A Short History of The United KingdomThe United Kingdom, also known as Britain or the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, is a European region with a long and storied history. The first modern humans (Homo sapiens) arrived in the region during the Ice Age (about 35,000 to 10,000 years ago), when the sea levels were lower and Britain was connected to the European mainland. It is these people who built the ancient megalithic monuments of Stonehenge and Avebury.
Between 1,500 and 500 BCE, Celtic tribes migrated from Central Europe and France to Britain and mixed with the indigenous inhabitants, creating a new culture slightly distinct from the Continental Celtic one. This came to be known as the Bronze Age.
The Romans controlled most of present-day England and Wales, and founded a large number of cities that still exist today. London, York, St Albans, Bath, Exeter, Lincoln, Leicester, Worcester, Gloucester, Chichester, Winchester, Colchester, Manchester, Chester, and Lancaster were all Roman towns, as were all the cities with names now ending in -chester, -cester or -caster, which derive from the Latin word castrum, meaning "fortification.”
History of the United Kingdom: The Anglo-Saxons
In the 5 century, the Romans progressively abandoned Britannia, as their Empire was falling apart and legions were needed to protect Rome.
With the Romans vacated, the Celtic tribes started warring with each other again, and one of the local chieftains had the (not so smart) idea to request help from some of the Germanic tribes from the North of present-day Germany and South of Denmark. These were the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, who arrived in the 5th and 6th centuries.
When the fighting ceased, the Germanic tribes did not, as expected by the Celts, return to their homeland. In fact, they felt strong enough to seize the whole of the country for themselves, which they ultimately did, pushing back all the Celtic tribes to Wales and Cornwall, and founding their respective kingdoms of Kent (the Jutes), Essex, Sussex and Wessex (the Saxons), and further northeast, the kingdoms of Anglia, Mercia and Northumbria (the Angles). These 7 kingdoms, which ruled over the United Kingdom from about 500 to 850 AD, were later known as the Anglo-Saxon heptarchy.
History of the United Kingdom: The Vikings
In the latter half of the 9 century, the Norse people from Scandinavia began to invade Europe, with the Swedes putting down roots in Eastern Europe and the Danes creating problems throughout Western Europe, as far as North Africa.
Towards the dawn of the 10 century, the Danes invaded the Northeast of England, from Northumerland to East Anglia, and founded a new kingdom known as the Danelaw. Another group of Danes managed to take Paris, and obtain a grant of land from the King of France in 911. This area became the Duchy of Normandy, and its inhabitants were the Normans (from 'North Men' or 'Norsemen', another term for 'Viking').
History of the United Kingdom: The Normans
During that same period, the Kings of Wessex had resisted, and eventually vanquished the Danes in England in the 10th century. However, the powerful Canute the Great (995-1035), king of the newly unified Denmark and Norway and overlord of Schleswig and Pomerania, led two other invasions on England in 1013 and 1015, and became king of England in 1016, after crushing the Anglo-Saxon King, Edmund II.
During the 11 century, the Norman King Edward the Confessor (1004-1066) nominated William, Duke of Normandy, as his successor, but upon Edward’s death, Harold Godwinson, the powerful Earl of Wessex, crowned himself king. William refused to acknowledge Harold as King and invaded England with 12,000 soldiers in 1066. King Harold was killed at the battle of Hastings and William the Conqueror become William I of England.
The Norman rulers kept their possessions in France, and even extended them to most of Western France (Brittany, Aquitaine...). French became the official language of England, and remained that way until 1362, a short time after the beginning of the Hundred Years' War with France. English nevertheless remained the language of the populace, and the fusion of English (a mixture of Anglo-Saxon and Norse languages) with French and Latin (used by the clergy) slowly evolved into the modern English we know today.
History of the United Kingdom: 12 and 13 Centuries
The English royals that followed William I had the infamous habit to contend for the throne. William's son, William II was killed while hunting, although it is widely believed that he was in fact murdered so that William's second son, Henry, could become king. Henry I's succession was also fraught with agitation, with his daughter Matilda and her cousin Stephen (grandson of William I) starting a civil war for the throne. Although Stephen eventually won, it was ultimately Matilda's son that succeeded to the throne, becoming Henry II (1133-1189). It is under Henry II that the University of Oxford was established.
