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Topics: EUROPE - United Kingdom
United Kingdom comprises Great Britain (England, Scotland, and Wales) and Northern Ireland. Area: 93,788 sq mi (242,910 sq km). Population (2005 est.): 60,020,000. Capital: London. The population is composed of English (major ethnic group), Scots, Irish, and Welsh and immigrants and their descendants from India, the West Indies, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Africa. Languages: English (official); also Welsh, Scottish Gaelic. Religions: Christianity (Protestant [Church of England—established; Church of Scotland—national], Roman Catholic, other Christians); also Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Judaism. Currency: pound sterling. The country has hill, lowland, upland, highland, and mountain regions. Tin and iron ore deposits, once central to the economy, have become exhausted or uneconomical, and the coal industry, long a staple of the economy, began a steady decline in the 1950s that worsened with pit closures in the 1980s. Offshore petroleum and natural gas reserves are significant. Chief crops are barley, wheat, sugar beets, and potatoes. Major manufactures include motor vehicles, aerospace equipment, electronic data-processing and telecommunication equipment, and petrochemicals. Fishing and publishing also are important economic activities. The U.K. is a constitutional monarchy with two legislative houses; its chief of state is the sovereign, and the head of government is the prime minister.
The early pre-Roman inhabitants of Britain were Celtic-speaking peoples, including the Brythonic people of Wales, the Picts of Scotland, and the Britons of Britain. Celts also settled in Ireland c. 500 bc. Julius Caesar invaded and took control of the area in 55–54 bc. The Roman province of Britannia endured until the 5th century ad and included present-day England and Wales. Germanic tribes, including Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, invaded Britain in the 5th century. The invasions had little effect on the Celtic peoples of Wales and Scotland. Christianity began to flourish in the 6th century. During the 8th and 9th centuries, Vikings, particularly Danes, raided the coasts of Britain. In the late 9th century Alfred the Great repelled a Danish invasion, which helped bring about the unification of England under Athelstan. The Scots attained dominance in Scotland, which was finally unified under Malcolm II (1005–34). William of Normandy took England in 1066. The Norman kings established a strong central government and feudal state. The French language of the Norman rulers eventually merged with the Anglo-Saxon of the common people to form the English language. From the 11th century, Scotland came under the influence of the English throne. Henry II conquered Ireland in the late 12th century. His sons Richard I and John had conflicts with the clergy and nobles, and eventually John was forced to grant the nobles concessions in the Magna Carta (1215). The concept of community of the realm developed during the 13th century, providing the foundation for parliamentary government. During the reign of Edward I (1272–1307), statute law developed to supplement English common law, and the first Parliament was convened. In 1314 Robert the Bruce won independence for Scotland. The house of Tudor became the ruling family of England following the Wars of the Roses (1455–85). Henry VIII (1509–47) established the Church of England and incorporated Wales as part of England.
The reign of Elizabeth I (1558–1603) began a period of colonial expansion; in 1588 British forces defeated the “invincible” Spanish Armada. In 1603 James VI of Scotland ascended the English throne, becoming James I, and established a personal union of the two kingdoms. The English Civil Wars erupted in 1642 between Royalists and Parliamentarians, ending in the execution of Charles I (1649). After 11 years of Puritan rule under Oliver Cromwell and his son (1649–60), the monarchy was restored with Charles II. In 1689, following the Glorious Revolution, Parliament proclaimed the joint sovereigns William III and Mary II, who accepted the British Bill of Rights. In 1707 England and Scotland assented to the Act of Union, forming the kingdom of Great Britain. The Hanoverians ascended the English throne in 1714, when George Louis, elector of Hanover, became George I of Great Britain. During the reign of George III, Great Britain’s North American colonies won independence (1783). This was followed by a period of war (1789–1815) with Revolutionary France and later with the empire of Napoleon. In 1801 legislation united Great Britain with Ireland to create the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Britain was the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century, and it remained the world’s foremost economic power until the late 19th century. During the reign of Queen Victoria (1837–1901), Britain’s colonial expansion reached its zenith, though the older dominions, including Canada and Australia, were granted independence (1867 and 1901, respectively).
The U.K. entered World War I allied with France and Russia in 1914. Following the war, revolutionary disorder erupted in Ireland, and in 1921 the Irish Free State was granted dominion status. Six counties of Ulster, however, remained in the U.K. as Northern Ireland. The U.K. entered World War II in 1939. Following the war, the Irish Free State became the Irish republic and left the Commonwealth. India also gained independence from the U.K. Throughout the postwar period and into the 1970s, the U.K. continued to grant independence to its overseas colonies and dependencies. With UN forces, it participated in the Korean War (1950–53). In 1956 it intervened militarily in Egypt during the Suez Crisis. It joined the European Economic Community, a forerunner of the European Union, in 1973. In 1982 it defeated Argentina in the Falkland Islands War. As a result of continuing social strife in Northern Ireland, it joined with Ireland in several peace initiatives, which eventually resulted in an agreement to establish an assembly in Northern Ireland. In 1997 referenda approved in Scotland and Wales devolved power to both countries, though both remained part of the U.K. In 1991 the U.K. joined an international coalition to reverse Iraq’s conquest of Kuwait . In 2003 the U.K. and the U.S. attacked Iraq and overthrew the government of Saddam á¸¤ussein . Terrorist bombings in London in July 2005 killed more than 50 people.
