With the recent birth of the royal baby, British history has been very much in the news, with particular attention paid to the history behind the child’s names. This is popular history at its most obvious – striving for a very wide audience of non-specialists. I was involved in this myself, both writing about the proposed end to male primogeniture for a national publication and appearing on BBC Breakfast to outline the history behind the baby’s names.
Popular history is often looked down upon by more academically minded historians, but is this altogether fair? I am unusual in having a foot in both camps. As well as articles and (a few) television appearances, I have written a number of popular history books, including England’s Queens: The Biography, which contains short biographies of every English queen from the ninth century to the twenty-first, and biographies of four of Henry VIII’s wives. In contrast to this, I am also working towards my PhD at King’s College, London, researching the Blount family of Kinlet, who were a gentry family of some local significance in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. As part of my academic work I have published journal articles and will shortly be reading a paper at an academic conference.
Popular historians can draw a very large following, writing what has been described as ‘comfortable, unchallenging, nostalgia-fodder’. They also regularly attract vitriol for their work – I have previously been asked by a reader not to write a popular biography of one Tudor queen since, once they have finished their A-levels and then graduated, they intended to write the definitive academic account and were concerned that I might over-saturate the market!
My biography of Bessie Blount, one of the Blounts of Kinlet and Henry VIII’s mistress, provides a useful comparison for the distinction between popular and academic history. I used a wide range of original sources, particularly family wills, chancery records and contemporary letters, many of them stored at the National Archives at Kew. I also made use of printed primary sources and secondary works, including a number of academic accounts. These are, in fact, many of the same sources that I am using in my PhD. In my experience, most popular historians will use manuscript sources to some extent, although, since many of the topics are treading a well-worn path, original research is unlikely to be as deep.
The main difference between the two approaches is one of style and analytical depth. In my PhD, I am currently preparing a paper on the experience of Elizabethan Catholics, using the Blounts as a case study. This will eventually become a chapter of my thesis, while, in my biography of Bessie Blount, a discussion of her religious views took up two pages. Similarly, the family’s links to Christian humanism are a fascinating element of my academic study, but did not even merit a mention in the biography. Instead, the biography began with Bessie’s family background and childhood, moving chronologically through her life and ending with her death.
Popular historians often aspire to write in a novelised form – so that the reader can experience and feel the subject’s life and times. In some ways, their style should be considered more akin to that of historical novelists, and indeed the increase in popularity of Anne Boleyn can largely be attributed to Philippa Gregory’s bestselling novel The Other Boleyn Girl. But while fiction can inspire the choice of subjects for popular history and the style in which it is told, this is as far as the similarities go. Popular history is history, simply in a different form to that of its academic counterparts.
Popular history and academic history are often expressed as being in opposition to each other. Works that are popular in tone and nature are considered by some to be inferior to academic works. Others believe academic works to be boring or out of touch with what interests people today. Viewing the two as entirely separate is, however, a misstatement. Most academic historians will have first gained an interest in their subject in their teens through reading popular history – I know I did. This then leads them into their academic work, allowing them to make a real contribution to scholarship if they choose that route.
History is fascinating and anything that helps to widen interest in the subject can only be a good thing. There is enough history to go around, and historians such as David Starkey have demonstrated that it is possible to bridge the gap between the popular and the academic, with each using the raw materials of history in different ways. The two approaches use the same sources, after all – the difference is just one of intended audience.
Elizabeth Norton is a popular history writer who is currently working on a PhD at KCL. She has her own blog at http://www.elizabethnortonhistorian.blogspot.co.uk/ and you can find out more about her research and writing here.
 For example, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2376835/Royal-baby-How-Prince-George-Alexander-Louis-seventh-royal-George.html.