Britain, Ireland, and Continental Europe in the Eighteenth Century

Jeremy Black on how Georgian Britons interacted with their European neighbours

Britain-Ireland-and-Continental-Europe-in-the-Eighteenth-Century-92f4c1a

Reviewed by: Jeremy Black
Author: Stephen Conway
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Price (RRP): £65

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The British as Europeans is the theme of this impressive, well-researched and ably argued study by Stephen Conway, who has already written several important works on Britain during the 18th century.

The author’s sights are firmly trained on his core subject matter throughout, leaving little room for alternative readings such as Atlanticism and xenophobia. Yet Professor Conway of UCL advances his case judiciously and with due regard to other accounts. 

The range is particularly impressive. Drawing on a broad range of archives, and based on a fine grasp of primary and secondary sources, Conway does not simply focus on foreign policy. He also covers the sense of British exceptionalism, finance and trade, politeness, refinement and behaviour, intellectual links, religious ties, the Grand Tour, migrants, maritime connections and military links.

Each of these sections, in turn, are handled with due regard to their diversity. Thus, maritime connections were as much about smugglers as merchant shipping.

In adopting a thematic approach, Conway is also open to the role of chronological context, notably the French Revolution and its wide-ranging impact, for example, in the revival of religious identity. His handling of religious issues is typical of his thoughtful approach and his mastery of a wide range of sources.

As he points out, Protestant churches had emerged as local or national reactions to universal Catholicism, but, at the same time, the Protestant Interest had a potent pull, notably at times of Catholic challenge.

In a finely balanced conclusion, Conway argues that if religion could bolster national identity, it could just as easily cut across national boundaries and unite the British and Irish with other Europeans.

More generally, there were broader European identities – not least in opposition to non-European cultures. Moreover, the British were encouraged to think in terms of a European whole by a shared commitment to the law of nations, as well as by confronting would-be hegemonic states on the continent.

There was also a tendency to draw parallels between British and continental developments, as was the case with the discussion of the Westminster Parliament and the Parlement of Paris in the 1730s.

There is room to contest some of Conway’s emphases, but this impressive book deserves widespread attention and strengthens his position as an important interpreter of the 18th century.  

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Jeremy Black’s books include biographies of kings George II and III