Read an Excerpt
British History For Dummies
By Sean Lang
John Wiley & SonsISBN: 0-7645-7021-8
Chapter OneSo Much History, So Little Time
In This Chapter
* Listing the kingdoms that make up the United Kingdom
* Figuring out how the UK was formed
* Identifying the people who make up the UK
British history is a history of a variety people inhabiting a variety of regions. In fact, all this variety is one of the reasons why the country's name is so ridiculously long: the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It's a mouthful, for sure, but it reveals a great deal about the people - past and present - who have inhabited these islands.
When you think of history lessons at school, what comes to mind - before your eyelids droop, that is? Probably endless lists of kings or Acts of Parliament and confusing tales of people named after places ("Ah! Lancaster! Where's Worcester?") who spend their time swapping sides and cutting each others' heads off. You might think of the stories: Drake playing bowls as the Spanish Armada sails up the Channel or Robert the Bruce watching a spider spinning his web, or Churchill hurling defiance at Hitler. Good stories, yes, but what's the connection between these events and you? If you tend to think of history as merely a series of disconnected events, you miss the bigger picture: History is about people.
British history is full of wonderful people (quite a few of whom were clearly starkraving mad, but that's history for you) and exciting events - all of which helped make Britain the sort of place it is today. In examining what made Britain Britain, you'll also discover the British helped make the world. In that sense, whoever you are, British history is also probably part of your history. Enjoy.
A Historical Tin of Beans - But Not Quite 57 Varieties
British history is incredibly varied. That's partly because any country that can trace its history back to the mists of time is going to have a varied tale to tell, but it's also because of the nature of the country itself. To get a glimpse of how the union was formed, head to the section "How the UK Was Born". To find out who makes up the UK, see "You're Not From Round 'Ere - But Then Again, Neither Am I".
An island nation
Before the Romans came, the whole island was one big patchwork of different tribes: There was no sense that some tribes were "Scottish" and some "English". In fact, since the Scots were an Irish tribe and the English, if they existed at all, lived in Germany, no-one would have understood what either term meant!
After the Romans, the Angles and Saxons set up a whole network of different kingdoms: Kent, East Anglia, Northumbria, Mercia, Wessex, and some other less important ones. Not until the Vikings arrived did the English start to unite under a single King. It was this united kingdom that William the Conqueror took over when he won the Battle of Hastings in 1066. He would hardly have bothered if he was only going to become King of Wessex.
After the Norman invasion, although it was easier to speak of "England", it was much harder to talk about the English. The ordinary people were of Saxon blood, but the nobles were all French - Normans to start with and later from other parts of France. There's a whole sweep of famous Kings of England, including Richard the Lionheart, King John, the first three Edwards, and Richard II, who would never have called themselves English. It's not really until Henry V and the Wars of the Roses that you can talk of everyone from top to bottom being part of an English people.
The Romans did have a sense of "Scotland", or Caledonia as they called it, being a bit different, but that was just because they were never able to conquer it completely. There were Britons in Strathclyde and Picts in most of the rest of Caledonia, and then Scots came over from the north of Ireland and settled. It took a long time, but eventually these three groups all learned to get along with each other. It was a Scottish King, Kenneth MacAlpin, who finally managed to unite the groups, so the whole area came to be called after his people - "Scotland".
"For Wales", it used to say in indexes and things, "see England"! Which is desperately unfair, but for many years that was how the English thought about it. The Welsh are descended pretty much directly from the Ancient Britons, and they have kept their separate identity and language. You'll still find Welsh being spoken in parts of North Wales today.
Most people think of Irish history in terms of Ireland being invaded by the English, but if anything, it was the other way round in the beginning. Apart from one or two trading posts, the Romans left Ireland alone (except, that is, for a certain Roman Briton called Patrick, who did make something of an impact). After the Romans left Britain, the Irish started to come over as missionaries, not conquerors. They set up the great monasteries of Iona and Lindisfarne, and Irish monks and preachers like St Columba brought Christianity to Scotland and northern England. Some Irish did cross over to settle, and as we've seen, one of these tribes, the Scotti or Scots, gave their name to Scotland. Once the Normans settled in England, however, things changed.
