History of the United Kingdom

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The United Kingdom is the realm or kingdom that covers England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and which for over one hundred years included Ireland. The Act of Union 1800 united the kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. In 1922, the constantly evolving state saw the Irish Free State leave, with just Northern Ireland remaining, hence since 1927 the United Kingdom's modern title, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. At its nucleus was a system of government created for the Kingdom of England and which in phases incorporated the Principality of Wales, the Kingdom of Scotland and the Kingdom of Ireland.


Conquests and Unions before 1800

Union of England and 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 setting up a number of lordships in the Eastern part of Wales and the border areas, and the usually fractious Welsh, who still retained control of the North and West of Wales, started uniting around leaders such as Llywelyn the Great.

Edward I finally succeeded in conquering the last remaining native Welsh principalities in the North and West of Wales (roughly the area of the present day counties of Anglesey, Caernarfonshire, Merioneth, Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire) in 1282 under Edward I, and the Statute of Rhuddlan established Edward's 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 February 7, 1301. This area under direct royal control was therefore known as the Principality of Wales(1284-1536). The tradition of bestowing this title on the eldest son of the British Monarch continues today.

Between 1284 and 1536 the Crown only had direct control over the principality, as the Marcher lords (ruling over independent lordships in the East and South of Wales)were independent from crown control. An act of 1536 completed the political and administrative union of England and Wales. The Act of Union 1536 partitioned Wales into thirteen counties: Anglesey, Brecon, Caernarfon, Cardigan, Carmarthen, Denbigh, Flint, Glamorgan, Merioneth, Monmouth, Montgomery, Pembroke and Radnor and applied the Law of England to both England and Wales, making English the language to be used for official purposes. This excluded most native Welsh from any formal office. Wales was also now represented in the English Parliament at Westminster.

English conquest of Ireland

The conquest of Ireland began in 1169. At first, it was not strictly an English conquest, as it was launched by a small group of Normans who were neither English nor acting on behalf of the English Crown. A disposessed Norman baron from Wales, Richard fitzGilbert de Clare ('Strongbow') teamed up with the exiled Irish king, Diarmuid MacMorrough, to help him recover his kingdom of Leinster. This subsequently led to the Normans gaining a foothold in Ireland, capturing Dublin in 1170. The success of Strongbow alarmed Henry II, who was worried that he was becoming too powerful. Henry invaded Ireland himself in 1171, whereby many Irish kings submitted to his authority, and Dublin and the surrounding area came under royal control. This effectively created the Lordship of Ireland(1171-1541) which came under the control of his son John. John (unexpectedly) became king in 1199 after the death of his brother, and this meant that the lordship of Ireland was under the control of the king. He also set up a parliament in Dublin. However in reality this only had jurisdiction over the 'Pale' and the English still only controlled a relatively small area of Ireland.

In 1541 the Irish Parliament offered to change the status of Ireland to a kingdom, creating the Kingdom of Ireland(1541-1800) with Henry VIII as its monarch; Henry, regarding the way he styled himself as beyond the law of Parliament, refused, but began to style himself as King of Ireland the next year anyway. This created a union of the Crowns, similar to that which was created in England and Scotland after 1603. For the remainder of the 16th century, the Tudor monarchs expanded their control over Ireland from the small Pale around Dublin to control over the whole island by 1603. The Tudor re-conquest of Ireland saw large-scale violence, culminating in the Desmond Rebellions and the Nine Years War. Another feature of the sixteenth century was the creation of English Plantations of Ireland, which attempted to extend English influence further into Ireland by confiscating land from Irish landowners and "planting" colonies of English settlers in their place.

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 successive 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 saw a clash between the old religion (Roman Catholicism) and the new (The Church of Scotland, known as Presbyterianism). The controversial Catholic Queen of Scotland, Mary Queen of Scots was forced to abdicate and 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 among adherents to the old religion (Catholicism) in England about the legality of Henry VIII's marriage to Anne Boleyn was seen by many as a more legitimate heir to the English throne than her Protestant cousin Elizabeth I, the occupant of the throne. Mary Queen of Scots's great-grandfather was Elizabeth's own grandfather Henry VII due to an earlier marriage alliance between England and Scotland. Elizabeth put her cousin under house arrest and eventually, amid rumours of a plot to overthrow her, reluctantly 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"2, 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.

