1 May 1707
16.35 million (1801)
God Save the Queen
English (official), Scots, Norn, Welsh, Cornish, Scottish Gaelic, Angloromani
Constitutional monarchy, Parliamentary system
The Kingdom of Great Britain, officially Great Britain /ɡreɪt ˈbrɪ.tən/, was a sovereign state in western Europe from 1 May 1707 to 31 December 1800. The state came into being following the Treaty of Union in 1706, ratified by the Acts of Union 1707, which united the kingdoms of England and Scotland to form a single kingdom encompassing the whole island of Great Britain and its outlying islands. It did not include Ireland, which remained a separate realm. The unitary state was governed by a single parliament and government that was based in Westminster. The former kingdoms had been in personal union since James VI, King of Scots, became King of England and King of Ireland in 1603 following the death of Queen Elizabeth I, bringing about a "Union of the Crowns". Also after the accession of George I to the throne of Great Britain in 1714, the kingdom was in a personal union with the Electorate of Hanover.
- Political structure
- Relationship with Ireland
- Great Britain in the 18th century
- Wars against France and Spain
- American Revolution
- Upper and Lower Canada
- Second British Empire
- Australia and New Zealand
- Battling the French Revolution and Napoleon
- House of Stuart
- House of Hanover
- Parliament of Great Britain
- Peerage of Great Britain
The early years of the unified kingdom were marked by Jacobite risings which ended in defeat for the Stuart cause at Culloden in 1746. Later on in 1763, victory in the Seven Years' War led to the dominance of the British Empire, which was to become the foremost global power for over a century and later grew to become the largest empire in history.
On 1 January 1801, the kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland were merged to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. In 1922, five-sixths of Ireland seceded from the United Kingdom and the state was renamed the "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland" – a title it has retained to date.
The name Britain descends from the Latin name for the island of Great Britain, Britannia or Brittānia, the land of the Britons via the Old French Bretaigne (whence also Modern French Bretagne) and Middle English Bretayne, Breteyne. The term Great Britain was first used officially in 1474, in the instrument drawing up the proposal for a marriage between Edward IV of England's daughter Cecily and James III of Scotland's son James.
The Treaty of Union and the subsequent Acts of Union state that England and Scotland were to be "United into one Kingdom by the Name of Great Britain". However, both the Acts and the Treaty also refer numerous times to the "United Kingdom" and the longer form, the "United Kingdom of Great Britain". Other publications refer to the country as the "United Kingdom" after 1707 as well. The websites of the UK parliament, the Scottish Parliament, the BBC, and others, including the Historical Association, refer to the state created on 1 May 1707 as the United Kingdom of Great Britain. Additionally, the term United Kingdom was found in informal use during the 18th century to describe the state.
The new state created in 1707 included the island of Great Britain, together with the many smaller islands that were part of the kingdoms of England and Scotland. The Channel Islands and the Isle of Man were never part of the kingdom of Great Britain, although by the Isle of Man Purchase Act 1765 the British Crown acquired suzerainty over the island from Charlotte Murray, Duchess of Atholl.
The kingdoms of England and Scotland, both in existence from the 9th century, were separate states until 1707. However, they had come into a personal union in 1603, when James VI of Scotland succeeded his cousin Elizabeth I as King of England under the name of James I. This Union of the Crowns under the House of Stuart meant that the whole of the island of Great Britain was now ruled by a single monarch, who by virtue of holding the English crown also ruled over the Kingdom of Ireland. Each of the three kingdoms maintained its own parliament and laws (although there was a brief attempted union during the Interregnum in the mid-17th century).
This disposition changed dramatically when the Acts of Union 1707 came into force, with a single unified Crown of Great Britain and a single unified parliament. Ireland remained formally separate, with its own parliament, until the Acts of Union 1800. The Treaty of Union provided that succession to the British throne (and that of Ireland) would be in accordance with the English Act of Settlement of 1701; rather than Scotland's Act of Security of 1704, which ceased to have effect. The Act of Settlement required that the heir to the English throne be a descendant of the Electress Sophia of Hanover who was not a "Papist"; this brought about the Hanoverian succession only a few years after the Union.
