1 Stonehenge
2 Hadrian's Wall
3 King Arthur
4 King Alfred
5 1066
6 Robin Hood
7 Language and social class
8 The Wars of the Roses
9 Off with his head!
10 Henry VIII
11 Elizabeth I
12 The Civil War
13 Ring-a-ring-a-roses
14 The Battle of the Boyne
15 The origins of modern government
16 Queen Victoria
17 The creation of Northern Ireland
18 Britain (re)joins `Europe'
19 Some important dates in British history




Stonehenge was built on Salisbury Plain some time between 5,000 and 4,300 years ago. It is one of the most famous and mysterious archaeological sites in the world. One of its mysteries is how it was ever built at all with the technology of the time (some of the stones come from over 200 miles away in Wales). Another is its purpose. It appears to function as a kind of astronomical clock and we know it was used by the Druids for ceremonies marking the passing of the seasons. It has always exerted a fascination on the British imagination, and appears in a number of novels, such as Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

These days, it is not only of interest to tourists but is also held in special esteem by certain minority groups. It is now fenced off to protect it from damage.



Hadrian's Wall

Hadrian's Wall was built by the Romans in the second century across the northern border of their province of Britannia (which is nearly the same as the present English-Scottish border) in order to protect it from attacks by the Scots and the Picts.



King Arthur

King Arthur is a wonderful example of the distortions of popular history. In folklore and myth (and on film), he is a great English hero, and he and his Knights of the Round Table are regarded as the perfect example of medieval nobility and chivalry. In fact, he lived long before medieval times and was a Romanized Celt trying to hold back the advances of the Anglo-Saxons-the very people who became “the English”!



King Alfred

King Alfred was not only an able warrior but also a dedicated scholar (the only English monarch for a long time afterwards who was able to read and write) and a wise ruler. He is known as “Alfred the Great”- the only monarch in English history to be given this title. He is also popularly known for the story of the burning of the cakes. While he was wandering around his country organizing resistance to the Danish invaders, Alfred traveled in disguise. On one occasion, he stopped at a woman’s house. The woman asked him to watch some cakes that were cooking to see that they did not burn, while she went off to get food. Alfred became lost in thought and the cakes burned. When the woman returned, she shouted angrily at Alfred and sent him away. Alfred never told her that he was her king.




This is the most famous date in English history. On 14 October of that year, an invading army from Normandy defeated the English at the Battle of Hastings. The battle was close and extremely bloody. At the end of it, most of the best warriors in England were dead, including their leader, King Harold. On Christmas day that year, the Norman leader, Duke William of Normandy, was crowned king of England. He is known in popular history as “William the Conqueror” and the date is remembered as the last time that England was successfully invaded.



Robin Hood

Robin Hood is a legendary folk hero. King Richard I (1189-99) spent most of his reign fighting in the “crusades” (the wars between Christians and Muslims in the Middle East). Meanwhile, England was governed by his brother John, who was unpopular because of all the taxes he imposed. According to legend, Robin Hood lived with his band of “merry men” in Sherwood Forest outside Nottingham, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. He was constantly hunted by the local sheriff (the royal representative) but was never captured.



Language and social class

As an example of the class distinctions introduced into society after the Norman invasion, people often point to the fact that modern English has two words for the larger farm animals: one for the living animal ( cow, pork, mutton ) and anothr for the animal you eat (beef, pork, mutton). The former set come from Anglo-Saxon, the latter from the French that the Normans brought to England. Only the Normans normally ate meat; the poor Anglo-Saxon peasants did not !



The Wars of the Roses

During the fifteenth century, the power of the greatest nobles, who had their own private armies, meant that constant challenges to the position of the monarch were possible. These power struggles came to a head in the Wars of the Roses, in which the nobles were divided into two groups, one supporting the House of Lancaster, whose symbol was a red rose, the other the House of York, whose symbol was a white rose. Three decades of almost continual war ended in 1485, when Henry Tudor (Lancastrian) defeated and killed Richard III (Yorkist) at the Battle of Bosworth Field.



Off with his head!

Being an important person in the sixteenth century was not a safe position. The Tudor monarchs were disloyal to their officials and merciless to any nobles who opposed them. More than half of the most famous names of the period finished their lives by being executed. Few people who were taken through Traitor's Gate in the Tower of London came out again alive.



