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United Kingdom of Great Britain

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is constituted in the main by England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. The kingdom of England was the core around which the United Kingdom was built. Chromosomal studies have related what are assumed to be descendants of the earliest Bretons in central Ireland to the Basques, whom some palaeontologists tend to identify as the earliest humans in Europe. Stonehenge, in the county of Wiltshire (south central England), is the largest monument from Antiquity outside of Egypt and Mesopotamia. It is a dolmen consisting of huge orthostats in a circle with some stone spans still in place. Probably used as a center of worship and to mark or celebrate the seasons, it is dated to 2100-2000 BCE or earlier and its size indicates a high degree of social cohesion. Beyond this, all is guesswork. Many assume that it is Celtic. In 2002-2003, tombs dated to 2300 BCE were unearthed near Stonehenge. One was that of a person interred with possible Bronze-Age tokens of kingship. The other was a collective tomb, of the sort usually associated with the Neolithic or New Stone Age.

The island of Britain (Albion from the chalk cliffs of Dover) was conquered by Rome between 43 and 85 CE from its Celtic Breton inhabitants. Roman England was abandoned in 410-419. Britain was already partly Germanized through the migrations of Saxons (north Germans), Angles (neighbors of the Saxons), and Jutes (possibly originary of Jutland, Denmark) during late Roman times. When these peoples took over from the Romans, the country divided into a handful of small kingdoms. Many Bretons fled the German invasions towards Brittany.
The Heptarchy and Norman conquest

As a group the Germanic kingdoms are referred to as the heptarchy (East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Mercia, Northumbria, Sussex, and Wessex). Northumbria, in northern England, extended to east Scotland. It was later superseded by Mercia in the Midlands. Offa of Mercia, builder of Offa's Dyke to separate his kingdom from Welsh tribesmen, claimed rulership over England (late 8th century).

The rulers of these statelets were pagans. They were gradually brought into the Christian fold through a two-pronged missionary endeavour: Irish influence, especially Columba's foundation of the monastery at the island of Iona, off Scotland, and the work of Augustine of Canterbury, an Italian evangelizer sent to Kent by pope Gregory the Great (590-604). English kings did not convert easily. Penda, a king of Mercia, was so incensed at the conversion of Edwin of Northumbria that he fought and killed him. But by the time of Bede (672-735), the historian of the English church, Christianity was so flourishing in the British isles that it practically invented the art of codex illumination.

The Anglo-Irish reputation for scholarship was recognized in all of Europe, Alcuin of York, an influential monk at Charlemagne's court, being perhaps its most famous exemplar. England was to become a hub for European Christendom. Boniface, an English missionary and civilizer before the reign of Charlemagne (early 8th century), was active among the non-converted Germans.

During the early 9th century, Wessex, in south England, became the dominant kingdom. The Danes began their incursions in the 8th century in the north and in the 9th century invaded in earnest. King Alfred the Great of Wessex (871-899) held them to the Danelaw. England was cut by a London to Chester diagonal into Wessex and Mercia to the south west, ruled by Edmund, and the Danelaw to the north east. England was unified by the king of Wessex, Edgar (959-975), son of Edmund.

England was beset again by Danes, who defeated Ethelred the Unready and occupied London in 1013. There was a brief restoration of Saxon rule, but Wessex was finally defeated and conquered by the Danish lord Canute in 1016. Canute married Ethelred's widow and became a Christian. The Danish line was extinguished in 1042 and succeeded anew by the house of Wessex, whose king Edward the Confessor (1042-1066) named lord Harold his successor.

Harold had sworn allegiance to William of Normandy and upon Edward's death William invaded England. Harold had previously been campaigning successfully against the invading Dane Harald Hardrada, whom he repulsed at Stamford Bridge. Harold was defeated and killed in battle by the Normans in 1066 at Hastings (southern England), a momentous event represented, with abundance of background information, in perhaps the greatest graphic narrative in history, the Bayeux tapestry. All of England fell to the Normans.

Norman rule was oppressive but effective and the famous Domesday Book was compiled as a tax roll. The conquest of Wales, already partly achieved by Harold, began almost immediately with William setting up earldoms on the borders to control the clans.