Official name: United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
Form of government: constitutional monarchy with two legislative houses (House of Lords ; House of Commons )
Chief of state: Sovereign
Head of government: Prime Minister
Official language: English; both English and Welsh in Wales
Official religion: 2
Monetary unit: pound sterling (£)
Population estimate (2008) 61,446,000
Total area: (sq mi) 93,851
Total area: (sq km) 243,073
1 As of December 2008 including 92 hereditary peers, 614 life peers, and 26 archbishops and bishops.
2 Church of England “established” (protected by the state but not “official”); Church of Scotland “national” (exclusive jurisdiction in spiritual matters per Church of Scotland Act 1921); no established church in Northern Ireland or Wales.
island country located off the northwestern coast of mainland Europe. The United Kingdom comprises the whole of the island of Great Britain—which contains England, Wales, and Scotland—as well as the northern portion of the island of Ireland. The name Britain is sometimes used to refer to the United Kingdom as a whole. The capital is London, which is among the world’s leading commercial, financial, and cultural centres. Other major cities include Birmingham, Liverpool, and Manchester in England, Belfast and Londonderry in Northern Ireland, Edinburgh and Glasgow in Scotland, and Swansea and Cardiff in Wales.
The origins of the United Kingdom can be traced to the time of the Anglo-Saxon king Athelstan, who in the early 10th century ad secured the allegiance of neighbouring Celtic kingdoms and became “the first to rule what previously many kings shared between them,” in the words of a contemporary chronicle. Through subsequent conquest over the following centuries, kingdoms lying farther afield came under English dominion. Wales, a congeries of Celtic kingdoms lying in Great Britain’s southwest, was formally united with England by the Acts of Union of 1536 and 1542; Scotland, ruled by an English monarch since 1603, formally was joined with England and Wales in 1707 to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain. (The adjective “British” came into use at this time to refer to all the kingdom’s peoples.) Ireland came under English control during the 1600s and was formally united with Great Britain through the Act of Union of 1800. The republic of Ireland gained its independence in 1922, but the six counties of Ulster remained part of the United Kingdom as Northern Ireland. Relations between these constituent states and England have been marked by controversy and, at times, open rebellion and even warfare. These tensions relaxed somewhat during the late 20th century, when devolved assemblies were introduced in Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. Nonetheless, even with the establishment of a power-sharing assembly after referenda in both Northern Ireland and the Irish republic, relations between Northern Ireland’s unionists (who favour continued British sovereignty over Northern Ireland) and nationalists (who favour unification with the republic of Ireland) remained tense into the 21st century.
The United Kingdom has made significant contributions to the world economy, especially in technology and industry. Since World War II, however, the United Kingdom’s most prominent exports have been cultural, including literature, theatre, film, television, and popular music that draw on all parts of the country. Perhaps Britain’s greatest export has been the English language, now spoken in every corner of the world as one of the leading international mediums of cultural and economic exchange.
The United Kingdom retains links with parts of its former empire through the Commonwealth. It also benefits from historical and cultural links with the United States and is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Moreover, the United Kingdom is a member of the European Union, if a sometimes reluctant one. Many of its people hold to the sentiments of the great wartime prime minister Winston Churchill, who sonorously remarked, “We see nothing but good and hope in a richer, freer, more contented European commonalty. But we have our own dream and our own task. We are with Europe, but not of it. We are linked, but not comprised. We are interested and associated, but not absorbed.” Yet a cosmopolitan, resolutely multicultural United Kingdom—incorporating African, Caribbean, and Asian as well as Anglo-Saxon and Celtic influences—is now firmly joined to the European continent, and the country’s former insularity—both literal and metaphorical—and sense of exceptionalism have at least for many given way to a new vision of its place in the world, which continues to be an important one.
Ralph Charles Atkins Ed.
The United Kingdom comprises four geographic and historical parts—England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. The United Kingdom contains most of the area and population of the British Isles—the geographic term for the group of islands that includes Great Britain, Ireland, and many smaller islands. Together England, Wales, and Scotland constitute Great Britain, the larger of the two principal islands, while Northern Ireland and the republic of Ireland constitute the second largest island, Ireland. England, occupying most of southern Great Britain, includes the Isles of Scilly off the southwest coast and the Isle of Wight off the southern coast. Scotland, occupying northern Great Britain, includes the Orkney and Shetland islands off the northern coast and the Hebrides off the northwestern coast. Wales lies west of England and includes the island of Anglesey to the northwest.
Apart from the land border with the Irish republic, the United Kingdom is surrounded by sea. To the south of England and between the United Kingdom and France is the English Channel. The North Sea lies to the east. To the west of Wales and northern England and to the southeast of Northern Ireland, the Irish Sea separates Great Britain from Ireland, while southwestern England, the northwestern coast of Northern Ireland, and western Scotland face the Atlantic Ocean. At its widest the United Kingdom is 300 miles (500 km) across. From the northern tip of Scotland to the southern coast of England, it is about 600 miles (1,000 km). No part is more than 75 miles (120 km) from the sea. The capital, London, is situated on the tidal River Thames in southeastern England.
The archipelago formed by Great Britain and the numerous smaller islands is as irregular in shape as it is diverse in geology and landscape. This diversity stems largely from the nature and disposition of the underlying rocks, which are westward extensions of European structures, with the shallow waters of the Strait of Dover and the North Sea concealing former land links. Northern Ireland contains a westward extension of the rock structures of Scotland. These common rock structures are breached by the narrow North Channel.
On a global scale, this natural endowment covers a small area—approximating that of the U.S. state of Oregon or the African country of Guinea—and its internal diversity, accompanied by rapid changes of often beautiful scenery, may convey to visitors from larger countries a striking sense of compactness and consolidation. The peoples who, over the centuries, have hewed an existence from this Atlantic extremity of Eurasia have put their own imprint on the environment, and the ancient and distinctive palimpsest of their field patterns and settlements complements the natural diversity.