And all those little islands
Islands play an important part in what is, after all, the story of an island people. Scottish missionaries worked from Iona and Lindisfarne, and Queen Victoria governed a worldwide empire from Osborne Palace on the Isle of Wight. The islands are a reminder of the cultural and ethnic variety that makes up the British peoples.
The Shetland Islands and the Isle of Man
The most northerly parts of Britain are the Shetland Islands. You might think of them as Scottish, but you'd be badly wrong. The Shetlanders are of pure Viking stock and proud of it. You can touch the Viking heritage in the Manx people of the Isle of Man, though ethnically they are Celtic. They say you can see five kingdoms from Man - England, Ireland, Scotland, Gwynedd (Wales), and the Kingdom of Heaven! - and the Vikings used it as a base for controlling all of them. The Isle of Man boasts the world's oldest parliament, Tynwald, a descendant of the Viking "parliament", the Thing.
The Channel Islands
At least with the Shetlands and the Isle of Man, you know you are still in the United Kingdom. You can be forgiven for wondering when you drop in on the Channel Islands. The islands all look English enough, but their English road signs carry French names, the police are called the Bureau des Etrangers, and the money looks like British money, but isn't. The Channel Islands were part of the Duchy of Normandy, and when you look at the map, you can see that they're virtually in France. These islands have kept many of their distinctive customs and laws including, as rich people found out long ago, much more relaxed tax regulations.
The Channel Islands were the only part of British territory to fall to the Germans in the Second World War, and Hitler made full use of them for propaganda purposes. Perhaps not surprisingly, historians who have looked into the German occupation have found just as much evidence of active collaboration and collusion in the Channel Islands as anywhere else in occupied Europe. Even more tragically Alderney became a slave labour camp for prisoners from all over the Nazi empire.
How the UK Was Born
So how did this strange hybrid country with the long-winded name that no-one actually uses actually come into being? If you want a full answer, you'll have to read the whole book, but here's a quick overview. As you'll see, it was a mixture of conquest, immigration, Acts of Union, all going to produce a very British sort of melting pot.
England: Head Honcho
England was bound to play the leading role. It's much bigger than any of the other parts of Britain, and closer to the Continent. It had been part of the Roman Empire, and the Viking invasions gave the English a strong sense of unity against a common enemy. The English didn't consciously set out to conquer their neighbours: They had been fighting the Welsh on and off since Saxon times, so when King Edward I finally conquered Wales in 1284 it seemed a natural conclusion to a very long story. With Scotland, despite all those battles the English were never trying to overrun the country: They simply wanted a pro-English monarch on the Scottish throne for their own safety's sake.
The real problem for the English was Ireland, because they were never able to control it. England's great worry was always that the Irish or the Scots would ally with the French - and they often did. The English managed to persuade the Scottish parliament to agree to an Act of Union in 1707 (which, as it turned out, enabled the Scots to benefit to the full from England's Industrial Revolution!) The English imposed direct rule in Ireland in 1801, but mainly as a security measure: Ireland never benefited from union with England to the same degree as Scotland did.
For most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the English took their commanding position within the United Kingdom more or less for granted. England was what counted; the rest were the "Celtic fringe". But by the 1990s that confidence had gone. After years of having no governing body of their own, the "Celtic fringe" once again had their own parliaments and assemblies; England was beginning to look like the Rump of the United Kingdom. So the English began to rediscover a national sense of their own: They began to fly the flag of St George at football matches, and there was even talk of setting up special assemblies for the English regions. Watch this space.
The conquest of Scotland
Like England, Scotland began as a collection of different tribes, which slowly and painfully began to form themselves into a nation. Of course hostility to the English was a great help, and it's no coincidence that Scotland's most important statement of national identity, the 1320 Declaration of Arbroath, dates from the period of the fiercest wars for independence from England. Well into the sixteenth century the Scots maintained an anti-English alliance with France - the "Auld Alliance" as it was called - which was guaranteed to stop the English government form sleeping at night.
