Britain From The War Of Roses To These Days


Henry VIII. Had a son, Edward VI., but he was weak and died young.

Mary I (reigned 1553-58) was the first Queen Regnant. She wished to marry and have children to remove her half-sister Elizabeth from direct succession and leave a Catholic heir to the English throne. She married Philip, King of Spain in 1554 but the marriage was childless. Furthermore, the alliance with Spain dragged England into a war with France.

Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen ( reigned from 1558-1603) returned England back to Protestantism. She refused to marry or name her successor as marriage could have created foreign alliance difficulties. Her rightful heir was her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots who was beheaded. During her reign the seas were dominated by British ships. The first Enlgish colony was named Virginia in honour of the Queen.


Catholic Spain and Protestant England were enemies not only on account of religion, but mainly because of Spain’s attempt to prevent England trading with the New World. English sailors, led by such men as Sir Francis Drake, attacked Spanish ships and stole their treasure. The final provocation came when Elizabeth I agreed to le her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots, be executed for her involvemen in Spanish plots against her.
News came to Sir Francis Drake and his captains that there was a huge fleet – the „Armada“- slowly sailing up the Channel in order to land a great army of 20,000 soldiers sent by Philip of Spain. He had actually counted on help in England, but he was mistaken. The country united behind Elizabeth. The Spanish ships were too big and difficult to manoeuvre, so they were attacked by a number of smaller English ships and on the night of July 28, 1588 were scattered. Out of 130 ships, less than a half returned home.


Born in 1542 and executed in orders of Queen Elizabeth I in 1587. Mary was born at the time of great conflict between Catholics and Protestants. The Catholics thought that Mary, rather then Elizabeth, should be Queen of England and ahe spent her life trying to reach this goal. There was a rebellion against her in 1568 and she was forced to escape to England. The years thet followed were full of intrigues and plots against Elizabetha and in 1586 proof was found of Mary’s involvement in attempts to take the place of the Queen. She was beheaded on February 8, 1587.


Elizabeth died unmarried and without a heir. The English throne was inherited by James VI, King of Scotland, the son of her cousin, Mary Stuart (as King of England he was James I). With the accession of the new dynasty - the House of Stuart – to the English throne in 1603 a long alliance between the bourgeoisie and the monarchy came to an end. The conflict culminated under Charles I, and in 1640 the Civil War broke out (1640-49). The Puritan armies were commanded by Oliver Cromwell. In 1649 Charles I was brought to trial, sentenced to death and executed. England was declared a republic with Oliver Cromwell at its head. Cromwell set up a regime of military dictatorship. The mass of people were disappointed with the results of the revolution.

Two years after Cromwell’s death, the bourgeoisie decided to restore the monarchy, seeing in it the best safeguards against the radicalism of the masses. In 1660 Charles II, the exiled son of the executed king, was proclaimed King of England.

In the restoration period (1660-1688), foundations of the two-party system were lead by the appearance of two political parties in Parliament.:
1. the Tories – the landed aristocracy, a strong monarchy, Cathloicism
2. the Whigs – aristocratic representatives of the bourgeoisie

In 1686 Charles II died and was succeeded by his brother, James II, whose second wife was a Catholic. When James II attempted to restore Catholicism and absolute monarchy, parliamentary leaders decided to depose him and offer the crown to William of Orange (a Dutch protestant Prince) and his wife ( James II’s eldest daughter ) . When William landed in England in 1688, there was no opposition to his arrival, and James II escaped abroad. The English call these events „the Glorious Revolution“. It was followed in 1689 by the Bill of Rights, an act of Parliament, which limited the power of the King and strenghtened that of Parliament. It meant the final victory of constitutional monarchy and capitalism in Britain.

In the following period the two-party system became a permanent feature of Britain’s political life. The Cabinet, which was originally a small body of royal advisers, began to take its modern shape and gradually became the most important organ in the British system of government ( The reign of the last Stuart, Queen Anne)

In 1707 Parliament passed „the Act of Union“, joining Scotland to England and Wales. The new kingdom was called „Great Britain“

In 1776 the British colonial empire suffered a great loss: the North American colonies proclaimed their independence and founded the U.S.A. After this loss India became the main stronghold of the British Empire.

In the second half of the 18th century Britain became the first industrial power in the world. We speak about „the Industrial Revolution“. Inustry was transformed from hand-work at home to machine-work in factories. The driving force behind this develpoment was the increase in population and the consequent increase in demand of products. This was only made possible, however, by a series of inventions such as the steam-engine.

In order to defend their common interests against the employers, the industrial workers started to organize themselves and thus Britain became the cradle of the trade union movement at the end of 18th century.


The beginning of the 19th century was influenced by the Napoleonic wars. One by one the European countries were defeated by Nepoleon.

Britain decided to fight France at sea because it had a stronger navy. The commander of the British fleet, Admiral Horatio Nelson, destroyed the French-Spanish fleet near Spain at Trafalgar in 1805. Nelson was himself killed at Trafalgar, but became one of the Britain’s national heroes. Napoleon was finally defeated by the allied European armies under the command of the Duke of Wellington at Waterloo in Belgium in 1815. Britain’s role in the defeat of Napoleon strenghtened its position as the leading world power.


