Beginning of the British Empire Facts & Worksheets

Beginning of the British Empire facts and information plus worksheet packs and fact file. Includes 5 activities aimed at students 11-14 years old (KS3) & 5 activities aimed at students 14-16 years old (GCSE). Great for home study or to use within the classroom environment.

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    • England in the Middle Ages
    • England’s naval expansion
    • Overseas possessions of England
    • Building an empire

    Key Facts And Information

    Let’s know more about the beginning of the British Empire!

    • The British Empire is the term assigned to describe all the places that were once brought under the sovereignty of the Crown of Great Britain and the administration of the British government. At its peak, it was the largest empire that existed.
    • Its beginning could be traced back to the Anglo-Norman Empire and England’s expansion in the 15th and 16th centuries. Its formation was not a deliberate endeavour: it was an unorganised process driven by commercial ambitions and rivalry, with companies and magnates playing significant roles in the gradual acquisition of colonies, protectorates and other territories.

    England in the Middle Ages

    • During the early Middle Ages, England was once part of other empires, and so the British Empire did not exist yet. Under the rule of different English kings, control of certain territories had been gained and lost during the period.
    • In 1066, William the Conqueror invaded England along with southern Italy. The Norman conquest and rule gave way to the building of cathedrals and castles throughout England.
    • In 1150, Henry II inherited the title Duke of Normandy, and in 1154 King of England. England was then part of the Angevin Empire that included Ireland and most parts of western France, and was considered a single realm.
    • In 1169, the Normans invaded Ireland, and two years later, Henry II travelled to Ireland to ensure that the conquests were made part of his Angevin Empire. In the years that followed, about half of the island was overrun by Normans, English and Welsh.
    • In 1272, after the death of his father Henry III, Edward inherited the throne as King of England. By 1277, he successfully invaded north Wales.
    • During the Hundred Years’ War that lasted from 1337 until 1453, Edward III and Henry V were victorious in conquering much of France. However, by the end of the war, Calais was the only French land that remained under the English.
    • By 1500, English kings lost control of lands in Ireland, except a coastal town near Dublin.

    England's naval expansion

    • The early 16th century saw the development of England’s maritime expansion. The pioneering maritime policies of Henry VII enabled English territorial expansion beyond the shores of Europe in the reigns of succeeding Tudor monarchs.
    • What drove England’s maritime expansion?
      • Commercial ambitions
      • Competition with France
    • In 1497, John Cabot, who was commissioned by Henry VII, sailed to discover a route to Asia via the Atlantic. He reached the coast of Newfoundland and believed he had made it as far as Asia. No colony was founded there.
    • In 1502, another voyage, a joint venture between the English and Portuguese to North America, was commissioned by the king.
    • In 1533, England was first called an empire as declared in the Statute in Restraint of Appeals. At the time, Henry VIII effected the Reformation in England, with Catholic Spain becoming its enemy.
    • In 1536, an act was passed by Henry VIII which effectively made England and Wales the same country, governed by the same laws.
    • In 1541, the Crown of Ireland Act passed by the Irish Parliament converted Ireland from a lordship under the authority of the English Crown to a kingdom in its own right. It marked the starting point for the Tudor conquest of Ireland.
    • In 1546, Henry VIII formally founded the Royal Navy, increasing the number of warships and constructing a network of beacons and lighthouses that made coastal navigation much easier for English and foreign merchant sailors.
    • In 1554, a trade agreement with Russia was created by an expedition in search of a northeast route to the Far East.
    • In 1556, the Tudor conquest of Ireland resulted in land confiscation to be used for plantations.
    • In 1558, Calais, which served as an important port for English goods entering the Continent, fell to the French during the reign of Mary I.

    Overseas possessions of England

    • England tended to trail behind Portugal, Spain and France in establishing overseas colonies, hence the Crown encouraged privateering raids to catch up with the success of the other European powers during the new Age of Discovery. The separate kingdoms of England and Scotland would later be placed under one ruler in the early 17th century.
    • In 1562, the Elizabethan privateers John Hawkins and Francis Drake engaged in slave-raiding attacks against Spanish and Portuguese ships off the coast of West Africa, which later extended to Spanish ports in the Americas and shipping that was returning across the Atlantic, laden with treasure from the New World.

