views updated May 14 2018


Brian Lewis


Britain was neither a state nor a nation during the Renaissance period, and the histories of the English, the Welsh, and the Scots need to be considered separately. The medieval English state was notable for its precocious cohesion. Monarchs might be insecure tenants of the throne, and rival claimants might do battle for it, as the Norman Conquest of 1066, the Anarchy of Stephen of the mid-twelfth century, and the Wars of the Roses of the fifteenth century amply demonstrated. But once each monarch was firmly ensconced, the ruler's writ traveled to the borders of the kingdom uninterrupted by regional jurisdictions or powerful localist forces. The expanding administration and the monarch's itinerant judges extended across the realm, while counties and boroughs from all parts sent representatives to Parliament to consent to royal taxes.

Linguistic cohesion was also established at an early date. The languages of church and state after the Norman Conquest were French and Latin, but these made little impact on the bulk of the population except for foreign words spicing the vernacular English. Intermarriage, the loss of Normandy in the early thirteenth century, the tendency of the church to use English in prayers and sermons, and a patriotic distaste for all things French during the Hundred Years' War (1337–1453) gradually encouraged the use of English even at the highest levels of society. "Standard English," the English of London and the southeast, owes much to the decision of William Caxton, who introduced the printing press to England around 1476, to print in that dialect. While spoken English remained strikingly diverse, written standard English, the English gloriously embellished by William Shakespeare over a century later and disseminated to the population in the austerely beautiful prose of the King James Bible (1611), has had no real rivals.

Wales was divided politically into three major regions. The principality of Wales, conquered by Edward I of England toward the end of the thirteenth century, was subjected to a substantial measure of English-style administration and was held in check by an impressive series of castles. Some of the great Norman barons established the Marcher lordships along the border with England, and some independent lordships remained, chiefly in the south. Resentment at misgovernment found an outlet in the rebellion led by Owain Glyndwr from 1400, the most formidable manifestation of the chronically troubled relationship between the English crown and the Welsh. Henry VIII sought to overcome the division of powers and jurisdictions by pushing through the Acts of Union between 1536 and 1543. These incorporated the whole of Wales into the English system of government and law, making it barely distinguishable from any of the regions of England. Its towns remained tiny until the nineteenth century. Its population was only 200,000 in 1500; its regional markets were the English towns of Bristol, Shrewsbury, and Chester; and its gentry thoroughly intermarried with the neighboring English gentry. Only one thing marked Wales as a potential nation, its language. By ordering the translation of the Bible and Prayer Book into Welsh in 1563, Elizabeth I helped ensure the survival of the language, and as late as 1800 over 80 percent of the Welsh still used it as their first language. They tended to regard the English, the saison (Saxons), as a different people.

Scotland was divided into three main cultures: a Scandinavian fringe in the north and in the Orkney and Shetland Islands; the Gaelic-speaking Highlands of the west, where the clan system predominated and which had close cultural ties with Gaelic Ireland; and the Lowlands of the south and east, the area mostly strongly influenced by the Anglo-Normans. Here the Gaelic language lost out to Scots, a cognate to English that survives in the poetry of Robert Burns. In contrast to Wales, Scotland was an independent state that successfully resisted the attempts by Edward I and Edward II to claim the Scottish crown as the thirteenth turned into the fourteenth century. During the Hundred Years' War and in later Anglo-French confrontations, the Scottish crown looked to the French to guarantee independence from England, and the English-Scottish border became a subsidiary theater of war. The crown's reliance on the nobility to raise sufficient troops enhanced noble power in parliament, the church, and the boroughs, while the focus on the border allowed Highlanders considerable latitude. The Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century intertwined with the Anglo-French dynastic struggles, noble ambitions, and stark regional variation in explosive ways. A critical moment came in 1567, when a noble faction forced Mary, Queen of Scots, a French-backed Catholic, to abdicate in favor of her son James VI. He was brought up as a staunch Protestant and succeeded to the English throne in 1603 on the death of the childless Elizabeth I. This was a union of crowns under the House of Stuart, nothing more.

Economically, the island's principal wealth derived from farming, especially the production of wool. Socially, the large landowners—the crown, the church, the monasteries, and above all the lay magnates—predominated. Towns, serving as markets for their rural hinterlands, remained small and unimpressive by the standards of northern Italy or the Low Countries. But London, as the funnel for the wool and other trades to the Continent, was an exception, and its leading merchants were already establishing themselves as men of considerable wealth and power. Their role was enhanced by the most important change in the English economy in the late Middle Ages, the development of cloth manufacturing for the domestic and foreign markets. England was emerging as a manufacturing nation. It is worth emphasizing that for many centuries most manufacturing was domestic and rural and that women and children fully participated in it.

