Photo of Dr James Davey

Dr James Davey

Lecturer in Naval and Maritime History


01392 724580

I am a historian of Britain and its maritime world, focusing on the Royal Navy in the seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. I believe that naval and maritime history is central to understanding the past, and offers opportunities to engage with a remarkable range of other historiographies. My research and teaching look beyond the traditional remit of maritime history to analyse the political, economic, social and cultural forces which created the navy, and which were in turn shaped by its activities. My recent book, In Nelson’s Wake: The Navy and the Napoleonic Wars was published by Yale University Press in 2015 and placed the Royal Navy’s actions in these broader contexts.

I am a member of the University of Exeter’s Centre for Maritime Historical Studies and tweet some of my historical musings at @drjamesdavey Prior to working at Exeter I was a curator at the National Maritime Museum.

Research interests

I use the history of the Royal Navy to engage with broader historiographies, and I am committed to exploring the different ways naval and maritime history can be conceived. My research falls under these main headings:


A cultural history of sea power

My current research project investigates how and why ideas about maritime endeavour and expansion were disseminated in early-modern England. I want to investigate how various writers and propagandists advocated for the growth of trade, larger naval forces and the expansion of empire in an era where most Britons’ horizons were focused firmly on domestic and European concerns.


The practice of naval and maritime history

I am currently researching an article that considers the first works of naval history produced in England in the early 1700s. I am also co-editing two volumes of essays that highlight new approaches and perspectives on naval and maritime history. The first, entitled A New Naval History and co-edited with Quintin Colville, will be published by Manchester University Press in 2018. The second, entitled The Maritime World of Early-Modern Britain and co-edited with Richard Blakemore, will be published by Routledge in 2019.


The Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars

I have written extensively about the Royal Navy and the Napoleonic Wars, not least my recent book In Nelson’s Wake: the Navy and the Napoleonic Wars (Yale University Press, 2015). I am currently working on a companion volume that covers the preceding French Revolutionary Wars. I am particularly interested in the Royal Navy’s global and imperial roles in this period, and analysing how people across Britain conceived of the broader utility and purpose of empire.


Visual and material culture

My research uses visual and material culture to explore ideas of representation and identity. I have published on eighteenth-century naval balladry and material consumption more broadly, considering how people from across the social spectrum thought about the navy and naval service. I have also co-written a popular book on naval caricature in the second half of the eighteenth century which showcases the work of satirists such as James Gillray and Thomas Rowlandson.


The development of the British state

This was the main focus of my PhD thesis and subsequent monograph. I am interested in how the increase in size and capability of the Royal Navy influenced the development of government bureaucracies and led to an increase in centralised administration. My work has also explored how ideas of professionalism and meritocracy were inculcated within the British state, and the emergence of a ‘contractor economy’ in the eighteenth century.


The maritime history of the Baltic region

Much of my early research concerned Britain’s economic and diplomatic relationship with the nations surrounding the Baltic Sea. Throughout the eighteenth century, Britain was reliant on the resources and trade of the Baltic region, which prompted numerous strategic challenges. I have published chapters and articles exploring Britain’s numerous economic and naval interventions into the Baltic region, placing this issue in the wider context of European diplomacy in the long eighteenth-century. In November 2015 I was awarded the Jan Glete Prize for Maritime History for my work in this area. 

Research collaborations

I have successfully secured funding for four PhD projects via the AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Scheme, and am keen to develop further research collaborations.

Research supervision

I welcome enquiries from students working on aspects of British naval and maritime history. I would be particularly keen to supervise students in the following areas:

  • War and society in the long-eighteenth-century
  • The politics and culture of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars
  • Literature and propaganda concerning maritime endeavour
  • The representation of the maritime world in art and culture
  • The development of the British state

Individuals interested in discussing a potential PhD topic should email me a 500 word outline of their proposed research topic and a copy of their CV. 

Research students

I have previously co-supervised two PhD students:

  • Catherine Beck, ‘Patronage and the Royal Navy, 1775-1815’, University College London
  • Anna McKay, ‘The history of British prison hulks, 1776-1864’, University of Leicester

I have successfully secured funding for two other PhD projects via the AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Scheme and am keen to develop similar collaborations at the University of Exeter.

External impact and engagement

I ensure that my work is disseminated to the widest possible audiences, whether though exhibitions, lectures, media appearances and popular books. My background in museums has shown me first-hand how academic research can be shared in popular formats to engage new audiences. I have been involved in outreach work with people of different social backgrounds, families, schools and adult-learners, as well as co-curation work.

Specific projects I have worked on include:

  • Lead curator on a HLF-funded gallery at the National Maritime Museum entitled ‘Tudor and Stuart Seafarers’ which is due to open in May 2018.
  • Co-curator on the National Maritime Museum’s flagship gallery ‘Nelson, Navy, Nation’, which opened in 2013.
  • Lead-curator on the ‘Broadsides! Caricature and the Navy, 1775-1815’ exhibition, which was open from 25 October 2012 to the 27 February 2013.

I continue to be involved with projects at the National Maritime Museum, and I am keen to develop new opportunities for public engagement with other cultural heritage centres.


Contribution to discipline

I have served on the Council of the Society for Nautical Research since 2011, and joined its Publications Committee in 2014. I have been a Council member of Navy Records Society since 2014. I am also joint-editor of the Journal for Maritime Research.


I teach and convene modules on Britain’s naval and maritime history, as well as contributing to core modules. I try to make use of visual and material culture in my teaching, and organize visits to museums and archives whenever possible. 

Modules taught


I grew up by the sea in Aberystwyth, Ceredigion. I hold degrees from King’s College London and the University of Oxford, and completed my PhD at the University of Greenwich in 2010. From 2011 to 2017 I was a curator at the National Maritime Museum, employed across a range of projects. During this time I was a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Greenwich for three years and also held honorary fellowships at University College London and the University of Leicester.