After John Cabot's trip to North America in the early 1500s, it was nearly a full century before England began any real attempt at colonizing America. What were the important changes that took place in England that opened the way for the development of their colonial activity?

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England underwent a time of internal religious strife as Henry VIII left the Roman Catholic Church in order to start the Church of England. This led to the persecution of Catholics and seizure of church lands. It was not until Elizabeth I took the throne that England enjoyed a time...

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England underwent a time of internal religious strife as Henry VIII left the Roman Catholic Church in order to start the Church of England. This led to the persecution of Catholics and seizure of church lands. It was not until Elizabeth I took the throne that England enjoyed a time of relative internal stability.

The most important event that allowed England to start and expand its maritime empire was the destruction of the Spanish Armada in 1588. English pirates had long preyed on Spanish treasure galleons coming from the New World. The armada was used as a potential tool so that Spain could restore England back to being ruled by Roman Catholicism. Due to the bravery of Sir Francis Drake and a major storm, the Spanish Armada was destroyed. With this rival removed, England could focus on collecting raw materials from the New World such as timber in order to build its fledgling navy. This navy allowed Britain to control the world's shipping lanes for over three hundred years. The British navy and the British empire are linked by history and it is impossible to study one without studying the other.

Another important event was England's willingness to allow religious dissidents to leave the country. While religious minorities in Spain and France were persecuted, England was good with the concept of letting these groups leave in peace. The Pilgrims initially sought refuge in Holland but they did not want to adopt the Dutch culture. This led to them coming to the New World in order to establish their "City on a Hill." By doing this, England got the benefits of being rid of a dissident group as well as profiting from their trade in timber and fish. It was by populating the New World that England was eventually able to gain the land despite being a relative latecomer to exploration and colonization.

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It does indeed seem odd that over a century went by between John Cabot's 1497 voyages and the founding of the first permanent English colony at Jamestown in 1607. During this time, other European powers, namely the Spanish and Portuguese, colonized large swaths of the Americas. There are several reasons why England did not explore and colonize the New World during this period that are worth considering.

The first issue to take into account is the political unrest consuming England during the sixteenth century. The country was mired in a series of internal power struggles driven by religious turmoil. King Henry VIII had severed ties with the Catholic Church in 1533. This began a period of turmoil that dominated Henry's reign. In short, England's attention was not focused on the New World because it was trying to stabilize its internal problems. It would not be until these religious matters could be put to rest during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I that England could turn its attention to other matters, such as the exploration of America.

The other major obstacle to English exploration was its major rival, Spain. While England had a long history as a seafaring nation given its location on an island, Spain was the dominant power in Europe. Spain was bringing back vast treasures from its colonies in the New World aboard its fleet of galleons. Many English captains found it easier and more profitable to raid Spanish ships on their return to Europe than to find their own fortunes through the more difficult task of colonization. In fact, the English crown supported and encouraged this practice, known as privateering. As a privateer, an English captain and his sailors would turn over a portion of their loot to the state and divide the rest among themselves. This served the dual purpose of enriching the coffers of England and striking a blow at their Spanish rivals.

Furthermore, England could not directly compete with the Spanish fleets during the 1500s. The Spanish were simply too strong, numerous, and well-funded for the English to risk a major direct conflict in the New World, particularly not when the English were distracted with an uncertain political and social situation at home. However, when the Spanish Armada was destroyed in 1588, Spain lost its seafaring supremacy nearly all at once. This, coupled with the relative stability of Elizabeth's reign, opened up the opportunity for English colonization in America.

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So much time passed between the voyages to the New World by Giavanni Caboto, the Italian-born explorer known in England as John Cabot, and British colonization of North America because the English Crown lacked the freedom of movement enjoyed by the preeminent power of the time, Spain.  When Henry VII commissioned Cabot to explore North America, it was with the intent of securing territories and establishing colonies.  Unfortunately for the English, though, they were mired in domestic turmoil as the House of Plantagenet was divided in the Wars of the Roses, and would become entrapped in one of history’s most protracted conflicts, The Hundred Years War, with France.  While Spain, and Portugal, enjoyed unfettered access to the spoils of their conquests, England’s ability to project military and political power across the Atlantic was too hamstrung by those conflicts closer to home.   The Spanish Navy was too powerful for the English to attempt to confront it, especially with its military assets wholly preoccupied by the wars with France.  Over time, however, the English improved their maritime capabilities considerably, including through the introduction of more maneuverable sailing ships and the training of their officers and crews, and, by 1588, they were able to overcome Spain’s presumed naval superiority sufficiently to defeat the latter’s famed Armada.  Once it had achieved command of the seas, and with the long conflict with France marginalized, the English were able to devote resources to colonizing North America.

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