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Travel Guide 2   >   Europe   >   UK   >   History

   
 

British History


Members of the genus Homo have lived in Britain for hundreds of thousands of years, and Homo sapiens for tens of thousands. Although it is possible that that the islands were temporarily depopulated during the glacial periods that occurred during the ice ages.

Stonehenge:
Stonehenge

By the first century BC, Britain had developed a sophisticated culture with farming, iron-working, coinage, and trade (principally of metals, especially tin, mined within the British Isles) with mainland Europe. It is also known that during this period, there was an influx of refugees from Gaul (France and Belgium) known as the Belgae, who had been displaced by the growth of the Roman Empire.

Britain was not unknown to the classical civiliations of the Mediterranean. Greeks and Carthaginians are known to have visited Britain as early as the 4th century BC. However, the first major contacts with the classical world were in 55 BC and 54 BC when Julius Caesar launched two military raids on southern England, as he believed the Britons were helping the resistance to his campaigns in Gaul.

After Julius Caesar's raids, Rome settled into a pattern of trade and diplomacy with the Britons, which was to last almost a hundred years. While some consideration was given to invading Britain, the Romans did not actually do so until 43 AD during the reign of Emperor Claudius. The Romans were eventually able to conquer all of England and Wales, and parts of southern Scotland. The Romans ruled Britain until 410 AD, when the legions were finally withdrawn because of more pressing needs closer to home. During the period of Roman occupation, many buildings were constructed in the country including villas, bath-houses, ampitheaters, and fortifications, including, of course, Hadrian's Wall.

Ruins of Hadrian's Wall:
Ruins of Hadrian's Wall

After the fall of the Roman Empire, various German tribes (the Angles, Saxons and Jutes) arrived in southern Britain. These tribes eventually became the English, and either assimilated the indigenous Celtic peoples of England, or displaced them into into Cornwall, Wales and southwestern Scotland. They in turn faced Viking invasions, and finally the Norman conquest of 1066, which introduced a French ruling nobility who eventually were to become assimilated with the English.

Harold Godwinson killed at Hastings from the Bayeux Tapestry:
Harold Godwinson killed at Hastings from the Bayeux Tapestry

During the Middle Ages, England's rulers conquered Wales, campaigned extensively in Ireland, held huge lands in France, and also tried, but failed, to conquer Scotland. England and Scotland did not finally unite until 1604, when James VI of Scotland (James I of England) declared himself "'King of Great Brittaine, France and Ireland" (the claim to the French throne, while maintained by British monarchs for some time, was not actively enforced since the French had their own ideas about who should be their monarch). Initially this combination was a personal union, by virtue of having the same monarch, and it was not until the 1707 Act of Union that England and Scotland combined their parliaments. In 1801, a second Act of Union made Ireland part of the country, the state now officially became named the "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland".

Britain was the first country to industrialize, and this, together with its financial dominance, powerful navy, and victory in the Napoleonic Wars, allowed it to become the most powerful country in the world during the 19th and early 20th century. As a result of its position, Britain was able to establish an extensive colonial empire overseas, that eventually was to become the largest empire in history.

British Empire in 1921:
British Empire in 1921

By the late 19th century, new powers had arisen and became powerful rivals to the British Empire: the United States and Germany, both outstripped Britain economically, and in the case of Germany, became involved involved in a naval building race with Britain.

HMS Dreadnought:
HMS Dreadnought

In the last decades of the 19th century and the first years of the 20th century, extensive thought was given to granting "home rule" to Ireland, however a final decison on what policy to adopt had not been made when war broke out. In 1916, while World War I was still raging, Irish nationalists launched a rebellion against British rule in Ireland, seizing control of strategic points in Dublin. Although this rebellion was relatively easily defeated miitarily, it did succeed in bringing about a sea change in Irish political opinion. As a result, in 1922, most of Ireland became a separate country, the Irish Free State - the forerunner of today's Republic of Ireland. The United Kingdom retained control of six northern counties on the island of Ireland, and henceforth became officially known as the "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland".

The 20th century saw a relative decline in Britain's position in the world, as the country was virtually bankrupted by the costs of fighting two World Wars, especially World War II. Although, unlike many other countries, Britain was never occupied by the Nazis, World War II has nevertheless less a deep imprint on the British national psyche: Winston Churchill, Dunkirk, "their finest hour", the Battle of Britain, El Alamein, the Spitfire, and other details of World War II are very much engrained on the national consciousness.

Winston S. Churchill:
Winston S. Churchill

Following the end of World War II, the British Empire was gradually wound-up, because of financial difficulties, pressure from Americans, and increasing nationalism in the colonies. Although there were some conflicts during the retreat from empire, such as the 1956 Suez Crisis, on the whole, disengagement was surprisingly peaceful. Britain retains good relations and cultural links with many of its former colonies, and most (but not all) are members of the Commonwealth of Nations. In the immediate post war period and the Cold War with the USSR that followed, Britain was also an important ally (perhaps the most important ally) of the United States of America, and a leading member in the NATO alliance.

