The British Isles, United Kingdom, the UK, Great Britain and just Britain are all names used to refer to Britain. How many countries can you think of that are known by five different names? And then of course there are the 'parts' of Britain, which in many ways are countries in their own right – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, with people from these parts taking pride in being English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish.
Officially the Country is called "The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland" – and there are around 5000 islands that make up the Country.
For a small island country, by geographic size, Britain has exerted enormous influence over a vast area of the world – through language, architecture, law, economics, education, health, dress, transport, music, culture and many other aspects of political, economic, social and everyday life. Perhaps this is partly why Britain is called "The Mother Country", with the British Empire renamed as "The British Commonwealth of Nations" still in existence and Countries both in and outside of the Commonwealth either paying allegiance to the British Monarchy or at least showing enormous respect for this institution.
There have been thousands of books and millions of words written on the History of Britain but here in a few short pages we will try to provide you with a very brief look at British History.
Britain can trace its history back thousands of years to the Ice Ages when it was part of Continental Europe. When the ice receded northwards, the seas rose and those parts of the land that were highest became islands, which accounts for the rugged coastline of Britain and the islands that lay off-shore from the main land masses.
The first people of Britain are generally referred to as "Early Britons" while Celts were the first invaders of what is now Britain, with the Gaels settling in Ireland around 500BC.
Around 43 AD, the Romans invaded England, and Britain became part of the Holy Roman Empire and it would remain so as part of the Holy Roman Empire until 410 AD. If you think that people at the time mostly lived less than 50 years, that means that over the 367 years, over 7 generations would have lived and born children through this Roman period.
The Romans built roads, forts, stone walls, baths and buildings, and some of these now 'ancient ruins' can still be seen today. They also brought Roman Law and Christianity with them too. Hadrian's Wall was built in 122 AD by the Romans across England in the north, a 73 mile (80 Roman mile) stone wall with 14 fort structures that crossed from the east coast to the west coast. Parts of it still exist, and it was built to keep the barbarians to the north coming south into Roman territory. The Romans also invaded Scotland in 140 AD.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, Britain was then invaded by a succession of Northern European tribes, by Scots and Picts from Scotland and by Angles from Denmark, Saxons from Germany and Jutes from Jutland in Northern Germany around 410AD with Britons becoming known as Anglo-Saxons based on their mixed heritage. Vikings from Denmark and Sweden also invaded Britain as raiders, but also many stayed on too during the years from around 793 to 871.The Normans would also follow in what became known as the Norman Conquest in 1066.
This early part of British History is a story of power plays and conquests, with Kingdoms won and lost through these power struggles.
One of the strongest Kingdoms in Britain was Wessex and in 865-866, the King of Wessex won a decisive battle over the Danish Army that had invaded England. He became known as Alfred the Great and ruled over the greater part of Britain from 871 to 899. This was the beginning of what has become known as the 'British Royal Family', a family that can trace its history back over 1000 years of history to the time of Alfred the Great. That history has never been a straight line however, with wars, intrigues, battles, politics, births, marriages and deaths creating a unique history of its own.
Surrounding each King or Queen, there emerged a Royal Court with Princes and Princesses, Knights of the Realm, Barons, Noblemen, servants and peasants creating a hierarchy of authority and power. At the same time God was seen as the supreme ruler, and his servants on earth also had a hierarchy with the Pope in the Vatican in Rome being head of the Roman Catholic Church with cardinals, archbishops, bishops, priests and monks creating another structure of power and authority. Monasteries and Monks also represented another power structure in religion.
The Norman Invasion and Battle of Hastings took place in 1066 and the British Crown was taken by a Frenchman from Normandy, who took the title of William of Normandy and as William the First, or better known as William the Conqueror. He would be crowned King at Westminster Abbey, the Abbey in London itself dating back to the 1040's. Construction of Westminster Cathedral also began in 1070 and the Tower of London in 1078.
During the period of Norman Conquest the Normans built over 500 castles throughout Britain, of which about 90 survive in various states of repair today. These castles with their towers, turrets and battlements were built as a means of defence, sometimes even with moats around them as a further defence, but they also symbolised power and control too over the population.
Ownership of land was vested in the Crown, and the King could allocate these crown lands to those Nobles who he considered worthy of such grants, these noblemen becoming Lords over the landed Estates that they had been granted. The English Feudal System developed as a consequence of this.
The Feudal System involved a Lord having control over a land area (estate), with the land used for grazing cattle, sheep or growing crops. The workers (Serfs) would provide the manual skills needed to grow and harvest crops for the Lord of the Manor, who would provide them with protection and the Lord would grant them the right to live on the estate in return. The term, "landlord" (Land Lord) comes from this time, the Lords often becoming wealthy based on the Estates that they owned, with few rights given to those who worked on the Estates tending cattle, milking cows, herding sheep and growing crops.
