I was born in 1967, and attended Rainham Mark Grammar School in Kent. In 1984 I passed the Cambridge University entrance exam to read History at Robinson College. Apart from a few fruitless acting auditions and rather more disastrous attempts to row a boat, I spent almost my entire three years, very profitably, in libraries and pubs, of which Cambridge has a great many. In my final year, I submitted a dissertation on witchcraft accusations in early modern Kent, supervised by Prof. Keith Wrightson, a version of which was later published. After graduation in 1989, I was awarded a University studentship which allowed me to undertake doctoral research into attitudes to crime in early modern England, again supervised by Keith Wrightson. My first seminar paper was on the language of witchcraft in the eighteenth century, a project I shelved because people were shaking their heads as I spoke. The thesis was completed during 1993-4, in which time I held a lectureship in early modern history at Keele University. This was followed first by a year teaching at Queen’s University, Belfast, then a four-year stint in the History Department of Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge.
In 1999 I was appointed Fellow and Director of Studies in History at Churchill College, Cambridge. In the following year Crime and Mentalities in Early Modern England was published by Cambridge University Press, and shortlisted for the Longman/History Today Book of the Year prize. Meanwhile, work was underway on spiritualism in twentieth-century Britain, resulting in a second book, Hellish Nell: Last of Britain’s Witches, published by 4th Estate in 2001 and longlisted for the Whitbread Prize. In 2003 I edited a volume of contemporary printed pamphlets about the witch-hunt of the 1640s – work in progress for Witchfinders: a Seventeenth-Century English Tragedy, published in 2005 by John Murray in the UK and Harvard University Press in the USA. In 2006 I was elected a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. Witchcraft: a Very Short Introduction was published by Oxford University Press in 2010, and has since been translated into several languages and made into an audiobook (read by an actor from one of the Star Trek films). My latest book, Between Two Worlds: How the English Became Americans, is published this November, in the US by Basic Books and in the UK by Oxford.
Today I teach early modern social and cultural history at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. I write and review regularly for scholarly journals and the popular press, and speak at societies, festivals, seminars and conferences, at home and abroad. I’m also a frequent contributor and consultant to television and radio, and live in hope that one day Hellish Nell or Witchfinders will actually be made into a film. Currently I’m researching an extraordinary story from the New England frontier in the 1650s, where accusations of witchcraft and heresy converge explosively. I’m hoping to turn this into a short book, provisionally entitled The Sound and the Silence. I live just outside Cambridge with my partner Sheena Peirse and our three lovely children Kate, Tom and Lily.