Empire, State and Society: Britain since 1830

By Jamie L. Bronstein; Andrew T. Harris | Go to book overview

1
Britain to 1830

In 1830, King George IV died and was succeeded by his brother the Duke of Clarence, who became William IV. William’s rule was short – only seven years, and was flanked by powerful royal personalities both before and after. George IV (r. 1820–1830) had been a wonderfully disliked philanderer and decadent dandy. Queen Victoria’s rule (1837–1903) spanned over six decades and represented the highest point of British industrial and imperial strength. Yet in his apparently timeless ceremonial coronation as king of Great Britain, William reminds us just how paradoxically new the kingdom of Great Britain really was. In 1830, it had existed only 30 years.

Great Britain signified an area of land encompassing one large island off the northwest coast of Europe, a smaller island further west (Ireland), and a host of still smaller islands scattered nearby (the Orkneys and Shetlands to the north, the Hebrides to the northwest, the Isle of Man to the west, and the Isle of Wight due south, among others). The total land mass was just over 120,000 square miles: slightly larger than the combined New England states, less than half the size of Texas, smaller even than France or modern Germany. Great Britain was neither geographically coherent nor, as a nation, very old, having been created by unifying Ireland with England, Wales and Scotland by legislative act in 1800. Scotland itself had been similarly united with England and Wales in 1707, and Wales in 1536. The United Kingdom in 1830 was thus already a state that had been absorbing its neighbors for three centuries.

Even in 1830, Great Britain was more than the sum of these small islands in the North Atlantic. In terms of population, the British Empire theoretically encompassed over one-fifth of all the world’s inhabitants in 1815 – and this was even after the loss of 13 of the American colonies. What then did it mean to be “British” in 1830? Who governed Britain? Who worked, who spent, and how

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