Republican Rule 1649

As a consequence of an ever-increasing schism between the monarchy and Parliament, culminating in the English Civil War, England had two periods of republican rule in the 17th century between 1649 - 1653 and 1659 - 1660, interspaced with dictatorship under the personal rule of Oliver Cromwell, before the restoration of the monarchy.

The Commonwealth period also saw Ireland and Scotland annexed by England and their Legislative autonomy abolished. Ireland in particular was permanently changed by the civil war period, as its native Irish Catholic landowning class was dispossessed after the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland and replaced with a British Protestant ruling class. Both Ireland and Scotland had their nominal autonomy from London restored after the Restoration. Nevertheless, the era of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms went a long way towards establishing English primacy over the other two Kingdoms in the Stuart monarchy.

The Act of Union 1707

In 1706 an English Bill of Union was drawn up for Scotland to either accept or reject. In theory, Scotland could refuse to agree to this proposed union; however, it is a controversial point whether or not this was a real choice because if they refused then it was suspected that the Union may have been forced upon them with less generous terms than the first proposal. There was fierce debate on both sides of the border about the pros and cons of the union. However, the Scottish parliament eventually agreed. The following year, 1707, England and Scotland were unified as the Kingdom of Great Britain. This act abolished England and Scotland as separate kingdoms, creating one kingdom sharing a single Parliament at Westminster under the Act of Union 1707. Queen Anne now became the first 'British' Queen. Scotland would now send 45 MPs to the Parliament at Westminster which had now transformed into the Parliament of Great Britain. This also meant that Scotland and England could enjoy free trade with each other. However, certain Scottish and English institutions were not merged into the British system; Scottish and English law remained separate, as did Scottish and English currency and the Church of Scotland and Church of England which were to remain intact and have remained so ever since.

The United Kingdom

Act of Union 1800

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.

Possibly influenced by the Wars of American Independence (1776), a United force of Irish volunteers used their influence to campaign for greater independence for the Irish Parliament. This was granted in 1782 giving free trade to Ireland and Irish legislative independence. However knowledge of the French revolution made the calls for moderate constitutional reform ever more radical. The radical society of United Irishmen made up of Presbyterians from Belfast and both Anglicans and Catholics in Dublin campaigned for an end to British domination. Their leader Theobald Wolfe Tone (1763-98) worked with the Catholic Convention of 1792 which demanded an end to the penal laws. Failing to gain support of the British government he travelled to Paris, encouraging a number of French naval forces to land in Ireland to help with the planned insurrections. These were suppressed by government forces, but these rebellions convinced the British government (under William Pitt) that the only solution was to end Irish independence once and for all.

The legislative union of Great Britain and Ireland was completed on January 1, 1801, in both the Irish and the British parliaments, with the Act of Union 1800, under the name of the "United Kingdom". Ireland elected around 100 MPs to the House of Commons3 at Westminster and sent 28 peers to the House of Lords. Irish peers elected a limited number of members from their number to sit in the House of Lords.

Ireland in the United Kingdom

Main article: History of Ireland (1801-1922)

Part of the agreement which led to the Act of Union stipulated that the Penal Laws in Ireland were to be repealed and Catholic Emancipation granted. However King George III blocked emancipation, arguing that to grant it would break his coronation oath to defend the Anglican Church. A campaign under lawyer and politician Daniel O'Connell led to the conceding of Catholic Emancipation in 1829, thus allowing Catholics to sit in parliament. O'Connell then mounted an unsuccessful campaign for the Repeal of the Act of Union.

When potato blight hit the island in 1846, much of the rural population was left without food. Unfortunately at this time British politicians such as the Prime Minister Robert Peel were wedded to the economic policy of laissez-faire, which argued against state intervention of any sort. While enormous sums were raised by private individuals and charities (American Indians sent supplies, while Queen Victoria personally gave the equivalent in modern money of €70,000) British government inaction (or at least inadequate action) led to a problem becoming a catastrophe. The class of cottiers or farm labourers was virtually wiped out.

The famine spawned the first mass wave of Irish emigration to the United States as well as Britain, Canada, and Australia. This had the long term consequence of creating a large and influential Irish diaspora, particularly in the United States, whose members supported and financed the Irish independence movement. In 1858, the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB, also known as the Fenians) was founded as a secret society dedicated to armed rebellion against the British. A sister organization was formed among Irish in the United States as the Fenian Brotherhood, which several times invaded the British province of Canada. However support for Irish republicanism was minimal in Ireland in the period; as late as the 1860s, mass meetings of Irish nationalists ended with the singing of God Save the Queen while royal visits drew cheering crowds.