As already noted, during the post-war period Britain faced extensive economic problems. These were not helped by antiquated labour and industrial policies, numerous strikes and high inflation. In the 1980s however, Britain embarked in a new free market direction under the leadership of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher: union power was restricted, inflation was brought under control, free enterprise encouraged, and subsidized state-owned industries either sold off ("privatization") or closed. These changes were not without pain, including for a time, massive unemployment, but eventually they succeeded in reviving the faltering economy. The increased prosperity that was brought about through these changes, the 1981 Royal Wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer, and victory in the 1982 Falklands War, brought a new mood of optimism to the country.

Margaret Thatcher:
Margaret Thatcher

While not as powerful as she once was, Britain is nevertheless still a leading economic, political, cultural and military power, with a permanent seat on the United Nations Security council. Britain remains a close ally of the United States of America and has forces fighting in both Iraq and engaged in Afghanistan.

Below are some books about the history of Britain.


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Books about British History


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History of Britain and Ireland

By DK Publishing

DK Publishing Dorling Kindersley
Released: 2013-12-23
Paperback (400 pages)

History of Britain and Ireland
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  • DK Publishing Dorling Kindersley
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From the Roman conquest of 43 CE to the Norman conquest of 1066, and from the Elizabethan age to the Iraq and Afghan wars of the 21st century, DK's History of Britain and Ireland traces the key events that have shaped Great Britain and Ireland from earliest times to the present day.

The Story of Britain: From the Romans to the Present: A Narrative History

By Rebecca Fraser

W W Norton Company
Paperback (848 pages)

The Story of Britain: From the Romans to the Present: A Narrative History
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  • W W Norton Company
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“A beautifully written story, a box of delights, a treasure trove: final proof of truth’s superiority over fiction.”―Andrew Roberts

A sparkling anecdotal account with the pace of an epic, about the men and women who created turning points in history. Rebecca Fraser's dramatic portrayal of the scientists, statesmen, explorers, soldiers, traders, and artists who forged Britain's national institutions is the perfect introduction to British history.

Just as much as kings and queens, battles and empire, Britain's great themes have been the liberty of the individual, the rule of law, and the parliamentary democracy invented to protect them. Ever since Caractacus and Boudicca surprised the Romans with the bravery of their resistance, Britain has stood out as the home of freedom. From Thomas More to William Wilberforce, from Gladstone to Churchill, Britain's history is studded with heroic figures who have resisted tyranny in all its guises, whether it be the Stuart kings' belief in divine right, the institution of slavery, or the ambitions of Napoleon and Hitler. 154 illustrations

Victorious Century: The United Kingdom, 1800-1906 (The Penguin History of Britain)

By David Cannadine

Viking
Released: 2018-02-20
Hardcover (624 pages)

Victorious Century: The United Kingdom, 1800-1906 (The Penguin History of Britain)
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A sweeping history of nineteenth-century Britain by one of the world's most respected historians.

"An evocative account . . .[Cannadine] tells his own story persuasively and exceedingly well.” —The Wall Street Journal

To live in nineteenth-century Britain was to experience an astonishing and unprecedented series of changes. Cities grew vast; there were revolutions in transportation, communication, science, and work--all while a growing religious skepticism rendered the intellectual landscape increasingly unrecognizable. It was an exhilarating time, and as a result, most of the countries in the world that experienced these changes were racked by political and social unrest. Britain, however, maintained a stable polity at home, and as a result it quickly found itself in a position of global leadership.

In this major new work, leading historian David Cannadine has created a bold, fascinating new interpretation of nineteenth-century Britain. Britain was a country that saw itself at the summit of the world and, by some measures, this was indeed true. It had become the largest empire in history: its political stability positioned it as the leader of the new global economy and allowed it to construct the largest navy ever built. And yet it was also a society permeated with doubt, fear, and introspection. Repeatedly, politicians and writers felt themselves to be staring into the abyss and what is seen as an era of irritating self-belief was in fact obsessed with its own fragility, whether as a great power or as a moral force. Victorious Century is a comprehensive and extraordinarily stimulating history--its author catches the relish, humor and staginess of the age, but also the dilemmas faced by Britain's citizens, ones we remain familiar with today.

Gibraltar: The Greatest Siege in British History

By Roy Adkins

Viking
Released: 2018-03-13
Hardcover (480 pages)

Gibraltar: The Greatest Siege in British History
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A rip-roaring account of the dramatic four-year siege of Britain’s Mediterranean garrison by Spain and France—an overlooked key to the British loss in the American Revolution

For more than three and a half years, from 1779 to 1783, the tiny territory of Gibraltar was besieged and blockaded, on land and at sea, by the overwhelming forces of Spain and France. It became the longest siege in British history, and the obsession with saving Gibraltar was blamed for the loss of the American colonies in the War of Independence.

