United Kingdom - History

The earliest people to occupy Britain are of unknown origin. Remains of these early inhabitants include the stone circles of Avebury and Stonehenge in Wiltshire. Celtic tribes from the Continent, the first known settlers in historical times, invaded before the 6th century BC . The islands were visited in ancient times by Mediterranean traders seeking jet, gold, pearls, and tin, which were being mined in Cornwall. Julius Caesar invaded in 55 BC but soon withdrew. In the 1st century AD , the Romans occupied most of the present-day area of England, remaining until the 5th century.

With the decline of the Roman Empire and the withdrawal of Roman troops (although many Romans had become Britonized and remained on the islands), Celtic tribes fought among themselves, and Scots and Picts raided from the north and from Ireland. Early raids by Angles, Saxons, and Jutes from the Continent soon swelled into invasions, and the leaders established kingdoms in the conquered territory while the native Celts retreated into the mountains of Wales and Cornwall. Although the Welsh were split into a northern and a southern group, they were not permanently subdued. In the 10th century, a Welsh king, Howel the Good (Hywel Dda), united Wales, codified the laws, and encouraged the Welsh bards.

Among the new English kingdoms, that of the West Saxons (Wessex) became predominant, chiefly through the leadership of Alfred the Great, who also had to fight a new wave of invasions by the Danes and other Norsemen. Alfred's successors were able to unify the country, but eventually the Danes completed their conquest, and King Canute (II) of Denmark became ruler of England by 1017. In 1042, with the expiration of the Scandinavian line, Edward the Confessor of Wessex became king. At his death in 1066, both Harold the Saxon and William, duke of Normandy, claimed the throne. William invaded England and defeated Harold in the Battle of Hastings, beginning the Norman Conquest (1066–70).

William I instituted a strong government, which lasted through the reigns of his sons William II and Henry I. The latter's death in 1135 brought a period of civil war and anarchy, which ended with the accession of Henry II (1154), who instituted notable constitutional and legal reforms. He and succeeding English kings expanded their holdings in France, touching off a long series of struggles between the two countries.

The Magna Carta

Long-standing conflict between the nobles and the kings reached a climax in the reign of King John with the victory of the barons, who at Runnymede in 1215 compelled the king to grant the Magna Carta. This marked a major advance toward the parliamentary system. Just half a century later, in 1265, Simon de Montfort, earl of Leicester, leader of the barons in their opposition to Henry III, summoned the first Parliament, with representatives not only of the rural nobility but also of the boroughs and towns. In the late 13th century, Edward I expanded the royal courts and reformed the legal system; he also began the first systematic attempts to conquer Wales and Scotland. In 1282, the last Welsh king, Llewellyn ap Gruffydd, was killed in battle, and Edward I completed the conquest of Wales. Two years later, the Statute of Rhuddlan established English rule. The spirit of resistance survived, however, and a last great uprising against England came in the early 15th century, when Owen Glendower (Owain ap Gruffydd) led a briefly successful revolt.

Scotland was inhabited in early historic times by the Picts and by roaming bands of Gaels, or Celts, from Ireland. Before the Romans left Britain in the 5th century, Scotland had been converted to Christianity by St. Ninian and his disciples. By the end of the following century, four separate kingdoms had been established in Scotland. Norsemen raided Scotland from the 8th to the 12th century, and some settled there. Most of the country was unified under Duncan I (r.1034–40). His son, Malcolm III(r.1059–93), who gained the throne after defeating Macbeth, the murderer of his father, married an English princess, Margaret (later sainted), and began to anglicize and modernize the lowlands.

Scotland United

Under David I (r.1124–53), Scotland was united, responsible government was established, walled towns (known as burghs) were developed, and foreign trade was encouraged. William the Lion (r.1165–1214) was captured by Henry II of England in 1174 and forced to accept the Treaty of Falaise, by which Scotland became an English fief. Although Scotland purchased its freedom from Richard I, the ambiguous wording of the agreement allowed later English kings to revive their claim.

