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British History

 Early history The Romans the Dark Ages King Arthur the Norman Conquest Mediaeval times the Wars of the Roses Henry VIII and the Tudors the end of the Tudors Civil war the Restoration Napoleonic wars the Industrial Revolution the Victorian era the 20th century two world wars decline Margaret Thatcher

Early history                         

 Until 55 BC, the British Isles were inhabited by a diverse group of tribes. These included the Britons (after whom the islands were named), the Picts (generally inhabiting the area now known as Scotland), the Scots (then living in Ireland and the west of Scotland) and the Iceni in the East of England. They followed primitive animist and druidic religions and lived in small villages, each being self-sufficient for most foods. Burial chambers and ceremonial sites, such as Stonehenge, survive from many thousands of years ago.

The Romans                          Back to top

 In 55 BC the Romans invaded Britain. The British put up spirited resistance, but this was a bit like someone trying to resist the USA today. The Romans were indisputably the strongest world power at the time. Some unnecessarily brutal acts of occupation sparked an aggressive rebellion led by Boudicca (sometimes spelt Boadicaea), the Queen of the Iceni – a prototype British strong woman. Although she managed to destroy the Romans’ British capital, Colchester, the rebellion was swiftly put down. The Druids were crushed and their sacred places, especially the oak groves on the island of Anglesey, were destroyed.  

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Centuries of peace and prosperity followed, except for the bands of robbers and raiders who attacked the Roman settlements from the wild untamed North of the islands. In the second century AD, the then Roman emperor Hadrian had a wall built across the entire country as its narrowest point to deter these raids. Significant stretches of this wall, now almost two thousand years old, remain today (see photograph). But in general, the Romans and the original tribes cohabited harmoniously, trading freely with each other but not really integrating except in the upper strata of society.

During the Roman occupation, Christianity first came to Britain. This took the form of individual Christian missionaries. Although there were some high profile British martyrs (for example, St Alban was killed for his faith in the city which now bears his name somewhere between AD211 and 305), Christian communities remained localised and isolated for some while until St Augustine arrived in AD597 and began a serious attempt to convert the entire nation. He founded a cathedral in Canterbury, near his first landing point, which is still the Christian centre of the land. 

The Dark Ages                      Back to top

 The collapse of the Roman empire left a vacuum, into which stepped waves of raiders from the German, Danish and Scandinavian countries. Dominant among these were the Angles, who took control of vast swathes of the country and named it England, and the Saxons. Many English towns and villages have names betraying their Saxon origins. The original tribes were pushed back into the remoter West and North, particularly Cornwall, Wales, the Lake District and Scotland. Some even emigrated to continental Europe – the area of France known as Brittany (Bretagne) takes its name from these migrants. Today, substantial numbers of people in Wales and fewer in Cornwall still speak versions of the old Celtic languages these people used.

King Arthur                          Back to top                      

Legend  has it that the toughest British resistance was put up by King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. Having established peace they then sought adventures throughout the land. Sadly there is no historical evidence that Arthur actually existed. It is likely that the legends arose by conflating the exploits of several local heroes from Scotland, Wales and Cornwall. Maybe one incident helped create legend: a Roman captain, Germanus, stayed behind after the Roman withdrawal and led a British Army.  wales3.jpg (38945 bytes)

 In about 435 AD he lured an invading army into a valley where his men were hiding. At a prearranged signal Germanus' army leaped from their hiding places , shouting 'Alleliua!!!' at the top of their voices. The echo in the valley made it sounds as if Germanus army was far bigger than it actually was and the invaders turned tail and fled. This battle was won without a drop of blood being shed.

The new invaders gradually succeeded, though. They brought their religions with them and set back the advance of Christianity considerably, but they were gradually converted. At this point there were several kingdoms within what is now England: Northumberland in the North, Mercia in the centre, Wessex in the south and west and East Anglia in the East. Vikinngs from Norway started raiding the coasts of England, Scotland and Ireland, and gradually pressed inland until they had conquered large stretches of the countryside. King Alfred rallied the Saxon forces, drove the Vikings back and began the process of building a nation. This culminated in AD 937 with the defeat of Eric the Red by Athelstan, who thus became the first King of England. Meanwhile the Scots had spread from Ireland and the West coast, pushing the Picts out, to create the country we still recognise today as Scotland.

