When did Britain begin her empire?

When did the British Empire start? There is no right answer to this question. Historians disagree about the start of the Empire. Some historians would look as far back as the Anglo-Norman Empire and trace it’s development from there. Others tend to look at the beginning of non European colonisation in the 15th and 16th Centuries as starting points for the British Empire.


The British Empire is a name given to a concept. It was only an empire in a politically named sense in relation to India. The Empire of India existed from 1848 to 1948. The British Empire was far more than this though.

The British Empire as studied in schools refers to the British domination of global commerce and politics. This empire was formed as the kingdoms of the British Isles united. Colonists went to the New World of America during the reign of Elizabeth I. Though unsuccessful, they were followed by others who founded Jamestown in North America. This colony and those that followed it in the 17th century gave rise to a large American domain under British rule.

As British colonisation of North America took place, there was also expansion into the West Indies. Many of these islands became ruled by the British as Plantation economies were developed that made use of the transatlantic slave trade. British interests elsewhere also developed around this time. West Africa was vital to the Slave Trade. Indian trade was important for the East India Company.

At what point this turns from a colony to a group of colonies or the empire is a matter for debate. Newfoundland as claimed for England in 1583. The first American colony was at Roanoke in 1585. It was followed by Jamestown in 1607. The East India Company was formed in 1600, though was initially a trading venture rather than having any substantial role in governance.: a lease was granted for Bombay in 1668. By this time England had colonies in the West Indies and had established forts in West Africa. This, by most definitions, would be a small but recognisable empire.

When did the British Empire start?

The British EmpireMaking of the United KingdomEconomic Consequences of the British EmpireHow did the Empire affect Great Britain?Society changes: Political Thought and the British EmpireQuestions about the British EmpireBritish Empire Teaching Resources

Love Learning?

Subscribe to our Free Newsletter, Complete with Exclusive History Content