While Power remained with the King and the Royal Court, many Lords became wealthy and powerful too and a British class system emerged with an Upper Class Aristocracy, a middle and lower class.
In 1215 Magna Carta had been signed by King John, which resulted in a Parliament being established, but the King remained as the head of state.
In 1509 Henry VIII ascended the throne, and he is best known for having had six wives – one (Catherine of Aragon) where he sought to have the Marriage annulled by the Pope, two he executed, another died in Childbirth, one he divorced and one became his widow. When the Pope refused to agree to the Annulment with Catherine of Aragon, he used Parliament to declare himself as "The Supreme Head on Earth of the Church of England". As head of the Church of England he then set about destroying and closing some 560 Monasteries across the Country, and the Catholic Church power diminished as a consequence during his reign.
In 1536 Wales and England were joined, but it would not be until 1707 that Scotland joined the Union and 1922 that the 'United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland' was formed.
The 1500's saw Britain advance in agriculture, and while London and some of the cities continued to grow, Britain remained a very rural country with small villages established near a Manor House, and Village life established around a Village Common (land owned by all) a Village church, graveyard and an Inn, Alehouse or Public House – the 'Public House' name abbreviated to 'Pub'. In 1577 there were some 17,000 alehouses in Britain, 2000 Inns and 400 Taverns.
When the Romans came to Britain, they also not only built roads, but they also established 'Tabernae' to sell wine, but as times changed and the northern European tribes – Angles, Jutes, Saxons and Vikings came, they brought a beer culture with them, and these Tabernae became known as Taverns and Alehouses, selling British Ale.
'Pubs' are still very much a part of English life still today – performing a central social role in both Village and also City life. Most Pubs also still serve a "Ploughman's Lunch" – a term that dates back to the time when a Ploughman would have come into the Alehouse for lunch and 'a peg of ale' before returning to his horses and plough to till the land and plant crops.
The late 1500's saw Sir Francis Drake circumnavigate the world (1577-1580) and in 1588 destroy the Spanish Armada that the Spanish had assembled to invade England in retaliation for all the Privateer raids that had been made on their ships carrying gold and other treasures from the Americas.
In 1600 the British East India Company was formed under a Royal Charter and this in many ways became the start of building the British Empire, with the Union Jack flag flown for the first time in 1606. A Royal Charter gave the company special privileges, enabling it to have a monopoly over the trade from India and other territories that it came to explore.
In Britain, the first Joint Stock Company was formed in 1553 – the 'Company of Merchant Adventurers to New Lands', and in 1555 the 'Muscovy Company' was formed and granted a monopoly trade with Russia. The idea of a Joint Stock Company was to spread the risk of any new business venture, and having a Royal Charter lessened the risk, and also added great value, given the terms of the Royal Charter might also grant monopoly rights over certain trade. This was the case in the formation of the 'Governor and Company of Adventurers of England trading into Hudson's Bay' in Canada, a Joint Stock Company under a Royal Charter formed in 1670. This 'Fur Trading' company was granted the ownership over all the watershed lands into Hudson's Bay – around 1 ½ million square miles of land, or 40% of the land in today's Canada. The company still exists and has a fascinating history.
There would seem to be many reasons why the British Empire managed to expand their Empire so successfully.
First they had faster, more agile ships and a better battle plan which enabled them to attack and win battles over the slower moving Spanish fleet in the Spanish Armada. If the Spanish had been successful in invading Britain, a very different world may have eventuated.
Secondly, they were able to successfully establish colonies in India, Canada, Africa, the Middle East, the Far East and Australia and initially in the United States, bringing with them British law, language, education and the means of their Colonies survival.
There was also a thirst for knowledge, and instrumental in accumulating this knowledge was the British Royal Society of London, formed in 1660 under a Royal Charter, its mission being to "Pursue Natural Knowledge" promoting "Physico-Mathematicall Experimentall Learning", bring together the best Scientific minds in Britain. The Royal Society still exists today. Christopher Wren – then the Gresham Professor of Astronomy, was one of the founding members. He is better known as the architect who designed St Pauls Cathedral and some 52 churches in London, but his real love was mathematics and science. Many other Luminary Scientists and those with a passion for science would follow including Sir Joseph Banks, Charles Darwin, Benjamin Franklin, Charles Babbage and many others, and the Society's interests spanned interests in astronomy, biology, botany, palaeontology, geology, medicine, photography, mathematics, engineering and many other areas. They also published journals, held lectures and sponsored individual scientists and scientific voyages of discovery (including that of James Cook to observe the Eclipse in the South Seas), held lectures, built a vast library of documents and information.
The Royal Society in many ways reflects the British thirst for knowledge, pride in British achievement and the tenacity of the 'British Bulldog' – which has come to the fore in many ways over the centuries since.
