Great Britain is positioned at the western edge of Europe, from which it has received successive waves of immigrants who have merged their cultures, languages, beliefs and energies to create an island race which has explored, traded with, dominated and settled other lands all over the world.
The ancient history of the British peoples is a melting pot of Celts, Romans, Germanic tribes and Scandinavians.
The first settlers
Some 8 000 years ago, Britain, until then part of the greater European land mass, became detached from continental Europe by the rise in sea level caused by retreating glaciers.
Around 5 000 BC the first agricultural peoples arrived and began work transforming the British landscape into the pattern much as we see it even today. Having satisfied their survival needs, between 4 000 BC and 1 800 BC they began grander, more spiritually inclined projects such as the construction of Stonehenge and other stone alignments. Around 700 BC saw the arrival of the “Beaker” people who brought a knowledge of metal working and the Aryan roots of the English language – words such as father, mother, sister and brother.
Also around 700 BC Celtic settlers arrived. The Celts brought their language, their chariots, the use of coinage and a love of finery, gold and ornaments. Iron swords gave them an ascendancy in battle over the native Britons, estimated at around a million, who were pushed westwards. By 100 BC their lifestyle and customs were well established in Britain. However the different groups of Celts had only a dialect in common and their lack of any idea of “nationhood” made them vulnerable to the might of Rome.
The Romans had no strategic interest in the offshore island of Britannia but the lure of corn, gold, iron, slaves and hunting dogs was enough to entice them to invade. By AD 70 much of the north and Wales had been subdued and 50 or more towns had been established, linked by a network of roads. Rome gave Britain its law and extended the use of coinage into a recognised system, essential to trade in an “urban” society. In 313 Christianity was established as the official religion.
55 BC –Julius Caesar lands in Britain
AD 42 –Roman invasion of Britain under the Emperor Claudius
61 – Revolt of the Iceni under Queen Boadicea
122 – Beginning of the construction of Hadrian’s Wall
410 – Roman legions withdrawn from Britain following the sack of Rome by Alaric the Goth
Anglo-Saxons and Vikings
Saxons in the form of Germanic mercenaries had manned many of the shore forts of Britain before the final withdrawal of regular Roman troops. As pay became scarce they seized tracts of good farming land and settled permanently.
When St Augustine arrived in Kent in 597, he found that Christianity was already established at the court of King Ethelbert of Kent, whose wife Queen Bertha was a Christian princess. Until the Synod of Whitby in AD 664 the practices of the Roman church existed side by side with those of the Celtic church, which had a different way of calculating the date of Easter and a strong and distinctive monastic tradition. The Saxon kingdoms of Britain, which traded as far afield as Russia and Constantinople, were constantly engaged in power struggles not only with one another but also with the Angles and Jutes.
Under the Vikings, who took to trading and barter instead of their former piracy, London again became a great trading port, as it had been during the Roman period. By AD 911 eight vassal kings paid homage to King Edgar for almost the whole country. During the disastrous reign of Ethelred, the “Redeless” (lacking wise counsel), England was attacked by Norsemen; in 1013 Swein, King of Denmark, invaded and briefly became king. Ethelred fled to Normandy. His son, Edmund “Ironside”, was left to battle against the invaders. After his murder the parliament (Witenagemot), preferring strength to weakness, elected the Danish invader Canute (Cnut) as his successor. Seven years after Canute’s death Edward, son of Ethelred and his Norman wife, Emma, was chosen to be King.
Edward the Confessor, who spent much of his childhood in exile in Normandy, gave land and positions to Normans who viewed the easy-going English with scarcely concealed contempt. Edward gained popular approval as a devout saintly character, but suffered from rebellious and powerful earls, in particular the Godwins of Wessex.
To guard the southeast shoreline against invasion and pillage Edward the Confessor established the enduring maritime federation known as the Cinque Ports (5 ports), in which Sandwich, Dover, Romney, Hythe and Hastings grouped together to supply ships and men for defence. As part of is claim to the English throne, his great-nephew, Duke William of Normandy, is said to have made Harold, son of Earl Godwin, swear an oath to help William succeed on Edward’s death. On 5 January 1066, days after the consecration of his abbey church at Westminster, Edward died, Harold took the throne and the stage was set for a Norman invasion.
