History of the United Kingdom

From Roses, Tulips, & Liberty

Premodern history

Settlement by anatomically modern humans of what was to become the United Kingdom occurred in waves beginning by about 30,000 years ago. The Insular Celtic culture formed on the islands. Prior to the Roman conquest, Britain was home to indigenous Celtic tribes, having a similar ethnic composition to contemporary France and Iberia. The Romans ruled Britain for four centuries, pushing the Celts to Wales, Cornwall, Scotland, and other peripheral areas. By the 10th century, the Anglo-Saxons formed England while the Gaels and Picts united to establish Scotland.

Under Cnut the Great, England was united with Denmark and Norway in personal union.

The Norman invasion of 1066 led to the creation of the Anglo-Norman culture. In the 1320 Declaration of Arbroath, Scotland consolidated its independence from England. The English monarchs, as claimants to the French crown, were heavily involved in French conflicts like the Hundred Years War. The Protestant Reformation led to the establishment of Anglicanism in the country. At this time, Wales was fully integrated into the English realm and Ireland — under the Kingdom of Ireland — was increasingly settled by British colonists through plantation programs. In 1603, the kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland were united in personal union when James VI, King of Scots, inherited the crowns of England and Ireland and moved the royal court from Edinburgh to London.

Charles I in Three Positions by Anthony van Dyck (1633).

In 1639, the Wars of the Three Kingdoms erupted between the three countries under the House of Stuart, followed shortly by the beginning of the English Civil War in 1642. Oliver Cromwell abolished the monarchy, executed King Charles I, and established the Commonwealth in 1649 - a period known as the English Interregnum. Charles II, the son of the executed King Charles I, was restored as the monarch of the three realms in 1660.

Queen Henrietta's reign

Henrician era
Monarch(s)Henrietta I
Leader(s)1st Earl of Arlington (1667–1677)
1st Earl of Shaftesbury (1677–1681)
Third Cabal (1681–1686)
Fourth Cabal (1686–1692)
← Preceded by
Stuart Restoration
Followed by →
Anglo-Dutch Union

Henrietta I ascended the throne at age of 35, becoming the fourth and thirteenth monarch of the Stuart dynasty of England and Scotland respectively. Her reign saw important developments in British society, empire, and politics. In Europe, she oversaw the country's political realignment with the United Provinces of the Netherlands, even after England's defeat in the Second Anglo-Dutch War. Religiously, the Church of England expanded in order to tolerate a wider selection of Protestant beliefs within its structure, particularly Calvinism, which Henrietta herself as well as her family adhered to. The British Empire began to establish itself as a formidable future world power during this period, with colonies in New England, Virginia, India, and the Caribbean taking shape. Her twenty-five-year reign is often compared to the First Elizabethan Era (1558–1603) for its burgeoning modern political scene, a dramatic decline in religious sectarianism, and the maintenance of royal authority over the Parliament of England.

Accession and early reign

In 1660, the heir presumptive to the throne, James Stuart, Duke of York, died of smallpox at the age of twenty-seven. If Charles II did not father any children, that would leave the Princess Royal Mary Henrietta as the next monarch of England, Scotland, and Ireland. Over the next seven years, Charles II fathered many illegitimate children until his untimely and painful death in 1667, caused by a fatal bubonic plague outbreak in London. As a result, the Princess Royal was crowned Queen Henrietta, the first female monarch since Elizabeth I sixty-three years prior. Despite her claim to the throne being challenged by her illegitimate nephew James Fitzroy, Duke of Monmouth, she was eventually coronated in April 1667. Immediately after her accession, the Earl of Clarendon, the most powerful minister in government since the start of Charles II's reign, was blamed for England's loss in the Second Anglo-Dutch War, the loss of Tangiers, and the loss of Dunkirk. He was subsequently impeached, removed from office, and banished to France, where he would die in disgrace three years later. In the power vacuum, Henry Bennet, 1st Earl of Arlington, a man who had shared the Queen's opposition to the Second Anglo-Dutch War months prior, rose as the dominant minister of the court. Shortly after, the Treaty of Breda with the Netherlands was signed, relinquishing claims to New Netherland, ceding the colonies of Maryland and Connecticut River, and restoring the American territory of Guyana as an English colony status quo ante bellum.

