I don’t read much popular history, and that is probably a mistake. By ignoring countless works written for a mass audience I miss what attracts most people to my subject area: a good story that is actually true, or at least could be true, reconstructed from sources scattered all over the archives and joined by creative ingenuity.
With historical writing, the lines between fiction and non-fiction are frequently blurred. Academic historians tend to lay claim to objectivity by comparing countless sources and weighing up possibilities and arguments, while novelists might have invested a similar amount of time to research but openly admit that they made up the missing bits and, most importantly, the majority of the action and dialogue.
There is some consolation in the fact that for any number of bodice rippers there is probably one Wolf Hall or, an old favourite of mine, An Instance of the Fingerpost, while for any number of bad popular history books, there is one like The King’s Revenge: Charles II and the Greatest Manhunt in British History. Its authors Don Jordan and Michael Walsh, writers, filmmakers and journalists, have done an excellent job researching the fate of the regicides of Charles I, many of whom had to escape from the British Isles at the Restoration of the Stuarts. Some went to the colonies and others to Europe, while those who remained in the country had to keep their heads down or arrange themselves with the new authorities.
I’m not sure whether ‘manhunt’ really adequately describes the actions of the new Stuart government against the regicides, as Charles II did not in all cases explicitly sent out the bloodhounds. After all, he had promised to forgive and forget in his Declaration of Breda (1660). Most of his ‘agents’ were shady ‘volunteers’ who aimed for reward or attempted to prove their doubtful loyalty to the new regime, while orders to find and assassinate the exiles more often than not were given indirectly by those close to the King, such as his sister, the Duchess of Anjou, in France, or driven by a vengeful Parliament of angry Cavaliers.
Nevertheless, the book describes in much detail the actions of the regicides, the precariousness of their situation after the Restoration, the martyrdom of some and the constant fear of those who survived at home and abroad, knowing that an assassin might come for them any time.
The story of the actual ‘manhunt’ only starts about half-way through the book, after we have learnt much about the trial and execution of the old King, the personalities, motives and convictions of his judges (or murderers, depending on where you stand) and the gruelling nature of public executions.
There are a few small mistakes here and there (Robert Sidney was not the ‘younger son’, but the brother ‘of the more famous Algernon’ p. 32), but probably not more than you would find in the average academic monograph. After all, historians – both popular and academic – are only human, and it is easy to get people muddled up when the same first names run through generation after generation of the same family, including cousins and other namesakes. Besides, we tend to believe the sources we have until we have found others that give us reason to doubt what we hold true. So every piece of historical writing will always remain work in progress.
The main advantage of popular history meanwhile is that it can be unashamedly partisan in a way that academic history can’t. The authors of The King’s Revenge don’t even pretend they aim at a balanced story as they write their book as a ‘monument’ to these ‘remarkable’ individuals (p. 5) and unashamedly claim that ‘[despite] a generally bad press, the regicides were men of principle who stood for many of the liberties that today we take for granted. … Modern Britain has much to thank them for.’ (p. 325) Writing a history of the English republican exiles in Europe myself at the moment that is something I would often like to say too, although I know I shouldn’t.