MA Naval History - University of Portsmouth

Naval History

Part Time Distance Learning2yrs

Full Time Distance Learning1yr

Study naval history in the home of the Royal Navy

Course Overview

Why take this course?

What was the Royal Navy’s role in British history, and that of its empire? Why did Nelson become such a hero and how was he depicted? Through unique collaborations with the National Museum of the Royal Navy and HMS Warrior, this programme explores these questions in the context of 400 years of naval history. You will examine the importance of the Royal Navy to British and global history, while engaging with the life of the ordinary sailor in peace and war, the cult of the naval hero, and the navy – and its sailors – in popular culture. To do so, you will draw on a range of naval experts, curators, and primary sources, including the rich collections of Portsmouth’s naval museums. The flexible distance format allows you to learn from leading naval experts as well as the latest scholarship and debates in the field. 

What will I experience?

On this course you will:

  • Access the rich archives and expertise of the National Museum of the Royal Navy and HMS Warrior to support your study.
  • Undertake study through flexible distance learning techniques, with the option to blend this with study days in Portsmouth.
  • Take advantage of unique connections with both Portsmouth and international maritime museums, with opportunities to go on field trips and experience behind the scenes tours.
  • Train in historical research and the interpretation of multi-archive sources.

What opportunities might it lead to?

This course is an excellent opportunity for students with an interest in British and Naval History to learn from experts in the field and develop a real grounding in this subject area. Offering specific real-life learning experience working with archives and museums, this course offers you the opportunity to develop key transferable skills, such as independent learning, written communication, textual analysis and time management. This course also assists you with refining key research skills appropriate for progression to PhD level research.

Possible career opportunities include:

  • Journalism
  • Law
  • Teaching
  • Administration
  • Archive and museum work


Alan Smith, MA Naval History student 2016-18

This course is for the naval history enthusiast certainly, but it is also a challenge to the academic. A highlight has been the opportunity for a large group of us students to meet up at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich and to have guided tours round the galleries hosted by two of the leading maritime historians of the day. We are quickly becoming a mutually supportive group which, despite this being a distance-learning course, is gelling into a serious but humorous debating fraternity.

Alan Smith, MA Naval History student 2016-18

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Structure & Teaching

You will study the following core units:

  • The Wooden Walls – The Royal Navy under Sail, 1509-1815
    The navy changed immensely from that of Henry VIII, and his Mary Rose, to that of Nelson and Victory. Britain went from being a second rate European power to the sole world superpower by 1815. This module explores the changes which both navy and nation experienced in the early modern period. To do so, it looks at key events, including battles such as the Armada and Trafalgar, but also assesses how the navy was supplied and manned, and how the experience of the sailor changed in this period. Using the collections of the museums on the University’s doorstep, as well as the historic ships in Portsmouth, the course will look to understand what it was like to serve aboard a wooden sailing ship, and how the navy, and its heroes and ordinary sailors, were portrayed to the nation at large.
  • Rise and Fall – Naval Hegemony and Decline, 1815-1960
    Emerging from the Napoleonic Wars as the dominant naval power, the Royal Navy assumed a role of imperial protector and global policeman. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, however, Britain began to be challenged globally, and found itself at war twice in the twentieth century. The rise of the USA, and the decline of its empire meant that, although victorious in both World Wars, Britain’s global power had disappeared soon after 1945. This module looks to understand how the navy fits into these wider trends, and the role it played in both peace and war. Using the collections of the naval museums, and those historic ships on our doorstep, including the first British ironclad, HMS Warrior, the course also looks at how technological change influenced its role, and how it changed the lives of those aboard.

We use the best and most current research and professional practice, alongside feedback from our students, to make sure course content is relevant to your future career or further studies.

Therefore, some course content may change over time to reflect changes in the discipline or industry and some optional units may not run every year. If a unit doesn’t run, we’ll let you know as soon as possible and help you choose an alternative unit.

Teaching and Assessment

The course can be studied entirely by distance learning through access to high quality interactive resources online, including unique primary sources, secondary literature, and video clips of world renowned experts.

Your tutors will also be on hand to guide you through the course, as well as provide regular feedback and opportunities to discuss your work.

Students will also be welcome to join optional campus based elements in Portsmouth, which will allow students to meet others on the course, participate in seminars, and access the resources, archives, historical artefacts and expertise of the naval museums in Portsmouth.

There will also be optional field trips further afield, including abroad, that will further students’ understanding of the Royal Navy, and its role in the world.

The MA is taught by university specialists in naval history, alongside staff from the National Museum of the Royal Navy and HMS Warrior, expertise, archives and galleries will offered to students at an unprecedented level.

This flexible programme of delivery enables participation from students all over the UK and beyond.

How are you assessed?

The course offers opportunities for regular informal feedback on assignments based on each block’s topics, which will include using primary documents, objects, and artworks to explore key questions.

Formal assessment will comprise essays, document analysis, and book reviews. Students will be able to utilise the university’s unique access to the collections of Britain’s premier Naval Museum and HMS Warrior in order to complete these assessments.

The course also requires a 15,000 word dissertation based on original research, offering students opportunity to explore firsthand the history of the Royal Navy. 

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Facilities & Features

Archive Access

You will have the opportunity to use two key war archives: Mass Observation Online, with revolutionary access to texts, photographs and eye-witness reports of post-blitz Britain, and Women, War and Society, a First World War collection from the Imperial War Museum comprising press cuttings, minutes and correspondence. Both of these online archives are mixed media collections and fully text searchable.

Collaborations with museums

The course is run in collaboration with the National Museum of the Royal Navy and HMS Warrior. The expertise and collections of both museums are integral to the teaching of the core units and provide you with unprecedented access to the material held there. There is also the opportunity to work with museum collections when completing both independent projects and your dissertation. 


As the course is distance learning, the University provides all essential reading, as well as many other additional texts and sources online. You will also be able to request journal articles, chapters, and books, from the huge collections held at the University Library to be sent to you (UK and Ireland addresses only). Furthermore, as a Portsmouth postgraduate student, registering for SCONUL Access iallows you to borrow or use books and journals at other libraries which belong to the scheme. 

Budgeting for your studies

There may be extra costs arising from your studies which you will need to consider when planning your expenditure.

Some are common costs to all courses of study. These may include the cost of study texts, reference books, photocopying and computer supplies. Others relate to specific courses and may include field trips, materials and specialist equipment.

Other costs to consider

There are optional field trips in the UK and Europe where you would be required to meet these costs. These may be in the region of £500 - £1,000. 

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Careers & Opportunities

Career prospects

The degree will embed a range of highly desirable transferable skills such a communication, research and writing skills. In addition, the MA affords the student the opportunity to gain invaluable employability skills through internships arranged with the NMRN. Students who hold an MA in Naval History will be equipped for a variety of occupations such as teaching, the civil services, the armed forces, research for strategic studies bodies, and more general post-graduate employment.  The MA also provides an ideal foundation for those who would like to embark on a PhD in naval history.  

Career planning

One of the benefits of studying at Portsmouth is the support that we provide to our Master's and Research Degree students in career planning. Our careers and recruitment service can assist you in career research and finding employment opportunities. Help is also available if you wish to find a part-time job while studying your degree.

We offer our postgraduate students and alumni one-to-one appointments with a careers adviser, or an online service for those not able to travel back to the University. Our alumni can call on our career services for five years after graduation.

In addition, regular employability events offer you the chance to meet employers, find out about different career sectors and improve your applications or CV. The Graduate Summer Programme provides a range of guidance and employability seminars and workshops.

Benefits of Postgraduate Study

Regardless of whether you are seeking to build on your studies, further your career or pursue a career change, a postgraduate qualification adds to your achievement record.

  • Postgraduate study may greatly improve your chances of getting that first break.
  • Many graduate employers prefer the higher intellectual rigour displayed in postgraduate students.
  • Recruiters for roles requiring specialist knowledge or research particularly target those with higher level qualifications.
  • Postgraduate study shows you can take the challenge of in-depth study; acquiring transferable skills in team working and problem solving techniques.
  • If you have a passion for a particular subject, postgraduate study can also be something undertaken as part of your own development at an appropriate time in your life.
Charlotte Ward, MA Naval History 2017

I am currently working at the Lloyd’s Register Foundation Heritage and Education Centre; one of the finest libraries and archives of its kind holding over 250 years of maritime, marine and engineering science history. The Lloyd’s Register began in 1760 as a way of recording and classing ships and vessels. My role involves researching, interpreting and sharing information found in the library. Studying for a Master’s degree in Naval History helped me gain the skills, knowledge and confidence to finally be able to pursue a career in historical research and work for such an important library.

Charlotte Ward, MA Naval History 2017

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Apply now or visit us

Online application form

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Your application will be received by the University Admissions Centre for consideration.

Postgraduate Open Evenings

Our Postgraduate Open Evenings are taking place between February and April. Lecturers and support staff will be available to discuss your options. You'll also find out more about your chosen course and subjects that interest you.

Booking will open soon but in the meantime, watch our Postgrad Live series to hear from our staff and students about what it's like studying at Portsmouth. 

Other opportunities to visit

Download our free walking tour PDF for a self-guided tour of the University.

We have an open-door policy so you will be able to take a look in our buildings, speak to some of our support services and get a feel for the campus.

Find out more about our self-guided walking tours.

Can't get to Portsmouth?

If you can’t make it to Portsmouth, come and see us at one of the events we attend around the UK.

If you would like to speak with a member of staff about any courses you are interested in, please email and we will arrange this for you.

Staff from the University of Portsmouth Global office also regularly attend overseas exhibitions. To find out more about these and our visits to your region see our exhibitions page.

Fees and Funding

Find out more about fees and funding available to you at Portsmouth.

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