Linda Colley

Linda Colley’s The Gun, the Ship and the Pen: War, Constitutions and the Making of the Modern World will be published next year.

Lastsummer, in the world we have lost, I took a long Uber ride through Bristol. It was long because my Ethiopian driver was eager to tell me how much his country had changed in recent years, and how much of this was because of China. In the last decade, Chinese companies were responsible for more than 350 construction projects in Ethiopia – airports, railway stations, shopping malls,...

Could it be that Britain’s political stability has become too pronounced? That, by not having to adjust and alter its political system as so many other countries have had to do, the UK has stored up unaddressed problems and unhelpful stagnancies? If so, might the convulsions and divisions over Brexit have some tonic effect? Might this bitterly divisive and presumably long-lasting change turn out to be the painful moderniser that military defeats and invasions have sometimes proved to be for other countries?

Wide-Angled: Global History

Linda Colley, 26 September 2013

What is history for? What do we want it to do? In 1731, an obscure Kentish schoolmaster named Richard Spencer offered some answers. Properly to ascertain his position in geographical space, he reasoned, required not a single map, but access to a global atlas, one that would allow him to ‘see what London and the adjacent parts are in the kingdom; what the kingdom is in Europe, and what...

North and South

Linda Colley, 2 August 2012

The uneven rise of Scottish nationalism is deeply interesting: but not because it is hard to explain, or because it is the only domestic fracture that matters. It has long been accepted that neither the Union of Crowns of 1603, which saw the Scottish King James VI move south to London, nor the Treaty of Union of 1707 served to cancel out Scottish distinctiveness. In educational,...

What is ‘national history’, and what is it for? Who and what should be included in it? And where does it take place? For all that it may appear to offer a uniquely intelligible account of a clearly demarcated political and geographical space, national history is intrinsically problematic. Territorial and maritime boundaries are usually porous. The frontiers of virtually all...

Hillary Clinton is manifestly a beneficiary and exemplar of a massive, historically recent and still ongoing transformation. ‘I represented a fundamental change in the way women functioned in our society,’ she wrote in Living History (2003); and, at one level, her life has indeed been a succession of hard-won firsts, and of admirable striving against prejudice, condescension and limited expectations. Yet some of her responses, and some of the circumstances of her career, have been traditional and backward-looking.

You might think that Trafalgar Square says it all. Its massive column surmounted by the 18-foot-high statue of Horatio Nelson, the bas-reliefs at the base commemorating his ships’ destruction of the French and Spanish fleets and the city of Copenhagen, the surrounding monuments to various imperial warriors: surely all this sums up what the Royal Navy’s command of the oceans in the...

It is partly because so much appears to be known about William Cobbett (1763-1835) that he is insufficiently understood. Few political writers anywhere and at any time have been more prolific or had more impact on their contemporaries. His newspaper The Political Register, which appeared at intervals between 1802 and 1835, sold at its peak of popularity up to 70,000 copies an issue and was...

We are all Scots here: Scotland and Empire

Linda Colley, 12 December 2002

How is empire to be understood in an age that takes nations and nationalism for granted? For those who were once invaded by empires which have since become defunct, this rarely seems a problem. For the majority of Indians in regard to the British Raj, as for one-time satellites of Soviet Russia, empire is simply the dark before the light, an episode of alien oppression now triumphantly...

‘The history of England,’ Sir John Seeley declared in The Expansion of England (1883), ‘is not in England but in America and Asia.’ Like many aphorisms, this was at once consciously perverse and entirely apt. Seeley wrote as a fervid supporter of imperial federation, ‘Greater Britain’, but he was also taking issue, as in a preceding series of lectures...

We know both too much about Margaret Thatcher and too little. She was 20th-century Britain’s longest serving Prime Minister, and occupied the post for a longer continuous period than anyone since Lord Liverpool in the early 19th century. As a result, the volume of official paperwork impinging on her career is enormous, and much of it is still under wraps. The first and only woman to lead the Conservative Party, and the first non-royal female ever to lead the country, she has already attracted more books and essays than any other recent British politician barring Winston Churchill. But many of these writings are by acolytes or enemies, too smitten or too repelled by her formidable, divisive personality to offer a balanced or comprehensive appraisal of what she actually achieved.

