United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland

This article is about the United Kingdom during the period when all of Ireland was part of it. For the state in its current form, see United Kingdom.
United Kingdom of
Great Britain and Ireland
Flag Royal coat of arms
"God Save the King/Queen"
Location of  the United Kingdom in 1921  (green)

in Europe  (green & grey)

Capital London
51°30′N 0°7′W / 51.500°N 0.117°W / 51.500; -0.117
Languages English (official), Scots, Welsh, Irish, Scottish Gaelic
Demonym British
Government Unitary parliamentary constitutional monarchy
   1801–20[a] George III
  1820–30 George IV
  1830–37 William IV
  1837–1901 Victoria
  1901–10 Edward VII
  1910–22[b] George V
Legislature Parliament
   Upper house House of Lords
   Lower house House of Commons
   Acts of Union 1 January 1801
  Anglo-Irish Treaty 6 December 1921
   Irish Free State Constitution Act 6 December 1922
  Titles amended 12 April 1927
   Total 315,093 km² (121,658 sq mi)
   1801 est. 16,000,000 
     Density 50.8 /km²  (131.5 /sq mi)
   1911 est. 45,370,530 
     Density 144 /km²  (372.9 /sq mi)
Currency Pound sterling
Preceded by
Succeeded by
Great Britain
Kingdom of Ireland
United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
Irish Free State
Today part of  Republic of Ireland
 United Kingdom
a. ^ Monarch of Great Britain and Ireland from 1760.
b. ^ Continued as monarch of the United Kingdom and the Irish Free State until 1936.
Part of a series on the
History of the United Kingdom
United Kingdom portal

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was established as a sovereign state on 1 January 1801 by the Acts of Union 1800, which merged the kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland. The growing desire for an Irish Republic led to the Irish War of Independence, which resulted in Ireland seceding from the Union and forming the Irish Free State in 1922. Northern Ireland remained part of the United Kingdom, and the state was consequently renamed the "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland".

Britain financed the European coalition that defeated France in 1814 in the Napoleonic Wars. The British Empire thereby became the foremost world power for the next century. The Crimean War with Russia and the Boer wars were relatively small operations in a largely peaceful century.[1] Rapid industrialisation that began in the decades prior to the state's formation continued up until the mid-19th century. A devastating famine, exacerbated by government inaction in the mid-19th century, led to demographic collapse in much of Ireland, and increased calls for Irish land reform.

It was an era of rapid economic modernization and growth of industry, trade and finance, in which Britain largely dominated the world economy. Outward migration was heavy to the main colonies and to the United States. Britain also built up a large British Empire in Africa and Asia, which it rules through a small number of administrators who supervised local elites. India, by far the most important possession, saw a short-lived revolt in 1857. In foreign policy Britain favoured free trade, which enabled its financiers and merchants to operate successfully in many otherwise independent countries, as in South America. Britain formed no permanent military alliances until the early 20th century, when it began to cooperate with Japan, France and Russia, and moved closer to the United States.

1801 to 1837

Union of Great Britain and Ireland

A brief period of limited independence for Ireland came to an end following the Irish Rebellion of 1798, which occurred during the British war with revolutionary France. The British government's fear of an independent Ireland siding against them with the French resulted in the decision to unite the two countries. This was brought about by legislation in the parliaments of both kingdoms and came into effect on 1 January 1801. The Irish had been led to believe by the British that their loss of legislative independence would be compensated for with Catholic Emancipation, i.e. by the removal of civil disabilities placed upon Roman Catholics in both Great Britain and Ireland. However, King George III was bitterly opposed to any such Emancipation and succeeded in defeating his government's attempts to introduce it.[2]

Napoleonic Wars

During the War of the Second Coalition (1799–1801), Britain occupied most of the French and Dutch overseas possessions, the Netherlands having become a satellite state of France in 1796, but tropical diseases claimed the lives of over 40,000 troops. When the Treaty of Amiens ended the war, Britain agreed to return most of the territories it had seized. The peace settlement was in effect only a ceasefire, and Napoleon continued to provoke the British by attempting a trade embargo on the country and by occupying the city of Hanover, capital of the Electorate, a German-speaking duchy which was in a personal union with the United Kingdom. In May 1803, war was declared again. Napoleon's plans to invade Britain failed, chiefly due to the inferiority of his navy, and in 1805 Lord Nelson's Royal Navy fleet decisively defeated the French and Spanish at Trafalgar, which was the last significant naval action of the Napoleonic Wars.[3]

In 1806, Napoleon issued the series of Berlin Decrees, which brought into effect the Continental System. This policy aimed to eliminate the threat from the British by closing French-controlled territory to foreign trade. The British Army remained a minimal threat to France; it maintained a standing strength of just 220,000 men at the height of the Napoleonic Wars, whereas France's armies exceeded a million men—in addition to the armies of numerous allies and several hundred thousand national guardsmen that Napoleon could draft into the French armies when they were needed. Although the Royal Navy effectively disrupted France's extra-continental trade—both by seizing and threatening French shipping and by seizing French colonial possessions—it could do nothing about France's trade with the major continental economies and posed little threat to French territory in Europe. France's population and agricultural capacity far outstripped that of the British Isles, but it was smaller in terms of industry, finance, mercantile marine and naval strength.[4]

Napoleon expected that cutting Britain off from the European mainland would end its economic hegemony. On the contrary Britain possessed the greatest industrial capacity in the world, and its mastery of the seas allowed it to build up considerable economic strength through trade to its possessions and the United States. The Spanish uprising in 1808 at last permitted Britain to gain a foothold on the Continent. The Duke of Wellington gradually pushed the French out of Spain, and in early 1814, as Napoleon was being driven back in the east by the Prussians, Austrians, and Russians, Wellington invaded southern France. After Napoleon's surrender and exile to the island of Elba, peace appeared to have returned. Napoleon suddenly reappeared in 1815. The Allies united and the armies of Wellington and Blucher defeated Napoleon once and for all at Waterloo.[5]

War of 1812 with the United States

Signing of the Treaty of Ghent (1814), by A. Forestier c.1915

Simultaneous with the Napoleonic Wars, trade disputes, arming hostile Indians and British impressment of American sailors led to the War of 1812 with the United States. The war was little noticed in Britain, which could devote few resources to the conflict until the fall of Napoleon in 1814. American frigates also inflicted a series of defeats on the Royal Navy, which was short on manpower due to the conflict in Europe. A stepped-up war effort in 1814 brought about successes such as the Battle of Queenston Heights and the Burning of Washington, but the Indian allies of the British were dispersed, and British invasions of upstate New York and New Orleans failed badly. Peace left the boundaries unchanged and opened up two centuries of peace and largely open borders.[6]

An age of improvement

Historian Asa Briggs finds that the religious efforts by evangelicals, led to a genuine improvement in morals and manners during the French wars. From the base of society upward, it seemed that people "became wiser, better, more frugal, more honest, more respectable, more virtuous, than they ever were before." Wickedness still flourished, but the good were getting better, as frivolous habits were discarded for more serious concerns. The leading moralist of the era, William Wilberforce, saw everywhere "new proofs presenting themselves of the diffusion of religion."[7]

Conservatism and reaction

Britain emerged from the Napoleonic Wars a very different country than it had been in 1793. As industrialisation progressed, society changed, becoming more urban and less rural. The postwar period saw an economic slump, and poor harvests and inflation caused widespread social unrest. British leadership was intensely conservative, ever watchful all of signs of revolutionary activity of the sort that had so deeply affected France. Historians report there were very few signs, noting that social movements such as Methodism strongly encouraged conservative support for the political and social status quo. Nevertheless, Britain passed severe measures, most notably the "Six Acts" in 1819, which proscribed radical activities or even mild dissent and enabled local magistrates to crack down on any disturbances.

In Industrial districts in 1819, Factory workers demanded better wages, and demonstrated. The most important event was the "Peterloo Massacre" in Manchester, on 16 August 1819, when a local militia unit composed of landowners charged into an orderly crowd of 60,000 which had gathered to demand the reform of parliamentary representation. The crowd panicked and eleven died and hundreds were injured. Historian Norman Gash says "Peterloo was a blunder; it was hardly a massacre." It was a serious mistake by local authorities who did not understand what was happening.[8] Nevertheless it had a major impact on British opinion at the time and on history every since as a symbol of officialdom brutally suppressing a peaceful demonstration thinking mistakenly that it was the start of an insurrection.[9] By the end of the 1820s, along with a general economic recovery, many of the repressive laws of the 1810s were repealed and in 1828 new legislation guaranteed the civil rights of religious dissenters.

Foreign policy

Three men shaped British foreign policy from 1810 to 1860, with only a few interruptions, Viscount Castlereagh(especially 1812-22). George Canning (especially 1807-1829) and Viscount Palmerston (especially 1830-1865). For complete list, see Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs.

