British Identity in the early 19th Century

British Identity in the early 19th Century

The post you are about to read began as an assignment for my University degree. It has received a few tweaks here and there and will, no doubt, be expanded on in the coming years.

The idea of national identity is nebulous. 

It is an imagined construct created by shared, and often opposed, values and beliefs between two, or more, groups of people.  Identity fosters a sense of belonging to one group over another. Still, it can increase the ‘privileging of the minorities’ creating an “us versus them” culture 1.  It is not static; instead, it is fluid and develops when new knowledge and ideas emerge.  An identity can be deliberate, or it can be constructed on behalf of another group of people based on perceived differences.  Identity is subjective and, as Linda Colley suggests, British national identity includes multiple subcategories of identity, including regional and political 2.  The British national identity was a modern creation, really emerging from the union with Scotland in 1707.  The period 1780 to 1832 saw changes resulting from religious persecution and emancipation, wartime Britain, political allegiances and the monarch that fostered further developments in British national identity.  However, some aspects of these identities remained stable throughout the period.

The relationship between the British national identity and religion was a turbulent one. 

From the Reformation of the 16th Century through to the Catholic Relief Act 1829, British and Protestantism were synonymous.  The simple passing of the Relief Act created a monumental shift in religious identity that had been forged since the beginning of the 18th century.  The Catholic relief acts dispelled the common enemy within the nation; the very enemy that fuelled the union of Scotland with England and Wales.  Once the earlier threat of the Catholic Stuarts dissipated by the middle of the eighteenth century, the swing towards Catholic tolerance was in motion 2.  However, it continued to change.  The beginning of the period was marked by the Gordon Riots of 1780. These occurred when the Protestant Association attempted to deliver a petition for the repeal of the Catholic Relief Act of 1778.  This was an opposition that demonstrates the level of anti-Catholic feeling at the time 1.

Nevertheless, a little over a decade later, a further relief act was passed which afforded Catholic Britons similar rights and privileges to Protestants.  As a result, they were permitted to practice law and practice their religion without persecution 1.  By 1829, Catholic tolerance was at the highest level it had been since the reformation. When the Catholic Relief Act 1829 passed there were no significant riots or violence 1.  Colley suggests that this may have been due to the lack of a Catholic enemy abroad having been experiencing peacetime conditions since the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 rather than an increase in tolerance  2

For the 22 years preceding Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo Britain had been in a near-constant state of war with France which had significant impacts on the economy and national identity of the British people 3.

France had been conveniently created as the enemy, a threat to the state, and therefore the dangerous ‘other’. 

France represented “everything that Britain was not” 1.  During the years of the Napoleonic wars, the British Empire expanded through a series of victories and with the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815, Britain emerged dominant.  The fight against France also contributed to fostering a sense of British national identity. The financial demands of the war forced the hands of the English elites.  For the first time, they allowed their Celtic nation counterparts into their folds which “fostered political awareness among the mass ordinary Britons” 2.  This ensured a collective sense of identity by being united against a common enemy.

The face of British national identity was further shaped by the Act of Union in 1801, amid the war with France. 

The acts ensured that Britain took political control of Ireland.  Despite the crowns of Britain and Ireland being united since 1603, the Irish were deemed a threat to British identity.  The Irish Rebellion of 1798, and a genuine fear of French involvement, motivated William Pitt to push for a full political union between Britain and Ireland 1 2

The Act of Union was just one political move made by parliament throughout the period, and political reform was a hot topic throughout the period. A shared sense of British identity developed throughout the period in support of these ideas of reform.  The political unrest from the reform movement in the preceding decades resulted in the Great Reform Act of 1832, which went some way to changing the political identity of Britain.  It doubled the electorate but mainly benefited the middle classes.  It did create a better representation of Wales and Scotland within parliament which “united the interests of vast numbers of English, Scottish and Welsh people” and strengthened its national identity 1

By the time the Great Reform Act was passed, the monarchy had already become a key influence in what it meant to be British. 

King George III ascended the throne in 1760.  Although he was not well-liked initially, the second half of his reign witnessed the monarchy play a robust role in the creation of a British national identity.  There were periods when the stability of the monarch challenged British national identity.  One such time was after the death of Princess Charlotte in 1817.  However, by the time of his death in 1820, the monarchy had become synonymous with Britishness.  His son, George IV, did not foster the same sense of Britishness and patriotism. However, the monarchy remained, and still does remain, central to British national identity 2

These areas of change in the British national identity are accompanied by areas of little or no revision.

From the time of the union with Scotland, the British invested heavily in Protestantism. 

It was this investment that united the people of England, Wales and Scotland 2. And regardless of the overarching change in attitudes to Catholics, the Protestant Church of England remained the basis for religion in Britain.  Even after emancipation in 1829, Catholics were unable to enter the highest public offices 1 or take the throne.  The opposition to Catholic emancipation by people who, as Colley puts it, “saw themselves, quite consciously, as being part of a native tradition of resistance to Catholicism” 2. There were cries that it was forced upon the people. Protestantism created the fibre of their very being 1.

The political movements to create a British identity that was inclusive with bills such as the Catholic Relief Act and the Great Reform Act of 1832, united the British people against a single cause.  Despite the still unequal representation of the British public where the working classes and women were still disenfranchised, the size of the electorate was doubled.  The effect of this was a continuation of the same fractures in British national identity that was evident before 1.

The regional identities within Britain during the period did not change as much as the other aspects at play. 

Scotland and Wales both retained quite distinct individual identities, but they both also fitted comfortably within the bigger picture.  However, Wales held more distinctions, such as the national language and dress.  The English language tended to be restricted to just a few border counties and some in South Wales. At the same time, around three-quarters of the population of Wales spoke Welsh as late as 1880 2.

Perhaps the starkest regional identity that remained unchanged was the sense of Irish identity.  At the end of the 18th century, the Irish held their own powerful sense of identity, and this patriotism only increased once the Act of Union happened in 1801.  There was a considerable sense of opposition to becoming British.  Irish nationalism led to several rebellions.  It encouraged the feeling that the Irish were a threat to the cohesiveness of British identity 1.

British national identity is an ever-changing and fluid notion. 

It is never stagnant and therefore, always subject to change with events that happen within the nation.  The overwhelming theme is that adversity creates a sense of togetherness against a common enemy that, in turn, creates a broader sense of identity.  Within the British national identity, there are several smaller groups of identities that all work alongside each other.  The dominant changes in British national identity occurred because of changes to these smaller veins running underneath.  Catholic emancipation, war and peacetime, political reform and the monarchy all contributed to continuing development of British national identity. However, some areas of the anti-Catholic, political and regional identities didn’t change.

  1. Forbes, S. (2017) ‘Unit 4: Imagined Nations made real’, in Lawrence, P. (ed.) Ambition and Anxiety, 1789–1840, Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp. 243-289[][][][][][][][][][][]
  2. Colley, L. (2012) Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837, Yale University Press[][][][][][][][][]
  3. White, M. (2009) Popular Politics in the 18th century. [online] Available at https://www.bl.uk/georgian-britain/articles/popular-politics-in-the-18th-century [Accessed 14th December 2019][]