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British Empire

British Empire

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By the end of the Early Modern Period (1450-1750), England became the most powerful European maritime empire the world has ever known. With colonies in North America, a dominating presence in the Indian Ocean, and growing influence in Africa and Asia, the British Empire was extended across thousands of miles of oceans and seas. Whereas in Europe, isolated in the British Isles from its European competitors, the British Empire had a land empire of its own.

British Empire Map

The map below represents England and its surrounding territories. Throughout most of the Early Modern Period, England was localized within the red territory depicted below.

English Land Empire Map Study SmarterFig. 1: Map of the United Kingdom.England is represented by red, Wales by green, Northern IReland by yellow, and Scotland by blue.

British Empire Map Geography

The English Land Empire was in Western Europe's British Isles Archipelago. Separated from mainland Europe by the English Channel, England possessed a natural moat against foreign invasion. The North Sea lies to England's east, the Norwegian Sea to the north, and the Atlantic Ocean to the west.

British Empire Map Political Boundaries

  • England refers to a single country, denoted by the color red on the map above. England was founded in the 10th century. England's 10th-century political boundaries largely match the borders on the map above.

  • The Kingdom of Great Britain (interchangeable with Britain) refers to the combined states of England, Wales, and Scotland above. The union of these three countries was made effective in 1707.

  • The United Kingdom, created in 1801, comprised Great Britain (England, Wales, and Scotland) and Northern Ireland. The United Kingdom exists to this day, as represented in the map above.

British Empire Countries

By the end of the Early Modern Period, the Kingdom of Great Britain, a rising maritime and land empire, possessed England, Wales, Scotland, and the east coast of North America. After 1750, the British Empire conquered territories in India, China, Australia, North America, and Africa.

British Empire: Timeline

The following timeline provides a brief progression of England's formation into a country and a land-based empire, with an emphasis on the Early Modern Period:

  • 927 CE: Anglo-Saxon King Æthelstan declares himself "King of the English," marking the beginning of England's history as a unified country.

  • 1455-1458 CE: The Wars of the Roses takes place in England, establishing the royal House of Tudor.

  • 1491-1547 CE: King Henry VIII reigns over England.

  • 1558-1603 CE: Queen Elizabeth reigns over England.

  • 1585-1604 CE: The Anglo-Spanish War rages between England and Spain.

  • 1642-1651 CE: The English Civil War takes place, ending with Oliver Cromwell in power.

  • 1701-1707 CE: England joins the fighting in the Spanish War for Succession.

  • 1707 CE: Wales and Scotland joined England in becoming the Kingdom of Great Britain.

  • 1801 CE: Northern Ireland joins Great Britain's Kingdom to become the United Kingdom.

British Empire History

The English Land Empire had its humble beginnings in an alliance of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms against the intrusive Vikings. Led by King Æthelstan, the Anglo-Saxons expelled the majority of Vikings from their lands, claiming territory as far as York in the north. Historians regard King Æthelstan's self-proclaimed title of "King of the English" in 927 CE to mark the start of England as a unified country. England's history as a country began as an act of unification and expansionism, as the English soon began pressing into Scotland. England acted as a land-based empire as early as the 10th century.

The Tudors and the Early Modern Era

Heralding in England's own involvement in the Early Modern Era, the Wars of the Roses within England were a series of civil wars mainly fought between the Houses of Lancaster and York. The victorious House Lancaster married into the Tudor family, putting the Tudor family on the English throne from 1458 to 1603, the most formative years of the English Land Empire. Most notable of the Tudor monarchs were King Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I.

English Land Empire Tudor Study SmarterFig. 2: The Tudor Rose

The English Land Empire Under King Henry VIII

King Henry VIII famously ruled England from 1491 to 1547. Besides the fascinating story of his six marriages (two of which ended in the execution of his wife), Henry VIII was vital to England's strengthening as both a maritime and land empire. Although he involved his country in many costly wars within Europe and personally indulged in a wealthy and extravagant lifestyle, King Henry VIII is better known for his establishment of the English Royal Navy and for his belief in the divine right of kings, the belief that he as a monarch was chosen by God to rule England with supreme authority.

King Henry VIII British Empire StudySmarterFig. 3: Portrait of King Henry VIII

Henry VIII was intent on divorcing his first wife to marry Anne Boleyn, but the Catholic Church based in Rome would not allow him to do so. In response, Henry issued the Supremacy Act of 1534, splitting the English Church from the Catholic Church. The Anglican Church of England was born, with King Henry VIII as its leader. This move brought greater power and autonomy to England from the wills of other European powers. Henry VIII further strengthened England through the Laws in Wales Acts and the 1542 Crown of Ireland Act, effectively making him the ruler of Wales and Ireland, respectively.

