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Travel Guide 2   >   Europe   >   UK   >   History

   
 

British History


Members of the genus Homo have lived in Britain for hundreds of thousands of years, and Homo sapiens for tens of thousands. Although it is possible that that the islands were temporarily depopulated during the glacial periods that occurred during the ice ages.

Stonehenge:
Stonehenge

By the first century BC, Britain had developed a sophisticated culture with farming, iron-working, coinage, and trade (principally of metals, especially tin, mined within the British Isles) with mainland Europe. It is also known that during this period, there was an influx of refugees from Gaul (France and Belgium) known as the Belgae, who had been displaced by the growth of the Roman Empire.

Britain was not unknown to the classical civiliations of the Mediterranean. Greeks and Carthaginians are known to have visited Britain as early as the 4th century BC. However, the first major contacts with the classical world were in 55 BC and 54 BC when Julius Caesar launched two military raids on southern England, as he believed the Britons were helping the resistance to his campaigns in Gaul.

After Julius Caesar's raids, Rome settled into a pattern of trade and diplomacy with the Britons, which was to last almost a hundred years. While some consideration was given to invading Britain, the Romans did not actually do so until 43 AD during the reign of Emperor Claudius. The Romans were eventually able to conquer all of England and Wales, and parts of southern Scotland. The Romans ruled Britain until 410 AD, when the legions were finally withdrawn because of more pressing needs closer to home. During the period of Roman occupation, many buildings were constructed in the country including villas, bath-houses, ampitheaters, and fortifications, including, of course, Hadrian's Wall.

Ruins of Hadrian's Wall:
Ruins of Hadrian's Wall

After the fall of the Roman Empire, various German tribes (the Angles, Saxons and Jutes) arrived in southern Britain. These tribes eventually became the English, and either assimilated the indigenous Celtic peoples of England, or displaced them into into Cornwall, Wales and southwestern Scotland. They in turn faced Viking invasions, and finally the Norman conquest of 1066, which introduced a French ruling nobility who eventually were to become assimilated with the English.

Harold Godwinson killed at Hastings from the Bayeux Tapestry:
Harold Godwinson killed at Hastings from the Bayeux Tapestry

During the Middle Ages, England's rulers conquered Wales, campaigned extensively in Ireland, held huge lands in France, and also tried, but failed, to conquer Scotland. England and Scotland did not finally unite until 1604, when James VI of Scotland (James I of England) declared himself "'King of Great Brittaine, France and Ireland" (the claim to the French throne, while maintained by British monarchs for some time, was not actively enforced since the French had their own ideas about who should be their monarch). Initially this combination was a personal union, by virtue of having the same monarch, and it was not until the 1707 Act of Union that England and Scotland combined their parliaments. In 1801, a second Act of Union made Ireland part of the country, the state now officially became named the "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland".

Britain was the first country to industrialize, and this, together with its financial dominance, powerful navy, and victory in the Napoleonic Wars, allowed it to become the most powerful country in the world during the 19th and early 20th century. As a result of its position, Britain was able to establish an extensive colonial empire overseas, that eventually was to become the largest empire in history.

British Empire in 1921:
British Empire in 1921

By the late 19th century, new powers had arisen and became powerful rivals to the British Empire: the United States and Germany, both outstripped Britain economically, and in the case of Germany, became involved involved in a naval building race with Britain.

HMS Dreadnought:
HMS Dreadnought

In the last decades of the 19th century and the first years of the 20th century, extensive thought was given to granting "home rule" to Ireland, however a final decison on what policy to adopt had not been made when war broke out. In 1916, while World War I was still raging, Irish nationalists launched a rebellion against British rule in Ireland, seizing control of strategic points in Dublin. Although this rebellion was relatively easily defeated miitarily, it did succeed in bringing about a sea change in Irish political opinion. As a result, in 1922, most of Ireland became a separate country, the Irish Free State - the forerunner of today's Republic of Ireland. The United Kingdom retained control of six northern counties on the island of Ireland, and henceforth became officially known as the "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland".

The 20th century saw a relative decline in Britain's position in the world, as the country was virtually bankrupted by the costs of fighting two World Wars, especially World War II. Although, unlike many other countries, Britain was never occupied by the Nazis, World War II has nevertheless less a deep imprint on the British national psyche: Winston Churchill, Dunkirk, "their finest hour", the Battle of Britain, El Alamein, the Spitfire, and other details of World War II are very much engrained on the national consciousness.

