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Part 7: The Age of Empire

Preparation for Empire Building: The Growth of the Commons
In 1690 John Locke published his highly influential "Two Treatises of Civil Government;" its theory of limited monarchy had vast appeal to the majority of Englishmen, but especially to Parliament, always anxious to increase its own powers and give special favors to its members. According to Locke, "The liberty of man in society is to be under no other legislative power but that established by consent in the commonwealth, nor under the domination of any will, or restraint of any law, but what that legislative shall enact according to the trust put in it."

Prior to the great electoral reforms of the later 19th century, the legislative in England was restricted to a very limited class. But it was a powerful class indeed that came to dominate the House of Commons, and it was the House of Commons that made the Empire, for it was an empire based on trade. While England's great rival, the kingdom of Spain may have had mixed motives in its overseas conquests, the lure of gold perhaps as equally important as the saving of souls, those who governed Britain did not disguise their motives.

The power of the Commons, and its control by the business and trade oriented middle-class, aided and abetted by a rapidly growing stratum of lawyers, had been building steadily; it looked for opportunities in whatever part of the world they could be found (and exploited). They were aided by the constitutional crisis that occurred when James II fled to France in 1688.

A Convention Parliament offered the throne to William and Mary (elder daughter of James II) as joint sovereigns; hereditary succession was replaced by parliamentary succession. A Bill of Rights was drawn up that guaranteed free speech, free elections and frequent meetings of Parliament, the consent of which was made necessary to raise taxes, keep a standing army and proscribe ecclesiastical commissions or courts, and royally suspend and dispense power. In short, the Bill re-affirmed the will of the English people (or at least of those who represented them in Parliament) against the arbitrary powers of the monarchy.

One of the most important milestones in English law had already taken place. The "Habeas Corpus Act" of 1679 had obliged judges to issue upon request a writ of habeas corpus directing a gaoler (jailer) to produce the body of any prisoner and to show cause for his imprisonment. The Act went on to state that a prisoner should be indicted in the first term of his commitment, be tried no later than the second term and once set free by order of the court, should not be imprisoned again for the same offense. Thus at a single stroke, hundreds of years of abuse of the prisoner by the authorities, often capricious and vengeful, came to an end. The Act remains an integral part of the Commonwealth's legal system today and has been widely copied in many other countries including the United States.

Also of considerable interest and lasting importance was the creation of a fixed Civil List for both the Crown's household and administrative expenditures, a novelty which the monarchs may have chafed at ever since, but which was made necessary to keep their expenditures under parliamentary control. Parliament had come a long way since the days of Henry VII. It is worth while to take a brief look at what had been taking place in the winning of the initiative by the House of Commons.

In the reign of Henry VIII Parliament had become increasingly important in the scheme of government for it gave confirmation and authority to the royal wishes when needed. If the King wished to go slow on his promises of treaties, it gave him a convenient way of retreat; in the struggle with foreign and domestic interests, it strengthened his hands. Much more than a formality of government and a mere income-generating body, Parliament began to be recognized as the voice of public opinion, a voice that the Tudors may not always have liked, but one which they wisely never wholly failed to heed.

The Tudors had encountered some opposition from the Commons, but during most Parliamentary sessions it had not been enough to cause any great anxiety to the Crown or the Council. There were simply too many members in the Lower House who regarded opposition to the Crown as disloyal. In any case, Henry VIII was ruthless in dealing with those who opposed him. Yet the Members in Commons could become vociferous, especially when the Crown asked for money. Privileges began to be exchanged for promises of ready cash: once granted, it was hard for future monarchs to refuse them.

The Upper House, as expected, was a firm ally of the Council. The leaders of the House of Lords were usually landed magnates who had often helped the Council in formulating Crown policy. The Lords seldom resisted the wishes of the Council, and much legislation was put first through the Upper House; then brought to the Commons, who dutifully followed along, for their seats often depended upon the support of local magnates. It was during the troublesome reign of Mary Tudor that the Commons became more contentious. Her determination to reverse the trend of events in religion brought her into conflict with her Parliaments, where something like a Protestant Party began to form to voice its opposition. Members began to speak out, and Mary had to go out of her way to dragoon them into acquiescence with her unpopular policies.

In Elizabeth's long reign, the House of Commons grew in leadership, though the whip hand remained firmly in the hands of the Queen and Council. It was in matters where the Queen expressed no opinion that the House was subtly, but surely, able to gain in power. The Puritan element in Parliament began to exert more and more influence; it was especially alarmed at Elizabeth's middle-of-the road religious policies. For the time being, however, under the strong hand of the Privy Council, and especially during the time of the Cecils, the Commons remained quiet, duly supportive of Royal legislation, kept firmly in control by the carefully groomed Speaker. Yet even his power had declined by the end of Elizabeth's reign with the dramatic increase in the use of the committee system.