Henry VIII

Henry VIII is one of the most well-known monarchs in English history, chiefly because he took six wives during his life. He has the popular image of a bon viveur. There is much truth in this reputation. He was a natural leader but not really interested in the day-to-day running of government and this encouraged the beginnings of a professional bureaucracy. It was during his reign that the reformation took place. In the 1530s, Henry used Parliament to pass laws which swept away the power of the Roman Church in England. However, his quarrel with Rome was nothing to do with doctrine. It was because he wanted to be free to marry again and to appoint who he wished as leaders of the church in England. Earlier in the same decade, he had had a law passed which demanded complete adherence to Catholic belief and practice. He had also previously written a polemic against Protestantism, for which the pope gave him the title Fidei Defensor (defender of the faith). The initials F.D. still appear on British coins today.



Elizabeth I

Elizabeth I, daughter of Henry VIII, was the first of three long-reigning queens in British history (the other two are Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth II). During her long reign she established, by skilful diplomacy, a reasonable degree of internal stability in a firmly Protestant England, allowing the growth of a spirit of patriotism and general confidence. She never married, but used its possibility as a diplomatic tool. She became known as “the virgin queen”. The area which later became Virginia in the USA was named after her by one of the many English explorers of the time (Sir Walter Raleigh).



The Civil War

This is remembered as a contest between aristocratic, a royalist “Cavaliers” and puritanical parliamentarian “Roundheads” (because of the style of their hair-cuts). The Roundheads were victorious by 1645, although the war periodically continued until 1649.




a pocket full of posies
Atishoo! Atishoo!
We all fall down.

This is a well-known children's nursery rhyme today. It is believed to come from the time of the time of the Great Plague of 1665, which was the last outbreak of bubonic plague in Britain. The ring of roses refers to the pattern of red spots on a sufferer's body. The posies, a bag of herbs, were thought to give protection from the disease. ‘Atishoo' represents the sound of sneezing, one of the signs of the disease, after which a person could sometimes ‘fall down' dead in a few hours.



The Battle of the Boyne

After he was deposed from the English and Scottish thrones, James II fled to Ireland. But the Catholic Irish army he gathered there was defeated at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 and laws were then passed forbidding Catholics to vote or even own land. In Ulster, in the north of the country, large numbers of fiercely anti-Catholic Scottish Presbyterians settled (in possession of all the land). The descendants of these people are still known today as Orangemen (after their patron William of Orange). They form one half of the tragic split in society in modern Northern Ireland, the other half being the “native” Irish Catholic.



The origins of modern government

The monarchs of the eighteenth century were Hanoverian Germans with interests on the European continent. The first of them, George I, could not even speak English. Perhaps this situation encouraged the habit whereby the monarch appointed one principal, or “prime”, minister from the ranks of Parliament to head his government. It was also during this century that the system of an annual budget drawn up by the monarch’s Treasury officials for the approval of Parliament was established.



Queen Victoria

Queen Victoria reigned from 1837-1901. During her reign, although the modern powerlessness of the monarch was confirmed (she was sometimes forced to accept as Prime Minister people whom she personally disliked), she herself became an increasingly popular symbol of Britain’s success in the world. As a hard-working, religious mother of ten children, devoted to her husband, Prince Albert, she was regarded as the personification of contemporary morals. The idea that the monarch should set an example to the people in such matters was unknown before this time and has created problems for the monarchy since then.



The creation of Northern Ireland

By the beginning of the twentieth century, most people in Ireland wanted either internal self-government (which was known as “home rule”) or complete independence from Britain. Liberal governments in Britain had attempted at various times to make this ides a reality. However, the one million Protestants in the province of Ulster in the north of the country were violently opposed to it. They did not want to belong to a country dominated by Catholics. They formed less than a quarter of the total Irish population, but in six of the nine countries of Ulster they were in a 65% majority.

In 1920, the British government partitioned the country between the (Catholic) south and the (Protestant) six countries, giving each part some control of its internal affairs. But this was no longer enough for the south. There, support for complete independence had grown as a result of the British government’s savage repression of the “Easter Rising” in 1916. War followed. The eventual result was that in 1922, the south became independent from Britain.

The six countries, however, remained within the United Kingdom. They became the British province of “Northern Ireland”(see Chapter 12).



