History of England

Part of a series on the
History of England
NEW MAP OF THE KINGDOME of ENGLAND, Representing the Princedome of WALES, and other PROVINCES, CITIES, MARKET TOWNS, with the ROADS from TOWN to TOWN (1685)
Flag of England.svg England portal

The British Isles became inhabited more than 800,000 years ago, as the discovery of stone tools and footprints at Happisburgh in Norfolk has revealed.[1] The earliest evidence for early modern humans in North West Europe, a jawbone discovered in Devon at Kents Cavern in 1927, was re-dated in 2011 to between 41,000 and 44,000 years old.[2] Continuous human habitation in England dates to around 13,000 years ago (see Creswellian), at the end of the last glacial period. The region has numerous remains from the Mesolithic, Neolithic, and Bronze Age, such as Stonehenge and Avebury. In the Iron Age, all of Britain south of the Firth of Forth, was inhabited by the Celtic people known as the Britons, including some Belgic tribes (e.g. the Atrebates, the Catuvellauni, the Trinovantes, etc.) in the south east. In AD 43 the Roman conquest of Britain began; the Romans maintained control of their province of Britannia until the early 5th century.

The end of Roman rule in Britain facilitated the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain, which historians often regard as the origin of England and of the English people. The Anglo-Saxons, a collection of various Germanic peoples, established several kingdoms that became the primary powers in present-day England and parts of southern Scotland.[3] They introduced the Old English language, which largely displaced the previous British language. The Anglo-Saxons warred with British successor states in western Britain and the Hen Ogledd (Old North; the Brythonic-speaking parts of northern Britain), as well as with each other. Raids by Vikings became frequent after about AD 800, and the Norsemen settled in large parts of what is now England. During this period, several rulers attempted to unite the various Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, an effort that led to the emergence of the Kingdom of England by the 10th century.

In 1066, a Norman expedition invaded and conquered England. The Norman dynasty established by William the Conqueror ruled England for over half a century before the period of succession crisis known as the Anarchy (1135–1154). Following the Anarchy, England came under the rule of the House of Plantagenet, a dynasty which later inherited claims to the Kingdom of France. During this period, the Magna Carta was signed. A succession crisis in France led to the Hundred Years' War (1337–1453), a series of conflicts involving the peoples of both nations. Following the Hundred Years' Wars, England became embroiled in its own succession wars. The Wars of the Roses pitted two branches of the House of Plantagenet against one another, the House of York and the House of Lancaster. The Lancastrian Henry Tudor ended the War of the Roses and established the Tudor dynasty in 1485.

Under the Tudors and the later Stuart dynasty, England became a colonial power. During the rule of the Stuarts, the English Civil War took place between the Parliamentarians and the Royalists, which resulted in the execution of King Charles I (1649) and the establishment of a series of republican governments — first, a Parliamentary republic known as the Commonwealth of England (1649–1653), then a military dictatorship under Oliver Cromwell known as The Protectorate (1653–1659). The Stuarts returned to the restored throne in 1660, though continued questions over religion and power resulted in the deposition of another Stuart king, James II, in the Glorious Revolution (1688). England, which had subsumed Wales in the 16th century under Henry VIII, united with Scotland in 1707 to form a new sovereign state called Great Britain.[4][5][6] Following the Industrial Revolution, Great Britain ruled a colonial Empire, the largest in recorded history. Following a process of decolonisation in the 20th century, mainly caused by the weakening of Great Britain's power in the two World Wars, almost all of the empire's overseas territories became independent countries. However, as of 2018, its cultural impact remains widespread and deep in many of them.


Stone Age

Stonehenge, erected in several stages from c.3000-1500BC

The time from Britain's first inhabitation until the last glacial maximum is known as the Old Stone Age, or Palaeolithic era. Archaeological evidence indicates that what was to become England was colonised by humans long before the rest of the British Isles because of its more hospitable climate between and during the various glacial periods of the distant past. This earliest evidence, from Happisburgh in Norfolk, includes the oldest human footprints found outside Africa, and points to dates of more than 800,000 BP.[1] These earliest inhabitants were hunter-gatherers. Low sea-levels meant that Britain was attached to the continent for much of this earliest period of history, and varying temperatures over tens of thousands of years meant that it was not always inhabited.[7]

England has been continually inhabited since the last Ice Age ended around 9,000 BC, the beginning of the Middle Stone Age, or Mesolithic era. Rising sea-levels cut off Britain from the continent for the last time around 6500 BC. The population by then was exclusively anatomically modern humans, and the evidence suggests that their societies were increasingly complex and they were manipulating their environment and prey in new ways, possibly selective burning of then omnipresent woodland to create clearings for herds to gather and then hunt them. Hunting was mainly done with simple projectile weapons such as javelin and possibly sling. Bow and arrow was known in Western Europe since least 9000 BC. The climate continued to warm and the population probably rose.[8]

The New Stone Age, or Neolithic era, began with the introduction of farming, ultimately from the Middle East, around 4000 BC. It is not known whether this was caused by a substantial folk movement or native adoption of foreign practices or both. People began to lead a more settled lifestyle. Monumental collective tombs were built for the dead in the form of chambered cairns and long barrows. Towards the end of the period, other kinds of monumental stone alignments begin to appear, such as Stonehenge; their cosmic alignments show a preoccupation with the sky and planets. Flint technology produced a number of highly artistic pieces as well as purely pragmatic. More extensive woodland clearance was done for fields and pastures. The Sweet Track in the Somerset Levels is one of the oldest timber trackways known in Northern Europe and among the oldest roads in the world, dated by dendrochronology to the winter of 3807–3806 BC; it too is thought to have been a primarily religious structure.[7]