Legislative power was vested in the Parliament of Great Britain, which replaced both the Parliament of England and the Parliament of Scotland. In practice it was a continuation of the English parliament, sitting at the same location in Westminster, expanded to include representation from Scotland.
As with the former Parliament of England and the modern Parliament of the United Kingdom, the Parliament of Great Britain was formally constituted of three elements: the House of Commons, the House of Lords, and the Crown. The right of the English peerage to sit in the House of Lords remained unchanged, while the disproportionately large Scottish peerage was permitted to send only 16 representative peers, elected from amongst their number for the life of each parliament. Similarly, the members of the former English House of Commons continued as members of the British House of Commons, but as a reflection of the relative tax bases of the two countries the number of Scottish representatives was reduced to 45. Newly created peers in the Peerage of Great Britain were given the automatic right to sit in the Lords.
Despite the end of a separate parliament for Scotland, it retained its own laws and system of courts.
Relationship with Ireland
As a result of Poynings' Law of 1495, the Parliament of Ireland was subordinate to the Parliament of England, and after 1707 to the Parliament of Great Britain. The British parliament's Dependency of Ireland on Great Britain Act 1719 noted that the Irish House of Lords had recently "assumed to themselves a Power and Jurisdiction to examine, correct and amend" judgements of the Irish courts and declared that as the Kingdom of Ireland was subordinate to and dependent upon the British crown, the King, through the Parliament of Great Britain, had "full power and authority to make laws and statutes of sufficient validity to bind the Kingdom and people of Ireland". The Act was repealed by the Repeal of Act for Securing Dependence of Ireland Act 1782. The same year, the Irish constitution of 1782 produced a period of legislative freedom. However, the Irish Rebellion of 1798, which sought to end the subordination and dependency upon the British crown and establish a republic, was one of the factors that led to the formation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in 1801.
Great Britain in the 18th century
The 18th century saw England, and after 1707 Great Britain, rise to become the world's dominant colonial power, with France its main rival on the imperial stage. The pre-1707 English overseas possessions became the nucleus of the British Empire.
The deeper political integration of her kingdoms was a key policy of Queen Anne, the last Stuart monarch of England and Scotland and the first monarch of Great Britain. A Treaty of Union was agreed in 1706 following negotiations between representatives of the parliaments of England and Scotland, and each parliament then passed separate Acts of Union to ratify it. The Acts came into effect on 1 May 1707, uniting the separate Parliaments and crowns of England and Scotland and forming a single Kingdom of Great Britain. Anne became the first occupant of the unified British throne, and in line with Article 22 of the Treaty of Union, Scotland sent 45 Members to join all of the existing members of the Parliament of England in the new House of Commons of Great Britain.
Wars against France and Spain
The death of Charles II of Spain in 1700 and his bequeathal of Spain and its colonial empire to Philip of Anjou, a grandson of the King of France, had raised British fears of the unification of France, Spain and their colonies. In 1701, England, Portugal, and the Dutch Republic sided with the Holy Roman Empire against Spain and France in the War of the Spanish Succession. The conflict lasted until 1714, until France and Spain finally lost. At the concluding Treaty of Utrecht, Philip renounced his and his descendants' right to the French throne. Spain lost its empire in Europe, and although it kept its empire in the Americas and the Philippines, it was irreversibly weakened as a great power. The new British Empire, based upon what until 1707 had been the English overseas possessions, was enlarged: from France, Great Britain gained Newfoundland and Acadia, and from Spain Gibraltar and Minorca. Gibraltar, which is still a British overseas territory, became a major naval base and allowed Great Britain to control the strait connecting the Atlantic to the Mediterranean.
