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Historian in focus: Thomas Freeman

  • Date

    Thu 28 Mar 19

Dr Thomas Freeman

Dr Thomas (Tom) Freeman is a historian of culture and religion who is especially interested in the history of the Reformation in the British Isles.



Tom began his career in the United States where he taught history in a high school (the equivalent of the British sixth form). Wanting to get more deeply into history, he then completed a PhD and started teaching at university. Since arriving in our Department of History in 2012, he has been involved in a number of research projects as well as teaching on multiple modules, including a third year module called The Tudors and Stuarts on Film.

What first interested you in history and why did you pick it for your degree? 

By the time I went to university, I already knew that I wanted to do history. I wish I could say that there were profound reasons for this, but it was because reading a lot of historical novels had wakened my curiosity about the past. However, it was only when I was in graduate school that I settled on my particular field of study. I began as a medievalist, planning to work on Alphonse de Poitiers, a younger brother of Louis IX of France. I grew interested in how the Middle Ages were perceived in the early modern period. I decided that I could do one subject, a history of the Church by an Elizabethan named John Foxe. I thought at the time that I could finish this topic fairly quickly.  Decades later, I am still working on it.

Would you say there was someone you looked up to during your studies?

The person I have looked up to the most was someone I first met while I was finishing my PhD. The late Professor Patrick Collinson was not only a truly great historian; he had a remarkable gift of encouraging and advising other people in their work.

How do you find a balance between being a researcher, and an academic at the same time?

I can’t; I am simply not that organised. I am constantly hopping from one task to another like a puppy in a room full of rubber balls.

Can you give us more insight into current research projects you are working on?

I have just finished an article on how Pope Gregory VII - who Protestants denounced as the Antichrist and the Catholic Church made a saint - was depicted in the Reformation.  I am currently finishing an article on Protestant and Catholic hagiographies of women martyrs in the early Church. The most important project, however, is a co-edited collection of the letters of imprisoned Protestants in the reign of Mary I. When this is finished, I plan to work on a book about the persecution of Protestants in the reign of Mary I.

How did you become interested in the combination of film and history? Why do you think it is important to look at films as sources in history? 

Long before I became interested in history, I loved film. Almost all of my historical research and writing has been about historiography - that is, how historical people and events have been depicted in subsequent periods and why they are depicted that way. History depicted on film is a part of historiography; in fact, because of the number of people who learn history from films, it is a particularly important aspect of historiography.

I find that a lot of history students do not know what to focus on after graduation and have not picked a career path. What would your advice be to them?

Be patient, you are young and there is time. Try out different jobs and start to get a sense of what appeals to you. After I graduated from university, I taught history at a high school to see if I wanted to teach high school, if graduate studies were for me, or whether I wanted to do something else. Take your time in deciding what you truly would like to do and then work hard to do it.  Having a job that you enjoy is a great blessing and worth some effort and time to obtain.