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Great Britain

The Island of Great Britain is located in the north Atlantic Ocean to the northwest of continental Europe. Politically Great Britain consists of the nations of England, Scotland and Wales, including a number of smaller islands such as Anglesey, the Isle of Wight, the Hebrides, the Orkney Islands and the Shetland Islands. With an area of 229,850 km2 (88,745 sq miles) the island of Great Britain is the largest of the British Isles -- an archipelago that also includes Ireland, the Faroe Islands and the Isle of Man.

Over the centuries, the geo-political entity that is Great Britain has consisted of a number of independent states (England, Scotland and Wales), two kingdoms with a shared monarch (England and Scotland), a single all-island Kingdom of Great Britain, and since 1801 as part of an entity called the United Kingdom with part or all of the neighbouring island of Ireland. The United Kingdom does not include the Isle of Man or the Channel Islands.

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Origins and Nomenclature

The term 'Great Britain' was first widely used during the reign of King James VI of Scotland, I of England to describe the island, on which co-existed two separate kingdoms ruled over by the same monarch. Though England and Scotland each remained legally in existence as a separate state with its own parliament, collectively they were sometimes referred to as Great Britain. In 1707, an Act of Union joined both states. That Act used two different terms to decribe the new all island state, a 'united Kingdom' and the 'Kingdom of Great Britain'. The former is generally though not universally regarded as a description of the union rather than its name. Most reference books describe the all-island kingdom that existed between 1707 and 1800 and the Kingdom of Great Britain.

In 1801, under a new Act of Union this kingdom merged with the Kingdom of Ireland, over which the monarch of Great Britain had ruled. The new kingdom was unambiguously called the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. In 1922, twenty-six of Ireland's thirty-two counties left to form a separate Irish Free State. The remaining truncated kingdom is now known as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which also now includes a number of Overseas Territories. Though sometimes the term 'Great Britain' is used when referring to the United Kingdom, with the United Kingdom minus Northern Ireland being referred to as 'the mainland', this is factually incorrect; it is simply 'Great Britain'.

Often the terms 'Britain' and 'British' refer to the whole of the UK or its predecessors, or institutions associated with them, and not just Great Britain. For example, United Kingdom monarchs are often called 'British monarchs', United Kingdom Prime Ministers are often called 'British Prime Ministers'. Such usage is generally seen as correct. However the use of the term 'English' for British, as in 'Queen of England' is clearly incorrect; England in a sense of a separate state has not existed since 1707.

The term Islands of the North Atlantic or IONA has also been used more recently for the British Isles. It was created as a neutral term for use in efforts to achieve agreement on a more widely acceptable political structure for Northern Ireland. However, it remains unknown to most of the British population, and seems likely to achieve little recognition outside of the narrow political circles in which it was coined.

England's Dominance of Great Britain

England has effectively been the centre of the various states that have existed since the Act of Union joined England and Scotland in 1707. The Scottish monarch moved to live in the English capital in 1603. The British monarch has used English ordinals since 1707 (eg, the current Queen Elizabeth is the first Queen Elizabeth in Scottish history and the first since the merger of all the states, yet is called Elizabeth II because there was an earlier English Queen Elizabeth.) and is crowned using the English' coronation regalia. The British parliament is seen as the lineal descendant of the English parliament, is structured as it was (i.e., a House of Commons and a House of Lords), meets on the site of the original English Houses of Parliament, and given that England has by far the biggest population of all the nations in the United Kingdom, has more Members of Parliament than all the other nations put together.

An older name for the island of Great Britain is Albion, which is still used in English in the form "Albany."

Why 'Great' Britain rather than Britain?

There are in fact two britains: the island of Britain in the British Isles and the land of Britain in France. In French these are known as Grande Bretagne and Bretagne, in English as Great Britain and Brittany. The word "Great" in this context has its old meaning of "big" as in "she was great with child" or "Greater London." Likewise, the ending "-y" on the end of "Brittany" has the meaning "Little," as in "doggy," meaning "small dog," or "Jimmy," meaning "little Jim."

From about the 16th century to the 20th century, the political and/or military control of Great Britain and the United Kingdom extended over a large number of territories all around the world, and all those entities together were known as "the British Empire."

Territories associated with (politically or geographically) Great Britain

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