Despite England's defeat, the Treaty of Breda (1667) marked the beginning of a 50-year long alliance with the Dutch Republic.

First Cabal ministry: 1667–1677

Under Lord Arlington's de facto leadership, a collection of senior ministers, known as the First Cabal, ran the government for the next ten years. The vast majority of members were affiliated with the Court Party, a pro-Dutch, royalist, and pan-Protestant political faction based in the southern core of England. In order to demonstrate their willingness for societal change and acceptance of the Dutch-born Reformist heir, Prince William Henry, the Cabal revoked the Five Mill Bill 1665 which had enforced discriminatory policies against Nonconformist Protestants. In 1668, the French victory in the War of Devolution prompted the English government to sign the the 1669 Treaty of Madrid with the Spanish Empire, containing the express aim to resolve Anglo-Spanish disputes in America in order to prevent French expansion. Four years later in 1672, the French invasion of the sovereign Netherlands triggered the formation of the Triple Alliance, a political and military bloc consisting of England, the Netherlands, and Sweden, with Spain joining in 1674. After the defeat of France in the Treaty of Nijmegen 1676, the First Cabal decisively estranged the Francophile George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham, while facilitating the political rise of military commander Frederick Schomberg.

Throughout the ministry, the First Cabal passed numerous bills into law. Included were the Habeas Corpus Act 1669, preventing unlawful and unjust imprisonment; the 1672 suspension of the Conventicle Act 1664; and finally, the pan-Protestant Toleration Act 1677, which declared tolerance of Nonconformists of an ‘unoffensive and peaceable disposition’, aiming to bring them into the ever-broadening fold of the Church of England. Further, more radical action to cement religious pluralism was halted by Parliament, particularly the ultra-Anglican 3rd Earl of Bridgewater. Weeks after the passing of the bill, a member of the Cabal, Baron Clifford, committed suicide after being outed as a secret Roman Catholic. This event eventually marked the end of the First Cabal and the fall of Arlington by the hands of his ex-Cavalier rivals in Parliament.

The 1st Earl of Shaftesbury (1621–1681) was a noted politician of the Country Party and a friend of future king William III.

Second Cabal: 1677–1681

In the later half of Henrietta's reign, the government's predominant political philosophy began to take shape. Sir Dudley North and Roger Coke, senior advisors to the Queen, vigorously promoted the ideals of royalism, free trade, and the notion that the concept of sovereignty is intimately tied to the monarch. This ideology would persist for the next half-century beyond the death of the Queen. Prince William Henry, the heir presumptive, was a noted friend and ally of similarly-minded intellectuals and politicians across Europe.

In the chaos of 1677, the Second Cabal formed, a faction dominated by the Country Party. The Countrymen, opposed to the Court Party, consisted of provincial elites estranged from the royal court who advocated for a bigger role for Parliament in order to contain 'arbitrary government and popery'. The Cabal was headed by Ashley Anthony Cooper, 1st Earl of Shaftesbury, a man who built his political career upon support from the elites of the southwestern counties of Cornwall, Devonshire, Somerset, and Dorset. The next year, members of Parliament put forth the Test Act 1679, which aimed to establish a religious test for public office in the Houses of Parliament. The Act was struck down by the Earl of Shaftesbury, who was under pressure from his Presbyterian patrons of the West Country. This had a role in stunting establishment support for the Country Party and fueling continued Crown support for broadening of the Church of England. The death of Shaftesbury in 1681 triggered the administration's fall.