William was succeeded by his sons William II Rufus (1087-1100) and Henry I (1100-1135). In 1093 the vale of Glarmogan in south Wales fell to the Normans. Normandy had drifted out of English rule. Henry's daughter Matilda married Geoffrey (Godefroi) of Anjou, who claimed Normandy. When Henry died his nephew Stephen of Blois occupied the throne (1135-1154). He ruled by making concessions to the barons and to king David of Scotland.

Matilda (Queen Maud) returned to England in 1139. She had strong baronial support and in 1141 Stephen was captured. Later he was exchanged for Robert of Gloucester, half-brother of Matilda, and the dynastic war continued until in 1153 a compromise was reached by which the heirless Stephen was recognized in exchange for his recognition of Matilda's son Henry as his successor.

Besides king of England, Henry II (1154-1189), founder of the Plantagenet line, was lord of Anjou, Maine, Normandy, and Touraine. Through his earlier marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine (1152), this realm and Poitou had come under his suzerainty. At his death, English domains in France stretched from Normandy in the north to the Pyrenees (Gascony) and from the Atlantic ocean to Poitiers.

One of the architects of Henry's empire was Thomas Becket. Henry had on-and-off clashes with the church and in 1162 he named Becket archbishop of Canterbury in the expectation that he would be pliant to his wishes. Becket, who before this had been a layman, became an exemplary cleric, who was murdered in 1170 by a quartet of Henry's knights seeking to allay the monarch's exasperation.

In 1171 Henry also began the conquest of Ireland. He obtained an oath of fealty from the Scottish king William the Lion (1174), who later repudiated it and Richard I Lionheart (1189-1199), son of Henry, ambiguously absolved Scotland from fealty.

Hundred Years War and War of the Roses

John (1199-1216) succeeded his brother Richard. He was called Lackland because he had been originally left out of his father's inheritance. In 1215 John was forced by the Norman barons to sign the Magna Carta recognizing their feudal rights.

Edward I (1271-1307) completed the conquest of Wales in 1282. His son, future Edward II, was the first Prince of Wales. The Scots had repulsed English attempts to annex the country. But Edward made John of Baliol, king of Scotland (1292-1296), his vassal. Scot rebels fought back under Edward Wallace, who was finally defeated in 1298. Scotland sought support from France at this time, thus establishing the long historical link between the two countries. Edward made it a habit of consulting the barons in Parliament.

The English under Edward II (1307-1327) were contained by the Scot Robert the Bruce in the battle of Bannockburn (1314). Edward was defeated and killed by his estranged wife Isabella and Roger Mortimer. His son Edward III (1327-1377) was under the tutelage of Mortimer and his mother until he eliminated the first and placed his mother in a convent. Edward recognized Scottish independence. By then, the French monarchy had taken all English fiefs in the continent except Bordeaux (Guienne). Edward reclaimed them by force in 1337, thus starting the Hundred Years war.

In their first great naval action the English sank the French fleet at Sluys (off Holland) in 1340. They defeated the French at Crécy (1345) and took Calais (1347). Near Poitiers, in 1356, English bowmen undid French mounted knighthood. The English forces were led by Edward of Woodstock, Prince of Wales, known to history as the Black Prince. The peace of Bretigny (1360) was barely respected and by 1373 France had taken back most English conquests.

A long English dynastic struggle began during the long, low-intensity warfare (1373-1415) that marked the pause between the two phases of the Hundred Years War. Henry of Bolingbroke, grandson of Edward III, forced the last English king to claim the Plantagenet title, Richard II (1377-1399), to abdicate and he became Henry IV (1399-1413), founder of the Lancaster dynasty.

Under Henry V (1413-1422), England took the offensive on the continent once again (1415), defeated the French at Agincourt, and in alliance with the duchy of Burgundy occupied all of northern France including Paris; but the Burgundians switched allegiances in 1435 and by 1453 England had relinquished all its French territories except Calais, which fell to the French in 1558. Bordeaux, an English fief for three centuries, went on providing clarets for England.

Richard duke of York, descended from Edward III, took up arms against Henry VI Lancaster (1422-1461). The War of the Roses (1455-1485) ensued during which the throne changed hands various times and was held by the house of York from 1461 until 1485, when Richard III--he usurped the throne by eliminating the minor heirs of his brother king Edward IV York (1471-1483)--was killed in the battle of Bosworth Field won by Henry Tudor, who ascended the throne as Henry VII (1485-1509).

