Main England page


Kings and Queens of England


Arthurian Legend

Alfred The Great

Alfred Rules England


Bede, "The Conversion of England"


Catholic Church

Civil War I

Civil War II


Edward I and Wales

Elizabethan Age

Edward The Confessor

Edward The VI



Henry VIII

Mary Rules England

Saxons, England Under the Rule of

Care to express an opinion on a current or past historical event?

Need to ask a question from our many visitors?

Just visit our Forum and leave your message.


Weekly Poll

Please Help Click Here



A History of England

This article was contributed by Ian M. Matley, Professor of Geography, Michigan State University, East Lansing.


Long ages ago the British Isles formed a peninsula of continental Europe, and the English Channel was a broad plain. People and animals from southern Europe traveled across this plain and made their home in the dense forests that then covered Britain. The people belonged to the earliest stage of civilization, the Old Stone Age. They moved over the damp green woodland, stone ax in hand, hunting mammoths, horses, and reindeer. They lived in caves, had no domestic animals, and took no care of their dead.

Over an immense stretch of time the land subsided, and Ireland was separated from Britain. Later the sea flowed into the narrow Strait of Dover and made Britain also an island. New waves of colonists crossed over from the east. The people advanced slowly to the New Stone Age. In this period they mined flints for their weapons and polished them to give a sharp cutting edge. They laid away their dead in long or round chambers called barrows and heaped over them mounds of earth and stone. The remains found in these barrows reveal that these people tamed horses, sheep, goats, cattle, dogs, and pigs and grew wheat and barley and, later, flax to make linen.

Later, sea merchants from countries bordering the Mediterranean discovered the islands in the northern seas. The Phoenicians, who traded with people in many lands, came again and again to buy tin, which lay close to the surface in Cornwall. The native people learned how to smelt tin with copper to make bronze tools and weapons. With this knowledge the long Stone Age ended and the Bronze Age began. The people of Britain erected avenues and circles of huge granite slabs, like those at Stonehenge. These were probably temples.

Celtic Domination

Some five or six centuries before the birth of Christ, a tall fair people called Celts came across the channel in small boats. The Goidels, or Gaels (who are still found in Ireland and in the Highlands of Scotland), formed the first great migration. Then came the Brythons, or Britons (still found in Wales and Cornwall), who gave their name to the island of Britain. The Celts knew how to smelt iron and were skilled in arts and crafts. They became the ruling class, and the native folk adopted the Celtic language and the Celts' Druid religion.

Roman Rule

Julius Caesar raided Britain in 55 BC and again in 54 BC. Nearly 90 years later Rome undertook the conquest of the island in earnest. In AD 43 Emperor Claudius gathered a force of about 40,000 to invade the island. All the area that is now England was soon subdued and added to the Roman Empire as the province Britannia.

A widowed Icenian queen, golden-haired Boudicca, led a great uprising against the Romans in AD 60, but her barbarian horde was no match for the Roman soldiers. The people of Scotland were harder to subdue. Emperor Hadrian decided conquering them was not worth the trouble, so he had a wall built 73 1/2 miles (118 kilometers) long across the narrow neck of the island to keep them out. South of this wall the Romans built more than 50 cities and connected them with military roads. Some of these roads, such as the famous Watling Street, serve as the foundations for modern highways.

The cities contained Roman baths and open-air theaters; temples to Jupiter, Mars, and Minerva; and houses with colonnaded terraces, mosaic floors, and hot-air furnaces. Upper-class Britons in the towns spoke Latin and wore the Roman toga. Commerce and industry prospered, protected by Roman law. Later, when Rome became Christian, Roman missionaries spread Christian teachings in Britain.

In AD 410 the Goths swept down on Rome, and no more Roman legions came to protect Britannia. The Britons, left to themselves, were unable to form a government. Local chieftains warred with one another. Barbarians from Scotland and pirates from Ireland ravaged the land. In vain a Briton wrote for aid to a Roman consul, saying: "The barbarians drive us to the sea; the sea throws us back on the barbarians."

Anglo-Saxon Invasions

Soon a more dangerous enemy appeared. Across the North Sea came bands of pirates in long black ships. They were the Teutonic peoples--Angles, Saxons, and Jutes--from the region of modern Denmark. They found the island easy to invade. In the south and west a low coast thrusts out toward the continent. From the coast navigable rivers lead inland across a rolling plain. The land itself, covered with green the year round, seemed miraculous. Centuries later people learned that the British Isles, so far north, owe their mild climate to the warm Gulf Stream.

The invaders plundered city after city and drove the Britons ever farther westward. Farmers and herdsmen followed in the wake of the warriors. The newcomers were pagans, worshipers of Odin and Thor, and had no use for Roman cities or Roman law. They cleared the forests for farmland and built longhouses grouped around the large log hall of their chief, which was decorated with carving and paint and hung with shining armor.

By AD 600 the ruin of Rome's Britannia was complete. The original Celtic stock survived only in the mountains of Wales and in Cornwall. Except in these areas Christianity and the Celtic language died. Britain came to be called Angle-land (later England) after the Angles, and the people spoke Anglo-Saxon

The small Anglo-Saxon tribes gradually merged into seven or eight little kingdoms. The Jutes, a small tribe, held the Isle of Wight and land to the north. The Saxons established themselves in Wessex on the south coast. The Angles ruled Mercia in the Midlands, East Anglia on the east coast, and Northumbria in the northeast. When a king died an assembly called the witenagemot, meaning "meeting of the wise," chose a new king.

Mission of Augustine

In the year 597 Augustine, an Italian monk, landed with 40 followers on the coast of Kent. He had been sent by Pope Gregory I to win the Angles over to the Christian faith. He baptized Ethelbert, king of Kent, repaired the old Roman church at Canterbury, and founded a Benedictine abbey there. The pope made him archbishop for his services. Hence from that time on, the archbishop of Canterbury has been primate of the church in England

Christianity spread rapidly. Learned monks brought to England a knowledge of architecture, law, philosophy, and Latin. A new civilization began to take shape, but it was checked by another invasion.

Danes Invade England

The new invaders were Scandinavians from Norway and Denmark.  The English called them Danes. Summer after summer these bold pirates rowed up the rivers in their longboats, plundered the rich monasteries, and went home with the gold and gems. Soon after 850 a great force remained in England, bent on conquest. Then permanent settlers poured in. The Danes were farmers and traders as well as warriors. When they founded a town--usually a port--they fortified it and opened a market. All of eastern England north of the Thames passed under the rule of the Danish jarls, or earls, and came to be known as the Danelaw, the part under Danish law.

The Danes would probably have wiped out Christianity in England if it had not been for Alfred the Great, king of Wessex. Alfred defeated the Danes' great army at Chippenham in 878 and forced the Danish leader to sign a treaty agreeing to leave Wessex free. The Danes promised also to be baptized, and many did become Christians. Alfred began English prose literature by translating Latin books into Anglo-Saxon. He also built schools and ordered the 'Anglo-Saxon Chronicle', the first historical record of England, to be begun.

A century after Alfred's time the Danes started once more to raid England's shores. In 991 the incompetent Ethelred the Unready tried to buy them off by paying them yearly a large sum in silver, called the Danegeld, or Dane tax, which was raised by a heavy tax on the people. Nevertheless the Danes came again, and in 1016 Canute, the king of Norway and Denmark, made himself king of England also. He proved to be a wise and strong ruler, but after his death his empire fell apart, and in 1042 the Danish dynasty in England ended.

The English line then returned to the throne with Edward, son of Ethelred. He had been reared by French monks and was called The Confessor.

Norman Conquest (1066)

While the Danes were invading England, other Norsemen raided the coast of France. On the southern shore of the English Channel they established the Duchy of Normandy. These Norsemen, or Normans, became French in language and culture. In the 11th century the Duchy of Normandy was rich, populous, and powerful.

When Edward the Confessor died childless, William, duke of Normandy, claimed the English crown. He was a second cousin of Edward, and he had exacted an oath from Harold, earl of Wessex, to support his claim. The English Witan nevertheless elected Harold king. William appealed to the pope. The pope supported William and declared Harold guilty of perjury.

William gathered together a "host of horsemen, slingers, and archers" and set sail for England. Harold met him with foot soldiers armed with battle-axes. The two armies clashed in the famous battle of Hastings on Oct. 14, 1066.

Harold was killed on the battlefield. The victorious William went up to London and was crowned king of England in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day.

Feudal System Under William I

For five years William I was busy putting down revolts in his new kingdom. He seized the land of all Saxons who fought against him and distributed it among his Norman followers--except for vast tracts that he kept for himself as crown lands. On his own estates and on those of favored barons he ordered strong fortified castles built.

