England & Northwestern Europe
Primarily located in: England
Also found in: Belgium, Channel Islands, Denmark, Faroe Islands, France, Germany, Isle of Man, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Switzerland, Wales
The history of Britain, the heart of our England and Wales region, is often presented as one group of invaders after another displacing the native population. The Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, and Normans all left their mark on Britain both politically and culturally. However, the story of Britain is far more complex. In fact, modern studies suggest the earliest populations weren’t wiped out, but adapted and absorbed the new arrivals.
As glacial ice receded 12,000 years ago, sea levels were still low enough for Stone Age hunter-gatherers to cross from mainland Europe to Britain on foot. Farming spread to the islands by about 4000 B.C., and the inhabitants built their remarkable and puzzling stone monuments, including the famed Stonehenge.
Beginning in about 2500 B.C., successive waves of tribes settled in the region. These tribes are often called Celts. The Celts were not a nation in any sense, but a widespread group of tribes that shared a common cultural and linguistic background. Originating in central Europe, they spread through most of western Europe, the British Isles, and the Iberian Peninsula. Their dominance could not withstand the rise of the Roman Empire, however.
After defeating the Celts of Gaul (modern-day France and surrounding areas), the Romans invaded the British Isles in 43 A.D. Most of southern Britain was conquered and occupied over the course of a few decades and became the Roman province of Britannia. Hadrian’s Wall, in the north of England, marked the approximate extent of Roman control. The Roman presence largely wiped out most traces of earlier cultures in England—even replacing the language with Latin.
Germanic Tribes Invade
With the decline of its Western Empire, Rome largely withdrew from Britannia in 410 A.D. As the Romans left, tribes from northern Germany and Denmark stepped in. The Germanic Angles and Saxons soon controlled much of the territory that had been under Roman rule, while the Jutes from Denmark occupied some smaller areas in the south. The new settlers imposed their language and customs on the local inhabitants in much the same way that the Romans had. The Germanic language spoken by the Angles would eventually develop into English.
The region was divided into several kingdoms, with the more powerful kings sometimes exerting influence or control over smaller bordering kingdoms. There was nothing like a single, unified English kingdom, however, until the early 10th century and the rise of the House of Wessex.
Viking Invasions and the Danelaw
During the 8th century, seafaring Scandinavians began raiding coastal areas in Europe. Known as the Vikings, they were not just warriors and pillagers. They also established numerous trade ports and settlements throughout the Western world, including the British Isles, Russia, Iceland, and the Iberian Peninsula. A group of Vikings that settled in northern France became known as the Normans and, by the early 11th century, ruled a great and powerful region, sanctioned by the French crown.
Danish Vikings began to invade northern and eastern England in 876 and eventually came to control a third of the country, defeating several smaller Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. The rulers of the Danelaw, as the Viking area became known, struggled for nearly 80 years with the remaining English kings over the region. The balance of power swung back and forth, with an English king, Edward the Elder, gaining the upper hand in the early 900s and a Danish king, Cnut the Great, ruling England, Norway and Denmark from 1016 to 1035. After the deaths of Cnut’s sons, the throne returned to Anglo-Saxon control, but their rule was short-lived. The Normans of France, led by William the Conqueror, sailed across the English Channel and claimed the throne of England, defeating Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.
The Houses of Plantagenet & Tudor
The Norman kings, ruling primarily from France, gave rise to the House of Plantagenet, a line of kings that began to consolidate and modernize the kingdom of England. Beginning in 1277 Edward I put down a revolt in Wales and led a full-scale invasion, bringing Wales under control of the English crown. He then seized political control of Scotland during a succession dispute, leading to a rebellion there. Edward’s campaign against the Scots wasn’t entirely successful and remained unresolved at his death. By decisively defeating Edward’s son at Bannockburn in 1314, the Scots assured their independence. The House of Plantagenet continued to reign until the 15th century. Towards the latter half of the 15th century the houses of York and the Lancaster, the most powerful Plantagenet branches, fought a series of wars for control of the throne. Those wars ended with the Battle of Bosworth Field on 22 August 1486. At Bosworth Field Henry Tudor defeated Richard III. Henry took the throne as Henry VII and ushered in the reign of the House of Tudor. The reign of the Tudors lasted from Henry VII through Elizabeth I in 1603.
The British Empire
After the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, England established itself as a major naval power. As European nations began founding colonies around the world, England was well positioned to compete for territories of its own. Religious and political upheavals in England in the 17th and 18th centuries played critical roles in early American history, as dissidents left England seeking religious freedom. Later emigrations from England to the Americas ensured a powerful English influence on American culture and society.
The loss of its thirteen American colonies in 1783 is seen as a transition point from the First British Empire to the Second British Empire. In the Americas Britain shifted its attention north to Canada, where many Loyalists migrated after America won its independence. To make up for lost wealth in America, Britain also paid greater attention to Asia, the Pacific, and later Africa. In the 1770s James Cook travelled along eastern Australia and New Zealand, claiming them for Great Britain. Britain set up penal colonies in Australia, and over 80 years transported more than 165,000 convicts to Australia. Through the East India Company the British Empire gained more control in Asia. Throughout the early 19th century the East India Company gained control over Java, Singapore, Hong Kong, and India. The Government of India Act in 1858 established the British Raj, with Queen Victoria as Empress of India, and India became one of the British Empire’s most important colonies. By the end of the 19th century it was said that the sun never set on the British Empire because its colonies stretched around the world.
Did you know?
At lunchtime on the 28th February 1953 an American and a British scientist, James Watson and Francis Crick, walked into the Eagle Pub in Cambridge and announced that they had “discovered the secret of life.” What Watson and Crick had discovered was the famous double helix structure of DNA. Crucial to their discovery was the work of another British scientist, Rosalind Franklin, whose X-Ray photographs of DNA gave vital clues to its structure