Lower down the social scale, demographic shifts proved crucial. The population reached an unsustainable high of maybe 5 million in the early fourteenth century, but the impact of the Black Death (1348–1349) and successive plagues scythed that figure down to a half or less by the 1440s. Such a severe population contraction had its beneficial side for the peasantry in lowered food prices, cheaper rents, and increased wages. Landowners bore the brunt, but the mightier magnates sought to compensate through the pursuit of heiresses, patronage at court, and the profits of war. Certainly the visual evidence of fifteenth-century England—the nobility's fortified houses with a new emphasis on domestic comforts, rebuilt towns and villages with impressive parish churches in the perpendicular style, and the increasing number of peasants' stone houses—suggests a considerable amount of surplus wealth.

The population figures began to recover from the late fifteenth century and surged back to over 5 million by 1640. The rise had been the product above all of younger and more frequent marriages. These were rough years of soaring prices, tumbling wages, underemployment, and land hunger for the common people, many of whom eked out a marginal living through pawning and borrowing, poaching and pilfering, gleaning corn, and reliance on poor relief. The perception and fears of greater lawlessness in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries generated a two-fold response: the construction of "houses of correction" across the country and the codification of the Elizabethan Poor Laws (1598 and 1601), which aimed to prevent the "deserving poor" from starving by a modest redistribution of income through local taxation. More positively for some, population growth stimulated demand and increased available labor, encouraging the expansion of commercialized agriculture to an unusual degree by contemporary standards. Not only did major landowners, capitalistic farmers, and urban mercantile elites prosper during these years, but improved agricultural productivity was sufficient to stave off a recurrence of catastrophic subsistence crises. Plague, pestilence, and famine diminished in intensity in England and Wales during the seventeenth century, again to an unusual extent by the standards of the rest of Europe and even of Scotland, where a substantial number perished in the dearth of 1695–1698.

The Protestant Reformation played out against this socioeconomic backdrop. It was the product of a political compromise in the 1530s to overturn the authority of the pope so Henry VIII could divorce his first wife. The consequent dissolution of the monasteries amounted to a huge land grab by the crown. But Henry and his successors squandered their opportunities, selling off much of the land to pay for continental wars and thus handing a significantly larger share of the ownership of the country to the nobility and gentry. The Reformation did not have broad appeal outside intellectual elites. The Church of England that emerged under Elizabeth was a hybrid of reformed theology and episcopal authority. Its appeal was above all to the literate, and its bibliocentrism helped stimulate literacy in turn. Its godliness and awareness of omnipresent sin rubbed uncomfortably against popular pastimes, rituals, and beliefs, and it required the rest of the century to become firmly established across the country as the common religion of the people. Even then plenty of scope remained for those who preferred a more rigorous set of beliefs or alternative forms of church governance. The tumult of events in the 1640s and 1650s, when parliamentary forces took up arms against Charles I, executed him, and established a republic, gave an opportunity to those English and Scots who favored Presbyterian or Independent forms of godly worship. The breakdown of established authority allowed a voice to a rich profusion of socially modest religious and political radicals, including Quakers, Baptists, Ranters, Levellers, Diggers, Muggletonians, and Fifth Monarchy Men. The Restoration of Charles II in 1660 saw the world turned the right way up again, reestablishing the authority of the gentry and the episcopal Church. The English Revolution's social impact was therefore modest, but it undermined belief in the Church's pretensions to uniformity, ensuring a future significant role for Protestant Dissent. It also left a memory of anti-establishment rhetoric for later radicals to exploit and transform.


Between the late seventeenth century and the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 Britain was transformed from a second-rate state on the fringes of European power politics into the leading colonial, economic, and military great power of the age. It achieved this through warfare, mainly against the French, who had a clear advantage on paper in terms of resources and manpower. The British proved more effective at mobilizing the sinews of war, but without a massive increase in direct governmental power and with rights and liberties still comparatively intact, contrary to the typical continental pattern. The Glorious Revolution of 1688, which displaced the Catholic James II in favor of the Protestant William of Orange, locked the country into a struggle against Louis XIV of France. The political nation in Parliament, committed both to the Protestant succession and to bettering the nation's commercial interests by picking off neighbors' colonies, supported an unprecedented level of taxation, the underwriting and servicing of a national debt, and the building of a small but efficient bureaucracy. This parliamentary consent, tempered by a vigorous tradition of "Country" opposition to Court intrigue, was a key means of keeping a check on executive authority. A second critical factor was that Britain's "island moat" and its policy of maritime colonial expansion meant that it could pour its resources into the Royal Navy, "the wooden walls of Old England," and subsidize allies and mercenaries where necessary rather than rely on a large, potentially oppressive standing army.

The ability to mobilize sufficient resources depended on a rise in national prosperity after the Restoration. A traditional interpretation posited a landlord-led "agricultural revolution" from the mid–eighteenth century, in which improved breeds, better crop rotation, and greater field enclosure produced more food with fewer people. This enabled the country to survive the population increase of the late eighteenth century without demographic crisis and also released workers for rural industry and the towns. This fed into a traditional interpretation of an "industrial revolution" from the late eighteenth century, a takeoff into self-sustained growth due to widespread application of steam power in proliferating factories.

