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Professor Henry French

BA, PhD Cantab., FRHistS



01392 724184

I am interested in the following research subjects:

  • The identity and composition of the ‘middle sort of people’ in provincial England 1620-1750. I have published a number of articles on this subject in Past & Present, Social History and Historical Journal, and have written a monograph study, published by Oxford University Press in July 2007.
  • (in association with Prof. R.W. Hoyle, of the University of Reading) land ownership in Essex and Lancashire, concentrating particularly on the decline of the small farmer, 1500-1800. We have published several articles on this theme, including one in Economic History Review in 2004, and have published a monograph on the land market in the Essex village of Earls Colne, 1500-1750, with Manchester U.P. in March 2007.
  • Long-term processes of change in notions of masculinity among the landed elite in England, between the later seventeenth and early twentieth centuries, and I was awarded an AHRC standard research grant to pursue this research, which resulted in a monograph authored with Dr. Mark Rothery (Exeter), published by Oxford University Press in March 2012.
  • Urban common field agriculture and the effects of enclosure 1550-1800, on which I have written two articles in the Agricultural History Review 2001 & 2003; I have also published a chapter on urban commons in R. W. Hoyle (ed.), Custom, Improvement and the Landscape in Early Modern Britain (Ashgate, 2011). I aided in the identification of at least 160 urban common lands as part of my consultancy work for English Heritage on their Town Commons project.
  • Research into the politics of the small, pocket-borough of Clitheroe, in the period 1660 to 1780, which has been published in Northern History.
  • Research into poor relief payments and their effects on the household economy of families, particularly in Terling, Essex in the later eighteenth century. This was published in S. Hindle, A. Shepard & J. Walter (eds), Remaking English Society: Social Relations and Social Change in Early Modern England (Boydell & Brewer, 2012), with additional articles in Economic History Review and Continuity and Change in 2015.
  • The Hearth Tax and distribution of wealth in Essex 1662-85, published in the British Record Society Hearth Tax Series.

My undergraduate teaching includes modules on:

  • HIH 1521 Marriage & The Family, 1500-1800 - [Sources & Skills] module on the experience of marriage and family life in early modern England.
  • HIH 2203A Crime and Society in England, 1500-1800 [Option] - on the relationship between types of crime and society in early modern England, particularly the link between ordinary people and the legal process, and crime in popular literature.
  • HIH3618 Power Elites [Comparative] - on the origins; social, economic, political, religious and cultural bases; development over time and power struggles within European nobilities from the 9th century through to the 20th century.
  • HIH 3137-8 [Special Subject] Life in an English Village, Earls Colne, 1450-1750 - an in depth look at some big historical debates about the origins and effects of capitalism, class and religious change in a small place - the Essex village of Earls Colne - using a large collection of electronic sources, allowing detailed insights into the ways that big historical forces played out on the experience of daily life in the past.



Research interests

My main research interest has been the identity and composition of the ‘middle sort of people’ in provincial England 1620-1750. I have published a number of articles on this subject, and have written a monograph study, published by Oxford University Press in July 2007.

Following publication of this book, my research interests in identity shifted to questions of masculinity and gender identity among the gentry in England, between the seventeenth and twentieth centuries. In particular, I researched two themes: a) the ways in which social norms about appropriate male behaviour were translated into practice in families; b) long-term processes of change over time, in norms and behaviour. Both aspects will allow me to make a critical assessment of existing ideas on elite masculinity in this period. To pursue this research, I received two externally-funded research awards for two related projects. These were: 1) British Academy Small Grants Award SG-46123 ‘Practices of politeness: changing norms of masculinity in landed society, 1660-1800’awarded 04/07, funding one 0.2 researcher for 4-months; 2) AHRC Research Grants (Standard) App. Id. AH/E007791/1 ‘Man’s Estate: Masculinity & Landed Gentility in England, 1660-1918’, awarded 06/07 – 37 months funding for 2 researchers (one for 2.5 years, the other for 1 year) to start 09/07 + 1 funded Ph.D. studentship. This resulted in an Oxford U. P. monograph (Man's Estate. Landed Gentry Masculinities, 1660-1900) authored with Dr. Mark Rothery, published in March 2012. We also published an article on elite masculinity and travel in Social History in 2008, and a chapter in Sean Brady & John Arnold (eds), What is Mascuilinity? (Palgrave 2011). As part of this research, I organised the conference 'Engendering Gender: Production, Transmission and Change 1450-1950' in 2010. I have also published an article on gender, political reputation and memory in C. Fletcher, S. Brady, R. E. Moss & L. Ryall (eds) The Palgrave Handbook of Masculinity and Political Culture in Europe (Palgrave, 2017), and on family memory and social identity among the Gentry in England, 1600-1750, to be published in Historical Research.

