In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Tudor and Stuart Britain in the Wider World, 1485–1685

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Journals
  • Bibliographies and Reference Works
  • Ideologies of Empire
  • Early Trade and Exploration
  • Migration
  • Literary Treatments
  • Imperial Relations

Atlantic History Tudor and Stuart Britain in the Wider World, 1485–1685
Zach Bates, Ken MacMillan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 February 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0062


Britain’s forays into the Atlantic world began with annual fishing expeditions to Newfoundland in the 1480s, which led to John Cabot claiming possession of that region in 1497. Despite this claim, by 1530 the British in America were eclipsed by French and Portuguese fishing. Under Queen Mary (r. 1553–1558), British exploration and trade shifted to parts of Russia, Persia (roughly modern-day Iran), and the Mediterranean. Under Queen Elizabeth I (r. 1558–1603), while trade continued in eastern Europe, the English looked more seriously toward the Atlantic, first through trade and slaving in West Africa, and then through various exploratory and plundering voyages in the Caribbean and the North Atlantic. Later Elizabethan activities led to failed attempts at settlement in Newfoundland and America (Roanoke) and the establishment of the East India Company, whose structure would soon be copied by Atlantic trading companies. In 1607, the first permanent English colony was established in Jamestown, Virginia, followed in the next three decades by the migration of roughly fifty thousand British subjects to more than a dozen colonies on the eastern coast of North America and the Caribbean. In the second half of the 17th century, settlement continued into established and new colonies, and the English showed renewed interest in the Gold Coast of Africa. Occurring amidst all of these activities were British engagements with other European colonizing powers in the Atlantic (France, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain). Although the Tudor and Stuart period is sometimes seen by scholars as a rather fitful and mundane beginning of empire, modern scholars often see these foundational experiences as critical to the subsequent extraordinary growth of the British Empire. Because of the richness of the field, this entry focuses on transatlantic activities and emphasizes the 16th and early 17th centuries, while other entries may be consulted for references to individual colonies settled during the later 17th century.

General Overviews

Several surveys introduce and engage with the subject of Tudor and Stuart expansion into the wider world. Andrews 1984, Chaplin 2011, and Doran and Jones 2011 together cover most of the chronology. The thematic essay collections of Andrews, et al. 1978; Bowen, et al. 2012; Canny 1998; Mancke and Shammas 2005 offer overviews and demonstrate the rich variety of scholarly output and potential for further study of the Tudor and Stuart Atlantic. Several of these studies, such as Andrews, et al. 1978 and Canny 1998, contain good work on the British in Africa during this period, still a deeply understudied aspect of early English expansion. Elliott 2006 is strong on comparative analysis between Britain and Spain, while Gaskill 2014 emphasizes the continued relationship between England and its Atlantic subjects, and Ogborn 2008 uses individual stories to track Britain’s colonial projects from the reign of Elizabeth to the end of the 18th century.

  • Andrews, Kenneth R. Trade, Plunder, and Settlement: Maritime Enterprise and the Genesis of the British Empire, 1480–1630. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

    Presents a detailed overview of Tudor and early Stuart expansion, highlighting the twin roles of trade and settlement in helping to establish the early overseas empire. Contains contextualizing chapters on English activities in Africa, the East Indies, and eastern Europe.

  • Andrews, K. R., N. P. Canny, and E. H. Hair, eds. The Westward Enterprise: English Activities in Ireland, the Atlantic, and America, 1480–1650. Liverpool, UK: Liverpool University Press, 1978.

    An older but useful collection of essays by leading scholars, offering an excellent overview of early English Atlantic expansion and settlement.

  • Bowen, H. V., Elizabeth Macke, and John G. Reid, eds. Britain’s Oceanic Empire: Atlantic and Indian Ocean Worlds, c. 1550–1850. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

    A collection of essays that compare various aspects of the Atlantic and Indian Ocean worlds, and collectively argue for the value of “oceanic” rather than “Atlantic” history when examining Britain’s early modern overseas empire.

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

    A comprehensive collection of essays by leading modern writers on the subject of British expansion during the Tudor and Stuart period, including British expansion into South Asia and West Africa. Each essay contains a useful bibliography and the volume ends with an excellent chronology. This work is well supplemented by Stephen Foster, ed., British North America in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, Oxford History of the British Empire Companion Series (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

  • Chaplin, Joyce. “The British Atlantic.” In The Oxford Handbook of the Atlantic World, 1450–1850. Edited by Nicholas Canny and Philip Morgan. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199210879.001.0001

    A general overview of the British Atlantic world that emphasizes the colonists’ desire to retain their British culture despite the unique characteristics that defined and distinguished each colony.

  • Doran, Susan, and Norman Jones, eds. The Elizabethan World. London: Routledge, 2011.

    Part 6 of this collection of essays, “The Outside World,” contains four chapters addressing various aspects of mid- to late-Tudor activities in Europe and the wider world.

  • Elliott, J. H. Empire of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America, 1492–1830. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006.

    Provides a sweeping comparative analysis, written in lively prose, that explains England’s Atlantic activities in relation to Spanish colonizing efforts, generally with the purpose of showing the similarities between the two approaches.

  • Gaskill, Malcolm. Between Two Worlds: How the English Became Americans. New York: Basic Books, 2014.

    A lengthy discussion of Tudor and Stuart Atlantic activities arguing that English subjects abroad became “divided and transfigured” by their new environment while continuing to practice English ways.

  • Mancke, Elizabeth, and Carole Shammas, eds. The Creation of the British Atlantic World. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.

    A disparate collection of historical essays, some quite specialized, that emphasize transatlantic connections and how they resulted in a discernable “British Atlantic World.” Chapters 1, 3, 6, 7, and 10 are especially useful.

  • Ogborn, Miles. Britain and the World, 1550–1800. Cambridge Studies in Historical Geography 41. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

    Though mostly focused on British exploration and colonization in the Atlantic world, this study uses biography as a means to track expansion throughout the early modern British world.

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