Saturday 3 September 2022

The Making of a World Power

I think it was Geoffrey Parker who observed that perhaps the most interesting thing about world history is not how the Europeans manage to nab 80% of the world (or so), but how they managed to grab the first 30%. The point is that at the end of the European medieval period, Europe was a largely ignored and ignorable lump of land at the far end of Asia. All the interesting stuff happened elsewhere.

That, of course, is a gross simplification, but there is a point. Parker, after all, is interested, when he made the comment, in the ‘military revolution’ of the early modern era, which, he claims, enabled the first thirty per cent take over of the world. Perhaps. The military revolution is a bit of a disputed idea and happened at different rates in different places.

By focussing down onto one country we might be able to see what was going on, at least in a more localised sense. This is the intention of

Wheeler, J. S. The Making of a World Power: War and the Military Revolution in Seventeenth Century England (Stroud, Sutton, 1999).

This is another book I pulled off my shelf recently, having read it ages ago and not really recalling what it had to say. An interesting read to be sure, but not really one about the military revolution. It is more about the financial revolution which, Wheeler argues, went alongside and was necessary to the military revolution occurring.

England is an interesting case. During the reign of Elizabeth England and her views and resources mattered. Her navy dominated and her money propped up the Protestant cause in north-west Europe. Elizabeth’s war aims were to ensure that the Channel ports were in friendly hands and the secure the Protestant cause. In spite of the costs of war she managed that, but the government was plunged into debt. Late Sixteenth Century was no place for the financially feeble, as even the Spanish found out.

After the 1604 peace and the reconquest of Ireland, James I cut military expenditure massively. The navy mouldered (not quite as much a Wheeler argues, I think, but overall it was much reduced in strength) and the army vanished. Even the events of the opening of the Thirty Years War did not bring forth much reaction from the English court, basically because intervention was unaffordable.

Charles I’s wars against France and Spain were likewise too expensive to be bourn and were national humiliations to boot. Charles opted for peace and non-intervention, picking up money from foreign powers where he could.

In the mid-1630s came the ship money fleet. It was really a no-brainer that England needed a fleet, but the question of how it was to be paid for was vexing. Charles extended the ship money, a historical levy on coastal counties for their protection, to the whole country and the law courts found that he could. It bought in a fair bit of cash and, in fact, set up the first peacetime Royal Navy in England’s history. Prior to then the navy had been a bit ad hoc, shall we say.

All might have been well if Charles could have avoided internal conflict. He created a war with the Scots which he could not afford and his financial creativity annoyed a lot of English and Parliament when he was forced to recall it. The English had the idea that the king should live off his own income in peace time. The royal finances in fact showed this was impossible.

The point here is that warfare had become really expensive and that inflation had reduced the value of Parliamentary subsidies anyway. Elizabeth had sold off crown lands to balance the books, but that was a diminishing recourse. As England plunged into civil war both sides were left with the question of how they paid for the conflict.

Initially the measures were ad hoc – loans, gifts and seizures lasted for a couple of year. By the end of 1644 however, the Parliamentary side was at financial breaking point, as well as getting war weary. Something had to be done.

The something was the reformation of both the army and the government’s finances. This, Wheeler argues, laid the basis for the rise of England to world power status by the end of the century. Loans were taken out secured by the income from the three main sources of government income: customs, excise and the assessment. The customs supported the navy while the excise (a sales tax) and the assessment (which became the land tax) went to the army. Or at least, loads based on the anticipated revenue did.

After teething troubles the system worked. The Protectorate managed largely to pay for its military forces, only causing a financial crisis at the end (after 1655) by radically cutting taxes, which contributed to the fall of the regime. The post-Restoration government kept the assessment (which was based on Charles I’s ship money assessment) and, despite protestations to the contrary, the standing navy and army. The country was more heavily taxed than Charles I could have dreamt of especially in peace time. The government got away with it because Parliament had largely assumed responsibility for the nation’s finances.

Wheeler’s point is that the military revolution brought into the country by Elizabethan and Caroline warfare, the experience of English, Irish and Scottish soldiers in Europe and the outbreak of civil war entailed a financial revolution which was overseen by the Long Parliament. England rose to be a great power during the middle and latter part of the Seventeenth Century on the strength of it, and it was consolidated, rather than started, by the foundation of the Bank of England in 1694.

The fact that there was remarkably little resistance to the taxes indicates that, on the whole the nation acquiesced to their collection. Additionally, the excise, introduced in 1643, was a tax on all English people, not just on the wealthy. The government started reaching into all citizen’s lives at that point.


  1. Interesting, indeed - by the War of Spanish Succession, England was rich enough to subsidise its allies, I think, and I guess that wealth came from taxes on trade? Which trade was protected by the Navy, so maybe a virtuous circle?

    Post 1655 'radical tax cuts caused financial crisis and fall of the regime'.. hmm, that rings a contemporary bell..

    1. Yes, I think so. Years ago I read a very good book on the making of the English Middle Class which identified this period as key, with a massive growth in trade. The extension of the navy to blue water made a big difference as well.
      Unpopular governments attempting to curry favour by unfunded tax cuts? Who would have thought of that?

  2. Echo what David said. So if I've read this right, the economic growth with the virtuous cycle (trade-taxes-navy-power-trade) led to military/political power; and this was enhanced by institutional developments like the Bank of England. I would volunteer the suggestion that the Single Market brought of the United Kingdom added to that (whilst reducing the risk of cross-border warfare) ;-).

    1. Broadly speaking that does seem to be the basis, linked with a reliable flow of taxes and a reputable body funding them (Parliament). With that you can get a professional navy to protect your trade, which cuts costs for merchants and increases volume, which pays more taxes...
      Cutting costs for merchants is a good idea on the whole, which is what the single market did, and the Brexit deal failed to do. Go figure....

  3. Very interesting. No country can be powerful for an extended period without significant financial resources. (quite obvious when someone points it out 😊 )
    No matter how good your army or navy is, you need to pay them and for their equipment and all the associated costs. Being able to maintain the financial side of the war effort meant you could outlast your opponent. So perhaps a better form of attritional warfare - wage war to the last dollar/pound/mark/etc.

    1. Yes, Paul Kennedy's Rise and Fall of the Great Powers puts this case forward in some detail. In an alliance war, the side with the last dollar wins. This caused some alarm in strategic circles when it was published as it is quite obvious when someone states it. So far in the C20-21, the USA has had that last dollar. Whether that will continue is anyone's guess.