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Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
The first decades
     National identity
     Act of Union
     Hanoverians and Jacobites
     The Whig supremacy
     South Sea Bubble
     The age of Walpole
     Palladian stately homes

War 1744-63
America 1763-83
The economy 1767-92
Ireland 1778-1800
Napoleon 1800-15
The need for reform
Victorian era 1837-1854
Victorian era 1854-1901
World War II
Northern Ireland
Devolution and reform

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Great Britain: from1707

The inhabitants of Britain - the island containing England, Wales and Scotland - live in a state of some confusion over their group identity. Their cars, travelling abroad, display the letters GB (for Great Britain). Their diplomats, at international conferences, sit behind the letters UK (for United Kingdom).

Neither phrase is much used in ordinary conversation. The English, by far the majority within the United Kingdom, have a tendency to call their nation England - with notorious disregard for the sensibilities of the Welsh and the Scots, with whom they have been linked since 1536 and 1707 respectively.


The more widely acceptable name, also in common use, is Britain. Its prevalence is reflected in phrases such as the British empire (something which even the English have never claimed as their own) and in the colloquial modern term 'Brits' for inhabitants of the island.

Historically 'united kingdom' begins life in informal use during the 18th century to describe the newly combined nation of England and Scotland. It becomes official in 1800, in the Act of Union with Ireland, when the enlarged kingdom is called the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The earlier Act of Union, of 1707, states merely that England and Scotland shall 'be united into one kingdom by the name of Great Britain'.


Act of Union: 1707

Given the centuries of hostility between Scotland and England, with warfare even in the 17th century under a shared Stuart king, the union of the two kingdoms seems to come with surprising suddeness. It has been under discussion for a considerable time, for James VI and I tries to achieve it after inheriting the English throne in 1603. But the idea meets with little favour (although imposed during the Commonwealth) until the early 18th century.

The motivation in 1707 is largely economic for the Scots and political for the English.


Scotland has recently suffered a disastrous failure in setting up a colony in 1698 in Darien, on the isthmus of Panama. By the time the experiment is abandoned, in 1700, it is estimated to have cost 200,000 and some 2000 lives. Tariff-free access to all English markets, both in Britain and in the developing colonies, seems commercially a rather more attractive option.

For England, engaged in lengthy wars with the French (who are sympathetic to the exiled Stuart dynasty), it is attractive to remove the danger of any threat from the country's only land border. The union of the kingdoms creates an island realm.


The Act of Union abolishes the Scottish parliament, giving the Scots instead a proportion of the seats at Westminster (forty-five in the commons, sixteen in the lords). Scotland's legal system, radically different from English common law, is specifically safeguarded.

There is unrest and warfare in Scotland during much of the 18th century because a strong faction, particularly in the Highlands, supports the Jacobite cause (the claim to the throne of the exiled Stuarts). This discontent erupts twice, in the rebellions of 1715 and 1745. But the majority of Scots are content with a new role in a kingdom united under the title Great Britain. A renewal of Scottish nationalism must await the 20th century.


Hanoverians and Jacobites: 1714-1715

The death of Queen Anne in August 1714 brings into effect the Act of Settlement of 1701. Anne's heir under that legislation, the electress Sophia of Hanover, has died just two months previously. So the new king is Sophia's son, the elector of Hanover, who arrives in England in September as George I.

His accession to the throne is peaceful but nevertheless controversial. As in 1688, the inheritance is a political issue between Whigs and Tories. Some Tories still hanker for a return to the direct line of the Stuart kings. The infant whose birth sparked the crisis in 1688 is now living in France as James Stuart, known in English history as the Old Pretender. His father, James II, has died in 1701. In terms of divine right, he is the undeniable heir.


James is a devout Roman Catholic and has resisted the argument recently put forward by some in the Tory party that he should convert to Protestantism and reclaim his father's crown. He is sustained in his hopes by a small but passionate minority which supports his claim regardless of religion.

This faction, remaining loyal to James II and now to James his son, becomes known as the Jacobites (from the Latin Jacobus for James). Jacobite feeling is strongest in the Highlands of Scotland, where the Massacre of Glencoe has given the cause some martyrs in the first years of James II's exile.


