Laying the Foundation for Future Greatness.
By Ronald Fritze
Posted on August 25, 2008, from Athens, Alabama
We must needs confess
that the situation of our island is nothing inferior
to that of any country of the main [Europe],
wheresoever it lie under the open firmament.
And this Plutarch knew full well,
who affirmeth a part of the Elysian Fields
to be found in Britain and the isles
that are situate about it in the ocean.
Description of Britain, 1577
If they [the English] see a foreigner,
very well made or particularly handsome,
they will say,
'It is a pity he is not an Englishman.'
Travels in England, 1598
English people of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were proud of their land and proud of themselves. To a large extent, they were the heirs of a national pride that can be traced back to the late Middle Ages. In those days England had an empire on the continent of Europe and at times controlled more of France than the King of France did.
Great warrior kings like Edward III (1312-1377) and Henry V (1386-1422) ruled England with the assistance of people like Edward the Black Prince (1330-1376). English armies regularly trounced numerically superior French forces in the course of the Hundred Years War. France was a place where English soldiers could go to make their fortune. Many, like the Sir John Falstaff of Shakespeare, did just that.
The disastrous reign of Henry VI (1421-1471) brought a minor to the throne, a ruler who would later prove mentally ill and possibly feeble-minded as an adult. War in France was no longer profitable, but the English proved unable to think of an alternative means of attaining wealth. In fact, war in France was no longer even successful. Costly defeat and weak monarchy roused the ambitions of powerful nobles. Vicious strife broke out among the elite, which ultimately resulted in the establishment of Edward IV as king of England (1442-1483).
Edward IV restored order, but England was no longer a first-rate European power. It had lost its continental empire. Economically, it was a one-crop economy based on wool and coarse woolen cloth, which were sold the Low Countries, where modern Belgium and the Netherlands are located. In an age where population was a country's number one resource, England had too few people to be one of the great powers anymore. Such hard facts had little impact on the English psyche as the above quotes clearly show.
When studying the age of the Tudors and Stuarts, it is always important to remember that England in those days was at best a second-rate power and might even have sunk to the status of a third-rate power at certain times. However, by 1714, England — now known as Great Britain — had regained its great power status. It would remain a world power and at times the premier world power until the mid-twentieth century.
The importance of studying the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is that those years laid the foundation for Great Britain's future greatness. They also laid the foundations for the nation that would eventually become the United States of America. The study of the early modern age is crucial for attaining an understanding both the British and the Americans.