In return for the grant of land--called a fief--each lord had to swear loyalty to the king, furnish knights for the king's army, attend the king's court, and aid the king with money on certain occasions. Farmers were reduced to the class of serfs, or villeins, as the Normans called them. A villein could not leave the manor on which he was born. This system of land tenure was the basis of feudalism, which held sway all over Europe in the Middle Ages.

The efficiency of William's rule is shown by the survey he had made of all the property in England. His agents visited every manor, found out who owned it, how many people lived there, and reported what the feudal lord ought to pay the king in taxes and feudal service. The findings were recorded in the famous Domesday Book. It was called Domesday (day of doom) because no one could escape its judgment.

The date of the Norman Conquest--1066--is one of the most important dates in English history. The Conquest cut England's ties with Scandinavia and connected England with France. French, the language of the Norman rulers, became blended with the Anglo-Saxon speech of the common people, enriching the native language with many new words and ideas. Wooden churches and abbeys were replaced with beautiful stone buildings in the Norman style. Foreign monks and bishops, brought in by the Normans, made the monasteries centers of learning. Anyone who wanted to study went into the church as a matter of course. The king's secretaries, judges, and most of his civil servants were churchmen, because only churchmen had the necessary education.

When he was crowned, William I, the Conqueror, promised to govern according to the laws of Edward the Confessor. The Witan survived in his great council of advisers, the curia regis, which was attended by earls, barons, bishops, and abbots; but the council no longer had the power to choose the king. As feudal overlord of the whole country, William bequeathed England to his second son, William II. He left Normandy to his eldest son, Robert.

William II, Henry I, and Stephen

William II (called William Rufus, the "Red King") came to the throne in 1087. He was a harsh ruler and few mourned him when he was killed by an arrow--shot by an unknown hand--while he was hunting (see William, Kings of England). Robert had gone off on the First Crusade, to recover the Holy Land from the Turks. A third son, Henry I, was therefore able to become king without a struggle, in 1100. When Robert returned, Henry crossed the Channel, defeated him, and gained Normandy also. He gave both England and western France a peaceful, orderly rule.

Henry I exacted a promise from the barons to recognize his daughter Matilda as their ruler. However, when he died, some of the barons broke their promise and instead chose Stephen, a grandson of William the Conqueror. Stephen was a gallant knight but a weak king. Throughout his reign lawless barons fought private wars, each seeking to increase his power. Twice he was challenged by Matilda and her supporters, who nearly defeated him in 1141. When Stephen died (1154), the people were ready to welcome a strong ruler who would restore order.

Henry II Restores the Royal Power

The strong ruler was found in Henry Plantagenet, count of Anjou. His mother was Matilda (or Maud), daughter of Henry I of England; his father was Geoffrey of Anjou. He came to the throne of England as Henry II, first of the Plantagenet line of kings, who were to rule England for 245 years. By marriage and inheritance, he came into possession of all western France. He spent most of his long reign, 1154-89, in his French possessions; yet he became one of England's great rulers.

Henry II sent out trained justices (judges) on circuit to different towns in England to sit in the county courts. The judges kept records of their cases. When one judge had decided a case, other judges trying the same kind of case were likely to adopt the decision that had been recorded. In the course of years, legal principles came to be based on these decisions. Because this case law applied to all Englishmen equally, it came to be called the common law. The circuit justices also made more extensive use of juries and started the grand jury system in criminal law. 

Henry carried on a long and bitter struggle with Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, who asserted the independence of the church courts against the king's authority. The church triumphed when Becket was murdered. After making peace with the pope, Henry did penance at Becket's tomb. Becket became a sainted martyr, and for centuries people made pilgrimages to his shrine at Canterbury.

Richard the Lion-Hearted, the brave and reckless son of Henry II, succeeded his father in 1189. After a few months he left England and went off on his long crusade. The country suffered little in his absence because Hubert Walter governed it better than Richard himself would have.

King John and Magna Carta

In 1199 Richard I was succeeded by his brother John, the most despicable of English kings. By a series of blunders John lost almost all his French possessions except the southwest corner. The English barons refused to help him regain his territory. Angered by his tyrannical rule, they drew up a list of things that even a king might not do. On June 15, 1215, they forced him to set his seal to this Great Charter (in Latin, Magna Carta) of English liberties.

Magna Carta is regarded as one of the most notable documents in history. The rights it listed were, in the main, feudal rights of justice and property that had been recognized by previous kings; but now for the first time these rights were insisted upon against the king's will. Thus an important principle was established--that the king himself must govern according to law. In later years, whenever a king over-extended his powers, the people could remind him of Magna Carta.

The Rise of Parliament

Henry III, John's eldest son, was crowned at the age of nine and ruled 56 years, 1216-72. He was pious and well meaning but incompetent and extravagant. The barons took a strong stand against him in Parliament. (The term parliament was gradually coming into use for the Great Council.) In 1264 the barons, led by Simon de Montfort, rose against the king and brought on the Barons' Wars. These wars ended when Earl Simon was killed in battle.

Henry III's son, Edward I, who ruled England from 1272 to 1307, wisely accepted the limitations on the king's authority. His parliament of 1295 is called the Model Parliament because it included representatives of both shires and towns as well as the Great Council. Many of the laws passed in Edward's reign exist in modified form today.

Edward I conquered and annexed Wales but failed in his effort to subdue Scotland. He died on his way north to put down an uprising led by the Scottish hero Robert Bruce. His incompetent son, Edward II, then took up the task and was decisively defeated by Bruce at Bannockburn. In 1327 Parliament used its new power to depose Edward II and place his son, Edward III, on the throne.

Flowering of English Medieval Life

The 13th century was a time of great enthusiasm for art and learning. In architecture the low, square towers and rounded arches of the Norman period gave place to the delicate spires and pointed arches of the early English, or Gothic, style. New learning was brought into England by friars and other scholars from the Continent. Oxford University won renown all over Europe. One of its teachers, Roger Bacon, a friar, urged the study of nature and the experimental method in seeking knowledge. The Crusades opened commerce with the Orient and brought in new ideas.

Towns became noted for particular manufactures. Craft guilds held a monopoly of manufacture, and merchant guilds controlled local markets. Foreign merchants were allowed to sell their wares only at certain annual fairs.

The Hundred Years' War and the Black Death

Knighthood was still in flower while Edward III was on the English throne from 1327 to 1377. The king himself excelled in "beautiful feats of arms." He soon had a chance to prove his skill. During his reign began the long struggle with France called the Hundred Years' War. In 1346 Edward's army won a brilliant victory at Crecy with a new English weapon, the longbow. The next year Edward took Calais, a French seaport. In 1356 his son Edward, the Black Prince, won the famous battle of Poitiers.

The war had come to a temporary halt when the Black Death swept over Western Europe in 1348-49, recurring repeatedly over the next century. More than a fourth of England's population perished. Whole villages were wiped out, and great areas of farmland went to weeds. The serfs who survived demanded high money wages. If their lord refused, they moved to another manor. The government tried to halt the rise in wages and bind the laborers to their manors once more, but it could not enforce its Statute of Labourers. The landlords sought labor at any price, and the laborers formed alliances to resist the law. John Wycliffe's "poor priests" (Lollards) and other traveling preachers increased the discontent by denouncing the landlords.

Richard II, grandson of Edward III, was 14 years old when a great band of peasants, headed by Wat Tyler and John Ball, marched on London (1381) from Kent. The boy king went out boldly to meet them. "We will that you make us free forever," the peasants asked. Richard promised to help them, and they returned peaceably to their homes. The king did not keep his promise. Within a week the judges hanged 1,500 ringleaders of the revolt. The feudal system of villenage, however, could not be revived. The serfs were gradually giving place to a new class of farmers--free yeomen.

Richard II thirsted for absolute rule and came into conflict with the powerful barons. His cousin Henry, duke of Lancaster, led a revolt against him in 1399, imprisoned him in the Tower of London, and compelled him to abdicate. Parliament then placed Henry on the throne of England as Henry IV.

The House of Lancaster ruled England only 62 years, 1399-1461. During this period three Henrys--father, son, and grandson--wore the crown. Their reigns were filled with plots and rebellions, murders and executions. Parliament had made them kings, and they needed its support to keep the throne. They therefore consulted it on all affairs.

The End of the Middle Ages in England

In 1455, two years after the Hundred Years' War ended, the House of York and the House of Lancaster plunged into a long and bloody struggle for the crown called the Wars of the Roses. Henry VI, of the House of Lancaster, was captured and murdered. Edward IV, of the House of York, spent most of his reign fighting to keep his crown. The last Yorkist king, Richard III, gained the throne when Edward's sons were declared not to be the rightful heirs. Peace came with Richard's death in the battle of Bosworth Field. The date of Richard's death--1485--may well be used to mark the close of the Middle Ages in English history.

