A Brief History of the UK
Britain may now be The United Kingdom, but this has definitely not always been so.
In fact, the term “British” refers to one of the most diverse peoples in Europe.
The first human settlements of Britain date back 10,000 years. As ice ages came and went, so the landmass was joined and then separated from mainland Europe, but it was as recently as 4,000 years ago, that the first definable group of immigrants formed what can loosely be termed a society. This group were different to the hunter-gatherer tribes of the ice ages, in that they brought with them stone tools and a knowledge of agriculture. These Stone Age people were concentrated around southern England and left an impressive legacy of construction, including the world famous astrological clock at Stonehenge.
The Stone Age was followed by the Iron Age, where incomers from central Europe began to change the shape of the landscape of Britain. The population expanded and tribes began to form, including the Iceni, whose famous Queen was Boudica who united the tribes of Ancient Britons against the Romans.
The absorption of Britain by the Roman Empire began in 55BC under Julius Caesar, but it wasn’t until AD75-77 that the process was complete, with Roman settlements stretching from the South Downs to the borders of Scotland, where Hadrian’s Wall was constructed to keep the militant Picts at bay. Many of Britain’s cities were established during this time, including Chester, Colchester, Chichester, Bath and London. The Romans left many legacies of their occupation which lasted until the 5th century, including roads and united tribes.
As the Roman Empire died, England was open to further invasion, and was quickly colonised by the Anglo-Saxons of Northern Europe. The legacy of the Anglo Saxons has given rise to much of the English language and is still used as part of the US term WASP, meaning white Anglo Saxon protestant, that wealthy tribe of New Yorkers who inhabit the Lower East Side.
During this time, the powerful tribes of Wales and Scotland were consolidating their power, and by the 8th Century the peoples of Wales had started on the road to unification, calling the land Cymry. Wales is the only truly bilingual modern state of the UK, and to this day refers to itself as Cymru.
The next adventure in the turbulent history of the Britons was the Vikings, the warlike tribes from Scandinavia who gave history an enduring image – tall, bearded, blond, sword wielding warriors in longboats, raping and pillaging their way across the country. During the next 100 years, battles ensued for control of territories across Britain, culminating in 866ad in a significant battle for Alfred the Great, who ousted the Vikings to the North of England.
England now became a country of two parts, North the Viking territory of Danelaw while the South and West were firmly Anglo Saxon, led by Alfred the Great, the first true King of England. Alfred’s son Edward gained control of Danelaw and the territory of England more or less as we know it today was born.
The King of Wales meanwhile, was fighting his own battles with Nordic invaders. King Rhodri Mawr defeated the Vikings off Anglesey in North Wales and is widely attributed to be the first unifying force to bring Wales together. In 927, an alliance was formed with the English King Athelstan to provide strength enough to deter any threat of further Viking onslaughts. At this time unification of the tribes was also underway in Scotland where the king of the Dalriada tribe, MacAilpin, descendant of a Pict mother, was able to bring these two powerful tribes together under the banner of Scotia.
1066 and all that
England continued to suffer from threats from outside, culminating in the Norman Conquest. King Edward the Confessor’s crown passed to his son Harold on his death, but Edwards’s cousin, William of Normandy, felt the line of succession should come to him. The 1066 Battle of Hastings settled the matter with a Norman force sailing from France and succeeding in killing Harold with an arrow to the eye. William became king and quickly established a brutal and powerful regime based on a succession of strongholds through local knights and castles. A strict class system developed with the Normans holding the upper hand and the money, and the majority of the Anglo Saxons banished to an agrarian feudal underclass. This was the start of the British class system, which we will look at in the next chapter. The Normans pushed their influence north and west into Scotland and Wales with varying degrees of success. The very Northern highland tribes of Scotland remained independent throughout and it would be another 600 years before this independent stronghold would be challenged.
