By Tim Lambert
Prehistoric and Ancient England
About 4,500 BC farming was introduced into what is now England. Using stone axes the farmers began clearing the forests that covered England. They grew crops of wheat and barley and they raised herds of cattle, pigs, and sheep. However as well as farming, they also hunted animals such as deer, horses, and wild boar and smaller animals such as beavers, badgers, and hares. They also gathered fruit and nuts.
At the same time, the early farmers mined flint for making tools. They dug shafts, some of them 15 meters (50 feet) deep. They used deer antlers as picks and oxen shoulder blades as shovels. They also made pottery vessels but they still wore clothes made from skins. They erected simple wooden huts to live in.
Moreover the early farmers made elaborate tombs for their dead. They dug burial chambers then lined them with wood or stone. Over them, they created mounds of earth called barrows. They also made mounds of stones called cairns.
From about 2,500 BC in what is now England, the Neolithic (new stone age) farmers made circular monuments called henges. At first, they were simple ditches with stones or wooden poles erected in them. The most famous henge is, of course, Stonehenge. It began as a simple ditch with an internal bank of earth. Outside the entrance stood the Heel Stone. The famous circles of stones were erected hundreds of years later. Stonehenge was altered and added to over a thousand-year period from 2250 BC to 1250 BC before it was finished.
Bronze Age England
At any rate, about 2,000 BC English society was changed by the invention of Bronze. Metal artifacts appeared in England as early as 2,700 BC although it is believed they were imported. By about 2,000 BC bronze was being made in England. The Bronze Age people also rode horses and they were the first people in England to weave cloth. Bronze age women held their hair with bone pins and they wore crescent-shaped necklaces.
In the late Bronze Age (1,000 BC-650 BC) forts were built on hills so warfare was, it seems, becoming common. This may have been because the population was rising and fertile land was becoming harder to obtain.
Meanwhile, the Bronze Age people continued to build barrows. The dead were buried with useful artifacts. Presumably, the living believed the dead would need these in the afterlife.
Bronze Age people lived in round wooden huts with thatched roofs but nothing is known about their society or how it was organised. However, there were almost certainly different classes at that time. Tin and copper were exported from Britain along with animal hides. Jet and amber were imported for the rich.
Then about 650 BC iron was introduced into England by a people called the Celts and the first swords were made. Warfare was common during the Iron Age and many hill forts (fortified settlements) were built at that time. (Although there were also many open villages and farms).
The Celts fought from horses or light wooden chariots. They threw spears and fought with swords. The Celts had wooden shields and some wore chainmail. n Most of the Celts were farmers although were also many skilled craftsmen. Some Celts were blacksmiths (working with iron), bronze smiths, carpenters, leather workers, and potters. Celtic craftsmen also made elaborate jewelry of gold and precious stones.
Furthermore, objects like swords and shields were often finely decorated. The Celts decorated metal goods with enamel. The Celts also knew how to make glass and they made glass beads. The Celts grew crops in rectangular fields. They raised pigs, sheep, and cattle. They stored grain in pits lined with stone or wicker and sealed with clay. The Celts also brewed beer from barley.
In 55 BC Julius Caesar led an expedition to Britain. Caesar returned in 54 BC. Both times he defeated the Celts but he did not stay. Both times the Romans withdrew after the Celts agreed to pay an annual tribute. The Romans invaded Britain again in 43 AD under Emperor Claudius. The Roman invasion force consisted of about 20,000 legionaries and about 20,000 auxiliary soldiers from the provinces of the Roman Empire. Aulus Plautius led them.
The Romans landed somewhere in Southeast England (the exact location is unknown) and quickly prevailed against the Celtic army. The Celts could not match the discipline and training of the Roman army. A battle was fought on the River Medway, ending in Celtic defeat and withdrawal. The Romans chased them over the River Thames into Essex and within months of landing in England the Romans had captured the Celtic hill fort on the site of Colchester.
Meanwhile other Roman forces marched into Sussex, where the local tribe, the Atrebates were friendly and offered no resistance. The Roman army then marched into the territory of another tribe, the Durotriges, in Dorset and southern Somerset. Everywhere the Romans prevailed and that year 11 Celtic kings surrendered to Claudius. (Normally if a Celtic king surrendered the Romans allowed him to remain as a puppet ruler). By 47 AD the Romans were in control of England from the River Humber to the Estuary of the River Severn. However, the war was not over. The Silures in South Wales and the Ordovices of North Wales continued to harass the Romans. Fighting between the Welsh tribes and the Romans continued for years.
Meanwhile, the Iceni tribe of East Anglia rebelled. At first, the Romans allowed them to keep their kings and have some autonomy. However, the Romans easily crushed it. In the ensuing years, the Romans alienated the Iceni by imposing heavy taxes. Then, when the king of the Iceni died he left his kingdom partly to his wife, Boudicca, and partly to Emperor Nero.
Soon, however, Nero wanted the kingdom all for himself. His men treated the Iceni very badly and they provoked rebellion. This time a large part of the Roman army was fighting in Wales and the rebellion was, at first, successful. Led by Boudicca the Celts burned Colchester, St Albans, and London. However, the Romans rushed forces to deal with the rebellion. Although the Romans were outnumbered their superior discipline and tactics secured total victory.
After the rebellion was crushed the Celts of what is now southern and eastern England settled down and gradually accepted Roman rule. Then in 71-74 CE, the Romans conquered the north of what is now England. In 122-126 CE Emperor Hadrian built a great wall across the northern frontier of Roman Britain to keep out the people the Romans called the Picts.
By the middle of the 3rd century the Roman Empire was in decline. In the latter half of the 3rd century, Saxons from Germany began raiding the east coast of Roman Britain. The Romans built a chain of forts along the coast, which they called the Saxon shore. The forts were commanded by an official called the Count of the Saxon Shore and they contained both infantry and cavalry.
Then in 286, an admiral named Carausius seized power in Britain. For 7 years he ruled Britain as an emperor until Allectus, his finance minister, assassinated him. Allectus then ruled Britain until 296 when Constantius, Emperor of the Western Roman Empire invaded. Britain was then taken back into the Roman fold.
In the 4th century, the Roman Empire in the west went into serious economic and political decline. The populations of towns fell. Public baths and amphitheaters went out of use. In 367 Scots from Northern Ireland, Picts from Scotland and Saxons all raided Roman Britain. They overran Hadrian’s Wall and killed the Count of the Saxon Shore. However, the Romans sent a man named Theodosius with reinforcements to restore order.
Yet the last Roman troops left Britain in 407. In 410 the leaders of the Romano-Celts sent a letter to the Roman Emperor Honorius, appealing for help. However, he had no troops to spare and he told the Britons they must defend themselves.
Roman Britain split into separate kingdoms but the Romano-Celts continued to fight the Saxon raiders. Roman civilization slowly broke down. People stopped using coins and returned to barter. Roman towns continued to be inhabited until the mid-5th century. Then town life came to an end. Roman civilization in the countryside also faded away.
By the 5th century the Romano-Celts had broke up into separate kingdoms but a single leader called the Superbus Tyrannus had emerged. At that time and possibly earlier they were hiring Germanic peoples as mercenaries. According to tradition, the Superbus Tyrannus brought Jutes to protect his realm from Scots (from Northern Ireland) and Picts (from Scotland). He was also afraid the Romans might invade Britain and make it part of the Empire again. The Superbus Tyrannus installed the Jutish leader, Hengist, as king of Kent. In return, the Jutes were supposed to protect Britain.
However, after about 7 years the Jutes and the Romano-Celts fell out. They fought a battle at Crayford and the Jutes won a decisive victory. The war went on for several more years but the Celts were unable to dislodge the Jutes. In the late 5th century Saxons landed in Sussex and after about 15 years the Saxons had conquered all of Sussex. They gave the county its name. It was the kingdom of the South Saxons.
Meanwhile at the end of the 5th century or the very beginning of the 6th century more Jutes landed in eastern Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. At the same time, Saxons landed in western Hampshire. They founded the kingdom of Wessex (the West Saxons). Then in the late 5th century a great leader and general arose among the Celts. We know him as Arthur. Very little is known about him but he defeated the Saxons in several battles. His victories culminated in the battle of Mount Badon, about 500 CE. (We do not know exactly where the battle took place). The Saxons were crushed and their advance was halted for decades.
Meanwhile in the early 6th century the West Saxons, of western Hampshire, annexed the Jutes of eastern Hampshire. About 530 they also took over the Isle of Wight. Then in 552, the West Saxons won a great victory somewhere near modern Salisbury and they captured what is now Wiltshire. In 577 they won another great victory. This time they captured Bath, Cirencester and Gloucester. They also cut off the Celts of southwest England from the Celts of Wales.
Meanwhile, in the mid-6th century, other Saxons invaded Essex. (The kingdom of the East Saxons). A people called the Angles landed in East Anglia. Obviously, they gave East Anglia its name. They also gave England its name (Angle-land). Other Angles landed in Yorkshire. Also in the later 6th century Saxons sailed up the Thames and landed in what is now Berkshire. They gave Middlesex its name. (The land of the middle Saxons). They also landed on the south bank of the River Thames. They called the area suth ridge, which means south bank. In time the name changed to Surrey.
So by the late 6th century eastern England was in the hands of Angles and Saxons. In the 7th century, they continued their relentless advance. In 656 the Saxons of the East Midlands won a battle on the River Wye and captured the West Midlands. Further South in 658 the West Saxons won a great battle and drove the Celts back to the River Parrett in Somerset. In 664 they won yet another battle. This time they captured Dorset.
By about 670 AD the West Saxons had captured Exeter. Then in 710 Saxons from eastern Somerset invaded western Somerset. At the same time, Saxons from southeast Devon marched north and west. The two groups advanced in a pincer movement and soon occupied Devon and western Somerset. However, the Saxons never gained effective control of Cornwall. So Cornwall kept its own Cornish language.
By the 7th century there were 9 kingdoms in what is now England. In the south, there were Kent, Sussex, and Wessex (Hampshire and Wiltshire). In the early 9th century Wessex gained control of Sussex and Kent. Eastern England was divided into Essex, East Anglia and a kingdom called Lindsey roughly modern Lincolnshire. The Midlands was ruled by a kingdom called Mercia. In the late 8th century a great king called Offa ruled Mercia. He built a famous dike (ditch) to keep out the Welsh. He also absorbed the kingdom of Lindsey (roughly Lincolnshire).
In 600 the north was divided into two kingdoms. Deira (roughly modern Yorkshire) and Bernicia further north. However, in 605, the two were united to form one powerful kingdom called Northumbria. So by the mid-9th century, England was divided into just four kingdoms, Northumbria in the north, Mercia, East Anglia in the east, and Wessex in the south.
In 596 Pope Gregory sent a party of about 40 men led by Augustine to Kent. They arrived in 597. Aethelbert permitted the monks to preach and in time he was converted. Furthermore, his nephew, Saeberht, the king of Essex was also converted.
Meanwhile, in 627 King Edwin of Northumbria (the North of England) and all his nobles were baptized. (He may have been influenced by his wife, Ethelburga, who was a Christian). Most of his subjects followed. A man named Paulinus became the first Saxon Bishop of York. Paulinus also began converting the kingdom of Lindsey (Lincolnshire).
However things did not go smoothly in Northumbria. King Edwin was killed at the battle of Hatfield in 632 and afterward, most of Northumbria reverted to paganism. They had to be converted all over again by Celtic monks from Scotland.
Further south in 630 a Christian called Sigebert became King of East Anglia. He asked the Archbishop of Canterbury to send men to help convert his people. Meanwhile, Pope Honorius sent a man named Birinus to convert the West Saxons (who lived in Hampshire). Missionaries also preached in the kingdom of Mercia (The Midlands)
In 653 King Penda of Mercia was converted and baptized and gradually the realm was converted. The last part of England to be converted to Christianity was Sussex. It was converted after 680 by St. Wilfrid. Finally, by the end of the 7th century, all of England was at least nominally Christian.
In 793 the Vikings raided a monastery at Lindisfarne (northeast England). There followed a respite until 835 when the Danes descended on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent. Although the Viking raiders were fearsome they were not invincible. In 836 the Danes joined forces with the Celts of Cornwall. However, they were defeated by Egbert, king of Wessex, at Hingston Down. Nevertheless, the Danes continued raiding in England. In 840 a force of Saxons from Hampshire crushed a Danish force at Southampton. However the same year Saxons from Dorset were defeated by the Danes at Portland.
In 841 the Danes ravaged Kent, East Anglia and what is now Lincolnshire. In 842 they sacked Southampton. Further Viking raids occurred in 843 and 845. In the latter year, the Saxons defeated the Danes in a battle at the mouth of the River Parrett in Somerset.
Then in 850-51 the Vikings spent the winter of the Isle of Thanet. In the spring they attacked the Mercians and defeated them in battle. However, they were later defeated by an army from Wessex. In 854 another Danish force wintered on the Isle of Sheppey before raiding England. There then followed a relatively peaceful period in which the Vikings raided England only once.
However the Danes eventually stopped raiding and turned to conquest. In the autumn of 865, an army of Danes landed in East Anglia. In the following year, 866, they captured York. The Northumbrians attacked the Vikings occupying York in 867 but they were defeated. The Danes then installed a man named Egbert as the puppet ruler of Northumbria. The Danes then marched south and they spent the winter of 867 in Nottingham. In 869 they marched to Thetford in East Anglia. In the spring of 870, they crushed an army of East Anglians.
The Danes were now in control of Northumbria, part of Mercia and East Anglia. They then turned their attention to Wessex. At the end of 870, they captured Reading. The men of Wessex won a victory at Ashdown. However, the Danes then won two battles, at Basing and at an unidentified location.
