Through a glass darkly – 17

Woodward’s History of England

Regular readers [if such exist] may recall that my long-ago study of history left me with a rather large lacuna; from the Magna Carta of 1215 to the outbreak of the First World War, that is about seven centuries. So, several decades later, I have been reading E.L. Woodward’s History of England. Sir [Ernest] Llewellyn Woodward was an Oxford historian, for many years a Fellow of All Souls and subsequently Professor of Modern History. His books range from an early publication on the Roman Empire to later books on the First and Second World Wars. He died in 1971.

His History of England is a single volume of 240 pages published in 1947. It is essentially  a chronological account, what might be called old-fashioned history, with the emphasis on political and diplomatic activity. It is a ‘top-down’ approach. Compared with a lot of contemporary historians, he is admirably disciplined.  Meaning brief. Which is immensely helpful if what you want is an overview of several centuries. The original book ended in 1939, but my paperback edition includes a couple of later chapters on the mid- twentieth century. What follows is a digest of the story as he tells it.

The Tudors and Stuarts

After the upheavals of the War of the Roses, the arrival of Henry Tudor in 1485 brought greater stability. The Tudor monarchy was the greatest effective concentration of power in England since the Norman Conquest. But they never had a large army. Henry VIII [1509-47] was the first king since Henry V who did not have to fight or win a battle to secure his throne. “He was a prince after the fashion of his age – …  politic, selfish and intensely national.” Divorce from Catherine of Aragon  was necessary because there was no male heir. And there was no precedent for a female ruler [except the unhappy one of  Matilda]. Once the breach was made with Rome doctrinal revisions followed. The king married Anne Boleyn in 1533 without papal approval. And was proclaimed Supreme Governor of the Church in England in 1534. The dissolution of the monasteries in 1536-39 was a logical consequence by a king in need of money.

Henry’s death in 1547 meant a regency. The young king’s uncle, the Duke of Somerset, held ‘advanced’ views on theology. The 1549 prayer book in English inclined towards Lutheranism. In 1552 the second prayer book, largely the work of Thomas Cranmer, was more Protestant. Edward VI was succeeded by his Catholic half-sister Mary [1553-58]. She repealed the statutes of Edward VI; enabled the persecution of heretics, including Cranmer and Ridley. This Catholic persecution produced Protestant martyrs. After Mary’s death, the Elizabethan Settlement was a very effective compromise. Elizabeth reissued the second prayer book of Edward VI. The settlement was both aided and hampered by violent attacks on England from catholic Spain supported by the Papacy. This was ultimately the reason for the execution of Mary Queen of Scots [1542-87].

Woodward describes Elizabeth as “a handsome, auburn-haired woman of 25; intelligent, practical, speaking Latin and French, as well as some German and Italian“. She had no brother or male relative, but chose good counsellors. War, diplomacy, and trade were closely connected. At first England did not try to rival Spanish trade in the Indies or South America. Humphrey Gilbert established a first colony in Newfoundland in 1583. Raleigh tried to establish a colony in Virginia, but was not successful. John Hawkins and Francis Drake and other plundered Spanish galleons. The Spanish Armada of 1588 was defeated, largely by the weather. But Spanish power was unbroken.

Queen Elizabeth I and Sir Walter Raleight

Towards the end of Elizabeth’s reign the monarchy could not meet expenses. Both James I and Charles I tried new ways to increase their revenues. Which meant summoning parliament more often. If the commons were asked for subsidies to pay for the king’s foreign policy, they would claim the right to criticise the policy. Scottish affairs were the cause of the calling of the ‘Long Parliament’, but the problem of Ireland indirectly led to the English civil war. An Irish rebellion in 1641 needed to be put down. But the Parliament would not give the money for an army under the king’s control. Charles responded by seeking to arrest the most hostile members. In return Parliament set out a programme for control over the council, the Church, and the militia.

Christopher Hill has taught us to label the seventeenth century as ‘The Age of Revolution’. But Woodward skates quite smoothly over the breakdown of royal government, the victory of the parliamentary army, the execution of Charles I in January 1649, and the establishment of the Commonwealth. He notes that Cromwell’s power rested on the army alone, and that in the latter years of the Protectorate he became king in all but name. The restoration of monarchy with Charles II in 1660 was no counter-revolution, but more a reversion to what had been before the misuse of power by Charles I. Charles II wanted toleration of Catholics, but Catholicism in Europe was the religion of absolute rulers. After Charles, James II was more openly Catholic. In May 1688 his Declaration of Indulgence would have suspended penal laws against catholics and dissenters. The clergy disobeyed, as did the bishops. The birth of a son to James II raised the danger of a catholic regency and a catholic monarch. So in June 1688 an invitation was sent to James’s daughter, Mary, and her [protestant] husband, Prince William of Orange. Civil war was avoided by allowing James to escape to France.

England in the Eighteenth Century

The ’Glorious Revolution’ of 1688-89 did not establish a new constitution. But it created the possibility of peaceful constitutional change. Throughout the 18th century the English failed to conciliate Irish feelings. But they were saved from serious problems in Scotland by the negotiated Act of Union of 1707. Bot sides  gained: Scotland did not lose its identity nor its national pride, and made great gains economically. On the death of Queen Anne  [1702-14], George, Elector of Hanover [and grandson of Elizabeth, daughter of James I], came to the throne in accordance with the Act of Settlement. The Act of Union of 1707 had weakened support for the Stuarts [as was made clear by the failed Jacobite rebellions in 1715 and 1745].