Most Irish people elected as their MPs Liberals and Conservatives who belonged to the main British political parties. A significant minority also elected unionists, who championed the cause of the maintenance of the Act of Union. A former Tory barrister turned nationalist campaigner, Isaac Butt, established a new moderate nationalist movement, the Home Rule League, in the 1870s. After Butt's death the Home Rule Movement, or the Irish Parliamentary Party as it had become known, was turned into a major political force under the guidance of William Shaw and in particular a radical young protestant landowner, Charles Stewart Parnell. The Irish Parliamentary Party dominated Irish politics, to the exclusion of the previous Liberal, Conservative and Unionist parties that had existed. Parnell's movement proved to be a broad church, from conservative landowners to the Land League which was campaigning for fundamental reform of Irish landholding, where most farms were held on rental from large aristocratic estates.

A fringe among Home Rulers associated with militant republicanism, particularly Irish-American republicanism. Parnell's movement also campaigned for 'Home Rule', by which they meant that Ireland would govern itself as a region within the United Kingdom, in contrast to O'Connell who wanted complete independence subject to a shared monarch and Crown. Two Home Rule Bills (1886 and 1893) were introduced by Liberal Prime Minister Gladstone, but neither became law. The issue divided Ireland, for a significant minority (largely though by no means exclusively based in Ulster), opposed Home Rule, fearing that a Catholic-Nationalist parliament in Dublin would discriminate against them and would also impose tariffs on industry; while most of Ireland was primarily agricultural, six counties in Ulster were the location of heavy industry and would be effected by any tariff barriers imposed.

In 1912 a further Home Rule bill passed the House of Commons but was defeated in the House of Lords, as was the bill of 1893, but by this time the House of Lords had lost its veto on legislation and could only delay the bill by two years. During these two years the threat of civil war hung over Ireland with the creation of the Unionist Ulster Volunteers and their nationalist counterparts, the Irish Volunteers. These two groups armed themselves by importing rifles and ammunition and carried out drills openly. The outbreak of World War I in 1914 put the crisis on the political backburner for the duration of the war. The Unionist and Nationalist volunteer forces joined the British army in their thousands and suffered crippling losses in the trenches.

Until 1918 the Irish Parliamentary Party remained the dominant Irish party, though it has for part of that time being divided by the O'Shea Divorce Case, when it was revealed that Parnell, nicknamed the 'Uncrowned King of Ireland' for his popularity, had been living with the wife of one of his fellow MPs for many years and was the father of a number of her children. When the scandal broke, religious nonconformists in Britain, who were the backbone of the pro-Irish Liberal Party, forced leader W. E. Gladstone to abandon support for the Irish cause as long as the 'adulterer' Parnell remained in charge. The Party and the country split between pro- and anti-Parnellites, who fought each other in elections.

A UDI Irish Republic was proclaimed in Dublin in 1916 and ratified by Dil ireann, the self declared Republic's parliament in 1919. An Anglo-Irish War was fought between Crown forces and the Army of the Irish Republic between January 1919 and June 1921.

The Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, negotiated between teams representing the British and Irish Republic's governments, and ratified by three parliaments,4 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.

Northern Ireland

(copied from History of Northern Ireland)

Northern Ireland was created by the Government of Ireland Act 1920, enacted by the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland parliament in 1921. Faced with divergent demands from Irish nationalists and Unionists over the future of the island of Ireland (the former wanted an all-Irish home rule parliament to govern the entire island, the latter no home rule at all), and the fear of civil war between both groups, the British Government under David Lloyd George passed the Act, creating two home rule Irelands, Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland. Southern Ireland never came into being as a real state and was superseded by the Irish Free State in 1922. That state is now known as the Republic of Ireland.

Having been given self government in 1920 (even though they never sought it, and some like Sir Edward Carson were bitterly opposed) the Northern Ireland government under successive prime ministers from Sir James Craig (later Lord Craigavon) practiced a policy of wholesale discrimination against the nationalist/ Roman Catholic minority. Northern Ireland became, in the words of Nobel Peace Prize joint-winner, Ulster Unionist Leader and First Minister of Northern Ireland David Trimble, a "cold place for catholics." Towns and cities were gerrymandered to rig local government elections to ensure Protestant control of town councils. Voting arrangements which gave commercial companies votes and minimum income regulations also helped achieve this end.

