GEORGE III AND THE SEVENTY YEARS WAR, 1744–1815
As we begin to publish the main body of George III’s correspondence, we hope to provide an appropriate context for those approaching this remarkable series for the first time, reflecting the main new approaches that historians have been taking in the years since the bulk of the scholarship on George’s role in the polity was published. In this posting, Anthony Page of the University of Tasmania offers one important frame for approaching George’s reign.
George III (1738-1820) ruled a Britain locked in fierce rivalry with France. The two powers were at war or skirmishing in 49 years of the seven decades between 1744 and 1815. On multiple occasions Britain and Ireland were threatened with a French invasion: 1744-6, 1756-7, 1759, 1779, 1782, 1796-1805, and 1811. Such threats came with the potential for a revolution in British politics. In the 1740s and 1750s the French could have replaced the Hanoverian George II with a Catholic Stuart. In the 1790s, multiple invasion plans anticipated support from British and Irish admirers of French republicanism. While storms in the Channel often played a role, without a powerful Royal Navy Britain would not have survived all of these attempts at invasion by France — whose huge army was supported by a population three times the size of that of Britain.
With the series of medieval Anglo-French conflicts from 1337 to 1453 commonly labelled ‘The Hundred Years War’, historians have long depicted the wars between 1689 and 1815 as a ‘Second Hundred Years War’. Yet this is somewhat misleading for a period that stretches over 125 years and includes a quarter-century of peace following the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 — as Jonathan Dull has observed, ‘never had Europe seen a period of peace as wide-ranging and long-lasting’ (Dull, 2009, p. 38). On top of that, Britain and France were allies rather than enemies from 1716 to 1731. It is thus better to view the long eighteenth-century Anglo–French conflicts in two groups. First, the British ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 sparked the Nine Years War/War of English Succession (1689-97) and the War of Spanish Succession (1702-13). Then, after the long peace, Hamish Scott has suggested we call the period 1744-1815 a ‘Seventy Years War’ between Britain and France, ‘so continuous was the rivalry during these decades and so extensive and frequent the periods of open warfare’ (Scott, 2006, p. 74).
George III’s life spanned the Seventy Years War. While he was a toddler, international conflicts were brewing: egged on by merchants eyeing opportunities in the Atlantic, in 1739 Britain began the War of Jenkins Ear with Spain. This conflict then merged with a messy War of Austrian Succession (1740-8) that broke out in Europe. At the head of an Anglo-German army, George II fought the French in his role as Elector of Hanover, but it was not until 1744 that Britain and France formally went to war.
During the period 1744 to 1815 Britain and France were at war or skirmishing in 70 per cent of the years. The War of Austrian Succession was followed by a period of peace in Europe during which there were Anglo-French clashes in India and North America. Britain then triumphed in the Seven Years War of 1756-63, dubbed the ‘first world war’ by Winston Churchill (and which included the French and Indian War on the North American continent). George III came to the throne during this conflict, with a commitment to ending it and bringing Britain’s ballooning debt under control. Britain gained Canada and Bengal (which started its empire in India).
The first decade of George’s reign saw several moments of mobilization and potential war: gunboat diplomacy over the Bahamas and Gambia in 1764-5, the French annexation of Corsica in 1768-9 and the Falkland Islands crisis of 1771. In an effort to fund the administration of the expanded empire George III’s ministers tried to tax their North American colonies, but provoked an American War of Independence that transformed into another global war with France between 1778 and 1783. With both Britain and France racking up huge public debts, they nearly went to war over the Dutch Revolt of 1787, and then a fiscal crisis caused revolution in France. The French Revolution turned republican; its leaders executed Louis XVI and declared war on Britain in 1793. Two decades of war ensued that saw the rise of Napoleon to dictatorship and domination of Europe until his invasion of Russia ended in disaster and he was defeated by a grand alliance at the battles of Leipzig (1813) and Waterloo (1815).
As I have argued in my book, Britain and the Seventy Years War, this long struggle forged the British state. The 1740s saw population growth begin to accelerate. It was the decade in which ‘Rule Britannia’ and ‘God Save the King’ became anthems, and in which a sense of Britishness developed in response to the highland Jacobite uprising of 1745. It is in the 1740s that we find the first reference to the British Empire, rather than simply ‘empires’ in America, the West Indies, and so on. The Royal Navy created a ‘Western Squadron’ in 1747, tasked with cruising in the approaches to the English Channel where it could intercept French ships and shield British merchants returning from India and America. This was a naval revolution that required enormous logistical support to keep ships operating in rough seas, and it enabled Britannia to rule the waves in the following decades. In the 1740s the British army was unpopular, seen as a tool of monarchs and a threat to ‘English liberty’. It grew in professionalism during the Seventy Years War, bolstered by Scottish officers and highland regiments, and by 1815 the redcoats were being hailed as heroic defenders of ‘British liberty’ against Napoleon.
