Musings of a ‘British’ historian in the age of Brexit

Joan Redmond, Lecturer in Early Modern British History (KCL), reflects on the nature of ‘British’ history following recent events which have forced the commonalities and distinctions within the ‘Atlantic archipelago’ into the political spotlight.


These past few weeks have been unusually lively ones for those of us working on Irish and British history. Political events, particularly surrounding the issue of the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, and indeed the wider question of the three-way relationships between Britain, Northern Ireland and Ireland have been exercising politicians, journalists and the wider public in a way not seen perhaps since the end of the Troubles. It also provides a rich opportunity however for those of us concerned with the long history of British-Irish relations to reflect on both ongoing and historical challenges that face the continuation of a healthy and mutually beneficial British-Irish partnership. King’s has proved a vibrant and stimulating environment for such study, with initiatives such as the Centre for Contemporary British History and my colleague Maggie Scull’s recent edited volume with Naomi Lloyd-Jones, Four Nations Approaches to Modern ‘British’ History.

I write this during my first year in post as lecturer in early modern British history. I will admit that this is a title that can sometimes feel ill-suited: is ‘British’ history exactly what I am ‘doing’ so to speak, given my research on seventeenth-century religious conflict, and wider questions of religious and ethnic identities with Ireland and – yes – ‘Britain’, even if such a term is problematic. Would I instead describe myself as an Irish historian, even though I am researching beyond Ireland? What about ‘British and Irish’ history, to use the title chosen by my doctoral supervisor Professor John Morrill, himself one of the great interrogators of ‘British History’? However such a distinction to me implies a certain cutting off or separation between Ireland and ‘Britain’, when in fact many of the questions that most fascinate me are to do with their bumping off one another, to tweak Conrad Russell’s ‘billiard balls’ imagery. Perhaps my confusion is simply emblematic of a much wider and more profound identity crisis that afflicts England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, and this more illusive and slippery ‘Britain’ sitting between them all.

The results of the referendum to leave the EU, together with the resulting recent spat surrounding the future of the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland demonstrate to me the paramount importance of understanding the internal histories and dynamics of the constituent parts of the United Kingdom – including Northern Ireland. The divergent votes of England and Wales versus Scotland and Northern Ireland in the referendum challenge us to consider the long historical developments that influenced the Brexit result. These must also take into consideration issues such as Scottish independence, the debates surrounding devolution across the UK, and indeed the very future of the union itself. Of course, there needs also to be a strand of investigation which examines the interactions of these nations and their peoples, but as Tim Harris has argued, understanding the particular political, cultural and social structures from which each of the ‘British nations’ have emerged is paramount.

A protest in Manchester. By Ilovetheeu - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

A protest in Manchester.
By Ilovetheeu – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Where then does this leave the early modern period? ‘British’ history has often been characterised as especially robust in the writings of sixteenth and seventeenth-century historians, interested in processes such as state formation: an interrogation of the dynamics of a British ‘coming together’ in these centuries, as argued by John Pocock. However, the challenge to me seems to be to look beyond these issues of constitution and the creation of a political ‘nation’ from four distinctive entities, and to examine other avenues of both coming together and pulling apart. This can help us in our quandary to examine both the internal histories of the four nations, while also accommodating an overarching strand – a ‘fifth nation’ perhaps, to borrow an idea from Maggie Scull and Naomi Lloyd-Jones in their introduction to the Four Nations book.

In my own research, those avenues take the form of investigations into religion and ethnicity. Religion seems a very fruitful potential source of interrogating both particular histories and pan-British trends: the continued adherence to Roman Catholicism of much of the Irish population is but one example. Trying to understand it involves the interaction of a number of ‘Irish’ factors, among which we can count the importance of local aristocracy, the relative strength of the late medieval Irish church, particularly the mendicant orders of Franciscans and Dominicans, and a lively popular piety that often tied both belief and religious heritage to the physical landscape of Ireland, from holy wells to St Patrick’s Purgatory at Lough Derg, believed by some to be an entrance to Hell. However it is also impossible to understand it without reference to wider, ‘British’ factors. Historians have spoken of the ‘Tudor discovery’ of Ireland, underlining that even as late as the sixteenth century, the English authorities in Ireland knew very little of their western fringe: this lacuna was to prove fundamental, since ignorance in turn produced tension and subsequently, tragically, conflict. The fusion of church and state engendered by Henry VIII’s break with Rome was, in the eyes of historians such as the recently-deceased Brendan Bradshaw, a fatal flaw as the increasingly aggressive policies of the English state became elided with the ‘new’ religion, engendering a widespread rejection founded on both religious and political grounds, as Protestantism was both heresy, and English. But what of more ordinary people? My own research into the 1641 Irish Rebellion has shown this toxic mixture of heresy and anti-English feeling fuelling conflict and at times unspeakable acts of violence. Violence and conflict can be an excellent microcosm for both these intensely ‘national’ concerns to be interwoven with much larger ‘British’ ones: the legacies of such events still resonate with us today.

However, the example above does not mean that we ‘British’ historians should be searching for a unified experience or entity in every aspect of the histories of our nations. It seems to me that, as both recent and very distant past events have shown, there is a need, indeed even an urgent need, to consider the specific as well as the ‘British’ – for without the former, the latter is rendered too general and meaningless. British history is perhaps then best imagined as a mosaic of both overlapping and discrete peoples, forces, events: tiles of many different hues that can be both a supporting border, as well as a single image. Now, how to fit one on my office door?

Viva Preparation Tips & Advice

Three historians who have successfully been through their PhD viva at KCL share their practical tips and discuss what you can do to prepare for your viva.


William Tullett – Completed History PhD at KCL on ‘Smells, Smelling and the Senses in England, 1660-1830’.