Then in the spring of 871 Alfred became king of Wessex. He became known as Alfred the Great. The Saxons and the Danes fought several battles during 871 but the Danes were unable to break Saxon resistance so they made a peace treaty and the Danes turned their attention to the other parts of England. In 873 they attacked the unoccupied part of Mercia. The Mercian king fled and was replaced by a puppet ruler. Afterward, Wessex remained the only independent Saxon kingdom.
In 875 a Danish army invaded Wessex again. However, they were unable to conquer Wessex so in 877 they withdrew to Gloucester. In 878 they launched a surprise attack on Chippenham. King Alfred was forced to flee and hide in the marshes of Athelney. Alfred fought a guerrilla war for some months then took on the Danes in battle. The Danes were routed at the battle of Edington. Afterward, Guthrum, the Danish leader, and his men were baptized and made a treaty with Alfred. They split southern and central England between them. Guthrum took London, East Anglia, and all the territory east of the old Roman road, Watling Street. Later this Danish kingdom became known as the Danelaw. Alfred took the land west of Watling Street and southern England. However, in 886 Alfreds men captured London.
Moreover, the wars with the Danes were not over. In 892 some Danes who had been attacking France turned their attention to Kent. In 893 the Saxons defeated them and they withdrew into Essex (part of the Danelaw). Meanwhile, in 893 another group of Danes sailed to Devon and laid siege to Exeter. They withdrew in 894. They sailed to Sussex and landed near Chichester. This time the local Saxons marched out and utterly defeated them in battle. The war with the Danes continued in 895-896. Danes from the Danelaw marched into what is now Shropshire but they were forced to withdraw. There then followed a few years of peace.
During his reign, Alfred reorganized the defense of his realm. He created a fleet of ships to fight the Danes at sea. (It was the first English navy). He also created a network of forts across his kingdom called burhs. Finally, Alfred died in 899. And he was succeeded by his son Edward.
In the mid-9th century there were 4 Saxon kingdoms, Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia and Wessex. By the end of the century, there was the only one left, Wessex. In the 10th century, Wessex gradually expanded and took over all the Danish territory. So a single united England was created. The process began under King Edward. The treaty of Wedmore in 879 gave King Alfred control over western Mercia. However, the people of that area still saw themselves as Mercians, not Saxons or Englishmen. In time they merged with the people of Wessex. Meanwhile, in 915-918 King Egbert defeated the Danes of Eastern England. He took control of all England south of the River Humber. By 954 all of England was ruled by Alfred the Greats descendants.
In the late 10th century England enjoyed a respite from Danish raids. England was peaceful although a young king, Edward, was murdered at Corfe in Dorset in 978. His brother Aethelred replaced him. Despite this, in the late 10th century there was a religious revival in England. A man named Dunstan (c.1020-1088) was Archbishop of Canterbury. He reformed the monasteries. Many new churches and monasteries were built.
Then in 980 the Danes started raiding England again. The Saxons paid the Danes to stop raiding and return home. However the amount the Danes demanded increased each time. In 991 they were paid 10,000 pounds to go home. In 1002 they were paid 24,000 pounds in 1007 they were paid 36,000 pounds. England was drained of its resources by paying these huge sums of money called Danegeld (Dane gold).
King Aethelred or Ethelred also, stupidly, enraged the Danes by ordering the massacre of Danes living in his realm. He was persuaded they were plotting against him and he ordered his people to kill them on 13 November 1002. This terrible crime, the St Brice’s Day Massacre ensured that the Danes had a personal hostility towards him.
Eventually the Danes turned to conquest. In 1013 the Danish king Sweyn invaded England. His fleet sailed up the River Humber and along the River Trent to Gainsborough. The people of northern England welcomed him. Swein marched south and captured more and more of England. King Ethelred fled abroad. Swein was on the verge of becoming king of England when he died in February 1014.
Incredibly some of the English invited Ethelred back (provided he agreed to rule more justly). When he arrived the Danes withdrew. However, they were soon back. In 1015 Swein’s son Canute or Cnut led an expedition to England and occupied southern England. Ethelred finally died in April 1016.
There was then a struggle between Canute and Ethelred’s son Edmund, known as Edmund Ironside. The people of the Danelaw accepted Canute as king but London supported Edmund. England was split between the two contestants. They fought at Ashingdon in Essex. Canute won the battle but he was not strong enough to capture all of England. Instead, he made peace with Edmund. Canute took the north and midlands while Edmund took the south.
However, Edmund conveniently died in November 1016 and Canute became king of all England. Canute turned out to be a good king. Under his rule trade grew rapidly and England became richer. When Canute died in 1035 England was stable and prosperous. Canute also divided England into four Earldoms, Northumbria, East Anglia, Mercia, and Wessex. Each earl was very powerful.
Unfortunately, after Canute’s death, there were seven years of fighting over who would rule England. Then in 1042 Edward, known as Edward the Confessor became king. During his reign, which lasted until 1066 England grew increasingly prosperous. Trade grew and English towns flourished. England was stable and well-governed. Edward also built Westminster Abbey. However, Edward’s mother was Norman and Norman influence was increasing in England. The next king, Harold, was to be the last Saxon king.
Edward the Confessor died without leaving an heir. William Duke of Normandy claimed that Edward once promised him he would be the next king of England. He also claimed that Harold had sworn an oath to support him after Edwards’s death. If Harold ever swore such an oath it was only because he had been shipwrecked off the Norman coast and was coerced into swearing an oath. In Anglo Saxon times the crown was not necessarily hereditary. A body of men called the Witan played a role in choosing the next king. Nobody could become king without the Witan’s support. In January 1066, after Edward’s death, the Witan chose Harold, Earl of Wessex, to be the next king. Duke William of Normandy would have to obtain the crown by force.
However William was not the only contestant for the throne. Harald Hardrada, king of Norway, also claimed it. He sailed to Yorkshire with 10,000 men in 300 ships. The Earls of Northumbria and Mercia attacked him but they were defeated. However, King Harold marched north with another army. He took the Norwegians by surprise and routed them at Stamford Bridge on 25 September 1066. That ended any threat from Norway.
Meanwhile the Normans built a fleet of ships to transport their men and horses across the Channel. They landed in Sussex at the end of September. the Normans then plundered English farms for food. They also burned houses. Harold rushed to the south coast. He arrived with his men on 13 October.
The Anglo Saxon army was made up of the housecarls, the king’s bodyguard. They fought on foot with axes. They wore coats of chainmail called hauberks. Kite-shaped shields protected them. However, most Anglo Saxon soldiers had no armor only axes and spears, and round shields. They fought on foot. Their normal tactic was to form a ‘shield-wall’ by standing side by side. However, the Anglo Saxons had no archers.
The Norman army was much more up to date. Norman knights fought on horseback. They wore chainmail and carried kite-shaped shields. They fought with lances, swords, and maces. Some Normans fought on foot protected by chainmail, helmets, and shields. The Normans also had a force of archers.
The battle of Hastings was fought on 14 October 1066. The Anglo Saxons were assembled on Senlac Hill. The Normans formed below them. Both armies were divided into 3 wings. William also divided his army into 3 ranks. At the front were archers, in the middle soldiers on foot then mounted knights.
The Norman archers advanced and loosed their arrows but they had little effect. The foot soldiers advanced but they were repulsed. The mounted knights then charged but they were unable to break the Anglo Saxon shield wall. Then the Anglo Saxons made a disastrous mistake. Foot soldiers and knights from Brittany fled. Some of the Anglo Saxons broke formation and followed them. The Normans then turned and attacked the pursuing Anglo Saxons. They annihilated them. According to a writer called William of Poitiers, the Anglo Saxons made the same mistake twice. Seeing Normans flee for a second time some men followed. The Normans turned and destroyed them. The battle was now lost. Harold was killed with all his housecarls. The surviving Saxons melted away. William captured Dover and Canterbury. Finally, he captured London and he was crowned king of England on 25 December 1066. The Anglo-Saxon era was over.
England in the Middle Ages
William, Duke of Normandy, was crowned King of England on 25 December 1066. However, at first, his position was by no means secure. He had only several thousand men to control a population of about 2 million. Furthermore, Swein, king of Denmark also claimed the throne of England. At first, the Normans were hated invaders and they had to hold down a resentful Saxon population.
One method the Normans used to control the Saxons was building castles. They erected a mound of earth called a motte. On top, they erected a wooden stockade. Around the bottom, they erected another stockade. The area within was called the bailey so it was called a motte and bailey castle.
The Normans soon began building stone castles. In 1078 William began building the Tower of London. William stayed in Normandy from March to December 1067. When he returned to England his first task was to put down an uprising in the Southwest. He laid siege to Exeter. Eventually, the walled town surrendered on honorable terms.
Although Southern England was now under Norman control the Midlands and North were a different matter. In 1068 William marched north through Warwick and Nottingham to York. The people of York submitted to him- for the moment and William returned to London via Cambridge and York.
However in January 1069 the people of Yorkshire and Northumberland rebelled. William rushed north and crushed the rebellion However the rising in the north fanned the flames of rebellion elsewhere. There were local risings in Somerset and Dorset. There was also a rebellion in the West Midlands. Furthermore, a Saxon called Edgar, the grandson of Edmund Ironside, a previous Saxon ruler led a force of Irishmen to North Devon. However local Norman commanders crushed the uprisings and drove out the Irish.
It was not over yet. In the autumn of 1069, King Sweyn of Denmark sent an expedition to England. When the Danes arrived in Yorkshire the local people rose in rebellion once again. William marched north and captured York. The Danes withdrew from northern England. This time William adopted a scorched earth policy. William was determined there would not be any more rebellions in the north. In 1069-1070 his men burned houses, crops, and tools between the Humber and Durham. They also slaughtered livestock. There followed years of famine in the north when many people starved to death. This terrible crime was called the harrying of the north and it took the north of England years to recover.
Meanwhile the Danes sailed south. They plundered Peterborough and took the Isle of Ely as a base. Many Saxons joined the Danes. These Saxon rebels were led by a man called Hereward the Wake.
However in June 1070 King William made a treaty with King Sweyn and the Danes left. The Saxons kept on fighting in the Fens but by 1071 they were forced to surrender. Hereward escaped. William was now in control of all of England
After the Norman Conquest almost all Saxon nobles lost their land. William confiscated it and gave it to his own followers. They held their land in return for providing soldiers for the king for so many days a year. William also changed the church in England. In those days the church was rich and powerful and the king needed its support. William replaced senior Saxon clergymen with men loyal to himself. Lanfranc, an Italian, replaced Stigand, the Saxon Archbishop of Canterbury. (With the agreement of the Pope). Lanfranc then deposed Saxon bishops and abbots and replaced them with Normans. Among the lower ranks of society, there were also changes. In the late Saxon times, the peasants were losing their freedom. This process continued under the Normans. On the other hand, slavery declined. (It died out by the middle of the 12th century).
In 1085 William decided to carry out a huge survey of his kingdom to find out how much wealth it contained. The result was the Domesday Book of 1086. William died in 1087 and he was succeeded by his son, also called William (he is sometimes called William Rufus because of his reddish complexion). His brother Robert became Duke of Normandy. William the Conqueror was a ruthless man. However, a writer of the time did say this about him; ‘he kept good law’. The eleventh century was a lawless age when a strong ruler who kept order was admired.
Rufus was definitely not a supporter of the church and was deeply unpopular with the clergy. Among other things, they criticized him and his courtiers for having long hair. (In his father’s day short hair was the fashion). The clergy thought long hair was effeminate.
However in many ways Rufus was a capable king. Under him, the barons were in an awkward position because most of them held land in Normandy as well as in England. Many of them wanted a single man to rule both. So in 1088, there was a rebellion in eastern England. The rebels hoped to dispose of Rufus and make his brother Robert ruler of both England and Normandy. However, Rufus crushed the rebellion. A second rebellion in 1095 was also crushed.
Meanwhile, Rufus captured the area we now called Cumbria from the Scots (until his reign it was part of Scotland). Rufus also forced the Scottish king to submit to him as his feudal overlord. William Rufus was hit by an arrow while hunting in the New Forest. We will never know for certain if it was an accident or (as seems more likely) he was murdered.
England in the 12th century
Following the ‘accidental’ death of William Rufus his brother Henry seized the royal treasure in Winchester and was crowned king of England. His brother Robert became Duke of Normandy. Henry, I was born in 1068 and he was well educated. When he seized the throne he issued a charter promising to rule justly. He also gained favor with his Saxon subjects by marrying Edith, a descendant of Edmund Ironside. Very importantly he also had the support of the church.
Henry proved to be a capable monarch. He also had many illegitimate children but he only had one legitimate son called William. In 1119 the king of France recognized William as the heir to the English throne and heir to the Dukedom of Normandy. However, William drowned in 1120 when his ship, the white ship, sank. Henry was left without an heir. Before he died in 1135 Henry made the barons promise to accept his daughter Matilda as queen.
However when Henry died in 1135 his nephew Stephen also claimed the throne and many barons supported him. Matilda was abroad when her father died and Stephen was crowned king of England. Yet Matilda would not give up her claim to the throne and she had many supporters too. As a result, a long civil war began which went on till 1154. These years were called the ‘nineteen long winters’. Fighting only ended when, shortly before his death, Stephen agreed to recognize Matilda’s son Henry as his heir. Following Stephen’s death in 1154 Matilda’s son became King Henry II. He proved to be a strong and capable ruler.
