history of england, anglo saxon period

Search Britannia
stonehenge silbury avebury
History | Travel | British Life Shop Britannia

Amazon.com logo
Search for:

Enter keywords:
Part 7: The Age of Empire, continued

George I (1714-1727)
The first great crisis of the reign of George I, that fool of a king (who was ridiculed for his eccentric behavior and poor English), was the Jacobite Rebellion. He was lucky that his nation was in no mood for another civil war. James Stuart was sent back to France after failing to rally Scotland behind him. It was left to the Young Pretender, Charles Edward to try again during the reign of George II. The other crisis that affected the reign of the first Hanoverian monarch of England was known as the South Sea Bubble.

Briefly, the South Sea Company, founded in 1711, had acquired a monopoly in the lucrative Spanish slave trade and other trading ventures in South America. Prices of its shares increased dramatically when the government announced that the company, and not the Bank of England, should finance the National Debt. Dozens of irrational schemes came into being as the result of the ridiculously high prices of company shares. They all crashed in October of 1720 when shares began to tumble; many investors were ruined.

The fiasco, involving many government ministers, needed someone to straighten things out, and the right person appeared in Robert Walpole, who defended the ministers and the Crown, being rewarded with the position of Chancellor of the Exchequer and leading the House of Commons for 20 years. Walpole straightaway reduced import and export duties to encourage trade and took care of the financial crisis by amalgamating the South Sea Company stock with that of the Bank of England and the East India Company. An astute business man, he kept England at peace and he increased the powers and privileges of Parliament.

At the Act of Settlement of 1701, Parliament had insisted that there should be a Privy Council of 80 members. King George reduced it to 30, and from these, a smaller group formed the cabinet, and an even smaller group, the inner cabinet. And it was here that the important decisions were made. As "German George" knew little English, understood practically nothing of the English constitution and stayed away from cabinet meetings, Walpole rose to a position of chief minister. He continued his leading role after the death of George I in 1727. Walpole's day-to-day supervision of the administration of the country, unhampered by royal interference, gave him such influence that he is remembered as England's first Prime Minister (The title originated as a term of abuse when his opponents mockingly used it to describe his extraordinary power).

George II (1727-1760)
Among the many events that took place during the reign of George II, there were two that were to have a profound influence, not only upon his kingdom of Britain, but upon much of the world outside its borders. The first of these events began in 1728 when Yorkshire carpenter John Harrison created a working model of a practical, spring-driven timekeeper that would win the prize offered by the London's Board of Longitude to solve a centuries-old puzzle; how to make the accurate determining of longitude possible. (In 1676, the Greenwich Observatory had been established to study the position of the moon among the fixed stars and to set a standard time to help sailors fix their longitude). In 1730, John Hadley invented the reflecting quadrant that made it possible to determine latitude at noon or by night. Extremely accurate, it was quickly adopted by the admiralty.

In 1736, Harrison presented his ship's chronometer to London's Board of Longitude; accurate to with one-tenth of a second per day. Made weatherproof and placed aboard ships, along with the observations of astronomer Nevil Maskelyne, published in 1763 that calculated longitude at sea from lunar distances, the chronometer was to revolutionize the world's shipping. It was to prove of particular importance to English navigators in their constant, unending search for new markets for English products, new trading centers and eventually, new lands to settle her surplus criminals and poor, unemployed citizens. (The chronometer was proved to be a success aboard HMS Deptford in 1761).

The second major event began at Oxford University, also in 1728, when a group of students began to call divinity student Charles Wesly a "Methodist," because of his methodical study habits. Charles was to help found a holy club with his brother John and others for strict observance of sacrament and the Sabbath, along with reading the New Testament and undergoing fasting. Brother John was to begin preaching Methodism at Bristol in 1739.

The first conference of Methodists was held in 1744. From then on, the movement, aided by his indefatigable preaching and wide spread travels in the British Isles, spread rapidly. The new religious ideas were to take root in North America where ideas of political independence from Britain were to merge with ideas of religious independence from the Church of England.

At home, as strong-willed as George II seemed to be, he could be controlled by his wife, Caroline of Anspach, whose influence ensured that Walpole keep his position as prime minister in the new regime. When Caroline died in 1737, it was increasingly difficult for Walpole to keep England out of war with Spain, brought about by the continual harassment of British trading ships by the Spanish. When a certain Captain Jenkins presented the sight of his sun-dried (or pickled) ear, supposedly cut off by the Spanish in 1731, Parliament was enraged and demanded action. Walpole was unable to effect a compromise and England went to war in 1739. At the same time, the War of the Austrian Succession had broken out on the Continent.