In the 1960s, moderate unionist prime minister Terence O'Neill (later Lord O'Neill of the Maine) tried to reform the system, but was met with wholesale opposition from extreme fundamentalist protestant leaders like Rev. Ian Paisley. The increasing pressures from nationalists for reform and from extreme unionists for No surrender led to the appearance of the civil rights movement under figures like John Hume, Austin Currie and others. Clashes between marchers and the Royal Ulster Constabulary led to increased communal strife. The British army was originally sent to Northern Ireland by British Home Secretary, James Callaghan to protect nationalists from attack, and was warmly welcomed. However the murder of thirteen unarmed civilians in Derry by British Paratroopers enflamed the situation and turned northern nationalists against the British Army. The appearance of the Provisional IRA, a breakaway from the increasingly marxist Official IRA, and a campaign of violence by loyalist terror groups like the Ulster Defence Association and others, brought Northern Ireland to the brink of Civil War. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, extremists on both sides carried out a series of brutal mass murders, often on innocent civilians. Among the most notorious outrages were the Le Mon bombing and the bombings in Enniskillen and Omagh.

Some British politicians, notably former British Labour minister Tony Benn advocated British withdrawal from Ireland, but this policy was opposed by successive Irish governments, who called their prediction of the possible results of British withdrawal the Doomsday Scenario, with widespread communal strife, followed by the mass exodus of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children as refugees to their community's 'side' of the province; nationalists fleeing to western Northern Ireland, unionists fleeing to eastern Northern Ireland. The worst fear was of a civil war which would engulf not just northern ireland, but the neighbouring Republic of Ireland and Scotland both of whom had major links with either or both communities. Later, the feared possible impact of British Withdrawal came to called the Balkanisation of Northern Ireland after the violent break-up of Yugoslavia and the chaos it unleashed.

In the early 1970s, the Parliament of Northern Ireland was prorogued after the province's Unionist Government under the premiership of Brian Faulkner refused to agree to the British Government demand that it hand over the powers of law and order, and Direct Rule was introduced from London starting on March 24, 1972. New systems of governments were tried and failed, including power-sharing under Sunningdale, Rolling Devolution and the Anglo-Irish Agreement. By the 1990s, the failure of the IRA campaign to win mass public support or achieve its aim by British Withdrawal, and in particular the public relations disaster that was the Enniskillen, when families attending a Remembrance Day ceremony, along with the replacement of the traditional Republican leadership of Ruair Brdaigh by Gerry Adams, saw a move away from armed conflict to political engagement. These changes were followed the appearance of new leaders in Dublin Albert Reynolds, London John Major and in unionism David Trimble. Contacts initiatively been Adams and John Hume, leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, broadened out into all party negotiations, that in 1998 produced the 'Good Friday Agreement' which was approved by a majority of both communities in Northern Ireland and by the people of the Republic of Ireland, where the constitution, Bunreacht na hireann was amended to replace a claim it allegedly made to the territory of Northern Ireland with a recognition of Northern Ireland's right to exist, while also acknowledging the nationalist desire for a united Ireland.

Under the Good Friday Agreement, properly known as the Belfast Agreement, a new Northern Ireland Assembly was elected to form a Northern Irish parliament. Every party that reaches a specific level of support is entitled to name a member of its party to government and claim a ministry. Ulster Unionist party leader David Trimble became First Minister of Northern Ireland. The Deputy Leader of the SDLP, Seamus Mallon, became Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, though he was subsequently replaced by his party's new leader, Mark Durkan. The Ulster Unionists, Social Democratic and Labour Party, Sinn Fin and Democratic Unionist Party each had ministers by right in the power-sharing assembly. The Assembly and its Executive are both currently suspended over unionist threats over the alleged delay in the Provisional IRA implementing its agreement to decommission its weaponry, and also the alleged discovery or an IRA spy-ring operating in the heart of the civil service. Government is now once more run by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Paul Murphy and a British ministerial team answerable to him.

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 of Nations), 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 British 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 Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) for the time being.

The winter of discontent happened in 1979.