The English Land Empire Under Queen Elizabeth I

Queen Elizabeth I ruled from 1558 to 1603, the last of the Tudor monarchs. The popularity and significance of her reign stamped her time on the throne as the Elizabethan Era, a period of national pride and cultural growth within England. The daughter of King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, Queen Elizabeth I was not initially in line to inherit her father's throne. But when she did take power, Elizabeth emulated her father in passing her own Supremacy Act of 1558, affirming her position as supreme leader of the English Church after her predecessor revoked that monarchal right.

English Land Empire Queen Elizabeth I Study Smarter

Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I of England. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Rather tolerant in her governance and religious authority, Queen Elizabeth I was well known to be a Protestant. She established the Protestant Church within England and often butted heads with the Catholic Church. Queen Elizabeth later oversaw England's war against Spain in the Anglo-Spanish War, during which the Catholic Spanish Armada was ravaged by a terrible storm while at sea. These "Protestant Winds," as they were later known, secured Elizabeth's reign and Protestantism's prevailing power within England.

English Land Empire Consolidation

Following the end of the Tudor monarchy in England, the British would embroil themselves in more European conflicts. The English Civil War of 1642 to 1651 ended with Oliver Cromwell in power, a militaristic Puritan leader who committed atrocities within his home country.

British Empire Facts

Following the Early Modern Period, the British Empire came to dominate territories across the globe. From a country that had to break away from the Catholic Church just so its ruler could have a divorce to the largest empire the world has ever known, the British Empire grew from a modest beginning. Before the Anglo-Saxons came to the British Isles, the Roman Empire was a dominant presence well into the 5th century CE. More recently, the current English queen, Queen Elizabeth II of England, began her reign in 1952. At the time, Britain was still very much an empire with over seventy overseas territories. The British Isles have a long history of imperialism!

England later found itself in the massive War for the Spanish Succession of the early 18th century, continuing England's involvement in European Wars. Although England was unsuccessful in conquering mainland Europe, further consolidation continued in the British Isles as Wales and Scotland officially became unified with England as the Kingdom of Great Britain in 1707. Less than a century later, Northern Ireland would join Great Britain in creating the United Kingdom, the full and modern extent of the English Land Empire within the British Isles.

British Empire - Key Takeaways

  • The English Land Empire, located in the British Isles in Western Europe, expanded to include Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales.
  • England became a country in the 10th century as a union of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms in arms against Viking invaders.
  • The 15th-century Wars of the Roses set the Tudors as the royal monarchal family in England for five generations, from 1458 to 1603. Its two most famous rulers are King Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I, who made efforts to strengthen the English state and secure its political autonomy from the rest of Europe.
  • The English Civil War and England's involvement in the Wars for Spanish Succession continued to shape England's development as a land empire.
  • England consolidated its power in the British Isles by uniting with Scotland and Wales in 1707 and Northern Ireland in 1801 as the still-existing United Kingdom.


  1. Fig. 1: Map of the Countries of the United Kingdom (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Map_of_the_countries_of_the_United_Kingdom.svg). Image by DankJae (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:DankJae) Licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en)
  2. Fig. 2: The Tudor Rose (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tudor_Rose_(Tudor_Heraldry).svg) Image by SodaCan (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Sodacan) Licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en)

Frequently Asked Questions about British Empire

The British Empire came to prominence in the 16th century and lost its power during the 20th century. 

The British Empire does not exist to this day; many of its territories gained their willful independence from Britain in the 20th century. 

The British Empire fell during the 20th century as many of its global territories gained independence. 

Britain began to grow its empire during the 16th century under the rule of the Tudor monarchs. British imperial efforts only continued to grow in scope, as Britain turned its attention to Africa and Asia in the 18th century and onwards. 

The British Empire was not founded by a single monarch; it continued to grow under the leadership of many different monarchs. Both King Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I were important rulers during the British Empire's most formative years in the 16th century. 

Final British Empire Quiz

British Empire Quiz - Teste dein Wissen


What is the name of the archipelago that England is located on? 

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The British Isles 

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Which of the following political entities encompasses the most territories? 

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The United Kingdom 

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The Anglo-Saxons united in the 10th century as England to combat what famous invasive force? 

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The Vikings 

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What war placed the Tudors on the English throne for five generations from 1458 to 1603? 

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The Wars for the Roses

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King Henry VIII believed in the divine right of kings; what did this mean? 

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King Henry VIII believed that he as a ruler was chosen by God to lead his kingdom with supreme authority. 

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What was the effect of Henry VIII's Supremacy Act of 1534? 

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England split from the Catholic Church, establishing its own Anglican Christian Church. 

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What is a term often used to describe the reign of Queen Elizabeth I? 

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The Elizabethan Era 

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What was Queen Elizabeth I's religious belief?

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The "Protestant Winds" ravaged the armada of what Catholic European country, effectively sparing England from a massive invasion? 

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The militaristic Puritan leader Oliver Cromwell became the ruler of England in the 17th century directly following which war? 

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The English Civil War 

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