• University of Leicester
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Country Houses and the British Empire: How Imperialism Transformed Britain’s Colonial Countryside

Explore the fascinating histories of Britain’s colonial houses and their links to the British Empire.

4,994 enrolled on this course

Penrhyn Castle on a sunny day with green grass and trees in front and a bright blue sky.

Country Houses and the British Empire: How Imperialism Transformed Britain’s Colonial Countryside

4,994 enrolled on this course

  • 6 weeks

  • 2 hours per week

  • Digital certificate when eligible

  • Open level

Find out more about how to join this course

Gain insights into the British Empire’s reach by examining its colonial houses

The British country house has always been part of the nation’s heritage, but the latest historical research suggests that it is even more than that. Colonial houses have deep, complex interrelations with the British Empire itself.

If you’d like to understand exactly how country houses were connected to the wider world and were considered ‘global’ rather than simply ‘British’, this six-week course from the University of Leicester is for you.

This course takes a new look at the roots and reach of the British empire; it focuses on the typical country house and the objects it contains.

Examining these objects will give you a unique understanding of the connections that recent historical research has found between Britain’s empire and its colonial homes. Ultimately, you’ll see how Britain influenced and was influenced by the countries that it colonised.

Delve deeper into the effects of British colonialism

The effects of British Imperialism were felt by the people who lived in the former colonies, and by those who were brought to or born in 17th- and 18th-century rural Britain.

On this course, you’ll get a chance to unpack the political, social, and cultural effects of British imperialism. In so doing, you’ll be able to understand and participate in important reparative history efforts.

Learn about British history from experts in the know

As an authority on all aspects of the British Empire, The University of Leicester is a clear choice for a course that takes a fresh look at the history of British colonialism.

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Skip to 0 minutes and 6 seconds This course introduces country houses’ many and varied links to the British empire across four colonial centuries. This course has been an education for me. But now, Professor Corinne Fowler, why should people take this course? Well, Britain was an empire for four centuries, and it’s important to have evidence-based conversations about Britain’s colonial past and to think about the ways in which really very different kinds of colonial activity had an impact on what we call our built heritage. So that would include our country houses in Britain. And these kinds of activities were wildly different.

Skip to 0 minutes and 58 seconds So we’ve got the obvious trade in colonial goods, like tobacco and sugar and mahogany and so on, but we also have involvement with the East India Company and with the Atlantic world, including the enslavement of African people and all the profits which came from that. So it’s really a question of offering students on this course an access to pioneering historians in the field and also to give people a chance to compare the history that they learn on this course with the history they experienced at school. Historians, writers, and heritage professionals will guide you through the course. The colonial history of country houses is sensitive for many reasons. The course will help you communicate them effectively to others too.

Skip to 1 minute and 53 seconds This course shows how country houses reveal the shared histories of people on both sides of the colonial divide.


  • Week 1

    Introduction to British country houses’ connections with empire

    • Introduction to the course

      Introducing country houses and a timeline of events in Britain’s colonial past.

    • Objects

      In historic houses, colonialism is often most conspicuously represented by the goods which were acquired from or were tied to activities across the empire.

    • Summary of the week

      A summary of what you have learnt in week one of the course.

  • Week 2

    Transatlantic slavery, the British slavery business and its impact on British country houses

    • Introduction to transatlantic slavery

      Many of the legacies of transatlantic slavery can be found in historic houses.

    • Abolition and compensation

      The slave trade was eventually abolished in Britain in 1807. British slave holders were given compensation.

    • Penrhyn Castle

      Penrhyn Castle in Bangor, Wales is perhaps the most well-known National Trust property with links to transatlantic slavery.

  • Week 3

    The Atlantic World: Commodities and goods and their continual presence in country houses

    • Sugar

      The significance of objects related to sugar that often appear in country houses.

    • Mahogany

      The production of mahogany, often used to make furniture ubiquitous to country houses.

    • Cotton

      Cotton often brings thoughts of the industrial revolution, but much of the cotton that was used in Britain was picked by enslaved Africans in the Americas.

  • Week 4

    The relation between Britain and India, including the East India Company and the British Raj

    • The East India Company

      Introducing the East India Company (EIC) which was an English company was formed to trade in the Indian Ocean region.

    • Powis Castle and Tipu Sultan

      Powis Castle in Wales contains many artefacts extracted by the East India Company (EIC) in the eighteenth century.

    • The Raj

      Introducing the British Raj and British power and influence in India.

  • Week 5

    African and Indian people in rural Britain and their presence in British country houses

    • Evidence of African and Indian people in country estates

      Discovering archival evidence of African and Indian people on country estates in eighteenth and nineteenth-century England.

    • Depictions of black people

      Looking at how black people are often portrayed in the archives, and how these can be addressed through contemporary art.

    • Learning more about enslaved people in 18th century Britain

      We can learn a lot about enslaved people in 18th century Britain from local newspapers. Adverts have been collated into the Runaway Slaves database.

  • Week 6

    Presenting histories of empire in British country houses

    • Contemporary Artistic Responses

      The Arts are one means of restoring dignity to those who never got to record and convey their own experiences of what happened to them.

    • Gatekeeping

      The challenges of presenting the history of country houses and heritage spaces.

    • Emotional labour and cultural connections

      The emotional costs and burdens of inclusive heritage practice.

    • Summary

      A summary of what you have learnt throughout the course and a chance to reflect.

When would you like to start?

Start straight away and join a global classroom of learners. If the course hasn’t started yet you’ll see the future date listed below.

  • Available now

Learning on this course

On every step of the course you can meet other learners, share your ideas and join in with active discussions in the comments.

What will you achieve?

By the end of the course, you‘ll be able to...

  • Identify objects with complex connections to colonialism, and how these can be connected to different aspects of the British Empire.
  • Summarise Britain’s involvement in transatlantic slavery and the legacies that can be found in historic houses.
  • Reflect on how enslaved labour was used to produce goods for a European market, in particular the colonial significance of sugar, mahogany and cotton.
  • Describe the East India Company, the British Raj and British power and influence in India.
  • Explore archival evidence of African and Indian people on country estates between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, and how these figures are often depicted negatively in archival sources.
  • Demonstrate how contemporary art can be a way of restoring dignity to those who never got to record and convey their own experiences.

Who is the course for?

This course is designed for anyone interested in British history, especially the sociocultural reach and influence of the British empire. Heritage professionals, writers, and teachers will find it especially engaging.

Who will you learn with?

I am a Professor at the University of Leicester specialising in rural history and heritage interpretation. I co-authored the National Trust report on its houses' connections to the British Empire.

Who developed the course?

University of Leicester

The University of Leicester is a leading research led university with a strong tradition of excellence in teaching. It is consistently ranked amongst the top 20 universities in the United Kingdom.

National Lottery Heritage Fund

Inspiring, leading and resourcing the UK’s heritage to create positive and lasting change for people and communities, now and in the future.

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Ways to learn

Choose the best way to learn for you!

Subscribe & save

$349.99 for one year

Automatically renews

Develop skills to further your career

  • Access to this course
  • Access to 1,000+ courses
  • Learn at your own pace
  • Discuss your learning in comments
  • Digital certificate when you're eligible

Cancel for free anytime

Buy this course

$134/one-off payment

Fulfill your current learning need

  • Access to this course
  • Learn at your own pace
  • Discuss your learning in comments
  • Printed and digital certificate when you’re eligible

Limited access


Sample the course materials

  • Access expires 31 Jul 2024

Find out more about certificates, Unlimited or buying a course (Upgrades)

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