Later Prehistory

View of the ramparts of the developed hillfort of Maiden Castle, Dorset, as they look today

The Bronze Age began around 2500 BC with the appearance of bronze objects. This coincides with the appearance of the characteristic Beaker culture; again this might have occurred primarily by folk movement or by cultural assimilation or both. The Bronze Age saw a shift of emphasis from the communal to the individual, and the rise of increasingly powerful elites whose power came from their prowess as hunters and warriors and their controlling the flow of precious resources to manipulate tin and copper into high-status bronze objects such as swords and axes. Settlement became increasingly permanent and intensive. Towards the end of the Bronze Age, many examples of very fine metalwork began to be deposited in rivers, presumably for ritual reasons and perhaps reflecting a progressive change in emphasis from the sky to the earth, as a rising population put increasing pressure on the land. England largely became bound up with the Atlantic trade system, which created a cultural continuum over a large part of Western Europe.[9] It is possible that the Celtic languages developed or spread to England as part of this system; by the end of the Iron Age there is much evidence that they were spoken across all England and western parts of Britain.[10]

The Iron Age is conventionally said to begin around 800 BC. The Atlantic system had by this time effectively collapsed, although England maintained contacts across the Channel with France, as the Hallstatt culture became widespread across the country. Its continuity suggests it was not accompanied by substantial movement of population; crucially, only a single Hallstatt burial is known from Britain, and even here the evidence is inconclusive. On the whole, burials largely disappear across England, and the dead were disposed of in a way which is archaeologically invisible: excarnation is a widely cited possibility. Hillforts were known since the Late Bronze Age, but a huge number were constructed during 600–400 BC, particularly in the South, while after about 400 BC new forts were rarely built and many ceased to be regularly inhabited, while a few forts become more and more intensively occupied, suggesting a degree of regional centralisation. Around this time the earliest mentions of Britain appear in the annals of history. The first historical mention of the region is from the Massaliote Periplus, a sailing manual for merchants thought to date to the 6th century BC, and Pytheas of Massilia wrote of his exploratory voyage to the island around 325 BC. Both of these texts are now lost; although quoted by later writers, not enough survives to inform the archaeological interpretation to any significant degree.

Contact with the continent was less than in the Bronze Age but still significant. Goods continued to move to England, with a possible hiatus around 350 to 150 BC. There were a few armed invasions of hordes of migrating Celts. There are two known invasions. Around 300 BC, a group from the Gaulish Parisii tribe apparently took over East Yorkshire, establishing the highly distinctive Arras culture. And from around 150–100 BC, groups of Belgae began to control significant parts of the South. These invasions constituted movements of a few people who established themselves as a warrior elite atop existing native systems, rather than replacing them. The Belgic invasion was much larger than the Parisian settlement, but the continuity of pottery style shows that the native population remained in place. Yet, it was accompanied by significant socio-economic change. Proto-urban, or even urban settlements, known as oppida, begin to eclipse the old hillforts, and an elite whose position is based on battle prowess and the ability to manipulate resources re-appears much more distinctly.[11]

Caesar's first invasion of Britain

In 55 and 54 BC, Julius Caesar, as part of his campaigns in Gaul, invaded Britain and claimed to have scored a number of victories, but he never penetrated further than Hertfordshire and could not establish a province. However, his invasions mark a turning-point in British history. Control of trade, the flow of resources and prestige goods, became ever more important to the elites of Southern Britain; Rome steadily became the biggest player in all their dealings, as the provider of great wealth and patronage. A full-scale invasion and annexation was inevitable, in retrospect.[12]

Genetic history of the English

The Roman historian Tacitus wrote in his Agricola, completed in AD 98,[13] that the various groupings of Britons shared physical characteristics with continental peoples. The Caledonians, inhabitants of what is now Scotland, had red hair and large limbs, indicating a Germanic origin; the Silures, of what is now South Wales, were swarthy with curly hair, indicating a link with the Iberians of the Roman provinces of Hispania, in what is now Portugal and Spain; and the Britons nearest the Gauls of mainland Europe resembled the Gauls.[14] This gross oversimplification is somewhat true until today. Some archaeologists and geneticists have challenged the long-held assumption that the invading Anglo-Saxons wiped out the native Britons in England when they invaded, pointing instead to the possibility of a more limited folk movement bringing a new language and culture which the natives gradually assimilated.[9]

Debate continues about the ultimate origins of the people of the British Isles. In 2003 and 2006 respectively, Bryan Sykes and Stephen Oppenheimer both argued for continuity since the Mesolithic, with much input from the East during the Neolithic.[15][16] However, the haplotypes which Sykes and Oppenheimer associated with Spain hailed ultimately from Asia Minor, which might be more consistent with some kind of Neolithic wipeout, although it is impossible to date this gene flow.[17] Other theories have proposed an even greater input in the Early Bronze Age than previously thought. Ultimately, the genetics have not yet revealed anything new. Biological differences between the English and the Welsh were confirmed by tests at University College London, in which the native English population's DNA correlated to others in Germanic parts of Northern Europe traceable through their Y chromosome.[18]