Europe’s Aristocracy, Land Ownership, and Early Colonialism: A Historical Overview

Europe’s Aristocracy, Land Ownership, and Early Colonialism: A Historical Overview


This text provides an overview of the treatment of Europe’s aristocracy during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, focusing on their ownership of land and the early colonialism that emerged during this period. It discusses the various ways in which aristocrats were treated, from being rewarded for their military service to losing their titles and estates after the English Civil War. It also examines the transfer of domain land that occurred during the Protestant Reformation and how this benefited the secular nobility. Additionally, it delves into the emergence of early colonialism, exploring how different European powers justified their claims to land in the New World and the impact this expansion had on the continent’s concepts of identity and belonging.

Table of Contents

  • The Treatment of Europe’s Aristocracy
  • Land Ownership and Domain Land Transfers
  • The Emergence of Early Colonialism
  • Challenging the Legitimacy of Colonial Rule
  • Impact on Europe’s Concepts of Identity and Belonging


What was the general treatment of Europe’s aristocracy during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries?

Throughout these centuries, most aristocrats were treated leniently by those in charge of the state. They were rewarded for their loyal service to the monarch, particularly through military enterprising, and given titles, estates, and revenues. However, this treatment varied by country and by individual. In England, for example, the aristocracy lost their titles, feudal dues, and the majority of their estates and revenues after the English Civil War in the mid-seventeenth century.

How did the transfer of domain land benefit the nobility?

The middle ranks of the nobility grew during this time because they were able to manage their principal asset, land, through direct exploitation or farming out. They wanted to acquire more land, and an unprecedented market in domain land allowed them to do so. Princely rulers sold off crown lands to finance the competitive expansion of their states, while confiscations and sales of property also occurred. Despite legal entanglements, the transfer of domain land was a common occurrence during the Protestant Reformation in Germany, the Low Countries, and England, where states took over monastic properties and sold them off.

How did the Tudor state use an unsuccessful rebellion as a pretext to extend English law of individual property rights?

In Ireland, the Tudor state used an unsuccessful rebellion as a pretext to extend English law of individual property rights, confiscating Irish lord’s hereditary rights in the process. This laid the foundation for English colonialism in Ireland and justified under the notion it was civilizing the Irish. The Stuart monarchy was also convinced of the value of plantation, leading to further confiscation and resettlement by English and Scottish planters in Ulster.

How did early colonialism impact Europe’s concept of identity and belonging?

The emergence of Christendom resulted in outsiders becoming synonymous with ‘pagans’ and questioning what it meant to ‘belong’ to Europe at the moment of the continent’s first age of overseas expansion. Europe’s early colonialists upheld Christendom’s universalist ideals. Papal and imperial legitimations for ‘world empire’ became increasingly irrelevant as Europe’s colonizers expanded. Each royal objective of religion, profit, and conquest was contested and open to rival interpretations. Geographical expansion created an awareness of different cultures and states with sophisticated values and religious systems.

How did different European powers justify their claims to land in the New World?

Spanish rule over native Americans was questioned. The Spanish crown required Conquistadors to read out a document known as the ‘Requirement’ before acknowledging the subjection of the indigenous people. French colonizers marked the voluntary subjection of natives to their rule through Catholic benediction rituals. The Portuguese notion of possession reflected the maritime and coastal nature of their claims to dominion. Dutch colonists were scrupulous about defining the precise latitude and contours of what they laid claim to and sustained legitimacy through regular trade, occupation, and investment.


Europe’s concepts of aristocracy, land ownership, and identity were all challenged and transformed during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The transfer of domain land benefited the secular nobility, allowing for greater expansion and wealth, while the emergence of early colonialism created a new awareness of different cultures and states. As Europe’s colonizers expanded their reach, they were forced to question their own ideals and justifications, leading to a shifting sense of identity and belonging for the continent as a whole.

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