449 – First waves of Angles, Saxons and Jutes land in Britain; Hengist and Horsa land at Ebbsfleet in east Kent
597 – Augustine, sent by Pope Gregory to convert the British to Christianity, founded a Benedictine monastery in Canterbury
827 – King Egbert of Essex became first king of England
851 – Viking raiders wintered regularly in Britain and became settlers
871-99 – Reign of Alfred the Great, King of Wessex, who contained the Vikings in 871
911 – Kingdom of Normandy founded by Rollo, a Viking
1016-35 – Reign of Canute (Cnut), first Danish king of England
1042-66 – Reign of Edward the Confessor
The Norman Conquest solidified England’s feudal system from the Battle of Hastings in 1066 onwards. In the following centuries, dynastic struggles were to plague both Britain and the continent.
The Normans were descendants of Norsemen, Vikings, who had settled in northern France in 876. Following the death of Edward the Confessor, Duke William of Normandy, accompanied by some 5 000 knights and followers, invaded England and defeated Harold at the Battle of Hastings on 14 October 1066, the last time the country was successfully invaded. Duke William, better known as William the Conqueror, overcame a nation of 1.5-2 million people – descendants of Celts, Romans, Vikings and Saxons – and imposed a strong central authority on a group of kingdoms which ranked among the richest in western Europe.
By the time of the Domesday Survey only a handful of English names feature amongst the list of “tenants in chief”, revealing a massive shift in ownership of land, and only one of 16 bishops was an Englishman; by 1200 almost every Anglo-Saxon cathedral and abbey, reminders for the vanquished English of their great past, had been demolished and replaced by Norman works. Forty years after the conquest however, English soldiers fought for an English-born king, Henry I, in his French territories.
1066 – Harold Godwinson defeated at the Battle of Hastings by Duke William of Normandy, who was crowned William I in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day
1086 – Domesday Survey made by William I to reassess the value of property throughout England for taxation purposes
1100-35 – Reign of Henry I whose marriage to Matilda of Scots united the Norman and Saxon royal houses
1135-54 – Reign of Stephen. Henry of Anjou acknowledged as heir to the throne by the Treaty of Winchester
Henry II, Count of Anjou, married Eleanor whose dowry brought Aquitaine and Poitou to the English crown. His dispute over the relative rights of Church and State with Thomas Becket, whom he himself had appointed as Archbishop of Canterbury, led to Becket’s murder. Henry’s reign deserves to be remembered for the restoration of order in a ravaged country, the institution of legal reforms, which included the establishment of the jury, the system of assize courts and coroners’ courts, two reforms of the coinage and the granting of many town charters. He also encouraged the expansion of sheep farming as English wool was of high quality; the heavy duties levied on its export contributed to England’s prosperity.
The despotic manner of ruling and of raising revenue adopted by Henry’s son, King John, caused the barons to unite and force the king to sign Magna Carta which guaranteed every man freedom from illegal interference with his person or property and the basis of much subsequent English legislation.
The ineffectual reign of John’s son, Henry III, was marked by baronial opposition and internal strife. He was forced to call the first “parliament” in 1264.
His son, Edward I, a typical Plantagenet, fair-haired, tall and energetic, was for much of his reign at war with France and Wales and Scotland; on the last two he imposed English administration and justice. During his reign the constitutional importance of Parliament increased; his Model Parliament of 1295 included representatives from shire, city and borough.
His son, Edward II, cared for little other than his own pleasure and his reign saw the effective loss of all that his father had won. His wife, Isabel of France, humiliated by her husband’s conduct, invaded and deposed Edward.
