The culture of the United Kingdom has been influenced by many factors, including: the country’s insularity, its history as a Western liberal democracy and great power, and the fact that it is a political union of four countries, each of which has retained different elements of tradition, custom and symbolism. As a result of the British Empire, British influence can be seen in the language, culture and legal systems of many of its former colonies, including Australia, Canada, India, Ireland, New Zealand, Pakistan, South Africa and the United States. The significant cultural influence of the United Kingdom has led to it being referred to as a “cultural superpower”.
British literature” refers to literature associated with the United Kingdom, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. The majority of British literature is in English. In 2005, around 206,000 books were published in the UK and in 2006 the UK was the largest book publisher in the world.
The English playwright and poet William Shakespeare is widely regarded as the greatest playwright of all time, and his contemporaries Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson have also been consistently highly regarded. More recently, playwrights Alan Ayckbourn, Harold Pinter, Michael Frayn, Tom Stoppard and David Edgar have combined elements of surrealism, realism and radicalism.
Pre-modern and early modern English writers include Geoffrey Chaucer (14th century), Thomas Malory (15th century), Sir Thomas More (16th century), John Bunyan (17th century) and John Milton (17th century). In the 18th century, Daniel Defoe (author of Robinson Crusoe) and Samuel Richardson were the pioneers of the modern novel. In the 19th century, Jane Austen, the gothic novelist Mary Shelley, the children’s author Lewis Carroll, the Brontë sisters, the social activist Charles Dickens, the naturalist Thomas Hardy, the realist George Eliot, the visionary poet William Blake and the romantic poet William Wordsworth continued their innovations. Twentieth-century English writers include science fiction writer H. G. Wells, children’s authors Rudyard Kipling, A. A. Milne (the creator of Winnie the Pooh), Roald Dahl and Enid Blyton, the controversial D. H. Lawrence, modernist Virginia Woolf, satirist Evelyn Waugh, prophetic writer George Orwell, popular novelists W. Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene; crime writer Agatha Christie (the best-selling female writer of all time); Ian Fleming (the creator of James Bond); poets T.S. Eliot, Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes; fantasy writers J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis and J. K. Rowling; graphic novelists Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman.
Scotland’s contributions include the crime writer Arthur Conan Doyle (the creator of Sherlock Holmes), the romantic literature of Sir Walter Scott, the children’s author J. M. Barrie, the epic adventures of Robert Louis Stevenson and the famous poet Robert Burns. More recently, the modernist and nationalist Hugh MacDiarmid and Neil M. Gunn have contributed to the Scottish renaissance. A darker perspective can be found in the stories of Ian Rankin and the psychological horror comedy of Iain Banks. Scotland’s capital, Edinburgh, was named the first World City of Literature by UNESCO.
The oldest known poem in Britain, Y Gododdin, was written in Yr Hen Ogledd (The Old North), probably in the late 6th century. It was written in Cumbrian or Old Welsh and contains the oldest known reference to King Arthur. From about the 7th century, the link between Wales and the Old North was lost and the focus of Welsh culture shifted to Wales, where the Arthurian legend was developed by Geoffrey of Monmouth. The most famous medieval poet of Wales, Dafydd ap Gwilym (fl. 1320-1370), wrote poetry on themes such as nature, religion and especially love. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest European poets of his time. Until the end of the 19th century, most Welsh literature was in Welsh and much of the prose was religious in nature. Daniel Owen is considered the first novelist in Welsh, publishing Rhys Lewis in 1885. The best known of the Anglo-Welsh poets are the two Thomases. Dylan Thomas became famous on both sides of the Atlantic in the mid-20th century. He is known for his poetry – his “Go not gentle into that good night; rage, rage against the dying of the light” is one of the most quoted verses in the English language – and for his “play for voices”, Under Milk Wood. The influential Welsh “poet-priest” and nationalist R. S. Thomas was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996. Leading Welsh novelists of the 20th century include Richard Llewellyn and Kate Roberts.
Authors of other nationalities, including Commonwealth countries, the Republic of Ireland and the United States, have lived and worked in the United Kingdom. Notable examples over the centuries include Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, George Bernard Shaw, Joseph Conrad, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and, more recently, foreign-born British authors such as Kazuo Ishiguro and Sir Salman Rushdie.