The coalition that defeated Napoleon was financed by Britain, and held together at the Congress of Vienna in 1814-15. It successfully broke Napoleon's comeback attempt in 1815. Castlereagh played a central role at Vienna, along with Austrian leader Klemens von Metternich. While many Europeans wanted to punish France heavily, Castlereagh insisted on a mild peace, with France to pay 70 million livre in indemnities and lose the territory seized after 1791. He realized that harsher terms would lead to a dangerous reaction in France, and now that the conservative old-fashioned Bourbons were back in power, they were no longer a threat to attempt to conquer all of Europe. Indeed, Castlereagh emphasized the need for a "balance of power", whereby no nation would be powerful enough to threaten the conquest of Europe the way Napoleon had.[10] Vienna ushered in a century of peace, with no great wars and few important localized ones until the Crimean War (1853–56).[11] Prussia, Austria, and Russia, as absolute monarchies, tried to suppress liberalism wherever it might occur. Britain first took a Reactionary position at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, but relented and broke ranks with the absolute monarchies by 1820. Britain intervened in Portugal in 1826 to defend a constitutional government there and recognising the independence of Spain's American colonies in 1824.[12] British merchants and financiers, and later railway builders, played major roles in the economies of most Latin American nations.[13]

Whig reforms of the 1830s

A weak ruler as regent (1811–20) and king (1820–30), George IV let his ministers take full charge of government affairs. He was the deeply unpopular playboy. When he tried to get Parliament to pass a law allowing him to divorce his wife Queen Caroline, public opinion strongly supported her.[14] His younger brother William IV ruled (1830–37), but was little involved in politics.

A painting by Sir George Hayter that commemorates the passing of the Reform Act of 1832. It depicts the first session of the newly reformed House of Commons on 5 February 1833 . In the foreground, the leading statesmen from the Lords: Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey (1764–1845), William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne (1779–1848) and the Whigs on the left; and Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (1769–1852) and the Tories on the right.

Earl Grey, prime minister 1830–1834, and his rejuvenated Whig Party enacted several major reforms: the poor law was updated, child labour restricted, and, most important, the Reform Act 1832 refashioned the British electoral system.[15] Furthermore, Catholic emancipation was secured in the Catholic Relief Act of 1829, which removed the most substantial restrictions on Roman Catholics in Great Britain and Ireland.[16] In 1832 Parliament abolished slavery in the Empire with the Slavery Abolition Act 1833. The government purchased all the slaves for £20,000,000 (the money went to rich plantation owners who mostly lived in England), and freed the slaves, especially those in the Caribbean sugar islands.[17][18]

The Whigs became champions of Parliamentary reform by making the Reform Act of 1832 their signature measure. It broadened the franchise and ended the system of "rotten borough" and "pocket boroughs" (where elections were controlled by powerful families), and instead redistributed power on the basis of population. It added 217,000 voters to an electorate of 435,000 in England and Wales. The main effect of the act was to weaken the power of the landed gentry, and enlarge the power of the professional and business middle-class, which now for the first time had a significant voice in Parliament. However, at this point the great majority of manual workers, clerks, and farmers did not have enough property to qualify to vote until they received the vote in 1867. The aristocracy continued to dominate the government, the Church, the Army and Royal Navy, and high society.[19]


Chartism emerged after the 1832 Reform Bill failed to give the vote to the working class. Activists denounced the "betrayal" of the working classes and the "sacrificing" of their "interests" by the "misconduct" of the government. In 1838, Chartists issued the People's Charter demanding manhood suffrage, equal sized election districts, voting by ballots, payment of Members of Parliament (so that poor men could serve), annual Parliaments, and abolition of property requirements. The ruling class saw the movement as dangerous. The Chartists were unable to force serious constitutional debate. Historians see Chartism as both a continuation of the 18th century fight against corruption and as a new stage in demands for democracy in an industrial society.[20]


Prime Ministers of the period included: William Pitt the Younger, Lord Grenville, Duke of Portland, Spencer Perceval, Lord Liverpool, George Canning, Lord Goderich, Duke of Wellington, Lord Grey, Lord Melbourne, and Sir Robert Peel.

Victorian era

Main article: Victorian era
Queen Victoria (1837–1901)

The Victorian era was the period of Queen Victoria's rule between 1837 and 1901 which signified the height of the British Industrial Revolution and the apex of the British Empire. Scholars debate whether the Victorian period—as defined by a variety of sensibilities and political concerns that have come to be associated with the Victorians—actually begins with the passage of the Reform Act 1832. The era was preceded by the Regency era and succeeded by the Edwardian period. Victoria became queen in 1837 at age 18. Her long reign saw Britain reach the zenith of its economic and political power, with the introduction of steam ships, railroads, photography, and the telegraph. Britain again remained mostly inactive in Continental politics.

