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The Very Short History of Britain

1. Earliest times

 1.1. The foundation stones

 1.1.1 The island

 However complicated the modern industrial state may be, land and climate affect social and economic life, population and even politics in every country. Britain is no exception. It has a milder climate than much of Europe, because it lies in the way of the Gulf Stream, which brings warm water and winds from the Gulf of Mexico. Within Britain there are some differences between the North and South.



Country side




Flat or low lying

Warmer (5o )

Less rainfall


Mountainous or hilly


More than double of that in the south

 This means that the south and east on the whole have better agricultural conditions. It is not surprising, that Southeast Britain has always been the most populated part of the island and for this reason had more political power. Until modern times it was not easy to travel across water so Britain as an island, at the moments of great danger, has been saved by its surrounding seas.


1.1.2. Britain's prehistory

 Britain has not always been an island. It became one only after the end of the last ice age. The temperature rose and ice melted although there were warmer and colder periods at the time. Our first evidence of human life is a few stone tools, dating about 250,000 BC. Those inhabitants made their tools from flint. However the ice advances again and Britain became hardly habitable until another milder period, around 50,000 BC. During this time a new type of human being seems to have arrived (looked similar to the modern British).

Around 10,000 BC Britain was peopled by small groups of hunters, gatherers and fishers. 5000 BC Britain had finally become an island. About 3000 BC New Stone Age people crossed the narrow sea from Europe in small boats. They kept animals and grew corn crops and knew how to make pottery (they were small, dark and long-headed people and may be forefathers of inhabitants of Wales and Cornwall today). These were the first of several waves of invaders. The great "public works" of the time, which needed huge organisation of labour, tell us a little of how prehistoric Britain was developing. After 3000 BC the "chalkland" people started building great circles of earth banks. Inside they built wooden buildings and stone circles. These "henges" were centres of religious, political and economic power. Stonehenge - probably the most mysterious of them, which was certainly a sort of capital, was built over a period of thousand years! Its huge bluestones were brought to the site from south Wales.

After 2400 BC a new group of people arrived in southeast Britain from Europe. They were round-headed and strongly built, taller than previous ones. Their arrival is marked by the first individual graves, furnished with pottery beakers. The "beaker" people brought with them a new cereal – barley, which could grow almost everywhere. They probably spoke an Indo-European language. They also could make bronze tools. At the Thames valley a number of bronze swords have been found. Many of them have been found in riverbeds, certainly thrown in for religious reasons. This custom may be the origin of the legendary King Arthur's sword. From about 1300 BC farming society developed.


1.1.3 The Celts

 Around 700 BC the Celts, technically more advanced, came probably from central Europe or further east, from southern Russia. They knew how to work with iron and could make better weapons. The Celts are important in British History, because they are ancestors of many of the people in Highland Scotland, Wales, Ireland and Cornwall today. Celtic languages, which have been continuously used in some areas since that time, are still spoken. The British today are often described as Anglo-Saxons. We had better call them Anglo-Celts. Although the Celtic tribes continued the same kind of agriculture as the Bronze Age people before them, their use of iron technology and their introduction of ploughing methods made it possible for them to get better crops. They were organised into different tribes and tribal chiefs were chosen sometimes as the result of fighting matches or sometimes by election.

The present-day capitals of England and Scotland stand on or near two ancient Celtic trade centres. The Celtic tribes were ruled over by warrior class. Druids (their priests) could not read or write, but the memorised all the religious teachings, the tribal laws, history, medicine and others. The Druids from different tribes all over Britain probably met once a year – on the Vigil of Samhain, in scared groves of trees, on hills or by rivers. According to the Romans, the Celts wore shirts and short trousers and were very careful about cleanliness and neatness. During the Celtic period women may have had more independence than had again for hundreds of years. When the Romans invaded Britain two of the largest tribes were ruled by women who fought from their chariots. The most powerful was Boadicea (whose monument is in front of the Houses of Parliament) In AD 61 she led her tribe against the Romans and destroyed London.


