England is the largest and most populous of the four main divisions of the United Kingdom. The division dates from the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons in the fifth century AD. The territory of England has been politically united since the tenth century. This article concerns that territory. However, before the tenth century and after the accession of James VI of Scotland to the throne of England in 1603, it becomes less convenient to distinguish English from British history.
England before the English
Main articles: Prehistoric Britain, Iron Age Britain and Roman Britain
Archaeological evidence indicates that southern England was colonised by humans long before the rest of the British Isles due its more hospitable climate between and during the various ice ages of the distant past. The first historical mention of the region is from the Massaliote Periplus a sailing manual for merchants thought to date to the sixth century BC although cultural and trade links with the continent had existed for millennia prior to this. Pytheas of Massilia wrote of his trading journey to the island around 325 BC. Later writers such as Pliny (quoting Timaeus) and Diodorus Siculus (probably drawing on Poseidonius) mention the tin trade from southern England but there is little further historical detail of the people who lived there. Tacitus wrote that there was no great difference in language between the people of southern England and northern Gaul and noted that the various tribes of Britons shared physical characteristics with their continental neighbours.
Julius Caesar visited southern England in 55 and 54 BC and wrote in De Bello Gallico that the population of southern England was extremely large and shared much in common with the other Iron Age tribes on the continent. Coin evidence and the work of later Roman historians has provided the names of some of the rulers of the disparate tribes and their machinations in what was to become England.
There are surprisingly few historical sources for Roman England, we have only one sentence describing the reasons for the construction of Hadrian's Wall for example. The Claudian invasion itself is well-attested and Tacitus included the uprising of [Boudicca]], or "Boadicea," in 61 in his history. Following the end of the first century however, Roman historians only mention tantalising fragments of information from the distant province. The Roman presence strengthened and weakened over the centuries, but by the 5th century Roman influence had declined to such a point that the peoples who were to become the English were emerging.
The Anglo-Saxon Conquest
In the wake of the Romans, who had abandoned the south of the island by 410 in order to concentrate on more pressing difficulties closer to home, what is now England was progressively settled by successive, and often complementary waves of Germanic tribesmen. Among them were the (more commonly mentioned) Angles, Saxons and Jutes together with undoubtedly large numbers of Frisians and Ripuarian Franks who had been partly displaced on mainland Europe. Increasingly the Romano-British population was assimilated, a process enabled due to a lack of clear unity by the native inhabitants against a unified armed foe, and the culture pushed westwards and northwards. The settlement of England (alternately, the invasion of England) is known as the Saxon Conquest or the Anglo-Saxon (sometimes "English").
In the decisive Battle of Deorham, in 577, the native people of Southern Britain were separated into the West Welsh (Cornwall and Devon) and the Welsh by the advancing Saxons.
Beginning with the raid in 793 on the monastery at Lindisfarne, Vikings made many raids on England.
The Saxons founded a settlement beside the River Sheaf, which was called Scafield or Escafeld (later to become Sheffield in South Yorkshire) and it was at Dore (now a suburb of the modern city) that Egbert of Wessex received the submission of Eanred of Northumbria in 829 and so became the first Saxon overlord of all England.
Having started with plundering raids, the Vikings later began to settle in England and trade, eventually ruling the Danelaw from the late 9th century. There are many traces of Vikings in England today, for instance many words in the English language; the similarity of Old English and Old Norse led to much borrowing. One Viking settlement was in York (which they called Jorvik).
England during the Middle Ages
- See also Mediæval Britain
The defeat of King Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 at the hands of William of Normandy, later styled William I of England and the subsequent Norman takeover of Saxon England led to a sea-change in the history of the small, isolated, island state. William ordered the compilation of the Domesday Book, a survey of the entire population and their lands and property for tax purposes.
The English Middle Ages were to be characterised by civil war, international war, occasional insurrection, and widespread political intrigue amongst the aristocratic and monarchic elite.
Henry I, also known as "Henry Beauclerc" (on account of his education), worked hard to reform and stabilise the country and smooth the differences between the Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman societies. The loss of his son, William, in the wreck of the White Ship in November 1120, was to undermine his reforms. This problem regarding succession was to cast a long shadow over English history.