Foreign policy

Free trade imperialism

After the defeat of France in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1792–1815), the UK emerged as the principal naval and imperial power of the 19th century (with London the largest city in the world from about 1830).[21] Unchallenged at sea, British dominance was later described as Pax Britannica ("British Peace"), a period of relative peace in Europe and the world (1815–1914).[22][23] By the time of the Great Exhibition of 1851, Britain was described as the "workshop of the world".[24] Using the imperial tools of free trade and financial investment,[25] it exerted major influence on many countries outside Europe and the empire, especially in Latin America and Asia. Thus Britain had both a formal Empire based on British rule as well as an informal one based on the British pound.[26]

Russia, France and the Ottoman Empire

One nagging fear was the possible collapse of the Ottoman Empire. It was well understood that a collapse of that country would set off a scramble for its territory and possibly plunge Britain into war. To head that off Britain sought to keep the Russians from occupying Constantinople and taking over the Bosphorus Strait, as well as from threatening India via Afghanistan.[27] In 1853, Britain and France intervened in the Crimean War against Russia. Despite mediocre generalship, they managed to capture the Russian port of Sevastopol, compelling Tsar Nicholas I to ask for peace.[28]

The next Russo-Ottoman war in 1877 led to another European intervention, although this time at the negotiating table. The Congress of Berlin blocked Russia from imposing the harsh Treaty of San Stefano on the Ottoman Empire.[29] Despite its alliance with the French in the Crimean War, Britain viewed the Second Empire of Napoleon III with some distrust, especially as the emperor built up his navy, expanded his empire and took up a more active foreign policy.[30]

American Civil War

During the American Civil War (1861–1865), British leaders favoured the Confederacy, a major source of cotton for textile mills. Prince Albert was effective in defusing a war scare in late 1861. The British people, however, generally favoured the Union. What little cotton was available came from New York, as the blockade by the US Navy shut down 95% of Southern exports to Britain. Trade flourished with the Union and many young men crossed the Atlantic to join the Union Army. In September 1862, Abraham Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation. Since support of the Confederacy now meant supporting the institution of slavery, there was no possibility of European intervention.[31] The British built and operated fast blockade runners to ship arms into the Confederacy at considerable profit, and ignored American complaints that warships were being built for the Confederacy. The warships caused a major diplomatic row that was resolved in the Alabama Claims in 1872, in the Americans' favour by payment of reparations.[32]

Empire expands

In 1867, Britain united most of its North American colonies as the Dominion of Canada, giving it self-government and responsibility for its own defence, but Canada did not have an independent foreign policy until 1931. Several of the colonies temporarily refused to join the Dominion despite pressure from both Canada and Britain; the last one, Newfoundland, held out until 1949. The second half of the 19th century saw a huge expansion of Britain's colonial empire, mostly in Africa. A talk of the Union Jack flying "from Cairo to Cape Town" only became a reality at the end of the Great War. Having possessions on six continents, Britain had to defend all of its empire and did so with a volunteer army, the only great power in Europe to have no conscription. Some questioned whether the country was overstretched.

The rise of the German Empire since its creation in 1871 posed a new challenge, for it (along with the United States), threatened to usurp Britain's place as the world's foremost industrial power. Germany acquired a number of colonies in Africa and the Pacific, but Chancellor Otto von Bismarck succeeded in achieving general peace through his balance of power strategy. When William II became emperor in 1888, he discarded Bismarck, began using bellicose language, and planned to build a navy to rival Britain's.[33]

Ever since Britain had wrested control of the Cape Colony from the Netherlands during the Napoleonic Wars, it had co-existed with Dutch settlers who had migrated further away from the Cape and created two republics of their own. The British imperial vision called for control over these new countries, and the Dutch-speaking "Boers" (or "Afrikaners") fought back in the War in 1899–1902. Outgunned by a mighty empire, the Boers waged a guerrilla war (which certain other British territories would later employ to attain independence). This gave the British regulars a difficult fight, but their weight of numbers, superior equipment, and often brutal tactics, eventually brought about a British victory. The war had been costly in human rights and was widely criticised by Liberals in Britain and worldwide. However, the United States gave its support. The Boer republics were merged into the Union of South Africa in 1910; this had internal self-government, but its foreign policy was controlled by London and it was an integral part of the British Empire.[34]


Prime Ministers of the period included: Lord Melbourne, Sir Robert Peel, Lord John Russell, Lord Derby, Lord Aberdeen, Lord Palmerston, Benjamin Disraeli, William Ewart Gladstone, Lord Salisbury, and Lord Rosebery.

Queen Victoria

Main article: Victorian era

The Queen gave her name to an era of British greatness, especially in the far-flung British Empire with which she identified. She played a small role in politics, but became the iconic symbol of the nation, the empire, and proper, restrained behaviour.[35] Her success as ruler was due to the power of the self-images she successively portrayed of innocent young woman, devoted wife and mother, suffering and patient widow, and grandmotherly matriarch.[36]



Disraeli and Gladstone dominated the politics of the late 19th century, Britain's golden age of parliamentary government. They long were idolized, but historians in recent decades have become much more critical, especially regarding Disraeli.[37][38]

