Distinguished friends

Linda Colley

Dame Linda Colley DBE, FBA, FRSL, FRHistS, the Shelby MC Davis 1958 Professor of History at Princeton University, is an expert on Britain since 1700. She favours cross-disciplinary history, and in both her writing and her teaching she examines Britain’s past in a broader European, imperial, and global context. Born in Britain, she graduated from Bristol University with First Class Honours in history (1972) and completed her PhD in history at Cambridge University (1977). The first female Fellow of Christ’s College, Cambridge, she moved to Yale University in 1982.

Professor Colley’s first book, In Defiance of Oligarchy: The Tory Party 1714–1760 (1982), challenged the dominant view by arguing that the Tory party remained active and potent during its years out of power, exploring the wider consequences of this situation in regards to ideas, electoral and popular politics and political action. Britons: Forging the Nation 1707–1837 (1992), which won the Wolfson Prize for History and which has just been re-issued in a revised fifth paperback edition, investigated how – and how far – the inhabitants of England, Scotland, and Wales came to see themselves as British over the course of the 18th and early 19th centuries.

In 1998 Professor Colley left Yale to accept a Senior Leverhulme Research Professorship in history at the London School of Economics. Supported by this award, she spent the next five years researching the experiences of the thousands of Britons who were taken captive between 1600 and 1850 in North America, South Asia, and the Mediterranean and North Africa, as the British Empire expanded. Captives (2002), the result of this research, used captivity narratives of different kinds to investigate the underbelly and sporadic vulnerability of the empire, the complex relations between the imperialists and the societies they sought to invade, and the quality and flexibility of individual identity under pressure.

Colley is also the author of Namier (1989), a reappraisal of the Polish-born and Zionist historian Lewis Namier. Her recent work The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh: A Woman in World History was nominated one of the ten best books of 2007 by the New York Times. An exercise in meshing biography with trans-continental history, The Ordeal used the life experience and peregrinations of a single, self-made woman as a means of charting and discussing the extent of proto-globalisation in the later 18th century, and the degree to which individuals at the time were aware of it. Her most recent publication, Acts of Union and Disunion (2014), looks at forces of union and disunion and diversity in these islands over the centuries, and was based on a 15-part BBC Radio 4 set of talks Professor Colley delivered in January 2014.

In 2008–9, Colley guest-curated a major exhibition at the British Library, London, Taking Liberties, on the meanings of constitutional texts, publishing an interpretative essay ‘Taking Stock of Taking Liberties: A Personal View’ (London, 2008). The exhibition attracted 100,000 visitors and was opened by the then British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown.

Professor Colley also writes occasionally for British and American periodicals and newspapers, including the Guardian, The Times, the New York Times, the Times Literary Supplement, and the London Review of Books. In 1999 she delivered the Prime Minister’s Millennium Lecture at 10 Downing Street. Among other scholarly and public lectures, she has delivered the Trevelyan Lectures at Cambridge University (1997), the Wiles Lectures at Queen’s University, Belfast (1997), a Ford and the Bateman Lectures at Oxford (1999 and 2003), the Nehru Memorial Lecture at the London School of Economics (2003), the Lewis Walpole Memorial Lecture at Yale (2000), the Carnochan Lecture at Stanford (1998) and the President’s Lecture at Princeton University in 2007. In March 2014, she will be giving the Ralph Miliband Lecture at the LSE on ‘Word Power: Written Constitutions and the Definition of British Borders Since 1787’.

In 1999 Linda Colley was elected a Fellow of the British Academy. She is also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and of the Academia Europaea. She was awarded a CBE in 2009 and a DBE in 2022 for services to history. Professor Colley joined the Princeton History Department in 2003. She was a member of the British Museum’s Research Committee between 2012 and 2020.