1154 – Accession of Henry II, Count of Anjou (Plantagenet)
1170 – Murder of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral
1189 – Henry II defeated in battle by his son Richard
1189-99 – Reign of Richard I (the Lionheart)
1199-1216 – Reign of King John. Most of Normandy, Maine, Anjou. and Brittany lost
1215 – John forced to sign Magna Carta by the Barons
1216-72 – Reign of Henry III,
1271-1307 – Reign of Edward I
1296-98 – North of England ravaged by Scots under William Wallace; defeated at Falkirk and executed in 1305
1307-27 – Reign of Edward II
1314 – Edward II defeated at Bannockburn by Robert I, King of Scotland
1327 – Edward II murdered at Berkeley Castle
1327-77 – Reign of Edward III
1328 – Robert I recognised as king of an independent Scotland
Hundred years War (1337-1453)
The son of Edward II, Edward III, sought reconciliation with the barons and pursued an enlightened trade policy. He reorganised the navy and led England into the Hundred Years War, claiming not only Aquitaine but the throne of France in 1348 the Black Death plague reached England and the labour force was reduced by one-third.
The throne passed from Edward III to his grandson, Richard II, with his uncle, John of Gaunt, acting as Regent. In time Richard quarrelled with the barons. John of Gaunt was exiled together with his son Henry Bolingbroke, who returned to recover his father’s confiscated estates, deposed Richard and became king.
Henry IV was threatened with rebellion by the Welsh and the Percys, Earls of Northumberland, and with invasion from France.
Henry V resumed the Hundred Years War and English claims to the French throne. On his death his infant son was crowned Henry VI in 1429 in Westminster Abbey and in 1431 in Notre Dame in Paris.
1337 – Beginning of the Hundred Years War with France
1348 – The Black Death
1377-99 – Reign of Richard II
1381 – Peasants’ Revolt, in part provoked by the government’s attempt to control wages
1398 – Richard II deposed by Henry Bolingbroke
1399-1414 – Reign of Henry IV
1400 – Death of Richard II
1413-22 – Reign of Henry V
1415 – English defeat French at Battle of Agincourt
1420 – Treaty of Troyes making Henry V heir to the French throne
1422-61 – Reign of Henry VI with Duke of Gloucester and Duke of Lancaster as Regents
1453 – Hundred Years War ends
Wars of the roses
The regency created by the deposing of Edward II fostered the counter-claims of York and Lancaster to develop into the Wars of the Roses. The Lancastrians (Henry IV, Henry V and Henry VI), represented by the red rose of Lancaster, claimed the throne by direct male descent from John of Gaunt, fourth son of Edward III. The Yorkists (Edward IV, Edward V and Richard III), represented by the white rose of York, were descended from Lionel, Edward’s third son, but in the female line. The dispute ended when Elizabeth of York married Henry Tudor, a Lancastrian.
Edward V and his younger brother, Richard, known as the Little Princes in the Tower, were imprisoned by their uncle Richard, Duke of Gloucester. Their claim to the throne was deemed illegitimate by Parliament. Gloucester was proclaimed Richard III and the princes were probably murdered at the Tower of London.
1455-87 – Wars of the Roses, over 30 years of sporadic fighting and periods of armed peace, between the houses of Lancaster and York, rival claimants to the throne
1461-83 – Reign of Edward IV
1465 – Henry VI captured and imprisoned in the Tower of London
1470 – Restoration of Henry VI by Warwick and flight of Edward
1471 – Murder of Henry VI and Prince Edward by Edward IV following his victory at Tewkesbury
1483 – Reign of Edward V ending in his and his brother’s imprisonment in the Tower of London
1483-85 – Reign of Richard III
1485 – Battle of Bosworth Field: Richard defeated and killed by Henry Tudor
The Renaissance period witnessed the growing conflicts between royalty and other institutions (notably the church and parliament). The Tudors in the 16th century and the Stuarts in the 17th century were the embodiment of absolute monarchy. This period was also all about the struggle between the Catholic, Protestant and Anglican churches and communities.
Henry VII ruled shrewdly and his control of finances restored order and a healthy Treasury after the Wars of the Roses.
His son, Henry VIII, was a “Renaissance Man”, an accomplished musician, linguist, scholar and soldier. He was an autocratic monarch of capricious temper and elastic conscience, who achieved union with Ireland and Wales and greatly strengthened the Navy. Thomas Wolsey, appointed Chancellor in 1515, fell from favour for failing to obtain papal approval for Henry to divorce Catherine of Aragon; his palace at Hampton Court was confiscated by the King. The Dissolution of the Monasteries caused the greatest re-distribution of land in England since the Norman conquest. Wool, much of which had been exported raw in the previous century, was now nearly all made into cloth at home.