Nelson was born on September 29, 1758 in Burnham Tharpe, Norfolk. One of the most influental persons in his life was his mother’s brother Captain Maurice Suckling. He took the boy to sea when his mother died and after attending local school, young Horatio joined his uncle’s ship.
His first years in the navy were a mixture of routine experience and high adventure. His ambition urged him to prove himself at least the equal of his relative. He was always neatly dressed, wore a full-laced uniform and attracted the notice of his commanders. There ws something pleasing in his address and conversation when speaking on professional subjects. He was given instructions in anval tactics by the most qualified people.
Nelson became a Royal Navy officer in 1777 and fought during the American Revolutionary War. Later he commanded a frigate in the West Indies and in Mediterranean. He distinguished himself at Cape of St. Vincent and in the decisive Battle of the Nile. But the most important was the Battle of Trafalgar where he destroyed the combined French and Spanish fleets and ensured the safety of the British Isles from invasion and the supremacy of British sea power for more than a century.
By 1805 Napoleon had conquered much of Europe and wanted to destroy the only obstacle – the British navy. Nelson received the orders to sail. He was at the height of his professional powers. His officers and sailors liked him and his captains understood his tactical thinking so well that a minimum of consultation was required. All the men on the board of the ship „Victory“ were fighting very hard against the French enemies and the bloody Battle of Trafalgar, which took place on October 21, 1805 set the seal on Nelson’s fame and ended in the total defeat of Napoleon.
The battle was won, but Nelson was severely wounded and died. To the last he retained his interest in the battle and listened attentively to the news.
Nelson wasn’t only a good commander, but also a true leader of men of all types. His body was taken home and his nation gave him a majestic funeral in St. Paul’s Cathedral.


Victoria’s long reign saw many changes in British institutions and the British way of life. She insisted on being informed about government policy but remained politically neutral. This fixed the position of the Crown in the Constitution. Her middle-class views and life-style, combined with the rise of the middle class themselves led to an affirmation of values – the paternalistic integrity and discipline of the family, the sobriety and puritanism of public life – which in later years came to be known as „Victorian Values“.

At the same time as the middle classes were expanding in the Victorian Britain, so were the working classes. Life in the new factories and towns was one of terrible hardship. Men, women and children worked fifteen or sixteen hours a day in dangerous, unhealthy conditions for poor wages and lived in dirty, dreary slums, so vividly described by Charles Dickens in his novels.

Parliament was forced to come to terms with the new social conditions. The reform act in 1832, which granted the franchise to tenants of land, was followed by other needed social reforms: the creation of the police force; free, compulsory education` gradual legal recognition of trade unions; the extension of the vote. First to town labourers (1867) and then to agricultural labourers (1884).

In the Victorian Era Britain became the strongest world power: besides being the greatest industrial power, it was also the greatest financial and commercial power, the greatest sea power and the greatest colonial power. The Conservative and Liberal parties, successors of the Tory and Whig parties, were formed in this period.

The Victorian Era was also a period of change: reforms were carried out in education, hospital and nursing services. Many things in everyday life in the modern world originated in Victorian England, for example postage stamps, the underground railway, detective fiction, and modern forms of popular sports (football, tennis).

In 1867 Canada was made the first self-governing dominion in the British Empire.


The 20th century can be characterizated as a period of the decline of Britain as a world power, a period of two world wars, from which Britain emerged as a victor but greatly weakened. The rivalry between the great Eropean powers led almost inevitably to the outbreak of WWI in 1914. It was the bloodiest was in history, It ended in 1918 in victory for the Allied Powers of Britain, France, the U.S.A. and Italy, but more than 10 million men had been killed. Women’s contribution to the war effort had been so important that it was imposible to deny them the right to vote in 1919 elections.

Irish leadres elected to Parliamnet refused to go to London. They set up their own assembly in Dublin. Northern Ireland accepted Home Rule Bill in 1919 and remained in the United Kingdom. Finally, Great Britain recognized southern Ireland as a separate dominion. The Irish free State was created in 1921.

The WWI was followed by a period of great social unrest, unemployment was high, wages low and there were numerous strikes. The great Depression of the 1930s actually began with the collapse of the American financial markets ( the Wall Street crash ) in 1929. In Britain unemployment reached huge proportions: over 3 million peple, out of a total workforce of 14 million, were out of work. The formation of a National Coalition Government, including Conservative leaders and former Labour Party leaders, proved to be no solution.

Britain was soon involved in another war, for which it was ill-prepared. The Prime Minister Chamberlain had done everything possible to appease Germany ( incl. accepting its occupation of Czechoslovakia) while the country tried to rearm. But Britain and France were still not ready when they declared war on Germany after Hitler’s invasion of Poland. Only a courageous effort by British Air Force prevented Germany from invading Britain. Germany’s unsuccessful invasion of Russia, together with the intervention of the United States, enabled Britain and its allies to stop Germany once more. The war had cost Britain a quarter of its national wealth.
Britain joined the other developed countries of Western Europe in the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973. Britain has been a member of NATO since its foundation in 1949 and has always been the most reliable ally of the U.S.A. in Europe.

Elizabeth II came to the throne when her father, George VI, died in 1952. The Queen’s husband is Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh. The eldest son of the Queen, Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales, is the heir of the throne.

The two political parties alternated in office. In 1979 the Conservative party returned to power headed by Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first woman Prime Minister. She was known for her toughness as the „iron lady“. She was followed by John Major in 1990.

The Labout Party won the General Election in 1997 and its leader Anthony Blair became the Prime Minister.

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