In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section British Armed Forces, from the Glorious Revolution to Present

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals and Societies

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Military History British Armed Forces, from the Glorious Revolution to Present
Ian F. W. Beckett
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 September 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 September 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0073


There has always been a sense in which the British experience of armed forces has been regarded as an exception. That exceptionalism has derived from Britain’s island status and its absence of vulnerable land frontiers. The Royal Navy’s “wooden walls” protected the British Isles from invasion in the modern era even after steam power had been thought to have “bridged the Channel” in the 1840s. The advent of air power in the 20th century provided a new challenge. But, even in the summer of 1940, whatever the heroics of the Royal Air Force, the Royal Navy still represented a formidable obstacle to an actual invasion attempt. Command of the sea likewise enabled the army not only to garrison a far-flung empire but also to be a “projectile” fired by the navy. In reality, Britain could not afford to neglect land participation in major continental wars, and always required continental allies in order to prevail, but there was at all times a tendency to view the army as essentially a small imperial constabulary out of sight and out of mind. Certainly, there was no belief in the need for continental-style conscription and the armed forces were mostly enlisted on a purely voluntary basis other than in the 20th century. The relationship between the armed forces and British state and society has also reflected the steady evolution of a constitutional monarchy and representative democracy. While army and navy both emerged as truly organized national forces under the Tudors, it is not unreasonable to take the constitutional settlement of 1689—particularly as related to the enhanced capacity of the state to raise revenue for army and navy—as a convenient starting point for the study of the British armed forces.

General Overviews

Inevitably, perhaps, there have been numerous popular histories of both the army and the navy, but such publications have rarely drawn upon the latest academic research and have tended to concentrate upon battles and campaigns rather than upon such aspects as administration and civil-military relations. Although well illustrated, the two Oxford edited compilations, Chandler and Beckett 1994 and Hill and Ranft 1995, are intended to introduce general readers to the most recent research, and they retain their usefulness as introductions to the broader developments. Rodger 2004 is the second entry in what will undoubtedly become a definitive multivolume history of the Royal Navy. Grove 2005 conveniently covers the period not yet assessed by Rodger. Spiers 1980 is a good example of the then relatively new and now commonplace “war and society” approach to military history, published significantly in a series on British social history. Strachan 1997 investigates the traditional view of an apolitical army in relation to politics and society, while French 2005 equally explores that other supposed foundation of the British army’s approach to war, its traditional regimental system. Academic interest in the history of air power as opposed to that of the Royal Air Force (RAF) per se has meant that there is no adequate general history of the RAF.

  • Chandler, David, and Ian Beckett, eds. The Oxford Illustrated History of the British Army. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

    Updated in a second paperback edition in 2003, twenty chapters take the story of the army from the medieval period to the present. There is an uneven quality to some of the 20th-century chapters that were contributed by soldier-historians rather than the academic historians responsible for the remainder.

  • French, David. Military Identities: The Regimental System, the British Army, and the British People, c. 1870–2000. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199258031.001.0001

    A justifiably award-winning examination of the regimental system, emphasizing its constant reinvention and the entirely false traditional image of localized county recruitment, but also rejecting criticism of the supposedly resulting parochial military culture unsuited to major war fighting.

  • Grove, Eric. The Royal Navy since 1815. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-0-230-80218-6

    Though based entirely on secondary sources, Grove’s survey following the story of the navy from the coming of sea power to the aftermath of the Falklands War is a useful introduction.

  • Hill, John R., and Bryan Ranft, eds. The Oxford Illustrated History of the Royal Navy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

    The naval equivalent to Chandler and Beckett 1994, this was also updated in a revised paperback edition in 2002 but retained its illustrations. Those chapters written by former naval officers among the fourteen essays included in the volume are not as convincing as those authored by academic historians.

  • Rodger, Nicholas A. M. The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain, 1649–1815. London: Allen Lane, 2004.

    Rodger’s second volume combines administrative, social, and operational history, showing the significance of management, money, and victualling to the securing and maintenance of command of the sea. He also maintains that the integration of the navy into national life was essentially a product of the domestic fear of Catholicism.

  • Spiers, Edward. The Army and Society, 1815–1914. London: Longman, 1980.

    In something of a pioneering study at the time, Spiers combines chronological and thematic approaches to such aspects as the officer corps, the rank and file, and military reform though the work would have benefited from conventional introductory and concluding sections.

  • Strachan, Hew. The Politics of the British Army. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.

    The Lees Knowles Lectures for 1995 demonstrate that, far from being apolitical and politically subordinate as usually portrayed, the army and its high command adeptly played politics institutionally as well as personally both to its detriment and, occasionally, to the national benefit.

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