A Jacobite uprising in Scotland, launched by the earl of Mar in September 1715, tempts James to cross from France later that year. He lands in December and goes to Scone, where preparations are under way for his coronation. But, finding his supporters disorganized and incompetent, the Old Pretender decides that discretion should indeed be the better part of valour. By February he is back in France.

The fiasco of this uprising of 1715, often known simply as the Fifteen, ensures that the Hanoverians are secure on the English throne. But the Jacobite cause remains a romantic one, passionately held. It surfaces again thirty years later in a final and more serious attempt, the Forty-Five, led by the Young Pretender, Bonnie Prince Charlie.


The Whig supremacy: 1714-1784

From the accession of George I the Tory party suffers from two major disabilities. Its leaders, Oxford and Bolingbroke, have been active in the Jacobite cause (indeed Bolingbroke flees to France in 1715, escaping impeachment, and becomes secretary of state to the Old Pretender). The result is that the Tory name bears the taint of treachery.

In addition, the party itself is profoundly split on the Jacobite-Hanoverian issue. At least half the Tories are in the Hanoverian camp because of their loyalty to the Anglican religion.


When George I forms a Whig ministry in 1714, rewarding his own faction, he initiates a period of seventy years in which the Tories lack effective influence. They will not recover a significant role in British politics until the party regroups in 1784 under the young William Pitt.

For much of this time the Whigs, as a party, are not in power either. George III, on the throne from 1760, contrives to rule with cronies and factions irrespective of their party allegiance. Meanwhile in the early years, from 1714 to 1720, the Whigs are so divided among themselves that they provide their own opposition. But a financial crisis of 1720, the South Sea Bubble, brings to power the great Whig minister Robert Walpole.


South Sea Bubble: 1720

The company at the centre of England's notorious bubble of 1720 has been in business for nearly ten years. It was established in 1711 as the South Sea Company, with a monopoly of British trade to South America and the Pacific. It first becomes a fashionable share to buy in 1718, when the king becomes a governor.

The bubble begins only in 1720, prompted by a scheme for the company to take over much of the national debt. This is done by offering holders of government bonds the chance to exchange them, at an extremely beneficial rate, for shares in the company. The price of the shares begins to rise, in a self-perpetuating frenzy of excitement which takes no account of any underlying value.


By August the price is eight times higher than in January, but the slump once it begins is even more rapid. In December the shares are back to their January level, representing a fall of nearly 90% in a few months (even so, this is a modest crash in percentage terms compared to the contemporary Mississippi Bubble in France).

As many fortunes are made on the way up as are lost on the way down. But in an age without financial regulation the turmoil and the pain inevitably raise suspicions of corruption. The king and his German mistresses, along with certain government ministers, are noticed to have done well.


Meanwhile the investment frenzy has made possible the launch of a great many other speculative schemes, the majority of which (unlike the South Sea Company itself) are fraudulent. In these cases fortunes pass directly from the gullible to the criminal.

The bad taste left by these experiences leads to the rapid passing of the Bubble Act before the end of the year. For a little over a century, until repealed in 1825, it restricts the forming of joint-stock companies, harming the honest entrepreneur as much as deterring the confidence trickster. In practice legal loopholes are found. Many joint-stock companies are set up under other names in Britain during the 18th century, particularly in insurance.


The age of Walpole: 1721-42

The politician to benefit most from the South Sea Bubble is Robert Walpole, a leading Whig. He has the good luck to sell his own shares near the top of the market, laying the foundation of his fortune, yet his hands are clean politically.

Walpole holds high government office from 1715, as first lord of the treasury and chancellor of the exchequer, until he resigns in 1717 on an issue of foreign policy. He is therefore out of office during the build up towards the crisis of 1720. Moreover he argues forcefully against the South Sea Company being allowed to offer its shares in place of government bonds.


