History of United Kingdom
Woven into the fabric of the United Kingdom of Great Britain is a rich history defined by wars, rebellions, royals, social upheaval and the rise and fall of what was once the biggest empire in the world.
The Romans occupied Britain from AD 43 to AD 410 and left behind straight roads, a sewage system and hot baths, amongst other things. After that the Romans, Jutes, Saxons and Angles all established kingdoms south of Hadrian’s Wall before the Normans arrived and gave rise to the myth that it was the last time England was invaded. It wasn’t. England was subsequently invaded several times by the French, a few times by the Scots, at various intervals by pretenders to the throne and once by the Dutch. The Spanish and the Germans also had a go but neither actually set foot on dry land.
King Henry VIII is not only famous for having six wives, but also for breaking away from the Church of Rome, setting up the Church of England so he could get divorced. After Henry, battles between monarchs, nations, nobles and sections of the population invariably became tussles about how to run the country, culminating in the English Civil War (1642-1651), which was won by the Parliamentarians.
The constitutional monarchy that exists in the United Kingdom today developed during the 18th and 19th centuries as power came to be increasingly exercised by an elected parliament. In 1801 Great Britain – that’s England, Wales and Scotland – were formally united with Ireland. The subsequent reign of Queen Victoria, whose role was now little more than symbolic, coincided with a period of great economic success and unfettered empire building before events of the 20th century, notably two world wars, resulted in the dismantling of the empire.
In 1920, Ireland gained independence from the United Kingdom, leaving behind Northern Ireland, whose troubled relationship with the UK led to an ethno-nationalist conflict better known as The Troubles (1968-1998). World wars and internal conflicts failed to detract from the kingdom’s quest for social upheaval, which resulted in universal suffrage, the Welfare State, the repeal of the death penalty and the legalisation of homosexuality.
In 2014 Scotland held a referendum to determine whether it would continue being part of the United Kingdom or not. It voted to stay – just – but calls for independence can still be heard across the land.
Did you know?
• Cricket, football, boxing, rowing, rugby (league and union), tennis and golf were formalised into sports in the UK.
• The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is the world’s oldest and largest broadcaster.
• The Orkney Vole has inhabited the islands for 4,600 years and does not occur on mainland Britain.
United Kingdom Culture
Predominantly Christian (Church of England, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Methodist), sizeable Muslim, Sikh, Jewish and Hindu minorities. Around 15% of the population have no religion.
Handshaking is customary when introduced to someone for the first time. One kiss on the cheek is gaining popularity for close friends. Normal social courtesies should be observed when visiting someone’s home and a small present such as flowers or chocolates is appreciated. It is polite to wait until everyone has been served before eating.
Some nightclubs and restaurants do not allow jeans and trainers, otherwise casual wear is widely acceptable. For business, a suit and tie should be worn, although in some workplaces an open neck is acceptable.
Topless sunbathing is allowed on certain beaches and tolerated in some parks. Smoking is banned in all enclosed public places, including stations, pubs and restaurants, throughout the UK.
The monarchy, though now only symbolic politically, is a powerful and often subconscious unifying force. Members of the Royal Family are the subject of unceasing fascination, with their every move avidly followed and reported by the popular press, both in the UK and abroad.
Language in United Kingdom
The main language is English, but Welsh is spoken in parts of Wales, and Gaelic in parts of Scotland. The many ethnic minorities within the UK also speak their own languages (eg Cantonese, Greek, Hindi, Mandarin, Turkish, Urdu, etc).