My PhD Thesis – What is it?


So recently I realised that I have been extremely inactive in publishing anything on this blog. I had intended to write some sort of summary of my thesis, once (and on the condition that) I passed my viva. Given that I passed my viva in mid-March, and yet I still haven’t produced anything, until now, it is fair to say that I am extremely overdue. The reasons for this are typical of individuals in a similar situation in their early careers, I have a few publications in the pipeline, and along with teaching commitments, resolving some corrections and job applications, I haven’t produced anything on this blog until now. I have tried to write this post for a broad readership, and so, hopefully, it will be accessible to both my friends who have wondered what I have been doing for the past three and a half years, and at the same time, it will also be of interest to my academic colleagues who might be interested in my work.


First, a small comment with regards to my viva, alongside some friendly advice to anyone facing the process. Undoubtedly, the viva is a scary process, and why wouldn’t it be? Two experts in your field will read your thesis (often intricately) and find its flaws (they will find them), and then discuss your work with you for between one and two hours. For the best of us, this is a daunting experience. With that said, I found the process to be a wholly positive and valuable process. My examiners were Dr David Parrott (New College, Oxford) and Professor Bernard Capp (Warwick), and both of them are leading experts in seventeenth-century military developments.

Prior to the viva, I was nervous, especially because the viva was not scheduled until the early afternoon. Now, I could recommend reading over the thesis in advance (several times), which I did, although whether this was of benefit to me is questionable. I found several points of concern during this process, which I felt might conflict with the examiners’ views, but actually, this was not worth worrying about, and these points were only raised in passing, and my examiners were willing to accept my arguments. So with this in mind, I would say that the most valuable piece of advice before the viva is to keep calm and focused. After all, during the examination, it quickly became apparent that I am an expert in this field, and I was happy to discuss and answer any questions about a topic that I know very well. As a result, the viva really was a valuable process and it may even have surpassed the two-hour mark (largely because I really do find it easy to talk about my research, if I am asked).

The viva is also a productive exercise and is an excellent opportunity to learn, there are always things that can be improved on with our work, and my thesis was no different. My viva was passed with minor corrections, a recommendation given to the majority of PhD students, and actually I largely expected these corrections. These changes were almost entirely based around further copy-editing, an issue that has long been my flaw. Comments were ‘change this word’ or ‘rephrase this’, which I was happy with, and these issues were resolved in the space of a month. So overall, the viva was a positive process. My research was complemented, as were my arguments and the structure of my thesis as a whole, so ‘onwards and upwards’…I hope.


For those of you interested, my thesis is around 80,000 words (excluding the forematter, footnotes and bibliography) and almost 350 pages. Its title is ‘Divided by La Manche: Naval Enterprise and Maritime Revolution in Early Modern England and France, 1545-1642’. As you may guess from the title, my thesis is a study of naval expansion and decline in England and France, from the Battle of the Solent in July 1545 (when the Mary Rose sank) to the beginning of the English Civil War (and death of the French principal minister Cardinal Richelieu) in 1642. With this said, it also occasionally refers to material from both before and after these dates, so this range could be expanded from 1500 to 1660. It considers how navies were administered, maintained, funded and constructed, and in doing so, it assesses the advances and effects of naval growth to both kingdoms’ political and ideological constructs.

As a comparative study of early modern state and naval development, it engages with the work of Jan Glete, whose European and North American study, Navies and Nations (1993), stressed the importance of navies to the military revolution debate (if you don’t know what this is – google it).[1] Using a similar methodology to Glete’s, my thesis uses quantitative statistical analysis to account for naval and state growth. This was made possible by an extensive research trip that collected a large source base from national and regional archives in England and France, alongside printed documentation, and resources from museums and art galleries. During a research trip to France that lasted almost six months, I visited archives and museums in Le Havre, Nantes, Brest and Paris. Meanwhile, research in Britain was largely confined to London, although I did spend some time in Portsmouth, Oxford and Cambridge. (Okay, I am starting to realise at this stage, that this post is becoming a plug for my thesis, which will be available in all good suppliers….not anytime soon).

Having related my work to Glete’s, my thesis also differs from his research by concentrating on two states, and by doing so, it provides a more detailed and bespoke account of naval development for England and France. With a reduced spatial and temporal focus, my thesis determines how specific instances of naval growth in the English and French kingdoms were either caused by, or led to, state consolidation. For example, Alan James (2004) addressed how Cardinal Richelieu’s success by organising the fall of the last major Huguenot stronghold, La Rochelle, in 1628-29, coincided with the emergence of a strengthened French fleet.[2] At the same time, state instability had repercussions on naval growth. Taking one example, the domestic volatility during Edward VI’s reign and Mary I’s accession resulted in a significant decrease in the size and strength of England’s navy.