Because George II feared a French invasion of his beloved Duchy of Hanover, England was forced to involve itself in the war that primarily involved the coalition of Central European powers, supported by France, to despoil Maria Theresa, the new Arch Duchess of Austria, of her possessions. To the dismay of the jingoistic Parliament, George signed a treaty with France to protect Hanover, Walpole was held responsible and defeated in Parliament after losing support of the Commons. Walpole had coined the term "balance of power" in a speech in Parliament in June 1741; it gave expression to the principle that was to guide British foreign policy for decades to come.

Despite King George's attempts to stay neutral in the European conflict, he had to fight. At Dettingen, he personally led his forces, and won a great victory over the French. When France declared war on England in 1744, believing that she was the cause of most of her troubles, Parliament was forced on the defensive. As so many times before in the island nation's history, however, the notorious British weather helped destroy a French invasion fleet in 1744. It was now time for the Jacobite Cause to resurrect itself.

The Last Gasp of the Jacobites
Incredibly enough, after the farce of the last attempt to regain the throne, the Stuarts were to try again. Despite having endured so many years of ill-fortune, the Jacobite cause was still powerful enough to be considered the greatest threat to Britain in mid-century. In 1718, the Spanish government, in the conflict with Britain for control of trade, had sponsored an abortive raid on Scotland. Though the attempt ended in a defeat for the Highlanders at Glenshiel, an English newspaper argued in 1723 that the people of the Scottish Highlands "will never fail to join with foreign Popish powers..."

As if to fulfill this prophecy, 22 years later, Charles Edward seized his opportunity. At a time when George II was away in his beloved Hanover and the bulk of the British Army fighting in Flanders and Germany, the Stuart prince landed in the Hebrides in July 1745. He was encouraged by promise of support from France, and indeed some ships did reach Scotland with supplies and artillery. By September, Charles had rallied thousands of Highlanders, was aided by the Provost's who had secretly left a gate open and had taken the city of Edinburgh (where he assured the Presbyterian clergy of religious toleration), captured Carlisle, and defeated a small British force at Prestonpans where his soldiers employed their broadswords in the famous Highland charge.

Flushed with victory over the obviously ill-trained and ill-prepared British force of General Cope, the Scottish army marched south to England, hoping to rally support all along the way. Yet, it soon became apparent that Charles Edward was not going to be successful in raising the men and money necessary to sustain the invasion. Even in the Scottish Lowlands, support had not been forthcoming. Interests of commerce overrode those of patriotism. Despite Charles Edward's bold plans to advance on London, Lord Murray argued for a return to Scotland. The Prince reluctantly admitted the lack of support from English Jacobites. In addition, misleading reports about the strength of the English forces convinced the majority of the Council to return to Scotland.

An English force that caught up with the retreating Scottish army was soundly defeated at Clifton, the last battle to be fought on English soil. Once again, a concentrated Highland charge managed to dislodge British dragoons. Scottish success, however, only strengthened the resolve of the pursuing troops under Cumberland, who was determined to use his superior fire power and strength of numbers to his advantage the next time. The battle also led to a feeling among the Highlanders that they were invincible in a charge involving hand-to-hand fighting. They were almost correct. On the bumpy, uneven pasture lands of Culloden in April 1745 with a considerable distance to cover under fire before they could reach the ranks of the English troops, the bravery of the charging Highlanders would not be enough.

The enormous casualties suffered by the Highlanders in their futile charges against the entrenched infantry, and the slaughter of their wounded was followed by a brutal aftermath. "Bliadna Thearlaich," Charlie's Year to the Gaelic-speaking Highlanders, was finished. The Jacobites were left without any hope of reorganizing, though they still hoped for support from the Bourbons in Spain and France. This was not forthcoming, for struggles in Europe were shifting to those for control of North America.

After Culloden, Scotland was ready to play a major role in the expansion of the British Empire. In particular, the fighting qualities and heroic traditions of the Highlanders were put to good use in British armies sent to fight in Europe and further afield. The Seven Years War (1756-63) that closely followed the failure of the Jacobite Rebellion was the most dramatically successful war ever fought by Britain. Success followed success (mostly at the expense of France) in Canada, India, West Africa and the West Indies, and the tiny North Atlantic island of Britain found itself at the head of a vast, world empire in which the Scots played a leading part.

An New Role for the Island Kingdom
The War of the Austrian Succession was ended by the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748. But Britain was still anxious to fight for possession of new lands and trade routes. After Walpole's resignation, the country was led by William Pitt ("the elder"), a man who believed that the strength of the nation's economy depended upon overseas expansion as well as the defence of its trading outposts. Thus Britain found itself at war with France again, only the theatres of war were now primarily in North America and India. In the Seven Years War, England's ally Prussia was relied upon to conduct operations against France and Austria in Europe. In the sub-continent of India, Robert Clive won important victories to establish British presence at the expense of the French.

