History of Great Britain

History of Great Britain


1. Great Britain: General Facts

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (UK) is located on the British Isles. The British Isles consist of two large islands, Great Britain and Ireland, and about five thousand small islands. Their total area is over 244 000 square kilometers. The United Kingdom is made up of four countries: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Their capitals are, respectively, London, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast. Great Britain itself consists of England, Scotland and Wales and does not include Northern Ireland. The capital of UK is London.

London is political, economic, culture and commercial center of the country. It's one of the largest cities in the world and in Europe. The population of London is estimated to be over 8 million inhabitants.

The British isles are separated from the European continent by the North Sea and the English channel. The western coast of Great Britain is washed by the Atlantic Ocean and the Irish Sea.

The landscape of the British Isles varies from plains to mountains. The north of Scotland is mountainous and is called Highlands, while the south, which has beautiful valleys and plains, is called Lowlands. The north and west of England are mountainous, but all the rest - east, center and southeast - is a vast plain.

There are a lot of rivers in GB, but they are not very long. The Severn is the longest river, while the Thames is the deepest and - economically - the most important one.

The total population of the UK is over 57 million and about 80% of it is urban. The UK is highly developed country in both industrial and economical aspects. It's known as one of world's largest producers and exporters of machinery, electronics, textile, aircraft and navigation equipment.

Politically, the UK is a constitutional monarchy. In law, the Head of State is the Queen, but in practice, the Queen reigns but does not possess real power. The country is ruled by the elected government with the Primer Minister at the head, while the necessary legislative background is provided by the British Parliament which consists of two chambers : the House of Lords and the House of Commons.

2. The History of the Great Britain

Obviously, the history of the Great Britain is not framed within the period from 1558 to nowadays which is surveyed in this paper. Still, due to the limited volume, the author has to leave alone everything that happened by the sixteenth century, starting from the Roman invasion and ending with the pre-Elizabethan period, and describing only those events which seem to be essential for understanding of the general course of development of the country.

2.1. Britain in the reign of Elizabeth

Many researchers believe that there has been no greater period in English history than the reign of Elizabeth, who was proclaimed queen in 1558.

At this time the most critical question in England was that of religion. In 1558 a large proportion of English people were still indifferent in religious matters, and the power of the crown was very great. It was quite possible, therefore, for the ruler to control the form which the religious organisation of the people should take. Elizabeth chose her own ministers, and with then exerted so much pressure over Parliament that almost any laws that she wanted could be carried through.

She and her ministers settled upon a middle course going back in all matters of church government to the system of Henry VIII. To carry out this arrangement two important laws, known as the Act of Supremacy and the Act of Uniformity, were passed by Parliament. According to these laws, the regulation of the English Church in matters of doctrine and good order was put into the hands of the Queen, and she was authorized to appoint a minister or ministers to exercise these powers in her name.

Thus the Church of England was established in a form midway between the Church of Rome and the Protestant churches on the continent of Europe. It had rejected the leadership of the Pope, and was not Protestant like other reformed churches. From this time onward the organisation of the English church was strictly national.

The political situation in England was not simple by the time Elizabeth took the throne. England was in close alliance with Spain and at war with France. Elizabeth managed to make peace with France, which was vitally necessary for England: her navy was in bad condition, troops few and poorly equipped, and treasury empty.

One of the most significant internal problems of England during that period was pauperism, since the changes, rebellions and disorders of the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI and Mary I had left much distress and confusion among people. Many men were out of work, prices were high and wages low, trade irregular. In one field, however, there was a great success. The restoration of the coinage took place; the old debased currency had been recoined to the new standards. This was one of the most beneficial actions of the long reign of Elizabeth. Also, in 1563 a long act for the regulation of labor was passed. It was known as the Statute of Apprentices and settled, among others, an approximate twelve-hour day of labour.

The rivalry among Elizabeth and her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots became another chief political affair of sixteenth century, which finally led to Mary's long imprisonment and execution. In 1588 the war with Spain broke out. The most significant battle (and of historical meaning) of that conflict was the navy one. On July 30, 1588, the Invincible Armada of the Spanish was almost completely destroyed by much smaller fleet of the British under Lord Howard of Effingham command (although it's been assumed that the great deal of success in the battle was brought by the terrible storm that swept away the large part of the Spanish fleet).

The last ten years of Elizabeth's reign were a period of more settled conditions and greater interest in the arts of peace, in the progress of commerce, and in the production and enjoyment of works of literature. The reign of Elizabeth revealed several quite gifted and talanted English people who did a lot to widen the influence of England. Probably the most famous of them was Sir Francis Drake. The first one, n\being a corsair and a sea captain in Elizabeth's service, leaded a number of sea expeditions, mainly in Atlantic and Pacific oceans, bringing a lot of new knowledge of the world, and discovered a sound, later named after him.

