The Georgian era of British history is a period which takes its name from, and is normally defined as spanning the reigns of the first four Hanoverian kings of Great Britain who were all named George: George I, George II, George III and George IV. The era covers the period from 1714 to 1830, with the sub-period of the Regency defined by the Regency of George IV as Prince of Wales during the illness of his father George III. The definition of the Georgian era is often extended to include the short reign of William IV, which ended with his death in 1837. The last Hanoverian monarch of the UK was William’s niece Queen Victoria, who is the namesake of the following historical era, the Victorian, which is usually defined as occurring from the start of her reign, when William died, and continuing until her death.
The history of the United Kingdom as a unified sovereign state began in 1707 with the political union of the kingdoms of England and Scotland, into a united kingdom called Great Britain. On this new state the historian Simon Schama said “What began as a hostile merger would end in a full partnership in the most powerful going concern in the world… it was one of the most astonishing transformations in European history.” A further Act of Union in 1800 added the Kingdom of Ireland to create the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.
The first decades were marked by Jacobite risings which ended with defeat for the Stuart cause at Culloden in 1746. In 1763, victory in the Seven Years War led to the dominance of the British Empire, which was to be the foremost global power for over a century and grew to become the largest empire in history. As a result, the culture of the United Kingdom, and its industrial, political, constitutional, educational and linguistic legacy, became worldwide.
Birth of the Union
The Kingdom of Great Britain came into being on 1 May 1707, as a result of the political union of the Kingdom of England (which included Wales) and the Kingdom of Scotland. The terms of the union had been negotiated the previous year, and laid out in the Treaty of Union. The parliaments of Scotland and of England then each ratified the treaty via respective Acts of Union. ally separate states, England and Scotland had shared a monarch since 1603 when on the death of the childless Elizabeth I, James VI of Scotland became, additionally, James I of England, in an event known as the Union of the Crowns. Slightly more than one-hundred years later, the Treaty of Union enabled the two kingdoms to be combined into a single kingdom, merging the two parliaments into a single parliament of Great Britain. Queen Anne, who was reigning at the time of the union, had favoured deeper political integration between the two kingdoms and became the first monarch of Great Britain. The union was valuable to England’s security because Scotland relinquished first, the right to choose a different monarch on Anne’s death and second, the right to independently ally with a European power, which could then use Scotland as a base for the invasion of England.
Although now a single kingdom, certain aspects of the former independent kingdoms remained separate, as agreed in the terms in the Treaty of Union. Scottish and English law remained separate, as did the Presbyterian Church of Scotland and the Anglican Church of England. England and Scotland also continued to each have its own system of education.
The creation of Great Britain happened during the War of the Spanish Succession, in which just before his death in 1702 William III had reactivated the Grand Alliance against France. His successor, Anne, continued the war. The Duke of Marlborough won a series of brilliant victories over the French, England’s first major battlefield successes on the Continent since theHundred Years War. France was nearly brought to its knees by 1709, when King Louis XIV made a desperate appeal to the French people. Afterwards, his general Marshal Villars managed to turn the tide in favour of France. A more peace-minded government came to power in Great Britain, and the treaties of Utrecht and Rastadt in 1713–1714 ended the war.
Queen Anne died in 1714, and the Elector of Hanover, George Louis, became king as George I (1714–1727). He paid more attention to Hanover and surrounded himself with Germans, making him an unpopular king, However he did build up the army and created a more stable political system in Britain and helped bring peace to northern Europe. Jacobite factions seeking a Stuart restoration remained strong; they instigated a revolt in 1715–1716. The son of James II planned to invade England, but before he could do so, John Erskine, Earl of Mar, launched an invasion from Scotland, which was easily defeated.
George II (1727–1760) enhanced the stability of the constitutional system, with a government run by Sir Robert Walpole during the period 1730–42. He built up the first British Empire, strengthening the colonies in the Caribbean and North America. In coalition with the rising power Prussia, defeated France in the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763), and won full control of Canada.