My second area of research has been in association with Prof. R.W. Hoyle, of the University of Reading, into land ownership in Essex and Lancashire, concentrating particularly on the decline of the small farmer, 1500-1800. We have published several articles on this theme, and completed a monograph on the land market in the Essex village of Earls Colne, 1500-1750, with Manchester U.P. published in March 2007.
Following on from this research, I developed an interest in the neglected subject of urban common field agriculture and the effects of enclosure 1550-1800. I have so far published two articles on this subject, and a chapter in a recent book edited by Richard Hoyle, Custom, Improvement and the Landscape in Early Moden Britain (Ashgate, 2011). I have recently published an article on religious and social change in Earls Colne, 1560-1640 in T. Dean, G. Parry & E. Vallence (eds), Faith, Place and People in Early Modern England: Essays in Honour of Margaret Spufford (Boydell Press, 2018).

I have recently considered both these aspects (gender and agrarian history) in a rountable discussion published in Historia Agraria

My research interests in Lancashire have included research into the politics of the small, pocket-borough of Clitheroe, in the period 1660 to 1780, and I published an article on this theme in 2004.

I am also interested in the Hearth Tax and distribution of wealth in Essex 1662-85, and collaborated with the British Record Society Hearth Tax volume for Essex.

I was also involved in the AHRC Knowledge Transfer Fellowship project headed by Prof. Oliver Creighton (Archaeology), and the Poltimore House Trust, entitled 'Community and Landscape: Transforming Access to the Heritage of the Poltimore Estate', which engaged with community groups in Poltimore (just outside Exeter) to research the history and development of Poltimore House between the 15th and 20th centuries. This has community-based research has continued for a decade, and will result ion a publication on the Poltimore Estate and the village of Poltimore, 1911-24.

Most recently, I have begun to research the history of poor relief in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth century, particularly on the Essex village of Terling. This work was inspired by the task of writing an essay for the feitschrift volume for Prof. Keith Wrightson, published in 2013. Since writing this essay, I have continued research on this subject, because it has become clear that although so much research has been undertaken on the subject, we still do not understand some very basic questions. These include: how much did recipients get in poor relief each week? How often did they receive poor relief on a weekly, monthly, or yearly basis? How long did they receive poor relief, and in which parts of their lives? How 'dependent' did they become on relief, and did this change as economic circumstances changed between c. 1760 and 1834? These studies have been published Economic History Review and Continuity and Change in 2015. 

I am currently working with Prof. Ralph Fyfe in Geography at University of Plymouth as co-investigator on a Leverhulme Trust funded research project, 'A Landscape Transformed: The Reclamation of Exmoor Forest' from 2020-2022. In 1818 the Royal Forest of Exmoor (20,000 acres of upland moors) was sold by the Crown Commissioners to John Knight, an iron founder from the West Midlands. He set about the largest single land reclamation scheme in southern England, on a scale comparable to canal building or the construction of the railways in the period. This project wll sed new light on this dramatic and fundamental transformation of the Royal Forest and place it within its historical context, combining influence (why and where did the major landscape designs emerge?), process (how the upland landscape was transformed), and ecological perspectives (how did landscapes and ecological systems change?). THis project is interdisciplinary, combining research on a new cache of Knight family papers discovered in 2016 with palaeoecological analyses of vegetation change (pollen and non-pollen analyses), using precise chronological frameworks based on a new southwest UK tephra stratigraphy developed by Ralph Fyfe.


