The History of Great Britain: From the Roman occupation to the Empire on which ‘The Sun Never Sets’

Gain an understanding of the major figures, events, and periods of British History.

Ancient Britain (Before 800 BCE)

Continuous habitation of the British isles began around 9000 BCE, after the end of the last Ice Age. It remained a peninsula connected to mainland Europe until rising seas cut off the land bridge around 6500 BCE. People practiced traditional nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyles until the introduction of farming in 4000 BCE. Some of these sites would take on religious significance and monuments, such as henges, would be constructed, including the famous Stonehenge, built around 2500 BCE. 

During the Bronze Age (2300-800 BCE), metals began to be worked into a new distinct form of pottery known as ‘Beaker.’ Extravagant individual tombs would feature a host of possessions buried with the deceased. People began building permanent round houses, dividing up fields, and establishing villages during this era. 

Iron Age Britain (800 BCE - 50 CE)

The Iron Age (800 BCE – 50 CE) brought about the first coinage, weapons, and tools made of iron. Trade networks emerged with both continental Europe and even the Phoenicians, as far away as the Mediterranean. More advanced architecture, such as hill forts, shows an emergence of a warrior aristocracy and tribal territories. Julias Caesar arrived in 55 BCE and documented mysterious religious leaders called Druids, but Roman occupation would wait another 100 years.

The British Druids are thought to share many similarities with the cultures of the Celts located in Gaul and Ireland. They had a 3-tiered society with serfs at the bottom, warriors in the middle, and learned men at the top. They practiced the ritual sacrifice of animals, humans, and metalworks, such as weapons and jewelry, by casting them into rivers and lakes for their deities. 

Despite being renowned for their knowledge in the fields of mathematics, astronomy, and physics, their lack of written language leaves many aspects of their culture shrouded in mystery.

Britain Under Rome (43 CE- 410 CE)

Looking for prestige, Roman Emperor Claudius ordered a full-scale invasion of Britain in 43 CE. The Romans advanced quickly until 60 CE, when Queen Boudicca of the Iceni of East Anglia led a revolt that burned down several newly founded Roman cities, including Londinium. The advance continued in 70 CE, and in 83 CE, the Scottish tribes were defeated, seemingly granting control of the entire island to Rome. However, after the battle, when troops left to deal with a separate conflict on the Danube, the remaining Romans retreated South. Emperor Hadrian toured Britain in 122 CE, famously ordering the construction of Hadrian’s Wall to defend his southern possessions.

Roman influence on Britain can be seen through a Roman-style network of roads branching out from London, the implementation of rural Roman-style architecture, and the introduction of Christianity in 312 CE. Years later, a great invasion known as the ‘Barbarian Conspiracy of 367 CE,’ left Rome’s troubles elsewhere to slowly reduce its presence until Britons were left to fend for themselves in 410 CE.

Early Medieval England (410 CE - 1066 CE)

The Dark Ages began in 410 when Roman Emperor Honorius sent a letter to his British subjects to “look to their own defense.” The Romans would never again exert direct influence over the island. Soon, large populations of Germanic Anglo-Saxons settled, battling the Britons to give rise to the legends of King Arthur. 

In the late 700s, Viking invasions would transform England. A series of raids crystallized into a massive invasion in 865, conquering every kingdom except Wessex. King Alfred of Wessex was able to defeat the Vikings but signed a treaty giving them control of northern Britain, creating the so-called period of ‘Danelaw.’ King Edward the Elder and his son, Athelstan, took back control of the Danelaw territories in 937. However, subsequent Viking raids and invasions would see Britain conquered and made part of a Scandinavian Empire under King Cnut. The Wessex Dynasty was revived in 1042 but when the king died without heirs, the stage was set for England to be taken by either the Danish King Harald or Edward’s chosen successor, Duke William of Normandy.

Medieval England (1066- 1485)

William ‘the Conqueror’ became King of England when he defeated the same Anglo-Saxon army at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. During the reign of the crusading King Richard, nobles forced his younger brother, John, to sign a document limiting the power of the Crown. This document is known as the ‘Magna Carta.’ Although it was ignored on the King’s return, the Magna Carta came to be seen as one of the first protections against tyranny, and as a foundation of ‘Common Law.’