    • Influential writers such as Richard Hakluyt and John Dee started to press for the establishment of England's own empire.
    • In 1577, Francis Drake began his circumnavigation of the world which he completed in 1580.
    • In 1578, the Levant Trading Company was founded in London for trading with the Ottoman Empire. In that same year, Elizabeth I granted Humphrey Gilbert a patent that permitted him to sail for the Caribbean with the intention of engaging in piracy and establishing a colony in North America. However, the expedition was aborted.
    • In 1583, Gilbert embarked on a second attempt and declared the island of Newfoundland an English colony, but no settlement was founded there.
    • In 1584, Sir Walter Raleigh was granted his own patent by Elizabeth I and founded the Roanoke Colony on the coast of present-day North Carolina. However, lack of supplies caused the colony to fail.
    • In 1597, an Act of Parliament was passed which allowed transportation of convicted criminals to the colonies.
    • In 1600, the East India Company was created, with the intent to favour trade privileges in India.
    • In 1603, James VI of Scotland ascended as James I to the English throne and began referring to the separate kingdoms of England and Scotland as Great Britain. This was the impetus for widespread use of the term, although the formal union of the kingdoms was to take place in 1707. The following year, he negotiated the Treaty of London which ended hostilities with Spain.
    • England, which was now at peace with its principal rival, focused on establishing its own overseas colonies.
    • In 1607, Captain John Smith and the Virginia Company founded a permanent colony at Jamestown in Virginia.
    • After 1612, the East India Company, which had become powerful, started building up a small empire of trading posts in India.
    • In 1620, the Mayflower, with mainly Puritan passengers escaping persecution, sailed from Plymouth. The first English colonies in the Caribbean were founded including St Kitts, Barbados and Antigua.

    • In 1655, the English took the island of Jamaica from the Spanish. Jamaica formally became a British colony in 1670.
    • In 1660, the Royal African Company was founded, and the Navigation Acts were passed to protect trading networks and products from rival powers such as the Dutch.
    • In 1664, the English took over the Dutch colony of New Netherland, renaming the settlement New York, and New Sweden (now Delaware).
    • Nearly all these early settlements emerged from the enterprise of particular companies and magnates rather than from any effort on the part of the English Crown. The colonies were essentially self-managing enterprises with the Crown exercising some rights of appointment and supervision. By the 17th century, England was a small but recognisable empire.

    Building an empire

    • Over time, the British would claim more and more territories, which at times meant fighting with other European nations to take over their colonies. The British Empire began to take shape and grew to include large areas of North America, Australia, New Zealand, Asia and Africa, as well as small parts of Central and South America.
    • Factors that assisted in the creation of the British Empire:
      • Christianity and Commerce: Prior to British success, religious and commercial empires of Spain and Portugal were able to establish colonies in the West Indies. With the idea of Reformation, Protestant nations in Europe such as England turned the commercial rivalry into a political contest.
      • Raw Materials: The empire expanded because Britain sought to gain access to raw materials, markets and trading partners. Trade monopolies would ensure that Britain’s exports would exceed its imports. A profitable balance of trade would provide the wealth necessary to maintain and expand the empire.
      • Chartered Monopoly: One of the unique qualities of the British Empire was the rule of companies over the colonies through charters. Through this, the British government and the monarch were saved from bankruptcy by individual investors.
      • Industrial Revolution: With the emergence of the Industrial Age in Europe, Britain was able to develop itself and introduce new technology to its colonies. During the Seven Years’ War, Britain was able to become a maritime superpower against the experienced French kingdom.
    • Population Explosion: By the 18th century, Britain became one of the first nations in Europe to experience a population explosion. With high birth rates and low death rates, Britain began to disperse and establish settlements in its colonies, including the Thirteen Colonies and later Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
    • At its peak in 1922, the British Empire was the largest empire the world had ever seen, covering around a quarter of Earth’s land surface and ruling over 458 million people. At one time it was referred to as ‘the empire on which the sun never sets’ because the empire’s span across the globe made sure that the sun was always shining on at least one of its several colonies.

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