The two children of Henry II—Richard I "Lionhearted" and John Lackland—also battled for the throne. The oldest son, Richard, eventually succeeded to the throne, but because he was rarely in England, and instead off defending his French possessions or fighting the infidels in the Holy Land, his brother John Lackland usurped the throne and started another civil war.
John's grandson, Edward I "Longshanks" (1239-1307) spent most of his 35-year reign fighting wars, including one against the Scots, led by William Wallace and Robert the Bruce. With the help of these men, the Scots were able to resist, as immortalized in the Hollywood movie Braveheart.
History of the United Kingdom: 14 and 15 Centuries
After a brief rule by Edward Longshanks son, his grandson, Edward III (1312-1377), succeeded to the throne at the age of 15 and reigned for 50 years. His reign was marked by the beginning of the Hundred Years' War (1337-1416) and deadly epidemics of bubonic plague ("Black Death"), which killed one third of England’s (and Europe's) population.
Edward III was often off fighting in France, leaving his third son, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, to run the government. Later, John’s son, Henry Bolingbroke, would be proclaimed King Henry IV (1367-1413).
Henry V (1387-1422) famously defeated the French at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, but his pious and peace-loving son Henry VI (1421-1471), who inherited the throne at age one, was to have a much more troubled reign. The regent lost most of England’s possessions in France to a 17-year old girl (Joan of Arc) and in 1455 the Wars of the Roses broke out. This civil war opposed the House of Lancaster (the Red Rose, supporters of Henry VI) to the House of York (the White Rose, supporters of Edward IV). The Yorks argued that the crown should have passed to Edward III' second son, Lionel of Antwerp, rather than to the Lancaster descendant of John of Gaunt.
Edward IV's son, Edward V, only reigned for one year, before being locked in the Tower of London by his evil uncle, Richard III (1452-1485). In 1485, Henry Tudor (1457-1509), the half-brother of Henry VI, defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field and became Henry VII, founder of the House of Tudor.
Following Henry (Tudor) VII to the throne was perhaps England’s most famous and historically significant ruler, the magnificent Henry VIII (1491-1547).
History of the United Kingdom: 16 Century
Henry VIII is remembered in history as one of the most powerful kings of England. He changed the face of England, passing the Acts of Union with Wales (1536-1543), and became the first ruler to declare himself king of both Wales and Ireland.
In 1533, Henry VIII divorced Catherine of Aragon to remarry Anne Boleyn, causing the Pope to excommunicate him from the church. As a result, Henry proclaimed himself head of the Church of England. He dissolved all the monasteries in the country (1536-1540) and nationalized them, becoming immensely rich in the process.
Henry VIII was the last English king to claim the title of King of France, as he lost his last possession there, the port of Calais (although he tried to recover it, taking Tournai for a few years, the only town in present-day Belgium to have been under English rule).
It was also under Henry VIII that England started exploring the globe and trading outside Europe, although this would only develop to colonial proportions under his daughters, Mary I and especially Elizabeth I.
Upon the death of Henry VIII, his 10-year old son, Edward VI, inherited the throne. Six years later, however, Edward VI died and was succeeded by Henry’s elder half-daughter Mary. Mary I (1516-1558), a staunch Catholic, intended to restore Roman Catholicism to England, executing over 300 religious dissenters in her 5-year reign (which owned her the nickname of Bloody Mary). She married the powerful King Philip II of Spain, who also ruled over the Netherlands, the Spanish Americas and the Philippines (named after him), and was the champion of the Counterreformation. Mary died childless of ovarian cancer in 1558, and her half-sister Elizabeth ascended to the throne.
The great Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) saw the first golden age of England. It was an age of great navigators like Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh, and an age of enlightenment with the philosopher Francis Bacon (1561-1626), and playwrights such as Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) and William Shakespeare (1564-1616).
Her reign was also marked by conflicts with France and Scotland, and later Spain and Ireland. She never married, and when Mary Stuart tried and failed to take over the throne of England, Elizabeth kept her imprisoned for 19 years before finally signing her act of execution.
Elizabeth died in 1603, and ironically, Mary Stuart's son, James VI of Scotland, succeeded Elizabeth as King James I of England—thus creating the United Kingdom.
