Magna Carta: conference on 17-19 June

This year sees the 800th anniversary of King John’s Magna Carta. Across the UK there are exhibitions, parties and pageants celebrating this iconic document, including the British Library’s Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy, which opened in March to great acclaim. King’s History Department has played a major part in the commemorations, with Professor David Carpenter a co-investigator on the AHRC-funded Magna Carta Project, advisor to the British Library’s exhibition and author of a magisterial new book on the Charter, published by Penguin Classics. Along the way David and other members of the Magna Carta Project have made some momentous discoveries, which have hit the headlines across the world and put this 800 year old document in a new light. These revelations – and much other new research – will be showcased in a major conference, held at King’s and the British Library 17-19 June.

BL Cotton Claudius D II f.116

BL Cotton Claudius D II f.116

Historians from King’s (David Carpenter, Anne Duggan, Jinty Nelson, Alice Taylor) will be joined by scholars from across the UK, France and the USA to reveal the world of Magna Carta in unparalleled breadth and depth (you can view the whole conference programme on the Magna Carta Project website); from the Charter’s background and later use to its place in medieval law; from propaganda and political ideas in King John’s reign to kingship in medieval literature; from John’s military campaigns to the scribes of his court; and from the Charter’s continental and British context to its impact on society.

There will also be a reception at the Maughan Library (spaces are limited, so book now to avoid disappointment!), where the J. C. Holt Undergraduate Essay Prize will be awarded by Melvyn Bragg, and a rare opportunity to enjoy a private viewing of the British Library’s Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy exhibition, introduced by lead curator Claire Breay. Those attending day three of the conference are also being offered free entry to the British Library’s Early European Parallels to Magna Carta evening event (again, spaces are limited so book now to be sure of a place).

You can read more about The Magna Carta Conference, and book your ticket, on the Magna Carta Project website.

Sophie Ambler, Research Associate, The Magna Carta Project, University of East Anglia

Four Nations Approaches to Modern ‘British’ History

Two PhD students in the Department of History at KCL, Maggie Scull and Naomi Lloyd-Jones, discuss the ideas and debates that lie behind their successful Four Nations History Network.

Four Nations 2

We’re two PhD students looking not to change the world, but to reshape the debate on Modern ‘British’ History. Our own thesis research, although separated by 100 years, draws on a shared history. Yet had we not met on a statistical methodology course run by the School of Advanced Studies, our projects, however similar, might not have crossed paths. We realised that there was a need for a platform to connect researchers – be they postgraduates, early career historians or established academics. With this is mind, we created the Four Nations History Network for those working on the four nations of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. With the ‘New British History’ no longer so ‘new’, we hope to reignite the debate over how we study ‘British’ history. The network is open to anyone using ‘four nations’ or ‘British’ frameworks, and to those researching the individual nations.

Forty years ago, J.G.A. Pocock made a now famed clarion call for ‘British history’ to be revived and re-invested with a meaning allegedly stripped from it by the likes of A.J.P. Taylor.[1] He observed the lack of ‘histories of Britain’ and the dominance of what thereby effectively amounted to ‘histories of England’, in which the Welsh, Scottish and Irish appeared ‘when, and only when, their doings assume[d] power to disturb the tenor of English politics.’ He also noted the parallel practice of writing ‘histories of Wales, Scotland [and] Ireland’ as ‘separate enterprises’, thereby perpetuating the existence of ‘separate historiographical traditions.’[2]

Pocock’s mantle was most comprehensively taken up in the 1990s by a school of early modernists who, in a series of conference proceedings, emphasised the need to place given points in history into their ‘British’ context, so as to tease out a host of forgotten dimensions and establish a new, more complete narrative. Illuminating and lively though the debate generated by these studies was, by 2013 Toby Barnard could suggest that ‘the “British” approach to political history from 1485 to 1782 may have run its course.’[3] Yet the ‘British’ approach to modern history, political or otherwise, has barely hit the ground running.