The full effects of the settlement of 1688 were now felt; as a balance of legislative, executive, and judicial power emerged. The king had to choose ministers who could obtain parliamentary support. The development of a Cabinet, and the emergence of a Prime Minister, reflected the new constitution. George I and George II did not attend Cabinet meetings. The leading servant of the Crown had no official title. But first Walpole, and then Chatham and Pitt the Younger, had an ascendancy in the commons and in the country which justified the term ‘Prime Minister’. “King, Prime Minister, and parties now began to take their modern alignment.” John Locke’s philosophy was a justification of the 1688 revolution; he saw government as a contract between ruler and subjects for the defence of property.

The Seven Years War [[1756-63] was to decide whether England or France should control North America and India. In North America English colonies stretched from Nova Scotia to Georgia; but the French had Louisiana, and the Spanish had Georgia. Within 20 years of this victorious war, England had lost the American colonies. The English complained that the colonies did not contribute to their own defence against the French, and attempted to impose taxes. Tea was thrown into the harbour at Boston in 1773. And in July 1776 a Congress at Philadelphia declared American independence.

The Boston Tea Party

From 1793 to 1814 England was at war with France; fighting for the most part against a military genius who had defeated the lumbering armies of Austria and Prussia. English sea-power was significant in countering the power of France and saved them from invasion. There were dangerous moments in 1797 and again in 1802, but Trafalgar in 1805 was a decisive victory. Wellington countered French aggression in the Spanish peninsula. Waterloo in 1815 was the final victory.

England in the Nineteenth Century

After victory at Waterloo contemporary opinion was not optimistic about the prospects for England; few people foresaw the increase in general prosperity over the next 50 years. But the growth of railways transformed life: they benefitted agriculture, and allowed poorer classes to maintain contact with the family home. Railways were private enterprises, not under government direction. There was little appetite for government controls. At home there was generally little interest in social conditions. Water supplies and sewage disposal were primitive. Liverpool in 1847 was the first city to appoint a medical officer. The population of England and Wales rose from c.9 million in 1801 to 21 million in 1851 to 32 million in 1901.

There was some improvement in labour conditions; by 1850 the trade unions had secured a ten hour day and a sixty-hour week. After 1870 there was an improvement in social services; in elementary schools and in hospitals. Improvements were secured through trade unions. Chartism arose out of frustrations with the reform act of 1832. The ‘People’s Charter’ asked for universal male suffrage, equal electoral districts, abolition of property qualification, payments of members. The first TUC met in 1868. Socialism was introduced to England in the 1880s. The Independent Labour Party was founded in 1893. The ‘Labour Representative Committee’ with Ramsay MacDonald as its first secretary came into being in the 1890s. In 1906 it won 26 seats in the Commons.

Cartist demonstration, 1848

Abroad the foreign policy of Lord Palmerston, who sat in 16 parliaments, and was in office almost continuously from 1807, was directed at maintaining Britain’s status in the world. Diplomacy was about securing peace, mainly through ensuring a balance of power in Europe. The importance of India made British foreign policy very nervous about growing Russian power. Especially in Turkey. Russian control over Turkey was the cause of the Crimean War. Which justified the high reputation of the fighting capability of the British army, but not of its commanders.

Closer to home, Ireland was a continuing source of instability. The population of Ireland rose from 6 million in 1815 to 8+ million in 1840. The standard of living was very low; most peasant families lived on potatoes. The failure of the potato crop in 1845 and 1846 brought terrible famine. Two million Irish emigrated, mainly to America, between 1847 and 1861. Gladstone became convinced that home rule was the only solution to the Irish question.But he couldn’t carry his party with him. The defeat of a second home rule bill in 1893 led to Gladstone’s retirement in 1894.

England in the early Twentieth Century

TheGreat War, Woodwardmaintains was largely a consequence of the way Germany used her growing power; both to challenge British sea power, and to expand her influence south-eastwards thereby endangering British links to India. He rehearses the diplomatic consequences of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the Emperor Franz-Joseph, at Sarajevo in June 1914; and he argues that the Germans effectively lost the war when they failed to capture the Channel ports in 1914. During four years of trench warfare that followed, the defence always had the upper hand. Interestingly he claims that the Boer War had brought cavalry officers to prominence in the British army; and they were neither bright nor imaginative. It was their rigidity and their lack of imagination led to loss of life on an unprecedented scale.

King George V and General Sir Douglas Haig

PS on England’s relationship with Europe

At the end of this short book, after a very brief look at what he calls the Second German War and at post-war Britain, Woodward looks prophetically into the future “The next stage”, he writes, “ – a closer integration of Great Britain with the states of continental Europe – may be less easy for a nation which still thinks of itself as an Island Power, with its own particular ways, and is still fearful of the consequences of any surrender of national sovereignty.” But Woodward insists that this transition will have to be made.

Woodward was writing at much the same time as Churchill’s speech at the University of Zurich, in 1946, in which he advocated a ‘United States of Europe’, urging Europeans to turn their backs on the horrors of the past and look to the future. He declared that Europe could not afford to drag forward the hatred and revenge which sprung from the injuries of the past, and that the first step to recreate the ‘European family’ of justice, mercy and freedom was “to build a kind of United States of Europe. In this way only will hundreds of millions of toilers be able to regain the simple joys and hopes which make life worth living”.

Sixty years on, in order to curry favour with the ignorant and xenophobic faction of the Tory party, we have an untrustworthy and self-seeking prime minister who is taking us in precisely the opposite direction. Future historians will be incredulous. And will doubtless find BREXIT almost impossible to explain or to justify.

Published by europhilevicar

I am a retired vicar living on the south side of Edinburgh. I am a historian manqué, I worked in educational publishing for 20 years, and after ordination worked in churches in the Scottish Borders and then in Lyon in the Rhône-Alpes. I have a lovely and long-suffering wife, two children, and four delightful grand-children

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