Friday, 26 August 2011

Who were the Great Britons?

The Act of Union in 1707 united the England and Wales with the Scottish kingdom for the first time into the new United Kingdom of Great Britain. But how united were the British and who were they?

One important factor that united the new Britons was a sense of shared religion. Unlike most of Europe, the new kingdom was Protestant. Anti-Catholic sentiment was rife and the British prided themselves on their freedom from 'Popish tyranny'. It seemed that their religion was favoured by God especially, delivering them from the world's evils and giving them victory in war. In fact anti-Catholic legislation existed between the late 17th century right up until 1829, banning Catholics from parliament and state offices. It could be said that British Catholics were even seen as unpatriotic and hence 'un-British'. Much anti-Catholic literature was published, from popular almanacs to highly subjective histories. In 1780 the Gordon Riots erupted in London, in which anti-Catholic protesters rioted due to the proposed repeal of Catholic discrimination. The author Frances Burney was in London at the time and her family home was only spared by her father shouting out anti-Pope slogans. Protestantism joined the nation together, making it very different from the Continent, linking the people together in a shared, Divinely protected, nation.  The lyrics of Jerusalem written by William Blake in c.1804 emphasise this sentiment.

The Gordon Riots, London, 1780

Throughout the 18th century Britain was almost constantly at war, particularly with France and Spain. There was the Nine Years War, the War of Spanish Succession, the War of Austrian Succession, the Seven Years War, the War of Independence and the Napoleonic War to name a few. Overall Britain had victory after victory, establishing national pride and reaffirming the widely held belief in the nation's superiority and Divine preference. In fact evidence of this blessed nation seemed to stem from the new Protestant Hanoverian kings, further proof that Britain was a truly special isle.

Similarly, the Grand Tours, which any upstanding young gentleman went on, had the result of 'proving' the supremacy of Britain over its European neighbours. Gentlemen came home from the Grand Tours sure in the knowledge that Britain was the most free, liberal and democratic country. Other countries were simply despotic, backward and corrupt. The British parliament was seen as superior, efficient and more unrestricted than other governments in Europe at the time and the author Daniel Defoe rather proudly wrote that "we are a nation of liberty".

A gentleman on the Grand Tour, painted by Pompeo Batoni
Fast urban growth and the proliferation of printed material and news also played their part in increasing a sense of unity. Likewise a rigorous success in commercial trade played a part in establishing British people's sense of their country. In 1718 in The Present State of Great Britain it was written:
"Next to the purity of our religion we are the most considerable of any nation in the world for the vastness and extensiveness of our trade". 
All these things set Britain apart and helped create a sense of national identity. However it is worth noting that Britain of course still remained a very varied nation, with different languages, cultures and customs being practiced throughout the kingdom.

For further information, read Linda Colley's book entitled 'Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837' and also see 

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