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  Countries: England Historical Overview

By Reckless Rodent

English Town Center

The period between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries saw a great change in the status of England. From the nation on the edge of Europe, busy recovering from the civil war which had seen the extinction of two ruling houses, to the wealthiest nation on earth, truly a power to be reckoned with. The path the nation took was, however, a rocky one, with several dynastic changes. The ruling houses in England were the Tudors (1485 - 1603), the Stuarts (1603 - 1649, 1660 - 1688, 1702 - 1714) and the Hanoverians (1714 - 1837). England also flirted with republican government between 1649 and 1660, and a Dutch Prince was monarch between 1689 and 1702 (albeit with a Stuart wife and co-ruler until 1694).

That is not, however, to say that England was a place where monarchs could not sleep safe in their beds. There was only one large-scale civil war, between 1642 and 1647, and most of the changes of dynasty were achieved peacefully. The Tudors died out naturally with Elizabeth I, and the Stuart line ran out of suitable (i.e. Protestant) male heirs, causing the political nation to look towards Germany and the Hanoverians (who too would run out of male heirs in 1837, heralding the accession of Queen Victoria).

The central problem facing English monarchs during the period, and something which caused the downfall of a couple, was religion. Religion intermingled with politics, frequently with disastrous results. This happened because of the nature of the English Reformation, in the 1530s. It was not a religious reformation, but really a political one. The issue at the heart of the matter was that Henry VIII wanted a divorce, and the Pope wouldn't give him one. As a result, the Pope was removed as head of the Church of England, to be replaced by Henry himself. Only later did religion actually come into play, as increasing numbers of people sought to worship outside a church they saw as semi-Catholic. Charles I lost his head in 1649 because he refused to do away with some of the 'Papist' practices within the church, and his son James II would be ingloriously hounded out of the country in 1688 into exile in France by people who feared his Catholicism.

The other important feature of English political life was the rise of Parliament. A relatively insignificant part of government in 1492, it became crucially important as a result of the Reformation, which was legitimised by being brought in via Parliament. Thereafter Parliament, especially the House of Commons, would be a consistent thorn in the sides of English monarchs (especially the Stuarts). It even took up arms against one monarch (Charles I again), because it feared that it was about to be bypassed and rendered permanently powerless. By 1792, the process by which Parliament became de facto rulers of the country was well underway.

English Academy

England's geographical location, cut off from the rest of Europe by 30 miles of sea, meant that any expansion would have to be carried out either within the British Isles (see the brutal conquest of Ireland under General Oliver Cromwell in the late 1640s), or elsewhere around the world. Any hopes of re-establishing a foothold in France after the English defeat in the Hundred Years War were dealt two crucial blows. Henry VIII twice attempted, with his characteristic bluster, to re-take Normandy, lost finally to France in 1451, and failed on both occasions. The final straw was the loss of Calais in 1558. From then, the abiding concern of English monarchs was firstly to avoid foreign invasions by building up the Royal Navy (established by Henry VIII in the 1510s), and secondly to use this naval might to conquer far-flung corners of the earth. England was able to profit somewhat from the decay of the Spanish Empire after 1650, but the real breakthrough was to come in 1757, as Robert Clive defeated the Nawab of Bengal at the battle of Plassey. From then on, England's attention was turned primarily towards the Subcontinent (especially after the loss of the American colonies rendered any further expansion in the West unlikely).

However, Europe could not be ignored completely. Spain's attempts to remove Elizabeth I from the throne foundered, not so much on the naval prowess of the English than on some bad luck with the weather. After some initial flirtations, England generally remained aloof from the Thirty Years War (1618 -1648), not out of any great pacific desire but rather because the country was on the slippery slope towards bankruptcy, and Charles I had enough problems at home without trying to get involved elsewhere. French money kept Charles II (1660 - 1685) out of European affairs, but the accession of the violently anti-French Prince of Orange as William III in 1689 changed matters completely. From here on, we see English armies consistently being sent onto the Continent, usually as part of an anti-French alliance, be it during the War of the Spanish Succession (1702 - 1714) or during the Seven Years War (1756 - 1763). England's early industrialisation created tremendous wealth in the country, which was often diverted into the pockets of European allies, who would fight as England's proxy (as would happen, with varying degrees of success, during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars between 1792 and 1814).

Despite occasional bursts of domestic instability, then, England transformed from being a weak and humiliated nation on the outskirts of Europe to not only a European but also a global superpower. Her mastery of the seas, confirmed once and for all at Trafalgar in 1805, made up for an army which was somewhat small by European standards, and meant that England could expand far beyond the borders of Europe, to places as far away as the Caribbean, India and Australia.


Related Links:
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