Most historians have rejected this chronology. The transition from an agrarian to an industrial world of unimagined wealth for ordinary citizens is not in doubt and is revolutionary by any standards, but the nature and timing of key changes have been controversial. Late-twentieth-century scholars placed more emphasis on the period between 1660 and 1740, when the burgeoning London market demanded and received more and better grains and animal products. These came increasingly from arable regions, where temporary pastures had become the normal way to feed crop, beast, and soil, allowing a virtuous spiral of improvement. Many historians call the expansion of trade before steam a "commercial revolution." Certainly the rise in real incomes after 1660 stimulated demand both for foreign imports and domestic industry. The Navigation Acts of the 1650s and 1660s, which stipulated that trade with the colonies must be in English ships, rapidly turned the merchant fleet into the largest in Europe and English ports, above all London, into entrepôts for the import, export, and re-export trades. The development of the Atlantic economy and trade with India and the Far East, as Europeans acquired a taste for luxury commodities and the British exported textiles and metalware to the colonies in return, gradually eclipsed the long-standing export leader, textiles to Europe. Many merchants in Liverpool and Bristol made fortunes from the "triangular trade." The first leg took manufactured goods to West Africa to be exchanged for slaves; the second, the notorious and deadly "middle passage," transported the slaves to be sold in the Americas and the West Indies; and the third shipped tobacco, sugar, rum, and molasses back to England.

But the expansion of domestic trade may well have been even more important. Small, permanent shops began to dot the country, competing with fairs, village markets, and itinerant peddlers. The threading of a network of turnpike roads across the island from the late seventeenth century, improvements in river navigations, the construction of canals from the 1750s, and better harbor and dock facilities for coastal shipping reduced transaction costs and gradually integrated the nation's markets. This encouraged regional specialization in handicraft manufacture and the development of a new economic geography, including pottery in Staffordshire, metalware in the West Midlands and South Yorkshire, worsted manufacture in the West Riding of Yorkshire, and toward the end of the eighteenth century, cotton in Lancashire. The growth of towns reflected this vibrant commercial economy, and London's dominance was extraordinary. It had a population of 575,000 in 1700, 10 percent of the people of England. Norwich, the second biggest city, had a mere 30,000. London handled the lion's share of the country's foreign trade, provided an enormous economic stimulus for a market in provisions, services, and manufactured goods, and was the site of the court, the political life, and the fashionable world of the ruling elite. As London's population rocketed to 900,000 by 1800, making it by far the largest city in Europe, other cities had overtaken Norwich and were making inroads. These included the mercantile towns of Bristol, Liverpool, and Newcastle, which supplied coal by sea to London from northeastern mines; Royal Navy dockyard towns, like Portsmouth and Plymouth; and the manufacturing towns of Birmingham, Sheffield, Leeds, and Manchester.

Why did Britain undergo such rapid economic change in comparison with the western European continent? Britain's role in colonial trade, based in turn on its advantageous geographical position, was surely an element in its success. So was its relative speed in expanding consumer outlets and expectations in the eighteenth century, which both reflected economic change and promoted further expansion. The British aristocracy was less hostile to trade than its continental counterparts, and the guild system was looser, so that there was less resistance to the adoption of new technologies. The economic position of the lower classes may have deteriorated more markedly than elsewhere, creating a source of unusually cheap labor. Child labor, for instance, was exploited in early industrial Britain to an extent never matched on the continent. There were other factors, environmental and political. Exhaustion of forests made it harder to supply charcoal for traditional metallurgy, promoting the use of coal. Both coal and iron were in abundant supply, and Britain's waterways facilitated access and transport for industry. Limited religious tolerance allowed numerous minority Protestant groups to flourish but denied them political participation, leading them to emphasize business success as an alternative means of advancement. Success in India taught the British the advantages of cotton textiles early on, and Britain soon limited Indian industry to the advantage of its own manufacturing. Through the convergence of these various factors, Britain for a considerable time led the world in economic development.

Throughout the eighteenth century the landed elite—the aristocrats and gentry who owned most of the country—remained socially, economically, and politically preeminent, their income swollen by agricultural improvements, extraction of minerals, and urban expansion on their property. Their extravagant country houses, surrounded by landscaped gardens and parkland, were emphatic declarations of wealth and power, as were the desirable urban areas this amphibious ruling class developed for their town sojourns. But nonlanded wealth was increasingly important as well. The leading London merchants rubbed shoulders with aristocrats and especially their younger sons. Provincial merchants and professional men, especially physicians, barristers, and clergymen, intermarried with the lesser gentry and mingled with them socially in the "polite society" of the assembly rooms and the theaters in the county towns. Lower down, the "middling sort," the master craftsmen in the towns and the yeomen and husbandmen in the countryside, enjoyed a modest if precarious prosperity in these years and could hope to spend their surplus disposable income on better food or household furnishings. But bankruptcy always lurked close at hand, and solvency often depended on the goodwill of relatives and other creditors.

