Introducing the Wolfson Prize 2017 Shortlist: Part One

Posted on 3rd April 2017 by Martha Greengrass
The Wolfson History Prize, Britain’s foremost history award, today announces the exceptionally strong shortlist for 2017. Awarded annually to promote writing which combines scholarly brilliance, innovative research and compelling readability, the prize has previously recognised some of the greatest contemporary historians in their field including Mary Beard, Simon Schama and Ian Kershaw. 

To coincide with today’s announcement, we present the first of a two-part guide: an exclusive introduction by authors Daniel Beer, Chris Given-Wilson and Christopher de Hamel to their shortlisted work.

The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under The Tsars by Daniel Beer

From the beginning of the nineteenth century to 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. My book seeks to recover the experiences of these exiles and to examine their role not only in the colonisation of Siberia but also in the history of the Russian Revolution.

In theory, exiles would discover the virtues of self-reliance, abstinence and hard work and, in so doing, they would both develop Siberia and bind it to European Russia. In reality, the autocracy banished an army not of disciplined colonists but of half-starving, desperate vagabonds. Siberia also served the tsars as a quarantine from the contagions of sedition. Generations of republicans, nationalists and socialists were condemned to oblivion thousands of kilometres from Russia. As the nineteenth century progressed, however, these political exiles transformed Siberia's mines and remote settlements into an enormous laboratory of revolution. Exile became a rite of passage for the men and women who would one day rule the Soviet Union.

In this centenary year of the Russian Revolution, I am especially thrilled to have my work included in the short list for the Wolfson Prize.

Henry IV by Chris Given-Wilson

I wrote Henry IV for two main reasons: because he has too often been neglected, and because the revolution of 1399 which brought him to the throne provides an opportunity to analyse more widely the fault-lines in late medieval political society. The Lancastrian affinity – the greatest power-network bar the crown in fourteenth-century England – won him the throne and remained his principal buttress, but it was also a significant handicap. Its political dominance in the shires aroused resentment leading to widespread disorder, the king’s leading supporters were seen as rapacious and overbearing, and Henry was perceived by many to be the servant as much as the master of his affinity. This book emphasises the limitations as much as the powers of kingship: the affinity, in particular, was both an underpinning and an undermining force. Henry’s character and policies also fascinated me: cultured, educated, interested in music, theological disputation and designing guns, he advocated reform of the Church but faced strong pressure to clamp down on heresy.

I am delighted to be shortlisted for the Wolfson Prize, both for myself, for I have always tried to combine scholarship with accessibility, and for my publishers, Yale University Press, for their dedication over twenty years to the English Monarchs series.

Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel

Although many people have written about illuminated manuscripts, this book describes the experience of studying them, and it shows what we can learn from actually encountering the originals.  It invites the reader to sit beside the author as we look at manuscripts together, in the different settings of some of the greatest rare book libraries of the world.  

It is not simply a work of history (although I am an academic historian by training), but is intended to be a readable and, with luck, an encouraging and infectiously enthusiastic summons to a lifetime’s adventure among original manuscripts.  I especially liked the review (by John Banville) describing the author: “we have the impression of a large Labrador dog bounding joyfully through successive summer meadows.”  There are historical discoveries and revelations on nearly every page.  I am therefore particularly pleased that the book has caught the attention of the judges of the Wolfson Prize, which celebrates the accessibility of historical research.  Two chapters include manuscripts once owned by different members of the Rothschild family: it would please me immensely if the book travels onwards with the name of the Wolfson dynasty also attached.

The overall winner will be revealed at a reception at Claridge’s on Monday 15 May 2017. For more information about the Wolfson History Prize follow @Wolfsonfdn or visit


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