Biographies and History

Although the English Monarchs series commenced in 1964, the conception of the series was in the late 1950s. The first contract for a book in the series was signed in 1958, and the idea to commence this series cannot have been made much later than 1955. So if we mark the middle 1950s as the starting line for this series what does that tell us about the publication of history, biographies and biographical history specifically? The focus of the books in the English Monarchs series essentially is narrow - to analyse a the politics and events in the British isles of a period chronologically defined by the life of a monarch. They are most definitely not a ‘Life and Times’ biography which discusses the subject in the old Great Men of History school. While the breadth of these studies is limited by the focal point of the monarch, the depth of the analysis goes well beyond what popular history can offer. Indeed, some volumes in the series, for example Chrimes’ Henry VII, barely feature the king and are more a study of government than leadership.

Once it was underway the direction of the series was determined by the prevailing concept of what a biography of a king, reign or era ought to be like. The needs of the publisher would be the most significant factor shaping the book. The publisher is responsible for bearing the costs, getting a book to the market and getting copies into bookshops to make sales. Five decades ago publishers and the reading public alike expected serious historical biographies to be linear, explanatory and written by male academics in institutions like the University of Oxford. This is exactly what they discovered in the first English Monarchs book in 1964. David Douglas, a very eminent academic, was from the Universities of Cambridge, Oxford and Bristol.

But the series introduced a change. Just as historical research develops so to does the publications is spawns. By the early 1970s, arguably even by the third book in the series, J.J. Scarisbrick’s 1967 ‘Henry VIII’, we see that a more segmented account of the life of the subject is presented. A linear account was for this book, and many that followed, seen by the author as unsatisfactory in explaining a complex set of events and circumstances. The S.B Chrimes Henry VII (1972) and the Charles Ross book on Edward IV (1974) are good examples. In Edward IV Ross sets out his approach in very clear terms. His is a study of power politics to “provide an explanation of these violent changes of political fortune”. He also divides the book into themes to assist this analysis. Chrimes, in Henry VII, states at the outset that a conventional biography is impossible on the (then current) state of the scant primary documents. Perhaps that situation has changed now in the 21st century yet there remain very few accounts of the life of Henry Tudor. A small number of biographies have appeared and these do give a better narrative of the course of Henry's life and reign than is afforded by reading Chrimes, especially Henry's last few years which are dramatically described in terms of penury, paranoia and opression.

The segmented and non-linear approach was at the peak of its popularity during this period. Michael Prestwich in his 1988 Edward I used the same technique, again for the same reasons. Edward’s reign was another complex period with many topics requiring a focused account. From the late 1990s this trend abated and historians returned to writing with more observation of chronology, diverting where necessary to explore themes, but returning the the train of thought going to the destination. Henry V (1992), was perhaps the junction of these two approaches. Christopher Allmand spends the first half of the book chronologically following the life of Henry as warrior, and the second half looking at aspects of him as administrator. It is interesting to ponder on the way these books from the 1970s and 1980s would be approached today if it were considered necessary to replace them in the series with more up-to-date accounts. Chrimes, for example, specifically states that his book was only a preliminary report on Henry VII and even then focused only on his governance and not a political history of his quarter-century rule. This marks his book as a prime candidate for replacement precicely because it was a pioneering work on which further scholars have launched their studies.

By the time Richard I (1999) was published the writing style was changing; John Gillingham tells an entirely chronological account of Richard I. From this point most authors either follow Gillingham's lead, or pepper a chronological account with analytical sequences, such as Chris Given-Wilson in Henry IV (2016), who organises the book so that at points along the way he examines topics such as the church, the court, diplomacy and so on. John Edwards' Mary I (2011) and David Bates's William the Conqueror (2016) adopt an entirely chronological account.

Perhaps the most dramatic change of style is found in the two books by W.L. Warren: King John (1961) and Henry II (1973). John, the oldest book in the series, is a fast-paced roller coaster ride through the vicissitudes of the reign of John - surely a most dramatic subject for biography - with a stop here and there for examination of topics, while the study of Henry II twelve years later was marked down by some reviewers as being overly-segmented and too long - which at nearly eight-hundred pages is a point hard to argue against. Most readers would observe of the two that John is the more rewarding reading experience and that Henry II is the superior resource as a study but not in any sense a page-turner. Two quite different approaches to different individuals in the same period of history by the same writer - and a master both of his craft and his topic. Comparing these two books shows how quickly the profession of history developed, and how accommodating Methuen, and the readership, was to this evolving style. In this way the English Monarchs books reflect the ways writers in different periods viewed the way a biography ought to be organised.

It is interesting to look back at Warren's notes in the preface of his King John book. In it he states his aims of writing the book and in doing so highlights the problem discussed above - that of the need to address two audiences, the academic and the popular. Writing at the end of 1960 he says, "It is a lamentable feature of the age in which we live that a gulf has developed between the expert and the general public, and while there may be some excuse for it in the more abstruse branches of the natural sciences, there is none whatsoever in the field of history. It is a gulf I have attempted in this book to bridge...presenting it in a way that is, I hope, both readable and sound." He succeeded brilliantly in this aim. Henry II was a different book and with different aims and it is not reasonable to criticise Warren for the different way his Henry biography is presented, other than to observe that it is not as unified or as straightforward as the King John book.

