Britain, the largest island of the British Isles, has been inhabited since at least the last Ice Age, more than 10,000 years ago. Ireland is thought to have been settled by modern humans around the same time, or perhaps a little later. Although little is known about the inhabitants of the British Isles during the Stone Age, the world-famous Stonehenge monument and dozens of other stone structures on the islands still bear witness to their legacy today.
The Greeks called the inhabitants of the British Isles “Prettanoi”, hence the terms “British” and “Britain”. About three thousand years ago, the inhabitants began to be influenced by the Celtic languages and culture of mainland Europe. Over time, the islands became almost entirely Celtic.
The written history of Britain is generally considered to begin with the Roman occupation of much of England and Wales and the southern part of Scotland, the province of Britannia. After the fall of the Roman garrison in Britain, the island was later settled by waves of Germanic peoples who came to be known as the Anglo-Saxons. The Anglo-Saxons had little genetic influence, as claimed by Oppenheimer, Sykes et al, but a very large social influence. It is known that today’s languages Irish, Scottish, Gaelic, Welsh and Breton are descended from the original language of the Britons. Modern English derives mainly from the historical Germanic-Saxon language, with Celtic, French, Latin and other influences.
with some Celtic and perhaps pre-Celtic borrowings and later strong borrowings from French and Latin, mainly by a French-speaking elite that ruled England for centuries.
The British Isles were eventually governed by separate kingdoms, with the Kingdom of England in the south, the Kingdom of Ireland in the west and the Kingdom of Scotland in the north. Formerly independent Wales was incorporated into the Kingdom of England by two Acts of the English Parliament in 1535 and 1542 respectively. For many years the Kingdom of England and the Kingdom of Scotland fought many wars for control of the whole of Britain. This state of affairs was to end in 1603 with the Union of the Crowns, when the Scottish King James VI inherited the southern throne and called himself King James I of Great Britain and Ireland. In 1707, the parliaments of England and Scotland (under English pressure) passed the Acts of Union (1707), which abolished a separate Scottish Parliament, although support for Scottish independence remains strong to this day. Despite the loss of the 13 colonies that became the United States of America after the American War of Independence (1775-1783), Britain continued to enrich itself through trade and eastern possessions. After the British and Irish parliaments (under British pressure) passed the Acts of Union (1801), the enlarged kingdom became the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (UK). Decisive victories over Napoleonic forces at the battles of Trafalgar in 1805 and ten years later at Waterloo (where Napoleon suffered his final defeat) cemented Britain’s place as one of the world’s dominant political and military powers.
Over the next fifty years, under the leadership of Queen Victoria, the United Kingdom became the leading world power and leader of the Industrial Revolution, eventually possessing the largest empire the world had ever seen. At its peak in the early 20th century, the British Empire included what is now Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Hong Kong, India, South Africa, Egypt and many other colonies in Asia, Africa and the New World.
The United Kingdom and its allies were victorious in the First World War, after which it gained many territories from the defeated Germany, the Ottoman Empire and Austria-Hungary. These territories included present-day Samoa, Namibia and Israel. At its greatest extent, the British Empire was known as the empire over which the sun never sets, as its colonies covered all time zones.
Irish nationalists resisted British rule, partly because of the conflict between Catholics and Protestants. Eventually, in 1922, the United Kingdom agreed to grant self-government as an Irish Free State, with six of the northern counties without an overwhelming Catholic majority remaining part of the United Kingdom as Northern Ireland. The Irish Free State eventually severed all ties and became the Republic of Ireland in 1949.
The Second World War marked a turning point in the history of the British Empire. The German Third Reich under Adolf Hitler ignored British ultimatums not to invade Poland, and Britain and France declared war. While the UK won the famous Battle of Britain in the Air and was spared the fate of the Wehrmacht occupation that hit its not so fortunate neighbours Belgium, France, the Netherlands and the Channel Islands, it paid a heavy price with thousands of civilian casualties and even saw the destruction of the House of Commons in Parliament. In addition, the UK lost much of its prestige in its overseas colonies as most of its troops were involved in the defence of the UK against the Germans and failed to defend many of its Asian colonies against the Japanese during the Pacific War. In particular, the garrisons of Hong Kong and Singapore, considered impregnable fortresses by the British government and public opinion, fell ignominiously into Japanese hands. Although the Axis powers of Germany and Japan were eventually defeated and the United Kingdom and its allies emerged victorious from the Second World War, this ushered in the beginning of the end of the British Empire. The United Kingdom no longer had the resources to maintain control over such a large empire and had lost the respect of the people in its colonies as a result of the defeat by the Japanese. This allowed the independence movements to grow and the UK granted independence to its colonies one by one. The last colony with significant population and economic importance, Hong Kong, was returned to China in 1997, an event many have called the “end of the Empire”.
Although it has lost much of its power, the UK remained a major player in world politics during and after the Cold War and continues to exert its cultural influence around the world through institutions such as the BBC and the Commonwealth. The UK continues to have a permanent seat on the UN Security Council with veto power. London remains one of the world’s most important cities and, along with New York, Hong Kong and Tokyo, is one of the world’s most important financial centres. The London metropolitan area is a “megacity” and the largest conurbation in the European Union with a growing population that currently exceeds 13.5 million. In addition, the UK remains one of the world’s leading centres of higher education. It is home to some of the most prestigious universities in the world, such as Oxford University and Cambridge University, and attracts more international students than any other country in the world except the United States.
The country narrowly voted to leave the European Union in a referendum in June 2016, which became known as Brexit. The complexity and effort required to achieve a complete divorce from the EU and its single market is considerable and the implications are unknown, posing major challenges for the country’s economic and political future.