The popularity of Mary, daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, was undermined by her insistence on marrying Philip II of Spain, who was a Roman Catholic, the burning of 300 alleged heretics, and war with France, which resulted in the loss of Calais, England’s last possession in continental Europe.
Elizabeth I, daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, restored a moderate Anglicanism, though potential Roman Catholic conspiracies to supplant her were ruthlessly suppressed. She sought to avoid the needless expense of war by diplomacy and a network of informers controlled by her Secretaries, Cecil and Walsingham. Opposition to Elizabeth as Queen focused on Mary Queen of Scots and looked to Spain for assistance. The long struggle against Spain, mostly fought out at sea, culminated in the launch of the Spanish Armada, the final and unsuccessful attempt by Spain to conquer England and re-establish the Roman Catholic faith; its defeat was the greatest military victory of Elizabeth I’s reign. Elizabeth I presided over a period of exploration and enterprise, a flowering of national culture and the arts; most of William Shakespeare’s greatest plays were produced between 1592 and 1616.
1485-1509 – Reign of Henry VII
1509-47 – Reign of Henry VIII
1513 – Defeat and death of James IV of Scotland at Flodden
1535 – Execution of Sir Thomas More, Chancellor, for refusing to sign the Act of Supremacy, acknowledging Henry VIII as head of the Church in place of the Pope
1536-39 – Dissolution of the Monasteries. Excommunication of Henry VIII
1547-53 – Reign of Edward VI,
1553-58 – Reign of Mary I; Roman Catholicism re-established
1558-1603 – Reign of Elizabeth I
1567-1625 – Reign of James VI, King of the Scots
1580 – Circumnavigation of the world by Francis Drake
1587 – Execution of Mary Queen of Scots.
1588 – Defeat of the Spanish Armada
Elizabeth I was succeeded by James I of England and VI of Scotland. The Gunpowder Plot was a conspiracy of Roman Catholics who attempted to assassinate James in Parliament, despite his willingness to extend to them a measure of toleration.
Charles I inherited his father’s belief in an absolute monarchy – the “divine right of kings” – and attempted to rule without Parliament from 1626 to 1640. Moreover his marriage to a Roman Catholic, Henrietta Maria of France, was unpopular with the people. When he was finally forced to recall Parliament, the Members of the House responded by condemning his adviser, the Earl of Strafford, to death for treason, refusing to grant the King money until he discussed their grievances and they passed a Bill preventing any future dissolution of Parliament without their consent. When in 1642 Charles I attempted to arrest five members of Parliament he sowed the final seeds for the coming conflict.
1603-25 – Reign of James I (also James VI of Scotland)
1605 – Gunpowder Plot intended to assassinate the King in Parliament
1620 – Pilgrim Fathers set sail for America
1625-49 – Reign of Charles I
1626 – Dissolution of Parliament by the King
The English civil war
The English Civil War broke out in August 1642. Charles I established his headquarters in Oxford but the balance was tilted against him by Scots support for the Parliamentarians. The North was lost after the Battle of Marston Moor in 1644 and, following the formation of the New Model Army by Cromwell and Fairfax and its victory at Naseby in 1645, the Royalists surrendered at Oxford the following year. The King surrendered to the Scots who handed him over to Parliament in 1647. A compromise was attempted but Charles wavered. He played off one faction in Parliament against another and sought finance and troops from abroad. In 1648 the war resumed. The Scots, to whom Charles promised a Presbyterian England in return for their help, invaded England but were defeated in August at Preston and Charles I was captured. The army demanded his death.
Under the Commonwealth and Protectorate the monarchy and the House of Lords were abolished and replaced by a Council of State of 40 members. Attempts by the “Rump” Parliament to turn itself into a permanent non-elected body caused Cromwell to dissolve it and form the Protectorate in 1653, in which he, as Lord Protector, ruled by decree. He was accepted by the majority of a war-weary population but, on his death in 1653, the lack of a competent successor provoked negotiations which led to the Restoration of the Monarchy.