1.1.4. The Romans

 The name “Britain” comes from the Greco-Roman word “Pretani” for the inhabitants of Britain, which the Romans mispronounced and called the island “Britania”.

The Romans brought the skills of reading and writing to Britain, but Latin completely disappeared both in spoken and written forms when the Anglo-Saxon invaded Britain in the fifth centaury AD.

Julius Cesar first came to Britain in 55 BC, but only in AD 43 a Roman army actually occupied Britain. It consisted of about 40,000 men. In spite of the efforts they made, they did not conquer “Caledonia” as they called Scotland. Finally they built a strong wall along the border, named after Emperor Hadrian, intended to keep raiders from the north out.

The basis of Roman administration and civilisation were their towns, which grew out of Celtic settlements. They left about twenty large towns of about 5,000 inhabitants and almost a hundred of smaller ones. Latin word for camp, castra, has remained part of many town names to this day (Gloucester, Chester etc.) Their towns were built with brick, stone and wood, were given walls and had planned streets, markets, shops and some of them had even central heating. Six of the Roman roads met in London, a capital city of about 20,000 people.

Roman control of Britain came to an end as the empire began to collapse. The first signs were the attacks by the Celts from Caledonia in AD 367. In AD 409 Rome pulled its last soldiers out of Britain. When the Romano-British called to Rome for help against the raiders from Saxon Germany, no answer came.


1.2 The Saxon invasion


1.2.1 The invaders

 The wealth of Britain by the fourth century, the result of its mild climate and centuries of peace, was a temptation to the greedy. At first the Germanic tribes only raided Britain, but after AD 430 they began to settle. The newcomers were warlike and illiterate. They came from three powerful Germanic tribes, the Saxon, the Angles and the Jutes. The British Celts fought them as well as they could, but finally they were driven into the mountains in the far west, to Wales and Cornwall. Hardly anything is left to Celtic language and culture, except for the names of some rivers (Thames, Severn and Avon) and two large cities ( London and Leeds). The strength of Anglo-Saxon culture is obvious even today. Days of the week were after Germanic gods: Tig (Tuesday), Wodin (Wednesday), Thor (Thursday) and Frei (Friday)

The Anglo-Saxons established a number of kingdoms, some of them still exist in country or regional names to this day: Essex ( East Saxon), Sussex (South Saxon), Wessex (West Saxons), Middlesex (Middle Saxons) and East Anglia (East Angles). By the middle of the seventh century the three largest kingdoms: Northumbria, Mercia and Wessex were the most powerful. One of the kings, King Offa of Mercia (757-796) claimed “kingship of the English”. He was powerful enough to employ thousands of men to build a huge dyke (earth wall) to keep out the troublesome Celts.


1.2.2. Government and society

 The Saxons created institutions, which made the English State strong for the next 500 years. King's Council called Witan, probably grew out of senior warriors and churchmen and was a formal body, issuing laws and charters. The Saxons divided the land into new administrative areas, based on shires, or counties. Over each shire was appointed a shire reeve, the king's local administrator whose name became shortened to sheriff. The basis of a class system was settled then, made up of king, lords, soldiers and workers on the land. From the Christian Church another important class developed during the Saxon period, the men of learning.


1.2.3 Christian Church

 Christianitycame to Britain well before when it was accepted by the Roman Emperor Constantine, in the early fourth century AD. In 597 Pope Gregory the Great sent a monk, Augustine, to re-establish Christianity to England. Augustine became the first Archbishop of Canterbury in 601. Saxon kings helped the Church to grow, but the Church also increased the power of the kings. King Offa arranged for his son to be crowned at a Christian ceremony, which suggested that kings were chosen not only by people but also by God. There was another way in which the Church increased the power of the English state – by establishing monasteries (e.g. Westminster), which were places of learning and education. The king who made most use of the Church was Alfred the Great, king who ruled Wessex (871-899). He used the literate men of the Church to help establish a system of law, to educate the people and to write down important matters.


