How Britain became “Great” and built an empire

There is some dispute about how Britain became “Great”. Whichever way you look at it, however, it always meant “large” or “larger”, rather than “brilliant”!

According to many commentators, it was originated by the French to distinguish between Bretagne (the French promontory of Brittany) and the rather larger landmass of the perfidious island to its north, Grande Bretagne and not so grande Bretagne, if you will.

The generally more convincing view is that England was, since Roman days, “Britannic”, and became greater with the union with Scotland.

So there we are then, but there was a process which lent a degree of veracity and acceptance of this self-awarded sobriquet to the eponymous island kingdom and, as my book shows, it was centred on the Royal Navy.

Originally conceived by Henry VIII for the defence of England, the British navy was essential to guard the wrinkled and, therefore, extended shoreline of the country.

Henry VIII's Royal Navy
Henry VIII’s Royal Navy

According to what criteria are used to calculate this distance, if long and wide estuaries are included then the coastline of Great Britain is almost exactly the same as the circumference of the world at the equator!

Fascinating trivia, but it meant that there were many coastal centres of population which developed into places where boats and ships were built, together with people to sail them for fishing and wider ranging purposes.

The coastline thus required many ships to police it, and so the organised navy came about.

With England already a formidable invasion target after the defeat of Spain’s Armada, the fledgling navy had licence to roam, many of the ships acting as privateers raiding other ships, usually Spanish, and relieving them of treasure, much of which went to the national treasury.

The Navy battles with the Spanish Armada
The Navy battles with the Spanish Armada

Then, as they roamed ever further, and unchallenged, they discovered and often made settlements in far-off lands. Unsurprisingly, these lands had produce and deposits not found at home.

These were, in some cases, ruthlessly appropriated by today’s standards, but soon formed the basis of trading between countries, albeit one-sided as to what constituted fair trade!

What was needed was a form of governance in these distant lands, a function which Britain was fully capable of providing. What evolved from this repeating process came to be called The British Empire.

Trading vessels were not vulnerable to the ambitions of privateers; the flag was enough to deter, and post-union Great Britain thus accumulated wealth far beyond that of other nations.

Navy warships in Malta at the turn of the 20th century
Navy warships in Malta at the turn of the 20th century

There was no Germany, or United States or Italy, Imperial Russia was in a different world, Imperial Austria was landlocked, and the Ottoman Empire disorganised and more concerned with its own borders.

The world was Great Britain’s oyster.

Read more in There Was a Time.

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