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History of England

The name England refers to the largest and most populous of the three main divisions of Great Britain, and dates from after the coming of the Anglo-Saxons. Technically, it is anachronistic to talk of a history of England before that time. This article admits but ignores that anachronism.

The territory of England has been politically united since the tenth century. This article centers on that territory; but before the tenth century and after the accession of James VI of Scotland to the throne of England in 1603 it becomes increasingly hard to distinguish English from British history.

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Pre-Roman England Pre-Roman England may be determined by the following periods: (NOTE: These years seem like they might be inaccurate, hard to be sure from Google, someone who knows something about history should check this.)

Much evidence remains of pre-Roman England. The Bronze Age Stonehenge around the 1500s BC, near to the much earlier stone circle at Avebury, is an extremely large although untypical example. The south of England contains many iron-age hill forts[?], surviving as systems of concentric earthworks, from the huge Maiden Castle in Dorset down to much smaller ones like Grimsbury Castle[?] in Berkshire. Dartmoor National park in Devon displays much evidence of its early inhabitants, being beset with many hut-circles, stone-rows, kistvaens and other visible reminders of the times.

Roman Britain The Romans, led by Julius Caesar, landed in England in 55 and in 54 BC, although not as conquerors. It was only a century later, in AD 43, under the emperor Claudius that the Roman occupation of England came about. In order to protect themselves from the depredations of the Picts, the inhabitants of Scotland at that time, the Romans under the emperor Hadrian had a wall built from east to west, Hadrian's Wall, to defend England.

In classic Roman style, the Romans constructed a highly effective internal infrastructure to cement their military occupation, building long, straight roads the length and breadth of the country, most of which centred on London. For a deeper account of the Roman occupation of Britain, see Roman Britain. See also the Celtic tribes in the British Isles.

The indigenous, mostly Celtic population were suppressed with customary Roman efficiency, although numerous, and often extremely bloody, uprisings occurred all through their occupation, the most notable that of the Iceni[?] (and other tribes) led by Boudicca, or "Boadicea," in AD 61. The Roman presence strengthened and weakened over the centuries, but by the 4th Century AD their hold may best be described as tenuous.

The Saxon Conquest In the wake of the Romans, who had largely abandoned the islands by 410 in order to concentrate on more pressing difficulties closer to home, what is now England was progressively settled by successive, often complementary, waves of Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Frisians, who had been partly displaced on mainland Europe. Increasingly the erstwhile Celtic population was pushed westwards and northwards. The invasion/settlement of England is known as the Saxon Conquest or the Anglo-Saxon (sometimes "English") settlement (though "settlement" here does not imply an absence of violence).

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In the decisive Battle of Deorham, in 577, the Cornish Celtic people were separated from the Welsh by the advancing Saxons.

The Venerable Bede (c672 - 735) - Offa (reign 757 - 796) - Alfred the Great (848 - 900)

Beginning with the raid in 793 on the monastery at Lindisfarne, Vikings made many raids on England. Starting with plundering raids, the Vikings later began to settle in England and trade. There are many traces of Vikings in England today, as for instance many words in the English language; the similarity of Old English and Old Norse led to much borrowing. One Viking settlement was in York (which they called Jorvik[?]).

It was not until 936, however, that Athelstan was able to evict the Cornish from Exeter, and drew a line at the extent of his kingdom, Wessex, at the river Tamar.

England during the Middle Ages The defeat of King Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 at the hands of William of Normandy, later styled William I of England and the subsequent Norman takeover of Saxon England[?] led to a sea-change in the history of the small, isolated, island state. William ordered the compilation of the Domesday Book, which was a survey for tax purposes of the entire population and their lands and property.

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The English middle ages were to be characterised by civil war, international war, occasional insurrection, and widespread political intrigue amongst the aristocratic and monarchic elite.

Henry I, also known as Henry Beauclerc (on account of his education), worked hard to reform and stabilise the country and smooth the differences between the Anglo-Saxon and Norman societies. The loss of his son, William, in the wreck of the White Ship in November 1120, was to undermine his reforms. This problem regarding succession was to cast a long shadow over English history.

The disastrous and incompetent reign of Stephen (1135 - 1154) was to see a major swing in the balance of power towards the feudal barons, as England descended inexorably into civil war and lawlessness. In trying to appease Scottish and Welsh raiders on those borders, he handed over large tracts of land. Moreover, his conflicts with his cousin, the Empress Maud, whom he had earlier promised recognition as heir, were his undoing: She bided her time in France and, in the autumn of 1139, invaded (with her husband, Geoffrey of Anjou and her half-brother, Robert, Earl of Gloucester[?]).

Stephen was captured, and his government fell. Matilda was proclaimed queen but was soon at odds with her subjects and was expelled from London. The period of insurrection and civil war that followed continued until 1148, when Matilda returned to France. Stephen effectively reigned unopposed until his death in 1154, a year after reaching an accommodation with Henry of Anjou, (who became Henry II) in which peace between them was guaranteed on the condition that the throne would be his by succession.