Later years: 1681–1692

Soon after, a coalition of politicians, royalists, and ex-Cavaliers again thrust the Court Party into power. Among the 1st Duke of Montagu, 1st Duke of Bolton, 1st Earl of Danby, and Lord Keeper Orlando Bridgeman the Younger, there was no apparent predominance of one individual in the Third Cabal. The first test of the new administration was their response to the wave of Huguenot refugees that entered England and Ireland due to increasing discrimination in France. They warmly welcomed by politicians, who saw the arrival of French Calvinists as an opportunity to advance a pan-Protestant agenda. Queen Henrietta, in order to assist them, issued a grant of £20,000 to these refugees. Among those affected was none other than the progenitor of the Schomberg dynasty, Frederick Schomberg, who was stripped of his French possessions and chose to spend the remainder of his life in the British Isles.

Emigration of the Huguenots (1566).

Henrietta sought divorce from her English second husband, William Russell, 2nd Duke of Bedford in 1682. The Third Cabal, again of Court Party affiliation, supported a Private Act of Parliament against the Duke, mainly motivated by his association with the rival Country Party. A year later, the divorce was official, with the 2nd Duke of Bedford leaving for Virginia soon after. It remains one of the most scandalous tales of early modern England and is frequently dramatized in British literature. It is also notable in that Prince William Henry, the future king, vocally supported his mother and her supporters, members of the Country Party, during this period.

In 1689, the Scottish Parliament established the Company of Scotland, a trading corporation with exclusive rights over Scottish trade in Africa, America, and Japan. Conflict with the Spanish forced Scottish colonists to abandon their projects in Puerto Rico and modern South Tussenland. However, a trading factory was successfully established alongside an English one in the Japanese port of Hirado, which would continue for three decades until its uneventful dissolution.

Henrietta would die on 18 May 1692 at the age of 60, passing the throne to her son, William III. She was the last member of the House of Stuart to rule over England, Scotland, and Ireland.

The Anglo-Dutch Union: 1692–1712

Anglo-Dutch Union
Monarch(s)William III
← Preceded by
Henrician era
Followed by →
Nassuvian century

Upon his mother's death in 1692, William III became King of England, Scotland, and Ireland. He was the founder of the Stuart-Nassau dynasty, which would give five monarchs to Britain. His rule is one of the most consequential periods in British history; the Acts of Union 1696 uniting England and Scotland into one state, the creation of the Church of Great Britain in the Act of Comprehension 1702, and the Bank of Britain Act 1708 all occurred during his reign. At the time of his death and the termination of the union between Britain and the Netherlands, the nation had undergone radical societal changes, developed new political infrastructure, and began to embrace free trade as a tool to rival the Dutch Empire.

Immediately upon his assumption of the crowns of England, Scotland, and Ireland, the three kingdoms were brought into personal union with the United Provinces of the Netherlands, the Principality of Orange, and the Electoral Palatinate. Despite being head of six separate states at the same time, the period in which he rules is commonly known as the Anglo-Dutch Union after the two largest countries he had ruled.

Throughout his 20-year tenure in Britain, he would aim to assert the dominance of the monarchy over Parliament, notably by discreetly preserving non obstante. He promoted several close allies and relatives to high positions in government, such as appointing his cousins Lord Overkirk and the 1st Earl of Rochford as Lord Chamberlain of the Royal Household and Secretary of State for the Northern Department respectively. The King's strategic manipulation of Parliament and purchase of votes ensured that decisions would often swing in his favor.

The Acts of Union

Weeks after he became King, the Act of Settlement 1692 was passed, ensuring that only Protestants who were legitimate descendants of James VI, King of Scots, could succeed to the throne. This decisively excluded the French Catholic line of his aunt Henrietta Anne, Duchess of Orléans as well as the newly Catholic princes of Hanover in 1701.

Since 1603, England and Scotland had been in personal union, sharing the same head of state. At the time of the new king's accession, talks of real political union and a critical reassessment of the constitutional relationship between the two nations had been ongoing in the British political scene. Each side postulated numerous arguments for their vision over the next four years. The vast majority of the Country Party in both countries opposed the proposal entirely, while most members of the Court as well as smaller factions supported incorporating union.

