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 When the Ice Age ended, more than 7000 years ago, melting ice flooded low-
lying lands in continental Europe, creating the English Channel and the North
Sea and turning Britain into an island. While set apart from continental Europe,
Britain absorbed numbers of immigrants whose descendants would establish an
empire incorporating a quarter of the earth’s population. Around 3000 BC
Stone Age people, who lived by farming, arrived in Britain, probably from the
Iberian Peninsula. They were followed by the Beaker people, so-called because
of their pottery. A more important wave of immigrants was that of the Celts from
eastern and central Europe, who arrived in Britain in 700 BC. Those Celts were
the ancestors of the Highland Scots, the Welsh, and the Irish.

 Recorded history began in Britain in 55 BC, when Julius Caesar crossed the

English Channel. The Romans ruled Britain for nearly 400 years. Only the Scottish

tribes remained independent. Scottish raiding parties were contained by

Hadrian, the emperor who built and defended a wall across the north of

England. Eventually, the Romans abandoned Britain in order to fight the

barbarians at the gates of Rome. The Romans left behind a network of towns, a

superb road system, and a new religion, Christianity.


 Gradually the native Celts were pushed west into Wales and north in Scotland by the Angles,
Saxons, and Jutes, invaders from central Europe. Anglo-Saxon domination lasted for four
centuries, even though it did not include Scotland, where the Picts and the Scots established a
separate kingdom. The Anglo-Saxons were a ferocious people. Nevertheless, they divided the
country into shires and devised an effective farming system, thereby laying the foundations of the
English state. The Teutonic religion of the Anglo-Saxons was dominant over Christianity until the
end of the 6th century, when the monk Augustine converted the kings and nobles. Monasteries
were established and became centers of learning. The treasures of the monasteries lured the
Vikings, who in the 9th century began ruthless raids from across the North Sea. In the beginning,
the Vikings were defeated at sea by Alfred the Great, the founder of the British navy. Eventually,
though, the Vikings were assimilated. Indeed, Canute, leader of the Danes, became king of

 The links between England and Normandy, the part of France settled by
Vikings, were further strengthened in 1066 by the triumph of William,
Duke of Normandy, at the Battle of Hastings. In return for their loyalty,
William parceled out the land to barons; the barons in turn parceled out
land to lesser nobles in return for goods and services. The peasants,
whose feudal status resembled slavery, were at the bottom of the social
hierarchy. While Norman kings devoted much energy to protecting their
borders, a Norman culture flourished, producing a number of learned
historians and scholars. Oxford University was founded in 1167.

 From 1154 to 1547 much of English history was shaped by the shifting alliances of the
Plantagenet and Tudor kings. Royal succession was by no means assured during this
period of conflict and disease—nearly half the population was killed by the Black
Death in 1348-49. The Wars of the Roses, struggles between the Houses of Lancaster
and York in the period from 1455 to 1485 illustrate that those who could obtain the
greatest military power from a majority of rival barons were able to claim the throne.
International relations were dominated by strife with France, including the Hundred
Years War (1337-1453). In domestic politics, Wales was subjugated by 1288, and
Scottish independence was recognized in 1314, when English forces were defeated
by Robert Bruce at the Battle of Bannockburn.

 Britain’s most famous king was Henry VIII, remembered not only for his six
wives (two of whom he had beheaded), but also for bringing about the
Reformation. As a result of the Reformation, England became a
Protestant country, rather than a Catholic one. Henry’s quarrel with the
Church was centered on the Pope’s refusal to annul his marriage with
Catherine of Aragon, who could not give him a male heir to the throne.
Henry also took advantage of a growing distaste for the excessive
wealth and privilege of the Church; thus he was able to seize enough
monastic lands and property to finance his rule. Wales was formally
united with England in 1536.
 Under Elizabeth I, daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, England
entered a Golden Age. Among the events of the Elizabethan Age
were the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, Sir Walter Raleigh’s
discovery of tobacco in Virginia, and Sir Francis Drake’s
circumnavigation of the world. Elizabeth’s 45-year reign was
enriched by the flourishing of poetry, plays, and pageantry. After
the death of Elizabeth, the “Virgin Queen” who left no male heir, the
throne was occupied by James VI of Scotland, who became James
I of England.
 James inaugurated the Stuart dynasty and joined together the two
kingdoms. Conflict between the Crown and Parliament characterized
the Stuart period. James I would have preferred to have no Parliament
at all, since he was a staunch believer in the Divine Right of Kings.
Charles I dissolved Parliament and introduced a period of absolute rule
which lasted eleven years. The result of the conflict was civil war from
1622 to 1649; Charles, who lost the war, was beheaded. Under the rule
of Oliver Cromwell, a period of republicanism followed, but after
Cromwell’s death the monarchy was restored and prospered under
Charles II.