2 major events characterized the following centuries. The first was the near-constant wars with France and Scotland, which led to the longbow becoming the principal weapon. The second was disease: in 1348-1349, the Black Death wiped out nearly half the British population, causing economic collapse. 

During this time, the Crown was plagued by infighting until the 1455 ‘War of the Roses,’ between the York and Lancashire houses. The war lasted for 3 years until Henry Tudor won at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. After, he married the heir to the opposing claim, cementing his power.

The Tudors (1485 - 1603)

Massive changes occurred over the course of the Tudor dynasty. Henry VIII changed history when he made the decision to break from the Catholic Church after the Pope refused him a divorce. In all, he had 6 wives, divorcing Catharine of Aragon and Anne of Cleeves, beheading Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, and Jane Seymore dying during the birth of their son. Catherine Parr, his last wife, outlived him during their marriage.

After his death, the Crown bounced quickly from Edward VI to Mary I due to Edward’s sickly nature. However, unlike her brother, Mary was an ardent Catholic, burning Protestants at the stake and marrying the despised Philip II of Spain.

When she died, she was replaced by the Protestant Elizabeth I, who would become known as ‘Gloriana’ During the Elizabethan age, English culture flourished as Shakespeare produced his incredible body of work and Royal Navy privateers ventured into the New World. Spain’s Phillip II attacked with his ‘Spanish Armada’ in 1588, a fleet of 130 ships but were defeated by poor weather conditions, cementing Britain as the world’s preeminent naval superpower. 

The Stuarts (1603 - 1649)

However, by the formation of Stuart England, the Crown was reliant on the Parliament to aid Crown financing.

When James’ son Charles I inherited a political system wrought with debt and critical of his inner circle, he disbanded the Parliament in 1629, sparking ‘The ‘Personal Rule.’ However, when the British Crown teetered on the verge of bankruptcy in 1640, he was obliged to recall Parliament, who perceived his actions as a breach of the constitution. 

Eventually, this sparked the English Civil War, in which 212,000 lives were lost. Because of their early seizing of London and the implementation of meritocratic promotion principles by Parliamentary Cavalry General Oliver Cromwell, the King was captured in 1646.

The English Republic and The Restoration (1649 - 1714)

After winning the English Civil War, the Parliament was faced with a problem. Though initially favoring a settlement with the King that involved a separation of the power, attempts by the King to escape to Scotland led to key Parliamentary generals concluding that he was untrustworthy. This, coupled with the proto-communist sympathies of the New Model Army, led to the beheading of the King and the establishment of the English Republic.

During the English Republic, policies of church simplification and the banning of rituals, including the celebration of Christmas, were implemented. However, the system struggled for consistency, going through 6 constitutions by the time its leader, Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, died in 1649.

After Cromwell’s death, General Monck invited Charles II, the son of the beheaded Charles I, to reestablish the monarchy. Although this was originally greeted with popularity, upon his death, Charles II gave the Crown to his Catholic brother James II and the prominent Protestants decided to oust him. As a result, the ‘Glorious Revolution’ saw William and Mary of Orange take power, while also agreeing to sign a Bill of Rights limiting their own power.

Georgians (1714 - 1837)

When Anne Stuart died without an heir, distant cousins, the Hanover from Germany, were brought in to rule. Each of the 4 would be named George, causing the era to be branded as ‘Georgian’. Although Britain lost America during the reign of ‘mad’ King George III, they saw a victory in the ‘7 years war’ of 1756 – 1763, expelling France from North America. This set them on a path of conflict with both Revolutionary and Napoleonic France, which lasted from 1793 until 1815, when the Duke of Wellington, aided by the Prussians, finally defeated Napoleon at Waterloo.