Over this period the Anglo-Saxons settled down and became accustomed to a relatively easy life. So when Danish raids started to increase, the people were unprepared. The Danes were bought off, and one of them (Knut, anglicised to Canute) even became king after defeating Ethelred (called `the unready’, after the Saxon word `unraed’, meaning ill-advised). He is famous for an incident which is normally mis-quoted. Knut was sick of his courtiers fawning and attributing superhuman powers to him. So he commanded his throne to be set by the shore and, as the tide came in, he ordered the sea to retreat. Of course it didn’t and the entire court were soaked. Knut had made the point that he was merely human after all.

Knut’s sons could not hold the kingdom together after his death so the crown passed (via Knut’s ill-disciplined sons) to Edward. He was known as `the confessor’ because of the vast amount of time he spent in prayer. He built a massive cathedral at Westminster, a short distance west of London, and transferred his capital there. The British government is still centred at Westminster, now fully absorbed into a gigantic and sprawling London, today. Apart from buying off the Danes again, he held the kingdom together by promising the Crown to different people after his death. So when he finally died in 1066 AD, there were competing claims.

The Norman Conquest              Back to top

 The Anglo-Saxon Government rested chiefly in the Witanagemot, literally `gathering of wise men’. Essentially this was a parliament, differing from modern parliaments mainly in that it only met when it was actually needed, and that it comprised people of wisdom and ability. The Witan met after Ethelred’s death and conferred the Crown of England on Harold Godwinson, King of Wessex. Immediately one of the rival claimants, Harald Hardraada of Norway, the toughest warlord in Europe at the time, invaded in protest. Harold swiftly gathered an army and marched North, and annihilated Hardraada’s army at Stamford Bridge. At once came the news that another claimant, William of Normandy, was also about to invade, this time in the South. Harold marched his army back to Sussex and met William in battle at Hastings. Although Harold’s army was knackered from all the marching, they almost held William’s army off – but not quite. As night fell, Harold was killed, William broke through and claimed the victory. He was crowned King on Christmas day 1066.

The Norman conquest marked the end of Saxon rule and the consolidation of the Feudal System in England. This was essentially a hierarchical form of government where most people owed allegiance to a superior who had control over their lives but in return owed them a degree of protection. This hierarchy extended from the serfs right up to the King. Sometimes a landowner would owe allegiance to different overlords for different parts of his land.

England’s prosperity grew steadily through trade and agriculture, with occasional hiccups for things like plagues which were common in mediaeval times.

Mediaeval times                  Back to top

 In 1189, Richard `the lionheart’ became king. This is generally regarded as a golden age for Britain, but for no good reason because Richard hardly even set foot in the place. He spent most of his time in the Middle East, fighting in the holy Land against the Muslim army led by Saladin. The two respected each other and the end result was a somewhat uneasy peace. Richard was promptly captured on his way home, imprisoned in Durnstein (Austria) and held for ransom. In Richard’s absence his younger brother John ruled as regent.

It is this time when legend has it that Robin Hood lived as an outlaw in Sherwood forest. As with Arthur, there is no historical evidence for his actual existence. The legend is that Robin and his band of outlaws stole from the rich and gave the proceeds to the poor – a sort of prototype socialist. Under the laws at the time, people who had offended against the Norman laws could be declared outlaw, which meant that they or anyone found sheltering them were liable to heavy (and often painful) penalties. It is likely therefore that outlaws resorted to robbery to keep themselves alive. And if some of the proceeds ended up in the hands of the outlaws’ families, that is hardly surprising.

After Richard died, John was confirmed as King. During his reign, in 1204, the French recaptured Normandy. This was unfortunate, but at least enabled him and his successors to concentrate on their British possessions. Then in 1215, the Magna Carta was signed. This was effectively the world’s first Bill of Rights. It was taken a step further by Henry III, whose main achievement was to codify the legal system into a strong and coherent form. It was at this time that the distinction was created between `statute law’ (acts passed by the Government) and `common law’ (the sum of previous cases, setting precedents against which other cases could be judged, covering areas not legislated by statute). This created a bedrock of strong law and order which has been the foundation of England’s prosperity since, and today is generally recognised to be essential for any country to flourish. Also, the forst recognisably modern Parliament was called in the reign of Henry III.