 James II, who succeeded his brother, tried to restore the absolute monarchy and the
Catholic religion. However, newly emerging political parties forced him to flee and
invite his daughter Mary and her Dutch husband, William of Orange, to occupy the
throne. Though bloodless, the “Glorious Revolution” was indeed a revolution and
paved the way for Parliament’s dominance over the Crown. England and Scotland
were united in 1707 by the Act of Union. Scotland was allowed, however, to retain its
own church and legislature. In 1714 political pragmatism again prevailed when the
need for a reliable Protestant monarch turned up George I of Hanover, in Germany.
George I spoke no English and had little interest in his subjects. Nevertheless, he
founded a dynasty which would last for 115 years and which would encompass an
expanding empire and an industrial revolution.
 Driven by trade adventurism, Britain gained control of West Africa and India,
Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, some Caribbean islands, and Australia and
New Zealand. On the home front, farmers began to use more efficient and
more profitable methods. As a result, many peasant farmers, evicted from their
lands, either emigrated to the New World or left the land to seek work in the
towns, which quickly became overcrowded. Britain became the first country to
industrialize in part because of this combination of landowners with surplus
capital to invest and laborers in search of a living. Other important factors in the
process of industrialization included political stability, the security of being an
island, natural resources, good trade arrangements, and a genius for invention.
 In the 1770s Scottish inventor James Watt modified and improved the
steam engine, opening the way for efficient powering of trains, ships,
and factory machinery. Mass production in textiles was made possible
by the invention of the Spinning Jenny and the power loom. A new
class of industrialists, whose fortunes rivaled those of the aristocracy,
was created by the program of massive building of railroads, roads,
and canals. But this building program also led to abominable working
conditions in mines and factories; those conditions led to the slow and
painful development of trade unionism.

 Political reforms came gradually in Britain. Parliamentary seats were distributed more
fairly among growing new towns, but voting was still based on property ownership.
Universal suffrage only came to Britain in 1918—and even then was hardly universal,
since it excluded women under the age of thirty. The dominant issue in
parliamentary debate was the Irish Question. Irish resentment over centuries of British
rule made itself known after the potato famines of the mid-1840s, when about twenty
percent of Ireland’s population died of starvation, and more than a million people
emigrated to escape such a fate. Many English politicians, conscious of security
problems posed by having an independent and possibly not-too-friendly neighbor,
were reluctant to grant growing demands for Irish independence.


 The Victorian Age is regarded as a time of exuberant self-

confidence, symbolized by the building in London of the Crystal
Palace to showcase Britain’s industrial and technical achievements
in the Great Exhibition of 1851. Many of London’s residents, for
whom the squalor and crime of Dickens’ novels were all too real,
must have wondered when they would benefit from all those


 During the last quarter of the 19th century, life improved for the working classes.
Many homes had gas lighting, and new municipal councils cleaned the streets.
Crime was contained by a new police force, and inexpensive entertainment
was available in music halls. Bicycles became common transportation, and a
highlight of summer for many people was a trip by rail to the seashore. In 1863
the trains of the world’s first underground railway made their way between
Paddington and Farrington, in London. But the Victorian era came to an end.
In 1900 the British were the victors in the Boer War in South Africa. France,
Germany, and America were becoming powerful competitors for world
markets, and the newly united Germany was building its military might.

 Entering World War I in the wake of a complex network of international alliances, Britain saw more
than a million of its young men die. At the end of the war social unrest gave more power to
women and led to a General Strike by dissatisfied workers in 1926. An independent Irish free state
was created, but six Protestant-dominated counties in the north of Ireland remained under the
rule of the United Kingdom. Thus, the Irish Question was partly settled. In 1929, the shock waves
from the New York Stock Market Crash sent Britain into depression and left millions of people out
of work, especially in the industrial areas of northern England, south Wales, and Clydeside in
Scotland. Newly crowned King Edward VIII decided in 1936 to marry Mrs. Wallis Simpson, an
American who had been twice divorced. He was forced to abdicate in the face of opposition
from his family, the Church, and the government. The popularity of the monarchy was restored by
Edward’s brother, George VI. Although Britain was not invaded, World War II involved civilians in
unprecedented ways. Cities like Coventry were devastated by bombing, and for the first time
since the Great Fire of 1661, London was radically changed by the Blitz.

 During the war, most social inequities were set aside. In 1945, when peace was
restored, voters hoped that the Labour Party could develop an even greater
egalitarianism. The basis of a welfare state was laid, with free medical care
provided for everyone; in addition, financial help was provided for the elderly,
the sick, and the unemployed. Emerging from the war with a severely
damaged economy, Britain could no longer sustain an empire. Gradually, British
colonies became independent. Many former subjects, especially those from the
Caribbean and India, settled in Britain; fears of racial conflict were never quite
fulfilled, despite some serious tensions

 As Britain entered the 1960s, new universities were built and a reinvigorated culture
emerged. While its heavy industry struggled, Britain led the world in fashion and pop
music. Inflation and unemployment soared in the 1970s and endless strikes resulted
from labor unrest. In 1973 Britain joined the European Community, but there seemed
to be few obvious economic benefits. Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979 and
went on to win two more elections. By 1990 her popularity was so diminished that her
party replaced her with John Major, who won the 1992 election. But a reinvigorated
Labour Party under Tony Blair won in 1997. The economy remained weak, and Britain
continued to distrust the European Community. Nationalism continued to simmer in
Scotland and Wales, and conflict continued in Northern Ireland. Overall problems
remained unchanged—business as usual in Britain.