1801 to 1820
Union of Great Britain and Ireland
A brief period of limited independence for Ireland came to an end following the Irish Rebellion of 1798, which occurred during the British war with revolutionary France. The British government's fear of an independent Ireland siding against them with the French resulted in the decision to unite the two countries. This was brought about by legislation in the parliaments of both kingdoms and came into effect on 1 January 1801. The Irish had been led to believe by the British that their loss of legislative independence would be compensated with Catholic emancipation, that is, by the removal of civil disabilities placed upon Roman Catholics in both Great Britain and Ireland. However, King George III was bitterly opposed to any such Emancipation and succeeded in defeating his government's attempts to introduce it.
During the War of the Second Coalition (1799–1801), Britain occupied most of the French and Dutch overseas possessions, the Netherlands having become a satellite state of France in 1796, but tropical diseases claimed the lives of over 40,000 troops. When the Treaty of Amiens ended the war, Britain agreed to return most of the territories it had seized. The peace settlement was in effect only a ceasefire, and Napoleon continued to provoke the British by attempting a trade embargo on the country and by occupying the city of Hanover, capital of the Electorate, a German-speaking duchy which was in a personal union with the United Kingdom. In May 1803, war was declared again. Napoleon's plans to invade Great Britain failed, chiefly due to the inferiority of his navy, and in 1805 a Royal Navy fleet led by Nelson decisively defeated the French and Spanish at Trafalgar, which was the last significant naval action of the Napoleonic Wars.
In 1806, Napoleon issued the series of Berlin Decrees, which brought into effect the Continental System. This policy aimed to eliminate the threat from the British by closing French-controlled territory to foreign trade. The British Army remained a minimal threat to France; it maintained a standing strength of just 220,000 men at the height of the Napoleonic Wars, whereas France's armies exceeded a million men—in addition to the armies of numerous allies and several hundred thousand national guardsmen that Napoleon could draft into the French armies when they were needed. Although the Royal Navy effectively disrupted France's extra-continental trade—both by seizing and threatening French shipping and by seizing French colonial possessions—it could do nothing about France's trade with the major continental economies and posed little threat to French territory in Europe. France's population and agricultural capacity far outstripped that of the British Isles, but it was smaller in terms of industry, finance, mercantile marine and naval strength.
Napoleon expected that cutting Britain off from the European mainland would end its economic hegemony. On the contrary Britain possessed the greatest industrial capacity in the world, and its mastery of the seas allowed it to build up considerable economic strength through trade to its possessions and the United States. The Spanish uprising in 1808 at last permitted Britain to gain a foothold on the Continent. The Duke of Wellington gradually pushed the French out of Spain, and in early 1814, as Napoleon was being driven back in the east by the Prussians, Austrians and Russians, Wellington invaded southern France. After Napoleon's surrender and exile to the island of Elba, peace appeared to have returned. Napoleon suddenly reappeared in 1815. The Allies united and the armies of Wellington and Blücher defeated Napoleon once and for all at Waterloo.
War of 1812 with the United States
1814 signing of the Treaty of Ghent
ending the war with the United States; by A. Forestier c. 1915
To defeat France, Britain put heavy pressure on the Americans, seizing merchant ships suspected of trading with France, and impressing sailors born in Britain, regardless of their claimed American citizenship. British government agents armed Indian tribes in Canada that were raiding American settlements on the frontier. The Americans felt humiliated and demanded war to restore their honour, despite their complete unpreparedness. The War of 1812 was a minor sideshow to the British, but the American army performed very poorly, and was unable to successfully attack Canada. In 1813, the Americans took control of Lake Erie and thereby of western Ontario, knocking most of the Indian tribes out of the war. When Napoleon surrendered for the first time in 1814, three separate forces were sent to attack the Americans in upstate New York, along the Maryland coast (burning Washington but getting repulsed at Baltimore), and up the Mississippi River to a massive defeat at the Battle of New Orleans. Each operation proved a failure with the British commanding generals killed or in disgrace. The war was a stalemate without purpose. A negotiated peace was reached at the end of 1814 that restored the prewar boundaries. British Canada celebrated its deliverance from American rule, Americans celebrated victory in a "second war of independence," and Britain celebrated its defeat of Napoleon. The treaty opened up two centuries of peace and open borders.
