18th Century Powers: Great Britain

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  • 0:02 Three Kings Named George
  • 1:52 British Politics
  • 2:37 A Growing Nation
  • 3:23 War, War, & More War
  • 4:49 A Great Loss
  • 6:11 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will study Great Britain in the 18th century. We will explore the monarchs of the era, the country's major political and economic developments, and Britain's participation in the century's wars.

Anne and the Three Kings Named George

At the dawn of the 18th century, the elderly William III sat on the English throne. As husband of the late Queen Mary Stuart, the childless king faced serious problems of who would rule after him. Most of the other Stuarts, who were living in exile in France, were Catholic and would not be accepted by the Protestant majority of Englishmen. Mary's sister, Anne, was a good choice, but she, too, lacked heirs. The 1701 Act of Settlement resolved the issue by declaring that all future monarchs had to be in communion with the Church of England. Anne would rule next, and after her death, the throne would pass to the Electress Sophia of the House of Hanover, a German.

William died in 1702 and was succeeded by Anne, who ruled until 1714. By that time, Sophia had also passed on, but her son, George I, became the king of England. He was quite unpopular with the English people. After all, he didn't even speak English, and he wasn't all that interested in ruling England. When he died in 1727, his son, George II, assumed the throne. This George led England straight into two wars, but he didn't care much about politics, and he usually let his ministers run the show. At his death in 1760, George III stepped up to reign. His reputation suffered when he lost a few important colonies during the American Revolution, but he was still in power at the turn of the 19th century.

There were some Englishmen who resented having the German Hanovers as kings. These Jacobites, as they were called, supported the remaining Stuarts, who twice led them in rebellion against the current king. Both times, in 1715 and 1745, the uprisings failed, and the House of Hanover remained securely on the English throne.

British Politics

Politically, the 18th century was an active era for England. In 1707, the Act of Union officially created Great Britain by uniting Scotland and England. Around the same time, two political parties were gaining power: the Whigs, who were typically liberal, focused on internal reform and placing more power in the hands of the people, and the Tories, who tended to be conservative, were devoted to concentrating power in the hands of the monarch and government. As the century progressed, the Whigs, supported by the Hanover kings, became dominant, while the Tories, some of whom supported the Jacobites, faded into the background. Leading Whig ministers of the day included the powerful Robert Walpole and William Pitt.

A Growing Nation

Great Britain was a rapidly growing nation in the 18th century. Its population doubled between 1721 and 1821, jumping from 7.1 million to 14.2 million. The economy was already strong as the century dawned due to steady agriculture, a solid commercial and manufacturing sector, and several scientific advances. As the century progressed, industrial development skyrocketed, especially in the iron and textile industries. Factories sprang up across the country, boosted by new discoveries in manufacturing techniques and fuel sources. Transportation networks spread rapidly. Cities boomed. Trade blossomed. Even agriculture continued to expand in productivity. Britain was well on its way to becoming a fully industrialized nation.

War, War, and More War

Not everything was rosy for the 18th-century Britain, however. War constantly loomed on the horizon or burst out with all its violence to consume British men and resources. Early in the century, Britain became involved in the War of the Spanish Succession from 1702 to 1713. The Habsburgs of Austria and the Bourbons of France both wanted to sit on the Spanish throne. Britain supported the Habsburgs, but bowed out of the war in 1713, gaining some territory and a valuable contract to supply slaves to the Spanish colonies. The next year, the Habsburgs lost the war.

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