In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section English Overseas Empire

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Online Resources
  • Africa
  • America
  • Asia
  • Caribbean and South America
  • Chesapeake and Bermuda
  • English Civil Wars/Revolution and Empire
  • English Society, Politics, and Culture
  • European Migration, Colonization, and Anglo-American Social Formation
  • Ideology and Imperial Vision
  • Imperial Constitution
  • New England and Newfoundland
  • Slavery and Slave Trades

Renaissance and Reformation English Overseas Empire
L. H. Roper
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 November 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0468


The English (after the Union of England, Scotland, and Wales in 1707, the British) Overseas Empire famously encompassed the globe. The range of scholarship related to this phenomenon stretches accordingly. This article focuses on contributions that consider the period prior to c. 1700 but provides links to other Oxford Bibliographies articles that include entries on non-English perspectives on the expansion of English overseas interests more fully, entries on the cultural interactions generated by that expansion, entries that relate to the later period, and entries that provide additional references to the topics discussed here. The emergence of an English Overseas Empire might be regarded as one of the most significant yet one of the more unlikely consequences of the Reformation and the Renaissance. In the fifteenth century, England suffered civil war and had its overseas territory reduced to Calais and the Pale of Dublin while its foreign mercantile sphere concentrated on the Baltic region, Antwerp, and Seville. The English break with Rome severed longstanding Anglo-Iberian economic ties and provided the religious-ideological frame for trading, plundering, and colonizing forays against the “popish” Iberians the success of whose initiatives had left the English scandalously behind in the minds of early imperial cheerleaders. By the 1640s, English “private” initiatives had established presences in Africa, America, and Asia, although the scale of these operations eventually proved beyond the capacity of these projectors, thus necessitating governmental intervention. After 1689, France replaced Spain as the imperial bogey, but an anti-Catholic imperial ideology, which employed a language of liberty and virtue derived from humanism, intensified as English political and economic ambitions expanded and direct government involvement in empire increased. Both this expansion and the cultural interactions it generated tracked changing English cultural and political sensibilities: contemporary authors and artists acclaimed English overseas endeavor as a hallmark of civilization, modernity, capitalism, and progress; the stridency of this celebratory view accompanied a seemingly inexorable coloring of the globe pink prior to World War II. English overseas expansion also entailed deep involvement in the enslavement of Africans—in terms of both exporting enslaved persons from sub-Saharan Africa throughout the Western Hemisphere and importing these people to labor on English plantations—a reality that has begun to receive significant attention only recently. It also involved the often-nasty subjugation of societies in situ, another reality that has also received a recent intensive rethink in the postcolonial era that began in the 1960s. The careful treatment of the responses of those societies to British incursions has become another recent and welcome development.

General Overviews

The historiography of the English Overseas Empire has naturally reflected changing sensibilities over time. The early promoters of the expansion of English overseas interests—Hakluyt 1589–1600, Horn 2007, and Purchas 1625—contrived a sense of purpose to encourage popular and governmental support for these initiatives by chronicling contemporary exploits but the degree of success they achieved remains unclear. Seeley 2010, first published in 1883, rejected these claims of imperial purpose. The triumphalist—not to say jingoist—scholarship that attempted to refute Seeley has faded in accordance with the waning of the British Empire and the corresponding emergence of new social and cultural perspectives from the 1960s, as surveyed in Canny 1998. This shift has been accompanied by a new desire to consider imperial developments in wider “Atlantic” (such as Armitage and Braddick 2002 [cited under America]), global (Colley 2003, Roper 2017, and titles provided in Salisbury 2021), and comparative (Elliott 2006 [cited under America]) terms. Some recent overviews, including Games 2008 and Armitage 2000 (cited under Ideology and Imperial Vision), echo older views in stressing Protestantism as a primary ideological motivator for early modern English people to engage in overseas trade and colonization and the territorial expansion that came to accompany this behavior. Other treatments, such as Swingen 2015 (cited under Ideology and Imperial Vision), adhere to the view that the English state played a central role in the expansion of English imperial interests especially after the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660. This perspective understates that state’s capacity for and interest in managing overseas interests and also overlooks the reality that the Dutch Republic—another self-professed Protestant, liberty-loving polity—constituted the chief 17th-century English overseas rival; the fierce global jockeying for advantage between the mercantile networks of this pair of nations lasted for almost a century—longer than the familiar English hostility with Catholic France and Spain. England fought three global wars with the Dutch between 1652 and 1674, followed by the successful Dutch invasion of 1688 that overthrew King James I (the “Glorious Revolution”) and brought English interests into a global rivalry with the French that continued well into the nineteenth century. MacMillan 2020 and the Oxford Bibliographies in Renaissance and Reformation article “Europe and the Globe, 1350–1700” provide further citations. Veevers 2023 reverses the customary perspective and considers empire through non-Western reactions to the English presence in the Caribbean, West Africa, and the Indian subcontinent.

