It may be a small country on the edge of Europe, but England was never on the sidelines of history. For thousands of years, invaders and incomers have arrived, settled, and made their mark. The result is England’s fascinating mix of landscape, culture and language – a dynamic pattern that shaped the nation and continues to evolve today.
For many visitors, this rich historic legacy is England’s main attraction –everything from Stonehenge and Hadrian’s Wall to Canterbury Cathedral and the Tower of London, via hundreds of castles and an endless line of kings and queens.
- First arrivals
- Iron & Celts
- Enter the Romans
- Hadrian draws a line
- Exit the Romans
- The emergence of England
- The Viking era
- 1066 & all that
- Royal & holy squabbling
- Plantagenets plough on
- Houses of York & Lancaster
- Dark deeds in the tower
- Moves towards unity
- The Elizabethan age
- United & disunited Britain
- The return of the king
- United country, expanding empire
- The industrial age
- World War I
- World War II
- Swinging & sliding
- The Thatcher years
- Labour's return to power
Stone tools discovered near the town of Lowestoft in Suffolk show that human habitation in England stretches back at least 700, 000 years, although exact dates depend on your definition of ‘human’. As the centuries rolled on, Ice Ages came and went, sea levels rose and fell, and the island now called Britain was frequently joined to the European mainland. Hunter-gatherers crossed the land-bridge, moving north as the ice melted and retreating to warmer climes when the glaciers advanced once again.
Around 4000 BC a group of migrants arrived from Europe that differed significantly from previous groups – instead of hunting and moving on, they settled in one place and started farming – most notably in open chalky hill areas like the South Downs and Salisbury Plain in southern England. Alongside the fields these early settlers built burial mounds (today called barrows), but perhaps their most enduring legacies are the great stone circles of Avebury and Stonehenge, still clearly visible today.
In the Iron Age, better tools meant trees were felled and more land was turned to farming, laying down a patchwork pattern of fields and small villages that still exists in parts of rural England today.
As landscapes altered, this was also a time of cultural change. The Celts, a people who originally migrated from Central Europe, had settled across much of the island of Britain by around 500 BC, absorbing the indigenous people. A Celtic-British population then developed – sometimes known as ‘ancient Britons’ – divided into about 20 different tribes, including the Cantiaci (in today’s county of Kent), the Iceni (today’s Norfolk) and the Brigantes (northwest England). You noticed the Latin-sounding names? That’s because the tribal tags were first handed out by the next arrivals on England’s shores…
Think of the Romans, and you think of legions, centurions and aqueducts. They were all here, as Britain and much of Europe came under the power (or the yoke, for those on the receiving end) of the Classical Period’s greatest military empire.
Julius Caesar, the emperor everyone remembers, made forays into England from what is now France in 55 BC. But the real Roman invasion happened a century later when Emperor Claudius led a ruthless campaign which resulted in the Romans controlling pretty much everywhere in southern England by AD 50. It wasn’t all plain sailing though: some locals fought back. The most famous freedom fighter was warrior-queen Boudicca, who led an army as far as Londinium, the Roman port on the present site of London.
However, opposition was mostly sporadic and no real threat to the legions’ military might. By around AD 80 the new province of Britannia (much of today’s England and Wales) was firmly under Roman rule. And although it’s tempting to imagine noble natives battling courageously against occupying forces, in reality Roman control and stability was probably welcomed by the general population, tired of feuding chiefs and insecure tribal territories.
North of the new province of Britannia was the land the Romans called Caledonia (one day to become Scotland). This proved a harder place to find a fan club, and in AD 122 Emperor Hadrian decided that rather than conquer the wild Caledonian tribes, he’d settle for keeping them at bay. So a barricade was built across northern England – between today’s Carlisle and Newcastle. For nearly 300 years it marked the northernmost limit of the Roman Empire, and today a remarkably well-preserved section of Hadrian’s Wall is one of England’s best-known historic sites.
Settlement by the Romans in England lasted almost four centuries, and intermarriage was common between locals and incomers (many from other parts of the empire, including today’s Belgium, Spain and Syria – rather than Rome itself) so that a Romano-British population evolved, particularly in the towns, while indigenous Celtic-British culture remained in rural areas.