And meanwhile there were always wars to keep people amused. These were normally against the French. The best one was the hundred years’ war, which lasted from 1328 to 1453 (although there were intermissions). England scored large number of memorable victories such as Crecy and Agincourt. In the end, the hundred years’ war petered out as a draw, but the biggest gainer was France; the French kings ended up running most of the bits of France which had previously been claimed, via the Norman connection, by the English kings. 

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The Welsh, having remained on the sidelines for the start of the Norman period, were brought under effective English rule by Edward I in 1283. He built a large number of castles such as Conway and Caernarvon, from which Wales was controlled. Most of these castles remain intact today; they are immensely strong and a marvellous feat of construction for the time.

The Wars of the Roses              Back to top

  The Norman era was brought to a bloody end by the Wars of the Roses. In essence this was a family struggle for the kingship. The claimants were the houses of York (white rose) and Lancaster (red rose). After a lot of bloodshed, and the kingship oscillating between the warring factions for some time, the matter was finally settled at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. Henry Tudor (Lancastrian) won, and promptly married the Yorkist heiress, Elizabeth, uniting the two houses. He was crowned as Henry VII. Peace was restored. After the battle, the crown was found hanging on a hawthorn bush where the defeated King, Richard III, had presumably dropped it as he died.

The Tudors the beginning of the modern age 

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The Tudors were the most colourful of the British monarchs. The wars had sapped a lot of the nation's vitality and there was a lot of building to do. Henry VII   got the country back onto a sound economic footing, and handed the country over in good order to his son, Henry VIII, on his death in 1509. That's where the fun really began. He married Catherine of Aragon, a Spanish princess, and had one daugther, Mary. But Henry was desperate for a son, and Catherine passed the age of child bearing. He discovered a legal technicality by which he could get the marriage annulled, but the Pope, who was politically controlled by Catherine's nephew Charles V of Spain, refused.

At this time there was a great flowering of intellectual activity throughout Europe. The Catholic Church had become lazy and corrupt, and was widely hated. They also sought to control peoples’ spiritual lives by reserving the mysteries of Faith for those special few who were educated in them. Prayer books and Bibles in local languages were banned. Many people were starting to protest against this, and most especially against the corruption, and thus acquired the description `protestant’. This was the era of Luther and Calvin. Henry latched onto this, formally broke with the Roman Catholics, and declared himself head of the Church of England. The intention was for this to be the Catholic Church without the corruption. The buildings and priests remained the same. Conveniently, the new Church of England also granted Henry his annulment. He promptly married a pretty young girl called Anne Boleyn, who he thought was bound to have a son. And then, to eradicate the corruption in the Church, he closed down all the abbeys and monasteries in the kingdom. Of course he confiscated their wealth, in order to avoid raising taxes to pay for his latest war against (you guessed it) the French. Some of the buildings were converted to other purposes, some fell down and many were cannibalised for building materials. Ruins of huge abbeys, monasteries and priories can still be found throughout England.

And Anne didn’t have a son. She had another daughter, Elizabeth. Henry gallantly kept on trying. But meanwhile factions at the court resented Anne’s influence. Stories of adultery were trumped up against her, and people bribed to give false evidence. It is not certain whether or not Anne was actually guilty, but anyway she was convicted and had her head chopped off. After a decent period of grieving (a day or two) Henry married another pretty young girl, Jane Seymour. She had a son, Edward, with whom Henry was delighted; but almost immediately Jane died.