When Alexander III died in 1286, Edward I of England, who claimed overlordship of Scotland, supported the claims of John Baliol, who was crowned in 1293. Edward began a war with Philip of France and demanded Scottish troops, but the Scots allied themselves with Philip, beginning the long relationship with France that distinguishes Scottish history. Edward subdued the Scots, put down an uprising led by William Wallace, executed Wallace in 1305, and established English rule. Baliol's heir was killed by Robert the Bruce, another claimant, who had himself crowned (1309), captured Edinburgh, and defeated Edward II of England decisively at Bannockburn in 1314. In 1328, Edward III signed a treaty acknowledging Scotland's freedom.

Under Edward III, the Hundred Years' War (1337–1453) with France was begun. Notable victories by Edward the Black Prince (son of Edward III), Henry IV, and Henry V led to no permanent gains for England, and ultimately the English were driven out of France. The plague, known as the Black Death, broke out in England in 1348, wiping out a third of the population; it hastened the breakdown of the feudal system and the rise of towns. The 14th century was for England a time of confusion and change. John Wycliffe led a movement of reform in religion, spreading radical ideas about the need for churchly poverty and criticizing many established doctrines and practices. A peasant rebellion led by Wat Tyler in 1381 demanded the abolition of serfdom, monopolies, and the many restrictions on buying and selling.

In 1399, after 22 years of rule, Richard II was deposed and was succeeded by Henry IV, the first king of the house of Lancaster. The war with France continued, commerce flourished, and the wool trade became important. The Wars of the Roses (1455–85), in which the houses of Lancaster and York fought for the throne, ended with the accession of Henry VII, a member of the Tudor family, marking the beginning of the modern history of England.

The Tudors

Under the Tudors, commerce was expanded, English seamen ranged far and wide, and clashes with Spain (accelerated by religious differences) intensified. Earlier English dominance had not had much effect on Wales, but the Tudors followed a policy of assimilation, anglicizing Welsh laws and practices. Finally, under Henry VIII, the Act of Union (1536) made English the legal language and abolished all Welsh laws "at variance with those of England." In 1531, Henry separated the Anglican Church from Rome and proclaimed himself its head. After his death (1547), the succession to the throne became a major issue during the reigns of Edward VI (1547–53), Mary I (1553–58), and Elizabeth I (1558–1603).

In Scotland, James I (r.1406–37) had done much to regulate Scottish law and improve foreign relations. His murder in 1437 began a century of civil conflict. James IV (r.1488–1513) married Margaret Tudor, sister of Henry VII of England, a marriage that was ultimately to unite the crowns of England and Scotland.

French influence in Scotland grew under James V (r.1513–42), who married Mary of Guise, but the Scottish people and nobility became favorably inclined toward the Reformation, championed by John Knox. After James's death, Mary ruled as regent for her daughter, Mary, Queen of Scots, who had married the dauphin of France, where she lived as dauphiness and later as queen. By the time Mary returned to Scotland (1561), after the death of her husband, most of the Scots were Protestants. A pro-English faction had the support of Queen Elizabeth I against the pro-French faction, and Mary, who claimed the throne of England, was imprisoned and executed (1587) by Elizabeth. Under Elizabeth, England in 1583 acquired its first colony, Newfoundland, and in 1588 defeated the Spanish Armada; it also experienced the beginning of a golden age of drama, literature, and music, among whose towering achievements are the plays of William Shakespeare.

Oliver Cromwell and the Commonwealth

Elizabeth was succeeded by Mary's son, James VI of Scotland, who became James I of England (r.1603–25), establishing the Stuart line. Under James and his son, Charles I (r.1625–49), the rising middle classes (mainly Puritan in religion) sought to make Parliament superior to the king. In the English Civil War, which broke out in 1642, Charles was supported by the Welsh, who had remained overwhelmingly Catholic in feeling, but most Scots opposed him. Charles was tried and executed in 1649, and Oliver Cromwell as Protector ruled the new Commonwealth until his death in 1658. Cromwell ruthlessly crushed uprisings in Ireland and suppressed the Welsh. In 1660, Charles II, eldest son of the executed king, regained the throne. The Restoration was marked by a reaction against Puritanism, by persecution of the Scottish Covenanters (Presbyterians), by increased prosperity, and by intensified political activity; during this period, parliament managed to maintain many of its gains. Charles II's younger brother, James II (r.1685–88), who vainly attempted to restore Roman Catholicism, was overthrown in 1688 and was succeeded by his daughter, Mary II, and her Dutch husband, William III, who were invited to rule by parliament. By this transfer of power, known to English history as the Glorious Revolution, the final supremacy of parliament was established. Supporters of James II (Jacobites) in Scotland and Ireland, aided by France, sought to restore the deposed Stuart line, but their insurrection was suppressed in 1690 at the Battle of the Boyne, fought on the banks of the Irish river of that name.