Benjamin Disraeli (1804–1881), prime minister 1868 and 1874–80, remains an iconic hero of the Conservative Party. He was typical of the generation of British leaders who matured in the 1830s and 1840s. He was concerned with threats to established political, social, and religious values and elites; he emphasized the need for national leadership in response to radicalism, uncertainty, and materialism.[39] Disraeli was especially noted for his enthusiastic support for expanding and strengthening the British Empire, in contrast to Gladstone's negative attitude toward imperialism. Gladstone denounced Disraeli's policies of territorial aggrandizement, military pomp, and imperial symbolism (such as making the Queen Empress of India), saying it did not fit a modern commercial and Christian nation. However Gladstone himself did not turn down attractive opportunities to expand the Empire in Egypt.[40]

Disraeli drummed up support by warnings of a supposed Russian threat to India that sank deep into the Conservative mindset. His reputation as the "Tory democrat" and promoter of the welfare state fell away as historians showed that Disraeli had few proposals for social legislation in 1874–80, and that the 1867 Reform Act did not reflect a vision of Conservatism for the unenfranchised working man.[41] However he did work to reduce class anatagonism, for as Perry notes, "When confronted with specific problems, he sought to reduce tension between town and country, landlords and farmers, capital and labour, and warring religious sects in Britain and Ireland—in other words, to create a unifying synthesis."[42]



William Ewart Gladstone (1809–1898) was the Liberal counterpart to Disraeli, serving as prime minister four times (1868–74, 1880–85, 1886, and 1892–94). His financial policies, based on the notion of balanced budgets, low taxes and laissez-faire, were suited to a developing capitalist society but could not respond effectively as economic and social conditions changed. Called the "Grand Old Man" later in life, he was always a dynamic popular orator who appealed strongly to British workers and the lower middle class. The deeply religious Gladstone brought a new moral tone to politics with his evangelical sensibility and opposition to aristocracy. His moralism often angered his upper-class opponents (including Queen Victoria, who strongly favoured Disraeli), and his heavy-handed control split the Liberal party. His foreign policy goal was to create a European order based on cooperation rather than conflict and mutual trust instead of rivalry and suspicion; the rule of law was to supplant the reign of force and self-interest. This Gladstonian concept of a harmonious Concert of Europe was opposed to and ultimately defeated by the Germans with a Bismarckian system of manipulated alliances and antagonisms.[43]


Historians portray Conservative Prime Minister Lord Salisbury (1830–1903) as a talented leader who was an icon of traditional, aristocratic conservatism.[44] Historian Robert Blake has concluded that Salisbury was "a great foreign minister, [but] essentially negative, indeed reactionary in home affairs".[45] Professor P.T. Marsh’s estimate is more favourable; he portrays Salisbury as a leader who "held back the popular tide for twenty years."[46] Professor Paul Smith argues that, "into the 'progressive' strain of modern Conservatism he simply will not fit."[47] Professor H.C.G. Matthew points to "the narrow cynicism of Salisbury".[48] One admirer of Salisbury, Maurice Cowling agrees that Salisbury found the democracy born of the 1867 and 1884 Reform Acts as "perhaps less objectionable than he had expected—succeeding, through his public persona, in mitigating some part of its nastiness."[49]


The Victorian era is famous for the Victorian standards of personal morality. Historians generally agree that the middle classes held high personal moral standards (and usually followed them), but have debated whether the working classes followed suit. Moralists in the late 19th century such as Henry Mayhew decried the slums for their supposed high levels of cohabitation without marriage and illegitimate births. However, new research using computerized matching of data files shows that the rates of cohabitation then were quite low — under 5% — for the working class and the poor.[50]

Early 20th century

Prime Ministers from 1900 to 1923: Marquess of Salisbury, Arthur Balfour, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, Herbert Henry Asquith, David Lloyd George, Andrew Bonar Law.

Edwardian era 1901–1914

Main article: Edwardian era

Queen Victoria died in 1901 and her son Edward VII became king, inaugurating the Edwardian Era, which was characterised by great and ostentatious displays of wealth in contrast to the sombre Victorian Era. With the advent of the 20th century, things such as motion pictures, automobiles, and aeroplanes were coming into use. The new century was characterised by a feeling of great optimism. The social reforms of the last century continued into the 20th with the Labour Party being formed in 1900. Edward died in 1910, to be succeeded by George V, who reigned 1910–36. Scandal-free, hard working and popular, George V was the British monarch who, with Queen Mary, established the modern pattern of exemplary conduct for British royalty, based on middle-class values and virtues. He understood the overseas Empire better than any of his prime ministers and used his exceptional memory for figures and details, whether of uniforms, politics, or relations, to good effect in reaching out in conversation with his subjects.[51]