George III reigned 1760–1820; he was born in Britain, never visited Hanover, and spoke English as his first language. Frequently reviled by Americans as a tyrant and the instigator of the American War of Independence, he was insane off and on after 1788 as his eldest son served as regent. The last king to dominate government and politics, his long reign is noted for losing the first British Empire with a loss in the American Revolutionary War (1783), as France sought revenge for its defeat in the Seven Years War by aiding the Americans. The reign was notable for the building of a second empire based in India, Asia and Africa, the beginnings of the industrial revolution that made Britain an economic powerhouse, and above all the life and death struggle with the French, the French Revolutionary Wars 1793–1802, ending in a draw and a short truce, and the epic Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815), ending with the decisive defeat of Napoleon.
South Sea Bubble
The era was prosperous as entrepreneurs extended the range of their business around the globe. The South Sea Bubble was a business enterprise that exploded in scandal. The South Sea Company was a private business corporation set up in London ostensibly to grant trade monopolies in South America. Its actual purpose was to re-negotiate previous high-interest government loans amounting to £31 million through market manipulation and speculation. It issued stock four times in 1720 that reached about 8,000 investors. Prices kept soaring every day, from £130 a share to £1,000, with insiders making huge paper profits. The Bubble collapsed overnight, ruining many speculators. Investigations showed bribes had reached into high places—even to the king. Robert Walpole managed to wind it down with minimal political and economic damage, although some losers fled to exile or committed suicide.
Warfare and finance
From 1700 to 1850, Britain was involved in 137 wars or rebellions. It maintained a relatively large and expensive Royal Navy, along with a small standing army. When the need arose for soldiers it hired mercenaries or financed allies who fielded armies. The rising costs of warfare forced a shift in government financing from the income from royal agricultural estates and special imposts and taxes to reliance on customs and excise taxes and, after 1790, an income tax. Working with bankers in the City, the government raised large loans during wartime and paid them off in peacetime. The rise in taxes amounted to 20% of national income, but the private sector benefited from the increase in economic growth. The demand for war supplies stimulated the industrial sector, particularly naval supplies, munitions and textiles, which gave Britain an advantage in international trade during the postwar years.
The French Revolution polarized British political opinion in the 1790s, with conservatives outraged at killing of the king, the expulsion of the nobles, and the Reign of Terror. Britain was at war against France almost continuously from 1793 until the final defeat of Napoleon in 1815. Conservatives castigated every radical opinion in Britain as “Jacobin” (in reference to the leaders of the Terror), warning that radicalism threatened an upheaval of British society. The Anti-Jacobin sentiment, well expressed by Edmund Burke and many popular writers was strongest among the landed gentry and the upper classes.
The Seven Years’ War, which began in 1756, was the first war waged on a global scale, fought in Europe, India, North America, the Caribbean, the Philippines and coastal Africa. The signing of the Treaty of Paris (1763) had important consequences for Britain and its empire. In North America, France’s future as a colonial power there was effectively ended with the ceding of New France to Britain (leaving a sizeable French-speaking population under British control) and Louisiana to Spain. Spain ceded Florida to Britain. In India, the Carnatic War had left France still in control of its enclaves but with military restrictions and an obligation to support British client states, effectively leaving the future of India to Britain. The British victory over France in the Seven Years War therefore left Britain as the world’s dominant colonial power.
During the 1760s and 1770s, relations between the Thirteen Colonies and Britain became increasingly strained, primarily because of opposition to Parliament’s repeated attempts to tax American colonists without their consent. Disagreement turned to violence and in 1775 the American Revolutionary War began. In 1776 the Patriots expelled royal officials and declared the independence of the United States of America. After capturing a British invasion army in 1777, the US formed an alliance with France (and in turn Spain aided France), evening out the military balance. The British army controlled only a handful of coastal cities. 1780–81 was a low point for Britain. Taxes and deficits were high, government corruption was pervasive, and the war in America was entering its sixth year with no apparent end in sight. The Gordon Riots erupted in London during the spring of 1781, in response to increased concessions to Catholics by Parliament. In October 1781 Lord Cornwallis surrendered his army at Yorktown, Virginia. The Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783, formally terminating the war and recognising the independence of the United States.
The loss of the Thirteen Colonies, at the time Britain’s most populous colonies, marked the transition between the “first” and “second” empires, in which Britain shifted its attention to Asia, the Pacific and later Africa. Adam Smith‘s Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, had argued that colonies were redundant, and that free trade should replace the old mercantilistpolicies that had characterised the first period of colonial expansion, dating back to the protectionism of Spain and Portugal. The growth of trade between the newly independent United States and Britain after 1783 confirmed Smith’s view that political control was not necessary for economic success.
