Background to English Colonization

In addition to the factors discussed above—-the Renaissance and Reformation, the exploration and colonization of the Americas by other European states, especially Spain-—the background to the English colonization of North America includes three essential points: the English political tradition, the experience of the colonization of Ireland, and the Enclosure Movement.

The English Parliament

The essential point to remember about the English political tradition is the remarkable power of Parliament, and especially of the House of Commons. Whereas powerful monarchs ruled France and Spain, English monarchs like Elizabeth and James had to work with Parliament. (As we’ll see, during the seventeenth century Parliament greatly expanded its power at the expense of the English monarchy, so that during most of the 18th century the Parliament effectively ruled with very little participation from the monarchs.) In Parliament, the House of Lords represented the aristocracy, an extremely small group of very wealthy people; and the House of Commons represented the gentry and “the middling sort” of men. Representatives to the House of Commons had to win elections to get there: although only about a quarter of English men (and none of the women) could vote in those elections, that tradition of representative government would have an extremely important legacy in the British colonies and, later, the United States of America.

English Colonies in Ireland

The English tradition of colonizing Ireland went back to the Middle Ages, centuries before they began colonies in North America. In particular, the English had controlled the land around Dublin, known as “the Pale,” since the Norman Conquest in the 11th century. The land “beyond the Pale” usually remained beyond English control. In contemporary English, the idiom “beyond the pale” still describes something unacceptably rude or immoral—-which is how the English viewed the Irish! In fact, the English view of the Irish as wild and uncivilized was very similar to their later view of the Native Americans.

Some English lords of Ireland rebelled in the sixteenth century, leading Henry VIII and Elizabeth I to fight long, brutal wars to re-conquer Ireland. This means England had been actively conquering Ireland for a century before they began colonies in North America. But during the reign of James I, which also saw the first successful English colonies in North America, England began its most sustained attempt to colonize Ireland.

The English strategy in Ireland was to establish plantations in Ulster, which has become Northern Ireland, owned by migrants from Scotland. Many of these "Ulster Scots" would migrate to North America, where they also became known as "Scots-Irish." English colonists viewed the Irish as wild and uncivilized, and throughout the fifteenth century English colonists used cruelty and violence to subdue the Irish and establish colonies. (“Irish methods” was a synonym for cruelty.) The violence in North Irleand between these migrants and the native Irish lasted a long time: Northern Ireland remained one of the most violent places in Europe until the late twentieth century.

So, at the time that Spain was colonizing the Americas, the English were doing the same things to the Irish. And just as the Spanish colonists modeled their behavior in the Americas on the Reconquista and the Portuguese plantations, the English modeled their colonization of North America on their experience in Ireland. Many people-—including Francis Drake, Richard Grenville, Walter Raleigh, and Humphrey Gilbert-—were involved in both the colonization of Ulster and of Virginia.


Some of those men were known as “Promoters” because they promoted starting English colonies in North America. Promoters such as Richard Hakluyt argued that in Virginia England could hope to find the Northwest Passage and gold mines; but even if that didn’t work out, colonies could make a profit exporting timber, pitch, or soap, perhaps even olive oil or wine. They also asserted that England had a duty to convert the Native Americans to Christianity.

The Enclosure Movement

But perhaps most appealing to the Promoters and the rulers of England was the prospect of settling some landless poor people in North America. Earlier in English history, many poor people had farmed open fields or commons, land available to anyone in the village who would farm it. But during the Enclosure Movement, landowners “enclosed” that land, reserving it for their own individual use. Once enclosed, the land was often used for grazing sheep, because landowners could make more money selling wool. (Wool was one of the most precious commodities in England at this time; Shakespeare’s father, for example, made a lot of money on the wool black market.) About half of the rural peasants lost their land between 1530 and 1630! They had to find some other way to support themselves, but that was not easy in early modern England. Some managed to survive in cities like London; but many of the evicted people turned to begging or theft to support themselves. The suffering of people displaced by enclosures had bothered Thomas More in the early sixteenth century; it would continue until the industrial revolution of the late eighteenth century. But in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the Promoters hoped to solve the problem by transplanting the evicted people to the New World.

Key Concepts

Key Terms

Index to Jonathan's Guide to US History

Index to Jonathan's Guides