During the disastrous and incompetent reign of Stephen (1135 - 1154), there was a major swing in the balance of power towards the feudal barons, as civil war and lawlessness broke out. In trying to appease Scottish and Welsh raiders, he handed over large tracts of land. His conflicts with his cousin Matilda (also known as Empress Maud), whom he had earlier promised recognition as heir, were his undoing: she bided her time in France and, in the autumn of 1139, invaded (with her husband, Geoffrey of Anjou and her half-brother, Robert of Gloucester).
Stephen was captured and his government fell. Matilda was proclaimed queen but was soon at odds with her subjects and was expelled from London. The period of insurrection and civil war that followed continued until 1148, when Matilda returned to France. Stephen effectively reigned unopposed until his death in 1154, a year after reaching an accommodation with Henry of Anjou, (who became Henry II) in which peace between them was guaranteed on the condition that the throne would be his by succession.
The reign of Henry II represents a reversion in power back from the barony to the monarchical state; it was also to see a similar redistribution of legislative power from the Church, again to the monarchical state. This period also presaged a properly constituted legislation and a radical shift away from feudalism.
The Black Death, an epidemic of bubonic plague that spread over the whole of Europe, arrived in England in 1349 and killed perhaps up to a third of the population. International excursions were invariably against domestic neighbours: the Welsh, Irish, Cornish, Scots and the French, with the principal notable battles being the Battle of Crécy and the Battle of Agincourt. In addition to this, the final defeat of the uprising led by the Welsh prince, Owen Glendower, in 1412 by Prince Henry (later to become Henry V) represents the last major armed attempt by the Welsh to throw off English rule.
Edward III gave land to powerful noble families, including many people with Royal blood in their veins. Because land was equivalent to power in these days, this meant that these powerful men could now try to make good their claim to the Crown. The autocratic and arrogant methods of Richard II only served to alienate the nobility more, and his forceful dispossession in 1399 by Henry IV lay the seeds for what was to come. In the reign of Henry VI, which began in 1422, things came to a head because of his personal weaknesses and mental instability. Unable to control the feuding nobles, he allowed outright civil war to break out. The conflicts are known as the Wars of the Roses and although the fighting was very sporadic and small, there was a general breakdown in the authority and power of the Crown. Edward IV went a little way to restoring this power but the spadework was generally done by Henry VII.
See also: Early modern Britain, English Renaissance
The Wars of the Roses culminated in the eventual victory of the relatively unknown Henry Tudor, Henry VII, at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, where the Yorkist Richard III was slain, and the succession of the Lancastrian House was ultimately assured. Whilst in retrospect it is easy for us to say that the Wars of the Roses were now over, Henry VII could afford no such complacency. Before the end of his reign, two pretenders would try to wrest the throne from him, aided by remnants of the Yorkist faction at home and abroad. The first, Lambert Simnel, was defeated at the Battle of Stoke (the last time an English King fought someone claiming the Crown) and the second, Perkin Warbeck, was hanged in 1499 after plaguing the King for a decade.
In 1497, Michael An Gof led Cornish rebels in a march on London. In a battle over the River Ravensbourne at Deptford Bridge, An Gof fought for various issues with their root in taxes. On June 17, 1497 they were defeated, and Henry VII had showed he could display military prowess when he needed to. But, like Charles I in the future, here was a King with no wish to go "on his travels" again. The rest of his reign was relatively peaceful, despite a slight worry over the succession when his wife Elizabeth of York died in 1503.
King Henry VIII split with the Roman Catholic Church over a question of his divorce from Catherine of Aragon. Though his religious position was not at all Protestant, the resultant schism ultimately led to England distancing itself almost entirely from Rome. A notable casualty of the schism was Henry's chancellor, Sir Thomas More. There followed a period of great religious and political upheaval, which led to the Reformation, the royal expropriation of the monasteries and much of the wealth of the church. The Dissolution of the Monasteries had the effect of giving many of the lower classes (the gentry) a vested interest in the Reformation continuing, for to halt it would be to revive Monasticism and restore lands which were gifted to them during the Dissolution.