Along with stability and wealth, the Romans introduced another cultural facet – a new religion called Christianity, after it was recognised by Emperor Constantine in AD 313. But by this time, although Romano-British culture was thriving in what we now call England, back in its Mediterranean heartland the Empire was already in decline.
It was an untidy finale. The Romans were not driven out by the ancient Britons (by this time, Romano-British culture was so established there was nowhere for the ‘invaders’ to go ‘home’ to). In reality, Britannia was simply dumped by the rulers in Rome, and the colony slowly fizzled out of existence. But historians are neat folk, and the end of Roman power in England is generally dated at AD 410.
When Roman power faded, the province of Britannia went downhill. Trade declined, Romano-British towns were abandoned, and rural areas became no-go zones as local warlords fought over fiefdoms. Not inappropriately, the next few centuries are called the Dark Ages.
The vacuum didn’t go unnoticed and once again invaders crossed from the European mainland. Angles and Saxons – Teutonic tribes from the land we now call Germany – advanced across the former Roman turf. Historians disagree on exactly what happened next. Either the Anglo-Saxons largely overcame or absorbed the Romano-British and Celts, or the indigenous tribes simply adopted Anglo-Saxon language and culture. Either way, by the late 6th century much of the area we now call England was predominantly Anglo-Saxon, and divided into separate kingdoms dominated by Wessex (in today’s southern England), Mercia (today’s Midlands) and Northumbria (today’s northern England).
Some areas remained unaffected by the incomers (records show that the Celtic language was still being spoken in parts of southern England when the Normans invaded 500 years later) but the overall impact was immense: today, the core of the English language is Anglo-Saxon in origin, many place names have Anglo-Saxon roots, and the very term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ has become a (much abused and factually incorrect) byword for ‘pure English’.
On the religious front, the Anglo-Saxons were pagans, and their invasion forced the Christian religion to the edges of the British Isles – to Wales, Scotland and Ireland. The pope of the time, Gregory, decided this was a poor show, and in AD 597 sent missionaries to England to revive interest in the faith. One holy pioneer was St Augustine, who successfully converted Angles in Kent, and some good-looking specimens were sent to Rome as proof – giving rise to Pope Gregory’s famous quip about Angles looking like angels.
Meanwhile in northern England another missionary called St Aidan was even more successful. With admirable energy and fervour, he converted the entire populations of Mercia and Northumbria, and still had time to establish a monastery at Lindisfarne, a beautiful site on the coast which can still be visited today.
Just as Christianity was gaining a grip, England was yet again invaded by a bunch of pesky continentals. This time, Vikings appeared on the scene.
It’s another classic historical image: blonde Scandinavians, horned helmets, big swords, square-sailed longboats, raping and pillaging. School history books give the impression that Vikings turned up, killed everyone, took everything, and left. There’s some truth in that, but in reality many Vikings settled for good and their legacy is still evident in parts of northern England – in the form of local dialect, geographical terms such as ‘fell’ and ‘dale’ (from the old Norse ‘fjell’ and ‘dalr’), and even the traces of Nordic DNA in some of today’s inhabitants.
The main wave of Vikings came from today’s Denmark, and conquered east and northeast England in AD 850. They established their capital at Yorvik (today’s city of York, where many Viking remains can still be seen), then spread across central England.
Standing in their way were the Anglo-Saxon armies of Alfred the Great – the king of Wessex, and one of English history’s best-known characters – and the fighting that followed was seminal to the foundation of the nation-state of England.
But the battles didn’t all go Alfred’s way. For a few months he was on the run, wading through swamps, hiding in peasant hovels, and famously burning cakes. It was the stuff of legend, which is just what you need when the chips are down. By AD 886, Alfred had garnered his forces and pushed the Vikings back to the north.
Thus England was divided in two: north and east was Viking ‘Danelaw’, while south and west was Anglo-Saxon territory. Alfred was hailed as king of the English – the first time the Anglo-Saxons regarded themselves as a truly united people.
Alfred’s son and successor was Edward the Elder. After more battles, he gained control of the Danelaw, and thus the whole of England. His son, Athelstan, took the process a stage further and was specifically crowned King of England in AD 927. But it was hardly cause for celebration: the Vikings were still around, and later in the 10th century more raids from Scandinavia threatened the fledgling English unity. Over the following decades, control swung from Saxon (King Edgar), to Dane (King Knut), and back to Saxon again (King Edward the Confessor). As England came to the end of the first millennium AD, the future was anything but certain.
