I read history at the University of Cambridge. After a period as a Thouron scholar at the University of Pennsylvania where I took an MA in American History, I returned to Cambridge, where I held the Eileen Power Memorial Studentship in Social and Economic History, and undertook doctoral research on radical movements in the English Revolution and the tradition of popular protest in early modern England. I was appointed as Lecturer in History in 1976 and Professor in 2000. I research and publish in the field of early modern British history. My book on crowd actions in the English Revolution, Understanding Popular Violence in the English Revolution, completed with an award under the British Academy Humanities Research Board scheme, was awarded the Royal Historical Society’s Whitfield Prize. In 2017, I was honoured to be presented with a festschrift edited by Michael J. Braddick & Phil Withington, Popular Culture And Political Agency in Early Modern England and Ireland: Essays in Honour of John Walter (Woodbridge, The Boydell Press, 2017).
My central research interest is popular political culture in early modern England. This is research which has focused on crowd actions but which seeks to integrate the various branches of historical research social, economic, political and cultural. In this work I endeavour to bring together intensive archival research, often with a micro—historical focus, with theoretical interests in the nature of political society, the nature of early modern state and society, and the spaces therein for the exercise of popular political agency. This has resulted both in a series of articles, some of which have been collected in my 2006 Crowds and Popular Politics as well as in my 1999 monograph Understanding Popular Violence. My most recent work in this field seeks to re-integrate the sources and methodologies of social and cultural history employed in a social history of politics with a re-invigorated political history. Within this work, I am especially interested to think imaginatively about the forms and focus that political action might take beyond the politics of the crowd: hence my currents research interests extend to the politics of food and of gesture, on which I am currently publishing.
Arising from my work on the history of food, my next book will be on the Tichborne Dole and its changing meaning from its medieval inception to the present day. Apparently first noted in the painting of 1672, myth claims the dole to have originated in a 12th century bequest which carried a curse on the Tichborne family, if ever the family failed to distribute the dole. This curse which threatened no male heirs becomes entangled in the nineteenth century with the cause célèbre of the Tichborne Claimant. The book traces the related fortunes of family and Dole up to the present day, the changing meanings and representations of the Dole (including in one of the first British early silent films), and the way it comes to be understood, especially after World War II, to stand for a particular vision of Englishness.