1649 – Trial and execution of the king
1649 – Beginning of the Commonwealth. England is ruled not by a monarch but by Oliver Cromwell, a commoner
1651 – Coronation at Scone of Charles II. He is defeated at the Battle of Worcester and flees to France.
The Restoration in May 1660 ended ten years of Puritan restriction and opened a period of optimism and a flourishing of theatre, painting and the arts. In the Declaration of Breda Charles II appeared to promise something for almost every political faction. The Navigation Acts, specifying that English goods must be carried in English ships, did much to develop commerce.
In 1685, just after the death of Charles II, his illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth, whom he had refused to legitimise, led a rebellion against James II, which was brutally repressed. This and the introduction of pro-Catholic policies, two Declarations of Indulgence in 1687 and 1688, the trial and acquittal of the Seven Bishops and the birth of a son James, who became the “Old Pretender”, all intensified fears of a Roman Catholic succession. Disaffected politicians approached William of Orange, married to Mary, James’ daughter, and offered him the throne.
1660-85 – Reign of Charles II
1665 – Great Plague in which more than 68 000 Londoners died
1666 – Great Fire of London which destroyed 80per cent of the City of London
1672 – Declaration of Indulgence relaxing penal laws against Roman Catholics and other dissenters
1672-74 – War against the Dutch
1673 – Test Act excluding Roman Catholics and other non-conformists from civil office
1677 – Marriage of Charles II’s sister, Mary, to William of Orange
1679 – Habeas Corpus Act reinforcing existing powers protecting individuals against arbitrary imprisonment
1685-88 – Reign of James II
1685 – Monmouth Rebellion – unsuccessful attempt to claim the throne by the Duke of Monmouth, illegitimate son of Charles II
1687 – Dissolution of Parliament by James II
The Glorious Revolution
William III landed in England in 1688. In 1689 he was crowned with his wife Mary as his Queen. Jacobite supporters of the exiled James II were decisively defeated in both Ireland and Scotland and much of William’s reign was devoted, with the Grand Alliance he formed with Austria, the Netherlands, Spain and the German states, to obstructing the territorial ambitions of Louis XIV of France.
Queen Anne, staunch Protestant and supporter of the Glorious Revolution (1688), which deposed her father, James II, also strove to reduce the power and influence of France in Europe and to ensure a Protestant succession to the throne. Marlborough’s victory at Blenheim and his successes in the Low Countries achieved much of the first aim. After 18 pregnancies and the death of her last surviving child in 1701, Anne agreed to the Act of Settlement providing for the throne to pass to Sophia, Electress of Hanover, grand-daughter of James I, or to her heirs.
The “Whigs” were the members of the political party which had invited William to take the throne. They formed powerful juntas during the reigns of William and Anne and ensured the Hanoverian succession. In the 1860s they became the Liberal Party. The “Tories” accepted the Glorious Revolution but became associated with Jacobite feelings and were out of favour until the new Tory party, under Pitt the Younger, took office in 1783. They developed into the Conservative Party under Peel in 1834.
The Jacobites, supporters of the Stuart claim to the throne, made two attempts to dethrone the Hanoverian George I. James II’s son, the “Old Pretender”, led the first Jacobite rising in 1715 and his eldest son, Charles Edward Stuart, “Bonnie Prince Charlie”, the “Young Pretender”, led a similar rising in 1745, which ended in 1746 at Culloden, the last battle fought on British soil. He died in exile in 1788 and his younger brother died childless in 1807.
1688 – William of Orange invited to England. Exile of James II to France
1689-94 – Reign of William III and Mary II
1689 – Defeat of Scottish Jacobites at Killiecrankie. Londonderry besieged by James II; Grand Alliance between England, Austria, the Netherlands and German states in war against France
1690 – Battle of the Boyne and defeat of James II and the Irish Jacobites
1694-1702 – Reign of William III following the death of Mary II
1694 – Triennial Act providing for Parliament to meet at least once every three years and to sit for not more than three years
1694 – Foundation of the Bank of England
1695 – Foundation of the Bank of Scotland
1702-14 – Reign of Queen Anne
With the battles between parliament and the monarchy concluded, maritime supremacy established and industrial output exploding, Britain focused on international trade and colonisation.