History of the United Kingdom: 17 Century
James I (1566-1625), a Protestant, aimed at improving relations with the Catholic Church. But 2 years after he was crowned, a group of Catholic extremists, led by Guy Fawkes, attempted to place a bomb at the parliament's state opening, hoping to eliminate all the Protestant aristocracy in one fell swoop. However, the conspirators were betrayed by one of their own just hours before the plan's enactment. The failure of the Gunpowder Plot, as it is known, is still celebrated throughout Britain on Guy Fawkes' night (5th November), with fireworks and bonfires burning effigies of the conspirators' leader.
After this incident, the divide between Catholics and Protestant worsened. James's successor Charles I (1600-1649) was eager to unify Britain and Ireland. His policies, however, were unpopular among the populace, and his totalitarian handling of the Parliament eventually culminated in the English Civil War (1642-1651).
Charles was beheaded, and the puritan Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) ruled the country as a dictator from 1649 to his death. He was briefly succeeded by his son Richard at the head of the Protectorate, but his political inability prompted the Parliament to restore the monarchy in 1660, calling in Charles I' exiled son, Charles II (1630-1685).
Charles II, known as the “Merry Monarch,” was much more adept than his father at handling Parliament, although every bit as ruthless with other matters. During his reign, the Whig and Tory parties were created, and the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam became English and was renamed New York, after Charles' brother, James, Duke of York (and later James II).
Charles II was the patron of the arts and science, helping to found the Royal Society and sponsoring some of England’s proudest architecture. Charles also acquired Bombay and Tangiers through his Portuguese wife, thus laying the foundation for the British Empire.
Although Charles produced countless illegitimate children, his wife couldn't bear an heir, and when he died in 1685 the throne passed to his Catholic and unpopular brother James.
James II's unpopularity led to his quick removal from power in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. He was succeeded by his Protestant daughter Mary, who was married to his equally Protestant nephew, William of Orange.
The new ruling couple became known as the "Grand Alliance," and parliament ratified a bill stating that all kings or queens would have to be Protestant from that point forward. After Mary's death in 1694, and then William's in 1702, James's second daughter, Anne, ascended to the throne. In 1707, the Act of Union joined the Scottish and the English Parliaments thus creating the single Kingdom of Great Britain and centralizing political power in London. Anne died heirless in 1714, and a distant German cousin, George of Hanover, was called to rule over the UK.
History of the United Kingdom: 18 Century and the House of Hanover
When George I (1660-1727) arrived in England, he couldn't speak a word of English. The king's inability to communicate well with his government and subjects led him to appoint a de facto Prime Minister in the person of Robert Walpole (1676-1745). This marked a turning point in British politics, as future monarchs were also to remain more passive figures, lending the reins of the government to the Prime Minister.
George II (1683-1760) was also German born. He was a powerful ruler, and the last British monarch to personally lead his troops into battle. The British Empire expanded considerably during his reign; a reign that saw notable changes, including the replacement of the Julian Calendar by the Gregorian Calendar in 1752, and moving the date of the New Year from March 25 to January 1.
George III was the first Hanoverian king to be born in England. He had one of the most troubled and interesting reigns in British history. He ascended to the throne during the Seven Years' War (1756-1763) opposing almost all the major Western powers in two teams, chiefly British against French, and ended in a de facto victory for the UK, which acquired New France (Quebec), Florida, and most of French India in the process.
Thirteen years later, the American War of Independence (1776-1782) broke out and in 1782 13 American colonies were finally granted their independence, forming the United States of America. Seven years later, the French Revolution broke out, and Louis XVI was guillotined. George III suffered from a hereditary disease known as porphyria, and his mental health seriously deteriorated from 1788. In 1800, the Act of Union merged the Kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland.
The United Kingdom during this time also had to face the ambitions of Napoleon, who desired to conquer the whole of Europe. Admiral Nelson's naval victory at Traflagar in 1805, along with Wellington's decisive victory at Waterloo, saved the UK and further reinforced its international position. The 19th century would be dominated by the British Empire, spreading on all five continents, from Canada and the Caribbean to Australia and New Zealand, via Africa, India and South-East Asia.
History of the United Kingdom: 19 Century
In 1837, then king William IV died of liver disease and the throne passed to the next in line, his 18-year old niece Victoria (1819-1901), although she did not inherit the Kingdom of Hanover, where the Salic Law forbid women to rule.