The Wars of the Roses were the death throes of the feudal system. Battles and executions thinned the ranks of the nobles, and their fortified castles were no longer impregnable after the invention of gunpowder. A new aristocracy was pushing up through the broken crust of feudal society. In the towns a rich capitalist class appeared. Country squires--the landed gentry--also grew wealthy. The new aristocracy began to seek political power.

England was now the chief cloth-exporting country in the world. Enterprising employers, tired of the restrictions of the guild system, supplied wool to farmers and villagers to be spun and made up into cloth. This method of manufacture was called the domestic system, or the putting-out system. It grew steadily and caused the breakup of the guild system's monopoly. Serfdom also gradually died out. The gentry leased their land to yeomen who paid money wages to their free laborers.

French, the speech of the governing classes, had become blended with Anglo-Saxon into an English speech somewhat similar to the language used today. The great poet Geoffrey Chaucer wrote in this English and the Bible was translated into it. These works were among the first printed by William Caxton, who brought a printing press to England from Belgium in 1476. Printing made it possible for many more people to have books and helped spread the New Learning of the Renaissance. Before the 15th century ended, Spanish and Portuguese explorers had opened up new continents across the Atlantic Ocean.

Henry VII, First of the Tudors

After a century of wars, England enjoyed a century of almost unbroken peace under the Tudors. When this strong dynasty ended, England was a modern nation.

Henry VII, first of the Tudor line, became king by defeating and slaying Richard III in the battle of Bosworth Field (1485). He crushed the barons and made Parliament once more obedient to the king's will. Only the medieval church, still wealthy and powerful, remained an obstacle to his authority. He was popular with the commons--the middle classes in town and country--because he built up an orderly government, aided commerce and industry, and kept the country at peace and out of debt. With his encouragement, John Cabot in 1497 piloted an English ship across the Atlantic Ocean to Newfoundland, five years after Columbus discovered the New World.

The English Reformation

Henry VIII, ruled 1509-47, is famous as the king who had six wives in succession. When he put aside his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, the pope excommunicated him. Henry, enraged, had Parliament cut the ties that bound the English church to the papacy (1534) and forced the English clergy to acknowledge the king rather than the pope as the "only supreme head of the Church of England."

Henry's quarrel with the pope was made easier by the Protestant Reformation. Yet Henry claimed to be a devout Roman Catholic. He burned Protestants at the stake almost as readily as he hanged and beheaded the "traitors" who upheld the pope. His attack on the papacy was prompted in part by greed. By dissolving the monasteries he was able to seize their lands and buildings and the costly ornaments of the shrines. He used some of his new riches to fortify the coasts and build England's first real navy. At his death the royal fleet numbered 71 vessels, some of which were fitted out with cannon.

Henry VIII's only son, Edward VI, was ten years old when he came to the throne (1547), and he died at the age of 16. The Lord Protectors who ruled in his stead favored the Protestant cause. They forbade the Catholics to hold Mass and required Thomas Cranmer's English Prayer Book to be read instead of the Latin Mass.

These laws were speedily repealed when Mary, daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, ascended the throne. Mary had been brought up in the Catholic faith and she held resolutely to it.

Elizabeth I and England's Golden Age

Elizabeth I, Mary's half sister, in turn repealed Mary's laws. In her reign the Church of England took the form it has today. It kept the Catholic governmental organization of archbishops, bishops, and deans, but it rejected the headship of the pope. It permitted the clergy to marry, and it again ordered the reading of the English Prayer Book. Many people accepted this "middle way." But it was bitterly opposed by the Roman Catholics (Papists), and also by the extreme Protestants (Puritans), who insisted on a simpler, "purer" form of service with no "Popish rites."

The long reign of Elizabeth I, 1558-1603, was England's Golden Age. The Renaissance, which began in Italy in the 14th century, at last reached the northern island. "Merry England," in love with life, expressed itself in music and literature, in architecture, and in adventurous seafaring. William Shakespeare, poet and dramatist, mirrored the age in verse that lifted the English language to its fullest beauty.

Throughout the land could be heard the sound of hammers and saws of builders--a sure sign of prosperity. Elizabethan manor houses, usually built around an open court, blended the English style with the new Italian. English glassworks supplied small clear panes for lattice windows. The increasing use of brick made it easier to build chimneys and fireplaces even for common houses.

Exploration; Defeat of the Spanish Armada

English seamanship and shipbuilding reached the highest point they had yet attained. Francis Drake sailed around the world. Walter Raleigh made the first attempt to found an English colony in America. These and other courageous privateers reaped rich rewards--chiefly at the expense of Spain--from plundering, piracy, smuggling, and the slave trade. Elizabeth encouraged them on the ground that they protected Protestant England against Catholic Spain.

The defeat of the Spanish Armada (1588) established the superiority of English ships and sailors and made the English conscious of their ocean destiny. English merchants began to seek distant markets for their goods. In 1600 the now old queen chartered the famous East India Company, giving it a monopoly of trade with the Far East. From this small start Britain's Indian Empire was to grow.

Unemployment and Poor Relief

Not all classes shared in the increasing prosperity. The population had doubled since the Black Death and now numbered about 4 million. There was land hunger again. The growth of the cloth industry increased the demand for wool and made it profitable for the landowners to turn farmlands into pasture. They fenced in (enclosed) the pastures with hedgerows. "Where 40 persons had their livings," the laborers complained, "now one man and his shepherd hath all." Men thrown out of work by the enclosures became vagabonds and terrorized the townfolk. Whipping the "sturdy beggars" failed to solve the problem.

Throughout the Middle Ages the monasteries had given alms to the poor. Now that the monasteries were no more, the government took over the task. Elizabeth's famous statute of 1601, an Act for the Relief of the Poor, required every parish to levy rates (local taxes) for poor relief.

Children were to be put out as apprentices if their parents could not support them. Wages of artisans and farm laborers were fixed by law. All able-bodied men were compelled to work. They could no longer move freely from place to place. They were practically serfs again, except that they had no rights in the land. The Poor Laws enacted during Elizabeth's reign remained on the books, although with amendments, until after World War II.

Birth of the British Empire

The Tudor dynasty came to an end when Elizabeth I died in 1603. The crown of England then passed to the Stuart line of Scotland. The new king was called James VI in Scotland and James I in England. The two countries, having the same ruler, were now bound together in a personal union, but for another century they had separate parliaments.

James boldly announced that he would rule as an absolute monarch, responsible to God alone. This view of monarchy was called the divine right of kings. It was generally accepted on the continent of Europe, but it ran counter to the nature of the English people. Parliament resisted James at every point. By insisting that all people conform to the Church of England, he won the enmity of the Puritans and the Catholics. A small band of Catholic extremists, including Guy Fawkes, formed the Gunpowder Plot to blow up king and parliament together.

James allowed the navy to decay and suppressed privateering. Yet it was in his reign that colonial expansion began and the British Empire was born. The colony of Jamestown, Virginia, was started in 1607. In 1620 the Pilgrims landed on the rocky shore of New England. Other colonists swiftly followed. Some went to escape religious persecution and some to find free land. They spread English civilization into the wilderness.

Under Charles I, who ruled 1625-49, active colonization continued. Charles was glad to have the troublesome Puritans leave England. Great wealth flowed into London from American tobacco, the African slave traffic, and the silks and spices of India.

England's Civil War

Charles was as obstinate a despot as his father. In 1629 he dissolved Parliament, determined to rule by himself alone. Eleven years later he became involved in a war with Scotland and was obliged to summon Parliament to raise money for his armies. When Parliament refused to vote the money, Charles dissolved it. Before the year ended he summoned it again. This time Parliament forced the king to agree not to dissolve it without its consent. It lasted, with some interruptions, from 1640 to 1659 and is known as the Long Parliament.

Puritans dominated the House of Commons. Instead of aiding the king, they passed laws to curb his power. The king went in person to the House, determined to arrest five of its leaders, but "the birds had flown." Parliament issued a call to arms, a revolutionary act. The powerful new middle class put its great resources behind the Puritans. The king rallied the royalist aristocracy, High Church Anglicans, and the Catholics to his standard.

The Parliamentary army went into battle singing psalms. In 1644 the Puritans defeated Charles's Cavaliers at Marston Moor. In this battle Oliver Cromwell, the Puritan leader, won the name Ironsides. The next year he gained a decisive victory at Naseby.