When King Edward the Confessor died, the crown passed to Harold, his brother-in-law. That should’ve settled things, but Edward had a cousin in Normandy (the northern part of today’s France) called William, who thought he should have succeeded to the throne of England.
The end result was the Battle of Hastings in 1066, the most memorable of dates for anyone who’s studied English history – or for anyone who hasn’t. William sailed from Normandy with an army of Norman soldiers, the Saxons were defeated, and Harold was killed – according to tradition by an arrow in the eye.
William became king of England, earning himself the prestigious title William the Conqueror. It was no idle nickname. To control the Anglo-Saxons, the Norman invaders built numerous castles across their new-won territory, and by 1085–86 the Domesday Book provided a census of England’s current stock and future potential.
William the Conqueror was followed by William II, but he was mysteriously assassinated during a hunting trip and succeeded by Henry I, another Norman ruler, and the first of a long line of kings called Henry.
In the years after the invasion, the French-speaking Normans and the English-speaking Anglo-Saxon inhabitants kept pretty much to themselves. A strict hierarchy of class developed, known as the feudal system. At the top was the monarch, below that the nobles (barons, bishops, dukes and earls), then knights and lords, and at the bottom were peasants or ‘serfs’, effectively slaves.
The feudal system may have established the basis of a class system which still exists in England to a certain extent, but intermarriage was not completely unknown. Henry himself married a Saxon princess. Nonetheless, such unifying moves stood for nothing after Henry’s death: a bitter struggle for succession followed, finally won by Henry II who took the throne as the first king of the House – or dynasty – of Plantagenet.
The fight to follow Henry I continued the enduring English habit of competition for the throne, and introduced an equally enduring tendency of bickering between royalty and the church. Things came to a head in 1170 when Henry II had ‘turbulent priest’ Thomas Becket murdered in Canterbury Cathedral. (The stunning cathedral is still an important shrine and a major destination for visitors to England today).
Perhaps the next king, Richard I, wanted to make amends for his forebears’ unholy sentiments by fighting against Muslim ‘infidels’ in the Holy Land (today’s Middle East). Unfortunately, he was too busy crusading to bother about governing England – although his bravery earned him the Richard the Lionheart sobriquet – and the country fell into disarray. Richard was succeeded by his brother John, but things got even worse for the general population. According to legend, it was during this time that a nobleman called Robert of Loxley, better known as Robin Hood, hid in Sherwood Forest, and engaged in a spot of wealth redistribution.
In 1215 the barons found King John’s erratic rule increasingly hard to swallow, and forced him to sign a document called Magna Carta, limiting the monarch’s power for the first time in English history. Although originally intended as a set of handy ground rules, Magna Carta was a fledgling bill of human rights which eventually led to the creation of parliament – a body to rule the country, independent of the throne. The signing took place at Runny-mede, near Windsor, and you can still visit the site today.
The next king was Henry III, followed in 1272 by Edward I – a skilled ruler and ambitious general. During a busy 35-year reign, he expounded English nationalism and was unashamedly expansionist in his outlook, leading campaigns into Wales and Scotland, where his ruthless activities earned him the title ‘hammer of the Scots’.
Edward I was succeeded by Edward II, but the new model lacked the military success of his forebear, and his favouring of personal friends over barons didn’t help. Edward failed in the marriage department too, and his rule came to a grisly end when his wife, Isabella, and her lover, Roger Mortimer, had him murdered in Berkeley Castle.
Next in line was Edward III. Highlights – actually lowlights – of his reign include the start of the Hundred Years’ War with France in 1337 and the arrival of a plague called the Black Death about a decade later, which eventually carried off 1.5 million people, more than a third of the country’s population.
Another change of king didn’t improve things either. Richard II had barely taken the throne when the Peasants’ Revolt erupted in 1381. This attempt by commoners to overthrow the feudal system was brutally suppressed, further injuring an already deeply divided country.
The ineffectual Richard II was ousted in 1399 by a powerful baron called Henry Bolingbroke, who became Henry IV – the first monarch of the House of Lancaster.
Henry IV was followed, neatly, by Henry V, who decided it was time to stir up the dormant Hundred Years’ War. He defeated France at the Battle of Agincourt and the patriotic tear-jerker speech he was given by Shakespeare (‘cry God for Harry, England and St George’) has ensured his pole position among the most famous English kings of all time.