The Acts of Union are said to have paved the way for the Scottish Enlightenment of the 18th century by introducing liberal and commercial reforms.

Parliament was viewed as the ultimate defender of Scottish trading rights. Andrew Fletcher, a member of the Country Party, was an avid Scottish patriot who worried that union would inevitably transfer power from Parliament to the Crown and thus make Scotland subordinate to, or a "province of", England. Many also were concerned about discrimination against Presbyterians and nefarious English intentions to eventually assimilate the Presbytery into the Anglican Church. Certain Country publications during this period advocated for a federal union instead in order to safeguard a sovereign Parliament and prevent conflict between the Presbyterians and Episcopalians, who still had a deep mutual dislike for each other.

Pro-union activists highlighted the free trade benefit union with England would bring Scotland, as well as the fact that despite being an episcopalian, the King himself was in fact a Calvinist, and would fundamentally guarantee the security of the Presbytery. Pro-incorporation pamphlets refuted the idea that Scotland would become subordinate to Scotland, reassuring the public that a strong commercial, religious, and political relationship with the Netherlands would act as a safeguard against unwilling assimilation.

For the English government, the primary motivation to support union included the threat of a Scottish alliance with France, or in the event of souring relations between England and the Netherlands, a Scottish-Dutch political and commercial alliance against the English empire. William III, who considered himself equally a Dutch and English ruler, was incredibly conflicted in regards to the latter argument. However, in order to maintain a good relationship with English nobility and prevent controversy, the Crown largely remained cautious.

Ironically validating the concerns of the Country Party, anti-union arguments failed to reach large segments of the public due to censorship from the Crown. This allowed for pro-union positions to disseminate more widely, creating a base of support for union in Scotland and in England quicker than anticipated. By February of 1696, both the English and Scottish sides had nearly concluded negotiations terms of the treaties of union. Under this agreement, the two Parliaments would combine into one at Westminster, Scotland would establish free trade with England and their colonies, and the Presbyterian Church of Scotland would be secured. Additionally, Scotland would maintain its own system of measurements and its own independent Privy Council based in Edinburgh.

Condemned Renwickite, showing James Renwick being led to his execution.

In late 1695 and early 1696, violent demonstrations occurred in the streets of Scotland, directly opposed to the ratification of the Act of Union with England. This eventually culminated in an anti-incorporation revolt in late March led by Covenanter and Scottish Presbyterian minister James Renwick. The Renwickites, as they were called, occupied numerous burghs and shires for two weeks before being suppressed by the forces of the 3rd Marquess of Douglas and the 1st Viscount Dundee. Renwick was imprisoned for his revolt thereafter. However, due to pressure from members of the Court Party and particularly Cavaliers, he was executed a few months after the ratification of the Act.

A decisive vote in favor of the Acts of Union occurred on 7 April 1696 in the Scottish Parliament. The Court Party, led by the 2nd Duke of Queensbury, along with smaller factions led by men like the Marquess of Montrose as well as the King's confidant and former same-sex lover, William Bentinck, had achieved this ratification, often employing bribery. Days later, William III announced to the English Parliament that Scotland ratified the Act and that they should do the same. The Acts officially came into effect on 1 June, uniting England and Scotland to form Great Britain.

Religious developments: 1697–1710

One of the first bills the Parliament of Great Britain approved was the Declaration of Indulgence in 1697. The Indulgence suspended a number of penal laws aimed at particular Nonconformists, particularly Presbyterians, Quakers, and Baptists, as well as indirectly and perhaps unintentionally providing some relief to Anglo-Catholic communities. It was largely framed as an attempt to "create a common tie that bound conformists and nonconformists, episcopalians and presbyterians” and served the purpose of establishing a common cultural identity in both Scotland and England following the Acts of Union. Before, during, and after the Indulgence, the government supported a narrative romanticizing the Indulgence as a "united Coalition for action against popery and Romanism".