Henry II was the first Plantagenet king. He was born at Le Mans in France in 1133. He was a highly educated man known for his violent temper. However, Henry did not just rule England. He also ruled large parts of France. From 1150 he was Duke of Normandy. From 1151 he was Count of Anjou. By marrying Eleanor of Aquitaine he became the lord of that part of France. Later he also became ruler of Brittany. As an adult, Henry spent more time in France than he did in England.
Henry proved to be a strong king. During the long civil war, many barons had built illegal castles. Henry had them demolished. Furthermore, Henry reformed the law. He appointed judges who traveled around the country holding trials called assizes for serious offenses. However, clergymen had the right to be tried in their own courts. The penalties were often very lenient. Henry felt that was unfair and he tried to force the clergy to allow themselves to be tried in his courts. Not surprisingly they resisted. So Henry made his friend Thomas Becket Archbishop of Canterbury. However, as soon as Becket was appointed he refused to submit to the king’s wishes.
According to tradition in 1170, while Henry was in Normandy he lost his temper and shouted ‘will no-one rid me of this turbulent priest?’. Four knights took him at his word and they went to England and killed Becket in Canterbury Cathedral. Public opinion was horrified by the murder. Eventually, Henry was forced to do penance. He walked barefoot through Canterbury while monks lashed his bareback.
Henry also had trouble from his sons because he refused to give them any real power. In 1173-74 Henry faced a rebellion by his four eldest sons assisted by their mother. Henry put down the rebellions and he forgave his sons. However, his wife was held a prisoner for the rest of Henry’s reign. In 1189 Henry faced another rebellion. This time his youngest son, John joined the rebellion. That broke his heart and Henry died in 1189.
Richard I was born in 1157. In his own time, he was a popular king because he was a successful warrior. However, he neglected his kingdom to fight in foreign wars.
Saladin had captured Jerusalem in 1187 and Richard was determined to win it back. He left England as soon as he could in 1190. He arrived in the Holy Land in 1191. Richard had some success but he failed to capture Jerusalem, the main prize. In 1192 he made a treaty with Saladin. However, on his journey home, he was imprisoned by the Duke of Austria. Richard’s subjects were forced to pay a huge ransom to release him (in 1194). After his release, Richard returned to England but he soon left for Normandy. He never saw England again. While besieging a castle Richard was hit by a crossbow bolt. He died in 1199 and was followed by his brother John.
England in the 13th Century
King John proved to be a failure. Between 1202 and 1204 the king of France managed to capture most of the lands in France held by John. Afterward, John was given the nickname soft sword. He also, in 1205, began an argument with the Pope over who should be the new Archbishop of Canterbury, John’s choice or the Pope’s. As a result in 1208, the Pope place England under an interdict, which meant that religious services could not be held. In 1209 he excommunicated John. Finally, in 1213, John was forced to submit.
Meanwhile John alienated many of his subjects. They claimed that he ruled like a tyrant ignoring feudal law. He was accused of extorting money from people, selling offices, increasing taxes, and creating new ones whenever he wished. Matters came to a head after John tried to recapture his lost lands in France in 1214 but failed. The baron’s patience was exhausted. Finally in 1215 civil war broke out.
In June 1215 John was forced to accept a charter known as Magna Carta. The charter was meant to stop the abuses. It stated that the traditional rights and privileges of the church must be upheld. It also protected the rights and privileges of the aristocracy. Merchants who lived in towns were also mentioned. However ordinary people were overlooked.
Yet Magna Carta did uphold an important principle. English kings could not rule arbitrarily. They had to obey English laws and English customs the same as other men. Furthermore, Magna Carta laid down that no free man could be arrested, imprisoned, or dispossessed without the lawful judgment of his peers or without due process of law.
John had no intention of keeping the terms of Magna Carta so he appealed to the Pope. On 24 August 1215, the Pope declared the Magna Carta invalid. The result was a civil war in England. barons invited a French prince to come and rule England. However, John conveniently died in October 1216. After his death, Magna Carta was reissued.
John was succeeded by his nephew Henry. He was crowned in great haste in Gloucester by the Bishop of Winchester. (The Archbishop of Canterbury was in Rome). Henry III was only 9 years old in 1216 and at first two regents ruled on his behalf. The first problem was the French prince Louis, who had been invited by rebel barons to come and be king of England. However, in 1217 Louis was forced to leave.
Henry began to rule in his own right in 1227 and he soon alienated the barons by ignoring their traditional rights and privileges. Worse, in 1254 the pope was fighting in Sicily. Henry III offered to fund the pope’s wars if the pope agreed to let his son, Edmund, become king of Sicily. The pope agreed but Henry failed to provide the promised money.
In 1258 he turned to his barons for help. They were infuriated by his scheming and refused to do anything unless Henry agreed to a new charter known as the Provisions of Oxford. At first, Henry reluctantly agreed but in 1260 he renounced the provisions. Civil war resulted and in 1264 rebels led by Simon de Montfort defeated and captured the king at the battle of Lewes. They also captured his eldest son Edward. Simon de Montfort called a parliament made up of representatives from each county and each borough. It was the first English parliament.
However Edward escaped and in 1265 he defeated the barons at the Battle of Evesham in Worcestershire. By then Henry was becoming senile so Edward took control of the government until his father’s death in 1272. Although he was not a great king politically Henry III was a patron of the arts. He rebuilt Westminster Abbey. Furthermore, during his reign England’s first university, Oxford, was founded.
Edward I was 33 when he became king. He had already taken part in a crusade in 1270-71 and was gaining a reputation as a warrior. However, Edward was determined to rule not only England but also all of Britain. Llewellyn the Prince of Wales was summoned to pay homage to King Edward several times but each time he made some excuse. In 1276 Edward declared him a rebel and sent an army to Wales. In 1277 Llewellyn was forced to accept a peace treaty by which he lost much of his territory. In 1282 the Welsh rebelled but in 1283 the rebellion was crushed and Edward became the ruler of Wales. In 1301 Edward made his son Prince of Wales.
In 1290 Edward expelled all Jews from England. Also in 1290, Queen Eleanor died at Harby in Nottinghamshire. Edward erected crosses at each of the places where her coffin rested on its way to Westminster Abbey.
In 1286 King Alexander III of Scotland died. His heir was his 2-year-old granddaughter. However, she died in 1290 leaving the Scottish throne vacant. There were two claimants, John Balliol, and Robert Bruce. King Edward (also known as Longshanks because of his height) offered to mediate and decide who should rule. He chose John Balliol. However, Edward was determined to make the Scottish king his vassal. Naturally, the Scots objected. So in 1296, Edward invaded Scotland. He defeated the Scots and deposed John. William Wallace led another rebellion in Scotland in 1297 but he was captured and executed in 1305.
Meanwhile in England Edward called the model parliament in 1290. As well as lords it contained 2 knights from each shire and 2 representatives of each borough. Edward I died of dysentery in 1307. He was 68.
England in the 14th Century
From the start Edward II alienated the barons by showering gifts and honors on his or lover Piers Gaveston. As soon as he became king Edward made Gaveston Earl of Cornwall (a title with rich estates). Normally a member of the royal family was given the title and the barons were very annoyed. Furthermore in 1307 Gaveston married the king’s niece.
In 1308 Edward II married Princess Isabella of France in Boulogne. However, before he left the country for France Edward made Gaveston regent to rule England in his absence. Twice the barons forced Edward to banish Gaveston but both times he returned. Finally, in 1312 some barons kidnapped Gaveston and had him beheaded. In 1314 Edward II suffered a total defeat at the hands of the Scots at Bannockburn. The battle assured Scottish independence and in 1323 Edward was forced to make a truce with the Scots.
Finally, Edward alienated the barons by having an affair with a young man called Hugh Despenser. Isabella fled to France. With her lover Roger Mortimer, a rebel English Earl she plotted her husband’s downfall. In 1326 Isabella and Roger led an army from France. The English people welcomed them. Hugh Despenser was hung, drawn, and quartered and King Edward II was made a prisoner. In January 1327 Edward abdicated in favor of his son.
Meanwhile on 1 February 1327 his son Edward III was crowned. However, he did not rule until 1330 when he staged a coup. In October, with friends, he entered Nottingham Castle through a secret tunnel. He entered his mother’s bedroom and arrested her lover Mortimer.
In 1337 Edward claimed the throne of France. War began in 1338. The French raided Southampton. Then on 24 July 1340, the English annihilated the French fleet off Sluys. English longbowmen rained arrows down onto the French sailors. Men with swords, axes, and spears fought hand to hand. To finance his wars the king had to raise taxes and to do that he needed parliament’s co-operation. As a result, parliament became more powerful during his reign. In 1340 the Commons and the Lords began meeting separately.
Edward continued to have success in war. On 26 August 1346, the French were severely defeated at Crecy. Then on 17 October 1346, the Scots were severely defeated at Neville’s Cross near Durham. The English army was led by William La Zouche, Archbishop of York, and David II of Scotland was captured.
In 1348-49 disaster struck. The Black Death reached England and it killed about 1/3 of the population. Afterward, there was a severe shortage of labor and as a result, wages rose. Men began to move from village to village to get better wages, undermining the institution of serfdom. Parliament tried to peg wages at their 1349 level. The measure did not work and only caused resentment among the peasants.
One of the victims of the plague was the king’s daughter, Princess Joan, who died in Bordeaux. The Black Death was no respecter of persons. The history of plague Despite his loss King Edward continued to beat the French. On 19 September 1346, the English won another decisive victory at Poitiers and the French king was captured. In 1360 the French were made to accept a humiliating peace treaty and pay a ransom for their king. Finally, Edward III died in 1377. He was 65.
Richard II was just 10 years old when he was crowned.
In 1381 he was faced with the peasants revolt. It was sparked off by a poll tax. On 13 June the rebels marched on London and sympathizers opened the gates to them. The king and his ministers took refuge in the Tower of London while the rebels opened the prisons and looted the house of John of Gaunt, an unpopular noble. On 14 June the king met the rebels at Moorfield and made them various promises, none of which he kept.
The next day the king went to mass at Westminster and while he was away the rebels broke into the Tower of London and killed the Archbishop of Canterbury and several royal officials who had taken refuge there. They confronted the king on his way back from mass. The mayor of London stabbed the leader of the rebels, Wat Tyler fearing he was going to attack the king. Afterward, the king managed to calm the rebels and persuaded them to go home by making various promises. The rebels demanded the end of serfdom. At first, the king promised to grant it. However, as soon as the rebels dispersed he broke all his promises. About 200 of the ringleaders were hanged. However, serfdom continued to decline of its own accord and by the 15th century, it had virtually disappeared.
The powerful men in England hated Richard’s close friends. In 1388 the so-called Merciless Parliament had several of them executed. However, in 1397 Richard II got his revenge. He executed two of his enemies. In 1398 he banished Henry Bolingbroke, Earl of Hereford. However, in 1398 Richard went to Ireland and while he was away Bolingbroke staged a coup. Richard II was deposed in 1399 and Bolingbroke then became Henry IV.
England in the 15th Century
Henry IV reigned until 1413. It was a troubled reign. Henry IV faced a major revolt in Wales at the beginning of the 15th century, which he eventually crushed.
His son, Henry V, succeeded him. This king claimed the throne of France and in 1415 he went to war. On 25 October 1415, the English won a decisive victory at Agincourt. In 1416 the Battle of the Seine gave the English control of the Channel. Henry was a hero to his people. however, he was cruel. He used cruelty to try and force the French into submission. In 1418 Henry captured Caen and his men massacred 2,000 civilians. Henry once said ‘war without fire is like sausage without mustard’.
In 1419 Henry V captured Rouen, the capital of Normandy and by the treaty of Troyes, 1420, he was recognized as heir to the French throne. However, Henry died in 1422. After his death, the French began to win the war. In 1429 Joan of Arc lifted the siege of Orleans. This proved to be a turning point and afterward English fortunes waned. In 1443 Henry VI sent the Duke of Somerset to France with an army and told him to use ‘most cruel and mortal war’. However, by 1453 the English had been driven out of all of France except Calais.
Worse England was plunged into a series of civil wars called the Wars of the Roses. In 1454 Edward VI was mentally ill and was incapable of ruling. The Duke of York became regent. However, at the end of 1454 Edward VI recovered and in January 1455 York was forced to step down as regent.
However, York was unwilling to give up power and he gathered an army. On 22 May 1455, the forces of York (known as Yorkists) and the forces of the King (known as Lancastrians) fought a battle at St Albans. Afterward, the king was taken prisoner and the Yorkists ruled in his name. (The Yorkist symbol was the white rose and the Lancastrian symbol was the red rose hence the name of the wars).
However in 1459 the queen gathered an army to fight the Yorkists. The two sides clashed in September 1459. Afterward, the Yorkists took Ludlow. However when they were offered a pardon most of the Yorkist soldiers deserted and their leaders fled abroad. In November 1459 Parliament condemned the Yorkist leaders as traitors (meaning the crown would confiscate their property).
Not surprisingly the Yorkist leaders returned to England with an army in June 1460. They landed at Sandwich and many people in Kent and London went over to their side. They fought a battle at Northampton on 10 July 1460 and captured Henry VI. However, in 1461 Queen Margaret, Henry’s wife won a battle at Wakefield on 30 December 1460. The Duke of York was killed. Edward of March took over the Yorkist cause and he proclaimed himself Edward IV on 4 March 1461. He won a great victory at Towton on 29 March 1461 and for some years his rule was secure.
However Edward alienated his supporter the Earl of Warwick (The Kingmaker) by not allowing him enough power. Warwick turned against him and won a battle at Edgecote on 26 July 1469. In 1470 Edward was forced to flee abroad but he returned the next year. Yorkists and Lancastrians fought at Tewkesbury on 4 May 1471. The battle proved to be a great Yorkist victory. Afterward, Edward ruled unchallenged until his death in 1483.
