When visiting a country for the first time, it is always interesting to find out about the culture and customs of that country. Furthermore, it is often fascinating to learn about the historical events that helped to shape each country’s modern-day identity. Planning your visit to Britain is no different!
However, we cannot provide a detailed account of thousands of years of history in one article! Instead, our objective is to cover the defining points in Britain’s history that have shaped the country that it is today. We will also provide some links for further reading!
Britain – The Island Nation
Britain is an island that today includes England, Scotland and Wales. The island was inhabited by humans for the first time around 30,000 years ago and was connected to mainland Europe as little as 8,000 years ago. Today, the mainland is the world’s third-most populated island after Java (Indonesia) and Honshu (Japan).
To properly explain the geographical boundaries that make up modern-day Britain, we have to go back in time and look at the various kingdoms and petty kingdoms that once combined to form what is now referred to as England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland.
The Roman Era
Before the first Roman conquest of Britain, the mainland was inhabited by a large number of tribes mostly of Celtic origin, collectively known as Britons. The name Britain originates from the Common Brittonic term Pritanī (sounding similar to Britani) and is one of the oldest known names for Britain. The terms Briton and British, derived from the same name, refer to the island’s inhabitants.
Before Christianity spread across Europe in the 1st Century AD, Britain had its own set of religious icons including Pagan gods of the earth and Roman gods of the sky. The story of Jesus began circulating with the arrival of Roman traders in the early years after Christ’s resurrection.
The Romans first invaded England in AD 43 and eventually occupied all of modern-day England, Wales and parts of Scotland. They called their new territory Britannia. Roman rule in Britain lasted for nearly 400 years and it drastically changed not just the religious outlook of many Britons but also warfare, crop cultivation and the layout of towns and settlements. Many Roman landmarks in Britain still remain including the Roman Baths in Bath and Hadrian’s Wall.
The Post Roman Era
After the Romans left Britain (between 388 and 400 AD), the lands of modern-day Britain were ravaged by conflict. Britain was carved up into various kingdoms, petty kingdoms and fiefdoms. The fortunes of each kingdom fluctuated over time, as some kingdoms took power over others. Some of the smaller kingdoms were annexed by their larger rivals and others fell to foreign invaders.
There were many incursions by the Jutes from Denmark and the Angles and Saxons from Germany. The Irish Scotti also invaded parts of North West Scotland. However, it wasn’t until the Viking invasions in the 9th and 10th centuries that large parts of Britain became united to face the threat of the invading armies from Scandinavia.
England’s seven kingdoms were united into four and then one (the Kingdom of England) by King Æthelstan in 927 AD. Similarly, the Picts and the Scotti’s in Scotland were forced to end their historic hostility and unite to fight the Danes.
However, the invasion by William the Conquerer in 1066 initiated a period of Norman influence that lasted for several centuries. The Normans went on to invade and control all of Wales and most of Ireland and Scotland too. Many of the castles that William built during his reign remain today including the central keep in the Tower of London and the White Tower.
The Anglo-French War (1202-1214) watered down the Norman influence though as English born Normans became English and French-born Normans became French. Norman influence in England continued however and Wales fell under formal Anglo-Norman control in 1282.
There followed many years of unrest between the ruling houses of England and Scotland. This resulted in the Scottish Wars Of Independence in the 13th and 14th centuries where England and Scotland fought for control of Scotland. Scotland’s ultimate victory confirmed Scotland as a fully independent and sovereign kingdom.
As an island, Britain has had a long tradition of international trade by sea. Its long coastline and isolated location eventually led it to become the world’s principal sea power. Although trade routes were established long before the 1400s, Britain’s emerging expertise as a sea-faring nation led to the discovery of North America in 1497 by John Cabot aboard his ship the ‘Matthew’. You can visit an exact replica of the Matthew today in Bristol.