I would say the most important thing for the viva is not to worry about it but to look forward to it. This is a fantastic opportunity to talk to leading scholars, who’ve spent time reading your work in detail. You are an expert talking about the thing you know best – so it should be a really enjoyable experience. Make sure you read back through your thesis, keeping in mind what your examiners work on, and think about the kind of questions they might ask. Mark up your thesis with post it notes that list questions, weaknesses, strengths, and key arguments. I also created an index with page numbers for key points.

A thesis is never perfect. Part of the viva process is figuring out how you might extend, refine, or rearrange your ideas when it comes to article or book publication. Think about what you would do differently or do more of if you had the time. Is there material you had to leave out? Why did you do so and what might you do with those sources or arguments? Explaining the process of research is important. This includes why you decided to follow some roads and not others. This process might be obvious to you, but may not be to your examiners who may not know the source material as well as you or may not have approached it with the same questions in mind.

I would also say that having my supervisor in the viva was a great choice. Some might find this supportive and comforting (although I realise that not everybody may feel that way). If you’re in the midst of explaining your ideas then having somebody else to make notes and record what’s being said can be a great help. It meant that, after the viva, I was able to supplement my own notes with those of my supervisor, which gave me a more complete picture to guide me as I worked on turning the thesis into a book.


Tom Colville – Submitting revisions for History PhD at KCL on ‘Mental Capacity and the Pursuit of Knowledge in England, 1650-1700’.

A viva is a highly individual experience as so much depends on the nature of your project and what your examiners choose to focus on. However, there were a couple of things I did before my viva which I believe helped me to have a positive experience and might therefore prove useful to other people too.

On a practical level: I decided to take notes from my thesis in a way that helped me to feel confident in precisely what all of my arguments were and how they tied together. When reading through my thesis in the weeks before my viva I kept a notebook with me and made a note of every single argument that I made. This included the really big stuff (why is this thesis necessary? What gap does it fill in the literature?) to the much smaller aspects (why primary source ‘x’ merits re-examination, why I haven’t gone into depth on topic ‘y’, why I slightly disagree with historian ‘z’). This exercise resulted in half a dozen pages of concise notes which I found extremely valuable as something to revisit in the couple of days before the viva. At that late stage it did not feel like a valuable use of time to re-read the thesis another couple of times (you will already know it inside out by that stage) but I found it very useful to have something to refer back to in moments of doubt. Even in the hours before my viva I found these 6 or so pages of notes to be a comforting reminder that there was no aspect of my thesis that I didn’t know from all angles. Importantly, these notes also helped me to focus my attention on the key debates and my authorial choices within the thesis – which are probably the most likely aspects to receive close scrutiny from examiners.

I didn’t have any kind of mock viva in the run-up to the big day but I did practice some answers to the very basic questions which are likely to come up in one form or another. For example: why does this thesis matter? What’s new about your research? Why did you use that structure/methodology rather than a different approach? I don’t recommend having scripted responses memorised for such questions, but knowing that I was able to assertively answer them helped to keep my nerves under control. In my experience, the viva will probably be a combination of some questions you could probably predict and others which take you by surprise. This means that there is no such thing as perfect preparation, but you can help yourself by having spent some time thinking about the nature of your choices, your inclusions/exclusions, and places where a different historian might form a different interpretation from similar evidence.

Though these methods may have helped me to answer questions slightly more effectively, their key benefit is that they allowed me to stay in control (rather than becoming a mess of nerves) in the days prior to the viva. Everyone will have their own methods of doing this but I would recommend doing something along these lines in order to feel like you aren’t leaving any stones unturned.


Rebecca Simon – Completed History PhD at KCL on ‘The Crime of Piracy and its Punishment: The Performance of Maritime Supremacy and its Representations in the British Atlantic World, 1670-1830’.

Preparing for your viva is no easy task. The scariest part of it is the unknown. What will my examiners ask me? Did they like it? Did they hate it? And most importantly, Will I pass? Some people suggest having a “mock viva”. I know people with whom this was very helpful. In hindsight, I am very cautious of a mock viva because only the examiners know what you will be asked to defend. Your supervisor should be able to guide you, but they might have a completely different idea of what you’ll be asked to defend than what actually gets presented. I had a tough viva, so this was the case for me.

In my experience there only two things you can do to prep for your viva. The first thing to do is to read and reread your thesis so you know the information cold. Look at your sources, both primary and secondary. Make notes of other areas of work that didn’t make it into your thesis. Write down sources you looked at but did not use. Look into secondary literature that are only tangentially relevant so you have a wider picture of where your topic fits into the historical narrative. You can’t memorize everything you didn’t cover, so don’t even try. Just know the basics.

The second, and most important, thing to do is defend your thesis. This sounds obvious, but if your examiners question your work and your methodology, you must have a sound reason for doing everything you did. This shows that not only do you know your thesis, you know how to be a historian. Not only that, you need to believe in your work. It’s too easy to doubt yourself, but you have to swallow down those doubts during your viva. Do not let those doubts show. Show enthusiasm for your project and do your best to project an air of confidence even if you’re quaking inside. I cannot stress this enough. My thesis had a terrible introduction, so my examiners focused their questions on my research methodology. Therefore, I had to answer a lot of questions about why I did not talk about this area or that. Over and over I replied with something similar to, “I’m glad you asked. I researched such-and-such, [gave examples], but I felt it would pull too much away from my argument because [explained why]; but in the future that’s an area I intend to expand upon.” In my final report, both examiners highlighted how impressed they were with my knowledge of the subject, enthusiasm, and how well I justified my research. I’m convinced this saved me from more corrections.

So, to sum up: Know your thesis and the wider historical scope backwards and forwards; defend the hell out of your thesis. Acknowledge their concerns, but if you believe in your work then do not waver from your argument and intentions. Good luck!