Stubble and Breath: Mother Germaine

Linda Colley, 15 July 1999

It is now almost thirty years since the publication of The Female Eunuch, and like most women of my age and background, I remember buying a copy. In my case, it was the famous paperback version, the one with a metallic trunk of a woman on the cover, hanging mutilated from a wardrobe rail.

The experience of reading this book is a paradoxical one. Innovative, expertly researched and luminous in style, it nonetheless seems at times almost eerily familiar. The reason for this quickly becomes evident. Those who know their Jane Austen well have been here before. There are echoes of the novels even in some of the characters we encounter in Amanda Vickery’s volume: the clergyman’s wife from a commercial background, for instance, who – very much in the manner of Mrs Elton – addresses her spouse as ‘Mr R’. More important, though, are the similarities in method. Austen claimed to have derived inspiration from the closely observed antics of a narrow sample of comfortably-off county families. Unable to spy on her subjects over the card table or across the assembly room, Vickery has instead haunted the Lancashire Record Office at Preston and pored over all the letters, diaries and account books there written by privileged women between 1730 and 1825.’‘

A Magazine of Wisdom

Linda Colley, 4 September 1997

Edmund Burke is easily the most significant intellectual in politics these islands ever produced. Infinitely more profound and productive than his nearest 18th-century equivalent, Henry St John, Viscount Bolingbroke, he was also far more prominent in national politics over a much longer span than John Milton or the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury in the 17th century, J.S. Mill in the 19th century, and Bertrand Russell this century. Nominated MP for Wendover in 1765, after becoming private secretary to the Marquess of Rockingham who was then briefly prime minister, he remained in the Commons until 1794, three years before his death. For most of that time he was a leading opposition spokesman, ideologue and tactician.

Clashes and Collaborations

Linda Colley, 18 July 1996

How should historians write about empire? Or, if you prefer, the imperial enterprise? The task is made difficult in part because many people still find it easy to confuse academic concentration on this phenomenon with approval of it. To some on the Left for instance – especially in the United States – imaginatively reconstructing the ideas and actions of the imperial powers in the past can seem dangerously close to condoning racism, brutality and Eurocentricity in the present. The only valid questions about empire, in this view, are why so many Europeans were so complicit in such an obvious evil for so long, and how non-Europeans came successfully to resist it. By contrast, sections of the Right in this country insist on a version of history that will trumpet Empire’s positive achievements, not least out of a present-minded concern to stress that Britain’s role is global not European. The forthcoming Oxford History of the British Empire, a massive and important work, has already been attacked by sections of the Tory press on the grounds that its American editor, international contributors of both sexes and striving for balance are bound to make it a subversive piece of multiculturalism. Yet rumour has it that this same project was initially denied American funding, because Foundations there assumed that its subject-matter made it ipso facto reactionary.’


Linda Colley, 21 September 1995

There is a sinister painting by the 18th-century artist Francis Hayman of a couple frolicking on a seesaw. A youth soars triumphantly into the air, but his hold seems precarious. His female companion descends smilingly to the ground, only to tumble back into the lascivious arms of another man. Altogether an appropriately ambivalent emblem, one might think, for the vicissitudes that James Boswell would experience throughout his life, and the turbulence of his reputation since his death.

Vengeful Susan

Linda Colley, 22 September 1994

In 1990, Lawrence Stone published a book called Road to Divorce. Bold, original, pungent and wide-ranging, it was at one level an attempt to convey the vagaries and varieties of matrimony in England from Tudor times to the Marriage Act of 1753, and the extreme difficulty and dirtress involved in legally separating from a spouse before the passage of the Divorce Act in 1857. At a deeper level however, and characteristically, Stone’s purpose was far more ambitious.