For more detail, see my page.

Research supervision

I am particularly interested to supervise undergraduate and postgraduate dissertations on various areas of seventeenth and eighteenth century social and economic history, including those on themes such as demographic or agricultural change, the social order, gender identity, crime, government, poverty, marriage and the family, industries and regions. I am also happy to supervise dissertations on other early modern themes, such as seventeenth century politics, popular religion and culture, and aspects of women's history. I can also give advice on using a range of sources particularly those relating to parish government, estate management, government and poor law administration, and printed pamphlets and newspapers.

Research students

Kevin Cahill working on landownership in Devon from the Return of Owners of Land in 1876 to c. 1950

Heather Walker working on British women travellers in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries

Robert Nantes working on bankrupts and bankruptcy in England from the seventeenth to the early nineteenth centuries

Derek Janes working on the business career and smuggling activities of John Nisbet of Tweedmouth, 1750-1800

Marion Hardy working on travellers in Devon parishes 1600-1780

Other information

Head of History, 2010-

Head of History Undergraduate Affairs Committee, 2007-8
Fellow of Royal Historical Society
Executive Committee Member, British Agricultural History Society, 2000-
Book Reviews Editor, 'Agricultural History Review', 2008-

Executive committe member, British Records Society Hearth Tax project, 2011-

Peer Review College member, Arts & Humanities Research Council, 2010-13

Reviewer of periodical literature 1500-1700, 'Economic History Review', 2006-8

External impact and engagement

In Feb. 2009, the Poltimore House Trust approached University of Exeter for academic support and guidance about the preservation of the house and grounds, and to help prepare a Heritage Lottery Fund bid. It quickly became clear that instead of academics supplying ready-made expertise, the site (and PHT’s 300-strong volunteer base) offered an opportunity to engage more fully by creating a group of volunteer researchers who could recover and take ownership of the house’s past.

The overarching aims of the AHRC Knowledge Transfer Fellowship were for the project team (Henry French, Oliver Creighton, Penny Cunningham, Project KT Research Fellow) to work in partnership with the PHT to generate public understanding of the multi-layered history and archaeology of the building and its surrounding landscape, and to sustain this by involving local communities in the research and presentation of this heritage. Between Sept. 2010 and July 2012 the project focused on two elements:

  1. Working with volunteers to trace the history and evolution of the Poltimore House gardens and estate landscape primarily through detailed documentary research on the 18th and 19th centuries, through census and local newspaper archives, gravestone surveys, and detailed map analysis, and by contextualising these findings within a longer archaeological/landscape history timescale.
  2. Leading teams of volunteer, non-professional researchers in methods of archaeological research (field-walking, geo-physical surveying, landscape archaeology).

The first element drew upon my research experience as leader of an AHRC standard research grant on the landed elite between the seventeenth and late nineteenth centuries, and Prof. Creighton’s experience in community archaeology projects, specifically his role as a co-director of a major AHRC-funded research project investigating Wallingford in Oxfordshire. The second had input from the PI & CI, and was led by the Knowledge Transfer Fellow, Dr. Penny Cunningham, drawing on her experience in XArch, community archaeology project.

Working alongside PHT, the project developed on-site educational activities with primary and secondary schools in East Devon, plus A-level students from Exeter College. During the course of the project 721 school pupils from 7 partner schools in Devon participated in 18 training and outreach events mapped to the National Curriculum (including on-site training workshops on masonry recording, archaeological survey, landscape analysis and visits to schools), including a film made by Broadclyst Community Primary School ( This portfolio of sources, objects and resources has enabled PHT’s Volunteer Manager, Simon Tootell, to provide on-site School visits, and continued curriculum engagement with Broadclyst Community Primary School in 2012-13.

