Sunday, July 30, 2017

Episode 003: The British Background

Last week I gave a brief introduction to the colonies.  Today I want to go though a brief history of England during the colonial period so we all know where they are coming from.

King Henry VIII Leaves the Church

King Henry VIII
British interest in colonization really began to take hold during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII had forced England to convert to Protestantism.  This move separated England from mostly Catholic Europe.

Henry had broken with Church order to divorce and remarry.  He wanted to sire a male heir and provide for a stable transition to the next generation.  Leaving the Catholic Church, however, created massive instability for England for the next two centuries.

Many members of the royal family, including several who were in line to inherit the Crown, remained Catholic, leading to power struggles. Elizabeth even had her own cousin, the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots killed as part of those struggles.

The English Protestant reformation which Henry began also led to religious radicals pushing the government even further.  They argued that the Anglican Church remained “too Catholic” in its doctrine and practices.  They fought for a purer form of Protestantism like Luther and Calvin were promoting on the continent.  These Puritans would eventually start the English Civil War and would also be a large part of the colonization movement.

Britain Gets Interested in Colonization

Queen Elizabeth I
During the reign of Elizabeth, many British grew wealthy by raiding Spanish treasure galleons. Piracy was probably Britain's largest cash industry, although when the Queen supported it, they called it privateering.  Private adventurers would receive letters of marque from the Queen, authorizing them to raid and plunder ships belonging to whatever country England was fighting at the time.

Seeing the literally tons of gold, silver, and other valuables that Spain brought back from its American colonies, many British adventurers thought it might not be a bad idea to get their own piece of the action. Spain had done its best to explore, conquer, and colonize as much of the Americas as quickly as it could.  But after a century, there were still many hundreds of miles of coast that had only seen an occasional explorer, with no real settlements.  Deciding that possession of the land through occupied colonies was a path to riches and power, Britain got into the colony game. Armed with a powerful navy, British colonists spread all over the world. North America was only one destination.  Others were the Caribbean, India, Africa, and the far east.

Hopes of finding large piles of gold and silver in America did not really work out.  Instead, the colonists focused on cash crops. Setting up colonies was not easy.  These were wilderness areas. Colonists had to cut down forests, clear fields, build towns, all in addition to trying to grow their own food, let alone cash crops for investors at home.  It could be difficult to convince people to pull up stakes, make an expensive and dangerous sea crossing, only to land in a wilderness where starvation, disease, and Indian attack were common ends.  England had to populate America to make colonial claims stick against other European claims. In addition to offering the promise of cheap land and potential wealth, England found that promises of religious freedom was a good lure for many.

Essentially, Britain’s long term strategy was to tell lots of people to go settle in North America and be British.  In return for this nominal loyalty, the government mostly left them alone, levied no taxes, and did not enforce much of any restrictions.  The British provided military and diplomatic support for colonists.  The benefit to Britain was the hugely profitable trade in raw materials from its colonies.

The fact is, the 1600’s and early 1700’s were turbulent times for Britain.  It had neither the time nor inclination to get involved in colonial affairs.  The domestic situation took up far too much of its time and attention.  When Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603 she left no heirs (a major downside of being “the Virgin Queen”).  The next in line was the son of her deceased cousin, Mary Queen of Scots.

King James I

King James I
James was already King James VI of Scotland, not yet united with England.  He was also a Protestant, unlike his mother. When he became King James I of England, he would rule over both England and Scotland as separate countries. Although a Protestant, James was a little too tolerant of Catholics.  This enraged Puritan elements within the nobility.  James never got along with the Puritans.  James also focused on establishing better relations with Catholic Spain.  This did not win him any points with the Puritans either.

Like many monarchs James approved of colonization, but did not give it much attention.  He allowed private companies to set up colonies with his approval.  But private investors took all the risks and management headaches.  He approved the Virginia Company’s settlement of British colonies in Bermuda and Virginia (Jamestown being named in his honor).  Although he paid it little attention, the Plymouth Colony in modern day Massachusetts also commenced towards the end of his reign.

King Charles I

King Charles I
Following James’ death in 1625, his son King Charles I ascended to the throne.  From the very beginning, things did not go well.  For starters, Charles married the 15 year old daughter of the French King.  The fact that the 25 year old Charles was marrying a 15 year old girl was no scandal.  The fact that she was a Catholic was very much so.  The King was trying to develop better relations with Catholic France.  This did not sit well with English puritans. That the King also appointed Catholics to important positions within his administration only worsened things.