In Wales, after Cromwell and the Commonwealth, the people began to turn to Calvinism; dissent grew, and such ministers as Griffith Jones, a pioneer in popular education, became national leaders. Most Welsh were won to the Calvinistic Methodist Church, which played a large part in fostering a nonpolitical Welsh nationalism. A long struggle to disestablish the Church of England in Wales culminated successfully in a 1914 act of Parliament.

Colonial Expansion

English colonial expansion developed further in the 17th and 18th centuries, in competition with France and the Netherlands, while at the same time the English merchant marine gained commercial supremacy over the Dutch. The wars of the Grand Alliance (1688–97) and of the Spanish Succession (1701–14) consolidated Britain's overseas possessions. At home, to ensure Scottish allegiance to England and prevent possible alliances with inimical countries, the Act of Union of Scotland and England was voted by the two parliaments in 1707, thereby formally creating the kingdom of Great Britain under one crown and with a single Parliament composed of representatives of both countries. This union held, despite Jacobite uprisings in 1715 and 1745–46, the latter under Prince Charles (Bonnie Prince Charlie, or the Young Pretender, grandson of James II); his defeat at Culloden Moor was the last land battle fought in Great Britain. Scottish affairs eventually became the province of the secretary of state for Scotland, a member of the British cabinet. Nevertheless, a nationalist movement demanding independence for Scotland persists to this day.

The accession, in 1714, of George I of the House of Hanover (a great-grandson of James I) saw the beginning of the modern cabinet system, with the king leaving much of the governing to his ministers. The 18th century was a time of rapid colonial and mercantile expansion abroad and internal stability and literary and artistic achievement at home. Britain won control of North America and India in the Seven Years' War (ended in 1763 by the Treaty of Paris), which also established British supremacy over the seas; however, the American Revolution (1775–83) cost Britain its most important group of colonies. A few years later, British settlement of Australia and then of New Zealand became key elements in the spreading British Empire. Britain increased its power further by its leading role in the French Revolutionary Wars and in the defeat of Napoleon and French expansionist aims.

Birth of the United Kingdom

In 1800, with the Act of Union of Great Britain and Ireland, the United Kingdom formally came into being. The conquest of Ireland had never been consolidated; the Act of Union followed an Irish rebellion in 1798 after the failure of a demand for parliamentary reform. But although the act established Irish representation in parliament, the Irish question continued to cause trouble throughout the 19th century. Absentee landlordism, particularly in the 26 southern counties, fostered poverty and hatred of the English. Moreover, there was a growing division of interest between these counties and the six counties of the north, popularly called Ulster, where, early in the 17th century, Protestant Scots and English had settled on land confiscated by the British crown after a rebellion. While the north gradually became Protestant and industrial, the rest of Ireland remained Catholic and rural. With the introduction of the first Home Rule Bill in 1886, the northern Irish, fearing domination by the southern Catholic majority, began a campaign that ended in the 1920 Government of Ireland Act, which established separate domestic legislatures for the north and south, as well as continued representation in the UK Parliament. The six northern counties accepted the act and became Northern Ireland. The 26 southern counties, however, did not accept it; in 1921, the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed, by which these counties left the United Kingdom to become the Irish Free State (now the Irish Republic, or Éire), which was officially established in 1922.