The Seven Years' War, which began in 1756, was the first war waged on a global scale and saw British involvement in Europe, India, North America, the Caribbean, the Philippines, and coastal Africa. The signing of the Treaty of Paris of 1763 had important consequences for Great Britain and its empire. In North America, France's future as a colonial power was effectively ended with the ceding of New France to the British, leaving a sizeable French-speaking population under British control, and Louisiana to Spain. Spain ceded Florida to Britain. In India, the third Carnatic War had left France still in control of its enclaves, but with military restrictions and an obligation to support the British client states, effectively leaving the future of India to Great Britain. The British victory over France in the Seven Years' War therefore left Great Britain as the world's dominant colonial power.
Mercantilism was the basic policy imposed by Great Britain on its overseas possessions. Mercantilism meant that the government and the merchants became partners with the goal of increasing political power and private wealth, to the exclusion of other empires. The government protected its merchants—and kept others out—by trade barriers, regulations, and subsidies to domestic industries to maximise exports from and minimise imports to the realm. The government had to fight smuggling—which became a favourite American technique in the 18th century to circumvent the restrictions on trading with the French, Spanish or Dutch. The goal of mercantilism was to run trade surpluses, so that gold and silver would pour into London. The government took its share through duties and taxes, with the remainder going to merchants in London and other British ports. The government spent much of its revenue on a superb Royal Navy, which not only protected the British colonies but threatened the colonies of the other empires, and sometimes seized them. Thus the Royal Navy captured New Amsterdam (later New York) in 1664. The colonies were captive markets for British industry, and the goal was to enrich the mother country.
During the 1760s and 1770s, relations between the Thirteen Colonies and Great Britain became increasingly strained, primarily because of resentment toward the British Parliament's ability to tax American colonists without their consent. Disagreement turned into a violent insurrection. In 1775, the American Revolutionary War began, as the Americans trapped the British army in Boston and suppressed the Loyalists who supported the Crown. In 1776 the Americans declared the independence of the United States of America. Under the military leadership of General George Washington, and, with economic and military assistance from France, the Dutch Republic and Spain, the United States held off successive British invasions. The Americans captured two main British armies in 1777 and 1781. After that King George III lost control of Parliament and was unable to continue the war. It ended with the Treaty of Paris by which Great Britain relinquished the Thirteen Colonies and recognised the United States. The war was expensive but the British financed it successfully.
Upper and Lower Canada
After a series of "French and Indian wars," the British took slices of France's North American colonies in New France, finally acquiring all of them (except the small islands of Saint Pierre and Miquelon) in 1763. The former French colony of Canada was renamed Quebec. Great Britain's policy was to respect Quebec's religious heritage—even though it was Roman Catholic—as well as its legal, economic, and social systems. By the Quebec Act of 1774, the Province of Quebec was enlarged to include the western holdings of the American colonies. In the American Revolutionary War, starting in 1775, the British made Halifax, Nova Scotia, their major base for naval action. They repulsed an American revolutionary invasion in 1776, but in 1777 a British invasion army was captured in New York, encouraging France to enter the war.
After the American victory, between 40,000 and 60,000 defeated Loyalists migrated, some bringing their slaves. Most families were given free land to compensate their losses. Several thousand free blacks also arrived; most of them later went to Sierra Leone in Africa. The 14,000 Loyalists who went to the Saint John and Saint Croix river valleys, then part of Nova Scotia, were not welcome by the locals. Therefore, in 1784 the British split off New Brunswick as a separate colony. The Constitutional Act of 1791 created the provinces of Upper Canada (mainly English-speaking) and Lower Canada (mainly French-speaking) to defuse tensions between the French and English-speaking communities, and implemented governmental systems similar to those employed in Great Britain, with the intention of asserting imperial authority and not allowing the sort of popular control of government that was perceived to have led to the American Revolution.
