The modern Commonwealth of course has its roots in the former British Empire and many stamps have been issued over the years which can be used to tell the history of these two institutions. English imperial aspirations go back much further than Victorian times however as what we may call The First English Empire dates back to the reign of King Henry II, the English king from 1154 to 1189. After years of civil war between his mother, Mathilda, and Stephen of Blois, Henry came to power following an agreement by both sides that he should succeed to the throne when Stephen died. He had inherited Normandy from his mother (she had done so by descent from William The Conqueror who had first united the throne of England with The Duchy of Normandy by conquest in 1066) and Maine and Anjou from his father as well as Aquitaine from his wife, Eleanor. In all he ruled not only England but more of France than the French king - what is known as The Angevin Empire.
In addition to all this he extended his empire to Ireland by responding to a call from King Diarmait Mac Murchada of Leinster to help to restore him to his lands from which he had been driven by the High King of Ireland and following the successful outcome of the campaign to restore Diarmait, Henry proclaimed himself Lord Of Ireland in 1171 hence beginning 800 years of English overlordship of the island for the next 800 years. So early in history, the King Of England was the leader of a large Empire which would lead to centuries of intermittent conflict with the French and Irish.
From the point of view of this first English Empire, the reign of Henry's son, the notorious King John, proved to be disastrous. John's brother, Geoffrey, brought Brittany to the Angevin inheritance by marriage but John attempted to seize Anjou, Maine and Brittany from Arthur, Geoffrey's heir, and eventually imprisoned the young man and murdered him. Philip Augustus, the French king, eventually confiscated all John's lands in France except Gascony and when John died, the first English Empire was a shadow of its former self.
Edward III (1327 - 1377) resumed action against the French in an attempt to salvage the English possessions in France. Territories lost by John in the meantime had been restored to the English monarchs but in 1337 the French king, Philip VI, confiscated the Duchy of Aquitaine and the County of Ponthieu. Edward staked a claim to the French throne as the only living male descendant of Philip IV, his deceased maternal grandfather, but the French invoked the Salic law of succession and Philip VI came to the throne. Edward's aggressive response led to the start of the Hundred Year's War and in 1346 invaded Normandy. Calais was captured the following year and in subsequent years Edward gained a considerable number of possessions which he secured in full sovereignty by the Treaty of Bretigny in 1360 although he renounced his claims to the French throne. The war was begun again in 1369 but the outcome was less satisfactory for the English and by the Treaty of Bruges of 1375, English possessions were reduced to the coastal towns of Calais, Bordeaux and Bayonne.
The Hundred Years War was resumed by Henry V in 1415 and early successes in Normandy restored the territory to England and Henry's forces captured Paris in 1419. Henry was acknowledged as successor to the mad French king, Charles VI, by the Treaty of Troyes of 1420 but died before he could take the throne but his son Henry VI was eventually crowned king of France at Notre Dame de Paris on 16 December 1431 while the French supported Charles VII of Valois and opposed the English. The French campaign was in the doldrums until Charles followed Joan Of Arc, a young woman who was experiencing hallucinations, in stepping up the campaign against the English and the weak leadership of Henry VI finally led to the end of the Hundred Year's War and the English Empire in France reduced to the port of Calais.
Calais was finally lost during the reign of Mary Tudor who had married the Spaniard Philip IV and who had managed to get Mary to send English troops to fight on the side of the Spanish in a war against France. The outcome was disastrous and Calais was lost finally on 13 January 1558. The First English Empire was ended but already the English were looking to the New World - Mary I's grandfather, Henry VII, had sent John Cabot across the Atlantic and he had discovered Newfoundland.
The illustrated stamps are from a set of "English Monarchs" and were issued by Barbuda from 1970 to 1971 and depict William I (Duke Of Normandy and King of England), Henry I, John, Edward III, Henry V, Henry VI and Mary I as well as two French stamps which depict Joan Of Arc, issued 1968, and the last English possession in France, the port of Calais.