This time Henry genuinely grieved, for quite some time, before being induced into a political marriage with Anne of Cleves (from what is now Belgium). This was a disaster because this Anne wasn’t Henry’s type at all. He wriggled out of the marriage, gave Anne a palace and a pension, and married the Duke of Norfolk’s daughter, Catherine Howard. Unfortunately Catherine hopped into bed with other courtiers, was caught at it, so she had her head chopped off too. Henry’s pride was so wounded that for some while even he was put off marrying again. But eventually his old habits re-surfaced and he married Catherine Parr, possibly on the grounds that there was little chance of his accidentally getting her name wrong. For obvious reasons after all this, Henry was becoming ill; he died in 1547, with his latest Catherine actually managing to survive him.

Edward VI was only 10 years old at Henry's death. He was in poor health and consequently had quite a short reign. He had been strongly influenced by Protestant teachings and, having inherited Henry’s position as head of the Church of England, ordered a wholesale conversion to Protestantism. From Bibles and Prayer books in English being illegal, almost overnight they became compulsory. Fortunately, high quality translations of the Bible (William Tyndale) and the Prayer Book (Thomas Cranmer) were available. Then Edward died and was succeeded by his sister, Mary. She had been brought up by her Mother, Catherine of Aragon, who was a staunch Catholic. Immediately Mary banned English bibles and prayer books and had the main Bishops of the Edwardian era (Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley) burned as heretics. She then married her cousin, Philip of Spain.

Before much more could happen, Mary died as well, and was succeeded by her sister Elizabeth, daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. She had acquired tremendous political skills purely by surviving through the previous two reigns. Elizabeth reigned for 45 years from 1558 to 1603. She skilfully reconciled the Catholic and Protestant factions of the Church of England, encouraging English Bibles and Prayer Books but adopting the Catholic rituals fairly accurately. However, her reign was not without its little problems. Philip of Spain reckoned that, by his marriage to Mary, England ought to be his. So he put together an armada (an invasion fleet) to try to get it. But the British were superior sailors; through a better exploitation of the winds, and the clever use of fire-ships to burn a lot of the Spanish fleet in port, the Armada was defeated.

Following discovery of the West Indies in 1492, America had been discovered in 1501 by Amerigo Vespucci. During Elizabeth’s reign, global travel was really taking off. The Catholic church still thought the Earth was flat, and tortured anyone who dared to suggest otherwise, but people like Magellan jolly well knew it wasn’t because he sailed round it in 1519 (almost - he was killed in Cebu in the Philippines on the way, but his fleet succeeded). British adventurers such as Francis Drake and Philip Sidney made frequent forays to the Americas, incidentally capturing a lot of treasure which the Spanish had bought or looted from the indigenous peoples such as the Incas. Britain started to set up colonies in various places throughout the world. British prosperity once more grew. This was the start of global British influence.

The end of the Tudors               Back to top

 When Elizabeth died, she was the last of the Tudors. The next in line to the throne was Henry VII’s great grandson, James VI of Scotland. He accordingly became king James I of England, and the two countries were united under a common monarch. This was ratified by the Act of Union in 1707, which united the Parliaments of the two countries, and has remained so ever since.

James however was decidedly Protestant, which re-ignited the religious controversy from the previous century. A group of devout Catholics tried to assassinate James, with his entire government, by blowing up the Houses of Parliament with him in it. The leader was Robert Catesby, but it is generally remembered by the name of the technician, Guy Fawkes, who actually set up the bomb. The plot was foiled on 5 November 1605, and the conspirators were captured. This is still commemorated every 5th of November with bonfires and fireworks.

Menwhile James convened a working party of learned clerics to produce a definitive translation of the Bible into English. Almost uniquely for a committee, it produced a superb work, which is still the source of most of the Biblical quotations people can remember. The language was already somewhat old-fashioned, deliberately in order to produce an effect of spirituality, grandeur and majesty; it succeeded brilliantly, and survived all the changes of religious faction and fashion until the modernising trends of the 20th century produced more up to date, but less poetic and unmemorable, alternatives.