By the time of the early Stuarts, essential changes had taken place in the growth of the English Constitution, changes in the day to day business and in the way of doing things. Between the time of Elizabeth I and the Long Parliament of Charles I, a great change had taken place in the relation of the Royal Council to the Commons. Almost unnoticed, Privy Councillors had ceased to guide the Lower House, in which there came into power a group of leaders who had no official connection with the government. It was this leadership that established the real initiative in legislation. The Commons had become a dominant force in government; its dynamic, forceful leaders had made the institution almost unrecognizable from the old, acquiescent body that had been afraid to cross the Tudors.

Parliament had further grown in strength when James I failed to keep a sufficient number of his own men in the Commons, which became increasingly vociferous in expressing its grievances. James himself was seen as a meddler; unlike Elizabeth, he was not content with staying in the background, and his constant interference meant that his words lost their weight, and royal prerogative began to be sneered at openly. Resentment led to opposition. The King's penchant for elevating his supporters to the House of Lords also left him with inexperienced, untried members to speak for him in the Commons.

The leadership exercised by Elizabeth's able Councillors was wholly absent during James' reign. The Commons could only benefit from the hiatus; its members were no longer subservient to the Royal Will; many were lawyers who brought new initiatives along with their legal skills into the committee system. Their presence ensured that the Commons no longer served as a recruiting ground for the service of the Crown, but was seen as a dignified profession for wealthy and powerful country gentlemen. Their allegiance was primarily to common law, not to the whims of their monarch.

A new interest in precedent also searched for ways to establish the privileges, rights and powers of the Commons on a firm basis, rapidly changing it from a mere ratifying body to one that formulated and passed laws. The Commons eventually showed that it not only could decide who could sit on the throne of England, it could even dispense with the monarchy altogether. It also had to deal with Scotland.

The Jacobites in Scotland and Ireland
It was all-too-soon apparent that William's success in England did nothing to ensure the compliance of Scotland and Ireland. The cause of the exiled Stuarts became known as Jacobitism, from the Latin for James, Jacobus. Though King James and his supporters controlled parts of Britain including most of Ireland, they failed miserably in their cause. In a series of strategically-sound campaigns, William succeeded in driving them from their bases in both Ireland and Scotland, thus forcing them to become reliant on foreign support. The campaigns against William's rule in overwhelmingly-Catholic Ireland began the period of close cooperation of that country with France, both military and political. It continued right up the '45 rebellion.

The first battle against the new King William of England was fought in Scotland. In July, 1689, at Killiecrankie, the most active of James' supporters, Viscount Dundee, defeated a much larger royal army led by General Mackay. "Bonnie Dundee" was killed in the battle, but the Highlanders' success led the hitherto hesitant clans to flock to James' standard. It was a success that gave them false hopes; without Dundee in command, they were unable to exploit their initial victory.

The decisive battles involving the Jacobite cause were not fought in Scotland, but in Ireland, more accessible to French naval power, and thus to troops and supplies. In a desperate attempt to regain his throne, James II left France for Ireland in March 1689. His armies soon won most of the country, but a prolonged resistance was put up by the people of Derry, where the Protestant apprentice boys had slammed the city gates shut against the Catholic army. Starving Derry (Londonderry) was eventually relieved by an English fleet in July 1689, a day still celebrated with much pomp and pageantry in Northern Ireland. In August, mainly as a consequence of the resistance of Derry and Enniskillen, William's army, mostly Danish and Dutch mercenaries, occupied Belfast.

In June 1690 William marched on Dublin. His way was blocked by the Jacobite forces on the banks of the River Boyne, which became the site of the battle so vividly remembered and celebrated by Ulster's Protestant majority. James' outnumbered forces were cast aside. Once more showing a failure of nerve, in time-honored fashion for a Scottish ruler, he fled to France, and William easily took Dublin. Other successes were enjoyed by John Churchill, Earl of Marlborough, aided by the Dutch General Ginkel with Hugh Mackay as his second-in-command. At Limerick, what was left of the Jacobite cause suffered another catastrophic defeat; all their forces in Ireland consequently surrendered, with about 11,000 Irishmen, the so-called Wild Geese, going to France to continue the fight for James.

James had not given up hope of regaining his kingdom. He still enjoyed the strong support of Louis XIV, and in June 1690, his hopes were raised when a large French naval force managed to defeat an Anglo-Dutch fleet. As so often in the past, however, the Jacobite victory was not followed up. French control of the Channel was not exploited and the initiative was soon lost. When Louis finally decided to invade England in May 1692, it was too late; his fleet was sent packing. One result of the hostilities was entirely unexpected but had an enormous result on subsequent world history.