Winston S. Churchill:
Winston S. Churchill

Following the end of World War II, the British Empire was gradually wound-up, because of financial difficulties, pressure from Americans, and increasing nationalism in the colonies. Although there were some conflicts during the retreat from empire, such as the 1956 Suez Crisis, on the whole, disengagement was surprisingly peaceful. Britain retains good relations and cultural links with many of its former colonies, and most (but not all) are members of the Commonwealth of Nations. In the immediate post war period and the Cold War with the USSR that followed, Britain was also an important ally (perhaps the most important ally) of the United States of America, and a leading member in the NATO alliance.

As already noted, during the post-war period Britain faced extensive economic problems. These were not helped by antiquated labour and industrial policies, numerous strikes and high inflation. In the 1980s however, Britain embarked in a new free market direction under the leadership of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher: union power was restricted, inflation was brought under control, free enterprise encouraged, and subsidized state-owned industries either sold off ("privatization") or closed. These changes were not without pain, including for a time, massive unemployment, but eventually they succeeded in reviving the faltering economy. The increased prosperity that was brought about through these changes, the 1981 Royal Wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer, and victory in the 1982 Falklands War, brought a new mood of optimism to the country.

Margaret Thatcher:
Margaret Thatcher

While not as powerful as she once was, Britain is nevertheless still a leading economic, political, cultural and military power, with a permanent seat on the United Nations Security council. Britain remains a close ally of the United States of America and has forces fighting in both Iraq and engaged in Afghanistan.

Below are some books about the history of Britain.


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Books about British History


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History of Britain and Ireland: The Definitive Visual Guide

By DK

DK Publishing Dorling Kindersley
Released: 2013-12-23
Paperback (400 pages)

History of Britain and Ireland: The Definitive Visual Guide
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  • DK Publishing Dorling Kindersley
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From the Roman conquest of 43 CE to the Norman conquest of 1066, and from the Elizabethan age to the Iraq and Afghan wars of the 21st century, DK's History of Britain and Ireland traces the key events that have shaped Great Britain and Ireland from earliest times to the present day.

A History of Britain, Vol. 2: The Wars of the British, 1603-1776

By Simon Schama

Brand: Miramax
Released: 2001-10-17
Hardcover (544 pages)

A History of Britain, Vol. 2: The Wars of the British, 1603-1776
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Inside these pages lies the bloody epic of liberty, the British Iliad.

The second volume of Simon Schama's A History of Britain brings the histories of Britain's civil wars -- full of blighted idealism, shocking carnage, and unexpected outcomes -- startlingly to life. These conflicts were fought unsparingly between the nations of the islands -- Ireland, England, and Scotland -- and between parliament and the crown. Shattering the illusion of a "united kingdom," they cost hundreds of thousands of lives: a greater proportion of the population than died in the First World War.

When religious passion gave way to the equally consuming passion for profits, it became possible for the pieces of Britain to come together as the spectacularly successful business enterprise of "Britannia Incorporated." And in a few generations that business state expanded in a dizzying process that transformed what had been an obscure, off-shore footnote to Europe's great powers into the main event -- the most powerful empire in the world.

Yet somehow, it was the "wrong empire." The British considered it a bastion of liberty, yet it was based on military force and the enslavement of hundreds of thousands of Africans. In America, the emptiness of British claims to protect "freedom" was thrown back into the teeth of colonial governors and redcoat soldiers, while the likes of Sam Adams and George Washington inherited the mantle of Cromwell.

Simon Schama grippingly evokes the horror of the battle, famine, and plague; the flames of burning cities; the pathos of broken families, with fathers and sons forced to choose opposing sides. But he also captures the intimacies of palace and parliament and the seductions of profit and pleasure. Geniuses like John Milton, Thomas Hobbes, and Benjamin Franklin stalk vividly through his pages, but so do Scottish clansmen, women pamphleteers, and literate, eloquent African slaves like Olaudah Equiano.

National Geographic The British World: An Illustrated Atlas

By Tim Jepson

National Geographic Society
Released: 2015-11-03
Hardcover (352 pages)

National Geographic The British World: An Illustrated Atlas
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Spanning wars, religious controversies, revolutions, and more, The British World is a visual jewel illuminating the history of this fascinating land—and an essential reference to be treasured by history lovers young and old. The authoritative content, unearthed across thousands of years, immerses you in the full sweep of British history—from prehistory to the Romans, Saxons and Normans, the Medieval Age, Tudor Britain, the Stuarts, the Georgian and Victorian eras, and the modern age. The lush reference is interwoven with intriguing facts and insights into the fabric of British life, from literary highlights to social amusements to trends of the day. Sidebars examine significant people, as well as key cultural and artistic events. Featured quotes give voice to unforgettable characters such as Henry VIII, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Sir Francis Drake, Queen Victoria, Winston Churchill, and Margaret Thatcher. You’ll discover time lines of key events in each chapter, and family trees trace the line of descent of the monarchy to the present. Blending compelling narrative, stunning photographs and artwork, and dozens of specially commissioned maps, The British World takes you on a fascinating journey through time and place to tell the story of the British Isles.

