foreign Policy

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As long as monarchs wielded great personal power, it is hardly possible to divorce foreign policy from the individual circumstances and character of each king. Nevertheless, at an early period, certain themes emerged. The connection with France that came about in 1066 was fortuitous, but it introduced a pattern that survived for 500 years. From the days of William Rufus to those of Henry VIII, English monarchs attempted to retain or extend their French possessions. Not until the loss of Calais in 1558 did this aspiration come to an end. This, in turn, had profound effects upon another object of English policy, which pre‐dated the Conquest—the ambition to turn a southern English kingdom based upon Wessex into a kingdom of Britain, which should include the north, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland.

Even within the limits of so general a context, other patterns may be discerned. The principle of supporting one's enemy's enemy is elementary, yet it had important consequences. The Scots, in their long struggle for independence, soon perceived the advantages of an understanding with France, and the ‘Auld Alliance’ survived from the treaty of Paris of 1295 until 1560. England pursued a similar policy, supporting Brittany and Burgundy against France. Balance of power came into consideration centuries before the phrase was invented. In the 16th and 17th cents., when Spain and France disputed European hegemony, the choice was which side to take. It was left to the monumental incapacity of Charles I to contrive to be at war with both great powers at the same time.

The rift in Christendom in the 16th cent. introduced a new factor into foreign policy, but one which was rarely decisive. Monarchs certainly supported their co‐religionists in other countries, but the co‐religionists were well aware that the commitment was fragile. Catholic unity did not prevent the long struggle between France and Spain, nor protestant commitment three wars between England and the Dutch in the 17th cent.

The development of a recognizably modern context for foreign policy dates from the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when three factors combined to change the nature of diplomacy. First was the steady spread of representation at foreign courts, which made policy more of a regular activity and less of a response to occasional crises. The second factor was the changed importance of Parliament after 1688 which initiated a move away from a personal towards a national foreign policy. The third factor was the growth of empire. In 1600 England had no overseas colonies: by 1700, in addition to the twelve American colonies, there were valuable possessions in India, the West Indies, and Africa to be protected.

The broad outlines of 18th‐cent. foreign policy are simple. After the swift collapse of Spanish power and rapid rise of France under Louis XIV, there was no question which was the dominant power in Europe, and the fact that France was also a major colonial competitor helped to bring about what has been called the second Hundred Years War. Between 1689 and 1815 Britain and France were at war for nearly half the time. France's much greater population and resources were a substantial handicap, but to build restraining alliances was far from easy.


Subjects: British History.

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