Victoria didn't expect to become queen, and being unmarried and inexperienced in politics she had to rely on her Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne (1779-1848). She finally got married to her first cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (1819-1861), and both were respectively niece and nephew of the first King of the Belgians, Leopold I (of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha).
Britain asserted its domination on virtually every part of the globe during the 19 century, resulting in a number of wars, including the Opium Wars (1839-42 & 1856-60) with Qing China and the Boer Wars (1880-81 & 1899-1902) with the Dutch-speaking settlers of South Africa. In 1854, the United Kingdom was brought into the Crimean War (1854-56) on the side of the Ottoman Empire and against Russia. One of the best known figures of that war was Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), who fought for the improvement of women's conditions and pioneered modern nursing.
The latter years of Victoria’s reign were dominated by two influential Prime Ministers, Benjamin Disraeli (1808-1881) and his rival William Ewart Gladstone (1809-1898). The former was the favorite of the Queen, while Gladstone, a liberal, was often at odds with both Victoria and Disraeli. However, the strong party support for Gladstone kept him in power for a total of 14 years between 1868 and 1894. He is credited with legalizing trade unions, and advocating for both universal education and suffrage.
Queen Victoria was to have the longest reign of any British monarch (64 years), but also the most glorious, as she ruled over 40% of the globe and a quarter of the world's population.
History of the United Kingdom: 20 Century (Two World Wars)
Victoria's numerous children married into many different European Royal families, The alliances between these related monarchs escalated into the Great War –WWI—from 1914-1918. It began when Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated in Sarajevo, and Austria declared war on Serbia, which in turn was allied to France, Russia and the UK. The First World War left over 9 million dead (including nearly 1 million Britons) throughout Europe, and financially ruined most of the countries involved. The monarchies in Germany, Austria, Russia and the Ottoman Empire all fell, and the map of central and Eastern Europe was completely redesigned.
After World War I, the Labor Party was created in Britain. The General Strike of 1926 and the worsening economy led to radical political changes, including one in which women were finally granted the same universal suffrage as men in 1928.
In 1936, Edward VIII (1894-1972) succeeded to the throne, but abdicated the same year to marry Wallis Simpson, a twice divorced American woman. His brother then unexpectedly became George VI (1895-1952) after the scandal.
Nazi Germany was becoming more menacing as Hitler grew more powerful and aggressive. Finally, Britain and France were forced to declare war on Germany after the invasion of Poland in September 1939, marking the beginning of World War II. The popular and charismatic Winston Churchill (1874-1965) became the war-time Prime Minister in 1940 and his speeches encouraged the British to fight off the attempted German invasion. In one of his most patriotic speeches before the Battle of Britain (1940), Churchill address the British people with "We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender." And indeed, Britain did not surrender.
Following World War II, the United Kingdom was bankrupt and in ruins. The British Empire was dismantled little by little, first granting independence to India and Pakistan in 1947, then to the other Asian, African and Caribbean colonies in the 1950's and 60's. Most of these ex-colonies formed the British Commonwealth, now known as the Commonwealth of Nations. 53 states are now members of the Commonwealth, accounting for 1.8 billion people (about 30% of the global population) and about 25% of the world's land area.
In 1952, the current queen of England, Elizabeth II, ascended to the throne at the age of 26. The 1960s saw the dawn of pop and rock music, with bands like the Beatles, Pink Floyd, and the Rolling Stones rising to prominence, and the Hippie subculture developing.
The 1970's brought the oil crisis and the collapse of British industry. Conservative Prime minister Margaret Thatcher (b. 1925) was elected in 1979 and served until 1990. Among other accomplishments, she privatized the railways and shut down inefficient factories, but she also increased the gap between the rich and the poor by scaling back social security. Her methods were so harsh that she was nicknamed the “Iron Lady.”
Thatcher was succeeded in her party by the unpopular John Major, but in 1997, the "New Labor" party came back to power with the appointment of Tony Blair (b. 1953). Blair's liberal policies and unwavering support for neo-conservative US President George W. Bush (especially regarding the invasion of Iraq in 2003) disappointed many Leftists, who really saw in Blair but a Rightist in disguise. Regardless, Blair has impressed many dissenters with his intelligence and remarkable skills as an orator and negotiator.
Today, the English economy relies heavily on services and, like the rest of the world, is in the process of beginning to rebuild after the global economic recession of 2008. The main industries in the country are travel, education, prestigious automobiles and tourism.