Constitutional reform is also a significant issue in the UK. The Labour Government of Tony Blair came in with a policy of devolution. In 1999 Scotland saw the restoration of its Parliament, while Wales and Northern Ireland were granted their own assemblies. London was also given back a strategic authority, the Greater London Authority.

Although these assemblies have some legislative and other powers, they do not have anywhere near the power of the national parliament. There are fundamental differences between them. For example, the Scottish Parliament has the power to legislate, whereas the Welsh Assembly Government only has the power to spend the budget formerly allocated to a government department known as the Welsh Office. In addition, as devolved systems of regional government, they have no constitutional right to exist and can have their powers broadened, narrowed or changed by Act of Parliament. Parliament can also create more regional assemblies or abolish them all by Act of Parliament.

Thus the United Kingdom is said to have a unitary state with a devolved system of government. This contrasts with a federal system, in which sub-parliaments or state parliaments and assemblies have a clearly defined constitutional right to exist and a right to exercise certain constitutionally guaranteed and defined functions and cannot be unilaterally abolished by Acts of the central parliament.

The present policy of the UK Government is to increase regional devolution. The opportunity to elect a regional tier of government is to be offered to various of the Regions of England in referenda over the next few years.

Military History

Constituent Nations' Histories


1 The term united kingdom was first used in the 1707 Act of Union. However it is generally seen as a descriptive term, indicating that the kingdoms were freely united rather than through conquest. It is not seen as being actual name of the new united kingdom, which was the Kingdom of Great Britain. The United Kingdom as a name is taken to refer to the kingdom that emerged when the Kingdom of Great Britain and Kingdom of Ireland merged on 1 January 1801.
2 The name Great Britain (then spelt Great Brittaine) was first used by James VI/I in October 1604, who indicated that henceforth he and his successors would be viewed as Kings of Great Britain, not Kings of England and Scotland. However the name was not applied to the state as a unit; both England and Scotland continued to be governed independently. Its validity as a name of the Crown is also questioned, given that monarchs continued using separate ordinals (e.g., James VI/I, James VII/II) in England and Scotland. To avoid confusion, historians generally avoid using the term King of Great Britain until 1707 and instead to match the ordinal usage call the monarchs kings or queens of England and Scotland. Separate ordinals were abandoned when the two states merged with the Act of Union 1707, with subsequent monarchs using ordinals apparently based on English not Scottish history (it might be argued that the monarchs have simply taken the higher ordinal, which to date has always been English). One example is Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, who is referred to as being "the Second" even though there never was an Elizabeth I of Scotland or Great Britain. Thus the term Great Britain is generally used from 1707.
3 The number changed several times between 1801 and 1922.
4 The Anglo-Irish Treaty was ratified by (i) The British Parliament (Commons, Lords & Royal Assent), (ii) Dil ireann, and the (iii) the House of Commons of Southern Ireland, a parliament created under the British Government of Ireland Act 1920 which was supposedly the valid parliament of Southern Ireland in British eyes and which had an almost identical membership of the Dil, but which nevertheless had to assemble separately under the Treaty's provisions to approve the Treaty, the Treaty thus being ratified under both British and Irish constitutional theory.

See also

External links

Further Reading

  • Norman Davies The Isles: A History (Macmillan, 1999)
  • Frank Welsh The Four nations : a history of the United Kingdom (Yale, 2003)
  • Jeremy Black A history of the British Isles (Macmillan, 1996)
  • Hugh Kearney The British Isles : a history of four nations (Cambridge, 1989)
  • The Short Oxford History of the British Isles (series)
  • G. Williams Wales and the Act of Union (1992)
  • S. Ellis & S. Barber (eds) Conquest and Union: Fashioning a British State, 1485-1725 (1995)
  • Linda Colley Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707-1837 (New Haven, 1992)
  • R.G. Asch (ed) Three Nations: A Common History? England, Scotland, Ireland and British History c.1600-1920 (1993)
  • S.J. Connolly (ed) Kingdoms United? Great Britain and Ireland since 1500 (1999)bg:История на Обединеното кралство

de:Geschichte des Vereinigten Knigreiches es:Historia del Reino Unido fr:Histoire du Royaume-Uni it:Storia dell'Inghilterra lt:Anglijos istorija nl:Verenigd Koninkrijk - Geschiedenis ja:イギリスの歴史 pl:Historia Anglii pt:Histria do Reino Unido zh:聯合王國歷史


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