Henry VIII had three children, all of whom would wear the Crown. The first to reign was Edward VI of England. Although he showed the piety and intelligence which was the hallmark of all Tudors, he was only a boy of ten when he took the throne in 1547. His uncle, Edward Seymour, 1st Duke of Somerset tampered with Henry VIII's will and obtained letters patent giving him much of the power of a monarch in March of that year. He took the title of Protector. Whilst some see him as a high-minded idealist, his stay in power culminated in a crisis in 1549 when many counties of the realm were up in protest. Kett's Rebellion in Kent and the Prayer Book Rebellion in Devon and Cornwall simultaneously created a crisis during a time when invasion from Scotland and France were feared. Somerset, disliked by the Regency Council for his autocratic methods, was removed from power by John Dudley, who is known as Lord President Northumberland. Northumberland proceeded to adopt the power for himself, but his methods were more conciliatory and the Council accepted him.
When Edward VI lay dying of tuberculosis in 1553, Northumberland made plans to place Lady Jane Grey on the throne and marry her to his son, so that he could remain the power behind the throne. His putsch failed and Mary I took the throne amidst popular demonstration in her favour in London, which contemporaries described as the largest show of affection for a Tudor monarch. Mary, a devout Catholic who had been influenced greatly by the Catholic King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, tried to reimpose Catholicism on the realm. This led to 274 burnings of Protestants, which are recorded especially in John Foxe's Book of Martyrs . She was highly unpopular among her people, and the Spanish party of her husband, Philip II caused much resentment around Court. Mary lost Calais, the last English possession on the Continent, and became increasingly more unpopular (except among Catholics) as her reign wore on. She successfully repelled a rebellion by Sir Thomas Wyatt.
The reign of Elizabeth restored a sort of order to the realm following the turbulence of the reigns of Edward and Mary when she came to the throne following the death of the latter in 1558. The religious issue which had divided the country since Henry VIII was in a way put to rest by the Elizabethan Religious Settlement, which created the Church of England in much the same form we see it today. Much of Elizabeth's success was in balancing the interests of the Puritans (extreme Protestants) and "die-hard" Catholics. She managed to offend neither to a large extent, although she clamped down on Catholics towards the end of her reign as war with Catholic Spain loomed.
Elizabeth maintained relative internal peace apart from the Revolt of the Northern Earls in 1569, which was really a sign of how effective she was being in reducing the power of the old nobility and expanding the power of her government. One of the most famous events in English martial history occurred in 1588 when the Spanish Armada was repelled by Sir Francis Drake, but the war that followed was very costly for England and only ended after Elizabeth's death. Elizabeth's government did much to consolidate the work begun under Thomas Cromwell in the reign of Henry VIII, that is in expanding the role of the government and in effecting common law and administration throughout the realm of England.
In all, the Tudor period is seen as a decisive one which set up many important questions which would have to be answered in the next century and during the English Civil War. These were questions of the relative power of Monarch and Parliament and to what extent one should control the other. Some historians think that Thomas Cromwell effected a "Tudor Revolution " in government and it is certain that Parliament became a lot more important during his Chancellorship. Other historians say the "Tudor Revolution" really extended to the end of Elizabeth's reign when the work was all consolidated. Although the Privy Council, which was the mainstay of Tudor government, declined after the death of Elizabeth, whilst she was alive it was very effective.
Religious conflict and the Civil War
A number of assassination attempts were made on the Protestant King James I, notably the Main Plot and Bye Plots of 1603, and most famously, on 5th November 1605, the Gunpowder Plot, by a group of Catholic conspirators, led by Guy Fawkes, which was stoked up and served as further fuel for antipathy in England to the Catholic faith.
The First English Civil War broke out in 1642, largely as a result of an ongoing series of conflicts between the then King, Charles I, and Parliament. The defeat of the Royalist army by the New Model Army of Parliament at the Battle of Naseby in June 1645 effectively destroyed the King's armies. The King fled to Scotland but was handed over to the English Parliament for money by the Scots. He escaped and the Second English Civil War began, although it was to be only a short conflict, with Parliament quickly securing the country. The capture and subsequent trial of Charles I led to his execution by beheading in January 1649 at Whitehall Gate in London. The monarchy was abolished and Oliver Cromwell became the Lord Protector. After he died, his son Richard Cromwell acceeded him as Lord Protector, but soon abdicated. The monarchy was restored in 1660, after England entered a period of anarchy, with King Charles II returning to London.
In 1664/65 England was swept by a visitation of the Great Plague, and then, in 1666, London, the timbered capital city of England, was swept by the Great Fire of London, which raged for 5 days, destroying approximately 15,000 buildings.