He was succeeded by his 12-year-old son Edward V. However before he could be crowned the Bishop of Bath and Wells announced that this parents marriage was invalid. Edward was therefore illegitimate and he could not inherit the throne. Both Edward and his younger brother Richard were imprisoned in the tower and later murdered.
Meanwhile, the throne was offered to his uncle who became Richard III. However, Richard’s position was undermined when his only son Eustace died. Henry Tudor landed in Wales and led his army to Bosworth field where Richard III was killed in battle. A new dynasty began.
Henry Tudor (1457-1509) was crowned Henry VII on 30 October 1485. In January 1486 he married Elizabeth of York, daughter of Edward IV, uniting the dynasties of York and Lancaster. However, the Yorkists were unwilling to accept the situation. In 1487 they attempted a rebellion. They claimed that a man named Lambert Simnel was Earl of Warwick and tried to put him on the throne. The Yorkists gathered an army in Ireland and landed in Cumbria.
However, they were crushed at the battle of Stoke Field on 16 June 1487. Simnel was captured. Henry VII could have executed him but instead, he made Simnel a menial servant in the royal kitchens.
Henry VII invaded France in 1492 but the French were preoccupied elsewhere and they quickly made peace. By a treaty of November 1492, they agreed to pay the English money and the French king agreed not to support any pretenders to the English throne.
Afterward, Henry VII followed a policy of peace with France. Wars were expensive and Henry was a prudent man who avoided extravagant expenditure. Henry also strengthened the government by creating the Court of Star Chamber (so-called because it met in a room with stars painted on the ceiling). The court dealt with ‘unlawful maintenance, giving of licenses, signs and tokens, great riots, unlawful assemblies’.
Then in 1497 Henry VII faced two rebellions. First rebels from the West Country marched on London. However, they were crushed by a royal army at Blackheath on 17 June 1497. Later that year a man named Perkin Warbeck claimed to be Richard, the nephew of Richard III (one of the two princes who was murdered in the Tower of London). He called himself Richard IV. He landed in Cornwall in September 1497. However royal forces quickly defeated the rebellion and Warbeck was captured in October. He was finally executed in 1499.
Meanwhile Henry VII was keen to make an alliance with Spain. In 1501 his oldest son Arthur married Catherine of Aragon. However, Arthur died in April 1502. Henry VII’s son Henry now became heir to the throne. Henry married Catherine of Aragon, his brother’s widow on 11 June 1509. Normally such a marriage would not have been allowed but the Pope gave a special dispensation. Meanwhile, in 1503 Henry VII’s daughter Margaret married James IV of Scotland.
Among his other achievements, Henry VII began the dockyard in Portsmouth. He also financed an expedition by Cabot to the New World. In 1497 Cabot found rich fishing grounds off Newfoundland. Henry VII died on 21 April 1509.
England in the 16th Century
Henry was a clever and active young man. He spoke Latin and French fluently. He also performed and composed music. He was good at tennis, wrestling, and casting the bar (throwing an iron bar). Henry also enjoyed hunting, jousting, and hawking. He also liked archery and bowling.
Henry was also keen to revive the glories of the previous centuries when England conquered much of France. In 1511 he launched a warship the Mary Rose. In 1514 he launched the Henry Grace a Dieu. In 1512 he went to war with the French. In August 1513 the English won the Battle of the Spurs. (It was so-called because the French cavalry fled without fighting). However, in 1514 Henry made peace with the French and his sister Mary married the king of France.
Meanwhile, the Scots invaded England to support their French allies. However, the Scots were crushed at the battle of Flodden and their king was killed.
In 1515 the Pope made Thomas Wolsey (1474-1530) a Cardinal. The same year the king made him Chancellor. In 1520 Henry met the king of France at the Field of the Cloth of Gold. Determined to impress the French king Henry had a temporary palace made and it was decorated with very expensive velvet, satin, and cloth of gold. Not to be outdone the French king erected tents of gold brocade.
At the beginning of 1511, Henry had a son. Unfortunately, the boy died after only 7 weeks. Catherine had four miscarriages and she only had one child who lived – a girl named Mary born in 1516. Henry was desperate to have a son and heir and Catherine could not give him one.
Henry came to believe that God was punishing him for marrying his brother’s widow. Normally that would not have been allowed but the Pope granted him a special dispensation. Henry now argued that the marriage to Catherine was not valid and should be annulled (declared null and void). Not surprisingly Catherine was totally opposed to any move to dissolve the marriage. Henry asked the Pope to annul the marriage.
However, the Pope would not cooperate. (He could not because Catherine’s uncle Charles V of Spain had captured Rome and the pope was his prisoner). In 1529 he formed an ecclesiastical court headed by Cardinals Wolsey and Campeggio to look into the matter. However, the court could not reach a verdict.
In the autumn of 1529 Henry sacked Wolsey and banished him to York. In 1530 Wolsey was accused of treason and was summoned to London to answer the charges but he died on the way. Thomas More replaced him as chancellor. More ruthlessly persecuted Protestants. More also strongly opposed the proposed relaxation of the anti-heresy laws. In 1530 a Protestant named Thomas Hitton was burned at Maidstone in Kent. Thomas More called him ‘the Devil’s stinking martyr’. However More resigned in 1532 and he was replaced by Thomas Cromwell.
Meanwhile in 1527 Henry began a relationship with Anne Boleyn. Henry was keen to get rid of Catherine and marry Anne. In 1529 Henry called the ‘Reformation Parliament’. Ties between England and Rome were cut one by one. Finally, he lost patience with the Pope and rejected his authority. In 1533 he obtained a decree of nullity from Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury. (He had already secretly married Anne Boleyn).
However Anne had two miscarriages. Henry tired of her and in April 1536 she was accused of committing adultery with 5 men, including her own brother. Anne and the five men were all executed in May 1536. Immediately afterward Henry married Jane Seymour. Jane did give Henry one son, Edward, but she died on 24 October 1537, leaving Henry devastated.
Meanwhile in 1534 the Act of Supremacy made Henry the head of the Church of England. The same year the Act of Succession was passed. It declared that Anne Boleyn’s child would be heir to the throne. Although Henry broke with Rome he kept the Catholic religion essentially intact. However, in 1538 Chancellor Thomas Cromwell did make some minor reforms. In 1538 he ordered that every church should have an English translation of the Bible. He also ordered that any idolatrous images should be removed from churches.
Nevertheless, in 1539 Henry passed the Act of Six Articles, which laid down the beliefs of the Church of England. The Six Articles preserved the old religion mainly intact. However, from 1545 Latin, a language that ordinary people could not understand was replaced by English as the language of church services.
Meanwhile, Henry dissolved the monasteries in England. Parliament agreed to dissolve the small ones in 1536. The large ones followed in 1539-1540. The monks were given pensions and many of them married and learned trades. many monastery buildings became manor houses. Others were dismantled and their stones were used for other buildings. The vast estates owned by the monasteries were sold and fearing foreign invasion Henry used the wealth to build a network of new castles around the coast.
Yet the changes made by Henry caused resentment in some areas. In 1536 a rebellion began in Louth in Lincolnshire. (Although it was sparked off by religion the rebels had other grievances). The rebels marched to Doncaster but no pitched battles were fought between them and the royal forces. Instead, Henry persuaded them to disperse by making various promises. However, in 1537 Henry hanged the leaders.
Meanwhile Henry looked for another wife. Chancellor Cromwell suggested making an alliance with the Duchy of Cleves. The Duke of Cleves had two sisters and Henry sent the painter Holbein to make portraits of them both. After seeing a portrait of Anne of Cleves Henry decided to marry her. However, when Henry met Anne for the first time he was repulsed.
Nevertheless, Henry married her in January 1540 but the marriage was not consummated. Henry divorced Anne six months later but she was given a generous settlement of houses and estates. Anne of Cleves lived quietly until her death in 1557.
Cromwell was accused of treason and executed in July 1540.
Next, in 1540, Henry married Catherine Howard. However, in December 1541 Henry was given proof that Catherine was unfaithful. Catherine was beheaded on 13 February 1542. Then in 1543 Henry married Catherine Parr (1512-1548).
Meanwhile in 1536 Henry had an accident jousting. Afterward, he stopped taking exercise and became obese. Worse a painful ulcer appeared on his leg, which his doctors could not cure. Nevertheless, Henry went to war again. In 1542 he crushed the Scots at Solway Moss. In 1543 Henry went to war with the French. He captured Boulogne but was forced to return to England to deal with the threat of French invasion. The French sent a fleet to the Solent (between Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight). They also landed men on the Isle of Wight. In a naval battle, the Mary Rose was lost but the French fleet was forced to withdraw.
Henry VIII died on 28 January 1547. He was 55.
Henry was succeeded by his 9-year-old son Edward. Since he was too young to rule his uncle, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, was made protector and ruled England in his stead. Somerset was a devout Protestant as was Archbishop Cranmer. They began to turn England into a truly Protestant country. The Act of Six Articles was repealed and in 1549 the first Book of Common Prayer, the first Anglican prayer book was issued. Meanwhile, priests were allowed to marry and pictures or statues of Mary or the saints were removed from churches.
Unfortunately England now faced an economic crisis. There was rapid inflation in the mid-16th century. Also, the population was rising. In the 15th century, there was a shortage of workers, which pushed wages up. In the 16th century, the situation was reversed and laborer’s wages fell. In 1549 Edward faced two rebellions. In parts of the Southwest, the changes in religion provoked the so-called Prayer Book Rebellion. In Norfolk, economic grievances led to a rebellion led by Robert Kett (the rebels took control of Norwich). However, both rebellions were crushed.
The rebellions led to the fall of Somerset. He was replaced by the ruthless John Dudley, Earl of Warwick (later Duke of Northumberland). The unfortunate Somerset was sent to the tower and in January 1552 he was executed on a trumped-up charge of treason. In 1552 a second prayer book was issued. This one was more radical than the first.
Meanwhile, England fought the Scots again. Henry VIII had suggested that his son Edward should marry the king of Scotland’s daughter, Mary. However, the Scottish king rejected the idea. Somerset revived the plan and he sent an army to Scotland to force the Scots to agree. The English won a battle at Pinkie Cleugh, near Edinburgh, in 1547. However, the Scots simply sent 6-year-old Mary to France to marry the French king’s son.
However, Edward was sickly and it was clear he was not going to live long. The Duke of Northumberland was alarmed as the next in line for the throne, Henry’s daughter Mary, was a Catholic. Northumberland married his son to Lady Jane Grey, a descendant of Henry VII’s sister Mary. When Edward died in 1553 Northumberland had Lady Jane Grey crowned queen. However, the people rose in favor of Mary and Lady Jane Grey was imprisoned.
When she became queen Mary was surprisingly lenient. The Duke of Northumberland was executed in August 1553. However, Lady Jane was, at first, spared. However, Mary married Philip of Spain in July 1554. The marriage was very unpopular and in Kent, Sir Thomas Wyatt led a rebellion. He was defeated but Mary was forced to execute Lady Jane, fearing her enemies might try and place Jane on the throne.
Mary was a devout Catholic and she detested the religious changes of Henry VIII and Edward VI. She was determined to undo them. Catholic mass was restored in December 1553. In 1554 married clergy were ordered to leave their wives or lose their posts. Then, in November 1554 the Act of Supremacy was repealed. In 1555 Mary began burning Protestants. The first was John Rogers who was burned on 4 February 1555. Over the next 3 years, nearly 300 Protestants were executed. (Most of them were from Southeast England where Protestantism had spread most widely). Many more Protestants fled abroad.
However Mary’s cruelty simply gained sympathy for the Protestants and alienated ordinary people. She simply drove people away from Roman Catholicism. Furthermore in 1557 England went to war with France. In 1558 the English lost Calais, which they had hung onto since the end of the Hundred Years War in 1453. It was a major blow to English prestige. Mary died on 17 November 1558. She was 42.
Elizabeth I was crowned in January 1559. She restored Protestantism to England. The Act of Supremacy was restored in April 1559 and further Acts replaced Catholic practices. All but one of the English bishops refused to take the Oath of Supremacy (recognizing Elizabeth as head of the Church of England) and were removed from their posts. About one-third of the parish clergy were also removed. However, most of the population accepted the religious settlement. People could be fined for not attending church. Nevertheless, some Catholics continued to practice their religion in secret.
In 1568 Mary Queen of Scots was forced to flee Scotland. She fled to England and Elizabeth held her prisoner for 19 years.
In November 1569 Catholics in the north of England rebelled. The Catholic rebels hoped to murder Elizabeth and replace her with Mary Queen of Scots. However, the uprising was quickly crushed and the last battle took place on 19 February 1570. Afterward many of the rebels were hanged. Meanwhile, in 1570, the pope issued a bull of excommunication and deposition. This papal document decreed that Elizabeth I was excommunicated (excluded from the church) and deposed. Her Catholic subjects no longer had to obey her.
In 1581 the fines for non-attendance at Church of England services (aimed at Catholics) were increased (although in some areas they were not imposed). In 1585 all Catholic priests were ordered to leave England within 40 days or face a charge of treason.
Meanwhile, in 1583 some Catholics attempted to murder the queen. However, the Throckmorton Plot as it was called was foiled. In 1586 came another Catholic plot to kill the queen, called the Babington Plot. It was also foiled. However, most English Catholics remained loyal to the Queen when the Spanish Armada sailed in 1588.