For those at the bottom of the social pyramid, the relative improvements earlier in the eighteenth century seem to have retreated toward the end. Population expanded rapidly after 1740, as female marriage ages fell again. Adam Smith in An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), T. R. Malthus in An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), and even later classical economists believed that the economy had almost exhausted its potential for expansion. The landed elite, to maintain their rental incomes, compounded the demographic pressures and consequent immiseration by moving to the piecemeal dismantling of a "moral economy" of communal and customary rights in favor of the freer operation of the "laws" of the market. Local elites throughout the eighteenth century had tolerated the occasional riot and the boisterousness of the crowd at elections, patriotic celebrations, and the rituals of public punishment since this was a way of legitimizing their rule without recourse to wholesale repression. Better that, they argued, than a French-style absolutism or a repetition of Oliver Cromwell's regime of the 1650s, both of which would undermine local elite power. But from the 1770s, as the gap widened between the patricians and the plebeians, the authorities relied more on troops to control rioters, used spies to curb the contagion of revolutionary ideas from France in the 1790s, and clamped greater restrictions on freedom of expression. The space between polite, refined, literate culture and rough, popular, oral culture seemed to increase as well. Only the "vulgar" still believed in witches, magic, and malign forces. A movement of evangelical renewal, which found its first expression in the late 1730s in John Wesley's Methodist movement, targeted not only upper-class self-indulgence and the complacency of the Church of England but also campaigned against popular pastimes, such as drinking, cockfighting, and wife "sales," in favor of prayer, sobriety, and hymn singing.

Whatever the socioeconomic divisions, the constituent parts of the island became more integrated. The Scots joined in a parliamentary union with England in 1707 from a variety of economic, security, and corrupt motives but only on condition that the new Great Britain should be a union, not a unitary state. Scotland would retain its Presbyterian Established Church and its distinctive legal, local government, and educational institutions. Since only a dwindling number, clustered in the western Highlands and islands, still spoke Gaelic, these institutional concessions were important in keeping Scotland distinct. But the overall tendency in the following decades, in spite of persistent hostile caricaturing on both sides, was toward convergence of identity. The defeat of the Jacobite insurrections of 1715 and 1745, when the Catholic, Stuart descendants of James II attempted to reclaim the throne from the Hanoverians by recruiting the support of Catholic and Episcopalian Highland clan chiefs, gave the government the opportunity to begin taming the Highlands by building military roads and dismantling the symbols and substance of the clan system. The persistent wars against the Catholic French helped forge a joint sense of Britishness against a foreign "other." Scottish troops and administrators joined enthusiastically in empire building, and the spread of transportation and market networks aided in the blending of the British nation. The intellectual elites in Edinburgh and Glasgow who led the "Scottish Enlightenment" from the 1760s, people like Smith and the philosopher David Hume, saw themselves as part of the greater entity of Britain and Scottishness as backward and conservative. When the novelist Sir Walter Scott helped invent and popularize a "cult of tartanry" in the early nineteenth century, it was in a safe and sanitized form, devoid of political content. It seemed to suggest that a Scot could be a committed Briton as well as a proud Scot. George IV gave this interpretation the royal imprimatur when he visited Edinburgh in 1822 and wore tartan, kilt, and tights.


Malthus and the other pessimistic political economists failed to predict the transition from an organic to an inorganic economy. In other words, they did not foresee what would happen once a highly commercialized, market-integrated country turned to coal-fueled steam power. The steam engine, from unpretentious beginnings mostly in the cotton industry, transformed the industrial landscape and introduced railway locomotion in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. Urban populations exploded at a staggering rate as they absorbed surrounding rural labor. The collapse of domestic arable farming from the 1870s accelerated the pace still more. Twenty percent of people lived in urban areas in 1800, and by 1900 it was 80 percent. London ballooned sevenfold to 6.5 million, and in 1900 Britain boasted five out of the ten largest cities in Europe: London, Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow, and Liverpool.

The dislocating effects of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793–1815), the rate of population increase, and recurrent economic crises in rural communities, manufacturing villages, and factory towns made the period up to midcentury particularly traumatic. The lower orders hurled a succession of overt and covert, radical and revolutionary, peaceful and violent challenges at employers and governments, who responded by sending in troops and building permanent barracks next to the manufacturing districts. Part of the lower-class anger was economic, for example, the 1811–1812 protests of the Luddites, the framework knitters and handloom weavers who wrecked new machinery to protect their livelihoods. Part of it was political, the beliefs that the old notion of a just price and a fair wage had been demolished by rapacious and corrupt elites supported by a repressive state apparatus and that the only recourse was political reform to get workingmen into Parliament.

Scholars once saw in these repeated encounters the making of a working class whose class consciousness found full expression in the Chartist movement of the 1830s and 1840s, a nationwide campaign for political change based on the six points of the People's Charter. By the late twentieth century few historians set much store by the class interpretation of history, preferring to stress multiple forms of identity and oppression, none of which can automatically or ultimately be reduced to class. Class of course remains important as a category of description, self-understanding, and political mobilization. Some Chartists made use of class terminology of capitalists against workers, but more deployed a language of "productive classes" against "idle aristocrats," of political liberties and "the rights of freeborn Englishmen," reaching back to the rhetoric of the 1790s and even beyond to the English Revolution of the mid-seventeenth century.