In cultural aspect, the real crown of the age was the Elizabethan literature, with such bright writers as William Shakespeare, Philipp Sidney and Edmund Spencer.

2.2. Britain in the seventeenth century

The period from 1603 to 1640 was the time of the personal monarchy of the Early Stuarts in English history. It is said that James I and Charles I had had to bear the burnt of the rising spirit of independence characteristic of England in the seventeenth century. The growing desire of Parliament for independence, for sharing in the control of government was closely connected with the growth of Puritanism.

The greatest religious question of the sixteenth century had changed from whether England should be Roman Catholic or not to whether it should be Anglican or Puritan.

One of the most bright and well-known illustrations to the fact that the Roman Catholics didn't leave their attempts to gain back their influence on the English church, was the so-called Gunpowder Plot, a failed attempt to blow up the Parliament building and kill both the king and all the members, and to set a Roman Catholic government. The explosion was supposed to take place on 5 November, 1605, but had been discovered on the same day. Since that time 5 November has been widely celebrated in Britain as the Guy Fawkes Day (named so after the executed leader of the Plot).

Along with the religious conflict between the Anglicans and the Puritans, a great political conflict arose - a conflict between the unrestricted powers of the king on the one hand and the equal or even superior powers of the people represented by Parliament on the other. The views of Parliament held by James didn't allow to it much power. Finally, the discord between James and the Parliament led to the disease and the soon death of the king in 1625.

James I did a lot in order to unite Scotland and England during his reign, but was unsuccessful. In foreign affairs James shoved a tendency to establish peaceful relations with other countries. He brought the long war with Spain to a close, and avoided a temptation to take part in the Thirty Years' War.

If the reign of Elizabeth had been the wonderful time of exploration and sea expeditions, the reign of James became a period of settlement, when Englishmen began to found colonies in America, West India, and in the East Indies.

Charles I, the son of James I, started his reign with launching a new war against Spain with no logical reason and mainly due to the personal ambitions. Soon England drifted into the one more war with France which brought no positive effect for any of the confronting parts.

The middle of the seventeenth century was marked by the formation of the political parties. The earliest parties were informal groups supporting powerful members of Parliament. By the year 1640 there were two parties in Parliament, known as the Cavaliers and the Roundheads. The first one supported Charles I, and the Roundheads were their principal political opponents. By the end of seventeenth century these parties had evolved into two definite political formations, the royalists and those supporting parliamentary supremacy. The Royalists were called Tories by their opponents (it was a term of abuse for the original Tories being Irish bandits), and the Tories called the Parliamentarians Whigs after a group of Scottish cattle thieves. Much later these parties became known as the Conservatives and the Liberals.

In 1689 James II landed in Ireland, where he had an army ready to hand. In July 1690 William III defeated James at the battle of Boyne. This event has been celebrated since by Orangemen, as Protestants of Northern Ireland belonging to the Orange Order call themselves. In October 1691 the Irish troops finally surrendered; as a condition of surrender William promised religious toleration for the Irish Catholics, but the promise was immediately broken by the passing of Penal Laws which deprived the Catholics of all civil and religious rights.

In Scotland the new regime faced no much opposition. The expulsion of James was welcomed, and by 1692 William III's sovereignty was undisputed throughout the British Isles. After William of Orange and Mary had been declared king and queen, Parliament added a number of new acts to the laws of constitution. Among them were the Triennal Act of 1694, that obliged the king to summon Parliament at least every three years, and the Septennial Act of 1715 which increased the normal term of Parliament's existence from thee to seven years.

Mary II and William III had no surviving children, and William was succeeded by Queen Anne, Mary's younger sister. The major event of Queen Anne's reign was the formation of the Kingdom of Great Britain. The Kingdom of Great Britain was formed in 1707 by the Act of Union between England and Scotland. London, the biggest city in Britain, with a population of about half a million, became the capital of the entire island. Great Britain from then on had a single Parliament and a single system of national administration and taxation. The units of weights and measures were unified.

Queen Anne had no surviving children. She was succeeded by her nearest Protestant relative, the elector of Hannover, who came from Germany in 1714 and was accepted as King George I of Great Britain.

The first years of George I's reign were marked by the Jacobite Rebellion of 1715 raised by followers of Queen Anne's half-brother, James Edward Stuart. In 1708 James had already attempted to invade Scotland with the help of French troops, but the invasion failed. In 1715 he wasn't lucky again.

2.3. Britain in the eighteenth century

Britain under George I actually had two decades of relative peace and stability. The most significant events of that period were the internal political affairs. In fact, throughout those years a smooth transition from limited monarchy to Parliamentary government took place in Great Britain. One of the important events of that time became the appointment of Robert Walpole, a member of Whig party, the first Prime Minister in the British history.