Still keeping things neat, Henry V was followed by Henry VI. His main claim to fame was overseeing the building of great places of worship (King’s College Chapel in Cambridge, Eton Chapel near Windsor – both architectural wonders can still be admired today), interspersed with great bouts of insanity.
When the Hundred Years’ War finally ground to a halt in 1453, you’d have thought things would be calm for a while. But no. The English forces returning from France threw their energies into another battle – a civil conflict dubbed the Wars of the Roses.
Briefly it went like this: Henry VI of the House of Lancaster (whose emblem was a red rose) was challenged by Richard, Duke of York (proud holder of a white-rose flag). Henry was weak and it was almost a walkover for Richard, but Henry’s wife, Margaret of Anjou, was made of sterner mettle and her forces defeated the challenger. But it didn’t rest there. Richard’s son Edward entered with an army, turned the tables, drove out Henry, and became King Edward IV – the first monarch of the House of York.
Life was never easy for the guy at the top. Edward IV hardly had time to catch his breath before facing a challenger to his own throne. Enter scheming Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, who liked to be billed as ‘the kingmaker’. In 1470 he teamed up with the energetic Margaret of Anjou to shuttle Edward into exile and bring Henry VI to the throne. But a year later Edward IV came bouncing back; he killed Warwick, captured Margaret, and had Henry snuffed out in the Tower of London. Result.
Although Edward IV’s position seemed secure, he ruled for only a decade before being succeeded by his 12-year-old son, now Edward V. But the boy-king’s reign was even shorter than his dad’s. In 1483 he was mysteriously murdered, along with his brother, and once again the Tower of London was the scene of the crime.
With the ‘little princes’ dispatched, this left the throne open for their dear old Uncle Richard. Whether he was the princes’ killer is still the subject of debate, but his rule as Richard III was short-lived. Despite another famous Shakespearean soundbite (‘A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse’), few tears were shed in 1485 when he was tumbled from the top job by Henry Tudor.
There hadn’t been a Henry on the throne for a while, and this new incumbent, Henry VII, harked back to the days of his namesakes with a skilful reign. After the York-vs-Lancaster Wars of the Roses, his Tudor family name was important. He also diligently mended fences with his northern neighbours by marrying off his daughter to James IV of Scotland, thereby linking the Tudor and Stewart lines.
Matrimony may have been more useful than warfare for Henry VII, but the multiple marriages of his successor, Henry VIII, were a very different story. Fathering a male heir was his problem – hence the famous six wives – but the pope’s disapproval of divorce and remarriage led to a split with the Roman Catholic Church.
Henry became head of the Protestant Church of England and followed this up by ‘dissolving’ many monasteries – in reality more a blatant land takeover than a struggle between church and state. Authority was further exerted over Wales, effectively a colony since the days of Edward I, with the Acts of Union (1536–43) formally tying the two countries.
Henry VIII died in 1547, succeeded by his son Edward VI, then by daughter Mary I, but their reigns were short. So, unexpectedly, the third child, Elizabeth, came to the throne.
As Elizabeth I, she inherited a nasty mess of religious strife and divided loyalties, but after an uncertain start she gained confidence and turned the country round. Refusing marriage, she borrowed biblical imagery and became known as the Virgin Queen – perhaps the first English monarch to create a cult image. It paid off. Her 45-year reign was a period of boundless English optimism characterised by the defeat of the Spanish Armada, the expansion of trade, the writing of William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe, and the global explorations of English seafarers Walter Raleigh and Francis Drake.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth’s cousin Mary (daughter of Scottish King James V, and a Catholic) had become known as Mary Queen of Scots. She’d spent her childhood in France and had married the French dauphin (crown prince), thereby becoming queen of France as well. Why stop at two? After her husband’s death, Mary returned to Scotland, and from there ambitiously claimed the English throne as well – on the grounds that Elizabeth I was illegitimate. But Mary’s plans failed; she was imprisoned and forced to abdicate in favour of her son (a Protestant, who became James VI of Scotland).