By adopting new tools the English Monarchs series also developed the art and science of historical writing in a “biographical” book. Moreover, one author after another alerted readers, almost apologetically, that their book was a ‘political history’ of the court, capital and nation. This also served to separate serious history from popular history, which is not to denigrate the latter to promote the former, but it does allow the profession all the tools it needs to scrape away the dust of ages rather like their colleagues in the archaeology field. Without the soil.

This is a long way from the popular biographies of former times. Ralph Turner’s study of Eleanor of Aquitaine is an example of an analytical historical biography, carefully teasing out the nuances of the scant sources while at the same time having some opinions about the subject and, of course, of earlier inferior attempts at a biography of Eleanor. The least of these, and by a country mile, is the 1950 Curtis Walker ‘Eleanor of Aquitaine’ which adopts an inventive technique of embellishing the history with invented conversations, in what he calls “imaginative reconstructions”, a sort of prototype magical realism. Walker defends this in the preface, and it’s worth quoting, “Anyone who desires to check on a speech or incident may do so by turning to the section of Explanatory Notes and Source References, in the back of the book”. Well, no. That’s the role of the author surely? This can also be seen in Nesta Pain’s ‘Empress Matilda: Uncrowned Queen of England’ (1979). The author confuses history and fiction.

Early critics made the observation that it’s impossible to write a biography of a medieval king. The concept of medieval is a discussion for another place, but the point that was being made is that the original sources are too thin a resource on which to base a biography. Timothy Bolton’s 2017 biography of Cnut is the best example to show the flaws in this argument. He successfully, and indeed bravely, re-examines original sources, plus - and this is where the books in the series succeed where others fear to tread - he looks at the Scandinavian sources which, he says, require very sensitive handling. That they had largely been ignored by English language historians as well lends his book a fresh approach and makes it brilliant.

Marc Morris writes in the preface to his ‘A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain’ (Hutchinson, 2008) that people he encounters tend to presume that there isn’t much documentation on an early medieval king. His response is that there is more than can be looked at in one person’s lifetime. This spurious observation which Morris demolishes stems from the popular image of the “Dark Ages” being a vacuum of written sources and that scholars must go back to the Roman era before you encounter enough material for a study. These same observers may not be aware that most of the documentation for the reign of George II was scant in his lifetime and the remainder mostly destroyed by nature and war. Despite this, Andrew Thompson was able to construct a study of the king the equal to any in the series.

Timothy Bolton writes in the introduction to his Cnut biography in defence of the form and I refer readers to his summary of the fortunes of biography among professional historians. He comments that it was because of the weight of the series that he accepted the invitation to write the book. The momentum gathered in earlier works continues to drive research and writing for new titles. This may also carry over into the replacement of the oldest titles, a course on which Yale commenced in 2016. Already the publisher has replaced the first two books in the series and perhaps also Richard III; it remains unclear if this 2019 release is in the series or not. Perhaps this will be a way of updating some of those books which are now out of date in their historical approach and no longer represent the best scholarship on the topic. Henry VI for example is an early candidate for retirement. See the comments on the page for that book for further information.

Shaping a biography for the readers is the role of the publisher's editor. In a Yale blog page interview in January 2019 Heather McCallum at the London Yale office had this to say about what she seeks in a non-fiction book, "One of the important elements is character or characters. What we are trying to achieve is robust narrative non-fiction. So, even in a quite analytical book, what we want is something of the people, as that is what will bring any subject to life, even if it’s a high political diplomatic history", but without compromising the scholarship, commenting on one crucial ingredient for academic authors: "Originality. I’m interested in fresh research and fresh ideas and thinking. It’s important for us that the material has relevance beyond the academy, or at least that it is a subject of treatment that will be of interest beyond students and scholars. We are excited by ambition to impact a field, to write beyond the comfort zone. We are looking for a robust, enticing writing style that makes you want to read more." This is a ringing endorsement for history that both tells a compelling story and is thorough in covering every aspect of the politics of the period covered.

She raises a vital point - a product can be polished until the cows come home but how much value does it have if it doesn't connect with an audience? The William and Mary page on this website has a review by an academic of the popular history of this reign - still the best read of these two monarchs - in which he complains of the success of "non-specialists" who write history. His 1974 review concludes that academic writing has lost touch with the audience, "We no longer care to communicate with nonspecialists. And that is stupid of us, for if we refuse to write history, the amateurs will have a stab at it. And if we make ourselves write as well as the van der Zees do, there will always be an audience.” This comment came at time when the segmented style of history writing was at its peak and with which were produced histories some critics said were disjointed, unchronological and impenetrable.

