At a time when nations that have existed for generations are either disintegrating or threatening, to disintegrate, Linda Colley, a professor of history at Yale University, has produced a book that explores how the United Kingdom, one of the oldest and most illustrious nations, formed itself into a cohesive political system. Beginning with the Act of Union in 1707, which united Scotland politically and economically with the rest of Great Britain, she chronicles the development of the nation up to the coronation of Queen Victoria in 1837. The period saw the last of the Stuart monarchs succeeded by the Hanoverians. This dynasty, from an obscure German principality, began in 1714 to fulfill the requirement established by the Act of Succession of 1689 that English monarchs be Protestant. Although the first two Hanoverians spoke no English and exerted little influence over national affairs, George III, whose reign spanned sixty years, became one of the nation’s most revered monarchs. As Colley’s account demonstrates, the Hanoverian period laid the groundwork for Great Britain’s prominence as a European power and its domination of vast portions of the world during the nineteenth century.
The period 1707-1837 possesses a historical configuration all its own. For Great Britain, the distinguishing feature was a succession of minor wars with France, England’s most significant continental opponent, conducted almost entirely outside Britain’s borders. The first prolonged historical conflict with France, during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, was waged over territorial claims by England within France itself. The later struggle grew out of ideological and commercial rivalries between the two nations. In the religious conflict dating back to the Reformation, France replaced Spain as the leader of European Catholic opposition to Protestant England. As Colley points out, the persistent foreign threat aided in creating a sense of national identity and purpose.
If France did not fully commit to war on its own, it lent assistance to those who sought to create difficulties for Britain, offering support to the two Stuart pretenders who led minor rebellions in 1715 and 1745 as well as to the American colonists. The American Revolution, occurring at about the midpoint of the period, was the only war that Britain lost, and Colley believes that the defeat brought a sense of national humiliation. Although the Americans enjoyed some French support, they were the only Protestant people that warred against the British during the period and the only enemies who prevailed. Renewed patriotism and more effective policies following the defeat prepared Great Britain to emerge successfully from the Napoleonic Wars. In the aftermath of Waterloo, Great Britain became the most powerful European nation. Only then could it turn its attention to long-deferred reforms such as the abolition of slavery in its colonies, electoral reform, and religious freedom for English Catholics. When the era ended, Britain was poised for additional developments that promoted national unity as it faced a revolution of a different sort in industrial production,
transportation, and communications.
The roots of British nationalism extended deep into the past, and geopolitics accounted for many of the developments as well as the problems faced by the emerging nation. England stood in the vanguard of the historical movement toward nationalism, a movement that received its strongest impetus from the Reformation. By 1707, most of the island had formed a single unified monarchy. Historically, Wales, Scotland, and the far southwestern portions—areas Colley designates as the “Celtic Fringe”—remained somewhat isolated from the more populous central and southern areas of Britain. Reasons for this extend back many centuries. Beginning in the first century A.D., successive invasions and settlements by Romans, Anglo-Saxons, and Danes drove many of the Celts, the island’s earliest known inhabitants, westward and northward into Wales and Scotland, where they concentrated. There, in sometimes forbidding terrain, they preserved their original language, customs, and culture, and because of their remoteness achieved a measure of independence. Following the Norman Conquest, English monarchs began to challenge the relative independence of these groups.
Monarchical motivation was simple enough to understand. Initially, the kings built castles along their borders to protect against marauders from less affluent areas. Later, as the historical movement toward nationalism gained momentum, territorial expansion became a major factor. The Plantagenet monarchs, particularly Edward I and...
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