The reign of Henry II represents a reversion in power back from the barony to the monarchical state; it was also to see a similar redistribution of legislative power from the Church, again to the monarchical state. This period also presaged a properly constituted legislation and a radical shift away from feudalism.

The Black Death, an epidemic of bubonic plague that spread over all Europe, arrived in England in 1349 and killed perhaps up to a third of the population. International excursions were invariably against domestic neighbours: the Welsh, Irish, Scots and the French, with the principal notable battles being the Battle of Crécy and the Battle of Agincourt. In addition to this, the final defeat of the uprising led by the Welsh prince, Owen Glendower, in 1412 by Prince Henry (later to become Henry V) represents the last major armed attempt by the Welsh to throw off English rule.

Edward III gifted land to powerful noble families, including many people with Royal blood in their veins. Because land was equivelent to power in these days, this meant that these powerful men could now try and good their claim to the Crown. The autocratic and arrogant methods of Richard II only served to alienate the nobility more, and his forceful dispossession in 1399 by Henry IV lay the seeds for what was to come. In the reign of Henry VI, which began in 1422, happenings came to a head because of his personal weaknesses and mental instability. Unable to control the feuding nobles, he allowed outright civil war to break out. The conflicts are known as the Wars of the Roses and although the fighting was very sporadic and small, there was a general breakdown in the authority and power of the Crown. Edward IV went a little way to restoring this power but the spadework was generally done by Henry VII

Tudor England

The Wars of the Roses culminated in the eventual victory of the relatively unknown Henry Tudor, Henry VII, at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, where the Yorkist Richard III was slain, and the succession of the Lancastrian House was ultimately assured. Whilst in retrospect it is easy for us to say that the Wars of the Roses were now over, Henry VII could afford no such complacency. Before the end of his reign, two pretenders would try to wrest the throne from him, aided by remnants of the Yorkist faction at home and abroad. The first, Lambert Simnel, was defeated at the Battle of Stoke (the last time an English King fought someone claiming the Crown) and the second, Perkin Warbeck, was hanged in 1499 after plaguing the King for a decade.

In 1497, Michael An Gof[?] led Cornish rebels in a march on London. In a battle over the River Ravensbourne[?] at Deptford Bridge[?], An Gof fought for varied issues with their root in taxes. On June 17, 1497 they were defeated, and Henry VII had showed he could display military prowess when he needed to. But, like Charles I in the future, here was a King with no wish to go on his travels again. The rest of his reign was relatively peaceful, despite a slight worry over the succession when his wife Elizabeth of York died in 1503.

King Henry VIII split with the Roman Catholic Church over a question of his divorce from Catherine of Aragon. Though his religious position was not at all Protestant, the resultant schism ultimately led to England distancing itself almost entirely from Rome. A notable casualty of the schism was Henry's chancellor, Sir Thomas More. There followed a period of great religious and political upheaval, which led to the Reformation, the royal expropriation of the monasteries and much of the wealth of the church. The Dissolution of the Monasteries[?] had the effect of giving many of the lower classes (the gentry) a vested interest in the Reformation continuing, for to halt it would be to revive Monasticism and restore lands which were gifted to them during the Dissolution.

Henry VIII had three children, all of whom would wear the Crown. The first to reign was Edward VI of England. Although he showed the piety and intelligence which was the hallmark of all Tudors, he was only a boy of ten when he took the throne in 1547. His uncle, Edward Seymour, 1st Duke of Somerset tampered with Henry VIII's will and obtained letters patent giving him much of the power of a monarch in March of that year. He took the title of Protector. Whilst some see him as a high-minded idealist, his stay in power culminated in a crisis in 1549 when many counties of the realm were up in protest. Kett's Rebellion[?] in Kent and The Prayer Book Rebellion[?] in Cornwall simultaneously created a crisis during a time when invasion from Scotland and France were feared. Somerset, disliked by the Regency Council for his autocratic methods, was removed from power by John Dudley[?], who is known as Lord President Northumberland[?]. Northumberland proceded to adopt the power for himself, but his methods were more concilliatory and the Council accepted him.

When Edward VI lay dying of tuberculosis in 1553, Northumberland made plans to place Lady Jane Grey on the throne and marry her to his son, so that he could remain the power behind the throne. His putsch failed and Mary I took the throne amidst popular demonstration in her favour in London, which contemporaries described as the largest show of affection for a Tudor monarch. Mary, a devout Catholic who had been influenced greatly by the Catholic King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, proceded to try and reimpose Catholicism on the realm. This led to 274 burnings of Protestants, which are recorded especially in John Foxe's Book of Martyrs[?]. She was highly unpopular among her people, and the Spanish party of her husband, Philip II caused much resentment around Court. Mary lost Calais, the last English possession on the Continent, and became increasingly more unpopular (except among Catholics) as her reign wore on. She successfully repelled a rebellion by Sir Thomas Wyatt[?].

