Britain is a small country, but it has played a very important role in world history. Therefore it may be interesting to have a general idea of this country’s history [F1] [ES1]
and how it has greatly influenced the rest of the world with its contributions in several fields: economy, politics, colonization and civilization.
From Stonehenge to the Normans’ rule. The first invaders of Britain were the Iberians, a people famous for their stone circles. The most famous are the ones in Avebury and in Stonehenge [F1] [I1] [ES1], which was erected at least 2,000 years before Chirst.
Very little is known about the Britons, a Celtic people who arrived in Britain around 700 BC, because almost all traces of their culture were destroyed with the arrival of the Roman conquerors and later by the Anglo-Saxons. However they are very important because they are the ancestors of many Welsh, Scottish and Irish people, who have partly preserved a language that has clear Celtic origins.
The Romans invaded Britain and ruled part of the country for about four centuries (43 – 409 AD), contributing to the building of a system of radial roads converging on London which, from that moment to this day, has always been the most important commercial centre of Britain. Around the year 410, when the Roman legions were required at home to protect the capital from the barbaric invasions, the people of Britain lost any kind of protection and became prey of a series of invaders: at first the Angles and the Saxons who divided the land in shires and let Christianity spread; then the Viking (end of the eight century) and finally the Normans who were from France.
From the Normans to the Reformation. The Normans invaded Britain after the Battle of Hastings (1066), in which they defeated the Anglo-Saxons. The coming of the Normans was not to be a brief invasion, but a systematic occupation. A strong central government was set up and William the Conqueror, the first Norman king, ruled for 21 years. The Normans introduced the feudal system: all the land belonged to the king, but it was administered by local nobles who had to organize and control the tax-levy system. The Normans brought their French traditions along with the French language, but gradually the Norman and Anglo-Saxon elements melted to form a national English character.
The power of the monarch’s rule was stronger here than in any other country. But in 1215 a group of nobles who were tired of paying unfair taxes forced the King of England to sign the Magna Charta [F1] [I1][ES1]
, which stated that all “freemen” had the right to have a legal trial and that they could oppose unfair taxes. From this moment on the nobles started to meet regularly to control the king’s power: it was the beginning of the House of Lords, which was later on followed by the institution of the House of Commons, the representatives of country nobles and town merchants.
In 1337 began the so-called Hundred Year’s War against France. The war was eventually won by France, but England suffered at first for the Black Death (1348), a series of plagues that killed more than a third of the population, and then for the beginning of the War of the Roses (1455 - 1485), a civil war for the throne between the House of York, whose emblem was a white rose, and the House of Lancaster, whose symbol was a red rose. When in 1485 Henry VII united the two families through marriage, he ended the war and he founded the Tudor [F1] [I1][ES1] line.
As a consequence of the growing dissatisfaction with a more and more corrupted and powerful Catholic Church, a lot of Protestant Churches were born in this period. Taking advantage of the situation, King Henry VIII, in order to divorce from his first wife who apparently could not have male heirs, founded the Church of England, and with the Act of Supremacy he became both the head of the state and the head if the Church.
From Queen Elizabeth I to the Industrial Revolution After a series of deaths in the royal family, Elizabeth, Henry VIII’s daughter, became queen with the name of Elizabeth I [F1] [I1][ES1]. She was one of England most successful and beloved monarchs: under her reign her people lived a period of peace and prosperity, as Britain took the first steps to become one of the most powerful nations, expanding its authority in various parts of the world with the beginning of the explorations and the settlement of new colonies. The most dangerous rival of the period was Spain, whose powerful fleet, the Spanish Armada was defeated in 1588.
After the death of Queen Elizabeth I a period of deep religious and political unrest began for England, with a violent struggle between Crown and Parliament, which eventually ended with the defeat of the Kings’ supporters and the victory of the Parliamentarian Army led by Oliver Cromwell. The king was beheaded and from 1649 to 1660 Britain was a republic, though in reality Cromwell took the power of the government into his own hands establishing a military dictatorship.
By 1660 the population had had enough of the harsh Puritan rule of Cromwell and so they restored the monarchy. But the powers of the Parliament had increased during Comwell’s Protectorate, and the new monarchs of Britain had to sign a Bill of Rights (1689): Parliament was more powerful than the Crown.
The Industrial Revolution and the 18th century. During the 18th century the powers of Parliament were further increased owing to the growing influence of the House of Commons which represented the interests of the wealthy merchants and landowners. Britain had become one of the most powerful economies in Europe and of the world, thanks to the colonies rich in those natural resources that Britain lacked.
This century also saw the introduction of new agricultural techniques and, at the same time, the gradual expansion of industry. These improvements introduced in farming and the beginning of the industrial revolution [F1] [I1] [ES1], forced many farmers to move to the industrial towns to become the new labour force. Towards the end of the century new machinery was invented and mass production became possible. The towns developed to be big centres in which working and living conditions were so awful that life expectancy was low for everyone.
When the American and French Revolutions broke out, the ruling classes were afraid that they could lose everything if something similar happened in England. Therefore they began to fight again against France until Napoleon was eventually defeated.
The 19th century . The 19th century saw the massive growth of the British Empire [F1] [I1] [ES1], which included Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Guinea, Borneo, Burma, India, Egypt, Sudan along with East and Southern Africa, Nigeria and other smaller African territories. It was the largest colonial empire of the world and it reached its highest point when Queen Victoria was made Empress of India.
Queen Victoria’s rule [F1] [I1] [ES1] was the beginning of a series of changes in British life and institutions. First of all she tried to improve the conditions of those who lived in overcrowded cities, providing water supply and the building of hospitals and schools (with the Education Act - 1870 – she made primary education compulsory for everyone). Then, with the Reform Act of 1832, she gave the vote to all male householders, a first step towards democracy and better parliamentary representation.
The 20th century – today. When Queen Victoria died in 1901, Britain was still the most powerful nation in the world. But things had to change with the arrival of emerging countries such as the US and Germany. This brought to a crisis and eventually led to the First World War (1914 - 1918). Though it won the war, Britain lost many of the country’s young men and the industry became to decline until the final stroke brought by the Wall Street Crash in 1929, which left 3 million people unemployed.
When Nazi Germany tried to re-establish a dominant position in Europe, Britain felt committed to fight against it in the Second World War (1939 - 1945). Once again Britain was amongst the winners, but it slowly began to lose over its empire. Beginning with the independence of India in 1947, a period of decolonisation followed, and almost all the colonies became self-governing nations.
In Britain, in the years after the war, may important laws were passed. Labour governments reformed the school system, making secondary education free and compulsory for all British kids. They also established a free National Health Service. After this prosperous period, a new period of difficult situation arrived and Margaret Thatcher, a Conservative, became Prime Minister. Her liberal policy has widened the gap between the poor and the rich, or better between the northern and the southern part of the country. Thatcher [F1] [I1] [ES1] resigned in 1990 and, after a new Conservative Government, in 1997 Tony Blair [F1] [I1] [ES1], from the Labour Party, became Prime Minister.