By the time George I ascended the throne in 1714, the United Kingdom was already a European economic and naval power which had played a major part in weakening the influence of France in Europe.
George II is notable for being the last monarch to command his forces personally in battle, at Dettingen in 1743 in the war of the Austrian Succession.
He was succeeded by his grandson, the unfortunate George III, prone to bouts of apparent madness (possibly due to porphyria or arsenic poisoning). He was unable to reverse the trend towards constitutional monarchy but he did try to exercise the right of a king to govern. This caused great unpopularity, and he was forced to acknowledge the reality of party politics. Foreign policy was dominated by the King’s determination to suppress the American Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars which arose from the threat posed by the Revolution in France to established European powers.
George IV had supported the Whig cause as a symbol of opposition to his father’s Tory advisers and was much influenced by the politician Charles James Fox.
William IV was 65 when he succeeded his unpopular brother. Dissatisfaction with parliamentary representation was near to causing revolutionary radicals to join forces with the mob.
1704 – Gibraltar captured by the English; English victory at Blenheim
1707 – Act of Union joining the parliaments of England and Scotland
1714-27 – Reign of George I
1715 – Jacobite rebellion, led by James Edward Stuart, the Old Pretender
1727-60 – Reign of George II
1745 – Jacobite rebellion led by Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Young Pretender, which ended at Culloden in 1746
1752 – Gregorian Calendar adopted
1756 – Beginning of the Seven Years War. Ministry formed by Pitt the Elder
1757 – Recapture of Calcutta. Battle of Plassey won by Clive
1759 – Defeat of the French army by General Wolfe on the Heights of Abraham, Quebec
1760-1820 – Reign of George III
1760 – Conquest of Canada
1763 – Seven Years War ended in the Treaty of Paris
1773 – Boston Tea Party, a protest against forced imports of cheap East India Company tea into the American colonies
1776 – American Declaration of Independence; The Wealth of Nations published by Adam Smith
1781 – British surrender at Yorktown
1793 – War against Revolutionary France
1799 – First levy of income tax to finance the war
1805 – Naval victory at Trafalgar and death of Nelson
1807 – Abolition of the slave trade within the British Empire
Vast social changes occurred as the labour force moved from the land into town; overcrowding often bred unrest between worker and employer. The Napoleonic Wars both stimulated this industrialism and aggravated the unrest but by the mid 19C it was clear that in Britain industrial revolution would not be followed by political revolution.
1731 – Agriculture revolutionised by the invention of the horse hoe and seed drill by Jethro Tull
1733 – Invention of the flying shuttle by John Kay
1769 – Patents issued for Watt’s steam engine and Arkwright’s water frame
1781 – Patent issued for Watt’s steam engine for rotary motion
1787 – Invention of the power Ioom by Cartwright
1825 – Opening of the Stockton and Darlington railway. Completion of the Menai Bridge by Telford
1833 – Factory Act abolishes child labour
1834 – Tolpuddle Martyrs transported to Australia for forming an agriculture Trade Union
1851 – Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park
1856 – Invention of the Bessemer process of steel making in industrial quantities.
The Victorian Era
As William IV’s two daughters had died as infants, he was succeeded on his death by his niece, Victoria.
Queen Victoria, the last monarch of the House of Hanover, was only 18 when she came to the throne. She went onto become Britain’s longest-reigning Sovereign and to give her name to an illustrious age. Her husband, the Prince Consort, Albert of Saxe-Coburg, was her closest adviser until his premature death in 1861. He persuaded her that the Crown should not be aligned with any political party – a principle that has endured. He was the instigator of the Great Exhibition which took place between May and October in 1851. It contained exhibits from all nations and was a proud declaration of the high point of the Industrial Revolution, celebrating the inventiveness, technical achievement and prosperity which are the hallmarks of the Victorian Age.
Her son, Edward VII, who was excluded from royal duties and responsibilities until 1892, greatly increased the prestige of the monarchy by his own charm and by reviving royal public ceremonial.