Civil war                          Back to top

 James’ son Charles was basically a good man but a bad king. He attempted to rule as an absolute monarch but failed to realise the impact this had on the country and Parliament. Through a complicated set of events, the end result was a civil war. After many battles, Charles was finally defeated at Preston, after which he was beheaded. The ensuing period from 1649 to 1659 is variously known as the Protectorate (because the head of Government, Oliver Cromwell, styled himself Lord Protector), the Commonwealth (the theory being that the wealth of the nation was held for the common people) or the Interregnum (being between kings). In practice it was not a good thing. Extreme Presbyterians were in control. Repressive laws were passed, such as banning Christmas. The rule of law was imposed with excessive harshness. And the Second Commandment was taken very literally. Churches, which had been richly decorated with paintings and statues, had their `idols’ destroyed and their walls whitewashed. In most English churches you can still see, often amid fine architecture and craftsmanship, the niches where the statues once stood, and the stark whitewashed walls.

The Restoration                  Back to top

 The Commonwealth did not survive Oliver Cromwell’s death. Charles’ son, Charles II, who had escaped capture in the Civil War by hiding in an oak tree, was invited to return as King.  But the invitation was under a strict constitutional settlement under which Parliament became supreme. Although Charles in theory had to approve laws passed by Parliament, in practice he had little choice. The Monarch still played an important role as a figurehead and a national leader, and still does, but at this point lost real executive power. In effect, this created for the first time the concept of a separation between the Head of State and the Legislature – a concept most countries today take as an axiom of good governance.

During Charles II’s reign an update of the Prayer Book was commissioned, with the specific objective of emphasising that the Church of England was a broad church and open to all shades of doctrine from High Church (in practice, catholic) to Low (in practice, Protestant) within clear limits. The 1662 edition of the Book of Common Prayer used most of Cranmer’s original, and was as brilliant as the King James Bible for much the same reasons. It is still widely used in the Church of England today, though since the 1960s services in more up to date, but less deep and spiritual, language have come to predominate.

Britain was now stable, and well positioned to reap the rewards of prosperity. Colonies grew in India, America and the Far East. Trade blossomed. As the nation’s wealth increased, many grand buildings were built; construction standards were very good and large numbers survive today.

As large trading companies such as the Hudson Bay Company and the East India Company flourished, their interests had to be protected, if necessary by force. England now had to develop a consistent foreign policy. his was done by preserving the balance of power in Europe; a policy which has been pursued ever since. In essence, if any country got too big for its boots, Britain would weigh in on the other side.

The first example of this was the War of Spanish Succession, fought in the early part of the 18th century. The Duke of Marlborough led the British army to great victories against the French in Northern Europe. A grateful nation had Blenheim Palace built for him as a reward. In the middle of the century came the War of Austrian Succession, when France was trying to dominate Austria. The British were on the winning side again, removing the French from their colonies in Canada and India. And in the latter part of the century, the American colonies fought for independence; with German and French help they won, and the United States of America became a country (or technically a federation of states) in 1776.

The Napoleonic Wars              Back to top

 Meanwhile in France (yes, again) the monarchy had become so profligate at the expense of the rest of the country that the middle class had had enough. There was a revolution, most of the aristocracy were killed and the country declared a republic. Through the chaos an army commander called Napoleon Bonaparte rose to be head of state. He introduced the Napoleonic Code, a system of laws which today still forms the basis of law in many European countries – considerably different in concept from the English legal system described earlier. But the power swiftly went to his head. He had a vision of uniting Europe as one big unit under French control. Naturally most of the other countries in Europe didn’t like this. Wars ensued. The British got involved (yes, again). We beat Napoleon’s forces at sea (Battle of Trafalgar, 1805, under Admiral Nelson) and finally, with help from Prussia, at the Battle of Waterloo in what is now Belgium (1815, under the Duke of Wellington).

The Industrial Revolution           Back to top

British prosperity had for many years depended on trade, bolstered by numerous colonies overseas. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the Industrial Revolution propelled Britain to the lead in manufacturing as well. In about 1700, Thomas Newcomen designed a steam powered engine for pumping, which ushered in the age of steam. Richard Trevithick applied this idea to locomotion and in 1800 produced the first moving steam engine for use in mines. George & Robert Stephenson developed the idea and produced the first pratical passenger carrying train, the Locomotion, in 1825. The age of mass transport thus began.

