When Queen Elizabeth died childless at Richmond Palace in 1603 she had failed to make a will or name an heir. Her chief advisor, Sir Robert Cecil, foreseeing the difficulty, had prepared the way forward by secretly negotiating with the Protestant James VI of Scotland (son of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots) to succeed Elizabeth. James had already been ruling over his homeland for thirty six years by the time he came to the English throne. Thus the Tudor dynasty made way for the Stuart and Scotland and England were thereafter united under one monarch.
James had ambitions to create a new nation under the name ‘Great Britain’, yet England and Scotland continued as two countries with two parliaments, albeit with one monarch. He did, however, succeed in ordering all English and Scottish naval ships to fly a new united flag, which they did from 1606 until 1634. The Union Flag incorporated the red and blue crosses of St. George and St. Andrew and became known as the ‘Union Jack’. Wales was only considered a principality and therefore not included. The Cross of St. Patrick, representing Ireland, was only incorporated in 1801.
Despite his liberal feelings towards Catholics, the views of the majority and political expediency made it necessary for James to take a hard line against them and be seen to support the Anglican Church. A number of papist gentry, many of whom had suffered one way or another for their religious beliefs, came together in 1604 in an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate the King and MPs by blowing up the Houses of Parliament during the ceremony for the State Opening. It became known as the ‘Gunpowder Plot’.
Sir Walter Raleigh, a privateer and a favourite of Queen Elizabeth, fell out of favour with King James and was imprisoned in the Tower of London where he lived for thirteen years. He was set free in 1617 to lead an unsuccessful voyage to find the mythical ‘El Dorado’ but on his return was executed at Westminster under pressure from the Spanish.
After the establishment of the naval docks at Deptford and Woolwich in the 16th century the lower Thames increasingly became a centre of ship-building. Until the end of that century merchant ships were constructed in the Netherlands but increasingly began to be built on the Thames from the first decades of the 17th century. A large community of workers employed in the shipping industry grew around Stepney, particularly at Wapping.
With superior ships the Dutch controlled long-distance trade routes to the Far East. However, when they raised the price of pepper the Mayor of London chaired a meeting of merchants that agreed to create a new joint-stock company to fund voyages in competition. The first ships of the East India Company set sail in 1601. The company grew in size during the 17th century, establishing a large dock at Blackwall, downriver from the Tower of London.
There had been previous unsuccessful attempts to set up a British colony in North America and an area there had been named Virginia. In 1606 King James issued royal charters that established the Virginia Company of London and the Plymouth Company, both joint-stock companies whose shares were traded in London. The following year three London Company ships set sail from Blackwall to establish Jamestown, the first permanent British colony in North America. In 1620 a group of puritans hired the Mayflower – based at Rotherhithe – that took them to New England where they founded the town of Plymouth.