The radical threat was one part of the famous "Condition of England" question of the 1830s and 1840s; another was the deterioration of the towns. To keep pace with the influx of migrants and at a time of high land prices and rising building costs in the early decades of the century, speculative builders had hastily crammed shoddy housing into every available space. Observers like Friedrich Engels, a mill owner turned communist, described in horrified detail the wretched dwellings, the overcrowding, the lack of sanitation, and the open-sewer rivers of cities like Manchester. Statistics demonstrated that in a typical cotton mill town like Blackburn, Lancashire, the average working-class life expectancy was under twenty years. Partly because of such woeful figures and the all too visible signs of grime and squalor and partly because of a fear that the masses' festering resentment would break out in revolutionary upheaval, ruling elites, local and national, began to see towns as pressing problems requiring solutions.

The bluntest instrument for dealing with popular unrest was the military. But this was only a temporary expedient, its use infrequent and low-key in comparison with continental Europe and Ireland. Britain had a long history of suspicion of a standing army. The "Peterloo Massacre" of 1819, when the local yeomanry waded into a peaceful crowd in Manchester and killed eleven people, turning them into radical martyrs, showed that its actions could be counterproductive. It was no help at all in dealing with crime. The new vogue for collecting statistics produced figures for lawlessness and larceny that seemed to indicate an alarmingly disorderly society. Sir Robert Peel introduced the Metropolitan Police Force in London in 1829, marking the beginnings of a policed society, a significant step beyond the previous rudimentary assortment of parish constables and night watchmen. Borough police followed in 1835 and county forces in 1839. The police were initially widely unpopular—too much like the French gendarmerie, deemed to be inconsistent with British liberties—and from the start they were unarmed as a sop to libertarian fears. But slowly they established a permanent presence and proved their worth to the propertied majority, threatening the liberty only of the unruly in the streets and those the law held to be criminal. People at the receiving end of policing might seethe with resentment, but it is a remarkable fact that a flattering image of the British police constable—the bobby on the beat, flat-footed and rather slow but resolutely impartial and incorruptible, an honest upholder of the rights and values of decent, respectable citizens—came to be widely admired, almost a national icon.

More thorough policing accompanied new methods of imprisonment, which replaced both transportation to convict colonies and the "Bloody Code," the two hundred hanging crimes on the statute book. Humanely intentioned but chilling experiments with the "separate" and "silent" systems of incarceration, loose interpretations of the "panopticon" model suggested by the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, generally failed to reform the inmates, many of whom were less the hardened criminals of middle-class lore than the simply desperate who turned to petty theft as a perfectly logical means of survival. As the initial optimism about rehabilitation waned, hard labor and harsher conditions became the staples of the late-nineteenth-century prison regime.

These were the coercive aspects of the state. Another such feature was the New Poor Law of 1834, which attempted to replace the relatively generous provision of poor relief with a system designed to reduce costs and improve labor discipline. In a more benign fashion, government enquiries into hours worked in factories and into the governance and sanitary states of towns resulted in piecemeal legislation that, in the face of much opposition, began to improve working and health conditions and to increase central oversight of local affairs. Around midcentury most towns began to coordinate their fractured forms of local government and to acquire some of the necessary powers to lay down adequate sewerage systems and provide sufficient potable water; to regulate the construction of the row houses characteristic of late-nineteenth-century England and Wales; and to open municipal parks, town halls, libraries, and market halls in a flowering of civic pride.

Still Britain remained a lightly governed society until the twentieth century, and much of the work of social cohesion depended on other agencies. In response to the demographic boom, the religious denominations launched the last major crusade in British history to reclaim the kingdom for Christ. The Protestant Dissenters led the way, expanding rapidly with unpretentious chapels to keep pace with the population shifts; the different sects of Unitarians, Quakers, Independents, Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists appealed to different social strata. Catholicism found new strength in the 1830s, mainly because of Irish immigration and in spite of the vociferous anti-Catholicism that helped define British national identity. The Church of England was hampered by its inflexible parochial structure, but it too began to reform and launched an energetic church-building spree after 1815. With the spread of churches and chapels came the spread of denominational schools, the primary means by which the bulk of the population learned reading, writing, arithmetic, and the social values of their superiors. This missionary zeal helped postpone the secularization and dechristianization typical of the western European urban experience.

British towns developed a rich associational culture. The middle-class voluntary association was a self-governing organization funded by the subscriptions of its members. Its main function was to mobilize support and resources for collective action, often across divisions of sect and party. Some of these associations were cultural, ranging from literary and philosophical societies to cricket clubs, designed to provide leisure activities for ladies and gentlemen of the middling ranks or to enhance the aesthetic image of dingy towns. Others were charitable and philanthropic, intended to distribute resources to the "deserving poor" in times of economic distress. Still others, such as mechanics institutes, set out to teach bourgeois morals to the lower ranks of society. The working classes had a vibrant self-help and associational culture of their own in the form of friendly societies, labor unions, and cooperative societies worked out and refined over the protracted period of British industrialization and providing a basic safety net of support to tide individuals and families over the bad times of unemployment and sickness.