The era was prosperous but political crises were escalating out of control. Dangerfield (1935) identified the "strange death of liberal England" as the multiple crises that hit simultaneously in 1910–1914 with serious social and political instability arising from the Irish crisis, labour unrest, the women's suffrage movements, and partisan and constitutional struggles in Parliament. At one point it even seemed the Army might refuse orders dealing with Ireland.[52] No solution appeared in sight when the unexpected outbreak of the Great War in 1914 put domestic issues on hold. McKibben argues that the political party system of the Edwardian era was in delicate balance on the eve of the war in 1914. The Liberals were in power with a progressive alliance of Labour and, off and on, Irish Nationalists. The coalition was committed to free trade (as opposed to the high tariffs the Conservatives sought), free collective bargaining for trades unions (which Conservatives opposed), an active social policy that was forging the welfare state, and constitutional reform to reduce the power of the House of Lords. The coalition lacked a long-term plan, because it was cobbled together from leftovers from the 1890s. The sociological basis was non-Anglicanism and non-English ethnicity rather than the emerging class conflict emphasized by the Labour Party.[53]

Great War

After a rough start Britain under David Lloyd George successfully mobilised its manpower, industry, finances, empire and diplomacy, in league with the French and Americans, to defeat the Central Powers.[54][55][56][57] The economy grew by about 14% from 1914–18 despite the absence of so many men in the services; by contrast the German economy shrank 27%. The Great War saw a decline in civilian consumption, with a major reallocation to munitions. The government share of GDP soared from 8% in 1913 to 38% in 1918 (compared to 50% in 1943).[58][59] The war forced Britain to use up its financial reserves and borrow large sums from the U.S.

Britain entered the war to protect Belgium from German aggression, and quickly assumed the role of fighting the Germans on the Western Front, and dismantling the overseas German Empire. The romantic notions of warfare that everyone had expected faded as the fighting in France bogged down into trench warfare. Along the Western Front the British and French launched repeated assaults on the German trench lines in 1915–16, which killed and wounded hundreds of thousands, but failed to make gains of even a mile. By 1916, with volunteers falling off, the government imposed conscription in Britain (but was not able to do so in Ireland where nationalists of all stripes militantly opposed it) in order to keep up the strength of the army. Industry turned out munitions in large quantities, with many women taking factory jobs. The Asquith government proved ineffective but when David Lloyd George replaced him in December 1916 Britain gained a powerful and successful wartime leader.[60]

The Navy continued to dominate the seas, fighting the German fleet to a draw in the only great battle, the Battle of Jutland in 1916. Germany was blockaded and was increasingly short of food. It tried to fight back with submarines, despite the risk of war by the powerful neutral power the United States. The waters around Britain were declared a war zone where any ship, neutral or otherwise, was a target. After the liner Lusitania was sunk in May 1915, drowning over 100 American passengers, protests by the United States led Germany to abandon unrestricted submarine warfare. With victory over Russia in 1917 Germany now calculated it could finally have numerical superiority on the Western Front. Planning for a massive Spring Offensive in 1918, it resumed the sinking of all merchant ships without warning. The United States entered the war alongside the Allies in 1917, and provided the needed manpower, money and supplies to keep them going. On other fronts, the British, French, Australians, and Japanese occupied Germany's colonies. Britain fought the Ottoman Empire, suffering defeats in the Gallipoli Campaign) and in Mesopotamia, while arousing the Arabs who helped expel the Turks from their lands. Exhaustion and war-weariness were growing worse in 1917, as the fighting in France continued with no end in sight. The German spring offensives of 1918 failed, and with arrival of a million of the American Expeditionary Forces at the rate of 10,000 a day by May 1918, the Germans realized they were being overwhelmed. Germany agreed to an Armistice — actually a surrender — on 11 November 1918.

Victorian attitudes and ideals that had continued into the first years of the 20th century changed during the Great War. The army had traditionally never been a large employer in the nation, with the regular army standing at 247,432 at the start of the war.[61] By 1918, there were about five million people in the army and the fledgling Royal Air Force, newly formed from the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) and the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), was about the same size of the pre-war army. The almost three million casualties were known as the "lost generation," and such numbers inevitably left society scarred; but even so, some people felt their sacrifice was little regarded in Britain, with poems like Siegfried Sassoon's Blighters criticising the ill-informed "jingoism" of the Home Front.


The war had been won by Britain and its allies, but at a terrible human and financial cost, creating a sentiment that wars should never be fought again. The League of Nations was founded with the idea that nations could resolve their differences peacefully, but these hopes were unfounded.

Following the war, Britain gained the German colony of Tanganyika and part of Togoland in Africa. Britain was granted League of Nations mandates over Palestine, which was turned into a homeland for Jewish settlers, and Iraq, created from the three Ottoman provinces in Mesopotamia; the latter of which became fully independent in 1932. Egypt, which had been a British protectorate since 1882, became independent in 1922, although British troops remained stationed there until 1956.