In 1694, the costs of the war led to the formation of the Bank of England, a Whig joint-stock company that raised funds from the public and loaned it to the government in exchange for the right to issue bank notes and to discount bills. The loan did not have to be repaid as long as the interest was raised by imports duties. Thus a funded national debt came into being. The method of borrowing money at interest, instead of taking it by taxation for nothing was established as a normal practice. It took a while to catch on in other countries, but catch on it did, as soon as respective governments saw the advantages. The foundation of a society to write marine insurance formed by merchants and sea captains at Lloyd's Coffee House in 1688 was also of enormous importance; the practice of underwriting enormous expenditures in overseas ventures and shipping, dates from this time.

Another revolutionary idea was the granting of monopolies in trade by Parliament, and not by the time-honored system of royal dispensation to favorite courtiers. The 1698 Parliament showed its strength by announcing that such grants could no longer be granted as a general rule by royal charter but only though an act of Parliament. The new East India Company came about as one of the first results of these acts, seen by many as the greatest event in the organization of British foreign trade. This company, together with the newly-formed Bank of England, showed only too well the growing power of the British traders and financiers over the state government.

For many, the resolution of May 26, 1698 was as important as the "Magna Carta" of 1215, for it gave the granting of powers and privileges for carrying on the East India trade to Parliament. And if the trading classes could control Parliament, they could make their own terms, which is precisely what happened over and over again in subsequent British history. It became one of the ever-increasing problems for the country's government: the interference of trade with legislation and administration was to become an inevitable part of the future. Yet it was the desire for trade and overseas markets that led to the expansion of the Empire.

On the Continent, French King Louis, having enough of the war against the stubborn Dutch and their allies, made peace at Rijswijk in 1697, recognizing William as King of England and his sister-in-law Anne as heiress presumptive. A period of peace between France and England, however, came to an end with Louis's recognition of the prince born in 1688 as the future King James III, an act regarded by historian Arthur Bryant as one of "megalomaniac folly." Prospects for the Jacobites, however, were not helped by the War of the Spanish Succession which tied up Catholic forces in the Netherlands and forced France to withdraw to its own borders.

As important as William's victories were in Scotland and Ireland, he was more concerned with the fate of the Spanish Netherlands that looked likely to fall to France upon the death of the childless Charles II of Spain. After Louis agreed that his grandson Phillip V would rule the Spanish Empire, William formed his Grand Alliance against France in 1701. We have to remember that William's main purpose in taking on the throne of England was to utilize its resources and military forces to defend his beloved Netherlands against the French King. When William died in 1702 after falling from his horse (young Queen Mary had died of small pox in 1694), Princess Anne succeeded him; the war in France continued.

Queen Anne (1702-14) The Foundations of Empire
It was evident during the reign of dull, gouty Anne that Britain was also fast becoming a nation thoroughly Protestant, though the inevitable differences in worship continued. Anne was an Anglican, a member of the Established Church of England. King James had been forced to make a number of concessions to the Nonconformists (or Dissenters) in order to win political support. Though the times were not yet ripe for complete religious toleration, the Toleration Act of 1689 had broken the monopoly of English Protestantism hitherto enjoyed by the Established Church.

The rise of the Dissenters and the spread of Unitarianism accompanied the so-called Scientific Revolution in England associated with the upsetting (to Churchmen) discoveries of such men as Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle. The Established Church no longer played a major role in national politics. The accession of William, a Dutch Calvinist, had been instrumental in helping sever that special relationship long enjoyed between Church and Crown.

Though the quarrels within and without the Church continued, in an age noted for the prolific rise in pamphleteering and electioneering chicanery, the time of Daniel Defoe and Dean Swift and the intense and bitter political between Whigs and Tories, it was the war with France that dominated Queen Anne's reign. William's accession had meant that the island nation of England had become inextricably part of the Continent. The war brought forth one of England's great military leaders, John Churchill, the husband of Queen Anne's close friend Sarah.

Churchill succeeded King William as leader of the English and Dutch forces in the Grand Alliance. Under his leadership as the Duke of Marlborough, England became the leading military power in Europe for the first time since the Hundred Years' War. Though the Dutch feared an invasion by France, Marlborough went ahead and attacked the French army at Blenheim, a name that is remembered in England as one of the greatest victories in its long history.

The annihilation of the French army at Blenheim was followed by the English capture of Gibralter in 1704; another smashing victory at Ramillies was then followed by additional successes at Oudenarde and Malplaquet. A grateful nation built Blenheim Palace for the Duke (a sumptuous residence in which Winston Churchill, a direct descendant of John Churchill, was born in 1874). The victorious Wellington was satirized by Scot John Arbuthnot in his "The History of John Bull" (1712) that introduced the name John Bull as a symbol of England.

Resource Information

Part 7: The Age of Empire, continued


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