The Georgian period saw the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. The ‘seed drill’ was invented by Jethro Tull, allowing agriculture to explode in efficiency. This caused the ‘Enclosure Movement,’ where wealthy landowners would evict farmers to commercialize farming. The ousted farmers left to find work in the city and largely ended up providing cheap labor for the nascent factories powered by newly-invented steam power. The raw materials pouring in from the Empire’s vast foreign holdings allowed Britain to rapidly industrialize, flooding the world’s markets with manufactured goods. 

Victorian (1836 - 1901)

The reign of Queen Victoria lasted more than 60 years and saw the British Empire reach the pinnacle of its power, covering more than 1/5th of the planet’s landmass. British soldiers fought to maintain and expand the empire nearly every year of Victoria’s reign, adding vast stretches of territory during the ‘Scramble for Africa’ and by adding India as the ‘Jewel’ in the Crown of the empire. Imperialism became a part of British identity as London became the world’s economic center. 

Industrialization brought both tremendous change and challenges to Victorian England. Steamboats, railroads, and the telegraph transformed transportation and communication. However, crop failures and mismanagement in the 1840s, including the ‘Irish Potato Famine,’ highlighted the extreme inequalities in British society. The work of Charles Dickens immortalized the conditions in Victorian England as major advances in medicine, science, and engineering transformed the country but often left the lower classes out of the progress.

Early 20th Century (1901 - 1929)

World War I began in 1914 and Britain declared war on Germany out of support for allies. Overall, nearly 900,000 British soldiers died in the ‘War to End All Wars’ because of ‘Trench Warfare’, within which side dug heavily fortified positions using machine guns to slaughter any troops who attempted an offensive. 

The Allies won this war of attrition with the addition of the United States in 1917, which gave them an overwhelming advantage in supplies and troops. The Treaty of Versailles concluding the war gave Britain former German territories, creating lasting resentment between the two nations. 

Post War Britain saw a period of economic growth and prosperity. The Republic of Ireland broke away from the empire with a conflict that concluded in 1921. The economic recovery came to a jarring halt with the stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing years of economic depression. 

 

Mid 20th Century (1930 - 1945)

This Great Depression saw the rise of Fascism across Europe. Although Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain attempted to temper Hitler’s aggression through ‘appeasement,’ the invasion of Poland in 1939 forced Britain and France to declare war.

Despite the Allies having superior numbers and the vaunted ‘Maginot Line’ of defenses on the Franco-German border, the Nazi’s surprise attack through the Ardennes forest resulted in an all-out rout. The bulk of Britain’s army was nearly pinned at Dunkirk, but an astounding volunteer effort by hundreds of civilian fishermen allowed them to ferry over 300,000 troops to safety. 

The Nazi’s advance was unchecked as each of Britain’s allies was defeated until by 1941, Britain was Hitler’s last remaining opponent. Hitler hoped his numerically superior air force, the ‘Luftwaffe,’ would pave the way for a German invasion but the ‘Battle of Britain,’ where British aircraft successfully used radar, saw any chance of German invasion destroyed. Britain was able to hang on as the addition of the Soviet Union and the United States to the Allied side turned the tide of the conflict and helped Britain become victorious once again. 

Modern Britain (Post 1948)

The end of the war catalyzed great changes in Britain. Former colonies were given independence, and ‘Proxy Wars’’ were fought to help stop the spread of communism as the Cold War began to dominate foreign policy. Domestically, the National Health Service began and the middle class grew. Refrigerators, automobiles, and washing machines became ubiquitous in British life. 

In 1956, the ‘Suez Crisis’ illustrated Britain’s decline in global influence. Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal, which connects the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea, serving as a major avenue for global trade. Fighting broke out as Britain, France, and Israel sent troops to retake control of the canal. The Soviet Union backed Egypt, and the United States threatened trade sanctions against the 3 invaders leading Egypt to be victorious as Britain and its allies withdrew its troops, signaling their subordination to the new world superpowers.

A major domestic shift happened in the 1980s under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher. National industries became privatized, and the power of unions was limited with the miner’s strike of 1985- 1986. Thatcher’s policies marked a rightward shift still felt in modern British politics today.

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