In domestic affairs the Housing Act of 1919 led to affordable council housing which allowed people to move out of decrepit inner-city slums. The slums remained for several more years, with trams being electrified long before many houses. The Representation of the People Act 1918 gave women householders the vote, but it would not be until 1928 that full equal suffrage was achieved. Labour displaced the Liberal Party for second place and achieved major success with the 1922 general election.[62]


Campaign for Irish Home Rule

Part of the agreement which led to the 1800 Act of Union stipulated that the Penal Laws in Ireland were to be repealed and Catholic emancipation granted. However King George III blocked emancipation, arguing that to grant it would break his coronation oath to defend the Anglican Church. A campaign by the lawyer Daniel O'Connell, and the death of George III, led to the concession of Catholic Emancipation in 1829, allowing Roman Catholics to sit in the Parliament of the United Kingdom. But Catholic Emancipation was not O'Connell's ultimate goal, which was Repeal of the Act of Union with Great Britain. On 1 January 1843 O'Connell confidently, but wrongly, declared that Repeal would be achieved that year. When potato blight hit the island in 1846, much of the rural population was left without food, because cash crops were being exported to pay rents.[63][64]

British politicians were wedded to laissez-faire, which argued against state intervention. While funds were raised by private individuals and charities, lack of adequate action let the problem become a catastrophe. Cottiers (or farm labourers) were largely wiped out during what is known in Ireland as the "Great Hunger". A significant minority elected Unionists, who championed the Union. A Church of Ireland former Tory barrister turned nationalist campaigner, Isaac Butt, established a new moderate nationalist movement, the Home Rule League, in the 1870s. After Butt's death the Home Rule Movement, or the Irish Parliamentary Party as it had become known, was turned into a major political force under the guidance of William Shaw and a radical young Protestant landowner, Charles Stewart Parnell.[65]

Parnell's movement campaigned for "Home Rule", by which they meant that Ireland would govern itself as a region within the United Kingdom. Two Home Rule Bills (1886 and 1893) were introduced by Liberal Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone, but neither became law, mainly due to opposition from the Conservative Party and the House of Lords. The issue was a source of contention throughout Ireland, as a significant majority of Unionists (largely but not exclusively based in Ulster), opposed Home Rule, fearing that a Catholic Nationalist ("Rome Rule") Parliament in Dublin would discriminate or retaliate against them, impose Roman Catholic doctrine, and impose tariffs on industry. While most of Ireland was primarily agricultural, six of the counties in Ulster were the location of heavy industry and would be affected by any tariff barriers imposed.[66]

Irish demands ranged from the "repeal" of O'Connell, the "federal scheme" of William Sharman Crawford (actually devolution, not federalism as such), to the Home Rule League of Issac Butt. Ireland was no closer to home rule by the mid-19th century, and rebellions in 1848 and 1867 failed.[67]

O'Connell's campaign was hampered by the limited scope of the franchise in Ireland.[68] The wider the franchise was expanded, the better anti-Union parties were able to do in Ireland.[69] Running on a platform that advocated something like the self-rule successfully enacted in Canada under the British North America Act, 1867, Home Rulers won a majority of both county and borough seats in Ireland in 1874.[70] By 1882, leadership of the Home Rule movement had passed to Charles Stewart Parnell of the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP). A wider franchise also changed the ideological mix among non-Irish MPs, making them more receptive to Irish demands. The 1885 election resulted in a hung parliament in which the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) held the balance of power. They initially supported the Conservatives in a minority government, but when news leaked that Liberal Party leader William Ewart Gladstone was considering Home Rule, the IPP ousted the Conservatives and brought the Liberals into office.[71]

Gladstone's First Home Rule Bill was closely modeled on the self-government given to British settler colonies, starting with the Act of Union 1840 ("The Canada Act"), and especially the British North America Act, 1867. Irish MPs would no longer vote in Westminster but in a separate Dublin parliament, which would control domestic areas, but not foreign policy or military affairs, which would remain with London.[72] Gladstone's proposals did not go as far as most Irish nationalists desired, but were still too radical for both Irish and British unionists: his First Home Rule Bill was defeated in the House of Commons following a split in his own party. Gladstone took the issue to the people in the 1886 election, but the unionists (Conservatives plus Liberal dissenters) held a majority over the Home Rule coalition (Liberals and Irish nationalists). Pro-Home Rule parties won majorities in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, but not in England, where most seats were contested.[73]

Before the 1892 election, Parnell was caught in an extramarital sex scandal, which incurred the wrath of the Catholic Church and most of its clerics, especially since Parnell's partner, Mrs Katharine O'Shea, and her nominally Catholic husband, divorced as a result. The IPP was split. Parnell died largely out of favour in his native country. The 1892 election gave pro-Home Rule forces a narrow majority, however; again the Liberals did better in Scotland and Wales than England.[74] Gladstone introduced a Second Home Rule Bill in 1893, which this time was passed by the Commons, but defeated (as expected) in the Conservative-dominated House of Lords.[75]