All of these state-led, local governmental, and associational initiatives help explain how the British created a relative stability and learned to cope with city growth. For some families, taking an individual approach, the flight to suburbia was the solution to urban ills. The suburb was one of the most notable features of the developing English city. Most continental European cities retained the well-off in their cores in desirable, high-rise apartment buildings. Scottish cities such as Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Aberdeen, which have a strikingly different look from English cities, followed the continental pattern. In England the process of suburbanization began first in London in the early eighteenth century, spread to larger towns by 1800, and increased dramatically from the second half of the nineteenth century with the development of the omnibus, the suburban railway line, and then the car. First the wealthy middle classes then the armies of lower middle classes in the expanding service sector escaped from the city center workplace to detached and semidetached suburban homes with small patches of garden, strung out along winding avenues or crescents.

One of the explanations for the English drive toward suburbanization dwells on a pervasive ideology of domesticity inspired chiefly by evangelical Christianity. Suburbia ideally suited notions of the "naturally" separate spheres of gender with men in the sordid public world of business and politics and women confined to the private, domestic world as "angels of the house." It is clear that the overlap between public and private was greater than moralists would have liked. Nevertheless, women were shut out of the important arenas of power, and respectable middle-class ladies did not work except in charitable endeavors or maybe as writers, safely in the home. The celebrated radical writer Mary Wollstonecraft in the 1790s and the gender-egalitarian commune movement of the 1820s to 1840s inspired by the mill owner Robert Owen challenged this. But the early labor and trade union movement, aware that poorly paid women could undermine male earnings, reinforced the separatespheres ideal by campaigning for a decent family wage for the husband so the wife need not work. A number of higher-class women from the mid-nineteenth century fought for and secured important gains, including the greater possibility of escape from an abusive marriage, the right to retain their property within marriage, entry into the medical profession, the establishment of women's colleges of higher education, and in 1918, after a long campaign led by moderate and militant "suffragettes," the right to vote. Britain was one of the sites where organized feminism developed particular strength and importance in the decades around 1900.


While Britain was helping carve up Africa and creating the biggest empire the world had ever seen, it experienced an atmosphere of crisis at home. The mid-Victorian economic boom faltered. Social investigators in the 1880s rediscovered poverty, especially in London, speaking in aghast tones of "darkest England," the cramped courtyards and "rookeries" of the East End, a concentration of 2 million working-class people who were as unknown to the respectable classes and as uncivilized as the natives of "darkest Africa." Slum housing seemed to have worsened over vast acres in large cities as more people, often displaced by slum clearance or the construction of buildings and railways elsewhere, crowded into deteriorating housing stock. A gulf grew between the better-off working classes in regular jobs, living in bylaw housing, furnishing their homes moderately well, spending money on soccer matches, the music hall, and a couple of weeks each summer in seaside resorts like Blackpool and Southend, and the physically stunted, badly nourished, casually employed slum dweller. Anxieties about national weakness in an increasingly competitive international climate found expression in fashionable languages of social Darwinism and of racial and sexual degeneration.

One answer to poor living conditions was for the central government to take more vigorous measures. Mindful of the establishment of small socialist parties and of the stirrings of the union-backed Labour Party, which aimed to attract working-class votes on the left, progressive thinkers in the Liberal Party began advocating a more interventionist strategy. Some of their ideas found expression in the famous 1909 and 1911 budgets of David Lloyd George, Liberal chancellor of the exchequer, that introduced old-age pensions and social insurance schemes. In simultaneously attacking unearned, landed wealth, the Liberal measures gave an extra push to the sociopolitical decline of the aristocracy and gentry. Aristocratic social, economic, and political power during the twentieth century remained too substantial for radical tastes, but it was a mere shadow of its former self.

Both world wars boosted the living standards of the poor even at a time of intense rationing because full employment enhanced lower-class purchasing power, thereby improving nutritional intake. Equally significantly, total mobilization during World War I habituated the public to an unprecedented degree of government intervention in social and economic affairs and brought the labor movement into the heart of government. Lloyd George, wartime coalition prime minister, combining his earlier progressivism with wartime state interventionism and a rhetorical appeal to the men fighting in the trenches of Flanders, promised to build "a land fit for heroes."