Postwar reaction: 1815–1822
Britain emerged from the Napoleonic Wars a very different country than it had been in 1793. As industrialisation progressed, society changed, becoming more urban. The postwar period saw an economic slump, and poor harvests and inflation caused widespread social unrest. British leadership was intensely conservative, ever watchful of signs of revolutionary activity of the sort that had so deeply affected France. Historians have found very few signs, noting that social movements such as Methodism strongly encouraged conservative support for the political and social status quo.
The major constitutional changes included a reform of Parliament, and a sharp decline in the power and prestige of the monarchy. The Prince regent, on becoming King George IV in 1820 asked Parliament to divorce his wife Queen Caroline of Brunswick so that he could marry his favourite lover. Public and elite opinion strongly favoured the Queen and ridiculed the king. The fiasco helped ruin the prestige of the monarchy and it recovered a fraction of the power wielded by King George III in his saner days. Historian Eugene Black says:
- the damage was irrevocable. The sovereign was increasingly a symbolic contradiction in his own age. Through madness, stupidity, and immorality Victoria's three predecessors lowered the stock of monarchy. Only thirty years of the narrow domestic virtues of Queen Victoria finely retrieved the symbolic luster of the sovereign.
The Ultra-Tories were the leaders of reaction and seemed to dominate the Tory Party, which controlled the government. Every untoward event seemed to point to a conspiracy on the left which necessitated more repression to head off another terror such as happened in the French Revolution in 1793. Historians find that the violent radical element was small and weak; there were a handful of small conspiracies involving men with few followers and careless security; they were quickly suppressed. Nevertheless, techniques of repression included the suspension of Habeas Corpus in 1817 (allowing the government to arrest and hold suspects without cause or trial). Sidmouth's Gagging Acts of 1817 heavily muzzled the opposition newspapers; the reformers switched to pamphlets and sold 50,000 a week.
Peterloo Massacre and the Six Acts
In industrial districts in 1819, factory workers demanded better wages, and demonstrated. The most important event was the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester, on 16 August 1819, when a local militia unit composed of landowners charged into an orderly crowd of 60,000 which had gathered to demand the reform of parliamentary representation. The crowd panicked and eleven died and hundreds were injured. The government saw the event as an opening battle against revolutionaries. In reaction Liverpool's government passed the "Six Acts" in 1819. They prohibited drills and military exercises; facilitated warrants for the search for weapons; outlawed public meetings of more than 50 people, including meetings to organise petitions; put heavy penalties on blasphemous and seditious publications; imposing a fourpenny stamp act on many pamphlets to cut down the flow on news and criticism. Offenders could be harshly punished including exile in Australia. In practice the laws were designed to deter troublemakers and reassure conservatives; they were not often used.
Historian Norman Gash says "Peterloo was a blunder; it was hardly a massacre." It was a serious mistake by local authorities who did not understand what was happening. Nevertheless, it had a major impact on British opinion at the time and on history ever since as a symbol of officialdom brutally suppressing a peaceful demonstration thinking mistakenly that it was the start of an insurrection. By the end of the 1820s, along with a general economic recovery, many of the repressive laws of the 1810s were repealed and in 1828 new legislation guaranteed the civil rights of religious dissenters.
Ultra Tories: peak and decline
The Ultra-Tories peaked in strength about 1819–22 then lost ground inside the Tory Party. They were defeated in important breakthroughs that took place in the late 1820s in terms of tolerating first dissenting Protestants. An even more decisive blow was the unexpected repeal of the many restrictions on Catholics, after widespread organised protest by the Catholic Association in Ireland under Daniel O'Connell, with support from Catholics in England. Sir Robert Peel was alarmed at the strength of the Catholic Association, warning in 1824, "We cannot tamely sit by while the danger is hourly increasing, while a power co-ordinate with that of the Government is rising by its side, nay, daily counteracting its views." Prime Minister Wellington, Britain's most famous war hero, told Peel, "If we cannot get rid of the Catholic Association, we must look to Civil War in Ireland sooner or later." Peel and Wellington agreed that to stop the momentum of the Catholic Association it was necessary to pass Catholic emancipation, which gave Catholics the vote and the right to sit in Parliament. That happened in 1829 using Whig support. Passage demonstrated that the veto power long held by the ultra-Tories no longer was operational, and significant reforms were now possible across the board. The stage was set for the Age of Reform.