During the 1700s, England was governed under a mixed constitution, made up of the monarch, the House of Lords and the House of Commons. This situation was the result of the events of the previous century, when King Charles I was executed and England briefly became a republic before the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. Charles II became king, but the new parliament held many more powers than had been the case during Charles I’s reign.
England had a total of five monarchs during the 1700s: William III, Anne, George I, George II and George III. The Act of Settlement, signed in 1701, helped evolve the principle of a constitutional monarchy, still used in England today. The monarch ruled, but alongside constitutional advisers drawn from the government rather than handpicked personal advisers. The Act of Settlement also established that England’s monarchs would be Protestant, and that monarchs had to have the consent of parliament to leave the country or declare war.
House of Commons
The House of Commons was the elected part of the British Parliament, albeit that the electorate was made up only of a small number of wealthy men. For much of the 1700s, the Whigs were the dominant party; they supported unpopular foreign-born monarchs and tended to be associated with urban areas and the “new” money made in industry and finance. In contrast, their Tory opponents were more commonly associated with the “old” inherited money of the rural landowning class. Between 1707 and 1800, 558 Members of Parliament sat at Westminster at any given time.
House of Lords
In contrast, members of the House of Lords were not elected to their positions. Prior to 1711, all Lords were hereditary, meaning they had inherited their titles from an ancestor who had been given the title by a monarch. However, in 1711 Queen Anne eroded the monarch’s power by creating the first peers for party purposes. The House of Lords worked alongside the House of Commons but the latter had the final say in many matters, particularly those relating to finance.
The year 1707 witnessed a huge political change for England, as the already united England and Wales entered into a political Union with Scotland. England and Wales had been ruled by the same monarch since 1603, but negotiations throughout the early years of the 1700s led to a formal union in 1707. The Scottish Parliament was dissolved and Scottish MPs and Lords both sat at the Westminster parliament. This situation lasted throughout the 1700s until 1801, when Ireland joined the political union.
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- The British Monarchy: History of the Monarchy, The Act of Settlement
- History Learning Site: Great Britain 1700-1900, Political Changes
- George Mason University: Historical Outline of Restoration and 18th-Century British Literature
- British Electoral Facts, 1832 - 1987; F.W.S. Craig
- The British Monarchy: History of the Monarchy, Anne
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- Parliament.uk: Living Heritage, Act of Union 1707, United Into One Kingdom
- Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images