Great Britain is an island lying off the northwestern coast of Europe, comprising the main territory of the United Kingdom (UK). Great Britain is also used as a political term describing the combination of England, Scotland, and Wales, the three countries which together comprise the entire island. Great Britain is also widely, but incorrectly, used as a synonym for the sovereign state properly known as the United Kingdom.
With an area of 229,850 km² (88,745 sq. mi.) the island of Great Britain is the largest of the British Isles, an archipelago that also includes Ireland and the Isle of Man. It is the largest island in Europe, and eighth largest in the world. It is the third most populous island after Java and Honshu.
Great Britain stretches over approximately ten degrees of latitude on its longer, north-south axis. Geographically, the island is marked by low, rolling countryside in the east and south, while hills and mountains predominate in the western and northern regions. Before the end of the last ice age, Great Britain was a peninsula of Europe; the rising sea levels caused by glacial melting at the end of the ice age caused the formation of the English Channel, the body of water which now divides Great Britain from the European mainland.
The climate of Great Britain is milder than that of other regions of the Northern Hemisphere at the same latitude, because the warm waters of the Gulf Stream pass by the British Isles and exert a moderating influence on the weather. Cool, but not cold, temperatures, clouds more often than sun, and abundant rain are the rule in most years.
Politically, Great Britain describes the combination of England, Scotland, and Wales. It includes outlying islands such as the Isles of Scilly, the Hebrides, and the island groups of Orkney and Shetland but does not include the Isle of Man or the Channel Islands.
Over the centuries, Great Britain has evolved politically from several independent countries (England, Scotland, and Wales) through two kingdoms with a shared monarch (England and Scotland), a single all-island Kingdom of Great Britain, to the situation following 1801, in which Great Britain together with the island of Ireland constituted the larger United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (UK). The UK became The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in the 1920s.
The term Great Britain was first widely used during the reign of King James VI of Scotland, I of England to describe the island, on which co-existed two separate kingdoms, both at that time ruled by the same monarch. Though England and Scotland each remained legally in existence as a separate country with its own parliament, collectively they were sometimes referred to as Great Britain. In 1707, an Act of Union joined both parliaments. That Act used two different terms to describe the new all island nation, a 'United Kingdom' and the 'Kingdom of Great Britain'. However, the former term is regarded by many as having been a description of the union rather than its name at that stage. Most reference books therefore describe the all-island kingdom that existed between 1707 and 1800 as the Kingdom of Great Britain.
In 1801, under a new Act of Union, this kingdom merged with the Kingdom of Ireland, over which the monarch of Great Britain had ruled. The new kingdom was from then onwards unambiguously called the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. In 1922, twenty-six of Ireland's thirty-two counties gained independence to form a separate Irish Free State. The remaining truncated kingdom has therefore since then been known as The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The United Kingdom now also formally includes a number of Overseas Territories.
Usage and nomenclature
Usage of the term Great Britain
Great Britain is also widely, but incorrectly, used as a synonym for the political nation properly known as the United Kingdom (see below)
This common usage is technically inaccurate as the United Kingdom includes the province of Northern Ireland in addition to the three countries that make up Great Britain, as shown by its full name "The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland". The British themselves occasionally use the abbreviation GB, such as in the Olympic Games where the British team is sometimes informally referred to as 'Team GB'. The UK also uses the international foreign vehicle identification code of GB. This is discussed further under Britain.
There is similar situation with the terms Britain and British, which are used to relate to the whole of the UK and not just the island of Great Britain. This usage is generally considered to be correct. Examples of this are "British monarchs", "British culture" and "British citizens" - which would generally be considered to embrace the whole of the United Kingdom.
The name Britain is very ancient, and came from the name Britannia used by the Romans (from circa 55AD). This is thought to derive from an earlier term, Brigantes for which the earliest known form is believed to date back to about 325 BC (See Britain for more on the evolution of the word)
There are in fact two "Britain"s: the island of Britain in the British Isles, and the land of Britain in France. In French these are known as Grande Bretagne and Bretagne, in English as Great Britain and Brittany. The word "Great" in this context has its old meaning of "large" as in "the sea was great and vast" or "Greater London". Likewise, the ending "-y" on the end of "Brittany" has the meaning "little", as in "doggy", meaning "small dog", or "Jimmy", meaning "little Jim".
In Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae from the middle ages, the British Isles were referred to as Britannia major and Britannia minor. The term "Bretayne the grete" was used by chroniclers as early as 1338, but it was not used officially until King James I proclaimed himself "King of Great Britain" on 20 October 1604 to avoid the more cumbersome title "King of England and Scotland".
Territories associated with Great Britain
Other lands of the archipelago
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Last updated: 10-11-2005 02:03:34