Britain (re)joins `Europe'

When the European Coal and Steel Community was formed in 1951, the British government thought it was an excellent idea-but nothing to do with Britain! Long years of an empire based on sea power meant that the traditional attitude to mainland Europe had been to encourage stability there, to discourage any expansionist powers there, but otherwise to leave it well alone.

But as the empire disappeared, and the role of `the world's policeman' was taken over by the USA, the British government decided to ask for membership of the newly-formed European Communities. There was opposition to the idea from those (both inside and outside the country) who argued that Britain was an `island nation' and thus essentially different in outlook from nations in mainland Europe. Finally, ten years after its first application, Britain joined in 1973.

Here is a list of EU Member states at present, together with their time of joining and whether they have adopted the Euro currency.
Austria – Member since 1995 (Euro currency)

  1. Belgium – Pre-existing member (Euro Currency)
  2. Bulgaria – Member since 2007
  3. Cyprus (Greek) – Member since 2004 (Euro currency)
  4. Czech Republic -  Member since 2004
  5. Denmark – Pre-existing member
  6. Estonia – Member since 2004
  7. Finland – Member since 1995  (Euro currency)
  8. France – Pre-existing member (Euro Currency)
  9. Germany -Pre-existing member (Euro Currency)
  10. Greece – Pre-existing member (Euro Currency)
  11. Hungary – Member since 2004
  12. Ireland – Pre-existing member (Euro Currency)
  13. Italy – Pre-existing member (Euro Currency)
  14. Latvia – Member since 2004
  15. Lithuania – Member since 2004
  16. Luxembourg – Pre-existing member (Euro Currency)
  17. Malta – Member since 2004 (Euro currency)
  18. Netherlands – Pre-existing member (Euro Currency)
  19. Poland – Member since 2004
  20. Portugal – Pre-existing member (Euro Currency)
  21. Romania – Member since 2007
  22. Slovakia – Member since 2004 (Euro currency)
  23. Slovenia – Member since 2004 (Euro currency)
  24. Spain – Pre-existing member (Euro Currency)
  25. Sweden – Member since 1995
  26. United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland – Pre-existing member



Some important dates in British history

55 BC*The Roman general Julius Caesar lands in Britain with an expeditionary force, wins a battle and leaves. The first `date' in popular British history.

AD 43 Thet Romans come to stay.

61 Queen Boudicca (or Boadicea) of the Iceni tribe leads a bloody revolt against the Roman occupation. It is suppressed. There is a statue of Boadicea, made in the nineteenth century, outside the Houses of Parliament, which has helped to keep her memory alive.

410 The Romans leave Britain

432 St. Patrick converts Ireland to Christianity.

597 St. Augustine arrives in Britain and establishes his headquarters at Canterbury.

793 The great monastery of Lindisfarne on the east coast of Britain is destroyed by Vikings and its monks killed.

878 The Peace of Edington partitions the Germanic territories between King Alfred's Saxons and the Danes.

973 Edgar, a grandson of Alfred, becomes king of nearly all of present-day England and for the first time the name `England` is used.

1066 The Battle of Hastings.

1086 King William's officials complete the Domesday Book, a very detailed, village-by-village record of the people and their possessions throughout his kingdom.

1170 The murder of Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, by soldiers of King Henry II. Becket becomes a popular martyr and his grave is visited by pilgrims for hundreds of years. The Canterbury Tales, written by Geoffrey Chaucer in the fourteenth century, recounts the stories told by a fictional group of pilgrims on their way to Canterbury.

1171 The Norman baron known as Strongbow and his followers settle in Ireland.

1215 An alliance of aristocracy, church and merchants force King John to agree to the Magna Carta (Latin meaning `Great Charter'), a document in which the king agrees to follow certain rules of government. In fact, neither john nor his successors entirely followed them, but the Magna Carta is remembered as the first time a monarch agreed in writing to abide by formal procedures.

1275 Llewellyn, a Welsh prince, refuses to submit to the authority of the English monarch.

The Statute of Wales puts the whole of that country under the control of the English monarch.

1295 The Model Parliament sets the pattern for the future by including elected representatives from urban and rural areas.

1328 After several years of war between the Scottish and English kingdoms, Scotland is recognized as an independent kingdom.

