The United Kingdom - How Four Nations Became One

The Story of the United Kingdom - How Four Nations Became One

Britain gave the world the English language. Yet alongside England and the English, at least three other distinctive groups developed over the centuries. How did these become the United Kingdom? Let's answer this question.
By Earl Hunsinger

For many citizens of other countries, the names England, Great Britain, and the United Kingdom seem synonymous. They may wonder how one country can have so many different names.

For thousands of years, people have inhabited the island now known as Great Britain. When the Romans, under Julius Caesar, invaded the island in 55 B.C.E. they were pushed back by furious resistance from the Celtic tribes already living there. Eventually the Romans successfully added the southern part of the island to their growing empire, leaving their mark upon it. After they left, others came, including the Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Vikings, and Normans. These subsequent invasions likewise influenced the culture and politics of Great Britain. Three distinct cultures, and countries, emerged on the island, each with its own history and language.

In the country of Wales, located in the southwestern part of Great Britain, the people spoke Welsh, a language that can trace its origins back to the original Celtic inhabitants. In a similar way, the tribes in the north spoke Gaelic, another Celtic language, as did the people inhabiting the smaller island to the west. This smaller island became known as Ireland. The Celtic people living in the northern part of Great Britain formed the Kingdom of the Picts, which eventually became the country of Scotland. In the south, the frequent invasions had a greater influence. The Angles, a Germanic tribe that settled on the island in the 5th and 6th centuries, gave the people there what was to become the English language. This southern region was eventually called England, and came to be the most populated part of the island.

For centuries, the histories of these four entities have been intricately tied together. In 1155 Pope Adrian IV issued a papal bull giving King Henry II of England sovereignty over the island of Ireland. Although English power in Ireland has waxed and waned over subsequent centuries, the English were there to stay. The Principality of Wales was conquered by the English in 1283. Prior to this, these lands were ruled directly by the Prince of Wales, as part of the Angevin Empire. This empire was a collection of states ruled by the Angevin Plantagenet dynasty and covering an area that stretched from the French Pyrenees to Ireland. In 1284, the Statute of Rhuddland gave Welsh lands to King Edward I of England, who assumed the title Prince of Wales, a title retained by English kings to this day. By the 17th century, only the Scottish remained independent. Like many royal families, the royalty of England and Scotland were closely related. In 1603, this had an interesting consequence.

England and Scotland had been at war, off and on, for centuries. In an attempt to make peace, in 1503 the king of Scotland, James IV, married Margaret Tudor, the oldest daughter of the king of England, Henry the VII. This merged the royal Stuart family of Scotland with the Tudors of England. Although Margaret Tudor's children were specifically excluded from the royal succession of England, by 1603 the English had run out of choices. When Queen Elizabeth I, the last of the Tudor line, died on March 24 of that year, she was unmarried and childless. Within eight hours, the great-grandson of Margaret Tudor, James VI, the king of Scotland, was also proclaimed king of England.

Although he had great hopes for creating a unified imperial throne of Great Britain, the two kingdoms remained separate until after his death. In fact, the two shared a common ruler, while remaining separate countries, for over a hundred years. In 1706 and 1707 the parliaments of England and Scotland, respectively, voted to put into effect a Treaty of Union, joining the two nations into a single Kingdom of Great Britain.

The rich history of these ancient kingdoms can still be seen by visitors today. While for many centuries the Gaelic languages of Wales, Ireland, and Scotland were on the decline, because of laws enacted by England, these are now experiencing a renaissance. Other things that seem natural to citizens of the country might be confusing to visitors unfamiliar with their history. For example, while the value is the same, England and Scotland issue their own money, with completely different designs.

So then, while many use the expressions England, Great Britain, and the United Kingdom interchangeably, they are not the same. England occupies the southern portion of the island of Great Britain. While it is the most populous of the three, it shares the island with Wales and Scotland. England (and Great Britain) is a part of the political entity known as the United Kingdom. This modern United Kingdom consists of England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. The southern part of Ireland is a separate nation known as the Republic of Ireland and is not to be included under United Kingdom.
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