In 1689, the Dutch Protestant William of Orange, William III replaced the Catholic King James II. This became known as the Glorious Revolution or 'Bloodless Revolution'. However, in Scotland and Ireland, Catholics loyal to James II were not so content, and a series of bloody uprisings resulted. These Jacobite Rebellions continued until the mid-18th century.
The union of Scotland with England in the Act of Union 1707, saw Scotland 'united' with England and Wales (Wales had already been assimilated in the Act of Union 1536 by Henry VIII). This was no process of harmonisation, for Scotland had effectively capitulated to English economic pressure after the failure of the Darién scheme. This process was lubricated in the Scottish parliament by the self-interested political manoeuverings of the English puppets, John Campbell, the 2nd Duke of Argyll and James Douglas, 2nd Duke of Queensberry . (NB: After the 1707 Act, the histories of Great Britain and England overlap heavily. Since England was the dominant hegemony, it is assumed for the purposes of this article that the two are largely coterminous.)
The Industrial Revolution
The late 18th and early 19th centuries saw considerable social upheaval as a largely agrarian society was transformed by technological advances and increasing mechanisation, which was the Industrial Revolution. Much of the agricultural workforce was uprooted from the countryside and moved into large urban centres of production, as the steam-based production factories could undercut the traditional cottage industries, due to economies of scale and the increased output per worker made possible by the new technologies. The consequent overcrowding into areas with little supporting infrastructure saw dramatic increases in the rise of infant mortality (to the extent that many Sunday schools for pre working age children (5 or 6) had funeral clubs to pay for each others funeral arrangments), crime, and social deprivation.
The transition to industrialisation was not wholly seamless for workers, many of whom saw their livelihoods threatened by the process. Of these, some frequently sabotaged or attempted to sabotage factories. These saboteurs were known as "Luddites". This view of the Luddite history should also be set against alternative views, such as that of E. P. Thompson.
The Act of Union of 1801 formally assimilated Ireland within the British political process, and created a new country "The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland", uniting England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland.
Since then England has not existed as an independent political entity, but as a region it has remained highly dominant in the United Kingdom. The majority of the political and economic leadership the UK is English. London has remained the economic and centre of Britain and one of the world's great cities.
During the early 1800s, the working classes began to find a voice. Concentrations of industry led to the formation of guilds and unions, which, although at first suppressed, eventually became powerful enough to resist.
Chartism is thought to have originated from the passing of the 1832 Reform Bill, which gave the vote to the majority of the (male) middle classes, but not to the 'working class'. Many people made speeches on the 'betrayal' of the working class and the 'sacrificing' of their 'interests' by the 'misconduct' of the government. In 1838, six members of Parliament and six workingmen formed a committee, which then published the People's Charter
The revolutions which spread like wildfire throughout mainland Europe during the 1840s did not occur in England and Queen Victoria's reign was largely one of consensus, despite huge disparities in living standards between the few rich and the multitudinous poor.
The Anglo-Irish treaty of 1921 established the Irish Free State (now the Republic of Ireland) as a separate nation, leaving Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom; its official name became "The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland".
England bore the full brunt of German bombing during the Second World War, many of its cities were badly damaged and huge amounts of infrastructure destroyed. England rapidly recovered after the war, while internationally the relative wealth and power and Britain has faded England still remains paramount in the British Isles. While in 1999 Scotland and Wales were given local parliaments, England does not have one. In part this is a reflection of the hold England has on the British government.
British Monarchs, Kings of England family tree
- Timeline of English history
Population of England - historical estimates
History of the Jews in England
History of Britain
History of Scotland
History of Ireland
History of Wales
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A History of Britain: At the Edge of the World, 3500 BC - 1603 AD by Simon Schama, BBC/Miramax, 2000 ISBN 0786866756
A History of Britain, Volume 2: The Wars of the British 1603-1776 by Simon Schama, BBC/Miramax, 2001 ISBN 0786866756
A History of Britain - The Complete Collection on DVD by Simon Schama, BBC 2002 ASIN B00006RCKI
The Isles, A History by Norman Davies, Oxford University Press, 1999, ISBN 0-19-513442-7
The History of England, From the First Invasion by the Romans to the Accession of William and Mary in 1688, 1819 by Father John Lingard (Roman Catholic perspective)
Shortened History of England by G. M. Trevelyan Penguin Books ISBN 0140233237
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Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04