1.2.4. The Vikings

 New riders called Vikings (what probably means “pirates”) came from Denmark and Norway. First the only raided, burning churches and monasteries along the coasts of Britain and Ireland (even London itself raided in 842). In 865 the Vikings invaded Britain again but this time they came to conquer and settle. By 875 only King Alfred the Great in the west of Wessex held out against Vikings. There where they won, their rule was called the Danelaw.


1.2.5 Who should be the king?

 The next Saxon king, Ethelred decided to pay the Vikings to stay away. To find the money he set a tax on all his people, which was the beginning of a regular tax system. When Ethelred died Canute (later called the Great, grand-son of the Polish king Mieszko I), the leader of the Danish Vikings, controlled much of England. He became king because the royal Council and everyone else feared disorder.  After his and his son's death in 1040 Witan chose Edward, one of the Ethelred's sons, to be king. Known as Edward the Confessor, he was more interested in the Church than in kingship. When he died in 1066, he didn't leave any obvious heir. Witan chose Harold (one of the Wessex nobles, the Godwinson) the next king of England, but his right to the throne was challenged by Duke William of Normandy. At the end Harold was defeated and killed in battle near Hastings (1066). William marched to London and was crowned king of England in Edward's new church of Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day, 1066 and is known forever as William the Conqueror.



2. The Middle Ages


2.1 Conquest and feudal rule


2.1.1. The Normans

 There was an Anglo-Saxon rebellion against the Normans every year until 1070. The army marched from village to village, destroying places they could not control. When the Saxons fought back, the army had no mercy – burnt and killed. All the Saxon lords, who didn't accept William immediately, lost everything.

England was different from the rest of Europe, because it had one powerful family, instead of large number of powerful nobles. William organised England according to the feudal system, where all the land was owned by the king but it was held by “vassals”. As William wanted to know more about his kingdom and his land he ordered to make a complete economic survey. The result is known as “Domesday Book” (1086-87).


2.2. The centuries of war, plague and disorder


2.2.1. The Plantagenets

 The dynasty started with Henry I Plantagenet, whose father Geoffrey of Anjou wore a twig of a plant called in Latin Planta genista and this gave reason for the nickname of the whole family. The Crown was impoverished by Richard the Lionheart's participation in the crusade and his war with France. His younger brother John Lackland lost Normandy and was forced to agree to the baron's demands in Magna Carta (1215). Heavy war expenditure (the Hundred Year's War with France 1338-1453) and the Black Death (which killed between half and one third of the population of Britain in 1348) caused an economic crisis. During all that time Scottish kings were closely connected with England by marriages, which often took place between the royal families. John's grandson, Edward I wanted even to join Scotland to his kingdom. During one of his invasions, he stole the sacred Stone of Destiny from Scone Abbey on which, according to the legend, all Scottish kings must sit. The times of his grandson, Edward III were called the age of chivalry. The perfect knight to that time fought for his good name, served God and the king, and defended any lady in need. The Order of the Garter was founded in 1348, when a lady at court accidentally dropped her grater and the king picked it up and tied it to his own leg. The last, troublesome Plantagenet, Richard II was imprisoned and deposed by his cousin, Henry IV, duke of Lancaster.


2.2.2. The House of Lancaster, the House of York and the Wars of the Roses

 The misgovernment of England by Henry VI (who also lost all English possessions in France) contributed to the civil War of Two Roses ( the white rose of York and the red one – of Lancaster). The Yorks and Lancasters had the common great-great-grandfather Edward III and similar rights to the English throne. As a result of the struggle Henry was deposed by Edward of York and murdered. The next king, Edward's brother, Richard III was believed to murder the entitled king, his own nephew, Edward V and his younger brother known as “little princes”, what after five hundred years appeared to be false. Finally he was defeated and killed in battle at Bosworth Field in 1485 by Henry Tudor.