1812-14 – Anglo-American War ended by Treaty of Ghent
1815 – Battle of Waterloo; defeat of Napoleon; Congress of Vienna
1820-30 – Reign of George IV
1823 – Reform of criminal law and prisons by Peel
1829 – Catholic Emancipation Act. Formation of the Metropolitan Police
1830-37 – Reign of William IV
1832 – First parliamentary Reform Act
1837-1901 – Reign of Victoria
1840 – Marriage of Victoria to Prince Albert. Introduction of the penny post
1842 – Chartist movement campaigns for parliamentary reform
1846 – Repeal of the Corn Laws
1848 – Cholera epidemic. Public Health Act
1854-56 – Crimean War, ends with the Treaty of Paris
1857 – Indian Mutiny
1858 – Government of India transferred from the East India Company to the Crown
1861 – Death of Prince Albert
1863 – Opening of the first underground railway in London, the Metropolitan Railway
1871 – bank holidays introduced
1876 – Victoria made Empress of India. Elementary education made obligatory
1884 – Invention of the steam turbine by Parsons
1888 – Local Government Act establishing county councils and county boroughs
1895 – First Motor Show in London
1899-1902 – Boer War ends in the Peace of Vereeniging, leading to union of South Africa (1910)
Following the two world wars Great Britain took its place at the top table of the free world. As the second decade of the 21st century approaches, Britain’s military powers may have diminished, but it remains a key player in world politics.
World at war
The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand at Sarajevo in 1914 plunged Europe (and beyond) into a futile stalemate war in which a million British troops died and many millions more lost their lives. Meanwhile in Ireland a desire for independence had also reached crisis point and in Easter 1916 an uprising in Dublin was ruthlessly put down by British troops.
A significant after-effect of the First World War in Great Britain was a loosening of class structure. The “lions led by donkeys” were now much less likely to follow orders in peacetime and the Labour Party made great strides, coming to power for the first time (albeit in a Liberal coalition) in 1923.
Across the water in Ireland the independence movement was continuing and in 1921 an Irish Free State was created. It led to the Irish Civil War, which ended in 1923.
In Britain the General Strike of 1926 underlined the country’s growing restlessness and this unrest worsened in the 1930s, as the worldwide economy slumped into the Great Depression.
World War II
A policy of appeasement was taken towards the growing ambitions of Adolf Hitler, characterised by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in 1938 who returned from a meeting with the Führer and delivered the now infamous words ‘I believe it is peace in our time’. When it became clear however in 1939, with the invasion of Poland, that war was the only option for Britain, the country found itself seriously unprepared. By mid-1940 Britain was isolated and prepared to be invaded by Hitler’s army from across the Channel. The evacuation of troops at Dunkirk was the nadir. The tide however was about to turn. In May Winston Churchill became Prime Minister and the Battle of Britain had halted the Luftwaffe‘s ambitions. This led to the Blitz over London and other major cities, in the autumn and winter of 1940/41. In 1941 the United States entered the war and the Germans became disastrously entrenched on the Eastern Front in Russia. By 1944 the German armies were in retreat and the Normandy (D-Day) Landings spearheaded the liberation of Europe.
1900 – Labour Party formed
1901-10 – Reign of Edward VII
1903 – Women’s suffrage movement started by Mrs Pankhurst
1905 – First motor buses in London
1910-36 –Reign of George V
1914-18 – First World War
1914 – Formation of Kitchener’s “Volunteer Army”
1916 – Easter Rising in Dublin
1917 – Name of the royal family changed to Windsor by George V
1918 – Women over-30 granted vote
1919 – Treaty of Versailles
1921 – Creation of the Irish Free State
1924 – British Empire Exhibition
1926 – General Strike
1928 – Women over-21 granted vote
1931 – The Depression – many people out of work
1936 – Accession and abdication of Edward VIII
1936-52 – Reign of George VI
1939-45 – Second World War
1940 – Winston Churchill becomes Prime Minister
1940 – Evacuation of Dunkirk; Battle of Britain
1944 – Normandy landings
The years following the Second World War marked the end of the British Empire. In most cases this was a peaceful transition. India achieved independence in 1947 and within the next ten years virtually all of Britain’s overseas dependencies followed suit. These new self-governing Dominions, which had stood by Britain during two World Wars, changed into the British Commonwealth, an informal non-political union which fosters economic co-operation and best practices between member nations.