Let them cut grass

Linda Colley, 16 December 1993

It was an extraordinarily long premiership – indeed the longest of the century by a considerable margin. In part, this was because the Opposition was divided, its members seemingly incapable of suppressing their personal disagreements and policy differences so as to co-ordinate and concentrate their attack. But the premier’s longevity was also due to a high degree of political professionalism and ruthless single-mindedness. Critics were shut out of the Cabinet and state patronage was exploited in an unprecedentedly partisan way. Favours were distributed to those sections of the press which supported the regime. Direct taxes on wealth were reduced in favour of indirect taxation, hurting the middle and lower classes, but beguiling the wealthy. The resulting dissatisfaction, in Scotland, the big cities and among intellectuals, was neutralised by the vagaries of the electoral system.’

Send them to Eton!

Linda Colley, 19 August 1993

The question is: what is the question? This summer has seen a bumper crop of books all ostensibly addressing the problems of the British monarchy. The blurbs have been in technicolour: ‘the most significant work ever written on the House of Windsor’, ‘explosive and electrifying’, ‘destined to ruffle a lot of feathers’, ‘sensational’, and ‘the best-kept publishing secret of the year’. Few wanted to know it, however. Now, as autumn approaches, many of these volumes are on the remaindered shelves, and some have been pulped. So what are they for? And what did they mean?

Identity Parade

Linda Colley, 25 February 1993

‘I will never, come hell or high water, let our distinctive British identity be lost in a federal Europe.’ John Major’s ringing assurance to last year’s Conservative Party Conference is part of a long tradition whereby Britishness has been defined primarily by reference to a real or an imaginary Other. Understandably so, since defining this entity in its own terms has always been problematic and is fast becoming more so.


Linda Colley, 3 December 1992

Why did Susan Sontag write this book? Essayist and cultural critic, interpreter of Aids, cancer, the cinema, Fascism and pornography, recipient of Jonathan Miller’s burdensome accolade ‘probably the most intelligent woman in America’, why should she want to attempt a historical novel? It’s been a success of course. There have been the entries into the best-seller lists, the interviews and profiles in the right magazines, the respectful and often rapturous reviews. Only the occasional still small voice has risked pointing out – what is almost certainly true – that the bulk of those who have purchased this book have wanted the latest high-cultural artefact for their glass-topped tables, not ideas or literature. It is easy to read. It is even entertaining. But why did she write it?’

Not Many Dead

Linda Colley, 10 September 1992

Ian Gilmour is a distinguished and highly intelligent example of a once rare species: he is a Conservative with a cause. Unfortunately for him, however – and perhaps for the rest of us as well – his cause is no longer that of the political party he has always espoused. The son of a baronet, he was born into Toryism in much the same way as Anthony Trollope’s Duke of Omnium was born to Whig Liberalism, passing through Eton, to Balliol, to marriage with a daughter of the Duke of Buccleuch, to the Bar, to safe Conservative seats in rural Norfolk and Buckinghamshire, and then on to cabinet rank, first as Secretary of Defence under Heath, and then as Lord Privy Seal and Deputy Foreign Secretary. Then came Margaret Thatcher’s consolidation of her own style of party leadership and, on 14 September 1981, the end of his political progress.’


Linda Colley, 9 July 1992

‘It tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all.’ So runs the bright but ingenuous Catherine Moreland’s famous dismissal of the relevance and attractiveness of history. Less well-known, but more revealing, however, is the comment that Jane Austen was careful to insert not just before but after these irreverent lines in Northanger Abbey. ‘I am fond of history’ is Eleanor Tilney’s quiet but repeated rebuke: and since she is older than Catherine as well as wiser, much better-educated and socially far more elevated, a landowner’s daughter and the future wife of a viscount, the intelligent reader is clearly intended to identify with and endorse her judgment. Properly viewed, we are meant to conclude, history is herstory too.

Diary: Anita Hill v. Clarence Thomas

Linda Colley, 19 December 1991

To look at, Yale’s Law School resembles a small-scale version of the Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge superimposed on a large mock-Tudor bowling alley. In fact, like most of the present-day Yale campus, it was built in the Thirties by poorly-paid Italian immigrants. Unlike the surrounding buildings, however, which are now beginning to show their real as distinct from their fake age, the Law School is in that pristine state of repair which betokens the support of serious money. For this is America’s top law school, the most intellectually prestigious, and the most powerful in terms of its close ties with Washington. This is the alma mater of Anita Hill, Professor of Law at the University of Oklahoma, and of her adversary, Supreme Court Judge Clarence Thomas, and of his Senate sponsor, John Danforth, and of his most effective champion on the Senate Judicial Committee, the fearsomely-named and viciously forensic Arlen Spector.