Mary escaped to England and appealed to Elizabeth for help. This could have been a rookie error, or she might have been advised by courtiers with their own agenda. Either way, it was a bad move. Mary was – not surprisingly – seen as a security risk and imprisoned once again. In an uncharacteristic display of indecision, before finally ordering her execution, Elizabeth held Mary under arrest for 19 years, moving her frequently from house to house, so that today England has many stately homes (and even a few pubs) claiming ‘Mary Queen of Scots slept here’.
When Elizabeth died in 1603, despite a bountiful reign, one thing the Virgin Queen failed to provide was an heir. She was succeeded by her closest relative, James, the safely Protestant son of the murdered Mary. He became James I of England and VI of Scotland, the first English monarch of the House of Stuart (Mary’s time in France had Gallicised the Stewart name). Most importantly, James united England, Wales and Scotland into one kingdom for the first time in history – another step towards British unity, at least on paper.
But James’ attempts to smooth religious relations were set back by the anti-Catholic outcry that followed the infamous Guy Fawkes Gunpowder Plot, a terrorist attempt to blow up parliament in 1605. The event is still celebrated every 5 November, with fireworks, bonfires and burning effigies of Guy himself.
Alongside the Catholic-Protestant rift, the divide between king and parliament continued to smoulder. The power struggle worsened during the reign of the next king, Charles I, and eventually degenerated into the Civil War of 1644–49. The antiroyalist forces were led by Oliver Cromwell, a Puritan who preached against the excesses of the monarch and established church, and his army of parliamentarians (or Roundheads) was pitched against the king’s forces (the Cavaliers) in a war that tore England apart – although fortunately for the last time in history. The war ended with victory for the Roundheads, the king executed, and England declared a republic – with Cromwell hailed as ‘Protector’.
By 1653 Cromwell was finding parliament too restricting and he assumed dictatorial powers, much to his supporters’ dismay. On his death in 1658, he was followed half-heartedly by his son, but in 1660 parliament decided to re-establish the monarchy – as republican alternatives were proving far worse.
Charles II (the exiled son of Charles I) came to the throne, and his rule, known as ‘the Restoration’ – saw scientific and cultural activity bursting forth after the straitlaced ethics of Cromwell’s time. Exploration and expansion was also on the agenda. Backed by the army and navy (modernised, ironically, by Cromwell), colonies stretched down the American coast, while the East India Company set up headquarters in Bombay, laying foundations for what was to become the British Empire.
The next king, James II, had a harder time. Attempts to ease restrictive laws on Catholics ended with his defeat at the Battle of the Boyne by William III, the Protestant king of Holland, better known as William of Orange. Ironically, William was married to James’ own daughter Mary, but it didn’t stop him doing the dirty on his father-in-law.
William and Mary both had equal rights to the throne and their joint accession in 1688 was known as the Glorious Revolution. Lucky they were married or there might have been another civil war.
In 1694 Mary died, leaving just William as monarch. He died a few years later and was followed by his sister-in-law Anne. During her reign, in 1707, the Act of Union was passed, finally linking the countries of England, Wales and Scotland under one parliament – based in London – for the first time in history.
Anne died without an heir in 1714, marking the end of the Stuart line. The throne passed to distant (but still safely Protestant) German relatives – the House of Hanover – but by this time, struggles for the throne seemed a thing of the past; Hanoverian kings increasingly relied on parliament to govern. As part of the process, from 1721 to 1742 a senior parliamentarian called Robert Walpole effectively became Britain’s first prime minister.
Meanwhile, the British Empire – which, despite its title, was predominantly an English entity – continued to grow in Asia and the Americas, while claims were made to Australia after James Cook’s epic voyage, which began in 1768. The Empire’s first major reverse was the American War of Independence (1776–83), forcing England to withdraw from the world stage for a while.
This gap was not missed by French ruler Napoleon; he threatened to invade England and hinder British power overseas, before his ambitions were curtailed by navy hero Nelson and military hero Wellington at the famous battles of Trafalgar (1805) and Waterloo (1815).
While the Empire expanded abroad, at home Britain had become the crucible of the Industrial Revolution. Steam power (patented by James Watt in 1781) and steam trains (launched by George Stephenson in 1830) transformed methods of production and transport, and the towns of the English Midlands became the first industrial cities.
At the same time, medical advances allowed a sharp population increase, but the rapid change from rural to urban society caused great dislocation. For many ordinary people, the side-effects of Britain’s economic blossoming were poverty and deprivation.
