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David Smith

smith dName
Dr. David Smith

Selwyn College

What is your field of history?
My field is British political and constitutional history during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Within this area, I have worked especially on parliamentary history, on the nature of Royalist politics and ideas, and on the life and career of Oliver Cromwell.

How did you come to specialise in this area?
I came to this period through being taught as an undergraduate by Professor John Morrill, who later supervised my Ph.D. thesis. His inspiration and infectious enthusiasm for this period were crucial in leading me to specialise in it. Another important influence was the late Professor Sir Geoffrey Elton who also took a very supportive interest in my work. Both these historians helped me to appreciate not only the importance of this period but also its complexity, dynamism and colour.

What sort of source material do you tend to use, and what are its strengths and weaknesses?
Many of the sources that I use are records of government (e.g. the State Papers Domestic) and the records of Parliament. I also make extensive use of the letters, diaries and memoirs left by private individuals, together with a range of other sources that reveal political or religious attitudes, including literary sources.

The main strengths of these sources are that they survive in relative abundance and that they offer a very direct insight not only into the political culture of the period but also into the beliefs and motives of historical players.

The main weakness is that they tend to reflect the perspective of those in authority, and so they need to be tempered by other sources (private papers, often still in manuscript) that shed light on the view from the bottom upwards.

Which individuals, events or forces are especially important in your area of history?
In this era of personal monarchy, the Tudor and Stuart monarchs, and their advisers in the Privy Council and Parliaments, loom large. This point extends also to the republican head of state Oliver Cromwell. Much of the current debate over the period surrounds the role of political and religious ideas in shaping events, especially the English Revolution of the 1640s and 1650s.

How has your field developed over the course of your career?
Over the past 20 years, scholars have placed much greater emphasis on political and religious culture rather than on high politics. They are also showing increasing sensitivity to the relationship between ideas and action, and much more sophistication in the analysis of these themes.

Which areas of your field most urgently need further exploration?
We still need more work on the role of the defeated – especially the Royalists who lost the wars of the 1640s, yet whose cause ultimately triumphed in 1660. There is still enormous scope for more biographical studies of particular figures. This is a field much beset by competing general lines of interpretation, yet only detailed studies of individuals provide the raw materials on which such frameworks can be based.

What characterises good history?
I think that good history should demonstrate both thoroughness of research and clarity and liveliness of exposition and argument. The creative but disciplined use of historical imagination is also very important, as is the ability to think laterally in locating sources and making connections between individuals and events.

How did your understanding of history change during your time as a university student?
I think I developed a much greater awareness of the importance of history as a discipline, and the responsibility of historical enquiry. I also became much more aware of the vigour and excitement of historical controversy, and how wide open historical debate really is.

Where should somebody interested in your area of history go for further information?
A very good place to start is the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004), available both in hard copy and on-line. Browsing the lives of some of the key figures from the period is an excellent way into it.

Many of the key primary sources for this period are now available via websites such as Early English Books Online or British History Online, and these again offer a very accessible way of locating source material.