Second British Empire
The loss of the Thirteen Colonies, Great Britain's most populous overseas possessions, which became the United States, marked the transition between the "first" and "second" empires, in which Britain shifted its attention away from the Americas to Asia, the Pacific and later Africa. Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, had argued that colonies were redundant, and that free trade should replace the old mercantilist policies that had characterised the first period of colonial expansion, dating back to the protectionism of Spain and Portugal. The growth of trade between the newly independent United States and Great Britain after 1781 confirmed Smith's view that political control was not necessary for economic success.
During its first century of operation the focus of the East India Company had been trade, not the building of an empire in India. Company interests turned from trade to territory during the 18th century as the Mughal Empire declined in power and the East India Company struggled with its French counterpart, the French East India Company (Compagnie française des Indes orientales) during the Carnatic Wars of the 1740s and 1750s. The Battle of Plassey and Battle of Buxar, which saw the British, led by Robert Clive, defeat the Indian powers, left the company in control of Bengal and a major military and political power in India. In the following decades it gradually increased the extent of the territories under its control, ruling either directly or indirectly via local puppet rulers under the threat of force by its Presidency armies, much of which were composed of native Indian sepoys.
Australia and New Zealand
In 1770, British explorer James Cook had discovered the eastern coast of Australia whilst on a scientific voyage to the South Pacific. In 1778, Joseph Banks, Cook's botanist on the voyage, presented evidence to the government on the suitability of Botany Bay for the establishment of a penal settlement. Australia marks the beginning of the Second British Empire. It was planned by the government in London and designed as a replacement for the lost American colonies. The American Loyalist James Matra in 1783 write "A Proposal for Establishing a Settlement in New South Wales" proposing the establishment of a colony composed of American Loyalists, Chinese and South Sea Islanders (but not convicts). Matra reasoned that the land country was suitable for plantations of sugar, cotton and tobacco; New Zealand timber and hemp or flax could prove valuable commodities; it could form a base for Pacific trade; and it could be a suitable compensation for displaced American Loyalists. At the suggestion of Secretary of State Lord Sydney, Matra amended his proposal to include convicts as settlers, considering that this would benefit both "Economy to the Publick, & Humanity to the Individual". The government adopted the basics of Matra's plan in 1784, and funded the settlement of convicts.
In 1787 the First Fleet set sail, carrying the first shipment of convicts to the colony. It arrived in January 1788.
Battling the French Revolution and Napoleon
With the regicide of King Louis XVI in 1793, the French Revolution represented a contest of ideologies between the two nations. It was not only Britain's position on the world stage that was threatened: Napoleon, who came to power in 1799, threatened invasion of Great Britain itself, and with it, a fate similar to the countries of continental Europe that his armies had overrun. The Napoleonic Wars were therefore ones in which the British invested large amounts of capital and resources. French ports were blockaded by the Royal Navy.
The French Revolution revived religious and political grievances in Ireland. In 1798, Irish nationalists launched the Irish Rebellion of 1798, believing that the French would help them to overthrow the British.
William Pitt the Younger, the British prime minister, firmly believed that the only solution to the problem was a union of Great Britain and Ireland. Following the defeat of the rebellion, which had had some assistance from France, he advanced this policy. The union was established by the Act of Union 1800; compensation and patronage ensured the support of the Irish Parliament. Great Britain and Ireland were formally united on 1 January 1801.
House of Stuart
House of Hanover
Parliament of Great Britain
The Parliament of Great Britain consisted of the House of Lords, an unelected upper house of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and the House of Commons, the lower chamber, which was elected periodically. In England and Wales parliamentary constituencies remained unchanged throughout the existence of the Parliament.
During the 18th century, the British Constitution developed significantly.
Peerage of Great Britain
As a result of the Union of 1707, no new peerages were created in the Peerage of England or the Peerage of Scotland. English peerages continued to carry the right to a seat in the House of Lords, while the Scottish peers elected representative peers from among their own number to sit in the Lords. Peerages continued to be created by the Crown, either in the new Peerage of Great Britain, which was that of the new kingdom and meant a seat in its House of Lords, or in the Peerage of Ireland, giving the holder a seat in the Irish House of Lords.