The former Kingdom of Great Britain, also described occasionally as the 'United Kingdom of Great Britain', was a sovereign state in northwest Europe, that existed from 1707 to 1801. It came into being on 1 May 1707, with the political union of the Kingdom of Scotland and the Kingdom of England (which included Wales). With the 1706 Treaty of Union (ratified by the Acts of Union 1707), it was agreed to create a single, united kingdom, encompassing the whole of the island of Great Britain and its minor outlying islands, excluding Ireland, which remained a separate realm under the newly created British crown. A single parliament and government, based at Westminster, controlled the new kingdom. The former kingdoms had already shared the same monarch since James VI, King of Scots became King of England in 1603 following the death of Queen Elizabeth I, bringing about a "Union of the Crowns".
The new Kingdom of Great Britain was superseded by the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland on 1 January 1801, when Great Britain was united with the Kingdom of Ireland by the Acts of Union of 1800 following the suppression of the Irish Rebellion of 1798. Most of Ireland left the union in 1922, leading to another renaming of the state in 1927, as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The later British states, albeit with territorial changes, are considered direct continuations of Great Britain rather than successor states.
The Treaty of Union and the subsequent Acts of Union themselves state explicitly that England and Scotland were to be "United into One Kingdom by the Name of Great Britain". They also refer to the new state as "One Kingdom", the "United Kingdom of Great Britain" and the "United Kingdom". 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". However, the state created by the union of England and Scotland in 1707 is usually referred to as the kingdom of Great Britain.
The term united kingdom is found in informal use during the 18th century to describe the newly combined nation of England and Scotland, but only officially became part of the name of the state with the Acts of Union of 1800, when it was specified as the name of the state after being united with the Kingdom of Ireland. The Historical Association stated in The Times in 2006 that "The United Kingdom did not come into being until 1800, with the Act of Union with Ireland," although an article on its website now refers to The Creation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain in 1707. In 1927 the departure of Southern Ireland from the United Kingdom five years before was recognised by the style of the British sovereign being changed, removing from it the term "United Kingdom". This was not reinstated until 1953.
The kingdoms of England and Scotland, both in existence from the 9th century, were separate states until the Acts of Union came into effect in 1707. However, they had come into 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 the English crown also ruled over the Kingdom of Ireland. Each of the 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. (However, Ireland remained formally separate until the Acts of Union 1801.) 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; rather than Scotland's Act of Security, which thus ceased to have effect. The Act of Settlement required that the heir to the English throne be a Protestant descendant of the Electress Sophia of Hanover; this brought about the Hanoverian succession only a few years after the Union.
Legislative power was vested in the Parliament of Great Britain, which formally replaced both the Parliament of England and the Parliament of Scotland. However, the new body was in practice a continuation of the English parliament, sitting at the same location in Westminster, albeit expanded to include representation from Scotland.
As with the former Parliament of England and the modern-day 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 only permitted to send sixteen 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 forty-five compared to their previous numbers at the Scottish parliament. Newly created peers in the Peerage of Great Britain were also given an automatic right to sit in the Lords.
Despite the end of a separate parliament for Scotland, however, the country retained its own laws and system of courts after the Union.
Relationship with Ireland
As a result of Poynings' Law of 1495, the Parliament of Ireland was subordinate to the authority of the Parliament of England, and after 1707 to the Parliament of Great Britain. In addition, 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 that sought to end the subordination and dependency upon the British crown and establish a Republic, was one of the factors which led to the Union between the kingdoms 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 becoming its main rival on the imperial stage.
The deeper political integration of Britain was a key policy of Queen Anne, the last Stuart monarch of England and Scotland and the first monarch of Great Britain. Under the aegis of the Queen and her advisors 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 the treaty. Having received royal assent, the Acts came into effect on May 1, 1707, uniting the separate Parliaments and crowns of England and Scotland and forming a united Kingdom of Great Britain. Anne became formally 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 the existing members from the Parliament of England in the new House of Commons of Great Britain.
The death of Charles II of Spain on 1 November 1700 and his bequeathal of Spain and its colonial empire to Philip of Anjou, a grandson of the King of France, had raised the prospect of the unification of France, Spain and their colonies, an unacceptable possibility for the other powers of Europe. In 1701, England, Portugal and the Netherlands sided with the Holy Roman Empire against Spain and France in the War of the Spanish Succession. The conflict, continued by the new state of Great Britain, lasted until 1714, with France and Spain proving the losers. 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 colonies, was territorially enlarged: from France, Britain gained Newfoundland and Acadia, and from Spain, Gibraltar and Minorca. Gibraltar, which is still a British overseas territory to this day, became a critical naval base and allowed Britain to control the Atlantic entry and exit point 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 Britain and its empire. In North America, France's future as a colonial power there was effectively ended with the ceding of New France to Britain, leaving a sizeable French-speaking population under British control, and Louisiana to Spain. Spain ceded Florida to Britain. In India, the Carnatic War had left France still in control of its enclaves but with military restrictions and an obligation to support British client states, effectively leaving the future of India to Britain. The British victory over France in the Seven Years War therefore left Britain as the world's dominant colonial power.
Mercantilism was the basic policy imposed by Britain on its colonies. 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 in order 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 Britain. 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 Britain became increasingly strained, primarily because of resentment of the British Parliament's ability to tax American colonists without their consent. Disagreement turned into violence, and in 1775, the American War of Independence began. The following year, the colonists declared the independence of the United States and with economic and naval assistance from France, would go on to win the war in 1783.
Second British Empire
The loss of the United States, at the time Britain's most populous colonies, marks 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 Britain after 1783 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 fran aise des Indes orientales) during the Carnatic Wars of the 1740s and 1750s. The Battle of Plassey, which saw the British, led by Robert Clive, defeat the French and their Indian allies, 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.
In 1770, 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, and in 1787 the first shipment of convicts set sail, arriving in 1788.
Wars with France
At the threshold to the 19th century, Britain was challenged again by France under Napoleon, in a struggle that, unlike previous wars, represented a contest of ideologies between the two nations. It was not only Britain's position on the world stage that was threatened: Napoleon threatened invasion of 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 that Britain invested large amounts of capital and resources to win. French ports were blockaded by the Royal Navy.
The French Revolution revived religious and political problems in the Kingdom of Ireland, under the rule of the King of Great Britain. 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 into a single realm, as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, on 1 January 1801.
The coat of arms of the 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 of Great Britain, the lower chamber, which was elected periodically. In England and Wales the 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 at Westminster, 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, but an Irish peerage gave the holder a seat only in the Irish House of Lords.
- Black, Jeremy. Crisis of Empire: Britain and America in the Eighteenth Century (2010) excerpt and text search
- Black, Jeremy. Culture in Eighteenth-Century England: A Subject for Taste (2007)
- Colley, Linda. Britons: Forging the Nation 1707 1837 (2nd ed. 2009) excerpt and text search
- Hilton, Boyd. A Mad, Bad, and Dangerous People?: England 1783 1846 (New Oxford History of England) (2008) excerpt and text search
- Langford, Paul. A Polite and Commercial People: England 1727 1783 (New Oxford History of England) (1994) excerpt and text search
- Porter, Roy. English Society in the Eighteenth Century (2nd ed. 1990) excerpt and text search
- Watson, J. Steven. The Reign of George III, 1760 1815 (Oxford History of England) (1960)
- Williams, Basil. The Whig Supremacy 1714 1760 (1939) online edition
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