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Andrew Thompson

andrew thompsonName
Dr. Andrew Thompson


What is your field of history?
I work on eighteenth-century British and European history.

How did you come to specialise in this area?
I had originally wanted to study nineteenth-century British history in my first year at Cambridge. The supervisor I was given only did eighteenth-century stuff so my interest grew from there. I have always been interested in the history of religion and studied aspects of 18th century British religious history for both my undergraduate dissertation and my masters degree (a one year course done after the end of the undergraduate course). I was given the good advice to ‘Europeanise’ myself for my Ph.D. so looked at the interaction of religion and foreign policy in Britain and Hanover in the first half of the eighteenth century. My other projects – on international relations more generally and the Hanoverian monarchs – have generally flowed from that.

What sort of source material do you tend to use, and what are its strengths and weaknesses?
I use a variety of source material. I have worked very extensively in official sources, particularly those of diplomats and statesmen, to reconstruct why particular foreign policy decisions were taken. The process of decision-making is always going to be elusive, particularly when many decisions were the results of un-minuted (unrecorded) discussions. However, when monarch and ministers were in separate places (as happened frequently between 1714 and 1760), there is an increased likelihood of unearthing useful material because decisions had to be communicated to other interested parties. I have also worked on pamphlets, sermons and caricatures in an attempt to reconstruct the outlines of political cultural attitudes towards foreign policy. One major difficulty is how far a ‘climate of opinion’ can be said to have contributed to a particular decision being taken. What I’ve tried to show is the extent to which official and more popular discourse overlapped and the problems of suggesting that statesmen operate in radically different mental worlds to everybody else.

Which individuals, events or forces are especially important in your area of history?
My current research argues that elites remain very important for the conduct of politics in eighteenth-century Britain and, in particular, the role played by the monarch has usually been underestimated by historians keen to promote a celebratory account of the rise of parliament. I am sympathetic to approaches that emphasise the importance of war and foreign policy for state formation. That said, eighteenth-century studies is a very broad church and I see no problem with different people approaching issues in different ways.

How has your field developed over the course of your career?
The importance of empire and imperial concerns is certainly larger now that it was even ten years ago. The importance of religion for eighteenth-century politics is more generally acknowledged than it once was. Eighteenth-century studies have also been affected by the broader historiographical trends of the last couple of decades.

Which areas of your field most urgently need further exploration?
I think that we need to look far more carefully at the range of interactions that took place between Britain and continental Europe in the eighteenth century. This, I think, is likely to challenge some of the more simplistic conclusions about ‘national’ identity that have emerged in the recent literature.

What characterises good history?
It should be imaginative and well-written with an interesting but appropriate use of all the available sources. It should challenge pre-conceived views but also, occasionally, make people say ‘yes, of course: it must have been like that’.

How did your understanding of history change during your time as a university student?
Studying history at university provided me with a broad range of theoretical insights that I had not encountered previously. I became less interested in what happened and more interested in what people thought was happening and came to realise the importance of this for understanding motivation.

Where should somebody interested in your area of history go for further information?
Looking at the Oxford Dictionary of the National Biography provides a great insight into the lives of interesting groups within the British population. Wandering around the Enlightenment gallery in the British museum shows something of the range of interests that eighteenth-century collectors had. You can see the library of George III in its impressive new position at the very heart of the British Library. National Trust properties (such as Blickling Hall in Norfolk or Wimpole Hall near Cambridge) are great places to look at the material culture left behind by elites.