Queen Victoria's Reign

The Industrial Revolution, beginning in the second half of the 18th century, provided the economic underpinning for British colonial and military expansion throughout the 1800s. However, the growth of the factory system and of urbanization also brought grave new social problems. The enclosure of grazing land in the Scottish highlands and the industrialization of southern Wales were accompanied by extensive population shifts and led to large-scale emigration to the United States, Canada, and Australia. Reform legislation came slowly, although the spirit of reform and social justice was in the air. Slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire in 1834. The great Reform Acts of 1832, 1867, and 1884 enfranchised the new middle class and the working class. Factory acts, poor laws, and other humanitarian legislation did away with some of the worst abuses, and pressure mounted for eliminating others. The long reign of Queen Victoria (1837–1901) saw an unprecedented commercial and industrial prosperity. This was a period of great imperial expansion, especially in Africa, where at the end of the century Britain fought settlers of predominantly Dutch origin in the South African (or Boer) War. Toward the end of the century, also, the labor movement grew strong, education was developed along national lines, and a regular civil service was finally established.

The Twentieth Century

The vast economic and human losses of World War I, in which nearly 800,000 Britons were killed, brought on serious disturbances in the United Kingdom as elsewhere, and the economic depression of the 1930s resulted in the unemployment of millions of workers. In 1931, the Statute of Westminster granted the status of equality to the self-governing British dominions and created the concept of a British Commonwealth of Nations. During the late 1930s, the government of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain sought to avoid war by appeasing Nazi Germany, but after Hitler invaded Poland, the United Kingdom declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939. Prime Minister Winston Churchill led the United Kingdom during World War II in a full mobilization of the population in the armed services, in home defense, and in war production. Although victorious, the United Kingdom suffered much destruction from massive German air attacks, and the military and civilian death toll exceeded 900,000. At war's end, a Labor government was elected; it pledged to carry out a full program of social welfare "from the cradle to the grave," coupled with the nationalization of industry. Medicine was socialized, other social services were expanded, and several industries were put under public ownership. Complete nationalization of industry, however, was halted with the return to power of the Conservatives in 1951. During Labor's subsequent terms in office, from 1964 to 1970 and from 1974 to 1979, little further nationalization was attempted.

Post-World War II Era

To a large extent, the United Kingdom's post-war history can be characterized as a prolonged effort to put the faltering economy on its feet and to cope with the economic, social, and political consequences of the disbandment of its empire. By early 1988, all that remained of what had been the largest empire in the world were 14 dependencies, many of them small islands with tiny populations and few economic resources. The United Kingdom has remained firmly within the Atlantic alliance since World WarII. A founding member of NATO and EFTA, the United Kingdom overcame years of domestic qualms and French opposition when it entered the EC on 1 January 1973. After a Labor government replaced the Conservatives in March 1974, the membership terms were renegotiated, and United Kingdom voters approved continued British participation by a 67.2% majority in an unprecedented national referendum.

The principal domestic problems in the 1970s were rapid inflation, labor disputes, and the protracted conflict in Northern Ireland. Long-smoldering tensions between Protestants and Catholics erupted into open warfare after civil rights protests in 1969 by Catholics claiming discrimination and insufficient representation in the government. The Protestant reaction was violent, and the Irish Republican Army (IRA), seeking the union of Ulster with the Irish Republic, escalated the conflict by committing terrorist acts in both Northern Ireland and England. British troops, first dispatched to Belfast and Londonderry in August 1969, have remained there since.

On 30 March 1972, Northern Ireland's parliament (Stormont) was prorogued, and direct rule was imposed from London. Numerous attempts to devise a new constitution failed, as did other proposals for power sharing. In 1982, legislation establishing a new 78-member Northern Ireland Assembly was enacted. Elections were held that October, but the 19 Catholic members chosen refused to claim their seats. Meanwhile, the violence continued, one of the victims being the British war hero Earl Mountbatten of Burma, who was murdered while vacationing in Ireland on 27 August 1979. In October 1980, IRA members imprisoned in Ulster began a series of hunger strikes; by the time the strikes ended the following October 10 men had died. In November 1985, the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic signed an agreement committing both governments to recognition of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom and to cooperation between the two governments by establishing an intergovernmental conference concerned with Northern Ireland and with relations between the two parts of Ireland.

The "Downing Street Declaration" of December 1993 between British Prime Minister John Major and Irish Prime Minister Albert Reynolds over the future of Northern Ireland suggested that undisclosed contacts had been maintained for some time between the Irish Republican Army (IRA), Sinn Feìn (the political wing of the IRA), and the British government. Tony Blair, who became prime minister in May 1997, also invested in normalization of relations between Ireland and the United Kingdom and in a long-term solution to the sectarian strife in Northern Ireland. In 1998, Ireland and the United Kingdom signed a peace agreement (Good Friday agreement) in which Ireland pledged to amend Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution, which lay claim to the territory in the North. In return, the United Kingdom promised to amend the Government of Ireland Act.