King Henry III
In 1536, the English King, Henry VIII, re-conquered Ireland and brought it under English control. In 1541, Henry was proclaimed ‘King of Ireland’ at a meeting of the Irish Parliament. In the following year (1542) King Henry VIII (himself of Welsh descent), passed the ‘Laws in Wales Acts’ with the objective of fully incorporating Wales into the Kingdom of England.
King Henry III was also famous for breaking away from Rome and the Catholic Church in 1534 and established himself as the Supreme Head on earth of the Church of England. This initiated a sometimes brutal period of religious reformation in Britain which led to the creation of the Church of England.
In the late 1500s, Britain extended its reputation as a seafaring nation after Sir Francis Drake became the first person to circumnavigate the world in a single expedition from 1577 to 1580 Onboard his galleon the Golden Hind. An exact replica of the Golden Hinde is now moored in London.
The Kingdom Of Great Britain
In 1603, the Stuart King of Scotland, King James VI inherited the throne of England. Despite the English Civil War (1642–1651) which removed a monarch’s right to govern without Parliament’s consent, the Stuart kings and queens who descended from Scotland ruled both the independent kingdoms of Scotland and England until the Acts of Union in 1707.
The Acts of Union merged the two kingdoms of Scotland and England into a new state, the Kingdom of Great Britain. Under England’s authority, Wales became part of the Kingdom of Great Britain in 1707 and then the United Kingdom in 1801.
With the defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, Britain confirmed its status as the principal naval and imperial power of the 19th century. Despite the loss of British North America (later the United Sates of America) after the American War of Independence (1775–1783), the British Empire continued to grow until after the First World War.
The First World War
At the start of the First World War in 1914, the British Empire’s territory accounted for a quarter (24%) of the Earth’s landmass and was home to over 412 million people which represented 23% of the world population. Arguably, the start of the first world war marked the peak of Britain’s world dominance.
By the start of the 20th century though, both Germany and the United States of America (a former British colony) had grown rapidly and started to challenge Britain’s economic prowess. However, the First World War placed huge strains on Britain’s economy as it had to fund its war with Germany whilst at the same time managing the huge financial burden of maintaining its vast empire across multiple continents.
The loss of nearly 35,000 Irish troops in WWI kick-started a new separatist movement in Ireland. Most of Ireland gained independence from Britain following the Anglo-Irish War of 1919 to 1921 and Ireland became a fully independent republic following the passage of the Republic of Ireland Act in 1949. The largely protestant Northern Ireland still remains part of the United Kingdom, however.
The Second World War
The Great Economic Depression of 1926 had an immense impact on Britain’s human, financial and military resources. The financial impact of having to re-arm to counter the Nazi threat in the 1930s whilst also having to maintain its colonial outposts only served to further weaken Britain’s financial standing.
The reliance on troops from countries within the Empire to fight the Axis forces in World War Two (WW2), especially from within India, sparked many populist movements for independence. The financial cost of two world wars and the ongoing burden of managing an empire lead to a change in British politics to focus much more on domestic policy.
In the post-war WW2 years, a gradual policy of decolonisation and self-governance was introduced. In April 1949, following the London Declaration, the word “British” was dropped from the title of the Commonwealth to reflect its changing nature.
Today, the Commonwealth is an association of 54 independent countries that work together to promote both trade and other shared interests. The Commonwealth is made up of 2.4 billion people which represents roughly one-third of the global population.
Queen Elizabeth II remains as head of state in sixteen Commonwealth countries including the UK. These include Canada, Australia and New Zealand as well as numerous nations in the Caribbean and Indian ocean.
These include Papua New Guinea, Belize, The Solomon Islands, Jamaica, Barbados, The Bahamas, Grenada, Saint Lucia, Antigua and Barbuda, St Kitts and Nevis and St Vincent and the Grenadines.
Britain has had an immense impact on the world. The British legal system and parliamentary model underpins the democracies of countries from America to Australia. The English language is spoken as a de-facto official language in 60 countries around the world (31% of the total number). English remains as the official language of the sea and of the air too.