In 1562 John Hawkins started the English slave trade. He transported slaves from Guinea to the West Indies. However, in 1568 the Spaniards attacked Hawkins and his men while their ships were in a harbor in Mexico. Hawkins and his cousin Francis Drake then began an undeclared war against Spain. They attacked Spanish ships transporting treasure across the Atlantic and stole their cargoes. In the years 1577-1580 Drake led an expedition, which sailed around the world. Drake also stole huge amounts of gold and silver from the Spanish colonies but Elizabeth turned a blind eye. Meanwhile, the Spanish king ruled the Netherlands. However the Dutch turned Protestant and in 1568 they rebelled against the Catholic king’s rule. Elizabeth was reluctant to become involved but from 1578 onward the Spaniards were winning. In 1585 Elizabeth was forced to send an army to the Netherlands.
Then in 1586 there was a plot by Catholics to murder the queen called the Babington Conspiracy. Because of her involvement, Mary Queen of Scots was beheaded on 8 February 1587.
Meanwhile Philip II of Spain was planning to invade England. However, in April 1587 Drake sailed into Cadiz harbor and destroyed part of the fleet that was preparing to invade. Drake boasted that he had ‘singed the King of Spain’s beard’. Even so the next year the invasion fleet was ready and it sailed in July 1588. The Spanish Armada consisted of 130 ships and about 27,000 men. It was commanded by the Duke of Medina Sidonia. At that time the Spanish king ruled a large part of Northeast Europe. The plan was to send the Armada to Calais to meet a Spanish army grouped there. The Armada would then transport them to England. The English fleet was gathered at Plymouth. When the Spanish arrived they sailed in a crescent formation. The English harassed the Spanish ships from behind. In Drake’s words they ‘plucked the feathers’. However, the English were unable to do serious damage to the Armada until they reached Calais.
When the armada arrived the Spanish troops in Calais were not ready to embark and there was nothing the armada could do except wait at anchor in the harbor. However, the English prepared fire ships. They loaded ships with pitch and loaded guns which fired when the flames touched the gunpowder, and set them on fire then steered them towards the Spanish ships. In a panic, the Armada broke formation. Spanish ships scattered. Once the Spanish ships broke formation they were vulnerable and the English attacked doing considerable damage.
Finally, the Armada sailed north around Scotland and west of Ireland. However, they sailed into terrible storms and many of their remaining ships were wrecked. Eventually, the Spanish lost 53 ships. The English lost none. Despite the failure of the Armada, Spain remained a very powerful enemy. The war went on until 1604. Meanwhile Elizabeth I died on 24 March 1603.
England in the 17th Century
In 1603 King James VI of Scotland became King James I of England. He began a new dynasty – the Stuarts.
James I never had the same charisma as Elizabeth I and never enjoyed the same popularity. However, among his achievements, he ended the long war with Spain in 1604. He was also responsible for a new translation of the Bible, the King James Version, which was published in 1611.
Meanwhile in 1605 James survived an assassination attempt – The Gunpowder Plot
However King James came into conflict with parliament. The cost of government (and of fighting wars) was rising but the government’s income did not keep up. Rents from royal lands could only be raised when the lease ended. Parliament was therefore in a strong position. MPs could refuse to raise money for the king unless he bowed to their demands. So the king was forced to look for new ways to raise money.
The situation was complicated by disagreements over religion. Many MPs were puritans. They wished to ‘purify’ the Church of England of its remaining Catholic elements. Although he was a Protestant James disagreed with many of their views.
Furthermore James believed in the divine right of kings. In other words God had chosen him to rule. James was willing to work with parliament but he believed ultimate authority rested with him.
King James I died in 1625. He was 58. His son Charles followed him.
Like his, father Charles I was a firm believer in the divine right of kings. From the start he quarreled with parliament.
At the beginning of his reign Charles I married a French Roman Catholic princess, Henrietta Maria. However marrying a Catholic was very unpopular move with the Puritans.
King Charles also fought unsuccessful wars. In 1625 he sent an expedition to Cadiz, which ended in failure. Parliament strongly criticized his policies and refused to raise extra taxes to pay for the Spanish war.
Charles angrily dissolved parliament and raised money by levying forced loans. He imprisoned, without trial, anyone who refused to pay.
In 1627 an expedition was sent to La Rochelle in France. It was led by the king’s favorite the Duke of Buckingham and it ended in failure.
By 1628 the cost of wars meant Charles was desperate for money and he was forced to call parliament. This time MPs drew up the Petition of Right, which forbade the levying of taxes without parliament’s consent. It also forbade arbitrary imprisonment.
However king and parliament clashed over the issue of religion. In the 17th century, religion was far more important than it is today. It was a vital part of everyday life. Furthermore, there was no toleration in matters of religion. By law, everybody was supposed to belong to the Church of England (though in practice there were many Roman Catholics especially in the Northwest).
In 1629 William Laud was Bishop of London. He was strongly opposed to the Puritans and Charles supported him wholeheartedly.
Parliament criticized Laud and Charles called it impertinence. (He did not think Parliament had any right to do so). In return, the parliament refused to grant the king taxes for more than one year. Charles sent a messenger to parliament to announce it was dissolved. However, members of the Commons physically held the speaker down until they had passed three resolutions about Laud and religion. Only then did they disband.
In 1633 Laud was made Archbishop of Canterbury. Laud was determined to suppress the Puritans and he sent commissioners into almost every parish to make sure the local churches came into line.
Furthermore the Puritans had their own preachers called lecturers. These men were independent of the Church of England. Laud tried to put a stop to these preachers – with some success.
Most of all Laud emphasized the ceremony and decoration in churches. These measures were strongly opposed by the Puritans. They feared it was the ‘thin edge of the wedge’ and Catholicism would eventually be restored in England.
Meanwhile for 11 years Charles ruled without parliament. This period was called the eleven years tyranny. Charles had various ways of raising money without parliament’s consent. In the Middle Ages men with property worth, a certain amount of money a year were supposed to serve the king as knights. Under this old law, Charles fined their descendants for not doing so. Furthermore, all wasteland had once been royal land. In time some landowners had taken parts of it into cultivation. Charles fined them for doing so. Using these dubious methods by 1635 Charles was solvent.
However matters came to a head in 1637. In 1634 the king began levying ship money. This was a traditional tax raised in coastal towns to enable the king to build ships when more were needed. However, in 1635 Charles began levying ship money in inland areas.
A Buckinghamshire squire called John Hampden refused to pay. In 1637 he was taken to court and although he lost his case he became a hero. Ship money was very unpopular with the propertied class.
Worse in 1637 King Charles and Laud enraged the Scots by proposing religious changes in Scotland. Laud and Charles tried to introduce a new prayer book in Scotland. There were riots in Edinburgh. In February 1638 Scottish nobles and ministers signed a document called the National Covenant.
Charles made two attempts to bring the Scots to heel. Both were humiliating failures. The first Bishops War of 1639 ended with the peace of Berwick but it was only breathing space for both sides.
In April 1640 Charles summoned parliament again, hoping they would agree to raise money for his Scottish campaign. Instead, parliament simply discussed its many grievances. Charles dissolved parliament on 5 May and it became known as the Short Parliament because it met for such a short time.
The Second Bishops War followed in 1640. In August 1640 the Scots invaded England and they captured Newcastle. Charles was forced to make peace with the Scots. By the treaty, they occupied Durham and Northumberland. Charles was forced to pay their army’s costs.
Finally, in August 1641, Charles was forced to abandon all attempts to impose religious changes on Scotland. In return, the Scots withdrew from northern England.
Meanwhile, desperate for money, Charles was forced to call parliament again in November 1640. This parliament became known as the Long Parliament.
Parliament passed the Triennial Act, which stated that parliament must be called every three years. A Dissolution Act stated that parliament could not be dissolved without its consent.
Fining people who had not obtained knighthoods was declared illegal, so was fining landowners who had encroached on royal land. Ship money was also abolished
Parliament also took revenge on the king’s hated adviser, Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford. They passed a special act declaring Strafford was a traitor. The people of London took to the streets demanding his execution. Charles feared for his and his family’s safety and he was forced to sign the act. Strafford was executed on 12 May 1641.
Unfortunately parliament then divided. Opposition to the king was led by John Pym but many began to fear he was going too far.
In November 1641 a list of grievances called the Grand Remonstrance was drawn up but it was passed by only 11 votes. Pym then demanded that the king hand over control of the militia. For many, that was a step too far. They feared that Pym might replace arbitrary royal government with something worse.
Meanwhile parliament and the country split cover religion. Some wanted to return the Church of England to the state of affairs before Laud. Others wanted to abolish bishops completely. The country was becoming dangerously divided.
In January 1642 Charles made the situation worse by entering the Commons and attempting to arrest 5 MPs for treason. (They had already fled). No king had entered the Commons before and his actions caused outrage. Once again Charles feared for his safety and he left London.
In March 1642 Parliament declared that its ordinances were valid laws and they did not require the royal assent.
In April 1642 the king then tried to seize arms in Hull but he was refused entry to the town. Meanwhile in London parliament began raising an army. (Although most of the House of Lords went over to the king). The king also began raising an army and he set up his standard at Nottingham in August.
The English Civil War
From the start parliament had several advantages. Firstly it held London and the customs dues from the port were an important source of money.
Thirdly the navy supported parliament and made it difficult for the king to receive help from abroad.
The king advanced towards London but he was stopped at Turnham Green on 13 November 1642.
Then, in September 1643, the parliamentarians persuaded the Scots to intervene on their behalf by promising to make England Presbyterian (a Presbyterian church is one organized without bishops). A Scottish army entered England in January 1644.
The parliamentarians then decided to reform their army. In December 1644 they passed the Self Denying Ordinance, which stated that all MPs (except Oliver Cromwell and his son-in-law Henry Ireton) must give up their commands. Early in 1645 parliamentary forces were reorganized and became the New Model Army.
Afterwards the parliamentarians slowly gathered strength. Finally, in May 1646 the king surrendered to the Scots.
Meanwhile following civil war radical ideas flourished. In November 1646 a man named John Lilburne, one of a group of radicals called the Levellers published a tract called London’s Liberty in Chains. He demanded a republic and the abolition of the House of Lords. He also said that all men should be allowed to vote and there should be religious freedom.
Meanwhile in December 1647 Charles made a secret agreement with the Scots. They agreed to invade England on his behalf. However, Oliver Cromwell crushed an army of Scots and English royalists at Preston.
The army now felt that parliament was being too lenient with the king. They occupied London and Colonel Thomas Pride ejected about 140 members of the Commons. This action was called ‘Pride’s Purge’. It left a ‘rump parliament’ of about 60 members.
On 17 March 1649 parliament passed an act abolishing the monarchy and the House of Lords.
Most of parliament wanted to make the Church of England Presbyterian. Furthermore, attendance at Church of England services would remain compulsory. The army disagreed. They wanted the freedom to worship as they pleased.
However Charles II then started another war. He made an agreement with the Scots and in 1650 he landed in Scotland. Cromwell and his army advanced into Scotland and in September 1650 they crushed the Scots at Dunbar. Cromwell then crossed the Firth of Forth, leaving the road to England open.
A new constitution was drawn up called the Instrument of Government. Cromwell was made Lord Protector. At first, he ruled with a council but in September 1654 a new parliament was called. However, the Protectorate Parliament refused to accept the Instrument of Government so Cromwell dissolved it in January 1655.
Then in 1655 the country was divided into 11 districts. Each district was ruled by a Major-General. However in 1656 another parliament was called. However this time some members were excluded as ‘unfit persons’.
However when parliament reconvened in January 1658 the members who were excluded in 1656 were allowed to take the seats. This time the members attacked the new arrangements (they would not accept the new nominated upper house) and Cromwell dissolved parliament again in February 1658.
Oliver Cromwell appointed his son Richard his successor. However Richard was a shy, unambitious man and he resigned in May 1659.
The Long Parliament voted to disband and hold fresh elections for a new parliament. This one became known as the Convention parliament.
The Convention Parliament declared that the government of England should be King, Lords, and Commons. Finally, on 25 May 1660 Charles II landed at Dover.
In 1662 he married a Portuguese Princess, Catherine of Braganza. However Charles had many mistresses.
They passed a series of acts called the Clarendon code, a series of laws to persecute non-conformists (Protestants who did not belong to the Church of England). The Corporation Act of 1661 said that all officials in towns must be members of the Church of England.
Finally the Five Mile Act of 1665 forbade non-Anglican ministers to come within 5 miles of incorporated towns. (Towns with a mayor and corporation). However, these measures did not stop the non-conformists from meeting or preaching.
In 1670 Charles made a secret treaty with Louis XIV of France. It was called the Treaty of Dover. By it, Louis promised to give Charles money (so he was no longer dependent on parliament). Charles agreed to join with Louis in another war with Holland and to announce he was a Roman Catholic (Louis promised to send 6,000 men if the people rebelled when he did so).
Meanwhile in 1672 Charles II issued the Royal Declaration of Indulgence suspending the laws against nonconformists. (Charles believed that as king he had the right to suspend laws).
In 1673 they passed the Test Act, which banned nonconformists and Catholics from holding public office.
Meanwhile there was the question of exclusion. Charles II had no legitimate children and when he died his Catholic brother James was next in line for the throne. Some people, led by the Earl of Shaftesbury, said James should be excluded from the succession. They were known as Whigs.
King Charles II died in 1685. He was 54.
Furthermore in 1679 parliament passed the Act of Habeas Corpus forbidding imprisonment without trial.
Following the death of Charles II in 1685 his brother James became king. However, Charles II’s illegitimate son the Duke of Monmouth landed in Dorset and led a rebellion in Southwest England. He was proclaimed king in Taunton but his army was crushed at the battle of Sedgemoor. Afterward, George Jeffreys (1648-1689), known as the hanging judge presided over a series of trials known as the Bloody Assizes. About 300 people were hanged and hundreds more were transported to the West Indies.
