In the period before contact with the Americas, the countries of England and France, as they appear on the map today, had not yet taken shape. For much of the Middle Ages, both regions faced invasions by Germanic and Scandinavian tribes from northern and central Europe and almost continuous internal instability. It was the principal goal of monarchs in England and France to consolidate their power; their expansion across the Atlantic can only be understood within this context. However, they lagged behind the Portuguese, the Spanish, and the Dutch because of the almost constant state of war across the Channel as well as the emergence of the Protestant Reformation in the early 16th century.
England and France at War
While the Black Death (the plague) ravaged Europe in the 14th century, England and France descended into the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) over the question of who would succeed to the throne of France. The lengthy conflict had a significant political impact for both sides. In England, it strengthened the role of Parliament simply because Edward III (r. 1312-1377) and his successors had to turn to the representative assembly repeatedly for funds. As these meetings occurred, the two levels of Parliament — the House of Lords and the House of Commons — began to take shape. A corresponding national assembly did not appear in France because Phillip VI (r. 1328-1350) and his successors considered it repugnant; instead they worked assiduously to build a strong monarchical regime. These years of conflict had the added effect of catalyzing what would later be called “national” identities in both countries.
The Hundred Years’ War also brought on a period of domestic strife in England. The War of the Roses ended when Henry Tudor (1457-1509) (subsequently Henry VII) defeated his rival in 1485. In the Tudor dynasty, the monarchy became the main political force in England. The powers of Parliament waned, as did that of the lesser royals, called the aristocracy. Henry VII’s governing council also dealt with recalcitrant nobles by using the Star Chamber, which was a judicial body that undermined traditions of English common law, and by promoting the interests of the middle class. Merchants, heavily concentrated in England’s port towns, favoured policies that enabled and protected trade; their concerns thus became the concerns of the Crown as well. And merchants favoured seaborne trade.
It was under Henry VII, then, that England made its first official foray into overseas exploration. In May 1497 (some historians claim it was seven years later), the king allowed John Cabot (ca. 1450-1499), a Venetian mariner living in London, to sail under the English flag in an attempt to find a northern route to Asia. Cabot reached what he called Newfoundland in June of that year and claimed it on behalf of the king. He made a second voyage in 1498, funded in part by Henry VII who expected to reap the financial rewards of the journey. However, after Cabot’s death, his crew, led by his son Sebastian, failed to find any precious metals, so Henry lost interest in overseas exploration.
While Spain and Portugal began the process of colonization, England found itself in the midst of a political and religious crisis for much of the 16th century. Events at home took precedence over any further state-sponsored oceanic voyages. However, Cabot’s voyages gave England a chip they could play when it came time to match other European claims to the North American mainland.
Religion and Politics in the 16th Century
Through most of the medieval period, secular leaders in England and France relied on a connection to the Roman Catholic Church to underwrite their legitimacy. By the early 16th century, however, the Church itself had come under fire. The intellectual currents of the Renaissance played a role in this change, but so too did the practices of the Church, including clerical immorality, clerical ignorance, and clerical absenteeism. The Church’s failings led Martin Luther (1483-1546), a Catholic priest in Germany, to spark the Protestant Reformation in 1517. Protestant sects arose throughout northwestern Europe, including in England and France (where they were often called Huguenots). Breaking with Rome was a serious business and the decision to become Protestant or remain Catholic in many cases had as much to do with power struggles as it did with faith.
The English Reformation began officially under Henry VIII (1491-1547) who ruled from 1509 to 1547 and was driven by court politics. Henry’s break with the Pope led Parliament to pass legislation that made the king the head of the new Church of England and required all priests in England to swear allegiance to the king’s church. In terms of doctrine, the new Church, also called the Anglican Church, made few changes. In terms of economic power, however, Henry VIII gained an advantage when he dissolved all the monasteries in England and confiscated their wealth as a means to build his treasury and weaken that of the Vatican.
The English Reformation did not come about without local resistance. Henry’s successors kept the country divided and in a state of civil war until the late 16th century. Under Elizabeth I (r. 1558–1603), some stability was achieved — enough to allow for the emergence of new sects of Protestants to appear, including the Puritans and the Quakers, both of which would play a pivotal role in the colonization of North America in the 17th century.
The French monarchy had little political reason to turn to Protestantism in the early 16th century. Enjoying relative religious stability in the 1520s, King Francis I (r.1515-1547) looked for possible ways to catch up with the Spanish in the realm of overseas exploration and colonization. In 1524, he sponsored a voyage by the Florentine navigator, Giovanni da Verrazzano (1485-1528) to stake a claim in the New World and discover the Northwest Passage. During his voyage (1523-24), Verrazzano explored the Atlantic coastline from modern-day South Carolina to New York. A decade later, Francis sponsored two voyages by Jacques Cartier (1491-1557). While Cartier failed to find a northern route to Asia, he did survey the St. Lawrence River and made valuable contacts with the local population. Nevertheless, the discoveries did not inspire Francis to support a permanent settlement in the western Atlantic at that time.
Soon the window of opportunity slammed shut. Protestant factions began springing up across France at mid-century, leading to religious riots. The worst of these occurred on St. Bartholomew’s Day, August 24, 1572. Shortly after the marriage of Margaret of Valois to Henry of Navarre, Catholics led by Henry of Guise viciously attacked Protestants in Paris. Sectarian civil war ensued. A group of Catholic moderates finally ended the strife when they concluded that domestic tranquility was more important than religious doctrine. Moreover, the last man standing in a three-way conflict over religion and succession was the Protestant Henry of Navarre. After he ascended to the throne as Henry IV (r. 1589-1610), he joined the Roman Catholic Church. Nine years later he issued the Edict of Nantes in 1598, which granted the Huguenots liberty of conscience and worship and brought stability to the country. Henry IV’s tentative nod to religious toleration put France at last in a position to renew efforts at exploration and transatlantic trade.
- Political conflict between France and England and internal strife forced changes in the shape and character of government in the two countries.
- Competition across the Channel extended to belief systems during the Protestant Reformation and the Counter-Reformation.
- These conflicts deterred the English and the French from participating in the earliest stages of transatlantic commerce and invasion.
- William Gilbert, “Beothuk-European Contact in the 16th Century: A Re-evaluation of the Documentary Evidence,” Acadiensis XXXX, no. 1 (Winter/Spring 2011): 24-44; R. A. Skelton, “CABOT, JOHN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography 1 (University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003). Accessed November 30, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/cabot_john_1E.html. ↵