3. The Renaissance


3.1. The Tudors

 The century of Tudor rule (1485-1603) is often thought of as most glorious period in English history. Although Henry VII is less well known than either Henry VIII or Elizabeth the Great, he built the foundations of a wealthy nation and powerful monarchy. His son, Henry VIII (the husband of six wives) made the Church in England truly English be breaking away from the Roman Catholic Church. Finally, his daughter Elizabeth brought glory to the new state by defeating the powerful navy of Spain, the greatest European power of the time. There is however, a less glorious view of the Tudor century. Henry VIII wasted the wealth saved by his father and Elizabeth weakened the government.


3.1.1 The Reformation

 Henry disliked the power of the Church because he could not completely control it. After sixteen years of marriage to Catherine of Aragon, still not having a son, he decided to divorce her. Unfortunately she was the daughter of the Spanish king, Charles V, who controlled the pope. The first person to feel Henry's anger was Cardinal Wolsey, who only escaped execution by dying of natural causes. In 1531 the King persuaded the bishops to make him the head of the Church in England, which became law after the Parliament passed the Act of Supremacy in 1534. During three years time he closed 560 monasteries, he also gave away or sold much of their lands so monks and nuns became wandering beggars.

Mary, the Catholic daughter of the first Henry's wife began persecuting the Protestants by burning them (that is why she was nicknamed Bloody Mary). Her worse mistake was getting married to Phillip of Spain, who had decided to invade England.


3.1.2 The new trading empire

 Her sister's Elizabeth's reign was a period of economic expansion (sir Walter Raleigh), maritime exploration (Francis Drake) and great developments in literature (Shakespeare), music and architecture. She was never without favourites, but she never let them control her will. The summit of her glory was reached in 1588, when the huge fleets of Spanish Armada were defeated by Lord Howard and blown away by winds. The Queen also encouraged English traders to settle abroad and to create colonies. One of the states of the USA was named “Virginia” after Elizabeth. A number of chartered companies were established during her reign: the Eastland Company (to trade with Scandinavia and the Baltic), the Levant (to trade with Otoman Empire), the Africa Company (to trade in slaves), and the East India Company (to trade with India). The later generations looked back with pride on “the golden days of Good Queen Bess



4. The revolution and restoration


4.1. The Stuarts


4.1.1 Parliament against the Crown

 As Elizabeth had no children, the throne was inherited by her Scottish cousin, James I (VI – in Scotland). He had an unfortunate habit of saying something clever at the wrong moment, his unkind but true opinions were expressed openly in front of Parliament. This always led to quarrels. The Stuart monarchs were less successful than the Tudors. They quarreled with Parliament and this resulted with civil war.


4.1.2. The glorious revolution

 The important changes didn't take place simply because the Stuarts were bad rules. During the 17th century economic power moved into the hands of the merchant and land-owning farmer class. The Crown could no longer raise money or govern without their co-operation. In return for money the House of Commons demanded political power. James's son, Charles I was judged and found guilty of making “war against his kingdom and Parliament”. He was the only king of England to be tried and beheaded. On that day it was very cold and king wore two shirts so that the crowd who came to watch would not see him shiver and think him frightened. After his execution (1649), the Commonwealth was set up and Oliver Cromwell was appointed as a lord protector. Cromwell and his friends created a government far more severe than the previous one. The republic that followed was even more unsuccessful and by popular demand the dead king's son was called back to throne. The republic was over.


4.1.3. The restoration

 After Cromwellian rule Charles II was a welcomed change. Although he also (as his father) believed in the divine rights for kings, he had a good sense to avoid an open break with Parliament, even if was not the cleverest of the British kings. He is known as the king who never said the foolish thing, nor ever did a wise one. Charles hoped to make peace between the different religious groups. The political revolution could not have happened if there had not been a revolution in thought which influenced also religion and science. Because of persecution the Puritans, Baptists and others looked for another place to live. They left Britain to live a free life in the new – found land in America. In 1620, the “Pilgrim Fathers” sailed in a ship called “Mayflower” to Massachusetts. The scientific studies were supported by the Royal Society, which became an important centre where thinkers (Halley, Newton, Boyle and Hook) could meet, argue, enquire and share information. As the result of the rapid spread of literacy the first newspaper appeared. Even the King advertised for his lost dog. In 1666, following the year of terrible plague, a fire destroyed most of the city of London. An architect Christopher Wren (also a Professor of Astronomy at Oxford) rebuilt the burnt churches, especially St Paul's Cathedral in the modern style. In the meantime the first political parties were established in Britain, “Whigs” (a rude name for cattle drivers) were a group of MPs and their royal opposition named “Tories” (Irish for thieves). When James II became king after his brother's death, he tried to bring back the Catholic Church and strengthen his own power. The country would stand for neither of these and his son-in-law was formally invited to become a king. In 1707 The Act of Union finally united England and Scotland.