Foundation: The History of England from Its Earliest Beginnings to the Tudors

By Peter Ackroyd

Thomas Dunne Books
Released: 2012-10-16
Kindle Edition (520 pages)

Foundation: The History of England from Its Earliest Beginnings to the Tudors
 
Product Description:

The first book in Peter Ackroyd's history of England series, which has since been followed up with two more installments, Tudors and Rebellion.

In Foundation, the chronicler of London and of its river, the Thames, takes us from the primeval forests of England's prehistory to the death, in 1509, of the first Tudor king, Henry VII. He guides us from the building of Stonehenge to the founding of the two great glories of medieval England: common law and the cathedrals. He shows us glimpses of the country's most distant past--a Neolithic stirrup found in a grave, a Roman fort, a Saxon tomb, a medieval manor house--and describes in rich prose the successive waves of invaders who made England English, despite being themselves Roman, Viking, Saxon, or Norman French.

With his extraordinary skill for evoking time and place and his acute eye for the telling detail, Ackroyd recounts the story of warring kings, of civil strife, and foreign wars. But he also gives us a vivid sense of how England's early people lived: the homes they built, the clothes the wore, the food they ate, even the jokes they told. All are brought vividly to life in this history of England through the narrative mastery of one of Britain's finest writers.

The Story of Britain: From the Romans to the Present: A Narrative History

By Rebecca Fraser

W W Norton Company
Paperback (848 pages)

The Story of Britain: From the Romans to the Present: A Narrative History
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“A beautifully written story, a box of delights, a treasure trove: final proof of truth’s superiority over fiction.”―Andrew Roberts

A sparkling anecdotal account with the pace of an epic, about the men and women who created turning points in history. Rebecca Fraser's dramatic portrayal of the scientists, statesmen, explorers, soldiers, traders, and artists who forged Britain's national institutions is the perfect introduction to British history.

Just as much as kings and queens, battles and empire, Britain's great themes have been the liberty of the individual, the rule of law, and the parliamentary democracy invented to protect them. Ever since Caractacus and Boudicca surprised the Romans with the bravery of their resistance, Britain has stood out as the home of freedom. From Thomas More to William Wilberforce, from Gladstone to Churchill, Britain's history is studded with heroic figures who have resisted tyranny in all its guises, whether it be the Stuart kings' belief in divine right, the institution of slavery, or the ambitions of Napoleon and Hitler. 154 illustrations

The Royal Stuarts: A History of the Family That Shaped Britain

By Allan Massie

Thomas Dunne Books
Released: 2011-12-20
Kindle Edition (385 pages)

The Royal Stuarts: A History of the Family That Shaped Britain
 
Product Description:

"Compelling...A masterly feat...A magnificent, sweeping, authoritative, warm yet wry history."

--The Wall Street Journal



In this fascinating and intimate portrait of the Stuarts, author Allan Massie takes us deep into one of history's bloodiest and most tumultuous reigns. Exploring the family's lineage from the first Stuart king to the last, The Royal Stuarts is a panoramic history of the family that acted as a major player in the Scottish Wars of Independence, the Union of the Crowns, the English Civil War, the Restoration, and more.

Drawing on the accounts of historians past and present, novels, and plays, this is the complete story of the Stuart family, documenting their path from the salt marshes of Brittany to the thrones of Scotland and England and eventually to exile. The Royal Stuarts brings to life figures like Mary, Queens of Scots, Charles I, and Bonnie Prince Charlie, uncovering a family of strong affections and fierce rivalries. Told with panache, this is the gripping true story of backstabbing, betrayal, and ambition gone awry.

