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History of the United Kingdom

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Background

The United Kingdom is the government that covers England, Scotland, Walesand Northern Ireland. It originated in the Act of Union between England and Scotland in 1707, although the story of the United Kingdom is really the story of how the four disparate nations became united.

Subjugation of Wales

Medieval Wales was rarely united but was under the rule of various native principalities. When the land-hungry Normans invaded England, they naturally started pushing into the relatively weak Welsh Marches[?], and the usually fractious Welsh started uniting around leaders such as Llywelyn the Great.

The English finally succeeded in conquering Wales in 1282 under Edward I, and the Statute of Rhuddlan[?] established English rule two years later. To appease the Welsh, Edward's son (later Edward II[?]), who had been born in Wales, was made Prince of Wales in 1301. The tradition of bestowing this title on the eldest son of the British Monarch continues today. An act of 1536 completed the political and administrative union of England and Wales.

The Union of Two Crowns

Scotland was an independent kingdom that resisted English rule. Scotland because of her climate and her relatively more despotic[?] government tended to be poorer than her southern neighbour. However, political instability and the "Auld Alliance[?]" with France made succesive English governments very nervous, and the perceived need to separate Scotland from Catholic France was one of the driving forces in the Scottish Reformation[?].

The Scottish Reformation also exiled the Catholic Queen, Mary Queen of Scots who fled to England, leaving her infant son, James VI, to rule Scotland guided by Protestant guardians. She was a figure of intrigue, who because of doubts about the legality of Henry VIII's marriage to Anne Boleyn was seen by many as a more legitimate heir to the British throne than her cousin Elizabeth I, the occupant of the English throne. Mary Queen of Scots could claim Henry VII as her grandfather due to an earlier marriage alliance between England and Scotland. Elizabeth put her cousin under house arrest and eventually had her executed for treason.

James VI succeeded his cousin Elizabeth I and assumed the title James I of England in 1603. The Stuarts[?] now reigned as the royal family of "Great Britain", although they maintained separate parliaments, The Union of the Two Crowns[?] had begun. In the ensuing 100 years, strong religious and political differences continued to divide the kingdoms, and common royalty could not prevent occasions of internecine war.

The Act of Union 1707

In 1707, England and Scotland were unified as Great Britain, sharing a single Parliament at Westminster under the Act of Union, 1707[?].

Act of Union 1801

Ireland's invasion by the Anglo-Normans in 1170 led to centuries of strife. Successive English kings sought to conquer Ireland. In the early 17th century, large-scale settlement of the north from Scotland and England began. After its defeat, Ireland was subjected, with varying degrees of success, to control and regulation by Britain.

The legislative union of Great Britain and Ireland was completed on January 1, 1801, under the name of the "United Kingdom". However, armed struggle for independence continued sporadically into the 20th century.

The Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 established the Irish Free State, which subsequently left the British Commonwealth and became a republic after World War II, without constitutional ties with the United Kingdom. Six northern, predominantly Protestant, Irish counties (Northern Ireland) have remained part of the United Kingdom.

The United Kingdom and the Commonwealth

Britain's control over its Empire loosened during the interwar period. Nationalism became stronger in other parts of the empire, particularly in India and in Egypt.

In 1926, the UK, completing a process begun a century earlier, granted Australia, Canada, and New Zealand "Dominion" status (complete autonomy within the Empire). They became charter members of the British Commonwealth of Nations (now known as The Commonwealth), an informal but closely-knit association that succeeded the British Empire. Beginning with the independence of India and Pakistan in 1947, the remainder of the British Empire was almost completely dismantled. Today, most of Britain's former colonies belong to the Commonwealth, almost all of them as independent members. There are, however, 13 former British colonies -- including Bermuda, Gibraltar, the Falkland Islands, and others -- which have elected to continue their political links with London and are known as United Kingdom Overseas Territories.

Although often marked by economic and political nationalism, the Commonwealth offers the United Kingdom a voice in matters concerning many developing countries. In addition, the Commonwealth helps preserve many institutions deriving from British experience and models, such as Westminster-style parliamentary democracy, in those countries.

Recent History

At its zenith, the British Empire stretched over a quarter of the earth's surface. The first half of the 20th century saw the UK's strength seriously depleted in two World Wars. The second half witnessed the dismantling of the Empire and the UK rebuilding itself into a modern and prosperous European nation. The UK currently is weighing the degree of its integration with continental Europe. A member of the EU, it chose to remain outside of the European Monetary Union (EMU) for the time being.

Constitutional reform is also a significant issue in the UK. Regional assemblies with varying degrees of power opened in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland in 1999.

Constituent Nations' Histories

See also



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