Parliament refused to grant the new King any money.  By tradition, Parliament would set an annual allowance for a new King, through which he would run the government.  Parliament refused to do so until the King addressed their grievances.  Charles tried to summon new Parliaments several times but could not get an agreeable Parliament to meet.  In the end, he ruled for 11 years without a Parliament.  This was tricky since the government could not raise money without Parliament.  Instead, the King had to resort to legal loopholes to raise money.

For example, existing law permitted the King to demand ships from his nobles in time of emergency.  If the noble did not have a ship capable of use in naval service, he could provide money in lieu of a ship.  Since the King could define whatever he liked as an emergency without challenge, King Charles simply declared an emergency for no reason and demanded “ship money” from his nobles.

Some Puritans grew so frustrated with Charles’ rule, that they left the country and formed the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  Charles was happy to be rid of them and granted them a Royal Charter to go live with the troublesome Pilgrims across the Atlantic.  Charles also granted a Royal Charter to George Calvert, Lord Baltimore, an influential member of government who inconveniently declared himself a Catholic and was forced to resign from most of his government positions.  He eventually thought it best to leave England and received a charter to settle the Colony of Maryland (named after Charles’ Catholic wife, Queen Henrietta Maria).

During this same period, other countries took advantage of the British neglect.  The Swedes set up a colony in what is today Delaware, and the Dutch established a colony in what is now New York.

Charles did not have time to focus on colonies.  He had to give his attention to fighting with Parliament.  Eventually those political battles gave way to real military battles in the English Civil War.  Charles eventually lost his head, literally, to Parliamentary forces and England no longer had a King.

Oliver Cromwell

Oliver Cromwell
Following the Civil War, Oliver Cromwell, a former member of Parliament and leader of the Parliamentary army that overthrew King Charles, became “Lord Protector of the Realm.” He was essentially King in all but name for about a decade, from 1649-1658.  He spent most of this time blocking royalist challenges and subduing Ireland.  Cromwell mostly ignored North America.  A large number of royalists, however, decided to head for Virginia during the reign of Cromwell, mostly to avoid punishment for opposing him in the Civil War.

Cromwell’s death in 1658 saw his son take control.  Richard Cromwell never achieved a satisfactory power sharing arrangement between the army and Parliament.  Within a year, King Charles II, son of Charles I, overthrew Cromwell and restored the monarchy.

Tories and Whigs

Before getting into the restoration monarchy, I want to talk about parties.  The English Civil War gave birth to the two political parties that would dominate English politics for centuries.  The Tory party was the political party of the Cavaliers, the Royalists who supported King Charles I during the Civil War and the restoration of Charles II.  The Whig party was the political child of the Roundheads, the Puritans who supported Cromwell and Parliament against the King.

The Roundheads got their name from the fact that they wore short and close cropped hair, making their heads look round when compared to the long flowing manes of the royalist cavaliers.  One might be tempted to think that starting to wear wigs over that short hair gave rise to the name of the Whig Party, but that is not the case.  The term "Whig" was originally a pejorative term derived from the Scottish “whiggamore” one who wrangled horses, what we would call a cowboy.  By the time of the English Civil War, the term "Whig" essentially meant a country bumpkin, not too bright or street smart.  Members of this new party eventually decided to “own” the pejorative and take it as their name.

The other party’s name “Tory” was also a pejorative originally referring to Irish outlaws, often Catholics who had been forced off their land and into a life of crime.  It began to be used in politics as a reference to supporters of the pro-Catholic King James and several of his Catholic descendants. Like the Whigs, the Tories decided to “own” the term after a time and adopted it as their party name.

King Charles II

King Charles II
After his restoration to the throne in 1660, Charles II reigned for twenty-five years.  Between his work restoring the authority of the Crown, dealing with still hostile Puritans, an angry Ireland and Scotland, as well as the Great Plague of 1665 and the Great Fire of London in 1666, he might be forgiven for neglecting the colonies and foreign policy.  But Charles actually showed a keener interest in the colonies than most of his predecessors.

Part of the reason was a war with the Netherlands.  England and France united in war against the Netherlands during the late 1660’s and 1670’s.  As part of this War, Charles decided to take the New Netherlands colonies and bring them under English control.  This assured that the area that is now New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware would come under British authority.  In addition, Charles attempted to create the failed Dominion of New England, which I discussed last week.

Charles provided a royal charter in 1663 for the colony of Carolina (the name derived from the latin name for Charles).  He appointed eight Lords Proprietors to rule the colony, which had already been settled by Virginia Colonists moving south for at least a decade.

Charles’ reign also saw the creation of the Pennsylvania colony in 1682.  This was not a Royal initiative.  William Penn was the son of a British Admiral.  Early in life, Penn converted to the Quaker faith, which was outlawed in England.  Penn lived in Ireland for a time, and worked with Quakers establishing a colony in New Jersey.  After the death of his father, Penn asked Charles to repay a large debt by providing him with land in America.  The King granted the request, and Penn set about encouraging colonists to settle there.