For many this did not come to pass. The war did serious damage to Britain's place as the top trading nation, and the interwar decades were years of severe contraction for the staples of the British economy, the textile industry, shipbuilding, and coal mining. Persistently high unemployment, exacerbated by the worldwide slump after the Wall Street crash in 1929, had a devastating impact on the old industrial regions of the country. Nonetheless, beginning in 1919 governments made serious commitments to slum clearance and to building new public, subsidized rental housing for the working classes. This council housing, built by local authorities with subventions from the central government, was largely semidetached, "cottage"-style dwellings on suburban estates, unadorned variations on the middle-class suburban ideal. They were not always well built or easy to maintain and were often far from jobs and amenities. It was difficult to recreate the alleged neighborliness and community values of the old streets. But for many families this generously proportioned public housing with indoor plumbing provided unprecedented amounts of space, light, privacy, and hygiene.

World War II unleashed in government circles a passion for planning. Once again a coalition government coordinated the entire country for total war, with a remarkable degree of efficiency. Civil servants, economists, and academics, in drawing up bold plans for postwar reconstruction and the rebuilding of blitzed cities, were determined not to repeat the failures after 1918 and the misery of high unemployment. After 1945 Clement Attlee's Labour government introduced the sweeping nationalization of public utilities and major industries, the taxpayer-funded National Health Service, and the comprehensive scheme of social insurance "from cradle to grave" advocated in the famous report drawn up in 1942 by a Liberal intellectual, William Beveridge. Subsequent governments, Labour and Conservative, held steady to a commitment to the welfare state, to full employment, to massive defense spending, and to other variations on the interventionist economic-management ideas of John Maynard Keynes.

Rebuilt town centers not only repaired the damage done by the Luftwaffe but also replaced much of the despised legacy of Victorian industrialization with a predominantly concrete landscape of modern, functional, clean, well-lit buildings, shopping precincts, internal road networks, and pedestrian underpasses. Labour and Conservative governments competed with each other in encouraging council housing, which accounted for almost 60 percent of the new housing in Britain between 1945 and 1970, a percentage closer to the Soviet bloc countries of Eastern Europe than to the Western European norm. More local authorities heeded the call of modernist architects to economize on space and to avoid the unsightly errors of the past by building light, airy tower blocks, a significant departure in English architectural history.

The Conservative prime minister Harold Macmillan's statement in a speech in 1957, "Most of our people have never had it so good," was more than political hyperbole. Full employment, a generous social safety net, universal access to health care, and affordable public housing went hand in hand with a consumer spending boom. More working-class families could afford washing machines, televisions, and cars. Teenagers had sufficient disposable income to buy the clothing and records suitable to a succession of exotic youth cultures. This was in retrospect a golden age of capitalism and of social stability. The 1960s added a "permissive moment," a number of liberal social measures, to the picture. The abolition of capital punishment (1965) confirmed a trend toward a more humane criminal justice system. The introduction of the contraceptive pill and the legalization of abortion (1967) gave women much greater reproductive freedom, and with the help of the new feminist movement women advanced significantly toward equality by the end of the century. The decriminalization of sex between consenting men (1967) overturned sixteenth-century statutes against sodomy and an amendment of 1885 that outlawed all homosexual acts. Gays and lesbians made enormous advances over the next three decades in perhaps the most important civil rights crusade of the era, galvanized rather than set back by the AIDS epidemic and backlashes from self-described family-values moralists. Governments rapidly granted independence to most of the colonies, and the arrival after 1948 of sizable black and Asian immigration from the Caribbean, Africa, and the Indian Subcontinent presaged a much more thoroughly multicultural society.

In spite of these advances, all was not well. Economists repeatedly pointed out that the British economy was underperforming in comparison to other advanced economies. Their checklist of reasons for slower growth ranged from the price of sustaining imperial and world-power pretensions to blaming too-powerful trade unions or an antibusiness ethic in elite circles or a too-expensive welfare state. Some on the political left were frustrated that this era of social democracy and public ownership had given little control to ordinary people. Workers had no say in running nationalized industries, and tenants played small roles in decision making regarding their flats and houses. Residual poverty, racial tensions, the rapid decline of some of the new housing, the destruction of much of the architectural legacy of towns, and the alleged inadequacies of new forms of comprehensive state education drew sharp critiques.

The "stop-go" rhythm of the economy, the oscillation between growth spurts, balance of payments crises, and slowdowns, entered a new phase in 1973 with the Middle Eastern oil crisis. The 1970s proved to be a troubled decade of high inflation, rising unemployment, and repeated confrontations between governments and trade unions, culminating in the "winter of discontent" of 1978–1979, when public sector unions created havoc in their pursuit of higher wages and acted as inadvertent midwives for the Thatcher government. Margaret Thatcher, a self-styled "conviction" politician, abandoned what was left of the postwar consensus. During the next decade the Conservative government sold most of the nationalized industries and public utilities; allowed council tenants to buy their houses in a bid to increase individual responsibility; humbled the trade unions, most spectacularly in the miners' strike of 1984–1985; and attempted to tame public institutions and to roll back public expenditure. The commitment to full employment, already crumbling, vanished during the recession of the early 1980s. The service and white-collar sectors rose rapidly, and U.S. business and policy models exerted strong influence. The jobless totals climbed to over 12 percent, and once again in the older industrial areas of the country a bleakness descended similar to that of the 1930s. For those in secure jobs these were relatively prosperous years of rising real wages, low inflation, and maybe the opportunity to buy a council house at a bargain price along with cheap shares in the formerly nationalized companies. But a growing underclass was left behind. Some of the resulting anger found expression in race riots in the large cities in the early 1980s, some in white, male, racist soccer hooliganism, and some in the larger crime statistics, to which the government's response was more police and prisons, one of the few favored areas of public expenditure.