Nevertheless, by the time Queen Victoria took the throne in 1837, Britain’s factories dominated world trade and Britain’s fleets dominated the oceans. The rest of the 19th century was seen as Britain’s ‘Golden Age’ (for some people, it still is) – a period of confidence not seen since the days of the last great queen, Elizabeth I.
Victoria ruled a proud nation at home, and great swathes of territories abroad, from Canada through much of Africa and India to Australia and New Zealand – trumpeted as ‘the Empire on which the sun never sets’. In a final move of PR genius, the queen’s chief spin doctor and most effective prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, had Victoria crowned Empress of India. She’d never even been to India, but the British people simply loved the idea.
The times were optimistic, but it wasn’t all tub-thumping jingoism. Disraeli and his successor William Gladstone also introduced social reforms to address the worst excesses of the Industrial Revolution. Education became universal, trade unions were legalised and the right to vote was extended to commoners. Well, to male commoners. Women didn’t get the vote for another few decades. Disraeli and Gladstone may have been enlightened gentlemen, but there were limits.
Queen Victoria died in 1901 and ever-expanding Britain died with her. The new king, Edward VII, ushered in the relaxed new Edwardian era – and a long period of decline.
In continental Europe, four restless military powers (Russia, Austria-Hungary, Turkey and Germany) focussed their sabre-rattling on the Balkan states, and the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand at Sarajevo in 1914 finally sparked a clash which became the Great War we now call WWI. When German forces entered Belgium, on their way to invade France, soldiers from Britain and Allied countries were drawn into the war – a vicious conflict of stalemate and horrendous slaughter – most infamously on the killing fields of Flanders and the beaches of Gallipoli.
By the war’s weary end in 1918 over a million Britons had died (not to mention millions more from many other countries) and there was hardly a street or village untouched by death, as the sobering lists of names on war memorials all over England still show. The conflict added ‘trench warfare’ to the dictionary, and further deepened the huge gulf that had existed between ruling and working classes since the days of the Norman feudal system.
For the soldiers who did return from WWI, disillusion led to a questioning of the social order. A new political force – the Labour Party, to represent the working class – upset the balance long enjoyed by the Liberal and Conservative parties, as the right to vote was extended to all men aged over 21 and women over 30.
The Labour Party was elected for the first time in 1923, in coalition with the Liberals, with James Ramsay MacDonald as prime minister. A year later the Conservatives were back in power, but the rankling ‘them-and-us’ mistrust, fuelled by soaring unemployment, led to the 1926 general strike. When 500, 000 workers marched through the streets, the government’s heavy-handed response included sending in the army – setting the stage for the style of industrial conflict that was to plague Britain for the next 50 years.
The unrest of the late-1920s worsened in the ‘30s as the world economy slumped and the Great Depression took hold, leading to a decade of misery and political upheaval. Even the royal family took a knock when Edward VIII abdicated in 1936 so he could marry a woman who was twice divorced and – horror of horrors – American. The ensuing scandal was good for newspaper sales and hinted at the prolonged ‘trial by media’ suffered by royals in more recent times.
The throne was taken by Edward’s less-than-charismatic brother George VI and Britain dithered through the rest of the decade, with mediocre government failing to confront the country’s problems.
Meanwhile on mainland Europe, Germany saw the rise of Adolf Hitler, leader of the Nazi party. Many feared another Great War, but Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain met Hitler in 1938 and promised Britain ‘peace in our time’. He was wrong. The following year Hitler invaded Poland. Two days later Britain was once again at war with Germany.
The German army moved with astonishing speed, swept west through France, and pushed back British forces to the beaches of Dunkirk in northern France in June 1940. An extraordinary flotilla of rescue vessels turned total disaster into a brave defeat – and Dunkirk Day is still remembered with pride and sadness in Britain every year.
By mid-1940 most of Europe was controlled by Germany. In Russia, Stalin had negotiated a peace agreement. The USA was neutral, leaving Britain virtually isolated. Neville Chamberlain, reviled for his earlier ‘appeasement’, stood aside to let a new prime minister – Winston Churchill – lead a coalition government.
In 1941 the tide began to turn as the USA entered the war to support Britain, and Germany became bogged down on the eastern front fighting Russia. The following year, British forces were revitalised thanks to Churchill’s focus on arms manufacturing, and the Germans were defeated in North Africa.