In 1648 Colonel Pride, a Puritan, stood at the entrance to the Commons with a force of soldiers and allowed only Roundheads to enter. (The Puritans were called Roundheads because they cut their hair short. The Cavaliers wore long flowing locks.) The group that remained after Pride's Purge was called the Rump Parliament.

The Rump sentenced Charles to execution, and he was beheaded on Jan. 30, 1649. The Rump then declared England a Commonwealth (that is, a republic), without a king or a house of lords.

The Commonwealth and the Protectorate

The Rump Parliament governed England while Cromwell put down revolts in Ireland and Scotland with great cruelty. In 1653 he came back from the wars, dismissed Parliament, and "nominated" a Parliament of his own (called Barebone's Parliament after one of its members, Praisegod Barebone). The Commonwealth then took the name of Protectorate, with Cromwell as Lord Protector

The Puritans closed the theaters, suppressed horse racing, cockfighting, and bearbaiting, and made Sunday strictly a day of worship. Cromwell's rule was more despotic than the king's. Yet the revolution accomplished its purpose. When the monarchy was revived it became a limited monarchy. The Church of England never again tried to include all Englishmen.

When Cromwell died in 1658 his eldest son, Richard Cromwell, became Lord Protector. Too weak to control the army, Tumbledown Dick resigned the next year. In 1660 George Monk, one of Cromwell's generals, brought an army from Scotland and had the Rump of the Long Parliament recalled to dissolve itself. A new Parliament was elected and at once offered the crown to the exiled son of Charles I.

England Under the Restoration

The people of London joyously welcomed Charles II when he arrived from France with the gay court of Cavaliers that had been exiled with him. The bleak Puritan age was suddenly ended. Theaters opened again. Footlights, curtains, and painted scenery were introduced. For the first time women appeared on the stage. In spite of renewed censorship, Restoration dramatists delighted Londoners with sparkling comedies that laughed at Puritan virtues. John Dryden best represented the Restoration period. Its greatest poet, however, was still the Puritan John Milton, who had faithfully served Cromwell. Now blind, he retired from public life to write the greatest epic in the English language, 'Paradise Lost'.

England's greatest architect, Sir Christopher Wren, rebuilt St. Paul's Cathedral, following London's Great Fire of 1666.  Science flourished along with the arts. Isaac Newton formulated laws of the universe. An observatory was established at Greenwich.

Catholics fared somewhat better than Puritans under Charles II. His "Cavalier Parliament" in 1662 passed an Act of Uniformity depriving of their offices all clergymen who did not accept everything in the Anglican Prayer Book. This act tended to throw all nonconformists (Independents, Presbyterians, Baptists, and the new Quaker sect) into a single class, called dissenters. To make things easier for Catholics, Charles issued a Declaration of Indulgence in 1672. Parliament forced him to retract this and passed a Test Act (1673), which made it impossible for Catholics to hold public office.

The Birth of Political Parties

Charles II leaned toward Catholicism. His brother James, heir to the throne, was an avowed Catholic. In 1679 an "Exclusion Bill" was presented in Parliament to bar James from the kingship. Charles prevented its passage by dissolving Parliament. The governing classes at once split into bitter factions-- the Tories, who opposed the bill, and the Whigs, who favored it. Thus were born the first great political parties in history.

The names Whig and Tory were both terms of derision. Tory was Irish slang for a "popish" outlaw. Whig was a term of contempt in Scotland for a fanatic Presbyterian. The Tories, descended from the Cavaliers, represented the landed aristocracy. They upheld the divine right of kings and the Anglican church. The Whigs, descended from the Roundheads, represented the commercial classes of the cities. They championed Parliament against the king and urged toleration for nonconformists.

Following the decline of Spanish and Portuguese sea power, the Dutch Netherlands became a serious rival of England in the Far East, in Africa, and in America. In the 17th century England fought three commercial wars against the Dutch (1652-54, 1665-67, and 1672-74). The Netherlands then dropped out of the race for world commerce and American dominions. In the third war the English joined forces with the French--not yet aware that France was to be the next rival England had to face.

The Glorious Revolution of 1688

Charles II died in 1685, and his brother, James II, stepped quietly to the throne. However, when a male heir to James was born, in 1688, Tory and Whig leaders joined together and decided to set aside the Catholic line of kings. They invited Mary, a daughter of James, and her Dutch husband, William of Orange, to occupy the throne as joint sovereigns. When William arrived from Holland, James fled to the continent.

Parliament was careful to lay down conditions for the new sovereigns. William and Mary accepted its Declaration of Rights, and Parliament speedily enacted it into law as the famous Bill of Rights. The act made the king responsible to Parliament and subject to the laws and provided that henceforth no Roman Catholic could wear England's crown. Parliament, and not inheritance or divine right, would determine the succession to the throne. This was the fruit of the so-called Glorious Revolution--a revolution without bloodshed. John Locke published a defense of the Revolution in which he proclaimed the supremacy of the legislative assembly as the voice of the people.

The Struggle with France

While England was in the throes of revolution, France, under Louis XIV, was achieving a dominant position in Europe. With internal conflict ended, England turned its attention abroad. In 1689 it joined with Holland and several German states in the War of the Grand Alliance against France. The war spread to America, where it was called King William's War. It marked the beginning of a long struggle to decide whether France or England was to control India and North America

When William died, in 1702, Louis XIV proclaimed James Stuart, son of James II, king of England, Scotland, and Ireland. Parliament, however, had provided that if William and Mary had no children, the crown should pass to Anne, a Protestant, daughter of James II by his first wife. James Stuart kept up his claim to the throne for 65 years and became known as the Old Pretender. His son, Bonnie Prince Charlie, known as the Young Pretender, made an unsuccessful attempt to obtain the throne in 1745

Queen Anne's Reign

As soon as Anne came to the throne in 1702, England entered upon another war with France to break up a threatened combination of France and Spain. This was called in Europe the War of the Spanish Succession. In America it was known as Queen Anne's War. The Duke of Marlborough led the English, Dutch, and Germans to brilliant victories, and the Treaty of Utrecht (1713) gave England important territories (all Nova Scotia and Newfoundland) in the New World.

Birth of the Kingdom of Great Britain

The most notable event in Anne's reign was the union of England with Scotland. Since 1603 the two nations had been loosely associated under the same king. The Act of Union (1707) united them in a single kingdom, called Great Britain, and joined their parliaments. Thereafter the government and parliament in London were called British rather than English. 

Walpole, Britain's First Prime Minister

The Stuart line came to an end when Anne died, since none of her 17 children survived her. She was succeeded in 1714 by the nearest Protestant heir, George I, a prince of the House of Hanover, a small state in Germany

George did not speak English, and he was so wrapped up in his beloved Hanover that he took little interest in British affairs. He soon began to stay away from meetings of his inner council, or cabinet, and left the government in the hands of Sir Robert Walpole, the able Whig leader. George II, who ruled 1727-60, also stayed away from meetings of his ministers. Walpole made himself supreme in the government, selected his colleagues, and insisted they work with him or leave the cabinet. He thus became the first prime minister.

Walpole promoted trade and commerce and strove to avoid war. But in 1739 the British people became aroused over the story of Robert Jenkins, a sea captain, who claimed the Spaniards had boarded his ship and cut off his ear. Walpole was persuaded to declare war against Spain in 1739--the War of Jenkins' Ear. He resigned when this war merged into another continental war, the War of the Austrian Succession, in America called King George's War. When peace was made, in 1748, the real issue--whether France or Britain was to prevail in India and North America--was still unsettled.

Britain Wins French Territory

The struggle with France was renewed in the Seven Years' War, which broke out in 1756. This war brought to the fore a leader of genius, William Pitt, earl of Chatham. He carried on the struggle against France in America, Africa, and India, as well as in Europe and on the sea. The war cost France almost all its territory in North America and India and vastly extended Britain's empire. Horace Walpole wrote to Sir Horace Mann, in Italy: "You would not know your country again. You left it a private little island living upon its means. You will find it the capital of the world."

The American Revolution

Before the Seven Years' War ended, George III began his 60-year reign, 1760-1820. Determined to "be a king" and quite unfit to be one, he got rid of Pitt and put his own Tory friends in power.

The Tory government imposed new taxes on the American Colonies. The colonists insisted the British Parliament had no right to tax them without their consent. Pitt and Edmund Burke counseled compromise, but George III and his ministers obstinately insisted on their course. Troops were sent to enforce the decrees, and the colonists met force with force. On July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress adopted a Declaration of Independence. Two years later France entered the war on the side of the colonists. The Americans finally won their independence, and Britain lost the most valuable part of its colonial empire.

George III's attempt at personal rule was now completely discredited. Parliament regained its leadership. William Pitt, second son of the earl of Chatham, became prime minister in 1783 and held the position for 17 years.