During this time, the English Kings began a long ideological conflict with the church. Both sides were extremely powerful and neither was willing to capitulate. In 1170, Henry II had the powerful dissident priest Thomas Beckett murdered in Canterbury cathedral. Perhaps to make amends, the next king, Richard I launched his Crusades against Muslim infidels in the Holy Land. During this time of absence of the monarchy in the homeland, government fell apart. By 1215 the feudal barons had had enough of laisez faire governance and forced the signing of the Magna Carta, which limited the power of the king significantly and led the way for the creation of parliament.
The Plantagenet monarchy ruled for the next 200 years, a period of deep uncertainty for England. Pressure from the north in the form of Robert the Bruce, king of Scotland, ended the Plantagenet dream of the conquer and unification of the mainland. In the south, the 100 Years War with France began and caused deep economic and agricultural insecurity as the country’s wealth and manhood were sacrificed for this conflict. In 1337, the Black Death arrived at England’s’ shores and killed one in three of the country’s population. In 1381, probably as a direct result of the pressures of the past 50 years, Richard II was faced with The Peasants Revolt, the attempt by the majority of the population, held in serfdom to end the feudal system. This revolt was swiftly and severely suppressed.
In an act of Shakespearian drama, Richard II was overthrown by one of the feudal overlords, Henry Bolingbroke who became Henry IV, the first king of the House of Lancaster. In the meantime, Owen Glendower, a royal descendant of the Welsh, led a rebellion against English rule, which was swiftly crushed by Henry’s forces. Large parts of Wales were torched and the country suffered appalling famine as a result. Henry V succeeded the throne and redoubled the efforts of the Hundred Years War, which was still rumbling on with France. He defeated the French at the battle of Agincourt, capturing key French nobles including the Duke of Orleans. The victory was a financial success and enabled Henry to continue the war. In 1417 he took Caen and in 1419, Rouen, leading to the defeat of the territory of Normandy, an English Norman Conquest.
Henry VI (noted for domestic educational achievements including Kings College Chapel in Cambridge and Eton Chapel at Windsor) was very unwell, and suffered from bouts of insanity. Henry’s great rival, Richard Duke of York, was a pretender to the throne with a legitimate claim by virtue of ancestry who took advantage of the power vacuum created by the kings inattention to matters of state and began the Wars of the Roses. Eventually, Richard’s son Edward finally defeated Henry’s forces and he acceded to the throne, becoming Edward IV. The Earl of Warwick, Richard Neville, known in history as the King Maker, challenged him for his claim to the throne. In 1470, Neville banished Edward to exile and returned Henry VI to the throne. A year later Edward came out of exile, killed Warwick and had Henry beheaded in the Tower of London.
Edward died after 10 years in power, being succeeded by his 12 year old son, Edward V. However, the mysterious deaths of the boy king and his brother in Tower of London are accredited to their uncle, Richard III. Upon Edward V’s death, Richard took the throne. This was short lived as he was summarily despatched by Henry Tudor (Henry VII) in 1485 and a new era began.
Henry was considered to be a unifying force between England and Wales, where he lifted many of the restrictions placed upon the Welsh by Henry IV but his successor, Henry VIII is perhaps one of the most famous and brutal of all of the leaders of England.
Henry VIII could not father a male heir and his belief that this could be solved by multiple marriages, placed him in direct conflict with the church. He set in motion radical reorganisation of the structure of the church, established himself as the head of the Church of England and ordered the Dissolution of the Monasteries, taking their lands and wealth. This curbed the influence of the Pope over the state affairs of the country and Henry signed the Acts of Union, uniting England and Wales. Henry got his wish for a son, Edward VI, but he was never the healthy image of his father and died, passing the throne, albeit briefly to Mary I, whose reign was also very short. During the reign of Edward VI, a full-scale attempt to introduce a protestant church into England was underway and by the time of his death, catholic paraphernalia was stripped from English churches. The throne then passed to the third child, Elizabeth I.