In 1687 he went further and issued a Declaration of Indulgence suspending all laws against Catholics and Protestant non-Anglicans. In 1688 he ordered the Church of England clergy to read the declaration from the churches.
Worse in June 1688 James had a son. The people of England were willing to tolerate James as long as he did not have a Catholic heir. However, his son would certainly be brought up a Catholic and would, of course, succeed his father.
Parliament declared that the throne was vacant. William and Mary were declared joint monarchs. (Although Mary died in 1694).
Parliament also passed the Toleration Act in 1689. Non-conformists were allowed their own places of worship and their own teachers and preachers. However, they could not hold government positions or attend university.
England in the 18th Century
In 1702 Queen Anne began her reign. In the same year, the war of the Spanish succession began. In 1704 the great general the Duke of Marlborough won a great victory over the French at Blenheim. Also in 1704, the British captured Gibraltar – and they have held it ever since. The Duke of Marlborough went on to win great victories at Ramillies in 1706, at Oudenarde in 1708, and at Malplaquet in 1709.
Meanwhile the Act of Union between England and Scotland was passed in 1707. From 1603 England and Scotland shared a king but they remained separate countries. The Act of Union made them one although the Scots kept their own legal system, church, and educational system. Free trade was established between the two countries.
George I became king in 1714. He was also the ruler of Hanover (part of Germany) and he much preferred to stay there. George could not speak English and was content to leave the running of Britain to his ministers. Meanwhile, in September 1714 the Highlands of Scotland rose in rebellion. In an attempt to claim his throne James Stuart (son of James II, who was deposed in 1688) landed at Peterhead in December 1714. The uprising failed after an indecisive battle was fought at Sheriffmuir near Stirling on 13 November 1715. James Stuart left Scotland in February 1716.
In 1711 the South Sea Company was formed. It was given exclusive rights to trade with the Spanish colonies in South America. (It transported many slaves from Africa to South America). In 1720 shares in the company became massively overpriced. Then the share price collapsed. (The South Sea Bubble burst) and many investors lost huge sums of money.
From 1721 Robert Walpole (1676-1745) was the king’s chief minister. People began to call him Prime Minister (Originally it was a term of abuse, not an official title). Walpole moved into Downing Street in 1735. 10 Downing Street became the Prime Minister’s official residence in 1732. Walpole resigned in February 1742.
George I died in 1727 and was succeeded by his son George II. Like his father, George II was content to leave the government largely in the hands of his ministers. However, he was the last British king to lead an army into battle. He led them to victory against the French at Dettingen in June 1743. In July 1745 Charles Stuart landed in the Hebrides. He had promised his father, James Stuart, that he would capture the throne. The Highlanders rose to support him and Charles made rapid progress. In September 1745 his followers (known as Jacobites from the Latin for James, Jacobus) captured Edinburgh (except for the castle). The Jacobites then won the battle of Prestonpans. They invaded England and in November 1745 they captured Carlisle. The Jacobite army reached Derby in December 1745 but they then turned back. Charles Stuart then headed to Inverness. However, the Jacobites were crushed at the Battle of Culloden in April 1746. Charles Stuart fled to France.
Also in the early 18th century England suffered from an ‘epidemic’ of gin drinking. Gin was cheap and drinking it was an easy way for the poor to forget their troubles. However, in 1751 a duty was added to gin, which curtailed gin drinking.
The early 18th century was noted for its lack of religious enthusiasm. It was an age of reason rather than dogmatism and the churches lacked vigor. However, in the mid-18th century, things began to change. In 1739 the great evangelist George Whitefield (1714-1770) began preaching. Also in 1739 John Wesley (1703-1791) began preaching. He eventually created a new religious movement.
In the 18th century there was an agricultural revolution in England. It began with Jethro Tull. In the 17th century, the seed was sown by hand. The sower simply scattered seed on the ground. However, in 1701 Tull (1674-1741) invented the seed drill. This machine dropped seeds at a controllable rate in straight lines. A harrow at the back of the machine covered the seeds to prevent birds from eating them. Tull also invented a horse-drawn hoe, which killed weeds between rows of seeds.
Furthermore new forms of crop rotation were introduced. Under the old system land was divided into 3 fields and each year one was left fallow. This was, obviously, wasteful, as one-third of the land was not used each year. In the 17th century, the Dutch began to use new forms of crop rotation with clover and root crops such as turnips and swedes instead of letting the land grow fallow. (Root crops restored fertility to the soil). In the 18th century, these new methods became common in England. A man named Charles ‘Turnip’ Townshend (1674-1738) did much to popularize growing turnips. Turnips had another advantage. They provided winter feed for cattle. Previously most cattle were slaughtered at the beginning of winter because there was not enough food to keep them through the season. Now fresh milk and butter became available all year round. In the early 18th century farmers began to improve their livestock by selective breeding. One of the most famous pioneers of selective breeding was Robert Bakewell (1725-1795). There were other minor improvements. On light soil, farmers used marl (clay with lime content). Other farmers drained their fields with stone-lined trenches. Manure has always been used as fertilizer but in the mid-18th century, farmers began to build underground tanks to protect manure from the weather.
Finally in the 18th century there was a wave of enclosures. In the Middle Ages land in each village was divided into strips. Each farmer held some strips in each field. In the 16th and 17th centuries, some enclosures took place. Many more followed in the 18th century. When an act of enclosure was passed commissioners divided up the land in the village so each farmer had all his land in one place, which was an inefficient way of doing things.
In 1756 Britain became embroiled in the Seven Years War (1756-1763) with France. In 1759 the British, led by General Wolfe, won a great victory at Quebec. That ensured that Canada became a British colony rather than a French one. Meanwhile, in 1757 Clive won the battle of Plassey, which ensured that India became British rather than French.
Meanwhile in 1760 George II died at the age of 77. George III succeeded him. The first two George’s were content to leave the government in the hands of their ministers. However, George III tried to gain more power for himself. During his reign, Britain lost its colonies in North America. Fighting began in 1775 and the colonists declared themselves independent in 1776. George was determined to suppress the colonists, ignoring the wishes of those who wanted reconciliation. However, the Americans won a decisive victory at Yorktown in 1781, which ensured their independence. That caused George’s crony, Prime Minister Lord North to fall from power.
Meanwhile London was rocked by the anti-Catholic Gordon riots in 1780. Riots were common in the 18th century. The workers could not vote and there were no trade unions so if the workers were disaffected they rioted. The Gordon riot was the worst. Lord George Gordon (1751-1793) was an MP who led a huge crowd to parliament to present a petition demanding the repeal of a 1778 act, which removed certain restrictions on Roman Catholics. The demonstration became a riot. With cries of ‘No Popery!’ the rioters held London for several days until the army restored order. About 300 people died in the rioting.
At the end of the 18th century, a group of Evangelical Christians called the Clapham Sect were formed. They campaigned for an end to slavery and cruel sports. They were later called the Clapham Sect because so many of them lived in Clapham.
In the late 18th century everyday life in Britain was transformed by the industrial revolution. Towns, industry, and trade had been growing for centuries but about 1780 economic growth took off. Economic growth was helped by vast improvements in transport. In the early and mid 18th century many turnpike roads were built. Local turnpike trusts were formed. They maintained a road and charged people to travel on it. In the late 18th century a network of canals was built. One of the first was built for the Duke of Bridgewater by James Brindley. It opened in 1761 from Worsley to Manchester. A number of technological advances made the revolution possible. In 1709 Abraham Darby (1677-1717), who owned an ironworks, began using coke instead of charcoal to melt iron ore. (It was a much more efficient fuel). Darby and his family kept the new fuel secret for a time but in the late 18th century the practice spread.
Meanwhile in 1698 Thomas Savery made the first steam engine. From 1712 Thomas Newcomen made steam engines to pump water from coal mines. Then, in 1769, James Watt patented a more efficient steam engine and in the 1780s it was adapted to power machinery. The first industry to become mechanized was the textile industry. In 1771 Richard Arkwright opened a cotton-spinning mill with a machine called a water frame, which was powered by a water mill. Then, in 1779, Samuel Crompton invented a new cotton-spinning machine called a spinning mule. Finally, in 1785 Edmund Cartwright invented a loom that could be powered by a steam engine. As a result of these new inventions, cotton production boomed.
Iron production also grew rapidly. In 1784 a man named Henry Cort (1740-1800) invented a much better way of making wrought iron. Until then men had to beat red hot iron with hammers to remove impurities. In 1784 Cort invented the puddling process. The iron was melted in an extremely hot furnace and stirred of ‘puddled’ to remove impurities. The result was a vast increase in iron production.
Britain in the 19th Century
The early 19th century was an era of political and social unrest in Britain. In the early 19th century a group of Evangelical Christians called the Clapham Sect were active in politics. They campaigned for an end to slavery and cruel sports. They gained their name because so many of them lived in Clapham.
Then on 11 May 1812 a man named John Bellingham shot Tory prime minister Spencer Perceval. He was the only British prime minister ever to be assassinated. Bellingham was a lone madman but in 1820 there was a plot to kill the whole cabinet. Arthur Thistlewood led the Cato Street Conspiracy but the conspirators were arrested on 23 February 1820. Thistlewood and 4 of his companions were hanged.
Meanwhile in 1811-1816 textile workers in the Midlands and the north of England broke machines, fearing they would cause unemployment. The wreckers were called Luddites and if caught they were likely to be hanged. In March 1817 textile workers from Manchester tried to march to London to petition the Prince Regent. They were called blanketeers because many of them carried blankets. However, even though the march was peaceful the blanketeers were stopped by soldiers at Stockport. Then on 16 August 1819, a crowd of about 60,000 people gathered at St Peter’s Field in Manchester to hear a man named Henry Hunt. Even though the crowd was unarmed and peaceful the authorities sent in soldiers. As a result, 11 people were killed and hundreds were wounded. Afterward, people called the event ‘The Peterloo Massacre’ in a grim mockery of Waterloo.
In 1830 farm laborers in Kent and Sussex broke agricultural machinery fearing it would cause unemployment. The riots were called the Swing Riots because a man named Captain Swing supposedly, led them. As a result of the riots, 4 men were hanged and 52 were transported to Australia. In 1834 6 farm labourers in Tolpuddle, Dorset tried to form a trade union. However, they were prosecuted for making illegal oaths. (Not for forming a union, which was legal). They were sentenced to transportation to Australia. The case caused an outcry and they returned to Britain in 1838.
In 1822 a Tory government was formed which introduced some reforms. At that time you could be hanged for over 200 offences. (Although the sentence was often commuted to transportation). In 1825-1828 the death penalty was abolished for more than 180 crimes. Peel also formed the first modern police force in England in London in 1829. The police were called ‘bobbies’ or ‘peelers’ after him.
From 1828 to 1830 the Duke of Wellington (1769-1852) was prime minister. He introduced the Catholic Emancipation Act (1829). Since the Reformation Catholics had been unable to become MPs or to hold public office. The Act restored those rights to them. However, Wellington was strongly opposed to any change to the electoral system.
At that time there were two types of constituency, country areas and towns or boroughs. In the countryside, only landowners could vote. In boroughs, the franchise varied but was usually limited. However, the constituencies had not been changed for centuries and they no longer reflected the distribution of the population. Industrial towns like Birmingham and Manchester did not have MPs of their own. On the other hand, some settlements had died out but they were still represented in parliament! In ‘rotten’ or ‘pocket’ boroughs there might be only one or two voters!
In the early 19th century there were increasing demands for reforms. Most people wanted constituencies distributed more fairly and they also wanted the franchise extended but Wellington’s party, the Tories, resisted. However, in 1830, the Whigs formed a government and they tried to introduced reform. The House of Commons eventually voted for a reform bill but the House of Lords rejected it. The King, William IV, warned that he would create more peers, who favored the bill unless the Lords agreed to accept it. Eventually, the House of Lords backed down and passed the Great Reform Bill. It received the royal assent on 7 June 1832.
The franchise was only extended slightly but much more importantly the new industrial towns were now represented in parliament. Before 1832 Britain was ruled by an oligarchy of landowners. After 1832 the urban middle class had an increasing say. However, the working class was excluded from the reforms. From 1838 a working-class protest movement called the Chartists was formed. (They were named after their People’s Charter). The Chartists had several demands. They wanted all men to have the vote. Furthermore, at that time you had to own a certain amount of property to become an MP. Chartists wanted the property qualification abolished. They also wanted MPs to be paid. Chartists also wanted all constituencies to be equal in size and they wanted the voting to be by secret ballot.
The first Chartist rally was held in Manchester in 1838. In 1839 the Chartists delivered a petition to parliament, which was rejected out of hand. Another petition delivered in 1842 was also rejected. Finally, in 1848 another great petition was sent to parliament but it turned into a farce. Some of the signatures were obvious fakes. Chartism then fizzled out. For one thing, it lacked middle-class support and had no support among MPs. For another in the late 1840s conditions for the working class in Britain were improving and discontent was declining.
However further reform did eventually follow. In 1867 more men were given the vote and in 1872 the Ballot Act introduced voting by secret ballot. In 1884 still, more men were given the vote. However, not all men in Britain could vote until 1918. Meanwhile in 1835 the Municipal Corporations Act reformed town governments. A uniform system of town government was formed.
During the Napoleonic Wars 1799-1815 Britain could not import large amounts of grain from Europe. That all changed in 1815. British landowners feared that cheap foreign grain would be imported so they passed the Corn Laws. Import duties would be charged on imported wheat unless the average price of British grain reached a certain amount. From 1828 a sliding scale was used. Import duties were gradually increased as the price of British grain fell. In 1839 John Bright and Richard Cobden formed an Anti-Corn Law League. Prime Minister Peel finally abolished the corn laws in 1846. (Robert Peel lived from 1788 to 1850. He was prime minister in 1834-35 and 1841-46).