The current political climate, with the simultaneous emergence of a four nations discourse and a renewed focus on the affairs of the nations within the UK, suggests alternative methodologies are required to understand the past and the present. For instance, David Cameron’s rhetoric has shifted in the months after the Scottish independence referendum. The morning after the vote, he stood outside No.10 and declared that voters had ‘kept our country of four nations together’. At his party’s 2014 conference, Cameron expressed his pride at being ‘Prime Minister of four nations in one United Kingdom’. Fast forward to the early hours of 8 May 2015, and we find Cameron again outside Downing Street, but this time pledging the Conservatives to ‘govern as a party of one nation, one United Kingdom.’ The party nevertheless issued a separate ‘English manifesto’ and has outlined plans for ‘English votes for English laws’, while also vowing to press ahead with the Smith Commission’s recommendations on Scottish devolution.

Four Nations 1Nicola Sturgeon, on the other hand, has both insisted on Scotland’s right to be heard at Westminster and called for ‘the assent of all four UK home nations before any withdrawal from the EU’.

A four nations approach is a different beast from other kinds of history, in that it is intentionally polycentric. The Four Nations History Network does not intend to be prescriptive, nor do we advocate a ‘one-size-fits-all’ model. In this respect, we heed David Cannadine’s warning that no one approach should be allowed to dominate.[4] Instead, our aim is to demonstrate that four nations frameworks are relevant to a range of fields, and, crucially, can be interpreted and applied in different ways. Moreover, we aim to address certain of the imbalances in the New British History. We do not seek to recount a process of state formation, alleged by some to offer merely ‘a more sophisticated version of old-fashioned anglocentric constitutional history.’[5] Four nations is not about core-periphery; it allows for and explores the complications arising from regionalism, pan-Celticism and the seeming inextricability of ‘Englishness’ and ‘Britishness’. Nor is the Network solely (high) political in its focus; we publish blogs on cultural, gender, imperial, intellectual and economic history. In some subject areas, a four nations approach is an intuitive exercise; in the case of others, we hope the Network will inspire critical engagement with such frameworks.

We hope to hold another conference as well as a roundtable discussion on the future of four nations as a framework for the study of modern ‘British’ history. So while Pocock made his ‘plea for a new subject’, we ask historians to broaden their toolkit and think about how four nations could relate to their research.


[1] See, for example, A.J.P. Taylor, English History 1914-1945 (Oxford, 1965), v.

[2] J.G.A. Pocock, ‘British History: A Plea for a New Subject’, Journal of Modern History, 47:4 (Dec. 1975), pp.601-621.

[3] T. Barnard, ‘Renewing the “New” British history’, unpubl. Dacre lecture, Oxford University (May 2013).

[4] D. Cannadine, ‘British History as a “new subject.” Politics, perspectives and prospects’, in A. Grant & K.J. Stringer (eds.), Uniting the Kingdom? The Making of British History (London, 1995), p.23.

[5]K.M. Brown, ‘Seducing the Scottish Clio: Has Scottish History Anything to Fear From The New British History?’, in G. Burgess (ed.), The New British History: Founding a Modern State, 1603-1715 (London, 1999), p.242.

Twentieth-Century British History

Two members of the department, Alana Harris and David Edgerton, have had articles chosen in the ten ‘editors’ choices’ selected to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the journal Twentieth Century British History.  The current issue carries Andrew Seaton’s  prize-winning essay on conservative opponents of the NHS, based on the MA dissertation he completed at King’s last September.

Samuel Butler’s The Elephant in the Moon, (c. 1670)

Tom Colville, PhD candidate in the KCL History department, considers the value of satires for a historian seeking to understand early modern concepts. The particular source in question is Samuel Butler’s The Elephant in the Moon (c. 1670) which features in his thesis on “Mental Capacity in the Early Royal Society and Beyond: Intelligence and The New Science in England c.1650-1750”.

