The first people to inhabit Britain, the ones responsible for such megalith monuments as Stonehenge, arrived between 35,000-10,000 years ago. From 1,500-500 BC, Celtic tribes from the continent came to settle in Britain and began mixing with the indigenous groups that were already there.
In an attempt to expand their empire, the Romans began to travel to Britain beginning in the first century AD. Control over southern Britain was gained relatively smoothly and by 79 AD, what is now England and Wales were under Roman rule. Northern Britain, however, more specifically, the early Scots were much harder to manage. Despite some significant losses at the hands of the Romans, the Caledonian tribes remained fiercely resilient. It has been suggested that Hadrian’s Wall, the northernmost border of the Roman Empire, was built to protect the south from northern inhabitants.
When the Roman Empire began to collapse in the 5th century, Roman inhabitants of Britain were forced home, leaving Celtic tribes alone. Soon after, fighting broke out amongst the Celtic people and Germanic tribes (the Angles, Saxons and Jutes) arrived to take control. Unlike the Romans, the Germanic groups did not return home, instead establishing six kingdoms. These kingdoms, known as the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy ruled Britain from 500-850 AD.
The 10th century signaled the arrival of the Danes to northeast England where they adopted the French feudal system and language. In the 11th century, Norman King Edward nominated William, the Duke of Normandy as his successor. Despite this nomination, upon the death of Edward, the Earl of Wessex, Harold Godwinson declared himself to be king. The ensuing fight was the Battle of Hastings in 1066 in which William the Conqueror became William I of England.
The 12th and 13th centuries saw Britain involved in civil wars with the throne consistently contested. One of the most notorious battles was between English Edward “Longshanks” and Scottish William Wallace and Robert the Bruce in which the Scots were the victors.
With the 16th century came one of Britain’s most famous monarchs, Henry VIII. His Act of Union made him the first ruler to declare himself king of both England and Wales. In 1553, he divorced his Catholic wife, Catherine of Aragon in favour of Anne Boleyn. As a result, the pope excommunicated Henry, who went on to name himself the head of the Church of England.
Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth, was crowned queen six years after his death. Her reign has been classified as the first Golden Age of England. Her successor was James VI, a Catholic, and the son of Mary Queen of Scots, making James both king of Scotland and England. The divide between Protestants and Catholics widened resulting in James’ successor, Charles I uniting Britain and Ireland. This resulted in the English Civil War where Oliver Cromwell, who beheaded Charles I, went on to rule as a dictator. It wasn’t until 1707 that another Act of Union joined Scottish and English parliaments to create a single kingdom.
For Britain, the 19th century was a time of great expansion. Under Queen Victoria, Britain had interests on every continent and she ruled over 40% of the globe and one-quarter of the world’s population. Britain entered the First World War in 1914, fighting until the end of 1918. A devastating time for all of Europe, Britain was not exempt. Following the war, the Labour Party came into being, assuring better rights for workers and universal suffrage in 1928.
Britain declared war on Germany after the invasion of Poland in September 1939. This was a war fought on the continent and at home as many cities in Britain were bombed heavily. Winston Churchill became Prime Minister during the war and was responsible for galvanizing Brits at home and at the front. Following the war, Britain was bankrupt, forcing its vast empire to be dismantled. Britain had no choice but to grant independence to its colonies.
Queen Elizabeth took the throne in 1952. The next decade saw an outburst of British culture through music, art and film. The 1970s contended with an oil crisis, which greatly impacted British industry. Margaret Thatcher became prime minister from 1979 until 1990 and remains a controversial member of British history to this day.
England remains an incredibly popular tourist destination for those who love history, literature, art, sport and more.
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