Meanwhile by the 1840s public opinion changed in favor of free trade. Most people believed that the government should interfere in the economy as little as possible. They also believed that countries should trade without import duties. So in the early 1840s, Peel abolished many tariffs.
The first passenger railway opened in 1825 between Stockton and Darlington. In 1830 a line was opened between Manchester and Liverpool. William Huskisson MP for Liverpool was killed but nothing could stop the growth of the railways. By 1848 there were 5,000 miles of railways in Britain and the network continued to expand rapidly in the later 19th century. Railways provided a great boost to other industries such as iron. They also revolutionized transport. Journeys that would have taken days by stagecoach took hours by train.
The industrial revolution created an unprecedented demand for female and child labor. Children had always worked alongside their parents but before the 19th century, they usually worked part-time. In the new textile factories, women and children were often made to work very long hours (often 12 hours a day or even longer). The government was aware of the problem and in 1819 they passed an act that made it illegal for children under 9 to work in cotton mills. However, the act lacked ‘teeth’ as there were no factory inspectors to check the mills. Another act was passed in 1833 but this time inspectors were appointed. Children under 9 were banned from working in textile mills. Children aged 9 to 13 were not allowed to work for more than 12 hours a day or a total of more than 48 hours a week. Children aged 13 to 18 must not work for more than 69 hours a week. Furthermore, nobody under 18 was allowed to work at night (from 8.30 pm to 5.30 am).
In 1844 another act banned women from working more than 12 hours a day (although it also reduced the minimum age for working in a mill to 8). Then in 1847 women and children were banned from working more than 10 hours a day in textile factories.
In 1850 the law was changed slightly. Women were allowed to work for 10 1/2 hours but textile factories could not be open for more than 12 hours a day. All workers, including men, were allowed 1 1/2 hours for meal breaks. In 1867 the law was extended to all factories. (A factory was defined as a place where more than 50 people were employed in a manufacturing process). The 1878 Factory Act defined a factory as any place where machines were used in manufacturing. Meanwhile, in 1842 the Miners Act banned women and boys under 10 from working underground in mines.
By the 1860s the 10 hour day was common, but not universal. In ‘sweated industries’ such as making matchboxes and lace people were paid piece rates (i.e. they were paid so much for each one they made). People often worked in their own homes and very often they had to work from dawn to dusk to make a living.
Nevertheless in 1871 bank holidays were created. In the 1870s some skilled workers were given a week’s annual paid holiday. (Although it was not until 1939 that everybody had annual paid holidays). However, by the 1890s, the weekend was common as many people had Saturday afternoon off.
In 1799 and 1800 the government passed laws called the Combination Acts, which made it illegal for men to combine to demand higher wages. The Combination Acts were repealed in 1824 but it was still doubtful if trade unions were legal. It was not until 1871 that trade unions were definitely made legal. In 1875 the Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act made peaceful picketing legal.
In the 1850s and 1860s, skilled workers formed moderate trade unions called New Model Unions. In return for subscriptions, members were given sickness and unemployment benefits. However, the New Model Unions were keen to be seen as ‘respectable’ and tried to negotiate rather than strike. The TUC was founded in 1868.
In the late 19th century unskilled workers began to form powerful trade unions. In 1888 a woman named Annie Besant managed to organize a strike among the girls who worked making matches for Bryant and May. The girls were very poorly paid and they suffered from an illness called ‘phossy jaw’ caused by working with phosphorous. The strike was successful and the employers were forced to raise their pay. In 1889 the match girls formed a trade union. In March 1889 the Gas Workers and General Labourers Union was formed. Then on 14 August 1889, the Great London Dock strike was held. It lasted 5 weeks and was a great success. The Dockers demanded a minimum wage of 6 pence an hour (the ‘Dockers tanner’). Also in 1889, a Seaman’s Union and the General Railway Workers Union was formed.
In the early 19th century much working-class housing was appalling. It was overcrowded and unsanitary. Of course, poor people’s housing had always been bad. However, things grew much worse when vast numbers of people lived together in a small area. Towns had been dirty and unsanitary for centuries. In the 18th century in many towns bodies of men called Paving Commissioners or Improvement Commissioners were formed with powers to pave, clean, and light the streets. However, in those days, England was divided into parishes and the commissioners only had powers in certain parishes. However, in the 19th-century towns spread to new parishes. Huge numbers of houses were built where previously there had only been fields and small villages. The commissioners had no powers in these new ‘suburbs’. The streets were often unpaved and unlit. There were no drains and when it rained streets turned to mud. People threw dirty water in the streets and stagnant pools formed. Furthermore, toilets were often shared by several houses, and queues formed on Sunday mornings.
In the early 19th century in most towns there were no building regulations. Builders simply built as they pleased. Usually, they tried to cram as many houses as possible onto every piece of land. Many houses were ‘back-to-backs’. These houses were literally back to back. The back of one house joined the back of another. They usually consisted of two or three rooms. Worst of all were cellar dwellings. In cities like Liverpool families lived in cellars, which were damp and poorly ventilated as well as crowded. Very poor people slept on straw because they could not afford beds.
Skilled workers lived in ‘through’ houses, so-called because you could walk through them from front to back. However, in the 1840s town councils began to take action. Cellar dwellings were banned and new back-to-backs could not be built. It was impossible to demolish and replace existing back-to-backs all at once. It took decades and some people were still living in them in the 20th century.
In the early 19th century toilets were usually cesspits, which were infrequently emptied and sometimes overflowed. Or urine might seep through the ground into wells from which people drew drinking water. Given these disgusting conditions, it is not surprising there were outbreaks of cholera in many towns in 1831-32, 1848-49, 1854, and 1865-66. In 1848 a Public Health Act was passed. The act made it compulsory to form local Boards of Health in towns if the annual death rate exceeded 23 per 1,000 or if 10% of the population wanted it. Local Boards of Health could demand that all new houses have drains and lavatories. They could also organize a water supply, street cleaning, and refuse collection.
In 1875 a Public Health Act strengthened previous acts. All local authorities were forced to appoint Medical Officers of Health who could prosecute people who sold food or drink unfit for human consumption. The councils were also required to provide refuse collection. Town councils also began to provide public parks and most passed by-laws, which laid down minimum standards for new houses. Furthermore in the 1860s and 1870s sewers were dug in most large towns. In the 1870s water supplies were created in most towns. As a result of these measures, towns were much healthier and cleaner by the end of the 19th century than at the beginning.
In 1875 the Artisan’s Dwellings Act was passed which gave councils the power to demolish slums but large scale slum clearance did not begin till the 20th century. Furthermore in the second half of the 19th-century living standards rose. Gradually houses grew larger. In the late 19th century ‘two-up, two-downs’ were common. (Houses with two bedrooms and a kitchen and ‘front room’.
Many skilled workers lived in houses with three bedrooms. However, even at the end of the 19th century, there were some poor families still living in just one room.
In 1792 well-meaning magistrates met at Speenhamland in Berkshire and devised a system for helping the poor. Low wages were supplemented with money raised by a poor rate. Many areas of England adopted the system but it proved very expensive and the government decided to change things. In 1834 they passed the Poor Law Amendment Act. In the future, the poor were to be treated as harshly as possible to dissuade them from seeking help from the state. In the future, able-bodied people with no income were to be forced to enter a workhouse. (In practice some of the elected Boards of Guardians sometimes gave the unemployed ‘outdoor relief’ i.e. they were given money and allowed to live in their own homes).
For the unfortunate people made to enter workhouses, life was made as unpleasant as possible. Married couples were separated and children over 7 were separated from their parents. The inmates were made to do hard work like breaking stones to make roads or breaking bones to make fertilizer. The poor called the new workhouses ‘bastilles’ (after the infamous prison in Paris) and they caused much bitterness. However, as the century went on the workhouses gradually became more humane.
At first the industrial revolution did cause much suffering to some people. However in the end it made a much higher standard of living possible for ordinary people. In the 18th century when goods were made by hand they were scarce and therefore expensive. Machines meant that goods could be mass-produced and so they became much cheaper.
It is true that in the early 19th century many people worked very long hours and they lived in appalling conditions in overcrowded towns. However, by the late 19th-century housing for most people was better than in the 18th century. People were also better fed. Inventions like trains and steamships made it possible to import cheap food from abroad, wheat from North America, and meat from Australia and New Zealand. For thousands of years, bread was the staple diet of ordinary people. The poor lived mainly on bread. By the end of the century, bread was ceasing to be the ‘staff of life’ and most people were eating a varied diet. Furthermore, a host of inventions made life more comfortable and convenient. Railways made travel much faster. Waterproof clothing also made life more comfortable. So did anesthetics. Furthermore today we take street lighting for granted but in the 19th-century gas street lights made going out at night much easier and safer.
We also take photography for granted but people in the 19th century thought it was wonderful. For the first time, ordinary people could have pictures of their loved ones to remember them if they lived far away. It is true that poverty was common in the 19th century but things had always been that way. A large part of the population lived at subsistence level – or below it but that was nothing new.
In the middle of the 19th century Britain was the richest and most powerful nation in the world. However, in the late 19th century Britain’s power declined. It was inevitable. Britain was the first country to industrialize. She, therefore, had a head start over other nations. However, other countries began to catch up. France, Germany, and the USA industrialized. By the end of the 19th century Russia, Sweden, (North) Italy, and Japan were also industrializing. As a result, Britain became relatively less important.
During the 19th century, Britain built up a great overseas empire including South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. In 1857-58 they crushed the uprising called the Indian Mutiny and in 1877 Queen Victoria was made Empress of India.
Meanwhile in 1819 Sir Stafford Raffles founded Singapore. Britain also took Burma in stages during the 19th century. In the late 19th century Britain took large swathes of Africa. Nevertheless, by the end of the 19th century, it was obvious that Britain was no longer as powerful as she had once been and needed allies in Europe.
Britain in the 20th Century
Britain changed hugely during the 20th century. Life for ordinary people was transformed and became much more comfortable.
Life was hard for the working class at the beginning of the 20th century. In 1900 surveys showed that between 15% and 20% of the population were living at subsistence (bare survival) level. Worse between 8% and 10% of the population were living below subsistence level. These figures seem shocking to us but remember things had always been that way. Indeed earlier in history, things were worse. There had always been a large part of the population living at subsistence level or below it.
In 1906 a Liberal government was elected and they introduced a number of reforms. From 1906 local councils were allowed to provide free school meals. In 1907 school medical inspections began. In 1908 an act limited miners to working an 8 hour day. Then in 1909, the Trade Boards Act set up trade boards that fixed minimum wages in certain very low paid trades. Also in 1909, an Act set up labour exchanges to help the unemployed find work.
In 1908 an Old Age Pensions Act gave small pensions to people over 70. The pensions were hardly generous but they were a start. From 1925 pensions were paid to men over 65 and women over 60. Widows were also given pensions. In 1911 the National Insurance Act was passed. All employers and employees made contributions to a fund. If a worker was ill he was entitled to free treatment by a doctor. (Normally you had to pay and it was expensive). If he could not work because of illness the worker was given a small amount of money to live on. However, his family was not entitled to free medical treatment.
From 1911 workers in certain trades such as building and shipbuilding who frequently had periods of unemployment all contributed to a fund. If unemployed they could claim a small amount of money for a maximum of 15 weeks in any year. Again it was hardly generous but in 1920 the scheme was extended to most (not all) workers and they were given money for more than 15 weeks. By 1912 most people had Saturday afternoon off work. However, shop workers were usually forced to work all day on Saturday. An act of 1912 compensated them by stating they must have half a day off during the week.
Meanwhile in 1902 Balfour’s Education Act created state secondary education. In the early 20th century the upper class went to public schools. The middle class went to fee-paying grammar schools and the working class went to elementary schools. From 1907 grammar schools were given grants if they gave 25% of their places to poor pupils. Working-class children could take an exam and if they passed could go to grammar school. However, some children won a place but did not go because their parents could not afford to buy the school uniform and equipment.
In 1909 the House of Lords rejected Lloyd George’s budget. In response, the Liberals passed the Parliament Act, which stated the House of Lords, could not interfere with financial bills. The Lords could no longer veto any bills but only delay them for two years. In 1949 that was reduced to one year.
By 1884 the majority of men in Britain were allowed to vote but women were not allowed to. So in 1897 local groups of women who demanded the vote joined to form the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). The organization was moderate and its members were called suffragists.
However in 1903 a more radical organisation was formed called the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). Emmeline Pankhurst led it and its members were called suffragettes. Some suffragettes committed crimes like arson and vandalism. They also planted bombs. However, the WSPU did not want votes for all women -only those who met a property qualification. The suffragettes halted their campaign when the war began in 1914.
By no means all women were suffragettes. Many women were anti-suffragettes. They opposed women being allowed to vote. In Britain, the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League was formed in 1908. Its president was Mary Humphry Ward, a famous novelist. On the other hand, many men supported the suffragettes and wanted women to be allowed to vote.
In 1918 in Britain all men over 21 were allowed to vote. Women over 30 were allowed to vote if they met a property qualification. In 1928 they were allowed to vote at the age of 21 (the same as men).
Britain declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914. A British expeditionary force was sent to France, led by Sir John French. It fought the Germans at Mons on 23 August. The Germans continued to advance but the French and British halted them at the Battle of the Marne in September. The Germans tried to outflank the allies but were blocked. Both sides dug trenches to protect themselves and soon the trenches ran in a continuous line. The war became a stalemate.