The reign of Elizabeth restored a sort of order to the realm following the turbulence of the reigns of Edward and Mary when she came to the throne following the death of the latter in 1558. The religious issue which had divided the country since Henry VIII was in a way put to rest by the Elizabethan Religious Settlement[?], which created the Church of England in much the same form we see it today. Much of Elizabeth's success was in balancing the interests of the Puritans (extreme Protestants) and "die-hard" Catholics. She managed to offend neither to a large extent, although she was forced to clamp down on Catholics towards the end of her reign as the war with Catholic Spain loomed. She feared Catholics would act as fifth columns and some attempts on her life had been made by Catholics.

Elizabeth maintained relative internal peace apart from the Revolt of the Northern Earls[?] in 1569, which was really a sign of how effective she was being in reducing the power of the old nobility and expanding the power of her government. One of the most famous events in English martial history occurred in 1588 when the Spanish Armada was repelled by Sir Francis Drake, but the war that followed was very costly for England and only ended after Elizabeth's death. Elizabeth's government did much to consolidate the work begun under Thomas Cromwell in the reign of Henry VIII, that is in expanding the role of the government and in effecting common law and administration throughout the realm of England.

In all, the Tudor period is seen as a decisive one which set up many important questions which would have to be answered in the next century and during the English Civil War. These were questions of the relative power of Monarch and Parliament and to what extent one should control the other. Some historians think that Thomas Cromwell effected a "Tudor Revolution[?]" in government and it is certain that Parliament became a lot more important during his Chancellorship. Other historians say the "Tudor Revolution[?]" really extended to the end of Elizabeth's reign when the work was all consolidated. Although the Privy Council, which was the mainstay of Tudor government, declined after the death of Elizabeth, whilst she was alive it was very effective.

Religious conflict and the Civil War An assassination attempt on the Protestant King James I on 5th November 1605, the Gunpowder Plot, by a group of Catholic conspirators, led by Guy Fawkes, served as further fuel for antipathy in England to the catholic faith.

The English Civil War broke out in 1642, largely as a result of an ongoing series of conflicts between the then King Charles I and Parliament. The Parliamentarian army was commanded by Oliver Cromwell, which after much bloodshed and destruction, was ultimately victorious. The capture and subsequent trial of Charles I led to his execution by beheading in January 1649 at Whitehall Gate in London.

In 1664/65 England was swept by a visitation of the Great Plague, and then, in 1666, London, the timbered capital city of England, was swept by fire, the Great Fire of London, which raged for 5 days, destroying c. 15,000 buildings.

The replacement of the Catholic King James II with the Dutch Protestant William of Orange, William III, by the English government led to a series of uprisings, the Jacobite Rebellions[?] which were to continue until the mid-18th century.


NB: After the 1707 Act of Union, the histories of Britain and England are largely overlapping entities. Since England was the dominant hegemony, it is assumed for the purposes of this article that the two are largely coterminous.


The union of Scotland with England, under the Act of Union, saw Scotland 'united' with England and Wales (Wales had already been assimilated in the 1536 Act of Union by Henry VIII). This was no process of harmonisation, for Scotland had effectively capitulated to English economic pressure after the failure of the Darién scheme. This process was lubricated in the Scottish parliament by the self-interested political manoeuverings of the English puppets, John Campbell[?], the 2nd Duke of Argyll[?] and James Douglas, 2nd Duke of Queensberry[?].

The Industrial Revolution The late 18th and early 19th centuries saw considerable social upheaval as a largely agrarian society was transformed by technological advances and increasing mechanisation, which was the Industrial Revolution. Much of the agricultural workforce was uprooted from the countryside and moved into large urban centres of production, as the steam-based production factories could undercut the traditional cottage industries, due to economies of scale and the increased output per worker made possible by the new technologies. The consequent overcrowding into areas with little supporting infrastructure saw dramatic increases in the rise of infant mortality (to the extent that many Sunday schools for pre working age children (5 or 6) had funeral clubs to pay for each others funeral arrangments), crime, and social deprivation.

The transition to industrialisation was not wholly seamless for workers, many of whom saw their livelihoods threatened by the process. Of these, some frequently sabotaged or attempted to sabotage factories. These saboteurs were known as "Luddites". This view of the Luddite history should also be set against alternative views, such as that of E. P. Thompson.

Political developments The Act of Union of 1800 formally assimilated Ireland within the British political process, and created a new country "The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland", uniting England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland.

During the early 1800s, the working classes began to find a voice; concentrations of industry led more or less inevitably to the formation of guilds and unions, which, although at first suppressed, eventually became powerful enough to resist. The revolutions which spread like wildfire throughout mainland Europe during the 1840s did not occur in England, and Queen Victoria's reign was largely one of consensus, despite huge disparities in living standards between the few rich and the multitudinous poor.

The Anglo-Irish treaty of 1921 established the Irish Free State (now the Republic of Ireland) as a separate nation, leaving Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom; its official name became "The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland".


Among many other "Histories of England" is The History of England, From the First Invasion by the Romans to the Accession of William and Mary in 1688, 1819 by Father John Lingard who viewed events from a Catholic perspective.

For a History of Britain see The Isles, A History by Norman Davies, Oxford University Press, 1999, ISBN 0-19-514831-2

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