5. The Empire


5.1. The Hanoverians


5.1.1. The Kings

 During the reigns of the five kings of the house of Hanover Britain became a great industrial power. The country was also most “modern”, “democratic” and concerned with social reform. George I was wholly German in language, culture and political outlook. George II had less and less influence in the Government. He was said that after the Scottish invasion led by “Bonnie Prince Charlie” he was so frightened that he had bags packed ready to hurry back to Hanover. George III the first English-born Hanoverian monarch was the first one, who could speak English well. His attempt to take a more active part in politics culminated in the loss of the American colonies after the American War of Independence (1775-83). Unfortunately from the middle of his life he suffered from illness which affected him both mentally and physically. His son the Prince Regent had ruled for the mad father for almost ten years.  When he became king, George IV, his coronation was the most superb and spectacular occasion. His extravagances made him unpopular with the people. His brother William IV was called “Silly Billy” for his shortcoming of tact, judgment and intellect but it was William in fact who was hardworking, interested and involved in state business.


5.1.2. The Victory

 Under Napoleon, France was victorious throughout Europe. Britain remained unconquered and finally Napoleon was beaten at sea by admiral Horatio Nelson, at the battle of Trafalgar (1805) and on land at Waterloo, by Wellington (1815). After the end of the wars with Napoleon, the British Navy was the most powerful in the world. Britain went on to control most of India where people started making their fortune and India became the “Jewel in the Crown”.


5.1.3. The years of self-confidence

 Although there were still more Catholics than Protestants in Ireland they became second-class citizen of their own land. In order to increase British control, after rebellion, Ireland was united with Great Britain (1800) in the United Kingdom. In 1807 the slave trade was abolished and Factory Act, limited child labour to twelve hours each day. In 1819 a new law forbade the employment of children under the age of nine. All of them thanks to William IV. Economic problems were increased by the French Revolutionary Wars, the Napoleonic War and the War of 1812. After the industrial revolution, 19th  century Britain was the “workshop” of the world. Steam engines were invented and factories built for spinning and weaving.



5.2. The Victorian age


5.2.1. The Royal Family

 By late 1830s the monarchy was beginning to look as unnecessary institution. From this low point it was rescued by William's IV niece – Queen Victoria, one of the most notable figures in British Royal history, whose reign was also the longest and lasted for 64 years. She and her husband Prince Albert were recognised as a perfect marriage after all outrageous, undignified and coarse in their manners kings preceding her.


5.2.2. Industry

 By 1950 Britain was producing more iron than the rest of the world together. In 1851 Queen Victoria opened the Great Exhibition of the Industries of All Nations inside the Crystal Palace, in London. During Victoria's long reign, the monarchy regained the esteem and the affection of the people. The extent of Britain's colonial possessions doubled during the nineteenth century. By the end of the century it controlled the oceans and much of the land areas of the world. Although the country became rich partly through them, defending them eventually proved too great a strain on Britain's economy. As railroads and heavy industry developed, towns grew rapidly, often creating slums, while trade unions began to be more effectively organised.


5.2.3. Education and life

 Two Education Acts sent all children up to the age of thirteen to school, where they were taught reading, writing and arithmetic. Her death (1901) ended an era which had produced many great writers (Dickens, Hardy), scientists (Faraday, Darwin) and religious reformers. At last, as processfell by almost half and wages doubled, life was made easier. Poor families could eat better food, houses became more comfortable. For the first time working people could think about enjoying some free time.

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