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Uniting the Kingdoms? 1066-1603



Beyond England's Shores

In the Middle Ages England's relations with its immediate neighbours - Wales, Scotland, Ireland and France - were characterized by conflict, war and the desire for expansion. They were also the subject of intense negotiations and changeable diplomatic alliances.

Links with continental Europe were primarily governed by the stormy relationship between England and France. Marriage was often employed as a political tool, to cement foreign alliances or confirm treaties with former enemies. Diplomacy through marriage was turned into an art form by Henry VIII, who took six wives, fostering links with the Habsburg EmpireGlossary term - opens in a pop-up window which later eased the way for the marriage of his daughter Mary I to Philip II of Spain. New diplomatic tools were also invented. The Order of the Garter, established by Edward III in about 1348, adopted St. George as its patron - thus expressing an idea of English identity in relation to the continent - and was used by the English kings to honour foreign dignitaries.


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Portrait of Mary I and Philip II


Naval protection of wool exports

As befits a nation surrounded by water on three sides, the development of a navy proved crucial to defence. English sailors took a leading role in the voyages of exploration of the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Navigators such as John Cabot, Sir Francis Drake, Thomas Cavendish and Sir Walter Raleigh became famous by discovering and colonizing parts of the New WorldGlossary term - opens in a pop-up window.

For more on Cabot, visit our Treasures exhibition.

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However, the accession of Elizabeth I in 1558 signalled a complete reversal of traditional foreign policy. Religious and commercial reasons, as well as New World rivalry, meant that France now became an ally against the mighty Habsburg empire of Philip II of Spain. Philip's territory stretched from Germany through the Low Countries and into Spain, bankrolled by silver from the New World colonies. This was the background to the defeat of the ArmadaGlossary term - opens in a pop-up window in 1588; the seventeenth century dawned with English troops fighting in support of the French king in France.

For more on the Armada, visit our Treasures exhibition.

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Detail from Parliament at Work. By permission of the British Library.
Detail from Parliament at Work. By permission of the British Library.