The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 1, Issue 9 (February 25, 1927)
British History In Brief. — The Growth Of An Empire
British History In Brief.
The Growth Of An Empire.
To scan the pages of history and therefrom briefly summarise the dominant influences at work in the development of an Empire is no easy task, and in the case of Britain it is an amazingly complicated one. But, once done, the outline so obtained may serve to make coherent the mass of detached ideas generally prevalent regarding the story of our people. Properly apprehended, such knowledge is the true justification for the strength of that deep-seated patriotic pride which enables the British-born to meet with calm assurance each turn of the wheel of international fortune.
The appended logical outline, from J. N. Larned's History, excellently serves the purpose in view:—
5th–7th centuries. Conquest and settlement by Saxons, Angles and Jutes.
The Island of Britain, separated from the Continent of Europe by a narrow breadth of sea, which makes friendly commerce easy and hostile invasion difficult;—its soil in great part excellent; its northern climate tempered by the humid warmth of the Gulf Stream; its conditions good for breeding a robust population, strongly fed upon corn and meats; holding, moreover, in store, for later times, a rare deposit of iron and coal, of tin and potter's clay, and other minerals of like utility; was occupied and possessed by tribes from Northern Europe, of the strongest race in history; already schooled in courage and trained to enterprise by generations of sea-faring adventure; uncorrupted by any mercenary contact with the decaying civilisation of Rome, but ready for the knowledge it could give.
Fused after much warring with one another and with their Danish kin, into a nation of Englishmen, they lived, for five centuries, an isolated life, until their insular and independent character had become deeply ingrained, and the primitive system of their social and political organisation—their Townships, their Hundreds, their Shires, and the popular moots or courts, which determined and administered law in each—was rooted fast; though the King's power waxed and the nobles and the common people drew farther apart.
A.D. 1066, Norman Conquest.
Then they were mastered (in the last successful invasion that their Island ever knew) by another people, sprung from their own stock, but whose blood had been warmed and whose wit had been quickened by Latin and Gallic influences in the country of the Franks.
A new social and political system now formed itself in England as the result:—Feudalism modified by the essential democracy inherent in old English institutions—producing a stout commonalty to daunt the lords, and a strong aristocracy to curb the king.
A.D. 1215, Magna Charta.
English royalty soon weakened itself yet more by ambitious strivings to maintain and extend a wide dominion over-seas, in Normandy and Aquitaine; and was helpless to resist when barons and commons came together to demand the signing and sealing of the great charter of Englishmen's rights.
A.D. 1265–1295 Parliament.
Out of the conditions that gave birth to Magna Charta there followed, soon, the development of the English Parliament as a representative legislature, from the Curia Regis of the Normans and the Witenagemot of the older English time.
A.D. 1337–1453, The Hundred Years War.
From the woful wars of a hundred years with France which another century brought upon it, the nation, as a whole, suffered detriment, no doubt, and its progress was hindered in many ways; but politically the people took some good from the troubled times, because their kings were more dependent upon them for money and men.
A.D. 1453–1485, Wars of the Roses.
So, likewise, they were bettered in some ways by the dreadful civil wars of the Roses, which distracted England for thirty years. The nobles well nigh perished, as an order, in these wars, while the middle class people at large suffered relatively little, in numbers or estate.
A.D. 1348, The Great Plague.
But, previously, the Great Plague, by diminishing the ranks of the labouring class, had raised wages and the standard of living among them, and had helped with other causes, to multiply the small land-owners and tenant farmers of the country, increasing the independent common class.
A.D. 1327–1377, Immigration of Flemish Weavers.
Moreover, from the time of Edward Iii., who encouraged Flemish weavers to settle in England and to teach their art to his people, manufactures began to thrive; trade extended; towns grew in population and wealth, and the great burgher middle class rose rapidly to importance and weight in the land.
A.D. 1485–1603, Absolutism of the Tudors.
But the commons of England were not prepared to make use of the actual power which they held. The nobles had led them in the past; it needed time to raise leaders among themselves, and time to organise their ranks. Hence no new checks on royalty were ready to replace those constraints which had been broken by the ruin of great houses in the civil wars, and the crown made haste to improve its opportunity for grasping power. There followed, under the Tudors, a period of absolutism greater than England had known before.
15th–16th Centuries Renaissance.
But this endured only for the time of the education of the commons, who conned the lessons of the age with eagerness and with understanding. The new learning from Greece and Rome; the new world knowledge that had been found in the West; the new ideas which the new art of the printer had furnished with wings—all these had now gained their most fertile planting in the English mind. Their flower was the splendid literature of the Elizabethan age; they ripened fruits more substantial at a later day.
The intellectual development of the nation tended first towards a religious independence, which produced two successive revolts—from Roman Papacy and from the Anglican Episcopacy that succeeded it.
This religious new-departure of the English people gave direction to a vast expansion of their energies in the outside world. It led them into war with Spain, and sent forth Drake and Hawkins and the Buccaneers, to train the sailors and pilot the merchant adventurers who would soon make England mistress of all the wide seas.
A.D. 1603–1688, The Stuarts, The Civil War—The Commonwealth—The Revolution.
Then, when these people, strong, prosperous and intelligent, had come to be ripely sufficient for self-government, there fell to them a foolish race of kings who challenged them to a struggle which stripped royalty of all but its fictions and established the sovereignty of England in its House of Commons for all time.
18th–19th Centuries. Science, Invention, Material Progress, Economic Enlightenment.
Unassailable in its Island,—taking part in the great wars of the 18th century by its fleets and its subsidies chiefly, busy with its undisturbed labours at home,—vigorous in its conquests, its settlements and its trade, which it pushed into the farthest parts of the earth,—creating wealth and protecting it from spoliation and from waste,—the English nation now became the industrial and economic school of the age. It produced the mechanical inventions which first opened a new era in the life of mankind on the material side; it attained to the splendid enlightenment of freedom in trade; it made England the workshop and mart of the world, and it spread her Empire to every Continent, through all the seas.