Scottish history during the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries was very turbulent but for periods of stability such as the reign of James IV (1488-1513), who married Margaret Tudor, daughter of Henry VII. James himself was killed in the English victory at Flodden Field.

The Tudors

England had been a most Catholic realm and it even had made a dynastic alliance with Spain through the marriage of Arthur, son of Henry VII, and Katharine of Aragón (1501), sister of Joanna, queen of Spain and mother of Holy Roman emperor Charles V. When Arthur died (1502), his brother Henry married his widow. England mostly kept clear of continental affairs since the end of the Hundred Years war.

Henry VIII (1509-1547) was a tall, corpulent, lusty man, but also possessor of a respectable culture. With his Aragonese wife, he fathered a daughter, Mary, but he desired a male heir, which Katharine had not provided. Henry wanted out of the marriage, mostly perhaps because he simply wished to have another wife.

He had a weakness for Anne Boleyn, a lady of the court, and he petitioned the papacy to have his marriage to Katharine annulled. This was hardly unheard of and the papacy had winked at royal divorces and other irregularities before. The pope in question, Clement VII (1523-1534), was himself the bastard son of a Medici lord. However, he was under the political influence of emperor Charles V, nephew of Katharine, and Henry was turned down flat.

With the enthusiastic collaboration of his chief minister Thomas Cromwell (1532-1540), Henry went and created the Church of England and cut off its allegiance to Rome. Thomas More, who had preceded Cromwell as chief minister, would not accept the royal initiative and, for standing his ground on principle, was tried and beheaded.

Henry's entry into the Protestant movement was not obviously for doctrinal reasons. In fact, he knew of Luther and his ideas and he did not like them or the man. What he did in England was establish a form of Gallicanism (French ecclesiastical nationalism) but more radical: whereas the French monarchy remained loyal to Rome but restricted the flow of church benefices and retained the right to appoint bishops (though not to anoint them), Henry VIII, who interfered little in church affairs before the papacy crossed him over his marital situation, found his break with Rome to be highly profitable through the dissolution of the monasteries and the sales of their lands.

Henry was also a peculiar Protestant in that he definitely wanted everything to remain as it had been before except for the dissolution of the monasteries and his taking the place of the pope at the head of the English church. Henry was not a tyrant to the general and the break with Rome was not unpopular with his subjects, among whom there existed an undercurrent of non-conformism known as Lollardry associated with the teachings of John Wycliffe (ca1328-1384), who argued that church intercession was not needed for personal salvation (contrary to the doctrine that only the church could absolve).

The only substantial opposition to Anglicanism occurred in Ireland where English rule was generally resented. Henry harshly put down Irish rebellions and made himself head also of the Church of Ireland, sister of that of England but without any hold on the people, who understandably remained passionately attached to Roman Catholicism. By the 1536 Act of Union Wales became subject to the English crown.

The transition from Rome to Canterbury, the main see of the Church of England, and from pope of monarch, was not smooth despite Henry's wishes. Real Protestantism, and not just the English version of Catholicism that Henry wanted to establish, surfaced in a multiplicity of sects. In general, the parishes remained faithful to the crown which was what later made it possible for Anglicanism to become the dominant religion, but for the rest of the 16th and during most of the 17th century non-conformism--the general term for the rejection of any vestiges of Catholicism, or popery, as it was called--flourished and it eventually exerted much political influence.

The Scottish reformation was influenced by John Calvin through his Scot disciple John Knox, who in 1557 got the Scottish nobility to sign a covenant accepting Presbyterianism, basically the indirect election of church authorities by the faithful.

Elizabeth I

Henry's foundation of Anglicanism was not quite that solid even though England seemed thoroughly and irrevocably Protestant. At a time when kings were the state and the Protestant schism had only recently begun, it was perfectly conceivable that England could be made to re-convert, especially as Henry VIII's male heir, Edward VI (1547-1553), was a consumptive and he was likely to be succeeded by Mary, the Catholic daughter of Katharine of Aragón. If England on the other hand persisted in its schism, it would be the most important fully Protestant kingdom, a particularly dangerous enemy on the flank of Catholic and Spanish Flanders.