  • Canny, Nicholas P., ed. The Oxford History of the British Empire. Vol. 1, The Origins of Empire: British Overseas Enterprise to the Close of the Seventeenth Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

    DOI: 10.2307/2567937

    Review essays that discuss an array of geographic and thematic topics related to pre-1700 English imperial history. Introduction surveys the historiography of the field. A state-of-the-art volume in 1998 but still useful for both its analysis of older literature and for the bibliographic references it supplies. Supplemented by Foster 2013 (cited under America) and Morgan and Hawkins 2006 (cited under Africa).

  • Colley, Linda. Captives: The Story of Britain’s Pursuit of Empire and How Its Soldiers and Civilians Were Held Captive by the Dream of Global Supremacy. London: Pantheon, 2003.

    Employs the lives of diverse individuals involved in British overseas endeavors who were captured by Barbary corsairs, Native Americans, Afghanis, and others. Emphasizes the deleterious effects that imperial pursuits could have on Britons from the lower social orders and the corresponding ambiguity inherent in those pursuits notwithstanding the triumphalism often presented by proponents of empire.

  • Games, Alison. The Web of Empire: English Cosmopolitans in an Age of Expansion, 1560–1660. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195335545.001.0001

    A rare consideration of early English overseas activities from a global perspective from the accession of Elizabeth I through the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660. Examines the careers of diplomats, mariners, traders, and soldiers, such as Sir Thomas Dale and Sir Thomas Roe, which extended from the East Indies to Virginia. Argues that the careers of these “cosmopolitans” laid the groundwork for English imperial developments.

  • Hakluyt, Richard. The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques, and Discoveries of the English Nation. 3 vols. London, 1589–1600.

    Several modern editions exist of this chronicle of early English overseas activities through the end of the sixteenth century composed by the chief advocate of English overseas activities in the Elizabethan period (1558–1603). Provides an unmatched—if not necessarily accurate—account of these global ventures.

  • Horn, James, ed. Captain John Smith: Writings with Other Narratives of Roanoke, Jamestown, and the First Settlement of America. New York: Library of America, 2007.

    Modern comprehensive edition of the works of the early colonization promoter. Includes accounts, some firsthand, of the establishment of Jamestown, Plymouth, and colonies in the Caribbean.

  • MacMillan, Ken. “Tudor and Stuart Britain in the Wider World, 1485–1685.” In Oxford Bibliographies in Atlantic History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2020.

    Comprehensive bibliography of literature related to early modern British forays beyond Europe.

  • Purchas, Samuel. Hakluytus Posthumus, or Purchas His Pilgrimes. 4 vols. London: William Stansby, 1625.

    Several modern editions, beginning with one published in Glasgow in 1905–1907, exist of this continuation of Hakluyt’s Principal Navigations (Hakluyt 1589–1600) by his intellectual successor. Provides insight into the thinking of the early-17th-century English imperial thinker as well as a not necessarily accurate chronicle of early English global endeavors.

  • Roper, L. H. Advancing Empire: English Interests and Overseas Expansion, 1613–1688. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017.

    DOI: 10.1017/9781316340493

    Provides a global consideration of the extension of 17th-century English overseas commercial and colonizing endeavors from the creation of plantation colonies in Guiana and Virginia through the Glorious Revolution. Focuses on the networks of aristocrats, merchants, and “colonial-imperialists” that initiated, extended, and linked these interests. Argues that the “Guinea trade,” especially the transatlantic slave trade, constituted the key component of those endeavors. Includes an extensive bibliography.

  • Salisbury, Neal. “Captivity.” In Oxford Bibliographies in Atlantic History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2021.

    Comprehensive bibliography of narratives and other literature related to the experiences of captives, including enslaved Africans and people captured by Native Americans and other non-Europeans, in the course of the expansion of overseas European interests.

  • Seeley, J. R. The Expansion of England: Two Courses of Lectures. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511783159

    Originally published in 1883. Lectures delivered at the zenith of the Victorian sensibility of the British Empire as an undertaking of “the White Man’s Burden.” Famously denied that the English undertook overseas opportunities with any sort of imperial purpose and proclaimed that the British Empire began, instead, in a “fit of absent-mindedness.”

  • Veevers, David. The Great Defiance: How the World Took On the British Empire. London: Ebury, 2023.

    “Decolonizes” the character of imperial history by examining English overseas activity from Native Caribbean, West African, and Indian perspectives and agendas. Tracks how English overseas interests developed fortuitously and haphazardly, as well as in the face of more powerful counter-interests around the globe. Wholly undermines the view of inevitable British imperial triumph couched in self-styled cultural superiority.

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