By 1944 Germany was in retreat. Britain and the USA controlled the skies, Russia’s Red Army pushed back from the east, and the Allies were again on the beaches of France as the Normandy landings (D-Day, as it’s better remembered) marked the start of the liberation of Europe from the west, and in Churchill’s words, ‘the beginning of the end of the war’. By 1945 Hitler was dead, and his country ruined. Two atomic bombs forced the surrender of Germany’s allies Japan, and finally brought WWII to a dramatic and terrible close.
In Britain, despite the victory, there was an unexpected swing on the political front. An electorate tired of war and hungry for change tumbled Churchill’s Conservatives, and voted in the Labour Party, led by Clement Attlee. This was the dawn of the ‘welfare state’; key industries (such as steel, coal and railways) were nationalised, and the National Health Service was founded. But rebuilding Britain was a slow process, and the postwar ‘baby boomers’ experienced food rationing well into the 1950s.
The effects of depleted reserves were felt overseas too, as one by one the colonies became independent, including India and Pakistan in 1947, Malaya in 1957 and Kenya in 1963. People from these ex-colonies – and especially from the Caribbean – were drawn to the mother country through the 1960s. In many cases they were specifically invited, as additional labour was needed to help rebuild postwar Britain. In the 1970s many immigrants of Asian origin arrived, after being forced out of Uganda by dictator Idi Amin.
In the Empire the sun was setting, but Britain’s royal family was still going strong. In 1952 George VI was succeeded by his daughter Elizabeth II, and following the trend set by earlier queens Elizabeth I and Victoria, she has remained on the throne for more than five decades, overseeing a period of massive social and economic change.
By the late 1950s, recovery was strong enough for Prime Minister Harold Macmillan to famously remind the British people they’d ‘never had it so good’. Some saw this as a boast for a confident future, others as a warning about difficult times ahead, but most probably forgot all about it because by this time the 1960s had started and grey old England was suddenly more fun and lively than it had been for generations – especially if you were over 10 and under 30. There was the music of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Cliff Richard and the Shadows, while cinema audiences flocked to see Michael Caine, Peter Sellers and Glenda Jackson.
Alongside the glamour, 1960s business seemed swinging too. But the 1970s brought inflation, the oil crisis and international competition – a deadly combination that revealed the weakness of Britain’s economy, and a lot that was rotten in British society too. The ongoing struggle between disgruntled working classes and inept ruling classes was brought to the boil once again; the rest of the decade was marked by strikes, disputes and general all-round gloom – especially when the electricity was cut, as power stations went short of fuel or labour.
Neither the Conservatives under Edward Heath, nor Labour under Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan, proved capable of controlling the strife. The British public had had enough, and the elections of 1979 returned the Conservatives led by a little-known politician named Margaret Thatcher.
Soon everyone had heard of Margaret Thatcher. Love her or hate her, most Brits acknowledged that her methods were dramatic. The embodiment of 1980s British Conservatism, Thatcher reduced the size of the public service through layoffs, introduced measures designed to reduce the influence of trade unions, shut down industries that the government deemed inefficient and sold off nationally owned companies to private industry.
Thatcher proved as unswerving in her foreign policy. In 1982 she led Britain into war against Argentina in a dispute over the Falkland Islands. Depending on perspective, the war either boosted patriotic sentiment or fuelled jingoistic flames.
By economic measures, Thatcher’s policies were mostly successful, but they also carried a social cost. The new, competitive Britain was also a greatly polarised Britain. Some benefited greatly from the wave of prosperity; others were left jobless in a harsh environment.
The ‘iron lady’ proved a controversial figure, earning a reputation for being unwavering in her beliefs and uncompromising in her methods. By 1988 Thatcher was the longest-serving British prime minister of the 20th century, facing a politically weak opposition beset by internal struggles.
In 1990 Thatcher lost power - partially owing to her introduction of the publicly unpopular ‘poll tax’, which divided opinion within Conservative ranks. Voters regarded both parties with suspicion, however, propelling new Conservative leader John Major to an unexpected election victory in 1992.
Another half-decade of political stalemate followed, but it all came to a head in 1997 when ‘New’ Labour swept to power with a record parliamentary majority, under a new leader called Tony Blair.