Three Victories and a Defeat: The Rise and Fall of the First British Empire

The vast Blenheim Palace was built in the early 17th century as a gift from a grateful nation to the Duke of Marlborough. In the park, at the end of a long avenue of elms, stands a 134-foot “Column of Victory” praising the man who humbled Louis XIV,

Who by military Knowledge, and irresistible Valour,
In a long Series of uninterrupted Triumphs,
Broke the Power of FRANCE,
When raised the highest, when exerted the most;
Rescued the EMPIRE from Desolation;
Asserted and confirmed the Liberties of EUROPE.

Reading the text today, one assumes that it is the British Empire being referred to, but the empire Marlborough rescued was the Holy Roman, and the liberties British soldiers were fighting for were those of European Protestants.

The British like to play up their island story: freed by geography from continental entanglements, they pursued a unique commercial and imperial destiny. But as the Blenheim column reminds us, and as Brendan Simms’ ambitious new book makes clear, Britain regularly took a direct hand in European affairs. Indeed, from the moment of Henry VIII’s break with Rome, the great fear of Britain’s rulers was of Spanish or French invasion in support of a pretender to the throne; a robust Continental policy was the best defense. In 1585, Elizabeth I sent an army to the Spanish Netherlands to support the Dutch Protestants revolting against Philip II — the beginning of a long British presence in what Lord Burghley referred to as “the very counterscarp of England.” (Maintaining the Lowlands barrier would be on Lord Castlereagh’s mind in his advocacy of British interests at the Congress of Vienna in 1814-15, and at the heart of Britain’s famous guarantee of Belgian neutrality.) Simms’ massive study places European relations at the center of Britain’s rise to world power status, examining in depth four conflicts: the Wars of Spanish and Austrian Succession, the Seven Years’ War, and Britain’s great imperial stumble, the War of American Independence. This is a weighty riposte to two dominant strands of historiography: the Atlanticists and the Navalists, who focus on Britain’s “blue-water destiny” when explaining Britain’s foreign policy in the 17th and 18th centuries. But, as Simms notes, “The old England had been founded in 1066 by a Frenchman: the new England in 1688 by a Dutchman.” And the new England was founded with the express purpose of fighting in Continental Europe. Similar reasoning brought a German prince to the throne in 1714 when Queen Anne died without surviving issue. For centuries, it was essential that Britain directly oppose the Spanish, French, and Austrian ambitions to dominate the Continent. Britain’s aggressive naval strategy began in expeditions to deny the Spanish monarchy the revenues from the New World that funded its Continental operations.

Britain’s rulers were slow to discern the decline of Spanish power and the rise of France. Through Simms’ lens, it was as much the failure to check French ambitions and protect Europe’s Protestant states as it was religious quibbles that led to the invitation to William of Orange to become King of England in place of James II in 1688. British troops and monies were constantly in the field in Europe from 1689 to 1713, and Marlborough’s was the first of the great victories of Simms’ title. Prizes like Minorca, Gibraltar, St. Kitts, Newfoundland, and Acadia helped established Britain as a major world power. With the ascension of George I to the throne, Britain also had a foothold in Europe — though Hanover would prove as much a burden as an opportunity.

It is with the Hanoverian Succession in 1714 that Simms’ study comes fully into its own. It began an age of partisan politics, an ebb and flow between Whig and Tory — between European interventionists and blue-water imperialists — that Simms brings to brilliant life. (He follows the method of the great Leopold von Ranke, founder of diplomatic history, using direct quotation from primary documents to stitch together a narrative.) From 1720 to 1740, Sir Robert Walpole dominated the scene, establishing the modern role of a prime minister, balancing the powers of Europe against one another, and pursuing confrontation in the Baltic and Mediterranean. All came undone with the rise of Frederick the Great and the War of Austrian Succession (1740-48). That was another British victory, but not a definitive one. When Prussia and Britain found common ground, it set the stage for the Seven Years’ War (1756-63). Prussia nearly fell before the coalition of France, Austria, Russia, Sweden, and Saxony — and the British armies fighting in Germany fared little better. But across the oceans, Britain took advantage of France’s continental distraction. With the Treaty of Paris in 1763, Britain gained France’s possessions in Canada and India, as well as Senegal, Grenada, St. Vincent, and Tobago. The first British Empire was at its zenith.

Things went quickly wrong, and Simms zeroes in on the fragmentation of Britain’s long-term European commitment. Colonial and naval affairs had come to dominate British policy, and the government shunned new European alliances. What Simms calls “naval hubris” set in, with British leaders believing that wars could be won on the sea alone. When France and Spain sought military advantage from the North American rebellion by declaring war on Britain in 1779, London no longer had Continental allies to help distract these new enemies. The British navy was unable to meet such increased challenges and temporarily lost mastery of the sea — one of the few instances of true national danger. The independence of the American colonies followed. Yet the predictions of British national decline were wrong. Simms argues that the British political system grew stronger from the debacle, and ministers learned to maintain a Continental presence and a seagoing empire. What is ironic is that no colonies Britain would acquire during a century and a half of imperial excellence would be as profitable or cheap to maintain as the original 13 had been.

Three Victories and a Defeat is a rich and dense book, yet it is not a dull one. Simms wishes to realign the study of British foreign policy during the 17th and 18th centuries from empire to Europe, and this bravura performance is a big step forward.