Things that are worth naming

Linda Colley, 21 November 1991

Among the illustrations in this book is a painting by John Closterman of the Marlborough family which hangs today in Blenheim Palace. On its right-hand side, as convention dictates, sits the head of the family, John Churchill, at the time of the painting, first Earl of Marlborough. On its extreme left, at a slightly lower level, stands his only surviving son and heir, the ten-year-old Lord Blandford. Each of them is shown gesturing to the other, presumably because the artist wanted to create a connection in the spectator’s mind between the author of the family’s grandeur and the source of its future hopes. But the effect is to carry the eye to the very centre of the work, to the figure of Sarah Marlborough.

At least they paid their taxes

Linda Colley, 25 July 1991

On the dust-jacket of this book is a photograph of its author. Kitty Kelley, formerly of Spokane, one-time Lilac Princess at school, millionaire biographer of Jacqueline Onassis, Elizabeth Taylor and Frank Sinatra, looks not all that different from her current subject. There is the same bright, taut face which a good surgical lift always ensures, the same immaculately-dyed and coiffeured hair, the same fixed smile exhibiting the kind of teeth that only an American orthodontist can fix, the same chunky gold jewellery and expensive clothes overlaying a diet-starved body, and the same clawed, no longer young hands about which nothing can be done whatsoever. Here, however, she is able to hide them behind the thousands of document files that surround her, a solid wall of research material on which someone has plopped a clearly reluctant cat.

Sweet Homes and Tolerant Houses

Linda Colley, 16 August 1990

The rise in the reputation of French history, not just in its own territory but throughout the Anglo-Saxon world as well, has been one of the most remarkable cultural developments since the Second World War. The reasons for its triumph are instructive, not least to historians of Britain, whose own discipline has so conspicuously declined in popularity over the same period of time. Some of the credit must go to a succession of scholars, Philippe Ariès, Fernand Braudel, Michel Foucault and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie among them, who combined intellectual power with formidable originality and entrepreneurial verve. But it is the kind of history writers like these have publicised that has been the main cause of French history becoming so indisputably chic. In part because of the campaign against traditional historiography launched by Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre in the 1920s, and partly too, I suspect, because the humiliations of the German Occupation encouraged alienation from the political, there has been a concentration instead on the private and on the popular. Not monarchs, or ministers, or diplomats, or generals, but demography, manners, sexuality, the family, the body, the senses, the symbols and language of everyday life and ordinary people: these have been the objects of desire for the most influential post-war historians of France.

Strong Government

Linda Colley, 7 December 1989

Anyone seeking to make sense of British history from the last quarter of the 17th century to the first quarter of the 19th must confront two closely-related questions. How did this small island, so sparsely-populated in comparison with its major rivals, manage to become the prime European and imperial power? And how was it able to remain fundamentally cohesive while it did so? Other polities succumbed to successful invasions from without or to major convulsions within: but Great Britain after 1688 did neither. Why not? Why was there no second wave of civil wars, no further shift in dynasty enforced by foreign troops, and no revolution from below?

Last Farewells

Linda Colley, 22 June 1989

On display at the British Museum at present is one of the most brilliant propaganda campaigns ever launched. Something very different from the glossy philistinism of Saatchi and Saatchi (‘An ace café with some quite good marbles attached’ perhaps?); something more sinister and more powerful. Wander in and you can see wax models of the severed heads of Maximilien de Robespierre and Antoine Fouquier-Tinville, dabbled with painted blood and based – or so Madame Tussaud claimed – on the mutilated originals. For the more sentimentally-inclined, there are paintings, prints and ceramics showing the agony of men and women on the eve of their own slaughter. Louis XVI embracing his family before his execution, his daughter swooning in his arms; or Camille Desmoulins, most elegant of revolutionaries, weeping with manly sensibility as he writes his last letter to his beloved wife. Harshest and most searing of all, however, are the cartoons. In James Gillray’s Un petit souper à la Parisienne, published in 1792, a scraggy woman bastes the body of a baby dangling over a fire; her companions squat bare-arsed on the dismembered carcasses of their victims, feasting on their flesh. One devours an eyeball; another tears at a heart. Some children gorge themselves with human offal piled up in a tub. And if you look carefully, you can see that these characters are not human at all. Their nails are turning into claws, their teeth into fangs. French revolutionaries are becoming monsters before our eyes.’