Increasing acceptance of Presbyterianism's position in British society led to the Presbyterian Church Act 1700, creating and recognizing the legitimate existence of an independent Presbyterian church in Scotland, often referred to simply as 'the Kirk'. The bill was generally supported by the majority of members of Parliament with the exception of hardcore Anglicans and those who still considered themselves loyal to the Cavalier interest. Covenanters, or radical Presbyterians, viewed the recognition of the Kirk without recognition of the Covenant as a betrayal and subsequently established the independent, anti-establishment Reformed Church of Scotland.

David Williamson (1634–1711) was a Covenanter and a founder of the Reformed Church of Scotland in 1700.

Scottish Episcopalians, adherents of the Church of Scotland since the Stuart Restoration, began to feel incredibly neglected by the Crown and Parliament and viewed themselves as susceptible to oppression and persecution by the Presbyterian majority in Scotland. William III, who had previously dreamed of incorporating Presbyterians into the Church of England, limited his vision to the full incorporation of Scottish Episcopalians. This idea was proposed in the Act of Comprehension, which initially remained incredibly controversial.

To garner support for the Act, its supporters took advantage of the fears of the Anglican establishment in southern England, which feared for the safety and 'Calvinization' of the Episcopalians of Scotland. A large segment of the Episcopalian population detested the Act and viewed it as an insult to Scottish agency and distinctiveness, asserting their identity as "neither Roman nor English". In order to suppress this opposition, an alliance between pro-union Anglicans and radical Presbyterians came into being, with both parties agreeing to cooperate in forcibly joining the episcopal Church of Scotland with the Church of England.

The Act of Comprehension was passed in 1702, which merged the episcopal Church of Scotland into the Church of Great Britain and renamed the Presbyterian Church of Scotland to the Church of Scotland. As a result, a number of Scottish Episcopalians rose up against the government in the following years, only to be subdued by 1710. Thousands of anti-Comprehension Episcopalians emigrated to the British colonies of New England and Virginia as well as the Netherlands. The independent Scottish Episcopal Church was established in Rotterdam in 1703, and subsequently became the chosen institution of anti-Comprehension Episcopalians in the British Isles as well. By the end of William III's reign in 1712, it is estimated that the number of Scottish Episcopalians in Scotland dwindled from 40% to 25%.

By the end of the Anglo-Dutch Union, four distinct churches came to dominate Britain:

  • The Church of Great Britain, the established Anglican church of the country and the Crown. It was founded by the merger of the Church of England with the Church of Scotland in the Act of Comprehension 1702.
  • The Scottish Episcopal Church, which broke from the Church of Great Britain.
  • The Church of Scotland, the national Presbyterian church of Scotland, which reverted to presbyterianism after becoming episcopal for four decades, from 1661 to 1700.
  • The Reformed Church of Scotland, founded by dissenting Covenanters in 1700 after the re-establishment of a presbyterian Church of Scotland with the Presbyterian Church Act.

A similar Act was passed in Ireland in 1709, referred to as the Irish Comprehension Act. It broadened the Church of Ireland to include Presbyterians, as well as permitting them to hold public office after swearing an oath of allegiance to the Crown.

The Nassuvian century

Nassuvian Century
Monarch(s)William IV
William V
Charles III
Elizabeth II
← Preceded by
Anglo-Dutch Union
Followed by →
Georgian era

The Nassuvian century is defined as the end of dissolution of the Anglo-Dutch Union in 1712 to the death of Elizabeth II in 1777. It encompasses the reigns of the last four monarchs of the House of Stuart-Nassau. It is also commonly referred to as the 'short 18th century' in Britain. During this period, Britain became a constitutional monarchy when Parliament successfully dismantled absolutism with the passing of the Bill of Rights 1735 into law.

Georgian kings: 1777–1821

Ernestine era

1873 to 1914

Elizabethan epoch: 1914–1947

See also