Various styles of music are popular in the UK, from the indigenous folk music of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to heavy metal. Among the best-known classical composers in the UK and its predecessor countries are William Byrd, Henry Purcell, Sir Edward Elgar, Gustav Holst, Sir Arthur Sullivan (who usually collaborated with the librettist Sir W. S. Gilbert), Ralph Vaughan Williams and Benjamin Britten, a pioneer of modern British opera. Sir Harrison Birtwistle is one of the greatest living composers. Britain is also home to world-famous symphony orchestras and choirs such as the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the London Symphony Chorus. Among the most famous conductors are Sir Simon Rattle, Sir John Barbirolli and Sir Malcolm Sargent. Film music composers include John Barry, Clint Mansell, Mike Oldfield, John Powell, Craig Armstrong, David Arnold, John Murphy, Monty Norman and Harry Gregson-Williams. George Frideric Handel was naturalised as a British citizen and wrote the British Coronation Anthem, while some of his best works, such as Messiah, were written in English. Andrew Lloyd Webber is a prolific composer of musical theatre. His works have dominated London’s West End since the late 20th century and have also been commercially successful worldwide.
The Beatles have sold over one billion units internationally and are the best-selling and most influential group in the history of popular music. Other British personalities who have influenced popular music over the last 50 years include the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Queen, the Bee Gees and Elton John, all of whom have sold more than 200 million records worldwide. The Brit Awards are the BPI’s annual music awards. British winners of the Outstanding Contribution to Music Award include The Who, David Bowie, Eric Clapton, Rod Stewart and The Police. Recent British bands that have achieved international success include Coldplay, Radiohead, Oasis, Spice Girls, Robbie Williams, Amy Winehouse and Adele.
A number of British cities are known for their music. Liverpool is the city with the most hits per capita (54) in the UK charts worldwide. Glasgow’s contribution to music was recognised in 2008 when it was named a UNESCO City of Music, one of only three cities worldwide to receive this honour.
The history of British visual art is part of the history of Western art. Leading British artists include the Romantics William Blake, John Constable, Samuel Palmer and J.M.W. Turner, the portraitists Sir Joshua Reynolds and Lucian Freud, the landscape painters Thomas Gainsborough and L. S. Lowry, the Arts and Crafts pioneer William Morris, the figurative painter Francis Bacon, the Pop artists Peter Blake, Richard Hamilton and David Hockney, the duo Gilbert and George, the abstract artist Howard Hodgkin, and the sculptors Antony Gormley, Anish Kapoor and Henry Moore. In the late 1980s and 1990s, the Saatchi Gallery in London helped draw public attention to a group of genre-bending artists who would become known as the Young British Artists: Damien Hirst, Chris Ofili, Rachel Whiteread, Tracey Emin, Mark Wallinger, Steve McQueen, Sam Taylor-Wood and the Chapman brothers are among the best known members of this loose movement.
The Royal Academy in London is an important organisation for the promotion of the visual arts in the UK. Major art schools in the UK include: the University of the Arts London, which has six schools, including Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design and Chelsea College of Art and Design; Goldsmiths, University of London; the Slade School of Fine Art (part of University College London); the Glasgow School of Art; the Royal College of Art; and the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art (part of Oxford University). The Courtauld Institute of Art is a leading centre for the teaching of art history. Major art galleries in the UK include the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, Tate Britain and Tate Modern (the most visited modern art gallery in the world, with around 4.7 million visitors a year).
The United Kingdom has had a significant impact on the history of cinema. British directors Alfred Hitchcock, whose film Vertigo is considered by some critics to be the best film ever made, and David Lean are among the most critically acclaimed of all time. Other important directors include Charlie Chaplin, Michael Powell, Carol Reed and Ridley Scott. Many British actors have achieved international fame and critical success including : Julie Andrews, Richard Burton, Michael Caine, Charlie Chaplin, Sean Connery, Vivien Leigh, David Niven, Laurence Olivier, Peter Sellers, Kate Winslet, Anthony Hopkins and Daniel Day-Lewis. Some of the most commercially successful films of all time have been produced in the UK, including two of the most lucrative film franchises (Harry Potter and James Bond). Ealing Studios claims to be the oldest continuously operating film studio in the world.
Despite a history of important and successful productions, the industry has often been marked by debate over its identity and the degree of American and European influence. British producers are active in international co-productions and British actors, directors and crew regularly appear in American films. Many successful Hollywood films are based on British characters, stories or events, including Titanic, Lord of the Rings, Pirates of the Caribbean.
In 2009, British films grossed around $2 billion worldwide and achieved a market share of around 7% globally and 17% in the UK. Box office takings in the UK totalled £944 million in 2009, with around 173 million admissions. The British Film Institute has produced a ranking of what it considers to be the 100 best British films of all time, the BFI Top 100 British Films. The British Academy Film Awards are organised annually by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.