The First Elizabethan Age
Elizabeth was a powerful and charismatic figure, perhaps even the first monarch to actively create herself as a cult figure. During her reign, she brought order to the church and the government and England was optimistic again. Shakespeare was writing, the Spanish Armada was defeated and global trade and exploration was furthered thanks to the efforts of Walter Raleigh and Francis Drake.
Meanwhile, Mary, Elizabeth’s first cousin and daughter of Scottish King James V had been given the title Mary Queen of Scots. Mary had married the French heir to the throne and was therefore also, Queen of France. Following her husband’s death in 1560, she returned to Edinburgh and set about a conflict with the Scottish Protestant church as it found itself with a Catholic monarch. She made claim to the English throne, but was not supported by the Scottish regime and found herself imprisoned in Lochleven Castle. After a coup by Protestant radicals, Mary was officially ousted from power and replaced by her son James VI. Mary fled into exile in England and asked for the protection of her cousin, Elizabeth. Elizabeth, suspicious of any provocation to a Catholic uprising, had Mary imprisoned for 19 years and eventually beheaded on a charge of treason.
Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen, died without an heir and was succeeded by her closest relative, James, son of the murdered Mary. He became James I of England and James VI of Scotland. His reign further incited religious turmoil, culminating in the failed Gunpowder Plot, backed by the Catholic Earls. Guy Fawkes is still commemorated for his failed attempt to destroy the Houses of Parliament each year on November 5th. Bonfire Night is celebrated with fireworks and the burning of Guy Fawkes in effigy. It is interesting to note that James VI is credited as being the originator of the term “Great Britain” and the designer of the British flag (the Union Jack) that is still used to this day.
The next king, Charles I, a strong advocate of the divine right of kings, found himself in conflict with Parliament and took Britain into civil war. From 1644-1649, anti royalist forces led by Oliver Cromwell routed the king’s forces at the battle of Naseby and a year later Charles surrendered to Scottish forces. In 1648 Charles was put on trial for treason and was found guilty. He was executed the following year.
Cromwell found himself in disagreement with parliament and in 1653 assumed dictatorial powers. His son succeeded him, but in 1660, parliament decided to reinstate the monarchy and Charles II, exiled son of Charles I, came to the throne. His rule is characterised by The Restoration, a period of scientific and cultural enlightenment as well as colonial expansion into the Americas and India. The East India Company was founded in Bombay, and the seeds were sown for the creation of the British Empire.
A period of relative calm followed for the monarchy, but the conflicts between Protestantism and Catholicism continued. In 1707, under the rule of Queen Anne, the Act of Union was passed abolishing the independent Scottish parliament and transferring power for England Wales and Scotland to London for the first time. The new powerful parliament included in the Act of Union the banning of any Catholic from ascending to the throne. Although these changes to a protestant secular state were relatively painless in Britain, they were to have far reaching effects on Ireland, where British protestant power is still an enormous issue.
The empire continued to grow, and in the throes of this increased wealth and stability, struggles for the British throne became a thing of the past. The Hanoverian rulers, who are the forebears of today’s’ Royal Family, relied on parliament to govern the country with the divine right of kings, confined to history. The expansion into the Americas and India continued, and Britain made its first claims on Australia and New Zealand in 1768, with the epic voyage of James Cook.
The American War of Independence, was the first real threat to the stability of the ever-expanding empire and in 1783, America became a country. During the seven years of the war, Britain’s ability to fully defend the empire was compromised and this opportunity was seized to full advantage by the French Emperor Napoleon who made the very real threat to invade the British Isles, an act not considered serious since the Vikings.
Napoleon’s forces were a real threat to both British security and it’s supremacy over global trade. On 21st October 1805, Admiral Lord Nelson engaged the French fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar and successfully quashed the threat of invasion. Nelson lost his life during the battle, along with 1700 British soldiers and 6000 casualties to the French forces. Following imprisonment on Elba, Napoleon returned to power in 1815 and was intent on invading Belgium on his way to Britain. On the 18th June 1815, the Duke of Wellington engaged the French forces at the battle of Waterloo, defeating Napoleon and ending the threat of invasion for good. Napoleon was imprisoned on St Helena, dying in 1821.
