History of the British Isles

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Part of a series on the
History of the
British Isles
Stonehenge Closeup.jpg
Prehistoric period
Classical period
Medieval period
Early modern period
Late modern period
By region
Bayeux Tapestry depicting events leading to the Norman conquest of England, which defined much of the subsequent history of the British Isles

The history of the British Isles has witnessed intermittent periods of competition and cooperation between the people that occupy the various parts of Great Britain, Ireland, and the smaller adjacent islands, which together make up the British Isles.

Today, the British Isles contain two sovereign states: the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom. There are also three Crown dependencies: Guernsey, Jersey and the Isle of Man. The United Kingdom comprises England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, each country having its own history, with all but Northern Ireland having been independent states at one point. The history of the formation of the United Kingdom is very complex.

The British monarch was head of state of all of the countries of the British Isles from the Union of the Crowns in 1603 until the enactment of the Republic of Ireland Act in 1949, although the term "British Isles" was not used in 1603. Additionally, since the independence of most of Ireland, historians of the region often avoid the term British Isles due to the complexity of relations between the peoples of the archipelago (see: Terminology of the British Isles).


Palaeolithic and Mesolithic periods[edit]

The Palaeolithic and Mesolithic, also known as the Old and Middle Stone Ages, were characterised by a hunter-gatherer economy and a reliance on stone tool technologies.


The Lower Palaeolithic period in Britain saw its first inhabitation by early hominids.

One of the most prominent archaeological sites dating to this period is that of Boxgrove Quarry in West Sussex, southern England.


By the Mesolithic, homo sapiens, or modern humans, were the only hominid species to still survive in the British Isles.

Neolithic and Bronze Ages[edit]

In the British Isles, the Neolithic and Bronze Ages saw the transformation of British and Irish society and landscape. It saw the adoption of agriculture, as communities gave up their hunter-gatherer modes of existence to begin farming.

Iron Age[edit]

As its name suggests, the British Iron Age is also characterised by the adoption of iron, a metal which was used to produce a variety of different tools, ornaments and weapons.

In the course of the first millennium BC, immigration from continental Europe resulted in the establishment of Celtic languages in the islands, eventually giving rise to the Insular Celtic group. What languages were spoken in the islands before is unknown, though they are assumed to have been Pre-Indo-European.

Classical period[edit]

Main article: Roman Britain

From 40 CE through to c. 410 CE, southern Britain was a part of the Roman Empire, with archaeologists referring to this area as "Roman Britain", and this time span the "Romano-British period" or the "Roman Iron Age".

Medieval period[edit]

Early Medieval[edit]

The Early medieval period saw a series of invasions of Britain by the Germanic-speaking Saxons, beginning in the 5th century. Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were formed and, through wars with British states, gradually came to cover the territory of present-day England. Around 600, seven principal kingdoms had emerged, beginning the so-called period of the Heptarchy. During that period, the Anglo-Saxon states were Christianised (the conversion of the British ones had begun much earlier). In the 9th century, Vikings from Denmark and Norway conquered most of England. Only the Kingdom of Wessex under Alfred the Great survived and even managed to re-conquer and unify England for much of the 10th century, before a new series of Danish raids in the late 10th century and early 11th century culminated in the wholesale subjugation of England to Denmark under Canute the Great. Danish rule was overthrown and the local House of Wessex was restored to power under Edward the Confessor for about two decades until his death in 1066.

Late Medieval[edit]

In 1066, William, Duke of Normandy said he was the rightful heir to the English throne, invaded England, and defeated King Harold II at the Battle of Hastings. Proclaiming himself to be King William I, he strengthened his regime by appointing loyal members of the Norman elite to many positions of authority, building a system of castles across the country and ordering a census of his new kingdom, the Domesday Book. The Late Medieval period was characterised by many battles between England and France, coming to a head in the Hundred Years' War from which France emerged victorious. The monarchs throughout the Late Medieval period belonged to the houses of Plantaganet, Lancaster and York.

Early Modern period[edit]

19th century[edit]

20th century to present[edit]


At the turn of the century, Britain was involved in the Second Boer War in South Africa.

Queen Victoria, who had reigned since 1837, died in 1901 and was succeeded by her son, Edward VII, who, in turn, was succeeded by George V in 1910.

In 1914, Britain entered the First World War by declaring war on Germany. Nearly a million Britons were killed in the war, which lasted until Germany's surrender on 11 November 1918.

Home Rule in Ireland, which had been a major political issue since the late 19th century but put on hold by the war, was somewhat resolved after the Irish War of Independence brought the British Government to a stalemate in 1922. Negotiations led to the formation of the Irish Free State. However, in order to appease Unionists in the north, the north-eastern six counties remained as part of the U.K., with its own Parliament at Stormont in Belfast.

Having been in power for much of the early 20th century under Prime Ministers Campbell-Bannerman, Asquith and Lloyd George, the Liberal party suffered a sharp decline from 1922; the newly formed Labour party, whose leader Ramsay Macdonald led two minority governments, swiftly became the Conservatives' main opposition, and Britain's largest party of the left.

King Edward VIII succeeded his father George V in January 1936, but was quickly met with difficulties due to his love affair with Wallis Simpson, an American who had already been married twice. In December, he decided to abdicate in order to be able to marry Simpson, and his brother George VI was crowned king.

In order to avoid another European conflict, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain attempted to appease German Chancellor Adolf Hitler, who was expanding his country's territory across Central Europe. Despite proclaiming that he has achieved "peace for our time", Britain declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939, following Hitler's invasion of Poland two days earlier. The U.K. thus joined the Allied forces in opposition to the Axis forces of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. For the first time, civilians were not exempt from the war, as London suffered nightly bombings during the Blitz. At the war's end in 1945, however, the U.K. emerged as one of the victorious nations.