The BBC, founded in 1922, is the UK’s publicly funded radio, television and internet broadcaster. It is the oldest and largest broadcasting corporation in the world. It operates many television and radio stations in the UK and abroad, and its national services are funded through the television licence fee. Other major UK media companies are ITV plc, which operates 11 of the 15 regional television channels that make up the ITV network, and News Corporation, which owns a number of national newspapers through News International, such as the most popular tabloid The Sun and the oldest daily newspaper The Times, and has a significant stake in the satellite broadcaster British Sky Broadcasting. London dominates the media sector in the UK, with national newspapers and television and radio having a strong presence there, although Manchester is also a major national media centre. Edinburgh and Glasgow, as well as Cardiff, are important centres of newspaper production and broadcasting in Scotland and Wales respectively. The UK publishing sector, which includes books, directories and databases, magazines and business media, newspapers and news agencies, has a total turnover of around £20 billion and employs around 167 000 people.
In 2009, it was estimated that people watched an average of 3.75 hours of television and listened to 2.81 hours of radio per day. In that year, the BBC’s main public service channels accounted for about 28.4% of all television viewing, the three main independent channels for 29.5% and the other increasingly important satellite and digital channels for the remaining 42.1%. Newspaper sales have been declining since the 1970s. In 2010, only 41% of people said they read a national daily newspaper. In 2010, 82.5 % of the UK population were internet users, the highest proportion among the 20 countries with the highest total number of users that year.
The United Kingdom is famous for the tradition of “British empiricism”, a branch of the philosophy of knowledge that asserts that only knowledge verified by experience is valid, and for “Scottish philosophy”, sometimes called the “Scottish school of common sense”. The most famous philosophers of British empiricism are John Locke, George Berkeley and David Hume, while Dugald Stewart, Thomas Reid and William Hamilton were the main representatives of the Scottish school of “common sense”. Two Britons also stand out for a theory of utilitarian moral philosophy, first used by Jeremy Bentham and later by John Stuart Mill in his short book Utilitarianism. Other notable philosophers from the United Kingdom and the Unions and countries who preceded him include Duns Scot, John Lilburne, Mary Wollstonecraft, Sir Francis Bacon, Adam Smith, Thomas Hobbes, William of Ockham, Bertrand Russell and A.J. “Freddie” Ayer. Foreign-born philosophers who settled in Britain include Isaiah Berlin, Karl Marx, Karl Popper and Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Major sports, including association football, tennis, union rugby, league rugby, golf, boxing, netball, rowing and cricket, have their origins or significant development in the United Kingdom and its predecessor states. As the rules and codes of many modern sports were invented and codified in Victorian Britain in the late 19th century, IOC President Jacques Rogge said in 2012: “This great, sport-loving country is widely recognised as the cradle of modern sport. Here, for the first time, the concepts of sportsmanship and fair play were codified in clear rules and regulations. In this country, sport was included in the curricula as an educational tool”.
In most international competitions, separate teams represent England, Scotland and Wales. Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland usually field a single team representing the whole of Ireland, with the notable exception of association football and the Commonwealth Games. In a sporting context, English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish/Northern Irish teams are often collectively referred to as ‘Home Nations’. In some sports, a single team represents the whole of the United Kingdom, such as in the Olympic Games, where the United Kingdom is represented by Team Great Britain. The 1908, 1948 and 2012 Summer Olympics were held in London, making London the first city to host the Games three times. Great Britain has participated in all modern Olympic Games to date and ranks third in the number of medals won.
A 2003 survey found that football is the most popular sport in the UK. England is recognised by FIFA as the birthplace of club football and the Football Association is the oldest of its kind. The rules of football were first written by Ebenezer Cobb Morley in 1863. Each country of origin has its own football association, national team and league system. The English first division, the Premier League, is the most watched football league in the world. The very first international football match was played on 30 November 1872 between England and Scotland. England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland compete internationally as separate countries. A Great Britain Olympic football team was formed for the first time to compete at the London 2012 Olympic Games. However, the football associations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland refused to participate, fearing that it would undermine their independent status – a fear that was confirmed by FIFA.
In 2003, rugby was the second most popular sport in the UK. The sport originated at Rugby School in Warwickshire and the first international rugby match took place on 27 March 1871 between England and Scotland. England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, France and Italy take part in the Six Nations Championship, the first international tournament in the northern hemisphere. The sports federations in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland organise and regulate the game separately. If one of the British or Irish teams beats the other three in a tournament, it receives the Triple Crown.
