A brief history of the United Kingdom

The United Kingdom as a unified sovereign nation came into existence in 1707 with the acts of Union, the treaty that established the political union of the kingdoms of England and Scotland into a new kingdom called Great Britain.

Prior to the act of Union the British Isles has a very long history with the islands being settled and invaded many times. The first invaders were the Celts that established tribal settlements across modern day England and Wales. The Romans followed them and after the collapse of the Roman Empire came the Saxons, Angles and Picts.

Following them was the Vikings who conquered England during the Dark Ages but who then driven out by the Anglo-Saxon king Alfred the Great and his heirs. In 1066 the Normans invaded irrevocably changing the islands forever.

Eventually over the centuries the English rose to dominance but not without the Scots winning their freedom in the many wars between the two kingdoms. England’s other big enemy was France, and during the hundred years war England formed a sense of national identity independent of French and European influence. The late medieval period brought religious conflict to the islands as the reformation saw England break away from the Catholic Church and introduces Protestantism. Wales became fully integrated into the kingdom of England during this time. It wasn’t until the death of Queen Elizabeth the first that the three kingdoms were united under the rule of King James the sixth of Scotland who inherited the crowns of England and Ireland; however each remained a separate political body.

In 1649 the monarchy was temporarily overthrown during the English civil war and ruled as a commonwealth by Oliver Cromwell. Upon his death the monarchy was reinstated and has reigned virtually uninterrupted ever since.

After the act of Union was signed Great Britain quickly developed into a global superpower.  After defeating France in the Napoleonic Wars the UK emerged as the world’s strongest naval and imperial power. Unchallenged at sea the era of the British Empire from 1815-1912 became known as the Pax-Brittanica or British peace.

During this time the UK also became the world’s first industrial power and was nicknamed the workshop of the world with British goods being sent to all corners of the planet. Over a quarter of the world’s population lived in the Empire which was the largest empire in history and it was often said that the ‘sun never sets on the British Empire’.

After the World Wars the Empire went into rapid decline and saw the Republic Ireland break away from the Union leaving Northern Ireland as part of the UK. Decades of paramilitary and terrorist violence followed, only coming to an end in 1998. In 1973 the UK joined the European Union (formerly the EEC), but that membership could come to an end in 2015 when the British people will have a say on whether they want to remain a part of an increasingly federal Europe.

Around the end of the 20th century there were major changes to the governance of the UK with the establishment of devolved national administrations for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The UK is still a key global player diplomatically and militarily. It plays leading roles in the EU, UN and NATO.