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Making Empires: Britain and the World, 1541-1714 - 30 credits (HS1793)

Module Tutor: Dr Mark Williams

Course Description

This module will examine the deep cultural, political, and religious roots of the British Empire from the sixteenth through to the early eighteenth centuries. Beginning with early attempts by the English (and later ‘British’) state to extend influence over the ‘British Isles’ through Ireland and Scotland in the sixteenth century, this module will investigate how such models of extending control influenced imperial endeavours abroad. This will include analysis of the operation of and life within growing colonies in the Americas, Tangier, and India. Central to these discussions will be the interactions between the centre and the periphery. For example, the module considers how power was extended across imperial networks; how religion shaped imperial ideas; and it explores the role of ‘marginal’ groups (e.g. women, religious minorities, radicals) in these imperial efforts. A wide variety of sources – including contemporary correspondence, political tracts, artwork, material objects, architecture, and fashion – will help to illuminate a side of the British Empire which challenges the place of empire in world history and the idea of ‘Britishness’ in an increasingly transnational world.

Credits: 30

Availability of module: Every year

Prerequisites: N/A

Necessary for: N/A

Teaching methods

A range of teaching methods will be used in each of the sessions of the course, comprising a combination of lectures and seminar discussion of major issues. The syllabus is divided into a series of major course themes, then sub-divided into principal topics for the study of each theme.

The aim of the lectures is to provide a brief introduction to a particular topic, establishing the salient features of major course themes, identifying key issues and providing historiographical guidance. The lectures aim to provide a basic framework for understanding and should be thought of as useful starting points for further discussion and individual study. Where appropriate, handouts and other materials may be distributed to reinforce the material discussed.

The primary aim of seminars will be to generate debate and discussion amongst course participants. Seminars for each of the course topics will provide an opportunity for students to analyse and further discuss key issues and topics relating to lectures.


Students will be assessed by means of a combination of one 1000 word assessed essay [15%], one 2000 word assessed essay [35%] and one two-hour unseen written examination paper in which the student will answer two questions [50%].

Course assignments:

Assessed Essay 1 will contribute 15% of the final mark for the module. It is designed to give students the opportunity to demonstrate their ability to review evidence, draw appropriate conclusions from it and employ the formal conventions of scholarly presentation. It must be no longer than 1,000 words (excluding empirical appendices and references).

Assessed Essay 2 will contribute 35% of the final mark for the module. It is designed to give students the opportunity to demonstrate their ability to review evidence, draw appropriate conclusions from it and employ the formal conventions of scholarly presentation. It must be no longer than 2,000 words (excluding empirical appendices and references).

The Examination will take place during the second assessment period [May/June] and will consist of an unseen two hour paper that will contribute the remaining 50% of the final mark for this module. Students must write 2 answers in total.

Summary of course content

Themes to be discussed will include:

  • Introduction: Empire, Centre and Periphery – Approaches and Apprehensions
  • The First Empire? The ‘New British History’, Transnationalism, and Models of Integration
  • Ireland: Surrender and Conquest under the Tudors
  • Ireland: Religion and Revolt – the Desmond and Tyrone Rebellions
  • Ireland: The Language of Colonialism – Edmund Spenser
  • The Union of the Crowns and the Early Stuart Settlements: Creating ‘Britain’?
  • The Wars of the Three Kingdoms: An Imperial War?
  • Protestantism and Empire: The Settlement of the Americas
  • Protestantism and Empire: ‘Puritanism’ and Early American Identity
  • Protestantism and Empire: The Western Design and A Godly Empire
  • Protestantism and Empire: The Dutch Wars and Domestic Debates
  • What Type of Empire?: The East India Company
  • What Type of Empire?: Tangier
  • What Type of Empire?: Colonial India (I & II)
  • Governing Empire: Ireland, 1660-1714
  • Governing Empire: America, 1660-1714
  • Governing Empire: India, 1660-1714
  • Marginals?: Catholicism in Empire
  • Marginals?: Women in Empire
  • Marginals?: Radicalism and Revolt
  • Questioning Periphery: Ireland
  • Questioning Periphery: America
  • Questioning Periphery: India
  • Final Session: Debating Identity and Empire

Learning outcomes

  • Demonstrate a systematic and critical understanding of the early British Empire and a wide variety of historiographical approaches to both the British Empire specifically and the notion of ‘empire’ more broadly
  • Critically identify and engage with both contemporary and current interpretations of the nature and legacy of the British Empire.
  • Discuss and critically assess the range of secondary debates regarding early-modern empires, including the challenges posed by social and cultural approaches to ethnicity, gender, religion, and politics.
  • Assess and interpret a variety of primary sources relating to the practice and experience of the early British Empire
  • Both develop and problematise comparative approaches to the experience of Empire in this period.
  • Identity problems in the study of empire and the early-modern period more generally arising from notions of power and historical memory.
  • Engage with and identify the challenges posed by online resources from within the discipline, including Early English Books Online (EEBO), Eighteenth-Century Collections Online (ECCO), and the 1641 Depositions Project Online

Skills that will be practised and developed

  • communicate ideas and arguments effectively, whether in class discussion or in written form, in an accurate, succinct and lucid manner.
  • formulate and justify arguments and conclusions about a range of issues, and present appropriate supporting evidence
  • an ability to modify as well as to defend their own position.
  • an ability to think critically and challenge assumptions
  • an ability to use a range of information technology resources to assist with information retrieval and assignment presentation.
  • time management skills and an ability to independently organise their own study methods and workload.
  • work effectively with others as part of a team or group in seminar or tutorial discussions.

Suggested preparatory reading

Armitage, D., The ideological origins of the British empire, (Cambridge, 2000).
Armitage, D. and M. Braddick (eds.), The British Atlantic world, 1500-1800, (Basingstoke, 2002).
Bowen, H.V., Wales and the British overseas empire : interactions and influences, 1650-1830, (Manchester, 2011).
Canny, N. Making Ireland British, 1580-1650, (Oxford, 2001).
Canny, N. (ed.), The origins of empire : British overseas enterprise to the close of the seventeenth century, (Oxford, 1998).
Elliott, J.H., The old world and the new, 1492-1650, (London, 1970).
Games, A., Migration and the origins of the English Atlantic world, (Cambridge, 1999).
Wilson, K., (ed.), A new imperial history: culture, identity, and modernity in Britain and the Empire, 1660-1840, (Cambridge, 2004)