Winston Churchill, who had been leader of the wartime coalition government, suffered a surprising landslide defeat to Clement Attlee's Labour party in 1945 elections. Attlee created a Welfare State in Britain, which most notably provided free healthcare under the National Health Service. By the late 1940s, the Cold War was underway, which would dominate British foreign policy for another 40 years.

In 1951, Churchill and the Tories returned to power; they would govern uninterrupted for the next 13 years. King George VI died in 1952, and was succeeded by his eldest daughter, Elizabeth II.

Churchill was succeeded in 1955 by Sir Anthony Eden, whose premiership was dominated by the Suez Crisis, in which Britain, France and Israel plotted to bomb Egypt after its President Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal. Eden's successor, Harold Macmillan, split the Conservatives when Britain applied to join the European Economic Community, but French President Charles de Gaulle vetoed the application.

Labour returned to power in 1964 under Harold Wilson, who brought in a number of social reforms, including the legalisation of abortion, the abolition of capital punishment and the decriminalisation of homosexuality. Wilson, having lost the 1970 election to Edward Heath, returned to power in 1974; however, Labour's reputation was harmed by the winter of discontent of 1978-9 under Jim Callaghan, which enabled the Conservatives to re-take control of Parliament in 1979, under Margaret Thatcher, Britain's first female Prime Minister.

Although Thatcher's economic reforms made her initially unpopular, her decision in 1982 to retake the Falkland Islands from invading Argentine forces, in what would become known as the Falklands War, changed her fortunes and enabled a landslide election victory in 1983. After winning an unprecedented third election in 1987, however, Thatcher's popularity began to fade and she was replaced by former chancellor John Major in 1990.

Tensions between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland came to a head in the late 1960s, when nationalist participants in a civil rights march were shot by members of the B Specials, a reserve police force manned almost exclusively by unionists. From this point the Provisional Irish Republican Army, also known as the Provos or simply the IRA, began a bombing campaign throughout the U.K., beginning a period known as The Troubles, which lasted until the late 1990s.

Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales and Elizabeth's eldest son married Lady Diana Spencer in 1981; the couple had two children, William and Harry, but divorced in 1992, during which year Prince Andrew and Princess Anne also separated from their spouses, leading the Queen to call the year her 'annus horribilis'. In 1997, Diana was killed in a car crash in Paris, leading to a mass outpouring of grief across the United Kingdom, and indeed the world.

On the international stage, the second half of the 20th century was dominated by the Cold War between the Soviet Union and its socialist allies and the United States and its capitalist allies; the U.K. was a key supporter of the latter, joining the anti-Soviet military alliance NATO in 1949. During this period, the U.K. became involved in several Cold War conflicts, such as the Korean War (1950–1953). In contrast, the Republic of Ireland remained neutral and provided troops to U.N. peace-keeping missions.


In 1997, Tony Blair was elected prime minister in a landslide victory for the so-called 'New Labour', economically following 'Third Way' programmes. Blair won re-election in 2001 and 2005, before handing over power to his chancellor Gordon Brown in 2007. After a decade of prosperity both the U.K. and the Irish Republic were affected by the global recession, which began in 2008. In 2010, the Conservative party formed a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats, with Tory leader David Cameron as Prime Minister.

In the 21st century, the U.K. became a major supporter of the U.S. in their "War on Terror", and joined them in the War in Afghanistan (2001-present) and the invasion of Iraq. The UK also took a leading role in the 2011 military intervention in Libya.


Timeline history of the British Isles[edit]

pre-6th c. BCPrehistoric Britain, Prehistoric Ireland 
6th to 1st c. BCBritish Iron Age, Iron Age tribes in Britain, Insular Celtic 
51 BCGallia Lugdunensis (Roman province)    
43 ADBritannia (Roman province)Roman conquest of Britain
410BrythonsAnglo-Saxon EnglandHen Ogledd 
638 Kingdom of StrathclydeViking raids
845Kingdom of Brittany  
911Duchy of Normandy 
927Kingdom of England 
1054Kingdom of AlbaNorman conquest of England
1079Kingdom of Mann and the Isles  
1098Cymru Kingdom of Norway Norman invasion of Ireland
1171Lordship of Ireland  
1204  Magna Carta
Treaty of York
1282 Wars of Scottish Independence
1333Bailiwick of GuernseyBailiwick of JerseyIsle of Man  
1469Kingdom of ScotlandPoynings' Law
1541 Scottish Reformation
Tudor conquest of Ireland
Union of the Crowns
1607Kingdom of IrelandFlight of the Earls
Plantation of Ulster
Wars of the Three Kingdoms
1641 Confederate Ireland 
1649Commonwealth of EnglandCromwellian conquest of Ireland
1653Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland 
1660Kingdom of EnglandKingdom of ScotlandKingdom of IrelandPenal Laws
Revolution of 1688
Battle of the Boyne
1707Kingdom of Great BritainActs of Union 1707
Battle of Culloden
Irish Rebellion of 1798
1801United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland Act of Union 1800
Catholic Emancipation
Irish Potato Famine
1919Irish RepublicIrish War of Independence
Partition of Ireland
1921/2United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern IrelandNorthern IrelandIrish Free State 
1937IrelandThe Emergency
Battle of Britain
The Troubles
Celtic Tiger
1999Wales ScotlandGood Friday Agreement




See also[edit]


Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]