After 1945 key industries were nationalised and the Welfare State was born with the National Health Service, improved pensions and benefits.
Elizabeth II, who succeeded to the throne in 1952, has done much to strengthen the role of monarchy both at home and abroad and even following the royalty‘s recent troubled years the Queen remains enormously popular within and outside Great Britain.
The austere 1950s was succeeded by the “Swinging Sixties“, a period of cultural upheaval and optimism which saw the rise of youth culture, London become the epicentre of the fashion universe, and, of course, the Beatles.
The decade ended badly in Northern Ireland where violent disputes, known as The Troubles, flared up between Protestant and Catholic organisations. Despite the efforts of the British Army and the Royal Ulster Constabulary, over the next 29 years some 3,700 people were to lose their lives, many in indiscriminate bombings.
By contrast with the upbeat 1960s the 1970s was a decade of industrial slump and strife. Against this background, in 1979, Margaret Thatcher, Britain‘s first ever female party leader (of the Conservatives) also became Britain‘s first ever female prime minister. She went on to become the most charismatic leader since Winston Churchill but her ideology, which came to be known as Thatcherism – deeply in favour of individualism over collectivism and capitalism over social responsibility – polarised the country. The bitter year-long miners‘ strikes of 1984-85 and subsequent pit closures and massive job losses were the most obvious sign of this. Yet while Britain‘s industrial base declined other sectors of the economy (mostly services) boomed. Thatcher went on to win three general elections and while she was reviled by many, some still look back fondly on her premiership.
Although Britain had joined the European (Economic) Union in 1973, European policy issues had remained mostly on the back burner. In the post-Thatcher years however these, alongside other issues like the immensely unpopular poll tax, led to the unravelling of the Conservatives. John Major gave the Tories another term in government after Thatcher stepped down, but failed by 1997 to unite and modernise his party, making room for a revitalised, centrist Labour party, reborn as the media- savvy New Labour under Tony Blair. His dynamic, reformist and optimistic brand of politics earned him a massive majority in Parliament, with policies that moved away from traditional labour values in favour of the City, big business and closer links with Europe.
The creation of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, both ratified in 1997, marked a new stage in the relationships between the constituent parts of the United Kingdom though most of the real power has remained firmly rooted in Whitehall and Westminster. Devolution and national identity remain controversial topics in Great Britain.
The end of Tony Blair’s reign in 2008 and the prime ministerial succession of Gordon Brown, without public election, occurred in the shadow of a host of problems, from unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to increasing crime, human rights and privacy issues, and the beginning of a serious recession.
1947 – Independence and partition of India. Nationalisation of railways and road transport
1950–1953 – Korean War
1952 – Accession of Elizabeth II
1958 – Treaty of Rome creating the European Economic Community/EEC (now the European Union/EU)
1959 – Discovery of oil in the North Sea
1965 – Death of Sir Winston Churchill
1969 – Investiture of Prince Charles as Prince of Wales at Caernarfon Castle
Beginning of “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland
1973 – United Kingdom becomes a founding member of the EEC
1979 – Margaret Thatcher elected first woman Prime Minister (serves until 1991)
1982 – Falklands War
1990–1991 – Gulf War
1992–1995 – Bosnian War
1997 – Election of a Labour Government. Approval of Scottish and Welsh Assemblies
1998 – Good Friday Agreement, referendum and meeting of Northern Ireland Assembly
1999 – Opening of Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly
2001—present –Afghanistan War
2002 – Queen’s Golden Jubilee.
2003 – Iraq War
2005 – Terrorist bombs explode in London killing 52 people
2007 – Gordon Brown becomes the new prime minister as Tony Blair steps down
2008 – UK economy enters recession. Troops withdrawn from Iraq.
2009 - Last surviving British soldier of WWI dies.