In 1739 Britain declared war on Spain, and in 1742 parliamentary pressure forced Walpole to resign. The conflict between Britain and Spain has been known as the War of Jenkins's Ear (1739-1748). Between 1739 and 1763, Great Britain was generally at war. The War of Jenkin's Ear merged with the war of the Austrian Succession of 1740-1748, in which Great Britain allied with Austria against Prussia , France, and Spain. The country being at war, the Scottish Jacobites decided to take advantage of it and made their last major attempt to recover the British throne for the Stuart dynasty in 1745. Prince Charles Edward landed in Scotland with the army of highlanders and Jacobites and captured Edinburgh, winning the battle of Prestonpans. Still, Charles failed to attract many supporters in England and had to retreat to Scotland, where he was defeated by the government army under Duke of Cumberland's command, and Charles had to flee to France. The War of the Austrian Succession ended with the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle signed in the October 1748 recognizing the Hanoverian succession in Britain.

A lot of problems remained unsolved, and eight years later they resulted in a new war of 1756-1763 between Great Britain, Prussia, and Hanover on one side and Austria, France, Spain, Saxony, Sweden and Russia on the other.

The wars of the eighteenth century were almost all followed by the acquisition of new colonies. The colonies already established were growing rapidly both in wealth and population. By the middle of the eighteenth century, the British colonies in America already had about two hundred thousand inhabitants and lay in a long line from Maine to Florida.

In 1760 George II was succeeded by his grandson, George III. The new king had a deep sense of moral duty and tried to play a direct role in governing his country, though he had to face probably the worst political problem in the whole British history. Long accustomed to a considerable degree of self-government, and freed, after 1763, from the French danger, British colonists in America resented any attempts to make them pay a share of the cost of imperial defense in the form of assorted taxes and duties. They also resented attempts to treat colonial legislatures as secondary to the government in London. American resistance led to the calling of the First Continental Congress in 1774, and in April 1775 war broke out at Lexington and concord in America. The British felt the rebellious colonists had to be brought to their senses, and king George III was firmly against giving in to them. Though British governmental authority in the 13 colonies collapsed in 1775, forces were able to occupy first Boston and later New York City and Philadelphia, but the Americans did not give up. France was brought into the war on the American side in 1778, then the Spanish and the Dutch also joined the anti-British side. In 1783 Britain had to recognize American independence in the Treaty of Paris. The 13 British colonies were recognized as independent states and were granted all British territory south of Great Lakes; Florida and Minorca were ceded to Spain, and some West Indian and African colonies to France.

2.4. Britain in the nineteenth century

The beginning of the nineteenth century was remarkable for Great Britain for its union with Ireland. In Ireland, some of the Irish united under the and began to demand independence, being affected by the French Revolution. They formed the organization known as the United Irismen. They quickly took the lead of the whole national movement, and attempted to initiate a rebellion in 1796, with the help of the French troops which were ready to land in Ireland. The landing failed, and the English government began to eliminate its enemies. In 1798 it seized a number of the Irish leaders, and placed the whole Ireland under the military law. All the Irish uprising were suppressed, and finally the rebellion and an attempt of the French invasion led to the Act of Union with Ireland of 1801. The Dublin legislature was abolished, and one hundred Irish representatives were allowed to become members of Parliament in London. So in the very beginning of the nineteenth century the United Kingdom took the political and geographical shape of the country we know today. Still, the Act of Union caused great indignation in Ireland, and another powerful insurrection took place in 1803.

In 1790's, the wars of the French Revolution merged into the Napoleonic Wars, as Napoleon Bonaparte took over the French revolutionary government, and Britain was engaged into the conflicts. Throughout the whole period of Napoleonic wars, Britain won two battles of great importance, one of them against the combined French and Spanish navy at Trafalgar, and another against the French army at Waterloo. The naval battle of Trafalgar was fought on October 21, 1805. The battle took place off Cape Trafalgar on the southern coast of Spain, where a British fleet of 27 ships under the command of admiral Nelson faced a slightly larger enemy fleet commanded by a French admiral. The goal of the French was to land the reinforcements in southern Italy, but they were intercepted by Nelson on October 21 and engaged in a battle. Finally, some 20 French and Spanish ships were destroyed or captured, while not a single British vessel was lost. The great victory is recorded in the name of Trafalgar square in London, which is dominated by the granite column supporting a large statue of Nelson, who was mortally wounded and died in the course of battle.

The final victory over Napoleon after his defeat at Waterloo in 1815 laid the foundations for a great extension of the British Empire. As one of the members of anti-Napoleonic coalition, Britain got a number of strategic key points, such as Malta, Mauritius, Ceylon, Heligoland and the Cape. Yet the first result of the peace was a severe political and economic crisis.

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