The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, formed in 1660, was a contentious institution. Anyone who has ever studied early modern natural philosophy, or indeed any aspect of Restoration society, will no doubt have come across one of the vitriolic pamphlets that attacked the Society in its early years. Some of the more brazen of these have been extensively discussed by historians, for example Henry Stubbe’s inflammatory Legends no Histories (1670). However, I believe one of the most interesting criticisms of the early Royal Society has largely flown under the radar.

The frontispiece to Samuel Butler, The Elephant in the Moon, (London: N. Merridew, c.1670).

The frontispiece to Samuel Butler, The Elepehant in the Moon, (London: N. Merridew, c.1670).

Samuel Butler’s The Elephant in the Moon must be one of the most wonderfully simple yet beautifully conceived satires of the seventeenth century. Essentially, Butler’s poem tells the story of a group of self-congratulatory Royal Society virtuosi gathered around a telescope. These gentlemen scientists take turns to examine the moon through the looking glass and discover the regaling sight of open warfare taking place on that celestial body, with two opposing armies in the heat of battle. Most astonishingly of all, an enormous elephant emerges from one of the lines of soldiers and rampages across the surface of the moon at a blistering pace, travelling from one side to the other in a matter of seconds. Amazed at the brilliance of their own discovery the virtuosi set about writing up their findings for publication, certain in the belief that this will finally put all questions about their lack of productivity to bed at last. Leaving the telescope unattended, a simple footman decides to experience the Royal Society life-style and steals a quick look through the eye-piece; he sees the truth of the situation immediately. Some gnats and flies have found a gap in the telescope and made a home on the lens; these are the virtuosi’s warring armies. And the elephant? A mouse has got trapped and squashed against the internal glass.

‘For he had scarce apply’d his eye
To Th’ engine, but immediately
He found a mouse was gotten in
The hollow tube, and, shut between
The two glass windows in restraint,
Was swell’d into an Elephant’

For my own research into conceptions of intelligence and mental capacity in the social milieu of early modern natural philosophy this poem offers some really valuable insight. The subversive twist is really effective because there is a perceived difference in expected intelligence between the footman and the virtuosi. Let us consider the significance of the mouse in the story. The fact that the footman’s mouse discovery conquers the Royal Society Fellows’ elephant discovery represents the victory of the small over the large, the seemingly insignificant over the bloated and loud. That size difference corresponds to an idea about the size of intellectual ability between the two groups. To leave his reader in no doubt at all, Butler composed an ode to his mouse as a footnote to The Elephant in the Moon. The Royal Society, and particularly their oversized appreciation for their own mental ability, is the real elephant in the room. And ‘the Mouse, that, by mishap,/ Had made the telescope a trap’, ‘though he appears unequal match’d, I grant,/ In bulk and stature by the Elephant,/ Yet frequently has been observed in battle/ To have reduc’d the proud and haughty cattle’.

Butler’s work has prompted me to think about the value of satires as primary sources for historians. The success of satirical work rests on a shared set of ideas between the author and his/her readers. Unlike a polemic (such as Stubbe’s above mentioned work), which can forcibly impose ideas onto the minds of their readers in acts of persuasion, a satire is dependent on the reader already sharing certain conceptions with the satirist. Satires might therefore – if we are able to decipher them – be able to demonstrate core concepts and ideas which are not only important to one author but are genuinely expected to resonate with an audience.

Swift's word machine, included in, Travels into several remote nations of the world. In four parts. By Lemuel Gulliver[...], Volume 2, (1727, London), p. 74

Swift’s word machine, included in, Travels into several remote nations of the world. In four parts. By Lemuel Gulliver[…], Volume 2, (1727, London), p. 74

Moreover, the power of imagery to articulate concepts which are not neatly encapsulated by a simple phrase or term is an interesting off-shoot from examining satires closely. I do not believe it to be a coincidence that a number of references to mental capacity which I have come across in early modern satire also rely heavily upon clear images. In Butler’s case, what could be more emblematic of the misrepresentation of intellectual size than a mouse distorted into an elephant? In Gulliver’s Travels, one of the very few images is included to demonstrate the writing machine that allows a group of unlearned idiots to randomly turn wheels until intelligent words start to appear. It may well be the case that difficult-to-articulate concepts, and those with an uncertain and contested vocabulary (such as intelligence or mental capacity), are the ones which imagery-heavy satire are best suited to representing.