But although there was always plenty of fighting between Scotland and England, by no means were all Scots anti-English. The English negotiated marriage alliances with the Scots - Henry VIII's sister became Queen of Scotland - so there was usually a pro-English faction somewhere at court. When the Protestant Reformation took hold in the sixteenth century, Scottish Protestants naturally looked to Tudor England for support against the Catholics of the Highlands, and especially against the Catholic and very accident-prone Mary, Queen of Scots. People usually know that it was the English who cut Mary's head off; they often forget that the Scots had already overthrown her and locked her up themselves.
In the end, it wasn't the English who got their own man on the throne in Edinburgh, but the Scots who got their man on the throne in London. When Elizabeth I died childless in 1603, King James VI of Scotland inherited the English throne. It was a Union of the Crowns but not yet of the nations: That had to wait a hundred years until the Act of Union of 1707. From then on Scotland played an active role in the United Kingdom: The British Empire could hardly have carried on without the large number of Scottish missionaries, doctors, soldiers and administrators who served it. But the Scots kept their strong sense of separate identity, and in 1997 they finally got their parliament back.
The conquest of Wales
The Normans began the conquest of Wales, and for many years, parts of Wales were ruled by the powerful Norman "Marcher Lords" (see Chapters 8 and 9 for a bit more on this). The Welsh princes Llewellyn the Great and Llewellyn ap Gruffyd fought back, but in the end King Edward I conquered Wales and planted massive big castles all over it. Owain Glyn Dwr had a good go at pushing the English out, but it was not to be.
Ironically the people who finally snuffed out Welsh independence were themselves Welsh: the Tudors. Henry Tudor landed at Milford Haven to challenge King Richard III and become King Henry VII, and it was his son, Henry VIII, who got Parliament to pass an Act of Union making Wales, in effect, a province of England. And Wales stayed like that until Tony Blair agreed to a Welsh Assembly in 1997. A long wait!
The conquest of Ireland
Ireland's great Christian heritage was to prove her undoing. Pope Adrian IV (who also happened to be the only English pope there's ever been) gave King Henry II permission to go over to Ireland and bring the Irish church into the Roman fold whether the Irish liked it or not. So a great wave of Anglo-Norman knights crossed the Irish Sea and claimed Ireland for the English crown.
When the Reformation started in the sixteenth century, the descendants of those Anglo-Norman knights went along with the new Protestant religion, but the Celtic Irish stayed Catholic. Queen Elizabeth I and her ministers came up with a clever solution: "plant" Scottish Protestants in Ireland. Hey presto! The Catholic province of Ulster became the most fiercely Protestant and loyal area in the kingdom.
FROM PAST TO PRESENT
When the English threw out their Catholic King James II in 1688, the Irish rallied to help him, but the Ulster Scots were having none of it: They defied King James, thrashed him at the Battle of the Boyne and sent him packing. Their descendants in modern-day Ulster have never forgotten it, and they make sure their Catholic neighbours don't forget it either.
Famine and Fenians
After the seventeenth century, the British brought in all sorts of laws to take away Catholics' civil rights, which in effect kept Ireland in poverty for generations. Pockets of affluence existed - Dublin was a very elegant eighteenth-century city - but Ireland was a bit like modern-day India in its mixture of extreme poverty and great wealth. Even the Protestant Irish were beginning to feel that the laws against Catholics were unfair and dragging the whole country down, and they began to argue for Catholic Emancipation, especially the right to vote. By the time emancipation came, the British had closed Ireland's parliament down, then governing Ireland directly from London. Then, in the 1840s, the potato crop in Ireland failed and produced one of the worst famines of modern times. Those who could got out of Ireland and spread around the world, taking their hatred of England and the English with them.
Excerpted from British History For Dummies by Sean Lang Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.