Britain’s Golden Age
In 1837, Queen Victoria took the throne of the country, ushering in a new era of social and industrial change. The Empire was expanding and Britain had become the crucible of the industrial revolution. During the reign of Victoria, some huge social changes took place, including the first mass relocations of people as the country changed from a rural to an urban society. The period of Victoria’s 64 year reign, constituted Britain’s’ Golden Age of industrial, military and economic supremacy, with the territories of Empire including Canada, the Caribbean, Australia, New Zealand and much of India and Africa. Two Prime Ministers put in place sweeping social reforms. Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone changed society through universal education, the legalisation of trade unions and the extension of the right to vote to the common man. It would however, be another 30 years before this right would be extended to women.
Queen Victoria was succeeded in 1901 by Edward VII. The Edwardian era was one of more relaxed social attitudes and the growth of literature and music. Germany at this time was very much perceived as the Cultural model for the new century and British writers such as E.M Forster were fascinated by the German attitude to culture, freethinking and art. Influences from the rest of Europe had also started to filter into British middle class society, largely as a result of the influence of The Grand Tour. This peculiarly English phenomenon, of travelling to various parts of Europe and Africa, had at its’ heart the aim of enlightening the new wealthy classes in the arts and history. The vast fortunes accumulated by the new industrialists not only gave them the wealth to travel, but also the desire to be accepted by the aristocracy. Many British civic buildings were built in the style of the great palaces of Europe, so impressed were the industrialists by the cultures of France and Italy. The Doges Palace in Venice influences the Manchester Town Hall, designed by Alfred Waterhouse. Glasgow town hall, although earlier was also built in homage to Renaissance Florence.
The First World War
World War One ended this period of optimism as Britain was plunged into an industrial scale conflict. The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 was the catalyst for the war. When German forces entered Belgium on the way to invade France, British and allied soldiers were drawn into an horrific stalemate, defending the French borders in the trenches. Along the Somme trenches alone, a million men died. Surviving soldiers returning to Britain, exhibited terrible psychological and physical problems.
For both the military and civilian populations, the end of the war caused a questioning of the social and political order of the country, and a new political force, the Labour Party, emerged with the aim of the promotion of social justice. In 1923, the Labour Party won their first election and formed a joint government with the liberals. In 1926 unrest about the state of the economy led to the General Strike. Half a million workers marched through the streets and for 9 days brought Britain to a standstill. The world economy slumped and the effects of the Great Depression soon took hold.
The Royal family fared no better during this period. Edward VIII abdicated in 1936 so he could marry his mistress, Wallis Simpson. Mrs Simpson had been married twice before, and was from the United States. This was a huge scandal and undid most of the good work he did during the depression through his back-to-work scheme. However, he had sympathy for German Nazi regime and this combined with his desire to marry a divorcee, made his reign untenable.
In 1938 British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain went to Germany and met with Adolf Hitler. Chamberlain returned to Britain with an assurance of “Peace in our time”, but he had misjudged the intentions of the German chancellor. In 1939, Hitler invaded Poland and two days later, Britain was once more at war with Germany.
The Second World War
The German forces swept through Europe at astonishing speed and pushed British forces out of France from the beaches of Dunkirk in June 1940. A flotilla of civilian boats sailed across the English Channel to bring home the retreating army.
By mid 1940, Neville Chamberlain had given way to Winston Churchill. Churchill had an extraordinary ability to inspire and Hitler’s plans for invasion of the British Isles were halted at the Channel Islands, as the country armed itself in resistance. The Battle of Britain, which took place between July and October 1940, pushed back the German Luftwaffe aerial raids, and allowed for British land forces to re group.