To foil this, Charles V, Holy Roman emperor and king of Spain, recurred to his heir, Philip, who married Mary Tudor (1553-1558) shortly after her accession. The Anglo-Spanish dynastic alliance at first seemed to work. England reluctantly went to war against France, Spain's rival in Lorraine. After popular anti-Catholic protests, Mary applied terror. Hundreds of prominent English Protestants, among them Thomas Cranmer, author of the Book of Common Prayer (an attempt to reconcile non-conformism and the Catholic traits of Anglicanism), were burned at the stake. This gained for Mary the historical sobriquet of "bloody".

Her persecutions had the backfire effect that when she died, Protestant Elizabeth Tudor (1558-1603), daughter of Anne Boleyn (unjustly beheaded by Henry in 1536), whose chances at the crown were slim, ascended the throne and during her reign not only carried on the task of consolidating Anglicanism but also put her kingdom squarely against Habsburg Spain and the Catholic cause in the Low Countries. Despite Elizabeth's best efforts to provide Anglicanism with a strong institutional base, Puritanism, the name adopted by non-conformists of different sects and movements, was flourishing. England might have adopted Protestantism out of royal self-interest, but it embraced it with Shakespearean passion.

From a Spanish legitimist perspective, England was what in America today would be called a rogue or terrorist state. Unlike the Spanish Colonial Empire, English colonialism was oriented towards settlement and was not very impulsive at first. The Spaniards defended their Caribbean Sea coastlines against French and English pirates. This was important because silver from Perú was transported via Panamá to Cartagena of Indies and inside the holds of the galleons in the bi-annual armed convoys between Spain and America.

William Drake, who had been stung once by the Spaniards, turned the tables on them in his famous raid on Portobelo (1572), Spanish Puerto Bello, on the Caribbean side of Panamá, during which he came and went at leisure, captured a large cargo of mule-transported silver, and returned covered in glory to England. Drake's exploit showed that the Spanish Empire was not just vulnerable but, in point of historical fact, indefensible except where Spain went to the trouble and great expense of building and manning fortifications.

This it was hardly in a position to do everywhere and Drake proved it again when, aboard the Golden Hind, he crossed the Atlantic, rounded Cape Horn, sacked Valparaiso, attacked El Callao, captured a Spanish treasure ship, claimed California for England, and returned home via the Cape of Good Hope. (Some researchers claim that he might have sailed as far north as Alaska.) Diplomatically Elizabeth tried to deflect Spanish protests--the two countries were not officially at war--but she could not stem popular acclaim and knighted Drake, which must have made the Spanish ambassador see purple.

During the wars of religion in France, Philip II of Spain (1556-1598) was torn between wanting a weak neighbor and giving a hand to the Catholic party. But with respect to England, he was convinced--as there were English armed forces in Holland, rightly so--that the only way he could put an end to the Dutch rebellion and extirpate what he saw as English naval terrorism was to invade England itself. In this, ironically, he acted like a veritable Don Quixote, the literary odd man out of grandee-dominated Spanish society.

Philip had a fleet outfitted consisting of more than 150 ships with a fighting core of tall heavily weaponed galleons. It was put under the command of the Duke of Medina-Sidonia and sailed to the English channel. After brushing aside English naval opposition, it was to ferry the army of the Duke of Parma from Flanders to England. In other words, Philip wanted to do a repeat of William the Conqueror. However, to do this the Spanish Armada had to face over 200 English fighting ships under the command of Charles Howard and the imperturbable Drake.

The mainly intact Armada anchored off Calais but a combination of aggressive English tactics and strong weather forced it to disperse and after a stormy journey around the British islands only half the Spanish fleet managed to creak back home (1588). Many Spanish ships smashed against the coast of gusty western Ireland, where caught Spaniards were usually hung by English authorities.

The Stuarts and the Commonwealth

A prisoner in England, Mary Queen of Scots, daughter of James V of Scotland, was beheaded by Elizabeth for her conspirational activities, but when Elizabeth died childless Mary's son James VI, who had brought order to Scotland, ascended the throne in 1603 as James I Stuart of England. James' reign was on the whole successful. At first he tried to reconcile Catholics and Protestants but these good intentions were blown away by the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot against Parliament (1605), in which Guy Fawkes takes all the blame every year.

