New Masters Degree in Naval History Offered Through Distance Learning at University of Portsmouth

A squadron of the Royal Navy running down the Channel and An East Indiaman preparing to sail, by Samuel Atkins (Christies/Wikimedia Commons)

A squadron of the Royal Navy running down the Channel and An East Indiaman preparing to sail, by Samuel Atkins (Christies/Wikimedia Commons)    

The University of Portsmouth is currently preparing a new program for students interested in British Naval History beginning in September 2016. The course offers real-life learning experiences working with archives and museums, as well as the opportunity to develop key transferable skills, such as independent learning, written communication, textual analysis and time management. This course also assists you with refining key research skills appropriate for progression to PhD level research.

Steven Gray, Lecturer in the History of the Royal Navy, took some time to share with us why this new MA program could be your next educational opportunity.

Why take this course?

  • ​What was the Royal Navy’s role in British history, and that of its empire?
  • What did a naval surgeon carry on the Mary Rose?
  • Why did Nelson become such a hero and how was he depicted?
  • What was it like to be stoker on the first Ironclad, HMS Warrior?
  • Why was the navy used to advertise cigarettes and biscuits?
  • How did it feel to be a sailor in the world wars?

Through a unique partnership with the National Museum of the Royal Navy, this programme, based at the home of the Royal Navy, answers these questions through exploring over 400 years of naval history. The course establishes the importance of the Royal Navy to British and global history, and its interaction with other navies and empires, providing a unique insight into the political, military and cultural contexts of the day. Importantly, it also explores the life of the ordinary sailor in peace and war, the cult of the naval hero, and the navy – and its sailors – in popular culture. To do so, it will draw on a range of naval experts, curators, and primary sources, including access to the rich collections of Portsmouth’s naval museums. Through a flexible distance format, students will learn from short videos of leading naval experts as well as the latest scholarship and debates in the field, providing a well-structured and engaging history of the Royal Navy.

What will I experience?

On this course you will:

  • Access the rich archives and expertise of the National Museum of the Royal Navy to support your study.
  • Undertake study through flexible distance learning techniques, with the option to blend this with study days in Portsmouth.
  • Take advantage of unique connections with both Portsmouth and international maritime museums, with opportunities to go on field trips and experience behind the scenes tours.
  • Train in historical research and the interpretation of multi-archive sources.


You will study the following core units:

The Wooden Walls – The Royal Navy under Sail, 1509-1815

The navy changed immensely from that of Henry VIII, and his Mary Rose, to that of Nelson and Victory. Britain went from being a second rate European power to the sole world superpower by 1815. This module explores the changes which both navy and nation experienced in the early modern period. To do so, it looks at key events, including battles such as the Armada and Trafalgar, but also assesses how the navy was supplied and manned, and how the experience of the sailor changed in this period. Using the collections of the museums on the University’s doorstep, as well as the historic ships in Portsmouth, the course will look to understand what it was like to serve aboard a wooden sailing ship, and how the navy, and its heroes and ordinary sailors, were portrayed to the nation at large.

Rise and Fall – Naval Hegemony and Decline, 1815-1960

Emerging from the Napoleonic Wars as the dominant naval power, the Royal Navy assumed a role of imperial protector and global policeman. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, however, Britain began to be challenged globally, and found itself at war twice in the twentieth century. The rise of the USA, and the decline of its empire meant that, although victorious in both World Wars, Britain’s global power had disappeared soon after 1945. This module looks to understand how the navy fits into these wider trends, and the role it played in both peace and war. Using the collections of the naval museums, and those historic ships on our doorstep, including the first British ironclad, HMS Warrior, the course also looks at how technological change influenced its role, and how it changed the lives of those aboard.

You will also be able to select from a small range of optional units provided by specialists in their field of study.

Teaching and Assessment

The course can be studied entirely by distance learning through access to high quality interactive resources online, including unique primary sources, secondary literature, and video clips of world renowned experts. Dr Steven Gray, Lecturer in the History of the Royal Navy, will also be on hand to guide you through the course, as well as provide regular feedback and opportunities to discuss your work. Students will also be welcome to join optional campus based elements in Portsmouth, which will allow students to meet others on the course, participate in seminars, and access the resources, archives, historical artefacts and expertise of the naval museums in Portsmouth. There will also be optional field trips further afield, including abroad, that will further students’ understanding of the Royal Navy, and its role in the world. The MA is taught by specialised academics in naval history and staff from Britain’s premier Naval Museum and students will enjoy unprecedented access to the archives, galleries and expertise of the museum’s staff.  This flexible programme of delivery enables participation from students all over the UK and beyond.

How are you assessed?

The course offers opportunities for regular informal feedback on assignments based on each block’s topics, which will include using primary documents, objects, and artworks to explore key questions. Formal assessment will comprise essays, document analysis, and book reviews. Students will be able to utilise the university’s unique access to the collections of Britain’s premier Naval Museum in order to complete these assessments. The course also requires a 15,000 word dissertation based on original research, offering students opportunity to explore firsthand the history of the Royal Navy.

For more information, go to their website and course overview HERE.

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    • Admin



      To our knowledge, there is no specific course for this. We would love to help you out, as we have several individuals who are knowledgeable in Civil War naval history. Please email me at for further information.

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