Britain's Classical Age

The numerous wars of the 18th century were fought with small professional armies and hardly disturbed the even tenor of life in the "fortunate isle." Even the loss of the American Colonies was little felt. Britain was still mistress of the seas, and its mariners and traders soon built a second empire greater than the old. Before the century ended, the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution were to produce tremendous upheavals. Until the storm broke, Britain was quiet and settled.

The years 1740-80 were Britain's classical age--an age of art and elegance, of enlightenment and religious tolerance. Wealth and leisure became more widely diffused. In town and country the middle class put up comfortable, dignified homes in the Queen Anne and Georgian styles. Into them went furniture designed by Thomas Chippendale, Thomas Sheraton, and the Adam brothers, and beautiful china, glass, and silver plate made by skilled English handicraftsmen. The dress of the age was extravagant. Men wore bright-colored silk coats, waistcoats, and breeches; women appeared in hoopskirts and elaborate headdresses or high pompadours. The three great portrait painters of the age--Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough, and George Romney--pictured the fashionable aristocrats, while William Hogarth caricatured both the fashionable and the common people.

Alexander Pope, a bitter satirist, was the leading poet of the age; but the most characteristic literary figure was Samuel Johnson, who gathered with other writers in London's coffeehouses to discuss and debate

The government was little concerned with reform. Individuals, however, were showing a growing sensitivity to the wretched condition of the poor. Hundreds of charity schools, Sunday schools, and hospitals were founded, all at private expense. John Howard made prison reform his life's work

William Wilberforce set in motion a campaign that was to free the slaves in all the British colonies by 1833. The new humanitarian spirit was quickened by the Methodist movement, a tremendous religious revival led by John Wesley

The Industrial Revolution

Britain now entered upon the greatest revolution in all history. It began with inventions in the textile industry--John Kay's flying shuttle, to speed up weaving, and James Hargreave's spinning jenny, for making yarn. These inventions transformed the textile industry, which had seen almost no change for thousands of years. By 1781 James Watt had developed a steam engine to run these and other machines. During the next 15 years cotton manufactures trebled. The great Industrial Revolution was under way.

The revolution in agriculture also began in the 18th century. In the time of Queen Anne, British landowners began to devote their wealth and personal attention to improving methods of cultivation. On their enclosed fields they practiced scientific rotation of crops and pasture and new methods of draining, drilling, sowing, and fertilizing. They began to grow root crops (turnips and potatoes) in fields instead of in small gardens. By selective breeding and proper winter feeding of stock they doubled the average weight of cattle and sheep.

Improved Nutrition and Transportation

Fresh beef and mutton replaced salt meat in the winter diet. Scurvy and other skin diseases, prevalent in earlier centuries, grew rare even among the poor. The increasing knowledge of medicine combined with better nutrition to bring about a sharp drop in the death rate--from 33 in a thousand in 1830 to 23 at the end of the century. As a consequence population increased enormously.

Great improvements in inland transport accompanied the revolutions in industry and agriculture. In Queen Anne's reign coal was still carried on packhorses. Roads were so poor that wheels stuck in the mud or broke on hard, dry ruts and huge stones. The government still took little interest in road building. Private initiative supplied the need. Turnpike companies laced the land with roads and made their profit by collecting fees at tollgates. Heavy wagons lumbered over the new turnpikes, and light stagecoaches sped along them at ten miles an hour, stopping at coaching inns for new relays of fast horses. In 1750 a great era of canal building began. Before the end of the century the land was interlaced with a network of waterways. Like the roads, the canals were built for profit by private companies.

Britain's threefold revolution was accomplished by private initiative. Individualism, the spirit of the age, freed men's minds and energies. Yet many government restrictions still shackled industry and commerce. Adam Smith, creator of the science of political economy, called attention to their harmful effect. Complete freedom of industry and trade, he said, would unleash even greater productive energy. His ideas, published in 'Wealth of Nations' (1776), gave direction to the new industrial age.

Challenge of Napoleon

The outbreak of the French Revolution ended the harmony of 18th-century Britain. Class faced class in bitter controversy. Thomas Paine upheld the revolutionists in a stirring appeal to the masses, 'The Rights of Man'. Edmund Burke eloquently voiced the attitude of conservative Englishmen: "The French," he declared, "have shown themselves the ablest architects of ruin who have hitherto existed in the world."

People were horrified when France set up a republic and executed Louis XVI. George III went into mourning and expelled the French envoy. France declared war, and Britain promptly joined the coalition of European monarchs against the new French republic. The war dragged on without much result until the young general Napoleon Bonaparte began to win amazing victories. By 1797 Britain was left to carry on the war alone. Britain, weak on land, was supreme on the sea. Admiral Horatio Nelson's victory of the Nile (1798) gave the British navy control of the Mediterranean and secured the route to India. At Trafalgar (1805) Nelson annihilated the French fleet. Napoleon, victorious on the Continent, was unable to invade the island kingdom; so he sought to ruin the "race of shopkeepers" by forbidding Europe to trade with Britain. Britain countered by blockading all European ports controlled by Napoleon. The United States, exasperated by Britain's interference with its commerce, declared war on Britain in 1812

Britain meanwhile had built up an army, led by the duke of Wellington. Wellington first drove the French out of Spain. In 1815 he commanded the British forces at the battle of Waterloo, which destroyed Napoleon's army. Before the year ended, a British ship carried off Napoleon to an island prison.

Effects of the War with France

Triumph over France brought Great Britain national glory and financial profit. The empire expanded and British control over sea routes was made secure. The increased demand for British goods stimulated commerce and quickened the pace of the Industrial Revolution. British blast furnaces and textile mills supplied munitions and clothes not only for the armies of Great Britain but for its allies as well.

English poetry reached the highest point it had touched since the age of Shakespeare. The ideas of the French Revolution ended the Classical Age on the continent as well as in Britain and gave birth to a new back-to-nature movement in art and literature called the Romantic Movement. The Romanticists extolled emotion as the Classicists had reason. They sought the beautiful in nature or in medieval art rather than in classical models.

Changes appeared also in dress and morals. Women ceased to powder their hair. Men discarded wigs and cut their hair short. Wool and cotton began to replace silks, satins, and velvets for both men and women. The reformers of the age sent missionaries into foreign lands, but they took little interest in the increasing wretchedness of Britain's poor.

The war swelled the fortunes of landlords, merchants, and manufacturers. To the poor it brought misery. Men and women toiled 12 to 18 hours a day in mines and factories. Wages were at starvation levels. Child labor was widespread. Laissez-faire (from a French term, meaning "let it alone"), the rough beginning of a free market economy, was becoming the order of the day in industry. The new freedom, unfortunately, did not extend to the working classes. They were forbidden to hold meetings, to organize unions, even to publish pamphlets. When workers rioted and smashed the new machines, the government made machine breaking a capital crime. Fourteen Luddites (so called after a feebleminded youth who destroyed two stocking frames) were put to death in Yorkshire in 1811.

Inspired by the revolt of the French peasants, the Irish rose against English rule in 1798. In 1800 Pitt succeeded in bringing Ireland into a union with Great Britain similar to that between England and Scotland. The Act of Union went into force Jan. 1, 1801, creating the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The mass of the Irish, however, being Catholics, were still excluded from the government. George III allowed only Church-of-England Irish to sit in Parliament.

The Coming of Democracy

The factory system made tremendous changes in the social structure. Two new classes had appeared--the capitalists, or entrepreneurs, who owned the factories and machines, and the mass of the workers, who were dependent upon the capitalists for employment. Large manufacturing cities had risen in the north, close to the coalfields. Many of these cities had no representation in Parliament because no new boroughs had been created to send up members since the time of Charles II. In the south of England Tory proprietors of boroughs with few or no inhabitants (called pocket boroughs or rotten boroughs) continued to send representatives. Cornwall sent as many members to the House of Commons as all Scotland.

The spirit of reform was gradually making itself felt. Jeremy Bentham, called the utilitarian, made utility the test of law and said government should promote "the greatest happiness of the greatest number" by scientific legislation. Philosophic radicals such as James Mill advocated a laissez-faire individualism. Robert Owen showed in his New Lanark mills in Scotland that good hours, good wages, and healthy factory conditions could be made to pay.

William Cobbett, a radical journalist, led a campaign for universal suffrage because he believed workmen could improve their condition only by achieving the right to vote. The great industrial city of Manchester had no parliamentary representation. In 1819 a crowd of 60,000 assembled on St. Peter's Field to choose a "legislative representative." Mounted soldiers charged into the crowd, killed 11 persons, and wounded many. This Peterloo Massacre aroused great indignation and gave the deathblow to the old Toryism.