James kept England out of the religious wars in the continent having been tempted to intervene only when Holy Roman emperor Ferdinand II invaded Bohemia, where James' son-in-law, Frederick the Winter King (1619-1620), the Calvinist prince of the Palatinate, had been chosen as ruler by the Bohemian estates. James Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, reputedly James' lover, supported the English king's desire for a dynastic alliance with Spain that would help put an end to the wars on the continent.

James' heir Charles went to Spain where the Spanish spurned his bid to marry an infanta (princess), a daughter of Philip IV. Charles felt humiliated and returned to England a sworn enemy of Spain. He married a Catholic French princess, which did not make him popular with his subjects even though as king Charles I (1625-1649) he declared war on Spain and tried to aid the Huguenots besieged by Richelieu at La Rochelle.

These conflicts were costly and Parliament proved uncooperative. To complicate matters, Charles supported an attempt by William Laud, archbishop of Canterbury, for religious uniformity extensive to Scotland. The Scots wanted none of this and defeated Charles' English forces. The king's financial straits forced him to convoke the Long Parliament (1640), in which the House of Commons superseded the House of Lords (the separate chambers existed since the 16th century).

After placating the Scots, Charles was faced by a peasant insurrection in Ireland provoked as usual by harsh military rule and accompanied, as usual also in such movements, by atrocities against landowners or their agents followed by further repressive atrocities. However, Parliament did not trust Charles and withheld funds for an army.

By this time, the polemics were not just over respective jurisdictions but about the way religion would be practiced in England. Non-conformists wanted full recognition of their rights and they counted with support in Parliament. Charles sent his family to France and rode north to rally support from the aristocracy (1642). The clashes that followed were inconclusive but they gave Parliament time to form the "New Model Army", basically the centralized command of its forces.

Led by Thomas Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell, the parliamentary army defeated the royalists at Naseby (1645). The king took refuge in Scotland, but returned to England when space for negotiations opened. A settlement would have been possible only if the parliamentary forces agreed to reduce themselves, but this they resisted influenced by religious independents and political radicals known as Levelers.

The king tried to fight again with his English loyalists and the support of a Scottish invading force. Parliament was victorious again and Charles was captured. Parliament attempted to come to an agreement with the imprisoned monarch, but the army was opposed and did a coup d'état which consisted in expelling or arresting pro-conciliation parlamentarians (1648). This left the Rump Parliament, completely docile to the military, which judged and convicted Charles of treason. The king was hanged in January 1649. England was declared a commonwealth.

Cromwell went to Ireland where he brought pacification through drastic means involving mass executions. In the north, the native Irish were dispossessed and their land was given to the soldiers who were butchering them. Charles' son, the future Charles II, invaded England from Scotland and Cromwell's disciplined troops defeated the invaders twice in quick succession.

Cromwell was by then the most powerful military figure in the country and despite Parliament it was obvious that the army was ruling the country. The Rump Parliament started making trouble and Cromwell dissolved it and named a Parliament in its place which after a brief sitting dissolved itself. Cromwell assumed a military dictatorship.

The English revolution counted with support from social radicals and religious fanatics. However, republicans did not agree with the dissolution of Parliament and the majority of the country was probably looking on sceptically. The closest thing England has ever had to a constitution was the Instrument of Government through which Cromwell was named Lord Protector (1653). Provisions were made for a democratically elected Parliament every three years. Social puritanism became the rule and even Shakesperare's plays were banned.

Beyond the evident self-righteousness that led him to try to fit society with a moral straightjacket, Cromwell had little to offer, although it was under Cromwell that the first of the economically nationalistic Navigation Acts, the framework of mercantilism, were passed. Even Cromwell's parliaments contested his authority. Royalist sentiment was growing.

After Cromwell died (1658), his son, Richard, made a half-hearted stab at governing, but England was becoming ungovernable. The Rump Parliament was restored. An army faction wanted a republic. George Monck commanded in Scotland the strongest military force in Britain and he now marched on London. He convoked the members of the Long Parliament, which dissolved itself opening the way for the Restoration reign of Charles II (1660-1685).