By undertaking a comparative study, it quickly came to my attention that the highly centralised English standing navy, based almost exclusively in and around London, contrasted with the regional distribution of the French fleets. In other words, whereas the English royal warships were located at the core of the kingdom, France’s navy was spread across the peripheries. It became clear to me that this French system had very little option but to divide its warships in this way; its navy was conditioned by the kingdom’s geography. If we look at a map of France, we can see that the country’s coastline is split into two frontiers, because of the Iberian Peninsula, and so, if the state was to defend its sea borders, it would require two fleets, one for the Mediterranean, and a second for the Atlantic and North Sea. Meanwhile, the English navy’s main dockyards, and its administrative centre, remained in the southeast, with its royal dockyards at Deptford and Chatham. The English navy’s home, then, was located within close proximity to the head of state. Such a relationship between sea forces and Paris was not possible in France; instead, its chief naval bases were located at Le Havre, Brest, Brouage and Marseille by the 1630s. The closest of these to Paris, Le Havre, was still some 200 km away.

Moving on, the main focus of my thesis is on producing a framework that accounts for the rise and decline of naval strength. It suggests that three principal factors can account for these developments in early modern Europe. First, naval strength was reliant upon the will, enthusiasm and political stability of the monarch. Second, naval developments advanced most drastically under the pressure of international competition. State navies rarely advanced in isolation from the international theatre, but instead, navies often adapted and improved upon foreign maritime developments. The naval expansion schemes of England and France in this period were intertwined; both kingdoms were influenced by their rival’s naval activity across the Channel. This connection is shown with Charles I’s great warship the Sovereign of the Seas, which was constructed in response to the launch of the large French warship la Couronne in 1636. The English Channel was an international space of political and cultural exchange that facilitated English, French and other European navies’ advances. Finally, (returning to the point made in the previous paragraph) the maritime frontiers and the geography of both kingdoms are explored. The size, composition, visual design and location of state navies were conditioned by geography.

On a final note in regards to my thesis, rather than approaching the topic with a structure that is organised chronologically, my thesis uses a thematic approach in its chapters because of its comparative methodology. By using this structure, it is possible to illustrate the similarities, differences and instances of near concurrent development within the two states’ navies. The first two chapters consider the administrative infrastructure of the two kingdoms’ navies, and look in particular at the admiralty, councils and local governance. The third chapter evaluates the fiscal framework that permitted navies to operate and expand; it compares how revenue for naval expenditure was produced, recorded, and spent. The fourth and fifth chapters, which are arguably the most pivotal to my argument, consider the actual expansion of the fleets. The fifth chapter, in particular, correlates periods of naval growth with state strength and consolidation. My final chapter explores a previously understudied topic by discussing how sixteenth and early-seventeenth-century warships were exploited as symbols of power, through their design, use in elite and popular imagery, and through their role in state ceremonies. Altogether, these six chapters provide a coherent comparison and analysis of how, and why, navies were administered, maintained and developed in this period.

Thesis Contents


  1. The Admiralty and the State
    1. The Appointment of an Admiral
    2. The Jurisdiction of the Admiral
  2. Administrative Developments
    1. The Councils of the Admiralty
    2. Naval Developments in the Localities
  3. State Finance and the Navy
    1. Naval Expenditure
    2. Ordinary State Revenue
    3. Atypical Income
  4. Warship Design and State Control
    1. Galleys and Oared Vessels
    2. Warship Size
    3. Vessel Architecture and the State
  5. Naval Expansion, Private Vessels and State Control
    1. Merchant Composition
    2. Numerical Growth in State Navies
    3. Naval Decline
  6. The Ship of State
    1. Name and Reputation
    2. Decorating an Early Modern Warship
    3. Audience and Popular Representation

Coda and Conclusion


To be honest, it is nice to now have a break from this project. I will, of course, in the not too distant future, look into publishing my work. For now, however, I am enjoying starting something new. I have recently been researching the loss of Calais in 1558, and its alleged impact on making England maritime, and my findings will eventually form an article. Aside from this, I will also look more into naval affairs during James I’s reign. I think that James often receives a bad image among historians for the navy’s limited strength during his reign, especially when compared to his predecessor, and this judgement is perhaps unfair, especially in the later years of his life. I will also continue pursuing the visual culture of early modern navies. Most importantly though, I am now having to jump the huge hurdle of getting a job in early career academia…its not going to be easy, but I will try my best.

Thanks for reading.


Or I guess, as I now can, Dr Redding.

[1] Jan Glete, Navies and Nations: Warships, Navies and State Building in Europe and America, 1500-1860 (2 Volumes, Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International, 1993).

[2] Alan James, The Navy and Government in Early Modern France 1572-1661 (Chippenham, Wiltshire: The Boydell Press, 2004).


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