Home Rule in the balance

With the Conservatives opposed to Home Rule, it slipped from the mainstream of British politics once they came into power in the 1890s. However, the Conservative government also felt that the demands for Home Rule were essentially materialist in origin, and that to improve conditions in Ireland would satisfy opinion there; this has been described as "killing home rule with kindness". Reforms passed as a result included the Local Government (Ireland) Act 1898 and the Wyndham Land Act. Outside of constitutional change, the British state tried other methods to placate Ireland. Between 1868 and 1908: spending on Ireland was generally increased, huge tracts of land were purchased from landlords and redistributed to smallholders, local government was democratised, and the franchise widely extended. The ending of so many social and economic grievances did not end Irish disenchantment, however. No longer could British governments fool themselves into thinking that something other than satisfying Irish demands for national recognition and self-determination would answer the Irish question.[76]

Some Britons were beginning to accept Irish nationalism as legitimate. British liberal support for home rule rested on the premise that the Irish people had withdrawn their consent to be governed by the United Kingdom by electing the Nationalists to repeated majorities, and the popular consent was a basic prerequisite for morally legitimate government.[77] The competing idea among Unionists was that it was impossible to give Ireland independence or it would be used as a base for Continental powers to attack Britain. Writing much later, after 1922, Winston Churchill stated that this idea had taken on the status of dogma and fossilised in British minds long after it had ceased to have any basis in fact and that only the "large outside shock" of the Great War had changed this.[78]

The Liberals regained power in 1905. Following a confrontation with the House of Lords over the "People's Budget", a wider constitutional conflict developed, resulting in two general elections during 1910. The second in December 1910 saw the Liberals lose seats in the Commons, necessitating the support of the Irish Parliamentary Party, now led by John Redmond. Redmond, holding the balance of power in the Commons, renewed the old "Liberal Alliance" this time with H. H. Asquith as Prime Minister. For budget reasons, Asquith had to agree to a new Home Rule Bill and to the removal of the veto power of the Lords with the passage of the Parliament Act 1911. The Irish Parliamentary Party had their support repaid with the introduction of the Third Home Rule Bill in 1912, which, after the removal of the House of Lords' veto power by the Parliament Act, saw Home Rule become a clear reality for the first time. However the Bill provoked increasingly bitter opposition from unionists, particularly those in the mostly Protestant-dominated province of Ulster [66] and their wing of the Irish Unionist Alliance.

The Bill finally passed into law as the Government of Ireland Act 1914 in September, a few weeks after the start of the Great War, but its implementation was simultaneously suspended for the duration of the war. The situation in Ireland had deteriorated severely, with the Unionist Ulster Volunteers and the Nationalist Irish Volunteers openly drilling, both sides having imported arms for an anticipated conflagration. World War I exacerbated tensions further, with Unionists and most Nationalist segments of the Irish Parliamentary Party encouraging volunteers to fight for the Allied cause, these forming three Irish divisions, the 10th (Irish) Division, the 16th (Irish) Division and the 36th (Ulster) Division of Kitchener’s New Service Army, on the other hand Republican followers were ambivalent about the war, which they saw as Britain's conflict, not Ireland's.


A British postage stamp overprinted with "Provisional Government of Ireland, 1922" after independence

The Easter Rising of 1916, planned a year in advance, in favour of a completely independent Irish Republic was suppressed after a week of fighting but the quick executions of 15 leaders of the uprising alienated Catholic and nationalist opinion. After the week-long rebellion, the Cabinet decided in May 1916 that the 1914 Act should be brought into operation immediately and a Government established in Dublin.[79] After six months negotiations failed to reach agreement on the central question of whether Ulster was to be under the authority of the new Dublin parliament. Asquith made a second attempt to implement Home Rule in 1917, with the calling of the Irish Convention, which only succeeded in agreeing a report with an 'understanding' on recommendations for the establishment of self-government. The solution was the establishment of two Irish parliaments to pave the way for the Fourth Home Rule Bill, enacted as the Government of Ireland Act 1920. On 6 December 1922, Ireland formed a new dominion, the Irish Free State. As expected, the area known as "Northern Ireland" (six counties in Ulster), immediately exercised its right under the Anglo-Irish Treaty to opt out of the new state. The union of Great Britain with part of Ireland was renamed United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and is known by this name to the present time.[80]

List of monarchs

George V, the last King to be styled as King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland

Until 1927, the monarch's royal title included the words "of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland". In 1927, the words "United Kingdom" were removed from the royal title so that the monarch was instead styled as "King/Queen of Great Britain, Ireland...[and other places]". The words "United Kingdom" were restored to the monarch's title in 1953 with the reference to "Ireland" replaced with a reference to "Northern Ireland".

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    Further reading

    External links

    Preceded by
    Kingdom of Great Britain
    Kingdom of Ireland
    United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland
    Succeeded by
    United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
    Irish Free State
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