While having a thirst for knowledge in very worthwhile, it also requires money to fund the time and effort involved and for Governments, one of the most expensive of all activities is war. During the 1600's Britain went to war both with Spain and also France. In 1664-65 it also experienced the Great Plague and the following year, 1666 the Great Fire of London that destroyed much of the City. More wars would also follow in the all the centuries since.
The Bank of England was formed in 1664 as a Bank for the Government and in 1690 Barclays Bank was formed, and the Bank of Scotland in 1695. While coinage in Britain dates back to Roman times and even before that, it was the Goldsmiths in London, members of the Goldsmith Guild who first issued "Running Cash Notes" as a receipt for deposits of gold that had been made with them. The name of the depositor was recorded on the note, with the words "Or Bearer" – and it became a form of money. The Bank of England also followed this principle issuing notes, and then by 1745 the Notes were being printed with a nominated amount shown on them. The first Warden of the Royal Mint was Isaac Newton from 1699 to 1727, best known in relation to the falling apple proving the invisible force of gravity. The Bank of England was only nationalised in 1946, becoming the Bank for other banks as well as the Government.
One of the reasons cited for the success of the British Empire was that in Britain, the wealth of the nation could be accumulated in a central place – the Bank of England, so that when it came to the cost of Wars, armies and building ships and expanding an Empire, there was money to be found. I am not sure how much truth there is to this statement, but certainly London has and continues to be a centre for banking and finance.
The great change in British Society came from the Industrial Revolution, which began around 1780 and saw Industrial Cities develop at the expense of the countryside. You can actually see this change in the English surnames of people – surnames such as Weaver, Thatcher, Smith, Hay,Tinker , Shepherd and others all relate to farming activities.
The Industrial Revolution brought with it machines to replace workers, and an Railway age of Steam followed, with workhouses and all the issues of child labour, dangerous machines, coal mining, city smog, poor houses all coming too.
Britain has four great river systems – the Severn, Mersey, Humber and Thames, and during the 1700's Canals were built to enable barges to carry mostly coal from the river systems across Britain to northern coal mines to fuel factories and onwards to the Thames in the Port of London These canals and the locks, mill houses and barges that plied the canals created an internal waterway across Britain, and then as Railways were built and then roads, Britain's transport system grew. London's underground opened in 1863, and in 1870 all children were required to attend school.
A new middle class of people also emerged, but at the same time Industrialists became the new rich, and while these new mercantile classes (Shop Keepers) were looked down upon by the old aristocracy, money often talked more than a title.
Steel foundries, ship building, aircraft, cars, trucks, bikes, cotton mills were all "Made in Britain" for both British consumption and exported to the Commonwealth countries.
The twentieth century saw World War One and World War Two massively change Britain too, with women becoming workers in the war effort, and motorbikes, cars and trucks becoming the main means of transporting both freight and also people, with communications by telephone, radio and later by Television and today via Mobile and computer technology following.
The British Car Industry saw brands such as MG, Wolseley, Morris, Austin, Rover, Sunbeam, Hillman, Humber, Vauxhall, Riley, Jaguar, Armstrong-Siddeley, Morgan, Lotus, Aston Martin, Rolls Royce and Bentley become symbols of British Engineering skill, with American Car Companies like Ford and General Motors also buying British brands, or manufacturing cars expressly for the British market.
While many of the car brands have disappeared, Rolls Royce, Bentley, Jaguar, Land Rover, Lotus, Aston Martin, Morgan, Vauxhall all continue but under different ownership structures.
Britain has entered the post-industrial age which started in the 1960's and 1970's, a time when a new youth culture was emerging, with music and fashion being at the forefront of a cultural revolution. The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Sex Pistols and other groups and musicians have followed, but now there is a Communication revolution taking place again too with social media and mobile communication also changing the way that society operates.
When Britain joined the Common Market in 1973, Britain agreed on the basis of having a close at hand big market for its goods and services, without the Tariff Barriers that had limited trade in the past. The Common Market went on to become the European Economic Community (EEC) with its own European Parliament based in Brussels.
Britain however refused to accept the Euro as its currency, and there is wide debate as to whether being a member of the EEC was good for Britain or not. Much of this debate centres on Immigration policy but there are also other social, economic and political issues involved too.
From a Tourist view – Britain has great history, heritage and some amazing architecture, pomp and ceremony.
There is also the weather! When summer arrives, Brits seem to emerge from their winter hibernation to enjoy the sun and the long summer twilight evenings and lunches in the Parks – it can be a great time of year to visit but equally in winter you can enjoy being in a pub next to an open fire.
There are a tremendous number of things and places to see in Britain – both in the Cities and also the towns, countryside and villages. Hopefully some of the brief history we have written about here will inspire you to see and learn more about Great Britain.