History of England

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The name "England" refers to the largest, most populous of the three main divisions of Great Britain, and dates from after the coming of the English; technically, it is anachronistic to talk of a history of England before that time. This article admits but ignores that anachronism. Also, the term "England" is often used (mostly outside the United Kingdom) to refer to the whole island or the whole U.K, or even the whole British Isles. See also articles on Scotland, Wales and Ireland.

The territory of England has been politically united since the tenth century. This article centers on that territory; but after the accession of James VI of Scotland to the throne of England in 1603 it becomes increasingly hard to distinguish English from British history.

Pre-Roman England may be determined by the following periods:

  8-7000   BC   Mesolithic Period 
  2500     BC   Neolithic Period 
  19-1800  BC   Beaker Folk invasions 
  1600     BC   Bronze Age 
  900      BC   Wave of Celtic immigration
  400      BC   Early Iron Age 

Much evidence remains of Pre-Roman England. The Bronze Age Stonehenge c.1500 BC, near to the much earlier stone circle at Avebury, is an extremely large although untypical example. The south of England contains many iron-age hill forts, surviving as systems of concentric earthworks, from the huge Maiden Castle in Dorset down to much smaller ones like Grimsbury Castle in Berkshire.

The Romans, led by Julius Caesar, landed in England in 55 and in 54 BC, although not as invaders. It was only much later, in 43 AD, under the emperor Claudius that The Roman Occupation of England came about. In order to protect themselves from the depredations of the Picts, the inhabitants of Scotland at that time, the emperor Hadrian had a wall built from east to west, Hadrian's Wall, to defend England.

In classic Roman style, the Romans constructed a highly effective internal infrastructure to cement their military occupation, building long, straight roads the length and breadth of the country, most of which centred on London. For a deeper account of the Roman occupation of Britain, see Roman Britain. See also the Celtic tribes in the British Isles.

The indigenous, mostly Celtic population were suppressed with customary Roman efficiency, although numerous, and often extremely bloody, uprisings occurred all through their occupation, the most notable that of the Iceni (and other tribes)led by Boudicca, or "Boadicea," in 61 AD. The Roman presence declined gradually so that by the 4th Century AD their hold may best be described as tenuous.

In the wake of the Romans, who had largely abandoned the islands in order to concentrate on more pressing difficulties closer to home, what is now England was progressively settled by successive, often complementary, waves of Jutes, Frisians and Saxons, who had been displaced on mainland Europe. Increasingly the erstwhile Celtic population was pushed westwards and northwards. The invasion/settlement of England is known as The Saxon Conquest.

Hengest (Saxon leader, arrived in England in 449, died 488) The Dark Ages Anglo-Saxon Kings

In the decisive Battle of Deorham, in 577, the Cornish Celtic people were separated from the Welsh by the advancing Saxons.

The Venerable Bede (c672-735) Offa (reign 757-?) Alfred (848-?900)

Starting with the raid in 793 on the monastery at Lindisfarne, Vikings made many raids on England. Starting as plundering raids, the Vikings later began to settle in England and trade. There are many traces of vikings in England today, as 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).

It was not until 936, however, that Athelstan was able to evict the Cornish from Exeter, and drew a line at the extent of his kingdom, Wessex, at the river Tamar.

The defeat of King Harold 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, which was a survey for tax purposes of the entire population and their lands and property.

Geoffrey of Monmouth (12th century, writer of "History of the Kings of Britain" stretching from 1100 BC to 689 AD)

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 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.

The disastrous and inept reign of Stephen (1135 - 1154) was to see a major swing in the balance of power towards the feudal barons, as England descended inexorably into civil war and lawlessness. In trying to appease Scottish and Welsh raiders on those borders, he handed over large tracts of land. Moreover, his conflicts with his cousin, the Empress Matilda, who 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, Earl 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 all 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, Scots and the French, with the principal notable battles being the Battle of Crécy and the Battle of Agincourt. On the home front, a sporadic baronial war, the Wars of the Roses, broke out from time to time over contending claims to the throne between the House of Lancaster and the House of York. This culminated in the eventual victory of 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 assured.

Prior to this, the final defeat of the uprising led by the Welsh prince, Owen Glendower, in 1412 by Prince Henry (later to becomeHenry V) represents the last major armed attempt by the Welsh to throw off English rule.

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 and his men fought for the independance of Cornwall on 17th June 1497 but were defeated. The battle is significant since it represents the last major rebellion until the Civil War.

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.

Henry VIII's daughters, Elizabeth I and Mary I, professed to entirely different positions of faith, and their reigns (and particularly that of Mary) were characteristically periods of religious persecution. Mary, a Catholic, who was married to Philip II of Spain, perhaps the foremost Catholic in Europe barring the pope, took the throne in 1553, and, on her accession, made determined attempts to suppress protestantism.

Elizabeth's subsequent reign saw a substantial increase in English economic prosperity. This was a time of significant English colonial expansion, which frequently brought the English into conflict with the Spanish, who were also busily extending their sphere of influence. Relations with Spain were further adversely affected by Elizabeth's sponsorship of privateering and raids on Spanish ports, and, again, the underlying conflicting question of religion, for Elizabeth had officially restored protestantism by the passing of the Act of Supremacy 1559. The Spanish made an invasion attempt, the ill-fated Spanish Armada which was repulsed by a combination of outstanding English naval activity under the leadership of Sir Francis Drake and bad weather.

An assassination attempt on the protestant King James I on 5th November 1605, the Gunpowder Plot, by a group of catholic conspirators, led by Guy Fawkes, served as further fuel for antipathy in England to the catholic faith.

The 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 Parliamentarian army was commanded by Oliver Cromwell, which after much bloodshed and destruction, was ultimately victorious. The capture and subsequent trial of Charles I led to his execution by beheading in January 1649 at Whitehall Gate in 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 fire, the Great Fire of London, which raged for 5 days, destroying c. 15,000 buildings.

The replacement of the catholic king James II with the Dutch protestant William of Orange, William III, by the English government led to a series of uprisings, the Jacobite Rebellions which were to continue until the mid-18th century.

NB: After the 1707 Act of Union, the histories of Britain and England are largely overlapping entities. Since England was the dominant hegemony, it is assumed for the purposes of this article that the two are largely coterminous.

The union of Scotland with England with 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 Darien Venture. This process was lubricated in the Scottish parliament by the self-interested political manoueverings of the English puppets, John Campbell, the 2nd Duke of Argyll and James Douglas, 2nd Duke of Queensberry.

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 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 1800 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.

During the early 1800s, the working classes began to find a voice; concentrations of industry led more or less inevitably to the formation of guilds and unions, which, although at first suppressed, eventually became powerful enough to resist. 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.

Kings & Queens