Saturday, 30 December 2017

Britain and Europe 1500 – 1780

Now, there is a title to get many British people, anyway, who are politically engaged, hearts racing. Or, more likely, the whole electorate have been bored and turned off by the whole load of manoeuvrings, political chicanery, public posturing and occasional rants on live television. Still, it keeps journalists employed and gives some of our more dubious politicians something to think about other than mugging old grannies on the streets for their pensions (they steal it by other means instead).

Inevitably, the post is about a book, and that book is Houlbrooke, R., Britain and Europe 1500 – 1780 (2011, London: Bloomsbury). It appears to be part of a series of four, tracking the development of relations between Britain and Europe. Of course, there are objections to this idea, some of which are tackled. For example, we could argue that Britain is part of Europe, and so any discussion of the relationship should be conducted on the same grounds as, say, Europe and Germany, or Europe and France. Fair point, conceded, but geography alone dictates that Britain, the scattered archipelago North West of continental Europe interacted with some bits of the continent more strongly than with others.

Houlbrooke develops the book in three chunks – 1500 – 1603, 1630 – 1707 and 1707 – 1780. The astute among you will recognise that the divisions are caused by, in the first place, the union of the crowns of England and Scotland and, in the second, by the Act of Union itself. Both of these were, of course, significant for Britain internally and, as British power increased during the eighteenth century, had an increasing impact on Europe and the rest of the world.

The chapters start with a narrative section of the era under consideration. This is followed by political, economic, diplomatic, cultural, technological and scientific changes and interactions between Britain (Houlbrooke excludes Ireland, the island, from Britain, on the grounds of culture and, after the mid-sixteenth century, faith) and the rest of Europe. A few points stand out. Firstly, Britain as a trading nation was not isolated from Europe, even after the end of the Hundred Years War and to loss of Normandy and Gascony to the English crown. Scotland too had strong links to France, the Low Countries and, more than England, Scandinavia. James VI’s wife was, after all, Danish.

Secondly, one of the key events in British history was the passing of the Navigation acts in the seventeenth century. This does, of course, go against the free trade grain, but it established the English merchant marine as the carriers for trade, slowing easing (or violently easing) other nations out of colonial, Baltic and Mediterranean commerce. The Protectorate recognised that doing this required a blue water navy capable of protecting overseas colonies, factories, trading bases and commercial shipping. This ensured the ultimate success of the maritime empire. As a flank power, Britain was nearly unassailable while other countries, the Dutch included, had to watch and defend their land frontiers as well.

Thirdly, the formation of the Royal Society was very important. This might seem a bit dull, but the Royal Society provided a forum to exchange and development of ideas of all sorts. Thus technology, for example navigation aids, fell within the Society’s remit. It was also an open forum. Many of its fellows were non-British, and so news about innovative ideas, inventions and discoveries tended to be funnelled through London.  The Royal Society, in some part, provided the conditions for the industrial revolution.

Fourthly, eighteenth century Britain was intensely nervous about two things. The first was the Hanoverian connection, which meant that Britain engaged in European warfare of which Parliament was, in part, very suspicious. Secondly, there was a good deal of nervousness regarding the Jacobites, again especially after the Hanoverian succession. There was also a rather surprising gap in warfare of about 20 years due to an agreement between Britain and France to get on with life and not fight.

From a wargamer’s point of view, of course, the book is a bit of a dead loss. There is little information about the details of battles, for example, or armies, campaigns, weapons or tactics. It seems to surprise some wargamers, at least, that there could be anything interesting beyond these things, and yet, somehow, there is. Of course, much could simply be dismissed as unimportant ‘social history’; the quote marks are meant to suggest a wargamerly curl of the lip in a sneer.

And yet the wider context of history and development is important. The context sets the conditions of the historical wargames we play. The decision of the Elizabethan government to fight a strategically defensive war in 1585, and to stick to it through until 1603 sets the conditions for western European warfare, as well as diplomacy and commerce, throughout the later sixteenth century. The Protectorate decision to create a blue water navy, initially to fend off threats from the newly Royalist naval elements from 1648 had an impact that would be felt through until 1815 at least. And so on.

The point is, of course, that no war, no battle can be divorced from its historical context. Britain lost the war of the colonies, of course, but in doing so bankrupted France and set the conditions for the Revolution which destroyed ‘Old Regime’ Europe. It also set the conditions for British maritime and financial supremacy, because the British maritime fleet dominated trade with the former colonies. The point is that the conditions were then set firstly for the naval blockade of Europe and, secondly, for the British financing of the various alliances that fought against the various French regimes.

Of course, ignorance of the above does not stop us sticking toy soldiers on the table and having wargames, and nor it should. But more engagement with the broader themes of history should give us a better context for our battles; enable us to see why some battles took places at some points between some sides, and not others. I suspect that, if we decide not to engage in this, we may well miss out on how enriching a hobby wargaming can be.


  1. I tend to find fiction provides a lot of context as well.

    1. Granted, but fiction is hardly ever a weird as real life...

  2. Truth, as the saying goes, is stranger than. . . The book actually sounds very interesting. Happy New Year!

    Best Regards,


    1. And a HNY to you and all.

      It is an interesting book, and one I only read because I got it cheap.

  3. Well said.

    I've found that sometimes too much knowledge can 'spoil' some potential wargame subjects but I still prefer to know the history and background. That way if, on those occasions when I decide to carry on and play a game with toy soldiers "inspired by history" (loosely) rather than turning to a more promising subject for a 'serious' historical wargame, then at least its a conscious decision and I'm not fooling myself.

    1. I agree, sometimes too much knowledge is not good for a wargame, but then the question arises as to why that should be. 'Inspired by' is a good get out clause (although I ate something recently 'inspired by' rhubarb crumble; it was very odd indeed and no wonder it was reduced in price for a quick sale).

      We can consciously fictionalise our games, I think we have to. as it is, in my games there are no murders, rapes, refugees, looting, burning of crops and so on. it is all terribly civilisedI would look askance on those who sought to bring such things into a game.