Bloody Diversity - State formation and Nation building in England

Essay, 2012

16 Pages


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. State formation
2.1 Feudal England
2.2 Concept of Sovereignty
2.3 Struggle between kingdom and baronage
2.4 Different shades of Absolutism

3. Nation building and nationalism
3.1 The idea of a nation state

4. Liberalism and suffrage

5. Conclusion

1. Introduction

Today, England is well integrated in Europe, being an active member of the European Union – nevertheless, keeping their distance to the continent, by e.g. insisting on their own currency and units. The English themselves state that the English people existed from the ‘beginning of time’ (Duffy, 2001) and indeed the population of the British Isles has roots back to the Roman Era. However, whether the idea of England is as old as that remains questionable. It most certainly was neither a state nor a nation at that time.

This paper deals with the process of state formation and nation building in England from the high Middle Ages until the end of the nineteenth century. Furthermore, it discusses whether England had been first a state or a nation or if this process occurred concurrently. It aims to determine when, how and why these developments proceeded in England the way they did, and if England’s changes differed from the rest of Europe. This paper claims that in the case of England, state and nation building went hand in hand resulting in an early English nation-state. The rise of a national consciousness as well as the establishment of a sovereign state protecting individual rights would not have been possible without the early formation of parliament. Therefore, this paper argues that the evolvement of Parliament was essential and played a crucial role in shaping England into a nation state.

The notions of State, Nation and Nation States are historically and socially constructed, rather than being naturally developed phenomenons. (Palmer,1995).Furthermore, there exists a vast array of diverse definitions of those notions. Each definition seems to have certain shortcoming and this entails the necessity to connect different elements of those definitions in order to create a common ground for analysis. In the first section, this paper demonstrates the period of feudal England, describing what feudalism was and analyzing how it looked like in England. Next, after discussing different definitions of the state, the development of parliament in regard to the concept of sovereignty will be examined as well as nuances of absolutism in England. Afterwards, this paper focuses on nation building and takes position in the Warwick debate. Lastly, it refers to the idea of a nation state and gives a brief outline of the following developments of England as it completed its transformation into a modern nation state.

2.1 Feudal England

When William the Duke of Normandy seized power and crowned himself king, after defeating the Anglo-Saxon ruler in the battle of Hastings in 1066, he brought feudalism to England. The feudal system on the continent was originally an attempt by Charlemagne to recreate the Roman Empire or at least a comparable power.

Opello (1999), explains the concept of feudalism as followed. Feudalism is a distribution of power – the lord, in this case the king, chooses nobles who were loyal to him and made them his vassals. This meant that he gave them the right over certain amounts of land and everything that was on this land, including peasants. Moreover, the vassal was given judicial control over his territory; therefore, he collected the taxes from his subjects. In return, the lord could depend on three forms of support; firstly the vassal was obligated to provide military forces when the lord asked for them. Secondly, all vassals were committed to pay taxes to the lord; financial support. Lastly, the vassals formed a council in order to help their lord decide in political matters; for example whether to start a war or not. These reciprocate duties were guaranteed through a bound contract by life between lord and vassal. Since the vassals were in charge of all matters concerning their territory, they became very powerful and ruled directly over ‘their’ people. Consequently, the lord’s influence on people was in reality next to nothing. Therefore, his vassals could become more powerful than the king.

The feudal system relied solely on personal ties between the lord and his vassals. Although officially a king reigned over a certain territory, there was actually no English state (the characteristics of a sovereign state are explained in the next section) – when the vassals swore allegiance to the king, they did it to him as an individual not to some abstract idea of a state. In fact, on the first look, the feudal system itself was not a step towards state building, but an attempt to restore an Empire. The king was not able to act as a central authority. Instead the medieval plurality of power led to an increased decentralization of power. (Opello, 1999, pp. 78)

2.2 Concept of Sovereignty

The most common and generally applicable definition of the state is provided by Simon Roberts, who defines the sovereign state as consisting of four elements, namely “a presence of a supreme authority (1.), ruling over a defined territory (2.), who is recognized (3.) as having power to make decisions in matters of government and is able to enforce (4.) such decisions and generally maintain order within the state” (Hall,1984, p.1).

These characteristics were not yet fulfilled by the feudal state as it lacked a central authority, an army belonging to the state and since each vassal ruled over his own relatively little piece of land - there was no defined territory either.

Precondition of a sovereign state had to be some kind of administrative centralization. In the process of depersonalizing governing, two separate systems were established. Financial institutions emerged, accountants were educated and a direct system of revenue collection through the sheriffs was set up. Moreover, a legal system emerged; professions as lawyers and judges materialized and courts were established. On the continent, pre-state entities tried to reinstate Roman Law as monarchs created legal codes as a set of rules. In England however, the legal system relied on common law. This meant that judges decided case by case and slowly precedent cases developed. From these a coherent legal set of rules could evolve. (Opello, 1999, pp.54).

In regard to the shift from the medieval state structure towards establishing sovereignty, two more aspects were significant; on the one hand the military development and on the other hand the English Protestant Reformation and its implications.

In most countries on the continent the military revolution played a major key role towards the transition into a modern, sovereign state (Palmer, 1995) Although the military revolution was not that present in England there were some basic approaches especially after the English Civil War. The wave of new military inventions did not skip England, and up to 1642 the British navy became an established power which made the Civil War possible in the first place. (Braddick, 1993, p. 965). Until that point of time, English military manpower had been more than doubled compared to the late sixteenth century. (Parker, 1976).


Excerpt out of 16 pages


Bloody Diversity - State formation and Nation building in England
Maastricht University
European Studies
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
497 KB
State building, state, nation, formation, development, England, Britain, United Kingsdom, UK, Great Britain, British Isles, feudalism, Tudors, nation state
Quote paper
Sukayna El-Zayat (Author), 2012, Bloody Diversity - State formation and Nation building in England, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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