The United Kingdom

England is red; Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland (Ulster) are pink.


The area shown in the map has a confusing variety of names, which have evolved to meet changing political needs. England is in red on the adjoining map. Britain (then called Prydain) is an early Celtic label still used to define the large island (including Wales and Scotland, which are in the contiguous pink). The Romans called the island Britannia. The early Celtic inhabitants were called Britons. Great Britain was later coined to define the political unity created with the 1707 Act of Union with Scotland. The British Isles are Britain and all the small islands. The United Kingdom (UK) is the short title, which defines the pink and red bits in the map. The UK is therefore Great Britain plus (Ulster) Ireland. Some scholars note that these labels just define parts of an English Empire.

Humans settled in England long before the islands broke away from the continent of Europe by forming what is now known as the English Channel. The Channel protected the islands, and kept Britain out of much of the warfare in mediaeval Europe. England's peculiar character as part of an island nation came about through its very isolation. As islanders, the English became sailors and fishermen, and their leaders conceived the defensive value of a navy.

Britain was split off from Europe by tectonic plate-shift c15,000 BC, which carried away some hunters and animals, Additional stone Age immigrants arrived c4000 BC and farmed on Salisbury Plain, building the stone circles at Stonehenge and Avebury. They were followed by an invasion by the Bronze Age Celts from Central Europe who arrived by c700 BC, bringing the Gaelic and Brythonic languages still spoken in Scotland and Wales. Celtic geographical names are found across England, increasing in numbers towards the West: evidently new Germanic names came into use in the East in areas such as East Anglia, Sussex, and Wessex.

Britain did not evolve into the separate nations of Wales, Scotland and England until after the successful Roman invasions and occupation had been replaced by the German invasions of the Anglen, Sachsen, and Juten. In turn the evolution towards England by the Angles and Saxons was tempered by the Vikings' Danish and Nordic invasions. More recently, the Normans invaded England and added new cultures, languages, and traditions. England was shaped by all these successive invasions; and the evidence is in the development of the English language, place-names, uncovered burial practices, and archeological discoveries.

The Invasions

Before Julius Caesar's temporary invasions in 55 and 54 BC, the Phoenicians, Carthaginians and Greeks all visited England to mine tin. Claudius, invaded nearly one hundred years after Caesar's in AD43. These later Romans quickly took most of England, and began to mold Britain into a wealthy Roman province. By c400, when Rome left Britain, Roman civilisation had been assimilated in much of England. The Picts never did submit to the Romans at any time, and Roman walls were built across Northern Britain to ward off their attacks on the settled Roman province. Roman towns were built in England, swamps were drained for farming, great roads were constructed, and Christianity was introduced.

By c400, Rome itself was under severe attack and the legions were withdrawn from Britain to protect the Roman homeland. Britons who had been protected by the Romans were then unable to defend the island from the increasing Germanic invasions, which followed the Roman withdrawal. With the legions departure old enemies again began their onslaughts on the native Britons. These were the Picts and Scots to the north and west (the Scots from Ireland had not yet made their homes in what was to become later known as Scotland); and the Saxons, Angles, and Jutes to the south and east. The leading British king, Vortigern, decided to invite the Germanic Jutes to act as mercenaries and defend Britain against further invasions. Of course the plan backfired and the Jutes soon settled in Kent and further invited in the Angles and Saxons. Tribes including the pagan Angles, Jutes and Saxons began to move into the vacuum, killing, or absorbing the Celts, and local fiefdoms developed as these people came to think of themselves as being Angeln/Angelish/English. The English of today have strains of all these peoples.

The Angles and Saxons divided the conquered territory, into the seven small kingdoms known as the Heptarchy. By 827 Egbert, King of Wessex, had made himself king of England. Some historians date the start of the kingdom of England (Angle-land) from Egbert, whose Saxon descendants ruled England, except for a short Viking period of Danish power, until 1066. With the Angle and the Saxon settlement, much of the earlier Roman civilisation was lost, and later Scandinavian paganism replaced Christianity. By the sixth century, however, Christianity had been reintroduced by Saint Augustine and his successors.

By the mid-9th century, Vikings had invaded northern Scotland, Cumbria and Lancashire and the Danes were making inroads into eastern England. By 871, only Wessex (the half-Saxon, half-Celtic country south of the Thames) was under English control. At this low point, the English managed to neutralise the Vikings' military superiority and began a process of assimilation. However, the Danes had been constantly harassing the coast and had also seized land. In 871, when Alfred the Great was king of Wessex, the Danes almost controlled England. Alfred reduced their power, confined them to east of the country, paid them an annual ransom called the 'Dane geld', and forced them to do him homage. Alfred's successors still had to contend with the Danes, who tried to increase their power. Among the chief political characteristics of the Saxon rule in England was the growth of the king's power. A really strong king might often set aside the peoples' voice in the Witan and rule almost absolutely.

By 1013 the Danes under King Sweyn had made themselves masters of the greater part of England, and Sweyn's son King Cnut, who succeeded him in 1016, firmly established Danish rule in England. Harald and Harthacnut succeeded Cnut, but in 1042 the Saxon King Edward the Confessor recovered the kingdom. Edward died childless in 1066 and despite agreements with his cousin the Norman Duke William, the powerful Saxon Earl of Wessex, Harold Godwinesson was chosen as king in January 1066. William The Conqueror invaded England to sieze the crown in September 1066 and defeated Harold in the Battle of Hastings on 14 October. Although William was crowned in London on Christmas day it took the Normans decades before the whole island submitted. The Normans built impressive castles to secure their power, imposed a feudal system, imposed a census and, began to assimilate the Saxons.

Continental Interests

At William's death in 1087 his second son came to the throne as William II, followed by his younger brother Henry I in 1100. Exceptionally, Henry was educated and known as Beauclerc, but his reign was troubled by the passed-over eldest brother Robert, Duke of Normandy. As the Conqueror's eldest son Robert naturally he wanted the throne. He had been set aside deliberately because of his instability and Henry I was able to retain his hold on England and even to gain possession of Normandy. Henry chose as his successor his own daughter Matilda, wife of both the German Emperor Heinrich V, and then Geoffroi Plantagenet, Count of Anjou. But Stephen, a grandson of William The Conqueror, raised an army in Normandy and took the throne by force. After years of civil war it was agreed that Stephen should reign until his death, and that he should accept as his successor Henry, the son of the Empress Matilda. In 1154, Henry, the first of the Plantagenets, came to the throne as Henry II.

Henry II was one of the strongest English kings who put down those great barons who had bullied the country during Stephen's civil war; and Henry then established a stable empire and government. One of the significant events of his reign was his struggle for power with the Church he was forced to submit to the Pope after the murder of Thomas à Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury. The Roman church had a large income from English churches and the issue of authority was not academic. In the event, English kings would begrudge Roman control until Henry VIII finally broke with Rome and formed his own church. Henry married Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine, and with Normandy, Brittany, Anjou, and other Plantagenet possessions actually controlled more land in France than in England - and more of France than the French Louis VII! Henry spent little of his time in England and his son, Richard I (1189-1199), who succeeded him, was in England for only a total of one year during his entire reign. In Richard's long absence the nobility succeeded in increasing their power at the expense of Richard's regent and successor, John.

John (1199-1216) succeeded Richard, butonly by racing to England to seize the crown. Although intelligent, he was untrustworthy and weak. The French king, Philippe II cleverly exploited the Plantagenet family rivalry between John and his ne[hew Arthur, Richard's intended heir. John seized England, Philippe, but most of France recognised Arthur. To make matters worse, with a background of English resistance to papal appointments in England, the pope refused to recognise John's claim to Normandy, which went to France. (To secure papal support, John formally surrendered England to the pope on 15 May 1213.) John had earlier rebelled against both his father and brother, broken his word on countless occasions, and was widely believed to have murdered his nephew Arthur. Having lost the support of most of his barons, John lost Normandy, Brittany, and Anjou to the patient Philippe. This political confusion compelled the Norman barons in England to recognize themselves as being English. John's weakness also enabled the barons to force him to sign the Magna Carta in 1215 at Runnymede. John's son. Henry III (1216-1272), had further trouble with the barons and was also forced to reconfirm the Magna Carta. It was during Henry's reign that the first English House of Commons was assembled.

The Church

Christianity arrived early in England with a formal mission by St Augustine to King Æthelbert, of Kent and his Christian wife Berte, in 597. While that was the Latin, or Roman, Church's approach, there were earlier Christian indirect assaults on the heathen English by the Celtic Christian church from Ireland in both Wales on Lindisfarne Island. The Roman and Celtic churches were quite different and eventually the more disciplined Roman church prevailed over their differences. The churches became centres of learning and, despite the Viking depradations, a source of records. The well-known, Anglo-Saxon Venerable Bede lived at a monastery at Jarrow, in Northumbria.

Monasteries became quite popular and spreading the Christian gospel was mostly done from monasteries. Early monks and friars were not confined to a closed monastic community, but travelled to preach and convert in the villages. This was especially true of the monks from the Celtic monasteries. The formal arrival of the Roman church heralded the decline of the Celtic church in England. Regional monasteries built of stone, called minsters, were established to serve an area. The minsters often gave their name to places like Warminster, and Axminster.

Henry II was only perhaps the earliest monarch to become mired in a struggle with the church. Control of power and wealth was the issue because over the centuries pius donars had given the church vast areas of land. In c1200, the annual rent from such church land was worth at least £80,000.[2] Much of that income went to Rome, via church-appointed bishops and abbots. By 1200 there were c650 monasteries and abbeys; and in 1300, there were an additional 150 friaries.[3] The English had accepted Pope Urban II's challenge to join the first crusade, and under Richard I were the mainstay of the third crusade. The mediaeval church in England was very powerful.

Magna Carta, France, & Yeomen

Black Death led to a labour shortage!


The English have celebrated their lack of a written constitution, however, the Magna Carta was precisely that. Magna Carta was not a single document, albeit we celebrate John's confrontation as a single event: nor on the face of it does it relate to yeomen. In fact there was an earlier Coronation Charter by Henry I in 1100. That charter had been created to win baronial support, promised to abolish 'all evil customs'. and was ignored after Henry gained power. It is certain that the feudal era exploited English peasants and that king's power was truncated by the Magna Carta, which in turn, unintentionally, led to gradually increasing freedoms for the peasants, as well as the intended nobles. However, the nobles had been desperate and with appeals to the pope could not be seen to make exclusive demands and many details addressed peasant life and taxes. Both Henry III, and the energetic Edward I reissued the Magna Carta, albeit in slightly different versions for different reasons. Multiple copies were also made of each version for the royal officials charged with aspects of legal oversight. In fact, all the subsequent kings officially confirmed the Charter, through to Henry V.

By Edward's time the continental Angevin Empire had then been largely recovered by France and Edward wanted an army to contest the loss. However, Edward soon discovered that many of his his nobles would neither give him the feudal armies he needed, nor approve the taxes to hire mercenaries. As a consequence Edward's grandson was unable to field a credible army and lost the remaining significant English continental possession - Gascony. The details of the Charter are bound in English Common Law and are now commonly found in law courts in the notion of the right to trial (habeus corpus).[4]

As public recognition grew of the limits of the king's power, additional interpretations were made. Edward I created a civil service and acted to limit the barons' powers and protect the English peasants. Coincidently Edward used the same Charter laws to limit the barons as they used to limit the king's. Feudal lords greatly exploited the peasants and in their world there was no middle-class, however, in June 1348 the Black Death pandemic arrived in Europe and began to kill perhaps 50% of the English population.[5] The peasants owed their feudal lords free labour for the land in exchange for land allowed for themselves. Increasingly, however, as the king was forced to pay for mercenaries, so the barons lost their peasants. Their peasants fled to the new towns and available land elsewhere and became 'yeomen' trading their labour for the available new coinage.[6] The economic realities of the enormous loss of European manpower was immediate.

Crécy: 26 August 1346


As labour became the key element of land and wealth, the barons, and new yeomen land owners, were forced into the economic trade of money for labour. The Wars with France had created military skills and shown Europe what yeomen could do armed only with a wooden bow against the knights of France. These same common skills and the confidence they created multiplied the loss of manpower from feudal bondage to create wealth for an emerging new middle-class. Towns began to grow, for the first time since the Romans ruled Britain; and craftsmen developed their trades and sold their wares. Despite a battle of strikes, riots, and union-creation to limit labour costs, plus the peasant rebellion of 1381, increasingly, the middle-class was created.[7] Farmers were able to build their own farms and profits, and create quick wealth to buy their way with English sheep and their wool. Although English wool had been sold to Europe for centuries, the emerging English middle-class began to trade wool themselves, and later to weave it in England in the later industrial revolution.

The plague and consequent evolution of yeomen from serfs had a major impact on the English army.[8] In 1346, Edward III defeated the French army at the Battle of Crécy on 26 August. Edward's infantry-heavy army was outnumbered 3:1 by Philippe VI de Valois' armoured cavalry army. Although the French had powerful crossbows their effective range was 30m and took 30 mins to re-load. The English used the Welsh longbow, which had a 250m range with steel-tipped arrows, which could be fired at a maximum rate of up to 20/min. The best bows were made of yew, were nearly 2m long, and the c80cms arrows could penetrate armour at 60m.[9] Edward's well-trained army clearly dominated the battle and the English were set to reclaim their Angevin Empire and France. Although the English marauded France for another hundred years, they were never able to dominate the French - because the plague had robbed Edward of the manpower required for his army to both defeat the French and occupy the land.


Long a rural country, the Normans brought urban concepts to England and made a big change in life by creating new towns. Between 1066-1250 more than 125 new towns had been created including: Hull, Arundel, King's Lynn, Boston, Portsmouth, Newcastle, Salisbury, Liverpool, Watford, and Yarmouth. England was a rich country and an increasing number of people turned to manufacture and trade (in wool and cloth) and markets were created to support the traders. The major trading ports by percentage were London, Boston, Southampton, and King's Lynn, and Lincoln. The kings and barons had realised that they could make money by renting space in their new towns. The king and barons encouraged migration by giving freedom to any serf who stayed in a town borough for one year.

Edward I (1292-1307) was a strong king and imposed order on the country. Edward was called Long shanks because of his height and he finally conquered Wales and dictated its union with England. Edward also began the fierce struggle with Scotland (which continued until the 1745 Battle of Culloden). Edward finally defeated William Wallace and gained some advantage in Scotland, but the gain was lost under his weak son Edward II. At the victorious Robert Bruce's success at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, the English were forced to recognize Scotland's independence. Edward III (1327-1377) began the long struggle with France known to history as the Hundred Years' War. Victorious in battle, Edward and his son, Edward, the Black Prince won brilliant victories but gained no permanent advantage for England.

The English population was only c35% of the French and the English Gross Domestic Product was perhaps 50%, so despite the English army's success at Crécy a successful English outcome was never likely in France. Despite a more efficient taxation system, the English were crippled by the loss of manpower due the the plague of 1348-1450.[10] Not only were English victories nugatory, the costs of the war were enormous. As a result of the War England gained both strong nationalism by uniting the Normans and Saxons against France; and a powerful Parliament by virtue of Edward III's need for finances. England also endured the great plague, brought by rats in the Crusaders ships from Eastern Europe and Palestine.

Mary Tudor, Reine de France


Richard II (1377-1399) was a weak king, and exacerbated the civil unrest led by Wat Tyler. Richard was deposed and followed by Henry, Duke of Lancaster, who became Henry IV. Henry's reign was noted for the growth of English constitutional government, since Parliament had proclaimed him king. Henry V (1413-1422), was more successful in the Hundred Years War and the French Charles VI promised that the English king would succeed him to France. But with the accession of young Henry VI, the French, led by Joan of Arc, defeated the English and thus ended their claim to France.

Henry VI (1422-1461) began the long struggle known as the Wars of the Roses. In the course of the war Henry was dethroned and restored several times, but Edward IV of York took the throne. After the short reign of Edward V, Richard III usurped power, but was overthrown in 1485 at Bosworth Field. Henry, Earl of Richmond, came to the throne as Henry VII, the first of the Tudor dynasty. This Henry was a man of ability and he upheld royal authority at the expense of Parliament and the nobles. Henry VIII (1509-1547) found himself all-powerful when he came to the throne. To cement his new status, two of his daughters married kings.[11]

The first Magna Carta paragraph deals not with the rebellious barons, but with the freedom of the English church. Curchmen were to elect churchmen, and not the king. Under Pope Gregory VII the church had furthered the arguement for superior behaviour by campaigning for clerical celibacy. In manoeuvering against his barons to undercut their rebellion, King John had transferred England's sovereignty to the pope by accepting the pope as overlord. (John was merely trying to gain condemnation for the barons and moral support for himself, however the church gained considerable power.)

The reign of Henry VIII was chiefly noteworthy for the beginnings of the Reformation in England, which arose from the contest for power between the king and Pope. This struggle for temporal power had run from Henry II and the murder of Thomas à Becket, and was hardly new to English politics. Less well known might have been the vast wealth transferred to Rome from the English church, by Roman-apponted favourites. In c1200, an estimated minimum of £80,000 (an enormous total in c1200 value) annually was taken by the church.[12] Henry Felt fully justified in claiming that power (and the wealth) for England. Edward VI (1547-1553), Henry's son, carried on the Reformation, but Henry's daughter  Mary I (1553-1558) tried to restore the Catholic religion. Bishops Cranmer, Ridley and Latimer were victims of this attempt to crush out the Reformation in England.

 Mary's efforts, were in vain, as her half-sister,  Elizabeth I (1558-1603) re-established her father's reforms; and by the Act of Supremacy was herself proclaimed head of the Church in England. Elizabeth's moves increased English nationalism, further inspired by the defeat of the Armada. During Elizabeth's reign Ireland was reduced to an English dependency.

James VI of Scotland, son of the beheaded Mary Queen of Scots, succeeded Elizabeth as James I and established the Stuart dynasty and gained settlers for Ulster in Ireland by offering baronetcies to leaders who brought men to settle in Ulster. Despite this union of the crowns of the two countries, no political union law was passed until 1707. At the outset, James instituted a struggle with Parliament, by advocating the "divine right of kings", which ended disastrously for his son Charles I. During James' reign the English founded the colonies of Virginia and Massachusetts. (The latter was actually a commercial venture.)

England's Civil War

Almost immediately after the accession of Charles I (1625-1649), the struggle with Parliament reached a crisis. Charles prorogued his first two Parliaments, and although compelled by Parliament in 1628 to assent to the Petition of Right, he assembled no Parliament for eleven years and ruled as arbitrarily as Louis XIV of France. The persecutions of the Puritans, the attempt to force the Anglican liturgy on the Scottish Church, and the continued disregard of the Protestant Parliament finally brought matters to a head. In 1640, Charles assembled a Parliament, because of civil risings in Scotland and his need for money. Parliament took matters into its own hands and impeached the king's ministers.

The contest between Charles and Parliament soon led to open civil war. After several years Charles was defeated and surrendered to a Scottish army. Charles was handed over to the English Parliament and in 1649 was tried, convicted of treason, and be-headed. Oliver Cromwell the strongest man in Parliament led the army, showed himself to be a national leader, and in 1653 was made 'Lord Protector of the Commonwealth'. Cromwell ruled England as a benign dictator until his death in 1658, but he established republican ideals in England, which were perhaps continued in the later American Revolution. Cromwell's son was weak and in 1660 Charles II was restored. This Charles was not notably successful, but the people had had enough war and allowed a reversion to royal power.

Charles' brother,  James Stuart, was an avowed Roman Catholic and favoured Catholics, and set aside his proclamation of indulgence. In 1688, with the birth of a son who would be a Catholic and continue his father's unpopular policies, the great nobles decided against him. (His grandson was the  Bonnie Prince Charlie.) The English nobles invited the Dutch King William III Orange and his wife Queen Mary II,  James II's daughter, to accept the English crown. In 1688, James fled to France when William and Mary were proclaimed sovereigns.

Growth of Empire

During William's reign the Dissenters were allowed freedom of worship, and a step was taken in the direction of true constitutional government, by declaring king's ministers to be responsible to Parliament. There was a struggle with Louis XIV of France, and William died while preparing for another struggle with Louis. Queen Anne (1702-1714) continued William's plans, and her reign was made brilliant by Marlborough's successes in the War of the Spanish Succession. In 1707, union of England with Scotland was finally agreed. England's history since that date is regarded as "Great Britain".

A period of progressive expansionism followed, as England collected colonies down the American coast, licensed the East India Company to operate from Bombay, India and eventually saw Canada, much of Africa, and Australia come within its global sphere of influence. At home, England exerted increasing control over the British Isles. The burgeoning empire's first setback occurred in 1781 when the American colonies won their War of Independence.


1          Adapted from History of England, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_England; History of England, http://historyofengland.net/; Britain Express, http://www.britainexpress.com/History/index.htm, and Early Christian Britain at, http://www.britainexpress.com/History/Early_Christian_Britain.htm; Narrative History of England; http://britannia.com/history/narintrohist.html; ENGLAND HISTORY, http://www.englandhistory.com/; The History of England, http://www.picturesofengland.com/history/; Black Death at, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Death.

2          Danny Danziger and John Gillingham, 1215 The Year of Magna Carta, p. 31.

3           Ibid., pp.198-199.

4          See Sir Winston S Churchill, A History of the English Speaking Peoples, vol 1, pps. 215-311; Danny Danziger and John Gillingham, Op. Cit.; and Magna Carta at, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magna_Carta.

5         It now seems likely that England was doubly struck by both the bubonic plague and simultaneously by an outbreak of anthrax. See Norman F Cantor, In the Wake of the Plague, The Black Death and the World It Made, pp.11-25.

6          See GM Trevelyan, English Social History, A Survey of Six Centuries, pps.18-32. See also Danziger and Gillingham, op. cit. pp42-43. New silver loads were discovered in c1165 in northern Italy, and near Meissen, Germany. By 1180 the English mints had increased their production of silver 'Short Cross' pennies by six times.

7         Ibid., p.25.

8         Cantor, Op. Cit., pp.213-214.

9          Ibid., p. 35; Historical Weapons, Bow and Arrow at, http://www.historicalweapons.com/bowandarrow.html; and Battle of Crécy at, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Cr%C3%A9cy.

10       Ibid., pp.35-37.

11       See Lady Sabine du Bourbonnais, HERALDIC DISPLAY, Women's Heraldic Frocks, Cotehardies, Sideless surcotes, Elizabethans and Mantles at, http://www.sca.org.au/st_florians/university/library/articles-howtos/heraldry/HeraldicFrocksS.htm. The image is from 1517 and is in the British Library.

12       Danziger and Gillingham, Op. Cit., p. 131.

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