Britain and Its Empire (Online)


The British Empire shaped the planet's geopolitical landscape and played a major role in creating the modern world. While impacting on the lives of millions of people overseas, it created modern Britain too. This course examines the rise and fall of empire and its manifold legacies in Britain and beyond.

The British Empire was the most significant political entity in the world until the middle of the twentieth century and profoundly affected the lives of millions of people. Processes of imperial expansion and rule were integral to globalization, and the disintegration of the European empires significantly shaped the world in which we live today. The Empire deeply influenced Britain, too. The aim of this course is to provide students with a working knowledge of the causes, course and consequences of British imperial history, from the origins of empire to decolonization and Britain's position in the world today. The subject is a broad one, but can be approached holistically given the proliferation of quality overviews of the Empire's history. The course focuses upon a number of key themes within the study of British imperial history and allows a wide range of choice for students in approaching their studies.

For information on how the courses work, please click here.

Programme details

1. Defining the British Empire

  • The red on the map: Size and structure
  • Informal empire
  • A trading and economic zone
  • A network of networks
  • A military system: Maritime power and overseas garrisons

2. The engines of imperial expansion I

  • The urge to empire
  • Theories of British imperial expansion
  • Trade and the quest for resources
  • Migration, overseas settlement, and taking possession of land
  • War, strategy, and the challenges of imperial defence

3. The engines of imperial expansion II

  • Knowledge and empire
  • Discovery and exploration
  • Exploring the explorers
  • Science, technology and empire
  • Religion and missionaries
  • Humanitarianism, trusteeship and philanthropy

4. Phases and regions of imperial expansion

  • The early empire: 1200s to 1600s
  • The eighteenth-century empire
  • The nineteenth-century empire
  • The twentieth-century empire

5. Governing the Empire

  • The role of the monarch and the Royal Family
  • Offices of state and imperial proconsuls
  • Colonial rule on the ground: District commissioners and the colonial civil services
  • Colonial rule on the ground: The role of indigenous leaders
  • Dominion self-government

6. Living in the Empire

  • Race and empire
  • Colonial lives
  • Changing cultures
  • Orientalism, culture and imperialism

7. The Empire at home

  • Empire, British culture and everyday life
  • Branding and marketing the Empire
  • The British larder and diet
  • The Empire in British politics

8. Displaying and exhibiting the Empire

  • Botanical gardens
  • Empire day, jubilees and military tattoos
  • Museums
  • Exhibitions
  • Imperial London
  • The British Empire Exhibition, 1924–25 and Glasgow Empire Exhibition, 1938

9. The end of empire

  • Decolonisation in context
  • The impact of the Second World War
  • The pattern of decolonisation
  • When did the British Empire actually end?

10. Legacies of empire

  • The Commonwealth
  • Remaining dependent territories
  • Post-war immigration and multiracial Britain
  • The natural world and the built environment
  • Auditing the British Empire


Credit Application Transfer Scheme (CATS) points 

To earn credit (CATS points) for your course you will need to register and pay an additional £30 fee for each course you enrol on. You can do this by ticking the relevant box at the bottom of the enrolment form or when enrolling online. If you do not register when you enrol, you have up until the course start date to register and pay the £30 fee. 

See more information on CATS point

Coursework is an integral part of all online courses and everyone enrolled will be expected to do coursework, but only those who have registered for credit will be awarded CATS points for completing work at the required standard. If you are enrolled on the Certificate of Higher Education, you need to indicate this on the enrolment form but there is no additional registration fee. 


Digital credentials

All students who pass their final assignment, whether registered for credit or not, will be eligible for a digital Certificate of Completion. Upon successful completion, you will receive a link to download a University of Oxford digital certificate. Information on how to access this digital certificate will be emailed to you after the end of the course. The certificate will show your name, the course title and the dates of the course you attended. You will be able to download your certificate or share it on social media if you choose to do so. 

Please note that assignments are not graded but are marked either pass or fail. 


Description Costs
Course Fee £385.00
Take this course for CATS points £30.00


Dr Iain Johnston

Iain Johnston received his PhD from the University of Cambridge before holding positions at Sciences Po, Paris, and the Houses of Parliament. He has published on the British Commonwealth in several journals and edited volumes, and has a forthcoming book, The British Commonwealth and Victory in the Second World War.

Course aims

This course aims to introduce students to the rise and fall of the British Empire and its place in modern international history. Its focus will be to argue that the empire story is central to an understanding of British history, not an adjunct to it, and to an understanding of the modern world because it was deeply shaped by British imperialism.

This course will enable participants to:

  • Understand the causes of British imperial expansion.
  • Understand the course and consequences of British imperial history, from the origins of empire to decolonization and Britain's position in the world today.
  • Develop an understanding of the chronological phases of British expansion and the regions of the world in which it occurred.
  • Develop a range of historical skills by evaluating primary and secondary sources, and the historiography of the period.

Teaching methods

  • Guided reading of documents.
  • Research topics with student feedback.
  • Discussion sessions.
  • Set questions on primary materials.
  • Questions to be answered in personal folders.
  • Quizzes Guided exercises on acquiring a range of historical skills.

Learning outcomes

By the end of this course students will be expected to understand:

  • The definition of the British Empire on multiple levels.
  • The expansion of the British Empire.
  • The governance and administration of the British Empire.
  • The Empire's influence on British culture and politics.
  • The end of the British Empire Imperial legacies in the world today.

By the end of this course students will be expected to have gained the following skills:

  • To be able to analyse and evaluate a range of explanations for, and interpretations of, the rise and fall of the British Empire.
  • The ability to think and speak incisively about a complex historical topic.
  • To write critical, balanced and informed assessment of key historical issues and communicate their ideas successfully.
  • The ability to evaluate and interpret primary sources.
  • The ability to use electronic media both to discover and to present information and ideas.

Assessment methods

You will be set two pieces of work for the course. The first of 500 words is due halfway through your course. This does not count towards your final outcome but preparing for it, and the feedback you are given, will help you prepare for your assessed piece of work of 1,500 words due at the end of the course. The assessed work is marked pass or fail.

English Language Requirements

We do not insist that applicants hold an English language certification, but warn that they may be at a disadvantage if their language skills are not of a comparable level to those qualifications listed on our website. If you are confident in your proficiency, please feel free to enrol. For more information regarding English language requirements please follow this link:


Please use the 'Book' or 'Apply' button on this page. Alternatively, please complete an Enrolment form for short courses | Oxford University Department for Continuing Education

Level and demands

FHEQ level 4, 10 weeks, approx 10 hours per week, therefore a total of about 100 study hours.

IT requirements

This course is delivered online; to participate you must to be familiar with using a computer for purposes such as sending email and searching the Internet. You will also need regular access to the Internet and a computer meeting our recommended minimum computer specification.