In this lesson, we will study Great Britain in the 18th century. We will explore the monarchs of the era, the country’s major political and economic developments, and Britain’s participation in the century’s wars.
Anne and the Three Kings Named George
At the dawn of the 18th century, the elderly William III sat on the English throne. As husband of the late Queen Mary Stuart, the childless king faced serious problems of who would rule after him. Most of the other Stuarts, who were living in exile in France, were Catholic and would not be accepted by the Protestant majority of Englishmen. Mary’s sister, Anne, was a good choice, but she, too, lacked heirs.
The 1701 Act of Settlement resolved the issue by declaring that all future monarchs had to be in communion with the Church of England. Anne would rule next, and after her death, the throne would pass to the Electress Sophia of the House of Hanover, a German.William died in 1702 and was succeeded by Anne, who ruled until 1714. By that time, Sophia had also passed on, but her son, George I, became the king of England. He was quite unpopular with the English people. After all, he didn’t even speak English, and he wasn’t all that interested in ruling England. When he died in 1727, his son, George II, assumed the throne.
This George led England straight into two wars, but he didn’t care much about politics, and he usually let his ministers run the show. At his death in 1760, George III stepped up to reign. His reputation suffered when he lost a few important colonies during the American Revolution, but he was still in power at the turn of the 19th century.There were some Englishmen who resented having the German Hanovers as kings. These Jacobites, as they were called, supported the remaining Stuarts, who twice led them in rebellion against the current king.
Both times, in 1715 and 1745, the uprisings failed, and the House of Hanover remained securely on the English throne.
Politically, the 18th century was an active era for England. In 1707, the Act of Union officially created Great Britain by uniting Scotland and England. Around the same time, two political parties were gaining power: the Whigs, who were typically liberal, focused on internal reform and placing more power in the hands of the people, and the Tories, who tended to be conservative, were devoted to concentrating power in the hands of the monarch and government. As the century progressed, the Whigs, supported by the Hanover kings, became dominant, while the Tories, some of whom supported the Jacobites, faded into the background.
Leading Whig ministers of the day included the powerful Robert Walpole and William Pitt.
A Growing Nation
Great Britain was a rapidly growing nation in the 18th century. Its population doubled between 1721 and 1821, jumping from 7.1 million to 14.
2 million. The economy was already strong as the century dawned due to steady agriculture, a solid commercial and manufacturing sector, and several scientific advances. As the century progressed, industrial development skyrocketed, especially in the iron and textile industries. Factories sprang up across the country, boosted by new discoveries in manufacturing techniques and fuel sources. Transportation networks spread rapidly.
Cities boomed. Trade blossomed. Even agriculture continued to expand in productivity. Britain was well on its way to becoming a fully industrialized nation.
War, War, and More War
Not everything was rosy for the 18th-century Britain, however. War constantly loomed on the horizon or burst out with all its violence to consume British men and resources.
Early in the century, Britain became involved in the War of the Spanish Succession from 1702 to 1713. The Habsburgs of Austria and the Bourbons of France both wanted to sit on the Spanish throne. Britain supported the Habsburgs, but bowed out of the war in 1713, gaining some territory and a valuable contract to supply slaves to the Spanish colonies.
The next year, the Habsburgs lost the war.From 1740 to 1748, Britain again supported Austria against Prussia, France, and Spain in the War of the Austrian Succession. While Austria and Prussia battled over territory, Britain and Spain fought over trade conflicts, and France strove for European and colonial domination. The Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, in 1748, settled the territorial conflict between Austria and Prussia, but did nothing to alleviate the growing tension between Britain and France. In 1756, war broke out again. In this conflict, called the Seven Years’ War, France supported Austria, so Britain backed Prussia. This time, France took a hard hit, and by the time the war ended in 1763, Britain had captured the French colonies in Canada and India.
A Great Loss
By this time, Britain was already starting to have some problems with its 13 North American colonies. Colonists were quickly becoming tired of taxes and British heavy-handedness. The mother country insisted that the colonies should help pay for the recent wars, and between 1764 and 1767, it imposed a series of taxes on such products as sugar, tea, and stamps. Colonial voices quickly raised the cry of ‘No taxation without representation!’Britain backed down for the most part, repealing all the taxes except for the one on tea, but the rebellious colonial spirit only grew, breaking out in the Boston Tea Party on December 16, 1773, when upset colonists tossed 342 chests of tea into Boston Harbor. Repercussions fell quickly, but they only increased colonial resistance. War soon broke out, and the colonists declared their independence on July 4, 1776.
In 1783, the British army surrendered at Yorktown. The American Revolution was over, and the humiliated Britain withdrew from the new United States of America and went home to deal with new issues and threats, including ever-growing industrialization, Irish rebellion, and soon, a new conflict with revolutionary France.
In the early 18th century, Britain was ruled by the last Stuart monarch, Queen Anne. Then, thanks to the 1701 Act of Settlement, three kings – George I, George II, and George III – of the German House of Hanover assumed the English throne.
The Jacobites resented Hanover rule and rebelled twice, unsuccessfully attempting to put Stuart kings back in power.Politically, the 18th century was an active era for England. In 1707, the Act of Union officially created Great Britain by uniting Scotland and England. Two political parties, the Whigs and the Tories, battled for political supremacy.
The nation was also growing rapidly in population and industrialization.War was commonplace for 18th-century Britain as their country participated in the War of the Spanish Succession from 1702 to 1713, the War of the Austrian Succession from 1740 to 1748, and the Seven Years’ War from 1756 to 1763. Britain lost 13 North American colonies after surrendering to rebellious colonists at Yorktown in 1783 at the end of the American Revolution. The humiliated British headed home to deal with new issues and threats, including the French Revolution, which would soon occupy the attention of the whole world.
You should have the ability to do the following after this lesson:
- Identify the last of the Stuart monarchs and the impact of the 1701 Act of Settlement
- Explain the purpose of the Act of Union and the differences between the Whigs and the Tories
- Describe the wars that Britain engaged in during the 18th century