Located between the Mediterranean and Atlantic, on the very edge of Europe, Gibraltar was a place of varied nationalities, languages, religions, and social classes. During the siege, thousands of soldiers, civilians, and their families withstood terrifying bombardments, starvation, and disease. Very ordinary people lived through extraordinary events, from shipwrecks and naval battles to an attempted invasion of England and a daring sortie out of Gibraltar into Spain. Deadly innovations included red-hot shot, shrapnel shells, and a barrage from immense floating batteries.

This is military and social history at its best, a story of soldiers, sailors, and civilians, with royalty and rank and file, workmen and engineers, priests, prisoners of war, spies, and surgeons, all caught up in a struggle for a fortress located on little more than two square miles of awe-inspiring rock. Gibraltar: The Greatest Siege in British History is an epic page-turner, rich in dramatic human detaila tale of courage, endurance, intrigue, desperation, greed, and humanity. The everyday experiences of all those involved are brought vividly to life with eyewitness accounts and expert research.

Roman Britain (Exploring British History)

By Susan Harrison

Booklife
Released: 2018-05-01
Hardcover (32 pages)

Roman Britain (Exploring British History)
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  • Booklife
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Explore British history and learn about some of the most important kings, queens, and battles that shaped Britain. Using accessible language and an informative design, this series makes discovering the past of Roman Britain fun and easy.

Modern Britain, 1750 to the Present (Cambridge History of Britain)

By James Vernon

CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS
Paperback (588 pages)

Modern Britain, 1750 to the Present (Cambridge History of Britain)
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  • CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS
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This wide-ranging introduction to the history of modern Britain extends from the eighteenth century to the present day. James Vernon's distinctive history is weaved around an account of the rise, fall and reinvention of liberal ideas of how markets, governments and empires should work. The history takes seriously the different experiences within the British Isles and the British Empire, and offers a global history of Britain. Instead of tracing how Britons made the modern world, Vernon shows how the world shaped the course of Britain's modern history. Richly illustrated with figures and maps, the book features textboxes (on particular people, places and sources), further reading guides, highlighted key terms and a glossary. A supplementary online package includes additional primary sources, discussion questions, and further reading suggestions, including useful links. This textbook is an essential resource for introductory courses on the history of modern Britain.

The English and Their History

By Robert Tombs

Vintage
Released: 2016-11-29
Paperback (1040 pages)

The English and Their History
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  • Vintage
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Named a Book of the Year by the Daily Telegraph, Times Literary Supplement, The Times, Spectator, and The Economist

The English first materialized as an idea, before they had a common ruler and before the country they lived in even had a name. From the armed Saxon bands that descended onto Roman-controlled Britain in the fifth century to the travails of the Eurozone plaguing the prime-ministership of today's multicultural England, acclaimed historian Robert Tombs presents a momentous and challenging history of a people who have a claim to be the oldest nation in existence. 
 
Drawing on a wealth of recent scholarship, Tombs sheds light on the strength and resilience of English governance, the deep patterns of division among the people who have populated the British Isles, the persistent capacity of the English to come together in the face of danger, and not the least the ways the English have understood their own history, have argued about it, forgotten it and yet been shaped by it. Momentous and definitive, The English and Their History is the first single-volume work on this scale for more than half a century.

The Rise and Fall of the British Empire

By Lawrence James

St. Martin's Griffin
Released: 1997-09-15
Paperback (744 pages)

The Rise and Fall of the British Empire
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Great Britain's geopolitical role has undergone many changes over the last four centuries. Once a maritime superpower and ruler of half the world, Britain now occupies an isolated position as an economically fragile island often at odds with her European neighbors.

Lawrence James has written a comprehensive, perceptive, and insighful history of the British Empire. Spanning the years from 1600 to the present day, this critically acclaimed book combines detailed scholarship with readable popular history.

Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India

By Lawrence James

Historical & Reference Books St. Martin's Press
Released: 2000-08-12
Paperback (768 pages)

Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India
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In less that one hundred years, the British made themselves the masters of India. They ruled for another hundred, leaving behind the independent nations of India and Pakistan when they finally withdrew in 1947. Both nations would owe much to the British Raj: under its rule, Indians learned to see themselves as Indians; its benefits included railways, roads, canals, schools, universities, hospitals, universal language and common law.

None of this, however, was planned. After a series of emergencies in the eighteenth century transformed a business partnership-the East India Company-into the most formidable war machine in Asia, conquest gathered its own momentum. Fortunes grew, but, alongside them, Britons grew troubled by the despotism that had been created in their name. The result was the formation of a government that balanced firmness with benevolence, and had as its goal the advancement of India.

But the Raj, outwardly so monolithic and magnificent, always rested precariously on the goodwill of Indians. In this remarkable exploration of British rule in India, Lawrence James chronicles the astonishing heroism that created it, the mixture of compromise and firmness that characterized it, and the twists and turns of the independence struggle that ended it.

" … James presents a consistently intriguing take on a deeply complicated history." - Publishers Weekly



 
 
 

 
 
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