George III became insane in his later years and blind as well. For nine years before his death his incompetent eldest son governed as prince regent. (This period, 1811-20, is therefore known as the Regency.) On his father's death, the prince regent became King George IV

The more progressive Tories now began a series of reforms that opened a new era. Trade unions were partially legalized in 1825. Catholics were admitted to Parliament--after a struggle of many years--by the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829. Harsh criminal laws were reformed, reducing capital offenses to about a dozen. (In 1800, 200 offenses had been punishable by death.) In 1829 Robert Peel set up, for the first time in history, a civilian police force. Started in London, it spread quickly to other cities. The people called the police by either of Peel's names--bobbies or peelers 

William IV, brother of George IV, began his short reign in 1830. The reform of Parliament had by now become the burning issue. Extreme Tories, led by the duke of Wellington, stood fast against it. Reform groups in Parliament, including the moderate Tories, drew together and supported Earl Grey, the Whig leader. Wellington's government fell and the Whigs came into power. Lord John Russell introduced a strong reform bill. In the face of tremendous opposition in the House of Lords, the Great Reform Act was passed in 1832.

Parliamentary Reform

The Reform Act created 43 new boroughs and deprived the rotten boroughs of their representatives in Parliament. The battle for universal suffrage, however, was still to be fought. The Reform Act slightly increased the number of voters by lowering the property qualifications; but the mass of the working people were still too poor to vote.

During the 1830s the Tories dropped their somewhat discredited name and became known as the Conservative party. The free-trade Conservatives (Peelites) gradually merged with the Whigs, who were to become the new Liberal party. Liberalism in the 19th century meant individualism. The true Liberal of that day championed freedom of thought and religion, freedom of trade, freedom of contract between the individual employer and the individual workman, and unrestricted competition. The party was made up chiefly of the industrial middle class.

The Victorian Age

William IV died in 1837, in the seventh year of his reign, and Victoria, his 18-year-old niece, became queen of Great Britain. Three years later she married her cousin Albert, a German prince. As prince consort, Albert gave valuable aid to the queen until his death in 1861

The young girl entered eagerly upon her new duties. Her long reign, 1837-1901, was to be immensely creative in literature and science, and before its close Britain reached the first place among nations in wealth and power. In the first years of her rule, however, the country seemed to be almost on the verge of revolution.

A series of bad harvests, beginning in 1837, continued into the Hungry Forties. England suffered a wheat famine, Ireland a potato famine. A high tariff on grain (called corn in England) kept out foreign wheat. The price of bread soared. A new Poor Law (1834) had ended the outdoor relief for paupers that had been begun in the time of Queen Elizabeth I. The workhouses that took its place (described in Dickens' novel 'Oliver Twist') were more dreaded than jails. Wages were miserably low. A tremendous migration began from the British Isles to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States.

A group of reformers called Chartists drafted in 1838 a bill called the People's Charter, calling for universal manhood suffrage. Meanwhile an Anti-Corn Law League had been formed in 1836, to campaign for the free entry of foreign wheat to feed the hungry poor. Sir Robert Peel, the Conservative prime minister, was finally converted to their view; and in 1846 he put through Parliament the famous bill repealing the Corn Laws. Wheat at once poured in from overseas. Prosperity returned, even for the farmers. The working people now began to turn their attention to the new trade unions and to the cooperative movement, started in 1844 by the Rochdale Pioneers.

Free Trade and Prosperity

The success of the Corn Law repeal encouraged the government to remove the tariff on other foods and on the raw materials needed by manufacturers. With free trade, Britain entered upon its period of greatest prosperity. Iron and steel output expanded greatly. Steam and machinery came to be used increasingly in every kind of manufacturing process. A tremendous boom in railway building caused many old posting inns to fall into disuse. By 1848 a large part of the new trackage was paralleled by telegraph wires. "Penny postage," introduced throughout the British Isles in 1840, provided a cheap and uniform postage rate prepaid with an adhesive stamp. Commerce was set free in 1849 by the repeal of the old Navigation Laws, which had permitted only British ships to carry goods between different parts of the empire. The application of steam power to oceangoing vessels stimulated the growth of the merchant marine and the navy. Commerce expanded enormously. In 1851 the country celebrated its industrial progress in the first great international fair, called the Great Exhibition. The government began to take more interest in the empire, which provided the manufacturers with both markets and raw materials. The Crimean War (1854-56) was fought to protect British and French imperial interests against Russia's threatened advance toward the Mediterranean and India. After helping the British East India Company put down the Sepoy Rebellion in India (1857), Parliament deprived the company of its political powers and transferred the government of India to the British crown

Wider Suffrage and Imperialism

The Reform Act of 1832 had benefited only the middle class. In 1867 Parliament took another long step in the direction of democracy by putting through the second Reform Act. This gave the vote to almost all adult males in the towns. The bill had been introduced by Benjamin Disraeli, a Conservative. Nevertheless the new voters, many of them workingmen, supported William Gladstone, Liberal leader. With Gladstone's first and greatest ministry, 1868-74, an era of reform set in.

The Education Act of 1870 set up elementary schools financed in part by the government. In the same year competitive examinations were introduced for employment in the civil service. The Trade Union Act of 1871 gave full legal recognition to trade unions. In 1872 the secret ballot was introduced in parliamentary elections.

Imperialism came into the ascendancy in 1874 with Benjamin Disraeli's Conservative ministry. Disraeli obtained for Britain financial control of the Suez Canal, key to Britain's eastern empire. In 1876 he had Queen Victoria declared empress of India. When Russia defeated Turkey and advanced close to Constantinople, he called the Congress of Berlin (1878), which checked Russian ambitions

During Gladstone's second ministry, 1880-85, a third Reform Bill was enacted, in 1884. This gave rural voters the same voting privileges as the townspeople. The "Grand Old Man" went down to defeat because he championed Home Rule for Ireland. The Irish question split the Liberal party into Home Rulers and Unionists. The Liberal Unionists, led by Joseph Chamberlain, gave their support to the Conservative party because they wanted no separate parliament for Ireland. A coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Unionists took office.

During the three ministries of Robert Salisbury, the government brought the navy to a high state of efficiency and secured for Britain the lion's share in the partition of Africa. To stimulate interest in the empire, it celebrated the 50th and 60th years of Victoria's rule (1887 and 1897) with magnificent "jubilees" attended by Indian princes and representatives of all the far-flung dominions and colonies. Before the century ended, the British were engaged in the Boer War (1899-1902) against the Dutch farmers (Boers) in South Africa. After some humiliating defeats, Britain won the war and annexed the two Boer republics, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. Following annexation, Britain granted self-government to South Africa under the leadership of Jan Smuts, a Boer. Before the war was over, Queen Victoria died (1901), ending the longest reign in British history. Edward VII, her son, succeeded her.

An Age of Peace and Progress

The Victorians called their age "modern" and thought it superior to all past centuries. It was an age that envisioned an indefinite future of progress with peace and plenty. Wages and working conditions steadily improved. Dividends from British industry and from foreign investments supported a leisure class. The population of the United Kingdom increased in the last half of the century from 28 million to nearly 42 million people. The age was extraordinarily creative in literature and science. The poets Alfred Tennyson and Robert Browning expressed the Victorians' optimism and religious feeling. But it was chiefly an age of the novel, represented by William Thackeray and Charles Dickens, and the essay. In pure science, Charles Darwin's theory of evolution had worldwide influence

The Victorians did not excel in music or in painting. Architecture actually deteriorated, owing in part to the progress in technology that caused a breakdown of craftsmanship and tradition. Cheap manufactured knickknacks cluttered Victorian parlors.

The Labour Party and the New Liberalism

When Edward VII came to the throne, in 1901, Britain was no longer the only "workshop of the world." The Industrial Revolution was now in full swing in other countries. Germany, the United States, and Japan competed strongly with Britain in foreign markets. Unemployment soon became chronic. Serious unrest stirred the working classes.

Germany not only competed with British industry but had become the greatest military power on the Continent; and in 1900 it began to expand its navy, challenging British control of the seas. To meet this threat, Britain abandoned its "splendid isolation" and entered into an alliance with Japan in 1902. In 1904 it concluded the Entente Cordiale with France, and in 1907 it reached a similar agreement with Russia.

In 1900 the British Trades Union Congress held a conference to form a new political party. Delegates were invited from various socialist organizations. Chief among these was the Fabian Society. The Fabians were middle-class intellectuals who had been advocating national ownership of land and industry since 1883. The new party became known at once as the Labour party.