Downward Mobility

Linda Colley, 4 May 1989

We live in reactionary times. One indication of this is the growing trend among both politicians and academics to prescribe what historical study should be: how it should be organised and conducted, what it should be about, why it should be pursued at all. Such prescriptions can sometimes stem from genuine scholarly or cultural concern. But they can also betoken a dangerously closed mind.

The point of it all

Linda Colley, 1 September 1988

In 1759 the future Viscount Townshend challenged the Earl of Leicester to a duel. But Leicester refused to fight. He was, he claimed, too old and too ill; he could not hit a barn door with a pistol, and had not handled a sword for twenty years. What does this incident tell us about patrician values? And who was more conscious of his rank: the brash challenger or the man confident enough to ignore him?

Sire of the Poor

Linda Colley, 17 March 1988

More than fifty years have elapsed since G.M. Young published his splendidly suggestive survey of Victorian England, Portrait of an Age, and the confidence and command which enabled that book to be written seem to become ever more elusive. The exponential growth of the academic profession, and the sheer volume of relevant material and accumulated images, have ensured that our detailed knowledge about this period has advanced enormously since Young’s day. But knowledge does not always bring understanding. At present, some three hundred and fifty books and articles on 19th-century Britain appear every year. Most of them concentrate on only a limited portion of the period, and on only a particular locality or class or occupation or gender or individual within it. Like Humpty Dumpty, Victorian England seems at times to be in too many pieces ever to be put together again.

Stuck in Chicago

Linda Colley, 12 November 1987

As I write this, the Liberal MP David Alton is about to introduce a Bill changing the upper time limit on legal abortions from 28 weeks to 18. If he succeeds, more women will be forced to give birth against their will, and more will be obliged to give birth to children already known to be severely handicapped. Whether he succeeds will be determined by a House of Commons where 13 out of every 16 MPs belong to the sex that does not get pregnant and does not, traditionally, take on the main responsibility of childcare. If the Bill becomes law and a woman appeals against it, she will be confronted by a male judge, for there are no women judges in the Court of Appeal or in the House of Lords. And if this same woman then seeks a termination on medical grounds, the person she will have to convince will almost certainly be male. Only 11 per cent of medical consultants in this country are women.


Linda Colley, 9 July 1987

Richard Cobden is not a man for all seasons, but his life, career and values have been interpreted in widely different ways at different times. When he died in 1865, he was mourned by many as a secular saint. The majority remembered his leadership of one of the most triumphantly successful pressure groups in British history, the Anti-Corn Law League; and a minority honoured his uncompromising and frequently unpopular opposition to war: ‘seldom has hero rested, stained by so superb a fault.’ A special train was laid on from London to take the great and the good to his funeral; William Gladstone helped to carry his coffin; statues were raised by public subscription; and the London and provincial presses enshrined his memory in laudatory poems and improving books for the young. But it was not to last.

A Talented Past

Linda Colley, 23 April 1987

This anatomy of the membership of the House of Commons is the sixth such work to issue from the History of Parliament Trust. Previous volumes in the series have covered the years 1509 to 1603, 1660 to 1690, and 1715 to 1790; and if the Treasury and private donors continue to be kind, the identity, interests and influence of MPs in this country will be chronicled from 1386 to 1832 and possibly (and desirably) up to the present century. Devotion to the legislature on this heroic scale has a predictable appeal for the more serious-minded of its personnel. The project was championed in the past by Harold Macmillan and is protected now by the enthusiasm of men such as Roy Jenkins and Robert Rhodes James. But why should those of us who are excluded from this desirable club at Westminster want such an extended work of collective biography?