King James II

King James II
Before Charles II’s plans for the Dominion of New England could be implemented, he died in 1685, leaving implementation to his brother, King James II.  As we discussed last week, the New Englanders were not happy about this initiative and did everything they could to resist.  There likely would have been a real showdown, but for the intervention of other events in England.

James II took a decidedly pro-Catholic stance in England.  He actually wanted to appoint Catholics to government offices.  This was too much for the Protestant leadership.  Resistance to his policies eventually forced James to suspend Parliament and put down a bloody revolt.

Years earlier, James’ daughter Mary had been married off to the Dutch Prince William of Orange.  This marriage helped repair ties with the Netherlands after years of war.  Sorry about taking all your colonies, would you like my daughter?  William of Orange’s mother was the daughter of King Charles I, meaning that William and Mary were first cousins and both had strong British ties.  Parliament decided that James’ support for Catholicism disqualified him to continue as King.  Mary therefore should be the rightful heir to the throne.  Parliament invited William and Mary to come take control of England.

As you might imagine, King James was not happy about this.  But he also saw that this would not end well for him.  He no longer had political or military support.  Rather than attempt a fight, James fled to France where he lived out the remainder of his life, but at least with his head firmly attached to his body.  Parliament decided that James’ abandonment of the country constituted an abdication of the throne.

William and Mary

King William & Queen Mary
In 1689, William and Mary took the throne of England in what became known as the Glorious Revolution.  Their reign marked the establishment of several fundamental Constitutional reforms that made Parliament more powerful than the King.  Some were part of the English Bill of Rights.  Others were separate legislation. The King could not maintain a standing army without the consent of Parliament.  The Mutiny Act required parliamentary approval of the armed forces on a yearly basis.  The King could not spend any money without Parliament’s consent.  Parliament also established the Bank of England to manage government finances rather than leaving that authority with the King. The Settlement Act of 1701 prevented the King from going to war without Parliament’s approval.

The Settlement Act also created separation of powers by preventing members of the House of Commons from holding other public office.  It subjected ministerial appointments to parliamentary approval.  Parliament also took control of judges by denying the King the authority to remove them from office.  Under the new, law judges had to be impeached by Parliament.

Finally, Parliament took authority for determining succession.   No person could become King if he was Catholic, or married to a Catholic.  This had the immediate effect of nullifying competing claims by King James II’s Catholic children.

With all the massive changes in government during their reign, William and Mary did little to change colonial affairs.  They are probably best remembered in America for their 1693 decision to sign a royal charter for William and Mary College in Virginia.

Queen Anne

Queen Anne
Queen Mary died in 1694 and William in 1702, without children.  The nearest Protestant relative was Mary’s sister Anne.  Parliament handed the crown to Queen Anne, who ruled for 12 years. Although married, she never had any children who lived beyond infancy.  Her reign was almost entirely consumed by the War of Spanish Succession, which embroiled all the great powers of Europe in War from 1701 until 1714.  She died shortly after the Treaty of Utrecht ended that war. Part of the agreement gave Britain control of Gibraltar in southern Spain, as well as Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and the Hudson Bay territories in what is today Canada.

Anne’s reign also saw the Act of Union, which formally brought England and Scotland under common rule as a single nation in 1707.

Anne also had to contend with a half-brother named James who claimed the throne.  James probably would have become King, but for the fact that he was Catholic.  In 1708, James attempted to invade Scotland, with the backing of the French, but was unsuccessful.  He remained living in Europe as a continuing threat to the Queen’s reign.

With all this going on, Anne paid little attention to the North American colonies.  She did however make one lasting fashion contribution.  Until Anne’s death, all judges wore robes of different colors.  They started wearing black robes to mourn her death.  The black robes stayed and remain to this day.

King George I

King George I
After Anne’s death in 1714, there was no immediate heir to the throne who was not a Catholic.  Parliament had to reach quite far before they found King George I.  George was the Elector of Hanover, a small German State on the continent.  He did not speak English, and as far as I can tell had never been to England.  His mother, Sophia, was the granddaughter of King James I, which is how he found his way into the line of succession.  There were actually more than 50 people in line ahead of him, but they were were either Catholic or married to a Catholic.

King George I arrived in England to mixed reviews.  Many Tories and others objected to the idea of a German prince ruling England.  But Whigs, afraid of a Catholic monarch, felt this was the only option.  George seemed to take little interest in English affairs.  After being crowned, he returned home to Hanover, where he spent much of his reign.  To the extent George was interested in English Politics, it was to use the English military to back his ongoing European disputes.