This volunteer network is continuing historical and archaeological landscape research in the area beyond the lifetime of the AHRC-funded project, through the creation (in October 2012) of the Poltimore History & Archaeology Group, (PEHAG) enabling the public to take forward research on this site and transfer that understanding to other historic landscapes. I am currently the chair of this group, and volunteers are working on a series of projects, including further work on the landscape history of the estate in Poltimore village post-1800, research into the gardens and gardeners at Poltimore House, research on the building history of the house in the eighteenth century, and a project to uncover the history of the vollage during World War One.

Academic research on Poltimore House has led to a jointly-authored peer-reviewed journal article published by Landscape History in 2013.

In addition I have served as a trustee for a number of regional organisations. These include:

  • Southwest Heritage Trust - which manages the records offices of Devon and Somerset, as well as the Museums service, Historic Environment record and a number of historic sites and landscapes in Somerset.
  • Devon & Exeter Institution - a historic library and literary institution, founded in 1815, located in the Cathedral Close in Exeter

I have served on the advisory boards of two HLF-funded research projects in Devon and Dorset, representing the History department at Exeter:

Advisory Board Member, ‘Devon Remembers’, Devon County Council First World War Commemoration Co-ordination committee, 2013-date.

Dorset Heritage Centre, ‘Home and Away’ Bankes Family of Kingston Lacy HLF Project, Steering Committee Member, 2015-8.

Contribution to discipline

Fellow of Royal Historical Society, elected Sept. 2004.

British Agricultural History Society, Chair of the Executive Committee, 2016-date.

Reviewer of Periodical Literature, England 1500-1700, Economic History Review, 2005-8.

AHRC Peer Review College member, Academic, 2010-18.

British Academy Hearth Tax Project Steering Committee member 2012-date

I have undertaken peer reviews of journal submissions for Economic History Review, Social History, Journal of British Studies, Cultural & Social History, Agricultural History Review, and Gender and History, among others

In addition to the AHRC and ESRC in the UK, I have reviewed project grant proposals for Social Science & Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada and the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research, Council for the Humanities.

In addition to being a periodical literature reviewer for Economic History Review and book reviews editor for Agricultural History Review, since 2001 I have written reviews for the following journals:

American Historical Review, English Historical Review, Economic History Review, Social History, Cultural & Social History, Journal of Ecclesiastical History, Sixteenth-Century Journal, Agricultural History Review, Local Population Studies, Business History, European History Quarterly, Family & Community History, & Archives.

Modules taught


I took my first degree and doctorate at the University of Cambridge (in 1989 and 1993 respectively), the latter under the supervision of Keith Wrightson and Margaret Spufford. Since then, I have taught at the Universities of Central Lancashire, Manchester, Essex, and East Anglia, before coming to Exeter in 2001, being promoted to Professor of Social History in 2009. My own research has focused on the definition and social identity of ‘middle sort’ within rural society in the seventeenth century. I have published articles on this subject in a number of journals, and completed a monograph on this subject which was published by Oxford University Press in July 2007. Having worked on two research projects with Prof. Richard Hoyle at the University of Central Lancashire between 1994-99, I am also co-author of two articles on land ownership and the decline of the small farmer in early modern England. Prof. Hoyle and I published a monograph study with Manchester University Press of land ownership in the Essex village of Earls Colne in March 2007, entitled The Character of English Rural Society, 1550-1750: Earls Colne revisited. In recent years, I have pursued another theme in agrarian history – the fate of the urban common lands – in two articles published in the Agricultural History Review. I am also the editor (with Jonathan Barry) of a series of essays on the subject of ‘Identity and Agency in Early Modern England’, published by Palgrave Press in 2004, based on a research colloquium held at Exeter in September 2002. I was awarded an 3-year AHRC research award in June 2007, to study masculinity and the landed gentry between the seventeenth and early twentieth centuries, with Dr Mark Rothery. This project resulted in a Oxford U.P. monograph published in 2012, and a number of subsequent publications. Since 2010 I have also been engaged in long-term research on poverty and poor relief through a series of detailed parish case studies, which has resulted  in a number of publications in international academic jourtnals. Between 2010 and 2016 I was Head of Department in History at Exeter, and am currently serving as Interim Head of Department between Jan. & July 2020.

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