Napoleon’s Near Miss

Linda Colley, 18 April 1985

The English have never been unduly admiring of their own great men. All of Thomas Carlyle’s efforts failed to establish Oliver Cromwell securely in the Victorian pantheon. The names of Lord Nelson and the Duke of Wellington summon up public houses rather than heroes. Winston Churchill in this century, like the Elder Pitt in the 18th and the Younger Pitt in the 19th, was buried with ceremony then swiftly consigned to history: which means that for the bulk of the population he became irrelevant. Forced to choose last year between cattle and Sam Johnson as a subject for commemorative stamps, the Post Office opted for rumination rather than reputation. Even our soap operas dwell on the working classes and the drab, not – as in the United States – on the rich, the gorgeous and the powerful. It would be nice if this national indifference to glamour and achievement derived from a sturdy and egalitarian refusal to be impressed. But since our only national cult is the Royal Family, James Agate’s less flattering verdict may also be more appropriate: ‘The English instinctively admire any man who has no talent and is modest about it.’’


Linda Colley, 1 November 1984

Just the place for a snark, the Bellman said. And with equal assurance, political activists from Tom Paine to Friedrich Engels and historians from Elie Halévy to Edward Thompson have hailed 18th and 19th-century Britain as just the place for a revolution. For superficially – though only superficially – the conditions seem to have been almost ideal. From the Glorious Revolution in 1688 to Waterloo in 1815, Britain faced a recurrent threat of French invasion and the near-certainty of French aid for dissidents and conspirators at home: Jacobites before 1745; Jacobins after 1789. In the hundred years after 1750, Britain’s social fabric was tried and tormented by the strains of unprecedented population growth and pioneering economic change. Add to this the world’s most sophisticated press network, a corrupt and supposedly amorphous state structure, and the impact and example of the American and French Revolutions, and surely one can argue that a British conflagration was on the cards?’

In Praise of Lolly

Linda Colley, 3 February 1983

The American historian J. H. Hexter once complained that the myth of an assertive and ascendant middle class had distorted accounts of almost every century of English history. Yet for the 18th century – a period in which the myth had at least some substance in reality – the charm of the bourgeoisie has proved discreet, indeed has often been discounted. In the 1950s and 60s Sir Lewis Namier and his clique concentrated almost exclusively on Georgian England’s political and parliamentary élite; in the 1970s and 80s E.P. Thompson and his comrades have stigmatised these same patricians while rescuing the plebs: both lobbies, it would seem, are as averse to describing the middling sort as they are to occupying the middle ground of historical controversy. The economic historians have been scarcely more forthcoming. Individual industries and their captains have been chronicled but not, thus far, what the embourgeoisement of the 18th century meant for the average English consumer.

The ‘unconstitution’ has worked only because England’s ruling elites, out of decent self-interest, have never fully exploited its incredible lack of formal constraint on executive power....

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In the 1680s, Port Royal in Jamaica was a new sort of town. A deep-water port, it lay at the end of a nine-mile sand and gravel spit sheltering Kingston harbour. It was a merchant enclave and a...

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Oak in a Flowerpot: When Britons were slaves

Anthony Pagden, 14 November 2002

Tangier, 1684. A motley group of soldiers scrambles over the ruins of a town, burying beneath the rubble newly minted coins that bear the image of Charles II. This least remembered of the...

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Blame it on the French

John Barrell, 8 October 1992

Linda Colley’s new book is an attempt to discover and analyse the ingredients of British national identity as it was forged in the 18th century – ‘forged’ in the double...

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Liking it and living it

Hugh Tulloch, 14 September 1989

In the Sixties J.H. Plumb euphorically announced the death of the ‘past’ – that comforting mythology conjured up to serve the present and make sense of things as they are...

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Tory Phylogeny

John Brewer, 2 December 1982

Edmund Burke, who spent most of his life either in the wilderness of Parliamentary opposition or as a champion of lost causes, knew how uncharitably we treat political failure. ‘The conduct...

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