During this time, the US remained neutral until on Sunday 7th December 1941, the Japanese attacked the US fleet at Pearl Harbour. America now entered the war, with the Europe First agenda of Roosevelt. In 1942, German forces were defeated in North Africa and by 1944 Germany was in retreat in Europe. On 6th June 1944, allied troops landed on the beaches of Normandy for what have become known as the D-Day Landings. This marked the start of the liberation of France and eventually the whole of Europe. By 1945, Hitler was dead, Germany lay in ruins and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, marked the terrible end of a terrible war.
In Britain, the deprivation of the people through five years of rationing, the bombing of the infrastructure and near collapse of the economy, led to a political swing away from Churchill and saw a victory for the Labour Party and new PM, Clement Atlee. This was the dawn of the Welfare State, a structure of reforms to provide for the people of Britain “From Cradle to Grave” and has become a political backbone and battle ground ever since. This post war period was harsh for the British people, with rationing lasting well into the 1950’s. Where America was enjoying renewed economic prosperity and optimism, Britain was still struggling with rebuilding both the cities and the economy. Many British Colonies sought independence after World War Two and Britain saw the eventual demise of the vast majority of the Empire. The national mood was bleak. Britain may have won the war, but it was in danger of losing the peace.
In 1952, Britain mourned the passing of George VI and celebrated the coronation of Elizabeth II. The same year saw Edmund Hillary conquer Everest for the first time, and the national mood took an upswing. By the end of the decade, conservative PM Harold MacMillan famously reminded the people they had “Never had it so good”. In 1959, Britain formed the European Free Trade Area, largely in response to the signing of the Treaty of Rome by six European countries (France, the Federal Republic of Germany, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands) establishing the European Economic Community or the Common Market, which sought to abolish tariffs and trade restrictions between member countries. Britain attempted to join the EEC in 1961 and 1967 but the French President Charles de Gaulle vetoed the application. In 1973 PM Edward Heath reopened negotiations and following a referendum Britain joined the EEC.
The Swinging 60s
The 1960’s saw a huge rise in national optimism and grey Britain became Swinging. Britain took centre stage in the rise of youth culture and the decade saw the liberalisation of the law, legalising abortion and homosexuality. The decade also saw the introduction of the contraceptive pill and the rise of the “Permissive Society”.
The 1970’s saw a sharp downturn in the national mood and the economy, with inflation rates soaring, an oil crisis looming and industrial unrest on the horizon. Political and industrial reform was badly needed. By 1975 the top rates of income tax had reached 97%, and Britain was in midst of a brain drain, strikes, power shortages and three day weeks. The Labour policy of nationalisation during the 1940’s and 50’s was now seen to have led to uncompetitive and low quality industry. Consumers at home, forced to buy poorly built British cars or face huge import duties on foreign goods, became disillusioned with the Labour way and in 1979 elected Margaret Thatcher to power.
The Thatcher years were a virtual social revolution for Britain and she was adored and despised in equal measure. The power of the trade unions, was dramatically cut and where she saw failure, she acted. Workers who did not embrace change were fired, companies, which were inefficient, were closed down and nationalised industries were sold off. It is perhaps the privatisation of British industry, which has been her greatest economic legacy. For the most part the British people see this as a good thing and share options were, for the first time, available for the small investor in companies such as British Telecom (once a division of the Post Office) and British Airways. However, ask the people of Britain what they feel about the privatisation of the railways and the vast majority will tell you it was costly and inefficient mistake. From having an enviable rail network able to compete at the level of the French TGV, Britain now has one the most expensive, outdated and inefficient systems in Europe.
