Joseph Massey reflects on the pleasures and challenges of research through the lockdown
My research is about answering the question of how the history of James VI of Scotland’s sixteenth-century ancestors, going back to Henry VII, was rewritten to promote James’s right to the English throne. When James VI of Scotland succeeded to the English throne in 1603, it had to be explained to the English people why this foreigner, the son of their old enemy Mary, Queen of Scots, was their rightful king. They were told that it was because he was the senior descendant of the first Tudor monarch, Henry VII.
The most exciting part of researching history is that I study a wide range of source material: poems, plays, proclamations, histories, speeches, letters, paintings, engravings, genealogies… anything which mentions James’s sixteenth-century ancestors. Variety is the spice of life! My favourite source to study is genealogies—they can be incredibly beautiful works of art, and because they haven’t been studied in much depth there’s still a lot to say about them.
What I hope people will take away from my work is an awareness that the story repeated in history books today—that James was the unquestionable claimant to the English throne because of the hereditary right he inherited from Henry VII—was created and promoted by James and his supporters. James would be pleased to know his propaganda campaign was so successful that we are still repeating it unquestioningly today![DP1]
Before starting my PhD, I was doing a traineeship at the V&A Museum in London, which was an incredible place to work and a fantastic learning opportunity. It really was a dream come true. And yet…! I kept thinking about the subject of my master’s degree dissertation, and how much more I could do with it as a PhD. I knew I wasn’t finished with academia!
MMU was offering a PhD scholarship for a project relating to the ‘presentation and legitimation of the Scottish Stuarts in England’. My master’s degree supervisor told me about it, and I thought that it would be the perfect opportunity to expand on my master’s degree dissertation. Thankfully I got the scholarship! I was also very happy about the idea of doing a degree in Manchester, as I’m a northerner myself.
The most important thing I’ve learned through my research is not to overburden myself with my own expectations. It takes time to get to grips with a source, to come up with a compelling argument, to have a clear understanding of the work already done by other historians and where your work fits in. A PhD is very different to an undergraduate or master’s degree. It is probably the biggest research project you’ve undertaken so far, so it’s important to pace yourself and plan long-term deadlines to make sure you get everything done on time and aren’t overwhelmed.
Some days just aren’t going to be productive days, and that’s fine. Tomorrow is another day. A PhD is a marathon, not a sprint—don’t exhaust yourself and make sure you take breaks when you need to.
It’s also really important to know your own body clock—when you’re at your most focused and when you’re not. For example, I do my best work in the morning. I always have a lull in the early afternoon, so I know to give myself a break. I never work in the evening because I need to stop thinking about work before I go to bed. If you can make your work routine suit your body clock, you’ll do better work and be happier overall.
And lastly, being able to adapt to change, and to create a balance with your work is important. With coronavirus, lots of research projects are being affected. Fortunately, I am at a point in my dissertation where I have already done most of the archival research I need, so I can continue working from home. However, I was going to be speaking at the Renaissance Society of America conference in Philadelphia and the Society of Renaissance Studies conference in Norwich this year, both of which have been cancelled. It’s a shame, as I was looking forward to both—and my first trip to the United States. But, our health must take priority.