Weaving was similarly transformed, mostly in Lancashire and Yorkshire where water power was widely available for mills. The flying shuttle was invented by John Kay in 1733, and the `spinning jenny’ by Arkwright in 1769. Steam engines began to be used for farming from 1786 onwards. The combined result of these inventions was massive migration of people from farming to factory work in towns, which took place progressively over the next hundred years.

Massive feats of engineering were accomplished using new manufacturing and metal working techniques. Isambard Kingdom Brunel built bridges, docks, railways and steamships. Thomas Telford built bridges and canals. Josiah Wedgwood designed pottery. These, and hundreds of other brilliant engineers and craftsmen, took British prosperity to new heights.

The Victorian Era                Back to top

 Queen Victoria reigned from 1837 to 1901. During the Victorian era, British society was transformed, mainly for the better. High moral values were in vogue. Through the actions of many committed and strong-willed individuals, corruption in public office was more or less eliminated, and vice of all forms dramatically reduced. Slavery had already been abolished, in 1807. Growing prosperity led to major advances in public health and, through publicly financed health boards, fresh water and sewerage were provided in most towns by 1875.

During Victoria’s reign, there were a number of minor wars to keep people amused. The Crimean War was essentially Britain and France versus Russia (a draw). The effects of disease and poor nutrition took a heavy toll on the army, and nursing of the sick became a high priority. Florence Nightingale pioneered many new nursing techniques in the field hospitals, paving the way for the development of modern nursing.

Religious life was important, and was linked in most peoples’ minds to the prosperity and development of the nation as a whole. Many of the best hymns were written in or around this period, and the best are still sung regularly in British churches today.

The twentieth century              Back to top

 The twentieth century started with Britain riding high. The British empire covered quarter of the world. Living standards were among the highest in the world. British culture was vibrant and exciting. Technological progress was rapid.

Two world wars                  Back to top

 The first world war, which lasted from 1914 to 1918, brought untold misery. From a European perspective it was essentially Germany, Austria and allies versus Britain, France, Russia and Italy and friends. Apart from the vast loss of life and the appalling conditions on the battlefields, it sapped the vitality of the British people. Although we won (thanks mainly to famine in Germany and the arrival of the Americans), it was at appalling cost.

 Meanwhile, social attitudes were changing. The Trade Union movement had started in Victorian times and became politicised when the labour party was founded in 1900. It acquired a huge following among the `working classes’. The first Labour government was formed by Ramsey Macdonald in 1923, but only lasted a year. The remainder of the 1920s saw a roaring boom. It was unsustainable and couldn’t last; the economy collapsed in 1931. Recovery under a national government was slow but steady.

 But in 1939 the second world war broke out, and lasted until 1945. European participants were essentially the same as in the first world war but with Italy on the opposite side. The British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, inspired the British to stand firm, and more or less alone for a time resist what appeared for a time to be the unstoppable might of Germany. In the end, with massive American help we won again, at even higher cost than the first world war.

 After the war, Labour won power by a landslide and immediately implemented a number of Socialist reforms which today are taken for granted as permanent features of British life. The welfare state was created, paid for by massive taxes. Many industries, such as mining and the railways, were nationalised (taken into State ownership and management).

Decline                            Back to top

 Peoples’ attitudes changed after the war. Many people felt that, having won, they could sit back and reap the fruits of victory. A lot of people demanded higher wages than their work was earning, and went on strike when they didn’t get them. This combined with the high taxes led to systemic underperformance. The Empire was disbanded as colonies gradually gained their independence. Britain joined the European Economic Community in 1970, but this made little difference apart from a massive increase in bureaucracy and petty regulation. By the end of the 1970s, Britain was the poorest country in the EEC. Social thinking followed a similar trend, exacerbated by the growth of freewheeling youth culture in the 1960s. Economic decline was matched by moral and behavioural decline.

Margaret Thatcher                  Back to top

 Margaret Thatcher became the country’s first woman Prime Minister in 1979, determined to do something about it. During her Government the power of the trade unions was tamed, taxes returned to more competitive levels and (with a few hiccups) more prudent policies pursued. The Labour government which followed noticed that these policies actually worked and copied them. The result is that in 2004, Britain’s prosperity has been restored, unemployment is low and the nation is generally in reasonable shape.