1534 The Act of Supremacy declares Henry VIII to be the supreme head of the church in England.

1536 The administration of government and law in Wales is reformed so that it is exactly the same as it is in England.

1538 An English language version of the Bible replaces Latin bibles in every church in the land.

1560 The Scottish parliament abolishes the authority of the Pope and forbids the Latin mass.

1580 Sir Francis Drake completes the first voyage round the world by an Englishman

1588 The Spanish Armada. A fleet of ships sent by the Catholic king Philip of Spain to help invade England, is defeated by the English navy (with the help of a violent storm!).

1603 James VI of Scotland becomes James I of England as well.

1605 The Gunpowder Plot. A group of Catholics fail in their attempt to blow up the king in Parliament.

1642 The Civil War begins.

1649 Charles I is executed. For the first and only time, Britain briefly becomes a republic and is called `the Commonwealth'

1660 The Restoration of the monarchy and the Anglican religion.

1666 The Great Fire of London destroys most of the city's old wooden buildings. It also destroys bubonic plague, which never reappears. Most of the city's finest churches, including St. Paul's Cathedral, date from the period of rebuilding which followed.

1688 The Glorious Revolution.

1690 The Presbyterian Church becomes the official ‘Church of Scotland'.

1707 The Act of Union is passed.

1708 The last occasion on which a British monarch refuses to accept a bill passed by Parliament.

1746 At the battle of Culloden, a government army of English and lowland Scots defeat the highland army of Charles Edward, who, as the grandson of the last Stuart king, claimed the British throne. Although he made no attempt to protect his supporters from revenge attacks afterwards, he is still a popular romantic legend in the highlands, and known as “Bonnie Prince Charlie”.

1763 The English writer Samuel Johnson coins the famous phrase, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life”.

1771 For the first time, Parliament allows written records of its debates to be published freely.

1782 James Watt invents the first steam engine.

1783 After a war, Britain loses the southern half of its North American colonies ( giving birth to the USA ).

1788 The first British settlers (convicts and soldiers) arrive in Australia.

1800 The separate Irish parliament is closed and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland is formed.

1829 Robert Peel, a government minister, organizes the first modern police force. The police are still sometimes known today as “bobbies” (“Bobby” is a short form of the name “ Robert”). Catholics and non-Anglican Protestants are given the right to hold government posts and become MPs.

1833 The first law regulating factory working conditions limits the number of hours that children are allowed to work. Slavery is made illegal throughout the British Empire.

1868 The TUC (Trades Union Congress) is formed.

1886 After much debates, an atheist is allowed to sit in the House of Commons.

1893 The first socialist, Keir Hardie, is elected to Parliament. He enters the House of Commons for the first time wearing a cloth cap (which remained a symbol of the British working man until the 1960s).

1902 Nationwide selective secondary education is introduced.

1908 The first old-age pensions are introduced.

1911 The power of the House of Lords is severely reduced and sick pay for most workers is introduced.

1914 Great Britain declares war on Germany. Until the 1940s, the First World War was known in Britain as “The Great War”.

1916 The “Easter Rising” in Ireland.

1918 The right to vote is extended to women.

1920 Partition of Ireland.

1921 Treaty between Britain and the Irish parliament in Dublin.


1926 General Strike.

1928 The right to vote is extended again. All adults can now vote.

1939 Britain declares war on Germany.

1944 Free compulsory education ( up to the age of 15 ) is established.

1946 The National Health Service is established.

1949 Ireland becomes a republic.

1953 Coronation of Elizabeth II

1958 The Clean Air Act is the first law of widespread application to attempt to control pollution. Life Peerage Act.

1959 The first motorway is opened.

1963 The school leaving age is raised to 16.

1968 The “age of majority” (the age at which somebody legally becomes an adult) is reduced from 21 to 18.

1969 British troops are sent to Northern Ireland.

1971 Decimal currency is introduced.

1973 Britain joins the European Economic Community.

1982 The Falklands/Malvinas War.

British Telecom is privatized. This is the first time that shares in a nationalized company are sold directly to the public.

1990 First Gulf War.

1994 The channel tunnel opens.

1999 The hereditary element in the House of Lords is severely restricted.

2003 Second Gulf War

2007 British troops leave Northern Ireland.