Lucy Ryall (Professor of History, Birbeck University London) wrote an extensive commentary on the nature of biography and history in her article ‘The Shallow End of History? The Substance and Future of Political Biography’ which was published in a thematic issue of The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 40, No. 3 (Winter 2010) called Biography and History: Inextricably Interwoven, pp. 375-397. She described the reaction by Italian historians to her work examining the creation of an image of the Italian nationalist Garibaldi. Her analysis of the creation of the image of Garibaldi, which never posed as a biography, was seen by Italian academics as an attack on his legacy. Her’s was a cultural history, showing that his “…fame was the result of a political strategy that relied heavily on the popular press was tantamount to claiming that ‘all communication is propaganda’…” She noted that these criticisms came from the defenders of the traditional form of biography. To the question of whether or not political biography has a future she answers with a qualified yes, because historical scholarship “…accommodates an immense plurality of approaches, as well as an unprecedented range of themes and subjects. There is no reason why biography cannot serve as a legitimate way to look carefully at individual and collective lives, great and laboring men, or maids and duchesses. The structure of a life may be remembered and recounted as a sketch or in ragments, or as a chronological narrative with origin, purpose, or end, or as some combination of all these forms. Despite the protests of some practitioners, traditional biography can co-exist with more experimental forms.” Ryall also makes a telling point about the persistence of the old-fashioned or Great Men of History school: “One reason for the survival of the traditional form is clearly the appeal of heroic biography…which is linked to the rise of popular (meaning nonacademic) history.”

Much more can, and has, been said about the relationship between biography and history, the different imperatives and motivations of the narrative author and analytic scholar and the divisions and overlaps between these different but not necessarily competing techniques. A good place to start for examining this can be found in the pages of The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 40, No. 3, Biography and History: Inextricably Interwoven (Winter 2010). This issue of the journal was devoted in its entirety to the expoloration of these matters. Michael Prestwich, author of the Edward I book (biography?) in the English Monarchs series, wrote at length about the unique difficulties for historians of the middle ages in writing an account of a reign or ruler and makes fascinating reading. In his article 'Medieval Biography' he discusses the differences between academic history and popular history - represented by Alison Weir's 'Isabella : she-wolf of France, queen of England' (Jonathan Cape, 2005). On page 344 he highlights the serivce she has done to history in creating interesting narratives to attract readers, but adds that this comes at a cost: "Biographies such as this one perform a valuable service by bringing history to a wide audience, but they also do a disservice by providing little more than a highly readable story...The narrative treatment limits the questions that Weir asks of her material, and readers are left with a blinkered view of the early fourteenth century." He concludes, wryly, that her books "...sell in quantities that only a few academic books can achieve".

Daniel Snowman wrote in History Today (Vol. 64, No.11, 2014) that one modern trend in biographies is that more of them are being written by women. Antonia Fraser’s successful 1969 biography of Mary Queen of Scotts (which is still being reprinted), was an early win for aspirant female biographers, and since then, as Snowman observed, female authors are much better represented in print. For the English Monarchs series though it took until 1999 when Jennifer Loach’s book on Edward VI was issued as the sixteenth in the series. Ragnhild Hatton was the second woman to contribute a book when her existing study of George I was brought into the series two years later, and only Sarah Foot was to follow in 2011 with Æthelstan. In the “Companion Books” (as we are calling them in these pages) Catherine Hanley is the only female author. A near miss was Dorothy Whitelock who was appointed as an early series author but died before her book on Alfred the Great was complete. Four women historians is a very lean number in a lengthy biographical series. This might have been an expectation in the early 1960s, as observed at the head of this page, but not in the modern age. Heather McCallum's appointment as the Managing Director in the London office of Yale goes some way to redressing this imbalance.

Interestingly, although in an international profession of minor importance, it took until the nineteenth book in 2001 for the series to have an American author when C. Warren Hollister’s ‘Henry I’ was published. Edward Gregg’s ‘Queen Mary’ was the second and last by an American, when Yale brought the book into the series in 2001. Ralph V. Turner whose book on Eleanor of Aquitaine has been added as a “Companion Title” is the only other American in these pages. (Geoffrey Parker, author of Phillip II, although he lives in Ohio is in fact English). With her two companion books, Catherine Hanley, an Australian living in Britain, joins Glenn Burgess (see James VI/I) of the University of Hull but a New Zealander by birth, as the representatives of the Southern Hemisphere.

So what then is biography? The real use of the term for publishers is as a label to gather titles in one place for customers to be drawn to buy them. For the book trade it’s a marketing tool; a title for a shelf and a movable feast. What one store puts in History another will shelve in Biography. Observe the categories of Literature and Fiction in a bookstore. Is to too harsh to suggest that the only qualification a book needs to be shelved as literature is that the author has to be deceased and in print? For history books the term 'biography' is a means to an end, and for English Monarchs books it’s a structure to dissect the life of a ruler, a place and a period of time. For more than fifty years the series has served the cause of biographical history well, and the end of the check-list of monarchs is in sight. There are a few more books to come so perhaps not quite now. If it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all.

The Changing Nature of the English Monarchs Biographies

In the YouTube video opposite, Andrew Hadfield, Professor of English at the University of Sussex, describes the issues involved in writing a biography of a subject who lived centuries ago. His study of the life of the poet Edmund Spenser (OUP, 2012) was described on The Spenser Review website as "...a masterwork of archival research and scholarly learning." Despite his deep knowledge of the period in which Spenser lived Hadfield was confronted with choices about the way to write the book.