The privatisation programme had the effect of moving the long-term economy of Britain out of manufacturing and into service industries. In the 1950’s British motor manufacturing dominated Europe, with Rolls Royce, Jaguar, Austin, Morris, Triumph, Wolsley, Vauxhall, Rover and Daimler all producing models and employing tens of thousands of workers. By the 1970’s these companies had been nationalised and with the exception of Rolls Royce and Vauxhall, brought under the umbrella of British Leyland. Britons still remember with horrified fondness, models such as the Allegro and the Morris Marina, which were badly built and frighteningly unreliable. The de-merger of British Leyland and subsequent privatisation of the companies, ended British car manufacturing for good, the last casualty of which has been Rover, who called in the administrators in 2005.
Margaret Thatcher’s dauntless nature saw her take Britain into war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands and confront the coal miners head on, in the programme of closure of the uneconomic mines, owned by the nationalised British Coal. The result was a nationwide strike by the miners, one of the most damaging and acrimonious disputes in Britain’s’ industrial history. Communities were torn apart and even today, the scars of are still evident in the economic depravation in parts of the North West and Wales. Mrs Thatcher was victorious and since 1984 140 mines have closed with the loss of 250,000 jobs.
The social costs of Thatcherism have been enormous. The Welfare State was brought down to its most fundamental level, with public service spending cut back severely. The way was opened up for “Internal Markets” in social and health care provision and the funding of public projects through Public Private Partnerships (PPP’s). The gap between the richest and poorest people in Britain is wider than any other European country. However, the economy of Britain was in better shape than it had been in the last 100 years. Thatcher lost power to her conservative party successor John Major in 1990, largely as a result of conflicts over the Poll Tax, the issue of Europe and her autocratic style of leadership.
1997 saw the first Labour election victory for more than 20 years. The effects of Thatcherism on the country were not lost on the labour party either, and having invented itself as New Labour, friend to the entrepreneur, victory was theirs. As “Cool Britannia” swept through the country and a new wave of optimism contributed to political change, so Scotland and Wales were given their own parliaments and semi autonomous rule.
In 2004, government backing for the American led invasion of Iraq, split British opinion and led to UK forces being deployed. The general election of 2005 saw the Labour Party returned to power but with a decreased majority in Parliament. The July 2005 terrorist attacks on London by British citizens supporting Al Queda have shaken Britain’s’ view of itself as a well integrated, multi cultural society. The very idea of “Britishness” is now being re-examined in what has become an uncertain time for Britain and its identity.
The global recession hit Britain hard in 2008 as many of the banks were heavily invested in American sub-prime mortgages. Two of the UK’s largest banking groups came very close to collapse and the resulting government bail out ran into the hundreds of billions of pounds. In 2010 the Labour Party lost the general election, as a result of mismanagement of the economy and a succession of scandals surrounding the expenses claims made by MP’s, which were excessive and in some cases fraudulent. The Conservative Party, led by David Cameron, and Eton educated reformer, rebranded itself as centre right and formed a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats. Britain continues to suffer economically as the cost of the bank bail outs becomes apparent on the national deficit and the provision of services. David Cameron had made the election pledge to hold a referendum on whether the UK stayed inside the EU or not. What was a certain win for remaining in the EU when the Cameron administration came to power, suffered a massive turnaround in the wake of the Syrian refugee crisis and the gamble to finally silence “Eurosceptic” conservative MP’s was lost. Britain voted to leave.
And so to Brexit…
The 2014 referendum for Scottish independence was narrowly in favour of the country staying part of the union. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have their own independently elected parliaments. However, the future of Scotland as part of the United Kingdom has been thrown into doubt following the 2016 referendum where the people of Britain chose to leave the European Union (EU). Should Scotland push for a second referendum it would likely be successful on the basis that it will be welcomed back into the EU. We wait and see….
Britishness Since 1870 – Paul Ward - Routledge
Testament of Youth – Vera Brittain - Penguin
War Horse – Michael Morpurgo – Egmont Books Ltd
Landmarks of Britain – The 500 Places That Made Our History – Clive Aslet – Hodder & Stoughton
Britain’s Royal Families – The Complete Genealogy – Alison Wier - Pimlico
The Crown - Seasons 1 & 2 on Netflix