Fabian teachings had been spreading also in the Liberal party. The "new" Liberals of the 20th century no longer advocated a policy of laissez-faire in government. They had turned against individualism and classical economics and favored extending the powers of the state to abolish poverty. They still held to the 19th-century Liberal doctrine of free trade. On this issue they won the election of 1906. Labour party representatives supported the Liberal program of social legislation.

Lloyd George's Social Legislation

The driving power of the new government was David Lloyd George, chancellor of the exchequer under Herbert Asquith from 1908 to 1916. In 1908 he put through Parliament an Old Age Pensions Act granting pensions to all old people with a small income. On Jan. 1, 1909, over half a million men and women drew their first pensions.

Pensions and the constantly expanding navy vastly increased the expenses of the British government. In 1909 Lloyd George proposed heavy taxes on the wealthy and a new tax on land. The House of Lords rejected his budget.

A constitutional struggle took place that ended in the Parliament Act of 1911, which stripped the House of Lords of much of its power. The way was now open for the passage of a National Insurance Act (1912) to pay wage earners unemployment and sickness benefits.

In the midst of the parliamentary struggle Edward VII died (1910). He was succeeded by his only surviving son, George V.

World War I and Its Aftermath

On the eve of World War I the people of Great Britain were concerned with militant suffragettes, workingmen's strikes, and an Irish crisis. War broke out with startling suddenness on Aug. 1, 1914. Britain declared war three days later, and the British dominions and colonies were automatically drawn in. British and empire troops fought in France and Belgium, at Gallipoli, and in Palestine, while the navy held the seas and prevented food and supplies from reaching Germany.

Lloyd George became the war leader in 1916 when he succeeded Asquith as head of the Nationalist government, a coalition of Liberal and Conservative parties. The peace treaties, which he negotiated, added more territory to the vast British Empire in Asia, Africa, and the Pacific. The United Kingdom itself, however, was made smaller by an act of Parliament granting self-government to southern Ireland as a dominion of the British Commonwealth.

In 1918 Lloyd George's government passed an Education Act abolishing all fees in state-supported elementary schools. The same year it extended manhood suffrage and granted the right to vote to single women over 30 and married women over 35 who met certain property qualifications. In 1919 women became eligible for Parliament. Universal adult suffrage was not achieved until 1928.

The war had vastly increased the national debt. By imposing heavy income taxes, the government managed to balance the budget while increasing payments to the unemployed. Industrial peace, however, did not return. After a few years of prosperity, exports declined and unemployment rose. A wave of strikes engulfed the country.

The Conservatives deserted the Nationalist coalition and defeated the Liberals in 1922. The Labour party (which had come out openly for socialism in 1918) voted with the Liberals to turn out the Conservatives, and in 1924 Ramsay MacDonald was chosen to head Britain's first Labour government. He remained in office only nine months, going down to defeat partly because he advocated closer relations with Russia.

Under Stanley Baldwin as prime minister, the Conservatives returned to power for almost five years (1924-29). Again unemployment relief was increased. The cause of unemployment was the shrinking world market for British coal, textiles, and steel. The Labour party believed full employment could be attained by government ownership of basic industries. The unions called a general strike in 1926 to force through their demands. The strike was quickly ended except for the coal miners, the most distressed of the workers.

The regular election of 1929 favored the Labour party, and MacDonald formed a cabinet. The world depression dislocated international trade and currencies and plunged Britain into a financial crisis. The number of unemployed mounted to nearly 3 million. The leaders of the three parties then formed a coalition cabinet called the National government. MacDonald retained the premiership, but he now owed his support chiefly to the Conservatives. The Labour party had expelled him when his government introduced drastic economies. He resigned in 1935 and Baldwin again became prime minister.

Three Kings in One Year

George V died in January 1936, and his eldest son, Edward, the popular prince of Wales, came to the throne as Edward VIII. Before his coronation, the king announced his intention of marrying an American, Mrs. Wallis Warfield Simpson, as soon as her second divorce became absolute. Parliament and the dominions' governments disapproved. Edward abdicated on Dec. 11, 1936, and his brother, the duke of York, was proclaimed king as George VI.

Britain Abandons Free Trade

Since the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, Britain had been practically a free-trade country. Almost all other nations had put up tariffs that handicapped British exporters. When the world depression caused a slump in trade, the dominions asked Britain to import more raw materials from them. In return, they would favor British manufactures. In 1932 Parliament passed the Import Duties Act. The act imposed a basic tariff of 10 percent on all goods not specifically exempted. This paved the way for the Ottawa imperial conference in the same year, which worked out "preferential" tariffs within the empire.

The Statute of Westminster (1931) had recognized the complete control by the dominions of their foreign as well as domestic affairs. The Ottawa conference strengthened the ties of the Commonwealth by binding the members into a closer economic union. This, however, did not check the growing nationalism in India and other Asian dependencies.

Outbreak of World War II

In 1933 Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany and soon began to rearm the country. Britain, absorbed in domestic troubles, was unprepared for war. Hitler seized Austria in March 1938, then made demands on Czechoslovakia. Britain, along with France, adopted a policy of appeasement, hoping Hitler's demands could be satisfied short of war. Neville Chamberlain, who had become prime minister in 1937, believed he had achieved "peace in our time" when Hitler pledged at Munich (Sept. 30, 1938) that he had "no further territorial claims in Europe." Six months later Hitler broke the pact and took over most of Czechoslovakia.

Britain joined with France in guaranteeing Poland's independence. Hitler took no action until after the Soviet Union signed a peace pact with Germany (Aug. 24, 1939). Eight days later (September 1) his army marched into Poland. Britain and France declared war two days later.

The Battle of Britain

On May 10, 1940, Germany invaded Belgium and The Netherlands. On the same day Winston Churchill succeeded Chamberlain as prime minister. Britain lost most of its armament in the famed retreat from the Dunkirk beaches. When France fell in June the British began their "year alone" and suffered the furious onslaught of German bombers. "Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duty," said Churchill, "and so bear ourselves that if the British Commonwealth and Empire last for a thousand years, men will say, 'This was their finest hour.' "

The battle of Britain was a victory that ranked in importance with the defeat of the Spanish Armada. Britain was saved from invasion by its navy and its air force. British and Commonwealth troops fought on the far-flung battlefields of this war, and British leaders played a strong role in the formation of the United Nations.

Six years of war cost the United Kingdom 397,762 in dead and missing and thousands of civilian casualties. Millions of properties were damaged or destroyed. Britain received extensive United States Lend-Lease aid but met most of the huge war expenditures by selling overseas investments, by large overseas borrowing, by domestic loans, and by a tremendous increase in taxation.

Britain's Socialist Revolution

In 1945 Britain held its first general election in ten years. The Labour party received an overwhelming majority. Clement Attlee, its leader, succeeded Churchill as prime minister. The party was elected on a socialist platform and at once embarked on a nationalization program. The state bought out shareholders in the Bank of England, the coal mines, all inland transport, aviation, gas, and electricity. It subsidized housing and food. It put through the "cradle-to-grave" social insurance plan drawn up under Churchill's ministry. It also set up a National Health Service to provide free medical care.

The postwar government faced grave financial difficulties. It cut imports to bare necessities and ruled that almost the entire output of Britain's factories must be sold abroad instead of in the home market. It fixed prices, rationed scarce goods, limited wages, and called on people to practice austerity.

To offset the loss of income from foreign investments, Britain needed to double its exports above the prewar level. In 1949 the postwar sellers' market ended, and the high prices of British products caused a swift drop in exports. The government scaled down the value of the British pound from $4.03 to $2.80. This made it possible for British manufacturers to sell their goods in dollar markets but increased the price of necessary imports from dollar countries. Foreign loans and credits, especially Marshall Plan aid from the United States, helped in financial crises and in the task of rehabilitating overage and war-damaged industrial plants.

Decline in World Power

The British Empire suffered severe losses in territory and world influence in the years 1947-49. India, Pakistan, and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) became self-governing nations within the Commonwealth, and Burma (now Myanmar) gained complete independence. Eire (southern Ireland) cut all ties with Britain and took the name of the Republic of Ireland.

On the continent of Europe, Britain no longer held its historic balance of power. For centuries it had helped prevent a strong nation from dominating the continent by throwing its weight toward that nation's rivals. Now the Soviet Union controlled all Eastern Europe. The only other world power was the United States. It used its influence to organize the nations of Western Europe for cooperation in defense and economic progress. Britain was not ready to share in a united Europe. It joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), formed in 1949 to meet the threat of Soviet aggression, and expanded its armament production. British land, sea, and air forces shared in the United Nations action in South Korea in 1950-53. Later, Britain joined the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) of the Middle East and the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO).

