The Seven Year War that saw Britain rule the waves

The Seven Years War, which started on 17 May in 1756, was a battle for global supremacy that saw Britain, powered by the Royal Navy, emerge as the world's dominant colonial power.

Described as the 'first world war' by Churchill, the conflict was fuelled by tensions that spilled over from Britain and France’s earlier grab for territories in North America, and from issues left outstanding after the War of the Austrian Succession. 

Britain’s government leader, William Pitt the Elder, had a grand vision of seizing the entire French Empire. 

His plan was to use the Royal Navy to carry troops to French colonies across the world, while tying down France’s powerful army in Europe by subsidising campaigns waged by allies. 

Britain took full advantage of its naval power, blockading and bombarding enemy ports, harassing shipping, and carrying colonists from British territories to complete attacks. 

With a weaker navy, France was reduced to sending minimal help and hoping colonies could defend themselves. 

But the French army at home was sizeable, and the rulers pinned their hope on making territorial gains in Europe, which they could later trade to regain colonies lost abroad. 

To engage the French army, Britain dumped its traditional ally, Austria, and backing the expansionist ambitions of Prussia, which was led by the outstanding military commander, Frederick the Great. 

Alarmed by Prussia's aggression, Austria, Russia Spain and Sweden sided with the French.

Britain was able to stand back from the bulk of the fighting in Europe by bolstering the Prussian campaign financially, and sending small numbers of troops when King Frederick was most in need. 

Their naval might keep them safe from invasion, successfully halting French plans in 1759 with sea victories at the Battle of Lagos and the daring Battle of Quiberon Bay

As the European powers fought themselves to a standstill, Britain made great gains overseas, capturing the bulk of French territories in North America, taking Florida from the Spanish, securing Caribbean islands in the West Indies, Senegal on the West African coast, and establishing superiority over the French trading outposts on the Indian subcontinent.

France, by contrast, had lost many of its overseas colonies and failed to make territorial gains in Europe. Hamstrung with huge war debts, the country lost its long-held status as one of Europe's leading powers - something it would not regain until after the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon.

Britain, with its mighty Royal Navy, was beginning a new era as the word’s principal power. 


Do you share our passion for Britain's maritime past?

Join our four-day Hearts of Oak small-group history holiday to take an illuminating look at the birth of Britain's naval age.

You'll be led by Andrew Lambert, one of our country's foremost authorities on Britain's maritime history, to visit the shipyards where the British navy was built and the setting where our seafaring plans were sunk for a generation. 
See the tour details

Picture credit: The Battle for Quiberon Bay, Nicholas Pocock, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons