United Kingdom History

January 25, 2024

Paul Kay

Madeline and I were in Spain when Queen Elizabeth II died. She had been the Queen of England just after we were born. I know she is just one of many famous English monarchs, but I felt that she should take the spotlight before we delved into the history of the United Kingdom. 

Queen Elizabeth II

For many Americans, the UK is considered to be a great destination vacation. The people speak English, there is plenty of history to soak up, the food and drink choices are interesting including pub food, fish and chips, etc. Finally, tourists seem to love the attraction of the royals.

The United Kingdom has a long history.  Reading history books, you might have read about England or even Great Britain.  Depending on the time period, England was much larger since it was conquering foreign lands quite regularly and planting the English flag.

Today, England is simply a country and Britain is the area that consists of England and the country of Wales.  Great Britain is the name of the island that is home to the countries of England, Wales, and Scotland.  Scotland wasn’t always part of England although if you look on a map, you’ll see that it’s quite close to the original border of England.  Today, the United Kingdom (UK) is a country that is a union of the countries on the island of Great Britain, along with the country of Northern Ireland (which shares the island of Ireland with the Republic of Ireland.)  If that isn’t confusing enough, the Republic of Ireland is a separate country that is not part of the UK, but it is part of the European Union or EU.  Now the UK, with Brexit, is somewhere between being part of the EU and being separate from it.

If you think this part is complicated, the history of the UK is quite complex.  Civilization in the UK is estimated to be present in the Ice Age which was about 35,000 years ago.  At this time, the seas were lower, and Britain was connected to the European mainland – it wasn’t an island as it is today.

About 4,500 BC farming began in England with crops of wheat and barley.  Animals such as pigs, sheep and cattle were raised.  Tools were created and used for farming.  The Bronze Age in England started sometime around 2,000BC.  Bronze was used for tools, swords and many other things.  

Stonehenge in Wilshire England

It is thought that the early settlers-built Stonehenge and other monuments.  Celtic people migrated to Britain somewhere between 1,500 and 500 BC.  Celtic people are commonly thought to be Irish or Scottish these days.  But the 6 Celtic Nations are considered to be Brittany, Scotland, Ireland, Isle of Man, Cornwall and Wales.   

Statue of Roman Emperor Julius Caesar at Roman Forum, Rome, Italy

In 55 B.C. Julius Caesar invaded Britain and conquered the Celtic people and claimed the land for Rome.  It continued to be occupied for more than 300 years.  The Roman empire was over expanded eventually, and Rome left England to defend Rome itself.  

The Celtic tribes were once again in control, but they fought for control and land.  The Anglos, Saxons and Jutes arrived from current day Germany and Denmark and joined the battles.  They were commonly called Germanic tribes and they pushed the Celts back to Wales and Cornwall during the 5th and 6th centuries.  This new era was known as the Anglo-Saxon period, and they ruled between 500 AD and 850 AD.  

Vikings TV Show

If you’ve ever watched any of the TV shows lately about the Vikings, you’d know that they began to invade Europe.  I can heartily recommend watching the complete series called Vikings. There is quite a lot of history that you will learn. The Viking called Ragnor is legendary.  Between the 8th and 9th century, the Danes invaded England and conquered a large territory they called Danelaw.  They also invaded further into France, invading Paris, and took over a portion of northern France that they called Normandy.

William the Conqueror, vintage engraved illustration. Colorful History of England, 1837

The Danes were eventually sent back but it took until William the Conqueror became King of England in 1066 in the Battle of Hastings.  But William was Norman, and he kept his royal things still in France.  French was the official language for hundreds of years while the commoners spoke English.  The famous 100 years war ended in 1362.

William and his sons had a difficult time holding everything together.  One of William’s sons had Richard The Lionhearted as his own son.  He was well-known all over England, but he was rarely in England.  He was fighting elsewhere. 

Sir William Wallace

The next period of struggle was really against Scotland and William Wallace and Robert The Bruce were instrumental in this struggle as noted in the movie Braveheart.  The “Black Death” killed over one third of England’s population during this period.

King Henry IV, V and VI were ruling in the period of war against France and the notable period was when Joan of Arc became a spirit of French resistance in 1455 when the War of the Roses began.  This was a war between the Red Rose supporters of Henry VI and the White Rose supporters of Edward IV.  Neither prevailed because Edward IV’s son was locked in the tower of London by Richard III.  He later became Henri VII which became the house of Tudor.

Henry VIII (1491-1547) King of England

Of course, Henry VIII was much more famous to most of us.  He was one of the most powerful kings of England.  He declared himself king of both Wales and Ireland.  He divorced Catherine of Argon to remarry Anny Boleyn and the Pope excommunicated him from the church.  This allowed Henry to proclaim himself head of the Church of England.  This was the beginning of the exodus from England rule by any form of Roman rule.

When Henry VIII died, his son inherited the throne, but he died suddenly, apparently killed and was succeeded by Mary also known as Bloody Mary.  She attempted to restore Roman Catholic religion for 5 years, but she died after 5 years when Queen Elizabeth I ruled.

Queen Elizabeth I of England

Queen Elizabeth I was the first ruler to put great navigators like Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh to expand and explore the rule of England.  There is a great movie called The Sea Hawk with Errol Flynn which describes how an English privateer who defended his nation’s interests on the eve of the launch of the Spanish Armada. Errol is his swashbuckling self and Dame Flora Robson played Queen Elizabeth I. Spain wanted to conquer the world for itself but so did England.

Sir Francis Drake

King James succeeded Queen Elizabeth I and attempted to improve relationships with Rome, but Guy Fawkes attempted to put a bomb in Parliament to show the country’s dissent.  There was always dissent between Catholic or Roman rule and Protestant rule.  Charles I wanted to unite England and Ireland, but it resulted in a civil war resulting in the beheading of Charles.  Oliver Cromwell ruled the country until 1658 and was succeeded by Charles I son Charles II.

King Charles II of England

Charles II was the King who decided to expand to New Amsterdam (New York) and when he died, the throne passed to his brother James.  He was quite unpopular, and a variety of rulers prevailed between 1688 and 1714 when George of Hanover was ruler.  George I only lasted until 1727 but a succession of George rulers continued with George III having the legacy of essentially creating the United States because of dissenting citizens.

Napoleon portrait

England was not done because they were still one of the premier naval fleets of the world.  The had to face Napoleon who also was trying to conquer lands for France.  Napoleon was defeated in Waterloo and the 19th century began with England moving to conquer more lands.

Queen Victoria of England

Queen Victoria was to have the longest reign of any British monarch but during her reign of 64 years which ended in 1901, England ruled over 40% of the world and over 25% of the worlds’ population.  A short time after her death, WW I had begun.  Edward VII ruled after Queen Victoria’s death until 1910 when George V ruled until 1936.   

 In 1936, Edward VIII ruled briefly, but abdicated the same year to marry Wallis Simpson, a divorced American woman. His brother then unexpectedly became George VI unexpectedly and Elizabeth was his eldest daughter.  King George VI and Winston Churchill were instrumental in WW II and there have been plenty of books and movies about it.  The one I like is The King’s Speech which won 4 Oscars, including Best Picture. The British people survived one of the most difficult periods of war with one of the smallest countries to defend.  Churchill said: “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.” 

Between 1940 and 1941, over 13,000 people in London were killed by German bombs.  The German attention moved to Russia after that but returned to England in 1944 with the V2 rockets and England was bombed constantly.  Over 1 million houses were destroyed or severely damaged during World War II in England About 40,000 civilians were killed. 

Elizabeth’s father was stalwart throughout the war but died in 1952.  His life, particularly during the abdication of his brother and his role in the war was the focus on many movies and books including “The Kings Speech.” After her father’s death, she became queen in 1952 when she was only 26 at the time.  She died in 2022 leaving her son, Charles, to rule. The rest of the succession line to the throne is well known.

Today, the population of the UK is in excess of 66 million citizens spread over four nations including England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. 

London night skyline with Big Ben England

For most tourists, we come to the UK for the Queen and country.  We visit England, look for the Royal palaces, visit St. Paul’s Cathedral, Piccadilly Circus, perhaps go to Wimbledon, gaze at the Tower of London or Big Ben, etc.  Obviously, the UK is a large place to visit with close to 100,000 square miles of land spread across the four nations.  That doesn’t count the other areas of governance which are worldwide.  

England has so much history and many places you visit are still vestiges of British rule.  We visited Fiji, India, Hong Kong, China. South Africa and many other countries that were, at some time, under British influence.

In fact, it is quite humbling to note that that there are only 22 countries worldwide that have NOT been invaded or occupied or ruled by England over the years.  These include:

  1. Andorra
  1. Belarus
  1. Bolivia
  1. Burundi
  1. Central African Republic
  1. Chad
  1. Congo, Republic of
  1. Guatemala
  1. Ivory Coast
  1. Kyrgyzstan
  1. Liechtenstein
  1. Luxembourg
  1. Mali
  1. Marshall Islands
  1. Monaco
  1. Mongolia
  1. Paraguay
  1. Sao Tome and Principe
  1. Sweden
  1. Tajikistan
  1. Uzbekistan
  1. Vatican City

This is quite the list since everyone else has had England at its proverbial doorstep at one time or another.  To England’s credit and acknowledgement to the UK, they have stepped back over rule so graciously and carefully over time.  If you were not a student of history or at least someone who had some knowledge of it, you might not notice.  England’s influence over the world was considerable and can’t be discounted.  

History is what it was. I make no value judgment on what England conquered or colonialized. However, we should remember that England was not alone in their attempt to colonize and rule. Many countries attempted to colonize the world, including but not limited to:

  • Spain
  • Portugal
  • France
  • The Netherlands
  • Belgium
  • Germany
  • Italy
  • Denmark
  • Sweden
  • Norway
  • Russia
  • Japan
  • United States
  • China

These countries all built colonies around the world, often in pursuit of resources, trade, and power. Some of these colonies were established through peaceful means, while others were established through force. The legacy of colonialism has had a profound impact on the world and continues to shape global politics, economics, and cultural relationships today.

From a GoGo2SlowGo point of view, we feel it is important to understand historical periods and be curious about what monuments or vestiges of history you can still see as a tourist. Enjoy England, it is worth your effort.

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