The rise to global empire was a by-product of decades of defending Britain. Merchants lobbied long and loud for a ‘blue water’ foreign policy focused on collecting colonies, but as Brendan Simms has argued (Simms, 2008), the top priority for British statesmen was preserving the balance of power in Europe in order to contain France. The early years of George III’s reign were the one time that Britain disengaged from Europe and focused on empire overseas. This ended in defeat in the American War of Independence, and invasion was only avoided by returning to the normal policy of having most of the Royal Navy stationed in European waters. Because the American Revolution attracts so much attention, we need to remember that, once France joined the war in 1778, Britain withdrew some troops and ships from the North American theatre to defend the more important West Indian islands and home soil. The English Channel was not a moat around a well-defended castle — that is why the Royal Navy was called the ‘Wooden Walls of England’. For most of the Seventy Years War the overwhelming bulk of the Royal Navy was stationed in home waters, with colonies collected opportunistically by distant squadrons (Rodger, 2006).
The British state had to tax and borrow at high rates in order to fund its expensive navy. Historians have developed the concept of ‘fiscal-military states’ for the early modern period, when state formation was driven by the rising cost of warfare in a highly competitive international system. As John Brewer (1990) demonstrated, Britain’s fiscal foundations were built in the years following the Revolution of 1688. During the Seventy Years War, a distinctive ‘fiscal-naval state’ (Page, 2015) developed that enabled Britain to tax more, borrow more and spend more than its larger rival. The French monarchy followed the traditional practice of raising and paying off individual loans at high interest. The British state used the Bank of England to raise and trade shares in a reliable public debt borrowed at low rates of interest. The tax base of the French state was limited by the privileged exemptions of the Catholic Church and aristocracy. In Britain, the all-powerful combination of Crown and Parliament was able to increase land taxes when necessary, and also dramatically increase indirect taxes — often tailored to tap the luxury spending of the more affluent, such as taxes on wigs and servants. The French state, even under Napoleon, only raised tax income equivalent to 12 per cent of national economic output; in contrast, by 1810 the figure for Britain’s smaller economy was over 18 per cent. Inadequate tax revenue caused a fiscal crisis and revolution in France in 1789 — as one historian has noted, ‘the weakness of the ancien régime was not too much, but too little taxation’ (Bonney, 2004, p. 196). The problem was only solved by Napoleon’s conquests and the extraction of men and money from occupied Europe.
While France had an economy twice its size, George III’s Britain used higher rates of taxation and a huge public debt to fund a war-winning navy and aid Continental allies with soldiers and subsidies. And in addition to preventing invasion, the manner in which the British state spent its money had economic benefits. In contrast to Continental powers with their large armies, Britain spent around half of its military budget on the navy. In comparison to soldiers serving on foreign soil, the navy acted as a significant stimulus in the British economy. Ships of the line were expensive to build, maintain and supply, and thus created large contracts for shipbuilders, iron foundries and agricultural produce. The reliability of large navy contracts helped some manufacturers build scale in their factory output. The navy also extended and protected the overseas trade that made an increasingly important contribution to Britain’s industrializing economy.
Under George III a high tax and debt British state, deeply engaged with European allies, built toward the final ‘organization of victory’ (Knight, 2013) over Napoleon — and launched into the nineteenth century as an industrialising global power.
Anthony Page is Senior Lecturer in History in History & Classics in the School of Humanities at the University of Tasmania in Hobart where he teaches British, European and American history, and researches eighteenth-century British history. He is a fellow of the Royal Historical Society, and was reviews editor for Enlightenment and Dissent. He is the author of two books: John Jebb and the Enlightenment Origins of British Radicalism (Praeger, 2003), and Britain and the Seventy Years War 1744-1815: Enlightenment, Revolution and Empire (Macmillan, 2014). He is currently working with Martin Fitzpatrick and Emma Macleod on an edition of the correspondence between the English Rational Dissenter Samuel Kenrick and Scottish Presbyterian clergyman James Wodrow housed in the Dr Williams’s Library, London.
Bonney, Richard (2004), ‘Towards the Comparative Fiscal History of Britain and France during the “Long” Eighteenth Century‘, in Exceptionalism and Industrialisation: Britain and its European Rivals, 1688–1815. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Brewer, John (1990), The Sinews of Power: War, Money and the English State 1688-1783. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.
Dull, Jonathan R. (2009), The Age of the Ship of the Line: The British and French Navies 1650-1815. Lincoln NE, University of Nebraska Press, Studies in War, Society and the Military.
Knight, Roger (2013) Britain against Napoleon: The Organization of Victory 1793-1815. London, Penguin.
Page, Anthony (2014), Britain and the Seventy Years War 1744-1815: Enlightenment, Revolution and Empire. Basingstoke, Macmillan, British History in Perspective.
Page, Anthony (2015), ‘The Seventy Years War, 1744–1815, and Britain’s Fiscal-Naval State’, War & Society 34.3, 162-86.
Rodger, N. A. M. (2006), Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain, 1649-1815. London, Penguin.
Scott, Hamish (2006), The Birth of a Great Power System 1740-1815. London,Routledge, The Modern European State System.
Simms, Brendan (2008), Three Victories and a Defeat: The Rise and Fall of the First British Empire. London, Penguin.
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