The British Raj: The History and Legacy of Great Britain’s Imperialism in India and the Indian Subcontinent

By Charles River Editors

Charles River Editors
Released: 2016-11-17
Kindle Edition (70 pages)

The British Raj: The History and Legacy of Great Britain’s Imperialism in India and the Indian Subcontinent
 
Product Description:
*Includes pictures
*Includes contemporary accounts written about the Raj by British and Indians
*Includes online resources and a bibliography for further reading
*Includes a table of contents

"A significant fact which stands out is that those parts of India which have been longest under British rule are the poorest today. Indeed some kind of chart might be drawn up to indicate the close connection between length of British rule and progressive growth of poverty." - Jawaharlal Nehru, The Discovery of India

The British East India Company served as one of the key players in the formation of the British Empire. From its origins as a trading company struggling to keep up with its superior Dutch, Portuguese, and Spanish competitors to its tenure as the ruling authority of the Indian subcontinent to its eventual hubristic downfall, the East India Company serves as a lens through which to explore the much larger economic and social forces that shaped the formation of a global British Empire. As a private company that became a non-state global power in its own right, the East India Company also serves as a cautionary tale all too relevant to the modern world’s current political and economic situation.

On its most basic level, the East India Company played an essential part in the development of long-distance trade between Britain and Asia. The trade in textiles, ceramics, tea, and other goods brought a huge influx of capital into the British economy. This not only fueled the Industrial Revolution, but also created a demand for luxury items amongst the middle classes. The economic growth provided by the East India Company was one factor in Britain’s ascendancy from a middling regional power to the most powerful nation on the planet. The profits generated by the East India Company also created incentive for other European powers to follow its lead, which led to three centuries of competition for colonies around the world. This process went well beyond Asia to affect most of the planet, including Africa and the Middle East..

Beyond its obvious influence in areas like trade and commerce, the East India Company also served as a point of cultural contact between Western Europeans, South Asians, and East Asians. Quintessentially British practices such as tea drinking were made possible by East India Company trade. The products and cultural practices traveling back and forth on East India Company ships from one continent to another also reconfigured the way societies around the globe viewed sexuality, gender, class, and labor. On a much darker level, the East India Company fueled white supremacy and European concepts of Orientalism.

Ultimately, the company’s activity across the Indian subcontinent led to further British involvement there, and the British Raj, a period of British dominance and rule over India that formally began in 1857 and lasted until 1947, remains a highly debated topic amongst historians, political scientists, the British people, and the people of modern India. It’s necessary to seek an understanding of the people, forces, and events shaping the history of British India to arrive at valid conclusions about the British-Indian experience and to understand the continued divide over its legacy. Perhaps then it’s possible to answer Lewis’s question: “Is it possible that British rule was both destructive and creative at the same time?”

The British Raj: The History and Legacy of Great Britain’s Imperialism in India and the Indian Subcontinent looks at the importance of British colonialism in the region, and how it has affected the course of history to this day. Along with pictures and a bibliography, you will learn about the British Raj like never before.

Saxons, Vikings, and Celts: The Genetic Roots of Britain and Ireland

By Bryan Sykes

W W Norton Company
Paperback (336 pages)

Saxons, Vikings, and Celts: The Genetic Roots of Britain and Ireland
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From the best-selling author of The Seven Daughters of Eve, a perfect book for anyone interested in the genetic history of Britain, Ireland, and America.

One of the world's leading geneticists, Bryan Sykes has helped thousands find their ancestry in the British Isles. Saxons, Vikings, and Celts, which resulted from a systematic ten-year DNA survey of more than 10,000 volunteers, traces the true genetic makeup of the British Isles and its descendants, taking readers from the Pontnewydd cave in North Wales to the resting place of the Red Lady of Paviland and the tomb of King Arthur. This illuminating guide provides a much-needed introduction to the genetic history of the people of the British Isles and their descendants throughout the world.

A History of Modern Britain

By Andrew Marr

Picador
Released: 2009-07-03
Kindle Edition (737 pages)

A History of Modern Britain
 
Product Description:

A History of Modern Britain by Andrew Marr confronts head-on the victory of shopping over politics. It tells the story of how the great political visions of New Jerusalem or a second Elizabethan Age, rival idealisms, came to be defeated by a culture of consumerism, celebrity and self-gratification. In each decade, political leaders think they know what they are doing, but find themselves confounded. Every time, the British people turn out to be stroppier and harder to herd than predicted.

Throughout, Britain is a country on the edge - first of invasion, then of bankruptcy, then on the vulnerable front line of the Cold War and later in the forefront of the great opening up of capital and migration now reshaping the world. This history follows all the political and economic stories, but deals too with comedy, cars, the war against homosexuals, Sixties anarchists, oil-men and punks, Margaret Thatcher's wonderful good luck, political lies and the true heroes of British theatre.



 
 
 

 
 
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