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History of the United Kingdom

History of the British Isles is the result of influence after influence, beginning over 5000 years ago with the settlement of the first inhabitants and the building of Stonehenge shortly after. In about 500 BC the next major influence arrived with the Celts, and 500 years later the arrival of the Romans in about 50 AD.

The Romans swiftly took much of modern-day England and Wales due to no real organized resistance, but they failed to take modern-day Scotland or Ireland, the prior being symbolized by Hadrian's wall. The Romans later converted most of the people to Catholicism, but the Scots and Irish resisted this conversion. From this time until about 400 the Romans ruled the isles as the area became a destination for emigrants from all parts of the Roman Empire.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, Britain fell into disorder, but the arrival of the pagan Anglo-Saxons brought some order to the area of modern-day England. However, again Ireland, Scotland, and to a great degree Wales were almost wholly unaffected by this invasion and maintained a predominantly Celtic ethnicity.

The next major group to influence the isles was the Vikings in the late 800s, but only a minority of them settled, with most just visiting, or pillaging, depending on your viewpoint. This time, however unified the Anglo-Saxons and local people to resist Viking advances and solidified the reign of the Scottish kings as the people there also united to fend off attack.

In 1066 William the Conqueror successfully invaded from Normandy (in modern-day France) and by the end of the century the Normans had subdued nearly all of England, Wales, and were even pushing into Ireland. For the next couple hundred years the French-speaking Normans and English-speaking Saxons didn't intermingle much as the Normans made up the elite upper class and the Anglo-Saxons comprised the rural dwellers and farmers. These two groups slowly converged as the kings led Crusades and grew more corrupt until 1215 when the upper class forced the king to sign the Magna Charta to quell his power.

During this time England had lost control over Wales and never held complete power in Scotland, although multiple wars with these regions led to fierce resistance and unified fronts as pride swelled in these nations. Although England was on the winning side of most battles, particularly in Wales, the Scots gained near complete freedom in about 1300 as England got distracted by the Hundred Years' War with France, beginning in 1337. To add to the chaos, the plague also struck the isles at this time and as the war with France ended, the War of the Roses began as the houses of Lancaster and York fought for the crown.

In the 1500s England and Scotland joined in marriage, while Wales was forcibly taken, although it had effectively been under English rule for centuries. After these changes, under Henry VIII's rule, the king broke relations with the Catholic church so he could divorce, re-marry, repeat five times, then started the Anglican Church and further solidified his dominance over Ireland, because they were still Catholic. His children disagreed on religion and soon the country was again in war, but after Elizabeth took over, the country entered a golden age.

Under the rule of Elizabeth I, Britain defeated Spain in war, they explored the "New World" and William Shakespeare wrote his famous plays. After her reign, the king of Scotland became king of England and united the two countries (along with Wales, which was already under English rule).

In the mid-1600s Civil War broke out, led by Oliver Cromwell, and after taking power in 1649, by 1653 he was claiming himself dictator; by 1660 the monarchy had been re-established. This time also found Britain as a growing international power as they expanded colonies in the Americas and in India, as their rule over Ireland was solidified.

In 1707 the Act of Union was passed, officially putting England, Wales, and Scotland under one ruler and one parliament based in London. Ireland joined this union in 1801 (although against the wishes of most Irish). The 1700s also gave Britain control over Australia, but the American Revolutionary War hurt the country's century of relative success.

The 1800s catapulted Britain to one of the wealthiest and most advanced countries in the world as they helped lead the Industrial Revolution. These changes also created a huge gap between rich and poor, but this forced social and political changes, thus making the period a golden age due to the improvements economically, socially, and medically.

World War I proved disastrous for the people of Britain, but victorious on the battlefields. After a long interwar period, during which Ireland broke away from Britain (with the exception of Northern Ireland), World War II began and this war struck closer to home, as London was bombed for years. From England the D-Day invasion was launched, which marked the beginning of the end of the war on the European front.

After the war, most of Britain's colonies gained independence and the sun began to set on the British Empire. This resulted in instability in some of the newly independent countries and an influx of immigrants from these former British colonies. Also during this time, violence broke out repeatedly in Northern Ireland between the Catholics and Protestants.

More recently, the United Kingdom was a founding member of the European Union (EU) in 1992, although they maintain their own currency and have elected not to join the Schengen area. They also continue to consider themselves part of the British Isles instead of a part of Europe, which at times makes the Atlantic Ocean between them and Canada and the U.S.A. seem narrower than the English Channel. Additionally, there are continuing independence demands from Scotland and in the late 20th century they gained their own parliament, although talk of full independence is far from certain.

This page was last updated: March, 2013