The United Kingdom was a casualty of these years. Since the onset of industrialization, the Welsh and the Scots had proved adept at reinventing their cultural identities, even as the national economy became more integrated and the original cultural markers, such as the Welsh language, declined. But separatist, nationalist parties made little headway before the 1960s. With many of the symbols of Britishness like the empire being dismembered, the economy on a roller coaster, and the rise of the European Economic Community questioning the notion of national sovereignty, more Scots and Welsh began to question the usefulness of the union with England or at least to suggest a greater degree of self-government. The Thatcher government, in charge in Scotland and Wales but with little support outside England, made a powerful but unintentional case for devolution. The Labour government of Tony Blair introduced a Scottish parliament with strong Scottish endorsement and a Welsh assembly with lukewarm Welsh support in 1999. In many respects the mood of the country was more buoyant, tolerant, and optimistic than in the recent past, and the impact of these far-reaching constitutional changes on English and British national identity remained to be seen. Few as yet seemed unduly worried about how much longer Britain would be a nation or a state.

See also other articles in this section.


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Brewer, John. The Sinews of Power: War, Money, and the English State, 1688–1783. Cambridge, Mass., 1990.

Briggs, Asa. A Social History of England. London, 1983.

Cannadine, David. The Rise and Fall of Class in Britain. New York, 1999.

Clarke, Peter. Hope and Glory: Britain 1900–1990. London, 1996.

Colley, Linda. Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707–1837. New Haven, Conn., 1992.

Daunton, M. J. Progress and Poverty: An Economic and Social History of Britain, 1700–1850. Oxford, 1995.

Davidoff, Leonore, and Catherine Hall. Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780–1850. Chicago, 1987.

Davies, John. A History of Wales. London, 1993.

Devine, T. M. The Scottish Nation, 1700–2000. London, 1999.

Devine, T. M., and Rosalind Mitchison, eds. People and Society in Scotland: A Social History of Modern Scotland. 3 vols. Edinburgh, 1988–.

Evans, Eric J. The Forging of the Modern State: Early Industrial Britain, 1783–1870. 2d ed. London and New York, 1996.

Floud, Roderick. The People and the British Economy, 1830–1914. Oxford and New York, 1997.

Gilbert, Alan D. Religion and Society in Industrial England: Church, Chapel, and Social Change, 1740–1914. London and New York, 1976.

Harris, José. Private Lives, Public Spirit: Britain, 1870–1914. London, 1993.

Hay, Douglas, and Nicholas Rogers. Eighteenth-Century English Society: Shuttles and Swords. Oxford and New York, 1997.

Hill, Christopher. The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas during the English Revolution. London, 1975.

Holmes, Geoffrey. The Making of a Great Power: Late Stuart and Early Georgian Britain, 1660–1722. London and New York, 1993.

Holmes, Geoffrey, and Daniel Szechi. The Age of Oligarchy: Pre-Industrial Britain, 1722–1783. London and New York, 1993.

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views updated May 29 2018

86. Britain

  1. Albion poetic name for England. [Br. Lit.: Benét, 19]
  2. beefeater yeoman of the English royal guard, esp. at the Tower of London; slang for Englishman. [Br. Culture: Misc.]
  3. Bull, John personification of Britain. [Br. Folklore: Benét, 45]
  4. Court of St . Jamess British royal court. [Br. Hist.: Misc.]
  5. George, St. patron saint of Britain. [Br. Hist.: Golden Legend ]
  6. God Save the Queen British national anthem. [Br. Culture: Scholes, 408]
  7. Nation of Shopkeepers name disdainfully given to Britain by Napoleon Bonaparte. [Fr. Hist.: Wheeler, 256]
  8. Rule Britannia! patriotic song of Britain. [Br. Culture: Scholes, 897898]
  9. 10 Downing Street the British government; refers to location of Prime Ministers residence [Br. Culture: Benét, 286]
  10. Union Jack British national flag. [Br. Culture: Misc.]
  11. Whitehall many government offices on this street; synonymous with government. [Br. Hist.: NCE, 2970]


views updated May 14 2018

Britain (Great Britain) Kingdom in nw Europe, officially the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It comprises England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, the Channel Islands, and the Isle of Man.


views updated May 29 2018

Britain XIII. ME. Bretayne — OF. Bretaigne (mod. -agne) :- L. Brittania, -annia, f. Brit(t)annī Britons = Gr. Bret(t)anoí, Pret(t)anoí. (OE. Breoten, Breten, Bryten — L. Brittones; cf. BRITISH.)

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