In the turmoil following the financial chaos of 1720 Walpole manages to preserve Whig control of parliament. In 1721 he is again appointed to his two earlier posts, as first lord of the treasury and chancellor of the exchequer. He holds both offices until 1742, developing a personal control over the British political system unrivalled in length by any minister before or since.

Walpole himself always rejects the term 'prime minister', but he is subsequently regarded as the first British politician to have held that office.


In building and maintaining his power, Walpole is shameless in placing allies in lucrative posts. His success launches a political system of jobbery and corruption which prevails in Britain for a century and more, until swept away by the Reform Act of 1832. Nevertheless, in Walpole's case, it works.

Walpole expects from his placemen loyalty and regular atttendance in the House of Commons in support of his two main aims - to preserve the house of Hanover on the throne, against smouldering Jacobite opposition, and to provide the prosperity which he believes will breed contentment with both Hanoverians and Whigs.


The thrust of his policy is lower taxation, increased trade and peace abroad - excellent intentions which Walpole does much to achieve. Late in his administration, and to his distress, he fails to prevent Britain going to war with Spain in 1739 after the dramatic episode of Jenkins' Ear (see the War of Jenkins' Ear). This conflict merges, in the following year, in the broader War of the Austrian Succession.

Walpole resigns during the war, in 1742, and retires to Houghton Hall, the house which he has built in Norfolk. In his creation of this great mansion, containing a superb collection of pictures, Walpole is a grandee very much of his time. For this is one of Britain's first stately homes in the Palladian style.


Palladianism and the English stately home: 18th century

Britain in the early 18th century is the scene of a strong reaction against the self-indulgence of baroque architecture, replacing it with the clear-cut classical lines of Palladio. The style of the great Venetian architect is known in England only from his four books of designs (the Quattro Libri) and from the London masterpieces of an enthusiast returning from Italy, Inigo Jones. These are the Banqueting House in Whitehall (1622) and the Queen's House in Greenwich (1629-40).

Inigo Jones's pioneering work in the Palladian style remains very little imitated for the rest of the 17th century, a period dominated by baroque.


Baroque still prevails in the early 18th century as the preferred style for any grandee planning a magnificent country seat. The most obvious examples are two buildings designed by Vanbrugh and Hawksmoor in partnership - Castle Howard for the earl of Carlisle in 1700-26, Blenheim Palace for the duke of Marlborough in 1705-22.

But while Castle Howard and Blenheim are under construction, the prevailing fashion changes. A collection of classical designs in the Palladian style is published in 1715, under the title Vitruvius Britannicus, by a British architect, Colen Campbell.


Vitruvius Britannicus launches a new fashion in 18th-century England. In 1717 the earl of Burlington employs Campbell to remodel his London house in Piccadilly in the Palladian style. In 1722 Robert Walpole commissions him to build Houghton Hall, a large Palladian country house in Norfolk.

Significantly, in this transition period, Walpole adds cupolas at the corners of Campbell's design, giving a touch of baroque. Perhaps he feels the need for a little more of the grandeur of Blenheim or Castle Howard.


Aristocrats all over Britain soon follow the fashion, providing themselves with Palladian or neoclassical mansions in which they can enjoy their surrounding estates. Country seats spring up with pillared porticos to impress the outside world and with interiors graced by columned halls (like Roman basilicas) or domed reception areas (echoing the Pantheon). The stately home becomes a feature of the British countryside.

The demand keeps many distinguished architects exremely busy (none more so than Robert Adam towards the end of the century). Meanwhile the proud owners also require a surrounding landscape of equal elegance, to delight the eye from the windows of the house.


Landscape gardening is a very ancient profession. Potentates have always wanted to beautify their surroundings, from the hanging gardens of Babylon to the formal vistas of Versailles. But the landowners of Britain add a new element in the 18th century.

Instead of the formal arrangements fashionable in earlier periods, they now want a landscape which looks natural - but rather better than nature on her own can achieve in the agricultural regions of England or Scotland. This requires a new sort of landscape gardener (pre-eminent among them Capability Brown), who will create lakes and waterfalls, wooded slopes, ancient temples and romantic ruins to achieve an impression of the effortlessly picturesque.


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