During his absences, a Regency Council performed royal duties. Since the King did not typically attend meetings of his ministry, the ministers had to pick a leader.  They instituted the new office of Prime Minister. If the King did not care much about English affairs, he cared even less about the English colonies, which he ignored almost completely.  George I ruled from 1714 until his death in 1727.

King George II

King George II
His son George II was also born and raised in Hanover, in modern day Germany. He spoke German, married a German wife, and was over 30 years old before it even became clear that his father would become King of England.  Also, like his father, he never learned to speak English very well and spent most of his reign far more focused on his rule in Hanover.  George II was a little more engaged in English affairs than his father, but that is not saying much.  He tended to defer more to his ministers and Parliament and kept the office of Prime Minister to run things..

England embroiled itself in multiple European wars during the reign of George II.  The War of Jenkins’ Ear merged into the War of Austrian Succession, pitting England against Spain and France in continuing fighting.  In 1756, near the end of his reign, England began the Seven Years War with France.  We will discuss this war, also known in America as the French and Indian war in more detail in future episodes.

Aside from the French and Indian War, the American colonies did not get much attention from George II or the Parliament during his reign.  Focus was more on Europe.  His reign saw the last British colony in North America: Georgia, named after the King.  James Oglethorpe, a former British Army officer had devoted much of his life to helping the poor of London.  Oglethorpe believed many of these poor people would have a much better life in the new world.  So, he got royal approval to found the Colony.  Georgia served as a barrier between South Carolina and the Spanish in Florida and the French in Louisiana.  With strong animosity between the English and the French and Spanish, English control of the area between the two provided a strategic benefit.  Georgia began as a charter in 1731, to be run by trustees.  The Trustees were unable to develop a viable self government and it became a Royal colony in 1752.

King George III

King George III
George II died in 1760, allowing his grandson George III to ascend the throne.  George III’s father Frederick, had been destined to be King.  Frederick, however, died before his father, thus leaving the throne to George III.

I will discuss King George III in more detail in future episodes since he will be a primary player in the American Revolution.  For now, I just want to say that George was an ambitious King.  He wanted the King to be more than a figurehead. George III also ruled Hanover, like his Grandfather and Great-Grandfather.  Unlike them, though, George III seemed to focus more on England first and Hanover second.


Covering a few centuries of history in a few pages obviously means we must leave out a great deal. The key points I want you to remember are that we generally see an erosion of Royal power and the rise of parliamentary government.  We see the development of limits on government and an acceptance of the idea of Constitutional rights.  Most importantly, with the continuing internal and external distractions in Europe, we see the American colonies largely ignored.  They grow and prosper with little direction from the mother country.

Next week: a brief background on the tensions between England and France, as well as an introduction to the Native American tribes.

Next Episode 4: Britain, France, and the Indians

Previous Episode 2: The American Background

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Further Reading


Further Reading:


British History Online, good general source for everything about British History:

Britannia: This site provides a good summary of Monarchical reigns:

War of Jenkins Ear: an interesting artlicle on how the War led to the creation of Georgia:

BBC British History: another good overview of this era:

British Civil War Project:

More on the English Civil War:

Free eBooks
(from unless otherwise noted)

Queen Elizabeth, by Jacob Abbott, (1901).

Charles I, by Jacob Abbott (1876).

Charles II, by Osmund Airy (1904).

Oliver Cromwell, by George H Clark (1893).

James I. and VI. by T.F. Henderson (1904).

Memoirs of the secret services of John Macky, esq., during the reigns of King William, Queen Anne, and King George I,  by John Macky (1733) - This is an original account by an official who served through these administrations.

A History of the Church of England, by George Gresley Perry (1879).

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)

Ackroyd, Peter Rebellion: The History of England from James I to the Glorious Revolution, Thomas Dunne Books, 2014 - This is more of a novel style of writing.  It is long but very good.

Hatton, Ragnhild George I, (The English Monarchs Series) Yale Univ. Press, 2001.

Massie, Allan The Royal Stuarts: A History of the Family That Shaped Britain, Thomas Dunne Books, 2013 - Covers the early rule of this line of Scottish Kings through the ascension of King James I to the English throne, through the Civil War until the end of the reign of William and Mary.

Richter, Daniel Before the Revolution: America’s Ancient Past, Belknap Press, 2011.

Thompson, Andrew C. George II: King and Elector (The English Monarchs Series), Yale Univ. Press, 2013.

Worden, Blair, The English Civil Wars: 1640-1660Weidenfeld & Nicolson2010.


If you enjoy podcasts, I heartily recommend Revolutions by Mike Duncan.  I found his detailed podcast of the English Civil War very enjoyable.  Free MP3 recordings of each episode are available for download.

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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