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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 The Romans ruled Britain until 410 AD, when the legions were finally withdrawn because of more pressing needs closer to home.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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The English and Their History

By Robert Tombs

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Released: 2016-11-29
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The English and Their History
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  • The English and Their History
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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.

A History of Britain, Vol. 2: The Wars of the British, 1603-1776

By Simon Schama

Miramax
Released: 2001-10-17
Hardcover (544 pages)

A History of Britain, Vol. 2: The Wars of the British, 1603-1776
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Inside these pages lies the bloody epic of liberty, the British Iliad.

The second volume of Simon Schama's A History of Britain brings the histories of Britain's civil wars -- full of blighted idealism, shocking carnage, and unexpected outcomes -- startlingly to life. These conflicts were fought unsparingly between the nations of the islands -- Ireland, England, and Scotland -- and between parliament and the crown. Shattering the illusion of a "united kingdom," they cost hundreds of thousands of lives: a greater proportion of the population than died in the First World War.

When religious passion gave way to the equally consuming passion for profits, it became possible for the pieces of Britain to come together as the spectacularly successful business enterprise of "Britannia Incorporated." And in a few generations that business state expanded in a dizzying process that transformed what had been an obscure, off-shore footnote to Europe's great powers into the main event -- the most powerful empire in the world.

Yet somehow, it was the "wrong empire." The British considered it a bastion of liberty, yet it was based on military force and the enslavement of hundreds of thousands of Africans. In America, the emptiness of British claims to protect "freedom" was thrown back into the teeth of colonial governors and redcoat soldiers, while the likes of Sam Adams and George Washington inherited the mantle of Cromwell.

Simon Schama grippingly evokes the horror of the battle, famine, and plague; the flames of burning cities; the pathos of broken families, with fathers and sons forced to choose opposing sides. But he also captures the intimacies of palace and parliament and the seductions of profit and pleasure. Geniuses like John Milton, Thomas Hobbes, and Benjamin Franklin stalk vividly through his pages, but so do Scottish clansmen, women pamphleteers, and literate, eloquent African slaves like Olaudah Equiano.

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 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.

Britain's Royal Families: The Complete Genealogy

By Alison Weir

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Released: 2009-01-06
Paperback (400 pages)

Britain s Royal Families: The Complete Genealogy
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A unique book on Britain’s royal families by this well established popular historian.

Britain’s Royal Families is a unique reference book providing, for the first time in one volume, complete genealogical details of all members of the royal houses of England, Scotland and Great Britain from 800AD to the present. Drawing on countless authorities, both ancient and modern, Alison Weir explores the royal family tree in unprecedented depth and provides a comprehensive guide to the heritage of today’s royal family.

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

By Rebecca Fraser

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

The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy

By David Cannadine

Cannadine, David
Released: 1999-09-07
Paperback (848 pages)

The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy
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"A brilliant, multifaceted chronicle of economic and social change." --The New York Times

At the outset of the 1870s, the British aristocracy could rightly consider themselves the most fortunate people on earth: they held the lion's share of land, wealth, and power in the world's greatest empire. By the end of the 1930s they had lost not only a generation of sons in the First World War, but also much of their prosperity, prestige, and political significance.

Deftly orchestrating an enormous array of documents and letters, facts, and statistics, David Cannadine shows how this shift came about--and how it was reinforced in the aftermath of the Second World War. Astonishingly learned, lucidly written, and sparkling with wit, The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy is a landmark study that dramatically changes our understanding of British social history.

National Geographic The British World: An Illustrated Atlas

By Tim Jepson

National Geographic
Released: 2015-11-03
Hardcover (352 pages)

National Geographic The British World: An Illustrated Atlas
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Spanning wars, religious controversies, revolutions, and more, The British World is a visual jewel illuminating the history of this fascinating land—and an essential reference to be treasured by history lovers young and old. The authoritative content, unearthed across thousands of years, immerses you in the full sweep of British history—from prehistory to the Romans, Saxons and Normans, the Medieval Age, Tudor Britain, the Stuarts, the Georgian and Victorian eras, and the modern age. The lush reference is interwoven with intriguing facts and insights into the fabric of British life, from literary highlights to social amusements to trends of the day. Sidebars examine significant people, as well as key cultural and artistic events. Featured quotes give voice to unforgettable characters such as Henry VIII, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Sir Francis Drake, Queen Victoria, Winston Churchill, and Margaret Thatcher. You’ll discover time lines of key events in each chapter, and family trees trace the line of descent of the monarchy to the present. Blending compelling narrative, stunning photographs and artwork, and dozens of specially commissioned maps, The British World takes you on a fascinating journey through time and place to tell the story of the British Isles.

The Oxford History of Britain

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The Oxford History of Britain
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  • Oxford University Press USA
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This superb volume tells the story of Britain and its people over two thousand years, from the coming of the Roman legions to the present day. Edited by esteemed historian Kenneth O. Morgan, this informative volume illuminates the political, social, economic, and cultural developments of the British Isles. Ten leading historians--including Peter Salway, John Morrill, and Morgan himself--provide a penetrating and dramatic narrative, offering the fruits of the best modern scholarship to the general reader in a highly engaging form. A vivid, sometimes surprising picture emerges of continuous turmoil and change in every period of Britain's history. By exploring the many ways in which Britain has shaped and been shaped by contact with Europe and the wider world, this comprehensive book brings the modern reader face to face with the past and thus the foundations of modern British society. The new edition brings the story into the twenty-first century, covering the changes to British society and culture during the Blair years and examining the invasion of Iraq and its aftermath.


 
 
 

 
 
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