In other areas, at first, the wars went badly. Admiral Byng was disgraced when he lost Minorca to the French in 1757. In North America, the British colonists suffered defeats at the hands of the French, who began Fort Duquesne; in Europe, the French occupied Hanover. Then William Pitt took over, the person described by Frederick the Great as having been "a man brought forth by England's labor," and under his direction of Parliament, his countries' armed forces began a string of victories that made them seem invincible.

In 1747 James Lind had reported on the success of citrus juice in combating scurvy, and ten years later The Royal Navy received the new sextant created by John Campbell. (In 1775, upon his return from the Pacific, Captain James Cook received a medal from the Royal Society for finally conquering scurvy; he had brought 118 men "through all climates for three years and 18 days with the loss of only one man.) He had succeeded with sauerkraut: the Royal Navy ordered all its ships to give out lime juice as a daily ration in 1795.

In North America, British troops captured Fort Duquesne and renamed it Fort Pitt (later Pittsburgh); other victories occurred at Senegal, the centre of the French West African slave trade and at Guadeloupe in the West Indies. In Canada, General Wolfe captured Louisburg and then Quebec, in 1759, a victory that was followed up by General Amherst to complete the surrender of Canada to Britain.

At the time of King George II's death in 1760, England was growing rich from profits made in sugar, tobacco, sea-island cotton and other products produced by slave labor. A new leisured class was rapidly developing that would eventually demand its say in government. Britain's prosperity had come about despite the favoring of Hanover by King George; it reflected the growing influence of the mercantile classes in Parliament. It also reflected the indomitable energy and initiative of William Pitt.

Pitt gathered all power into his own hands; he controlled finance, administration and the military. He understood fully the threat from France for hegemony in North America, and he took the vital steps to counter it. His war with France has been seen by many historians as the First World War; it certainly involved more than a mere redistribution of strategic forts and a re-shuffling of frontiers. It also took considerable toll on England's resources and a general war-weariness gave fodder to those enemies of Pitt who worked for his downfall.

George III (1760-1820)
The new king saw himself as a kind of savior; freeing the country from the tyranny of a corrupt Parliament and restoring it into the hands of a virtuous, honorable, "thoroughly English" monarch, one who was perfectly capable of choosing his own ministers. Lord Bute was more to his liking than William Pitt. When peace negotiations began with France, Pitt refused to desert Prussia. France then turned to Spain for an alliance to help her regain her North American possessions. Pitt's urging of war with Spain met with fierce resistance in the Commons and he was forced to resign.

Seen by historian Carlyle, as "King of England for four years," William Pitt undoubtedly was one of England's great leaders, a true statesman with a vision expanding far beyond the political boundaries of England. His successor in Parliament, Lord Bute, had nothing of Pitt's political acumen, wide-ranging vision or experience. Only months after Pitt's resignation, England was forced to declare war on Spain, but despite a series of overwhelming victories, including those by Admiral Rodney in the Caribbean, that made her mistress of the world and master of the seas, Bute did not wish to further antagonize a severely weakened France and Spain. Besides, the king wished to end what he called " a bloody and expensive war."

Britain gained handsomely at the Treaty of Paris of 1763, yet France and Spain came off rather well. It took a considerable amount of political chicanery and bribery to ensure the ratification of the treaty by Parliament, for it was denounced by Pitt as giving too much away and for containing the seeds of future war. Britain did gain Canada, Nova Scotia, Cape Breton; the right to navigate the Mississippi; the West Indian Islands of Grenada, St. Vincent, Dominica and Tobago in the West Indies; Florida (from Spain); Senegal in Africa; and the preservation in India of the East India Company's monopoly; and in Europe, Minorca.

To Pitt's dismay and fears for the future, France was appeased with the islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon, islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, fishing rights off Newfoundland (the nursery of the French navy, later to play such a decisive role in the American War of Independence) and the rich sugar islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique. Spain, in turn, received Havana, which controlled the sea-going trade in the Caribbean and Manila, a center of the trade with China. Thus France's naval power had been left untouched. Britain was later to pay dearly in the loss of its American colonies.

As George insisted on picking his own ministers, he appointed four different men to lead the country in the 1760's: the Earl of Bute, George Grenville, the Marquee of Rockingham, and the Elder Pitt. His last choice, his personal favorite, was Lord North. Between them, they lost America.

Resource Information

Part 7: The Age of Empire, continued

  Britannia.com  Copyright ©2000 Britannia.com, LLC