In 1916 the British launched an attack on the Somme. Both sides suffered horrific losses. However during this battle, the British unleashed a secret weapon – the tank. The first tanks were too unreliable and too few in number to affect the outcome of the battle but they were a sign of things to come.
In 1917 Germany began unrestricted submarine warfare. They sank any ships from any country attempting to reach Britain. As a result food in Britain ran very short but the crisis ended when the convoy system was introduced. Merchant ships traveled in groups protected by warships. Nevertheless, in 1918 rationing of meat, butter and cheese began. Furthermore, as a result of the German policy, the USA entered the war.
In the Spring of 1918 Germany launched a series of offensives in northern France. The allies fought on with their ‘backs against the wall’ and in August the British launched a counter-attack using tanks. The Germans were gradually pushed back and on 11 November they signed an armistice (ceasefire).
By the early 20th century the trade unions had become powerful and they were increasingly militant. However, they met with opposition. In 1901 came the Taff Vale case when a court decided that trade unions could be sued for damages if they held a strike. It was repealed by the Trade Disputes Act 1906. In 1909 came the Osborne Judgement, which said that trade unions could not use members’ subscriptions to fund political parties (i.e. the Labour Party). The case was brought by a man named W. V. Osborne, who was secretary of the Walthamstow branch on the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants. It was repealed by the Trade Union Act 1913, which allowed individual trade union members to opt-out of paying political fees.
From 1923 to 1929 Britain had a conservative government with Stanley Baldwin (1867-1947) as prime minister. During his time the general strike was held. During the 1920s old industries like coal mining were declining. So in 1921 employers cut wages. In 1926 they proposed to cut wages and increase working hours. The miner’s leader A.J. Cooke said ‘Not a penny off the pay, not a minute on the day’. the miners went on strike and appealed to the other unions to help them. The result was a general strike from midnight on 3 May 1926.
However the government was prepared. Realizing trade unions might unite and call a general strike they formed the Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies in 1925. Middle-class volunteers helped to run services like buses and kept supplies moving. Troops and special constables also helped. The general strike ended on 12 May although the miners remained on strike for another 6 months. In the end, the miners went back to work defeated. In 1927 the Trade Disputes Act made general strikes illegal.
In 1922 the BBC began broadcasting radio programs. Radio first became common in the 1930s. By 1933 about half the households in Britain had a ‘wireless’ and by 1939 most of them did. Television began in 1936. It was suspended during World War II but it began again in 1946. In the 1920s some people went to see silent films but from about 1930 all films were ‘talkies’. During the 1930s cinema-going became much more popular and many people went once or even twice a week.
In 1929 the world was plunged into a severe economic recession. By 1932 22.8% of insured workers were unemployed. However, unemployment began to fall in 1933. By January 1936 it stood at 13.9%. By 1938 it stood at around 10%.
However in the late 1930s the North of England remained depressed and unemployment in the region remained very high. Traditional industries such as textiles and coal mining were severely affected by the Depression. Yet in the Midlands and the South of England new industries brought some prosperity and unemployment was lower. New industries included making cars and aircraft and electronics.
During the 1920s and 1930s a series of ‘hunger marches’ were held from depression areas to London. The first was from Glasgow in 1922 but the most famous was the Jarrow march of 1936 when 200 shipyard workers marched from Jarrow to London. The hunger marches gained a great deal of publicity for the plight of the unemployed but they did not succeed in their aim of actually reducing unemployment.
However because living standards had risen so much an unemployed man in 1936 was about as well off as an unskilled worker 30 years before. Nevertheless, life for the unemployed was grim. They lived in relative poverty.
Nevertheless despite the mass unemployment of the 1930s for most people with a job living standards rose substantially. That was partly due to a fall in prices. The price of essentials like food and rent fell 15% during the decade. So for most people life became steadily more comfortable during the 1930s. Furthermore, from 1939, all workers were entitled to a minimum of 1 week’s annual paid holiday. Before then the only paid holidays many people had were bank holidays.
When war began on 3 September 1939 it was feared that the Germans would bomb British cities causing great loss of life. So children from the cities were evacuated to the countryside. Altogether 827,000 schoolchildren with 103,000 teachers and helpers left the big cities. Furthermore, 524,000 children below school age and their mothers left. However, most of the ‘evacuees’ soon returned home. The bombing raid on British cities failed to materialize – at first. It was severe in 1940-41.
On 10 May 1940 Winston Churchill became prime minister of Britain.
Rationing in Britain began in September 1939 when petrol was rationed. As the war continued rationing became stricter and stricter. In January 1940 butter, sugar, bacon, and ham were rationed. Tea was rationed from July 1940. Then in May 1941 cheese was rationed and from June 1941 eggs were rationed. From July 1941 clothes were rationed and you had to save up coupons to buy them. From July 1942 sweets were rationed.
From 1942 dried (powdered) egg arrived from the USA. Meanwhile, the people were encouraged to ‘dig for victory’ and the amount of land under cultivation increased from 12 million acres in 1939 to 18 million acres in 1945.
On 7 September 1940 the Germans began bombing London and by 1 January 1941 over 13,000 Londoners were killed. Other cities heavily bombed during the ‘blitz’ included Birmingham, Coventry, Bristol, Portsmouth, and Plymouth.
German bombing lessened after mid-1941 when Hitler invaded Russia. From then on most German armed forces were concentrated in the east. However, in June 1944, the Germans unleashed a ‘secret weapon’. It was a kind of rocket called a VI flying bomb. (The British public called them ‘doodlebugs’). From September 1944 V2 rockets were launched. altogether 1,115 V2s hit England and about half of them hit London. The last V2 was fired on 27 March 1945. At first, the government claimed the explosions were caused by exploding gas mains (which didn’t fool anybody!). They did not admit the truth until November 1944. Hitler called his new weapons vengeance weapons yet German bombing failed. It failed to dent British morale and it failed to seriously affect industrial output.
About 1 million houses were destroyed or severely damaged during World War II. About 40,000 civilians were killed. After the war, Britain was left with a severe shortage of housing. The Housing Act of 1946 gave grants and subsidies for building houses. By 1951 900,000 new houses had been built.
Germany surrendered on 8 May 1945. Immediately afterward a general election was held (the first since November 1935). The Labour Party won by a landslide and Clement Attlee (1883-1967) became prime minister until 1951. Labour set about introducing a welfare state. By the National Insurance Act of 1946 everyone was entitled to unemployment benefits, sickness benefits, old-age pensions, and widows pensions. The National Health Service was introduced in 1948. (Many of the ideas for the welfare state were laid out by a Liberal named William Beveridge 1879-1963).
During World War II Britain was run by a coalition government. In 1944 it passed the Butler Education Act. (It was named after a Conservative, Richard Butler). In the future, all 11-year-old children would sit an exam (it became known as the 11+). Afterward, some went to grammar school to study academic subjects while others went to secondary modern schools to study technical subjects. Both types of schools were supposed to be equal. (In the official phrase they had ‘parity of esteem’). However in the eyes of the public if you ‘passed’ the 11+ you went to a grammar school. If you ‘failed’ you went to a secondary modern. In 1947 the school leaving age was raised to 15.
However the period 1945-1951 was one of ‘national austerity’ when many goods were in short supply and long queues were common. Rationing continued and it actually grew stricter than during the war. Conditions were hardest in 1947 when there was a severe winter. Bread was rationed in July 1946 and in November 1947 potatoes were rationed.
The Labour party also nationalized certain industries (made them state-owned). Coal was nationalized in 1947. So were the railways. In 1948 gas and electricity were nationalized. Meanwhile, shortages gradually lessened. Clothes rationing ended in 1949 and petrol rationing ended in 1950. However, the rationing of butter and meat lasted until 1954.
However in the mid-1950s Britain became an affluent society. For the first time, ordinary people had substantial amounts of money to spend on luxuries. Consumer goods became common. By 1960 44% of homes owned a washing machine. In 1959 about 2/3 of homes owned a vacuum cleaner.
In the 1960s Britain became a truly affluent society. Washing machines and vacuum cleaners became near-universal. Cars and fridges became common. Foreign holidays became common for the first time. Central heating, electric blankets, electric kettles and toasters, and a host of other goods became common in the 1960s. By 1975 90% of homes had a vacuum cleaner, 85% had a fridge and 70% owned a washing machine. Furthermore, 52% had a telephone and 47% had central heating.
Meanwhile until the mid-1970s there was full employment in most areas of Britain. For most of the period 1945-1973 unemployment was less than 5%. By 1973 it was creeping upwards but it was still only 3%.
From 1951 to 1964 Britain was ruled by the Conservatives. From 1951 to 1955 Winston Churchill was Prime Minister. Anthony Eden who was Prime Minister till 1957 replaced him. He was followed by Harold Macmillan who was prime minister till 1963. Sir Alec-Douglas Home was prime minister for a short period in 1963-64. However, in 1964 Labour won a general election and Harold Wilson became prime minister. Labour won another election in 1966. Wilson remained prime minister until 1970.
Meanwhile, in the 1960s and 1970s, most secondary schools became comprehensives. Also in the 1960s, there was a big expansion of further and higher education. In 1945 there were only 17 universities. By the 1970s there were 46. There were also 30 polytechnics. (In 1992 they were upgraded to universities). In 1973 the school leaving age was raised to 16. In 1988 a national curriculum was introduced.
Meanwhile in the years after 1945 the trade unions grew very powerful. By 1970 their membership had almost doubled. Nearly half the workforce belonged to a union. In the winter of 1972, the coal miners went on strike and the government was forced to give in to their demands. They went on strike again in the winter of 1974. This time Heath was determined not to back down and he called an election in February 1974 on the issue ‘who governs the country?’. However, Heath lost the election and Wilson became prime minister again. Wilson won another election in October 1974.
Meanwhile in 1973 Britain joined the EEC (forerunner of the EU). The first elections for the European Parliament were held in 1979.
By 1973 the long period of economic prosperity was coming to an end. By the spring of 1975 unemployment had climbed to 1 million. It was over 5% of the workforce. By 1977 it had risen to 5.5% and in 1979 it stood at 5.3%. Meanwhile, there was also high inflation.
In 1978 in an effort to tackle inflation the government tried to persuade trade unions to limit pay rises to no more than 5%. The trade unions refused to accept the limit and Britain was hit by a wave of strikes. As a result, the government’s popularity diminished and in may 1979 the Conservatives won a general election. Margaret Thatcher became Britain’s first woman prime minister.
In 1980-82 Britain suffered a severe recession. Unemployment rose sharply. By January 1982 it was 11.5%, double the May 1979 figure. Not surprisingly the government was deeply unpopular. However, in April 1982, the Argentinians invaded the Falkland Islands. The British sent a task force and on 14 June 1982, the Falklands were recaptured. The war greatly boosted the government’s popularity and it contributed to the government’s victory in the general election of 1983. (The Conservatives won a third election in 1987).
Meanwhile recession ended in the autumn of 1982 and recovery began. Furthermore, unemployment leveled off. (However, unemployment remained very high until 1986. In the summer of that year, the official figure was 14.1%. However, unemployment then fell steadily. The government also succeeded in greatly reducing inflation. Despite the mass unemployment of the 1980s, most people with a job experienced a substantial rise in their living standards during the decade.
On the other hand the percentage of people living in poverty increased. That was partly due to mass unemployment. Another cause was the rapidly rising number of single-parent families many of whom lived on state benefits.
The Conservatives also sold council houses cheaply and the number of council houses fell significantly. The government also privatized industries. British Aerospace and Cable and Wireless were sold in 1981. Then in 1982-83 the National Freight Corporation and Associated Business Ports were sold. British gas was sold in 1986. British Telecom was sold in 1984. British gas was sold in 1986.
A showdown between the government and the trade unions took place with the 1984-85 coal strike. The National Coal Board announced the closure of certain collieries. Some Yorkshire coal miners went on strike in March 1984. However, the miner’s trade union leader, Arthur Scargill, refused to call a national ballot to decide if all miners should go on strike. Instead, it was left to each region to decide. That was a fatal mistake because miners in Nottinghamshire (who were much less likely to lose their jobs) stayed at work. As long as some miners kept working the strike could not succeed.
Furthermore the government was in a strong position. For one thing, they had stockpiled coal. For other generating stations that usually burned coal could burn a mixture of coal and oil. Also, striking miners could not claim welfare benefits. So all the government had to do was wait until poverty forced the strikers back to work. The miner’s strike began to crumble in November 1984 as miners drifted back to work. By January more than half of all strikers had returned to work and the strike ended in March 1985. It was a severe defeat for militant trade unionism. Furthermore, during the 1980s the government passed a series of laws restricting the powers of the trade unions.
In 1990 the government introduced a new tax in England called the community charge (popularly known as the poll tax). It was very unpopular and in 1993 it was replaced by the council tax. Meanwhile, Margaret Thatcher resigned in 1990. She was replaced by John Major.
In the middle of 1990, a long recession started and unemployment rose sharply. Economic recovery began in 1993. From 1993 onward unemployment fell steadily and by 2000 it was at a level not seen since 1979. Meanwhile, in April 1992, the Conservatives won another general election, even though the country was in recession. However in 1997 Labour finally won an election and Tony Blair became prime minister.
Britain in the 21st Century
In the early 21st century the population of Britain grew sharply, boosted by immigration. In 2001 the population of the UK was just under 59 million. By 2013 it had risen to 63.7 million. In 2018 it was estimated to be 66 million.
Like the rest of the world, Britain suffered a recession following the financial crisis of 2008. But living standards remained high. Britain left the EU in 2020.