In 1979, a Conservative government, headed by Margaret Thatcher, came to power with a program of income tax cuts and reduced government spending. Thatcher, who won reelection in 1983 and 1987, embarked on a policy of "privatizing"—selling to the private sector—many of the UK's nationalized businesses. In foreign policy, the government's most dramatic action was sending a naval task force to the Falkland Islands following Argentina's occupation of the islands on 2 April 1982. After intense fighting, British administration was restored to the Falklands on 14 June.

Thatcher's leadership was challenged by Conservative MPs in November 1990, and she failed to win the necessary absolute majority. Thatcher withdrew and was replaced by John Major. The Conservatives were returned to power in April 1992 with a reduced majority. Major's government sought to redefine Conservative values with a renewed emphasis on law and order.

Labor Party leader Tony Blair was elected prime minister on 2 May 1997, ending 18 years of Conservative Party rule and signaling a major shift in British domestic policy (he was reelected in June 2001). Blair, who moved his party to the center of the political spectrum during the campaign, pledged initiatives to modernize Britain's political structures. To that effect, he organized the creation of regional assemblies for Scotland and Wales and a municipal government for London. The regional parliaments were ratified by a referendum in late 1997 and began their first session in 1998. The city council for greater London came into being in mid-2000 and London's first mayor in 15 years is Ken Livingstone, a left-wing Laborite not much liked by the middle-of-the-road Blairites.

As promised, Blair's government also restructured the House of Lords to do away with the large number of hereditary peers. Only 75 of the 650 hereditary peers now sit in the House of Lords alongside 500 life peers, several senior judges, 26 bishops of the Church of England, and 15 deputy speakers.

The Blair government has also spent much time in tackling the Northern Ireland problem. The Good Friday Accord of 1998 envisioned a Catholic-Protestant administration and the gradual decommissioning of the IRA. The power-sharing government came into being in December 1999, but was suspended 11 weeks later because the IRA refused to make any disarmament commitments. A breakthrough occurred in May 2000 when the IRA agreed to allow leading international figures to inspect arms dumps and to begin the process of complete and verifiable disarmament. The Protestant party voted to revive the power-sharing arrangements on 27 May 2000 and the UK government promised to restore substantial authority to the new Northern Irish cabinet (this was accomplished on 29 May). However, decommissioning of the IRA did not progress in early 2001; in July 2001, Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble resigned as first minister of the power-sharing government. In October 2002, Sinn Feìn's offices at Stormont (the Northern Ireland Assembly) were raided due to a large police investigation into intelligencegathering operations on behalf of Irish republicans. On 14 October, devolution was suspended due to the spying allegations and direct rule from London was reimposed on Northern Ireland. Following talks hosted by Blair and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern with all the parties dedicated to the Good Friday Accord, Blair stated in early 2003 that there would be elections in Northern Ireland that May. However, on 1 May 2003, Blair announced elections would be postponed indefinitely, due to the lack of evidence of peaceful intentions on behalf of the IRA.

Blair offered strong support for the US-led war on terrorism begun after the 11 September 2001 attacks on the US; British forces took part in the campaign in Afghanistan to oust the Taliban regime. The United Kingdom in 2002–03 also stood with the United States in its diplomatic and military efforts to force Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq to disarm itself of any biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons. In the international diplomatic struggle leading up to the war in Iraq that began on 19 March 2003, the United Kingdom stated it would vote for a UN Security Council resolution authorizing military action in Iraq, opposing Security Council members France, Germany, and Russia who did not support the use of force to disarm the Iraqi regime. British forces fought side-by-side with US forces, especially in southern Iraq. In the aftermath of the war, Prime Minister Blair indicated a central role must be played by the UN in the reconstruction of Iraq; in this he stood with other European leaders.

The United Kingdom remains one of three EU members not adopting European economic and monetary union and embracing the euro as its currency. The other two nations are Denmark and Sweden.

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