In the 1950s many of Britain's postwar problems remained unsolved, but its economy rode on a wave of prosperity. Manufacturing output exceeded prewar production early in the decade. In 1959 the output of steel had risen 55 percent above that of 1938. Between 1949 and 1959 domestic production increased and exports rose by 40 percent. Most Britons in the early 1960s were earning twice as much as they had been in 1949. In 1951 the Conservatives returned to power. Winston Churchill, then 76, again became premier. On Feb. 6, 1952, George VI died. His elder daughter succeeded him as Elizabeth II.

The Conservatives lifted certain controls set by the Socialist government. In 1953 they denationalized iron and steel and trucking. Food rationing ended in 1954. Churchill resigned as premier in 1955 and was succeeded by Sir Anthony Eden.

Great Britain withdrew its last troops from the Suez Canal zone in June 1956, according to an earlier agreement. In July Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal. Britain and France protested vigorously. In October Israeli forces invaded Egypt. After demanding a cease-fire between them, Britain and France sent forces into the canal zone. They were branded as aggressors in the United Nations. The Anglo-French troops withdrew as a United Nations task force moved in. In January 1957 Eden resigned as prime minister and was succeeded by Harold Macmillan.

The death knell of colonialism sounded in the 1950s and 1960s as most of the foreign territories of the European powers won independence. The British had trained their colonies for self-government, so they usually parted with Britain as friends and the new nations remained in the Commonwealth. A notable exception was South Africa, which became a republic and left the Commonwealth in 1961. Throughout the 1960s independence was achieved by more than 20 British colonies and trusteeships in Africa, Asia, South America, and the West Indies. By the mid-1980s almost all of the Pacific and West Indies island units had also become independent. The secessionist state of Rhodesia, which had unilaterally declared itself independent (a status not recognized by Britain) in 1965 and a republic in 1970, reverted to colonial status in 1979 before finally achieving independence as Zimbabwe in 1980. In 1997 Hong Kong returned to complete Chinese control for the first time since the middle of the 19th century.

Post-1950s Leadership

In October 1963 Macmillan resigned. He was succeeded by another Conservative, Sir Alexander Frederick Douglas-Home. In 1964 Labourite Harold Wilson became prime minister. After a Conservative victory in 1970, Edward Heath took office. A pay strike by coal miners, in the midst of a worldwide energy crisis, led Heath to call a new election in February 1974, and Wilson returned as prime minister.

Wilson resigned in March 1976 and was succeeded by another Labourite, James Callaghan. In 1979 Callaghan, who had headed a minority government for two years, became the first British prime minister since 1924 to lose office after a no-confidence motion. Margaret Thatcher, who had been the Conservative party leader since 1975, became Britain's first woman prime minister.

War with Argentina. In 1982 Britain went to war with Argentina over a faraway dependency in the South Atlantic. Known as the Islas Malvinas in Argentina and the Falkland Islands in Britain, the land had been the subject of debate between the two countries ever since Britain reclaimed the islands as a crown colony in 1833. The issue of their sovereignty was shifted to the United Nations in 1964, and diplomatic discussions began the next year. Argentina's invasion of the Falklands 17 years later, while these negotiations continued, came as a complete surprise. Britain's recapture of the islands ten weeks later restored Conservative popularity and encouraged Thatcher to call a general election in 1983, a year earlier than required. Her Conservative party won an overwhelming victory.

Coal miners' strike. A bitter coal miners' strike dominated 1984. The government was determined to close 20 or more uneconomical mines and to exercise its constitutional and political authority. Although the year was marked by violence and much political wrangling, the striking miners went back to work almost exactly a year later. The government's victory tilted the balance of power against the trade union movement.

Soccer tragedies. Increased fear of inner-city rioting, as well as terrorism, caused English police to break with tradition and carry guns openly. During the 1985 European soccer finals in Brussels, unruly supporters of the team from Liverpool were held responsible for 39 deaths in the collapse of a stadium wall. In a rush on the overcrowded terraces (standing area) of a Sheffield stadium in 1989, 94 spectators died.

End of Thatcherism. In 1987 Thatcher became the first British prime minister in more than 150 years to win a third consecutive election. By 1990 she had become the longest-serving British leader of the century, but her 15-year tenure as head of the Conservative party ended in that year. The reasons for discontent with Thatcherism ranged from her domineering personal style to the abolition of the local property tax in favor of a flat-rate community charge, or poll tax. With loss of power, Thatcher resigned in November 1990. Her successor as prime minister was John Major, a top minister in her cabinet

In 1992 elections Major led the Conservatives to victory again, extending their winning streak to four elections since 1979. During his second term, however, Major came under severe scrutiny from opponents inside and outside the Conservative party. In particular, the question of British integration in the EU split the party. In late 1996 the Conservatives lost their majority in Parliament for the first time since they wrested control of the government from the Labour party in 1979.

Rise of New Labour. As the Conservatives splintered, they faced a serious threat from popular Labour party leader Tony Blair. Labour had suffered repeated Parliamentary losses, and many suspected that the party had lost touch with the British voters when Blair took over its leadership in 1994. Blair refashioned the Labour party as "New" Labour, dumping controversial party platforms that hinted of the Labour party's past affiliation with socialist causes, such as the nationalization of industries. On May 1, 1997, Blair became the youngest person elected prime minister of Britain in the 20th century as he led the Labour party to a landslide victory over the Conservatives. Labour won 43 percent of the popular vote and captured 418 out of a total of 659 seats in the British Parliament. The Conservative party, en route to its worst finish since 1832, won only 30 percent of the vote and secured only 165 seats in Parliament, down from a pre-election total of 323 seats.

European Union. In 1959 Great Britain helped found the European Free Trade Association (EFTA). The more tightly knit European Economic Community (EEC) made greater economic gains, however, and the Macmillan government sought EEC entry to stimulate Britain's trade. Since the tariff agreements between Commonwealth countries conflicted with EEC regulations, long negotiations and compromises were necessary. France vetoed Britain's bid for EEC membership in 1963 and again in 1967. On Jan. 1, 1973, Britain finally joined the group, by then renamed the European Communities (EC) and later the European Union (EU). In 1988 Thatcher attacked a plan to establish a European federal economic and political state with a central bank and a common community currency. Her continued hard line against greater EC integration led to the division within her Conservative party that contributed to her downfall in 1990.

Major was chosen as head of the Conservative party in 1990 after staking his bid to power on the idea of British integration in the EU. Many British Conservatives, however, began to lose confidence in the proposed creation of a single economic currency, known as the euro, on the grounds that the single currency system was a threat to national sovereignty. Some members of the party, known as euroskeptics, suggested that Major abandon plans to integrate British currency into the single-currency system. Divisions within the Conservative ranks concerning the question of integration contributed to the party's defeat in 1997. Following his election, Blair, who had described his stance on the EU as a "wait and see" policy during his 1997 campaign, emerged as a strong proponent for the strict continuance of the EU budgetary guidelines.

Northern Ireland. A general strike in Northern Ireland in May 1974 led to the collapse of its five-month-old coalition government and forced Britain to resume direct rule over the province. British attempts to help stabilize the long-standing dispute between the Protestant majority and the Roman Catholic minority continued over the next decade. In a move strongly opposed by the Protestants, a 1985 accord with the Republic of Ireland gave it a consultant role in the governing of Northern Ireland. Incidents of terrorism persisted--for example, a bombing in Northern Ireland that killed 11 people in 1987, the shooting deaths of three Irish Republican Army (IRA) terrorists in 1988, and the bombing deaths of ten British military band students in 1989. In 1991 the IRA fired three mortar rounds at 10 Downing Street, the prime minister's official residence.

In August 1994 the IRA declared a cease-fire. Disappointed by the slow progress of peace efforts, however, the IRA shattered the cease-fire with a series of bombings in February 1996. In June of that year negotiations aimed at reaching a settlement to the conflict began in Belfast. The talks were attended by the British and Irish governments and all the major political parties in Northern Ireland except Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, which was excluded by Major and Prime Minister John Bruton of Ireland until the IRA reinstituted its cease-fire. In July 1997 the IRA resumed the cease-fire, clearing the way for the participation of Sinn Fein in multiparty discussions that began in September of that year. At the start of the talks Sinn Fein agreed to renounce the use of violence and terror as means of settling the territorial dispute. In December 1997 Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, made a historic visit to 10 Downing Street to meet with Prime Minister Blair to discuss the peace process. The negotiations in Belfast yielded a landmark accord in April 1998 designed to end direct British rule over Northern Ireland and bring about a lasting peace.

This article was contributed by Ian M. Matley, Professor of Geography, Michigan State University, East Lansing.

Back to Main menu

A project by History World International

World History Center