British History in Under Five Minutes!



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British History in Under Five Minutes!

First off—what’s in a name? Many Americans use the words, London, England, Great Britain, the British Isles and the United Kingdom as if they are the same thing. The confusion is understandable because the English are particularly messy when it comes to naming things. The English will often talk about the whole country as England unless prompted otherwise. A Scotsman or Welshman never will. For such a small country, regional and ethnic loyalties are pretty intense. Last year, the Scots came very close to voting for total independence from England. The English, who conquered the whole area, are often careless with the sensibilities of those they mowed over so many hundreds of years ago.



  • London—the capital city (not representative of the rest of the country!)

  • England—the part of the country that does not include Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland

  • Great Britain—describes the collection of countries (Britain is a word of Celtic origin) but not the Republic of Ireland

  • The British Isles—the geographic description of the collection of islands that make up the…

  • United Kingdom (of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)—the countries all ruled by Queen Elizabeth II off the northwestern coast of Europe

So, like that the United States, Britain’s early history has been one of the conquest of territory, from sea to sea. In the case of Britain, waves of conquest washed over Britain. The “beaker folk” were conquered by other migrants who in turn were conquered by the Celts, who in turn were conquered by the Romans and pushed west and north. Today, the Celtic peoples still survive—in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Brittany (France) and Galicia (Spain). 400 years later as the Roman Empire shrunk, new invaders came. None managed to conquer the whole island but together the Angles, Saxons, Jutes, and Danes slowly melded together to form the English. By about 1000 AD, most of what we now call England was ruled by one king. In 1066, the last hostile takeover of England took place. Led by the Duke of Normandy in northern France, William the Bastard, the Normans over-ran the English forces at the Battle of Hastings. Since he won he is known in English history by the more respectful name of William the Conqueror. The Normans spoke a different language and took centuries to be assimilated into the population. To begin with at least they wanted land and loot. William the Conqueror was very businesslike in his looting. He commissioned what was the first census in England—the Domesday survey (pronounced Doomsday)-- to identify not just how many people lived where but what land belonged to whom, what goods they had and what income. He used this as the basis to tax the English as much as possible without destroying a really good annual income. He also built castles to secure the land he won.

The Middle Ages in England (usually dated as 1066-1485) were years of general prosperity for most of England though the agricultural basis of the country meant that in any given year there could be crop failures and therefore famine, epidemics and death. The early and mid-1300s were particularly bad. Add in frequent wars and unrest and you have a bad recipe for regular people. During this time, England was almost constantly at war with France or Scotland or sometimes with both and also trying hard to conquer Ireland and did succeed in conquering Wales. In between were a few civil wars. Despite this, good cultivatable land and the growth of the wool trade made England one of the wealthier regions in Europe.

When William Shakespeare wrote his plays in the late 1500s/early 1600s, London was one of the larger cities in Europe and England was enjoying a shaky peace. Much of what he wrote, especially in his “history” plays was devoted to justifying the claims to the throne by the Tudor family which came to rule England because of battle. The most famous Tudor monarchs were Henry VIII (he of the many wives) and Elizabeth II (a great hero in English history). Still, by 1600 England was not one of Europe’s leading powers.

Throughout most of the 1600s, England was ruled by the same person who ruled Scotland, though the two countries were run entirely separately. They weren’t run well though and at one point, the English parliament gained enough power to execute the king and declare a republic for several years.

During the 1700s, England and Scotland were ruled by Germans though parliament was able to limit the powers of the king. This was the time when England especially became incredibly productive, developed what was then called “scientific farming,” expanded into a world empire, developed a sophisticated banking and finance sector and, toward the end of the century, developed the beginnings of the world’s first industrial revolution. Even with the loss of the American colonies, Britain continued to grow in power and wealth. It fought a running series of wars during these years with France as to who would control Europe and the world. By 1815 and the defeat of Napoleon, Britain had definitively won.

By 1914, even without the American colonies, the British Empire ruled one-quarter of the total world’s land surface. But its years of domination were over. The rise of the United States and a newly-united Germany posed real economic challenges, the empire itself had become an enormous burden to British finances and ability to control, and Britain’s cities and industries were growing old and decrepit. World War One finished off Britain’s world dominance though it took most of the rest of the twentieth century for the British to realize it. After World War Two, Britain was bankrupt and over the 25 years from 1945 to 1970 almost the whole of the British Empire became independent. Recovery from war was slow. Only by the middle 1960s did the British economy recover enough for regular British people to enjoy much of an improving standard of living.



Today, Great Britain is again one of the world’s leading countries though losing ground relatively speaking to rising countries like China and India. It is also far more cosmopolitan than for many years. As a member of the European Union, Great Britain is obliged to accept migration from other member countries. With enough economic problems of its own and with many people fearing change, immigration is one of the more important issues in the current general election campaign.

In this course, we want you to experience not only the History of the place but also to realize that History is a living thing. It continues to be made as we live and breathe. We want you to explore and think about how people live in this historic place, confronting the problems of life as we all do, but also very much how their culture affects and inflects their present.


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