During its first 100 years of operation, the focus of the British East India Company had been trade, not the building of an empire in India. Company interests turned from trade to territory during the 18th century as the Mughal Empire declined in power and the British East India Company struggled with its French counterpart, the La Compagnie française des Indes orientales, during the Carnatic Wars of the 1740s and 1750s. The British, led by Robert Clive, defeated the French and their Indian allies in the Battle of Plassey, leaving the Company in control of Bengal and a major military and political power in India. In the following decades it gradually increased the size of the territories under its control, either ruling directly or indirectly via local puppet rulers under the threat of force of the Indian Army, 80% of which was composed of native Indian sepoys.
On 22 August 1770, James Cook discovered the eastern coast of Australia while on a scientific voyage to the South Pacific. In 1778, Joseph Banks, Cook’s botanist on the voyage, presented evidence to the government on the suitability of Botany Bay for the establishment of a penal settlement, and in 1787 the first shipment of convicts set sail, arriving in 1788.
At the threshold to the 19th century, Britain was challenged again by France under Napoleon, in a struggle that, unlike previous wars, represented a contest of ideologies between the two nations.
The British government had somewhat mixed reactions to the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, and when war broke out on the Continent in 1792, it initially remained neutral. But the following January, Louis XVI was beheaded. This combined with a threatened invasion of the Netherlands by France spurred Britain to declare war. For the next 23 years, the two nations were at war except for a short period in 1802–1803. Britain alone among the nations of Europe never submitted to or formed an alliance with France. Throughout the 1790s, the British repeatedly defeated the navies of France and its allies, but were unable to perform any significant land operations. An Anglo-Russian invasion of the Netherlands in 1799 accomplished little except the capture of the Dutch fleet.
It was not only Britain’s position on the world stage that was threatened: Napoleon threatened invasion of Britain itself, and with it, a fate similar to the countries of continental Europe that his armies had overrun.
- Upon the death of his second cousin Queen Anne, George Louis, Elector of Hannover succeeds as the new King, George I, of Great Britain and Ireland, the former of which had itself been established in 1706. This is the beginning of the House of Hanover‘s reign over the British Crown.
- The Whig Party wins the British Parliamentary Election for the House of Commons. This was the party that was in general opposition of the policies of the King.
- George I dies and his son George, Prince of Wales ascends to the throne as George II
- George II dies, and his grandson George, Prince of Wales ascends to the throne as George III, since his father, Frederick, Prince of Wales, had died in March 1751.
- Britain is victorious in the Seven Years War. The Treaty of Paris of 1763 grants Britain domain over vast new territories around the world.
- The Stamp Act is passed by the Parliament of Great Britain, causing much unrest in the Thirteen Colonies in North America.
- The Thirteen Colonies in North America declare their independence from the British Crown and British Parliament.
- The British Army in America under Lord Cornwallis surrenders to George Washington after its defeat in Yorktown, Virginia in October 1781.
- British formally recognises the independence of the original 13 American States when the Treaty of Paris of 1783 is signed by David Hartley, representingGeorge III, and by the American treaty delegation.
- Australia is settled through penal transportation to the colony of New South Wales from 26 January.
- The Act of Union 1800 comes into effect on 1 January, uniting the Kingdoms of Great Britain and of Ireland into the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland
- George, Prince of Wales begins his nine-year period as the regent (he became known as George, Prince Regent) for George III, who has become delusional. This sub-period of the Georgian Era is defined as the regency period.
- Napoleon I of France is defeated by the Seventh Coalition under The Duke of Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo, in what is now Wallonia, Belgium.
- The Peterloo Massacre occurs.
- George III dies, and his son George, Prince Regent ascends to the throne of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland as George IV.
- George IV dies. According to some authorities, this is the end of the Georgian era of the House of Hannover. However, many other authorities continue this era during the relatively short reign of his brother, The Prince William, Duke of Clarence, who became William IV.
- Slavery Abolition Act passed by Parliament through the influence of William Wilberforce and the Evangelical movement, thus criminalising slavery within the British Empire.
- William IV dies, ending the Georgian Era, and is succeeded by his niece, Queen Victoria, the last member of the House of Hanover. She married Prince Albert, who was of the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, and so, when their son Albert Edward, Prince of Wales succeeded as Edward VII, that House gained the British throne.
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