The Royal Historical Society (RHS) has long been regarded as the principal organisation representing British historical scholarship both at home and abroad. The Society has some 3,000 Fellows, drawn from across the globe, and as well as its regular lecture series, publishes both the Camden volumes of original sources and an influential monograph series, Studies in History, alongside its regular annual volume of Transactions.
The Society was founded in 1868, as the ‘Historical Society of Great Britain’. The brain child of a penurious Scottish Presbyterian clergyman, the Revd Dr Charles Rogers, its early membership was drawn from the ranks of the London professional classes. Rogers was, however, successful in interesting many great names in his scheme, and early Fellows included such exotics as the king of Belgium and the emperor of Brazil. More significantly, however, he was able to find support among the contemporary Liberal establishment for his project, and it was through the good offices of the second President, Lord John Russell, that the organisation acquired the right to describe itself as a ‘Royal’ society in 1872.
By the turn of the century, the Society had established itself as the premier guardian of historical scholarship in the kingdom. From the mid 1880s, increasing numbers of young university historians joined the Fellowship: Acton, Maitland, Creighton, Lecky, Seeley and Cunningham, for example, were all elected between 1884 and 1886. The Society’s involvement in organising the Domesday Commemoration in 1886, and its merger with the Camden Society in 1896, considerably enhanced its standing, and this new confidence was also reflected in the establishment of the Alexander Essay Prize which was presented for the first time in 1898. The following year witnessed another important innovation when the Presidency passed into the hands of A. W. Ward, the first professional historian to hold the position.
The work of the Society settled into a recognisably modern rhythm. Following a series of internal reforms in the early 1890s, which saw the creation of a Finance Committee (1890), a Library Committee (1891) and a new post of Literary Director (also 1891), the energies of the Society could be devoted to scholarship. In 1904, Sir George Prothero, who became President in succession to Ward, declared that the Society’s ‘first title’ to the confidence and support of its Fellows lay in its programme of publications: one volume of Transactions and two of Camden were to be the norm.
Other new avenues were also explored. The Society lent its support to the newly founded Historical Association (HA); its intention to popularise the teaching of history in schools seemed to complement the university focus of the Society’s own activity, and from 1906, for 30 years, the HA enjoyed free accommodation and secretarial assistance in the RHS offices. Equally, the Society played a leading role in the International Congress of Historians held in London in 1913, and from 1909, began to explore with the American Historical Association (AHA) the possibility of creating a series of authoritative historical bibliographies, although this scheme was interrupted by the advent of war in 1914.
The period between 1914 and 1933 saw the Society stagnate. Some progress was made on reviving the bibliography after the First World War, and the tradition of holding annual dinners in the Holborn restaurant, begun before the war, continued unabated, but the growing success of the HA on the one hand, and the opening of a new Institute of Historical Research (IHR) by the University of London in 1921, threatened to rob the RHS of its distinctive role.
Renewal came with the election of F. M. Powicke, Regius Chair of Modern History at Oxford since 1928, who became President in 1933. Under his guidance, the internal machinery of the Society was overhauled. Committees were recast to ensure efficiency; a new series of guides to historical sources was created; and a new category of ‘Associate’ membership was created to provide an entry point for postgraduate students into the Society.
The success of the Society’s operations was greatly assisted by the generosity of Prothero, who bequeathed the Society the bulk of his estate, worth some £22,400 in 1934. In addition, the Society inherited his private library, a collection which allowed it to provide a valuable resource for those of its Fellows studying British history.
Increased wealth allowed the Society to embark upon various new schemes, including an annual compilation of ‘New Writings on British History’, the first volume of which appeared in 1937. In the immediate post-1945 period, links with the AHA and the Mediaeval Academy of America were revived, and a new project set afoot to create a select bibliography of British history from medieval to modern times.
By the 1960s, the main areas of the modern Society’s work had been set in place. The RHS still collaborates actively both with the HA and with the great American scholarly organisations – its annual reception at the Anglo-American Conference of Historians a testament to that partnership and a continuation of a tradition established in 1921 when the Society hosted a ‘conversazione’ at its rooms in Russell Square during the first post-war ‘Anglo-American Conference of Professors of History’.
New innovations in the Society’s service to the historical community are constantly made, however. In 1977, the Society launched a new monograph series, Studies in History, to promote the best doctoral work: the series continues to flourish, and six new titles are currently issued each year. The Society's bibliography of British History has evolved from annual hard-copy publication to a major electronic database, continually updated, a key resource for scholars of British and Irish history.
The Society also funds two one-year postdoctoral fellowships, tenable at the IHR, and makes available a considerable sum of money each year to enable postgraduate students to access training programmes and attend conferences.
Finally, the tradition inaugurated by the Alexander Prize has flourished, and the Society now presents several prestigious awards each year, including the Whitfield and Gladstone Prizes for the best first book, and the RHS/History Today prize for the best undergraduate dissertation written at a British university.
In the range of its services to the historical community, and its commitment to scholarship, the RHS remains the leading representative of British scholarship at home and abroad.
Professor Matthew Cragoe is Honorary Director of Communications for the Royal Historical Society.