book has long been “one of England’s most neglected kings”.
“Branded a usurper and a regicide, Henry was confronted during the first six years of his reign by a succession of wars and rebellions,” Given-Wilson explains. “By 1406 he had established a measure of security for his dynasty. However, soon afterwards he became ill, and during the last five years of his reign struggled to maintain his authority against his increasingly impatient son.”
The author, who teaches and researches late medieval English political and social history at the University of St Andrews, began working on his political and personal biography of Henry IV in 2009. The book focuses on the king’s government, his friends and enemies, the resistance he faced, his relations with the nobility and the Church, his character, family, religiosity and personal accomplishments. “Although he undoubtedly made mistakes, on the scale of what was possible for a usurper, Henry IV’s achievement ranked high,” explains Given-Wilson.
Clarity is paramount for the author, followed by momentum. “Neither the narrative nor the argument should be allowed to flag,” he says. “Historiographical digressions are at times unavoidable, but slow the impetus.”
Given-Wilson states his aim is to be bold but not reckless in his assertions. “To express a clear view is crucial, but it is important not to push the evidence beyond its limits. As a rule, I prefer under-statement and inference to overstatement,” he says.
“History is a subject of fascination to millions of people, most of whom want to know that what they read is authoritative and reliable,” says Given-Wilson. He also believes it’s important not to widen the gap between academic historians and the history-loving public with over-complex prose or language, as this “forfeits valuable enthusiasm for the subject among all age-groups”.
Christopher de Hamel, author of Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts (Allen Lane, 2016)
The sixth author to be shortlisted for the 2017 prize is Christopher de Hamel for Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts, though unfortunately he was unavailable for interview due to travel commitments.
The winner of the 2017 Wolfson History Prize will be revealed on Monday 15 May. They will receive £40,000, while each author shortlisted for this year’s prize will receive £4,000.
More information about the prize can be found here.