Cricket was invented in England and its laws were laid down by the Marylebone Cricket Club in 1788. The England cricket team, controlled by the England and Wales Cricket Board, is the only national team in the United Kingdom with Test team status. Team members are drawn from the main counties and include players from England and Wales. Cricket differs from football and rugby, where Wales and England form separate national teams, although Wales has formed its own team in the past. Irish and Scottish players have played for England, as neither Scotland nor Ireland have Test country status and have only recently started participating in One Day Internationals. Scotland, England (and Wales) and Ireland (including Northern Ireland) have played in the Cricket World Cup, with England reaching the final three times. There is a professional league championship involving clubs from 17 English counties and one Welsh county.
The modern game of tennis originated in Birmingham, England, in the 1860s and then spread around the world. The oldest tennis tournament in the world, the Wimbledon Championship, was first held in 1877. Today, the event takes place over two weeks in late June and early July.
Thoroughbred racing, which originated under Charles II of England as the “sport of kings”, is popular throughout the UK, with world-renowned races such as the Grand National, Epsom Derby, Royal Ascot and the Cheltenham National Hunting Festival (including the Cheltenham Gold Cup). The UK is successful in international rowing.
The United Kingdom is closely associated with motorsport. Many Formula One (F1) teams and drivers are based in the UK, and the country has won more drivers’ and manufacturers’ titles than any other. The UK hosted the first F1 Grand Prix at Silverstone in 1950 and the British Grand Prix is now held there every July. The UK hosts stages of the Motorcycle Grand Prix, the World Rally Championship and the FIA World Endurance Championship. The main national motorsport event is the British Touring Car Championship. Road motorcycle racing has a long tradition with races such as the Isle of Man TT and the North West 200.
Golf is the sixth most popular sport, in terms of participation, in the UK. Although the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews in Scotland is the home of golf, the oldest golf course in the world is actually the Old Golf Course at Musselburgh Links. In 1764, the standard 18-hole golf course was created at St Andrews when members changed the course from 22 to 18 holes. The oldest golf tournament in the world and the first major golf championship, the Open Championship, is held every year on the weekend of the third Friday in July.
Rugby league was born in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, in 1895 and is usually played in the north of England. Previously, only one team, the Great Britain Lions, had participated in the Rugby World Cup and Test matches. However, this changed in 2008 when England, Scotland and Ireland competed as independent nations. Great Britain remains as a fully-fledged national team. Super League is the highest level of professional rugby league in the UK and Europe. It consists of 11 teams from the North of England, 1 from London, 1 from Wales and 1 from France.
The “Queensberry Rules”, the general set of rules for boxing, were named after John Douglas, 9th Marquess of Queensberry, in 1867 and form the basis of modern boxing. Snooker is another popular sporting export from the UK, with the World Championships being held annually in Sheffield. In Northern Ireland, Gaelic and Hurling football are popular team sports, both in terms of participants and spectators, and are also played by Irish expatriates in the UK and USA. Shinty (or Camanachd) is very popular in the Scottish Highlands. The Highland Games take place in Scotland in the spring and summer and celebrate Scottish and Celtic culture and heritage, particularly that of the Scottish Highlands.
The flag of the United Kingdom is the flag of the Union (also called the Union Jack). It was created in 1606 by superimposing the flag of England on the flag of Scotland and updated in 1801 by adding the flag of St Patrick. Wales is not represented in the Union Flag as it was conquered and annexed by England before the creation of the United Kingdom. The possibility of redesigning the Union Flag to include the representation of Wales is not entirely ruled out. The national anthem of the United Kingdom is “God Save the King”, with “King” replaced by “Queen” in the lyrics if the monarch is a woman.
Britannia is a national personification of the United Kingdom, originally from Roman Britain. Britannia is symbolised by a young woman with brown or golden hair wearing a Corinthian helmet and white robes. She holds Poseidon’s trident and a shield on which the Union flag is depicted. Sometimes she is depicted as sitting on the back of a lion. Since the heyday of the British Empire in the late 19th century, Britannia has often been associated with British naval supremacy, as in the patriotic song “Rule, Britannia!”. Until 2008, the lion symbol behind Britannia was depicted on the British fifty pence coin and on the reverse of the British ten pence coin. It is also used as a symbol on the non-ceremonial flag of the British Army.
A second, less used personification of the nation is the figure of John Bull. The bulldog is sometimes used as a symbol for the United Kingdom and has been associated with Winston Churchill’s challenge to Nazi Germany.