The Challenges of Researching in India

My research in India has been the best thing about my PhD. I initially dismissed the idea, especially as an unfunded student, all that expense and effort put me off, but during my upgrade I was encouraged to go. I couldn’t have anticipated what it is like standing in front of the buildings you’ve been writing about for years. Experiencing India has made my project betteLEAD Technologies Inc. V1.01r and not just because of the archival material I can now add.



I spent 5 weeks in India in 2013 splitting my time between Delhi and Kolkata: the latter was certainly my favourite. Returning to Kolkata in February 2015 for a short archival visit was easier than my previous trip. I gained access to the reading room in a day rather than a week. I had a clear plan for tackling as many records as the bizarre rules and haphazard opening hours would let me get my hands on. The city itself felt familiar, this is mainly due to all of the colonial architecture, but also because it is during my research trips that I have felt most connected to my project.

We all know that archives are full of challenges. How to tackle the archive as an institution and as source is something we frequently discuss as historians. India has a unique set of hurdles ranging from the political structuring and staffing of the national and state archives, the working conditions, the rapidly disintegrating records, and the illogical rules that seem to only exist in the archivist’s head. As historians we pay a lot of attention to methodology but not enough to logistics. We don’t seem to acknowledge how complicated, confusing and frustrating it can be just to get to the archive, especially for international and global historians. It can be infuriating listening to someone moan about the Bodleian when you’ve sat with rats crawling over your feet and an inexplicably angry archivist screaming at you in Bengali because you’ve had the audacity to request a file.

It is not just the differences in the archive experience at the research level that we forget to talk about, it is the reality of being an academic abroad. I’m not asking universities to hold our hands – we are after all adults – but in the social sciences it’s common practice to have some kind of training, especially if you are visiting developing countries or challenging environments. Most historians do not have to pass ethical research committees, but just because the content of the research does not present risks does not mean the research activity is without potential issues. As an institution which prides itself on global history we at King’s cannot pretend that archives exist in a vacuum.

Most of the basic advice feels pretty obvious, like budgeting an extra week in your research trip for illness or paperwork. We can all be sensible enough to ignore the funding criteria which stipulates that you get the cheapest hotel or the cheapest train ticket. Yet as a research community would it not be productive to share information and discuss best practice?

The elephant in the room of this discussion is the specificity of the female academic experience. I can only share my own experience and while I am more than aware it is not a universal one it certainly isn’t unique. I was not prepared for the constant sexual harassment in India. Most days just getting to the archive to conduct my research activity was distressing. I was shouted at, groped on public transport and followed in the street. I had to entirely change the way I dressed and behaved just to feel fractionally safer. In India my femaleness was a constant obstacle I had to overcome to just go about my business.

The moment that really sticks with me was at 4pm in the National Archives in Delhi when a fellow female researcher lightly touched my arm and said “this is when we leave”. The daily late afternoon exodus of women hurrying to get home before sunset was a reminder of how unsafe the city was and how different my archival work has to be.

My academic career will be shaped by whether or not I am prepared to face being a single female researcher abroad. I love India, and I will certainly be going back despite being aware that it will be challenging. To really successfully develop my thesis into a book I would need to go to Bangladesh which totally terrifies me, and it is a very difficult decision. Honestly, without a stronger, supportive, and more aware academic community, it would be easier for me to turn my focus towards a more British history of Empire and away from more exciting research adventures than the British Library.

Amy Kavanagh is a Postgraduate Researcher in the History Department working on District Officials, Representation and Power in Nineteenth-Century India