Tiny geographically, England is immensely complex historically. And the extent to which its past shapes its present is profound. To really understand England you need to delve into its history, packed with drama and intrigue, with characters including incomers and invaders all leaving their mark. The result? The rich mix of culture, landscape and language that shaped the nation. For many, this vibrant heritage – whether seen in Stonehenge, Hadrian's Wall, Canterbury Cathedral or the Tower of London – is England's big draw.
Stone Age & Iron Age
Stone tools discovered on a beach in Norfolk suggest human habitation in England stretches back at least 840,000 years. These early peoples were nomadic hunter-gatherers, but by around 4000 BC, most had settled down, notably in open areas such as Salisbury Plain in southern England. Alongside fields they built burial mounds (today called barrows), but their most enduring legacies are the great stone circles of Avebury and Stonehenge, still clearly visible today.
Move on a millennium or two and it's the Iron Age. Better tools meant trees could be felled and more land turned over to farming. As landscapes altered, this was also a time of cultural change: a new wave of migrants – the Celts – arrived in Britain from the European mainland. It's not clear if the new arrivals absorbed the indigenous people, or vice versa, but the end result was the widespread adoption of Celtic language and culture, and the creation of a Celtic-British population – today often known as the Britons (or Ancient Britons to distinguish them from today’s natives).
By around 100 BC, the Ancient Britons had separated into about 20 different tribes, including the Cantiaci (in today's county of Kent), the Iceni (today's Norfolk) and the Brigantes (northern England). Did you notice the Latin-sounding names? That's because the tribal tags were handed out by the next arrivals on England's shores…
Although there had been some earlier expeditionary campaigns, the main Roman invasion of what is now England began in AD 43. They called their newly won province Britannia, and within a decade most of southern England was under Roman control. It wasn't a walkover though: some locals fought back, most famously the warrior-queen Boudica, who led a rebel army against Londinium, the Roman port on the present site of London.
Opposition was mostly sporadic, however, and no real threat to Roman military might. By around AD 80 Britannia comprised much of today's England and Wales. Though it's tempting to imagine noble natives battling courageously against occupying forces, Roman control and stability was possibly welcomed by the general population, tired of feuding chiefs and insecure tribal territories.
Roman settlement in Britain continued for almost four centuries, and intermarriage was common between locals and incomers (many from other parts of the Empire – including modern-day Belgium, Spain and Syria – rather than Rome itself). A Romano-British population thus evolved, particularly in the towns, while indigenous Celtic-British culture remained in rural areas.
Along with stability and wealth, the Romans paved the way for another cultural facet: a new religion called Christianity, after it was recognised by Emperor Constantine in the 4th century. Recent research also suggests Celtic Christians may have brought the religion to Britain even earlier. But by this time, although Romano-British culture was thriving in Britannia, 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 (after more than 300 years, Romano-British culture was so established there was nowhere for many to go 'home' to). In reality, Britannia was simply dumped by the rulers in Rome, and the colony slowly fizzled out. But some historians are tidy folk, and the end of Roman power in England is often dated at AD 410.
When Roman power faded, the province of Britannia went downhill. Romano-British towns were abandoned and rural areas became no-go zones as local warlords fought over fiefdoms. The vacuum didn't go unnoticed, and once again migrants crossed from the European mainland – this time Germanic tribes called Angles and Saxons.
Historians disagree on 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 England was predominantly Anglo-Saxon, divided into separate kingdoms dominated by Wessex (in southern England), Mercia (today's Midlands) and Northumbria (northern England).
Some areas remained unaffected by the incomers, but the overall impact was immense – the name England means 'land of the Angles', and today the core of the English language is Anglo-Saxon, 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'.
The Vikings & Alfred the Great
In the 9th century England was yet again invaded by a bunch of pesky Continentals. This time it was the Vikings, from today's Scandinavia. They quickly conquered the eastern and northeastern areas of England, then started to expand into central England. Blocking their route were the Anglo-Saxon armies heading north, led by Alfred the Great, the king of Wessex and one of English history's best-known characters.
Thus England was divided in two: north and east was the Viking land, known as '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. His capital was Winchester; if you come to visit the famous cathedral, look out for the nearby statue of Alfred in the city centre.
Alfred's son and successor was Edward, known as Edward the Elder. After more battles, he gained control of Danelaw, and thus became the first king to rule the whole country – a major milestone in English history.
But it was hardly cause for celebration. Later in the 10th century, more raids from Scandinavia threatened the fledgling English unity, and as England came to the end of the 1st millennium AD, the future was anything but certain.
1066 & All That
In 1066 when King Edward the Confessor died, the crown passed to Harold II, his brother-in-law. That should've settled things, but Edward had a cousin in Normandy (in northern France) called William, who thought he should have succeeded to the throne of England.
The end result was the Battle of Hastings of 1066, the most memorable of dates for anyone who has studied English history. William sailed from Normandy with an army, the English were defeated, and King Harold II was killed – by an arrow in the eye, according to legend. William became king of England, earning himself the prestigious epithet Conqueror.
In the years after the invasion, the French-speaking Normans and the English-speaking Anglo-Saxons kept pretty much to themselves. At the top of the feudal system came the monarch, and below that came the landowning nobles: barons and baronesses, dukes and duchesses, plus the bishops. Then came earls, knights and lords – and their ladies. At the bottom were landless peasants or 'serfs', and this strict hierarchy became the basis of a class system that to a certain extent still exists in England today.
Royal & Holy Squabbling
William's successor, William II, was assassinated during a hunting trip and was succeeded by Henry I, then Stephen of Blois, then Henry II who established the House of Plantagenet. This period also established the long-standing English tradition 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 the 'turbulent priest' Thomas Becket murdered in Canterbury Cathedral.
Perhaps the next king, Richard I, wanted to make amends for his forebears' unholy sentiments by fighting against what were then seen as Muslim 'infidels' in the Holy Land (today's Israel and the Palestinian Territories, plus parts of Syria, Jordan and Lebanon). Unfortunately, Richard was too busy crusading to govern England – although his battles earned him the sobriquet Lionheart – and in his absence the country fell into disarray.
Richard was succeeded by his brother John. According to legend, it was during this time that a nobleman named Robert of Loxley, better known as Robin Hood, hid in Sherwood Forest and engaged in a spot of wealth redistribution.
By the early 13th century King John's erratic rule was too much for the powerful barons, and they forced him to affirm a document called the Magna Carta (Great Charter), which set limits on the power of the monarch. It was signed at Runnymede, near Windsor; 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 was unashamedly expansionist, 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, who lacked his forebear's military success. He failed in the marriage department too, and came to a grisly end when, it's thought, his wife Isabella and her lover Roger Mortimer had him murdered in Berkeley Castle. Today, fans of ghoulish ends can visit the very spot where it happened.
Houses of Lancaster & York
In 1399 Richard II was ousted by a powerful baron called Henry Bolingbroke, who became Henry IV – the first monarch of the House of Lancaster. He was followed, neatly, by Henry V, who decided it was time to end the Hundred Years' War, a long-standing conflict between England and France. Henry's victory at the Battle of Agincourt and the patriotic speech he was given by Shakespeare in his namesake play ('cry God for Harry, England and St George!') ensured his position among the most famous of English monarchs.
Still keeping things neat, Henry V was followed by Henry VI. His main claims to fame were overseeing the building of great places of worship – King's College Chapel, in Cambridge; Eton Chapel, near Windsor – and suffering from great bouts of insanity.
The Hundred Years' War finally ground to a halt in 1453, but just a few years later, England was plunged into a civil conflict dubbed the Wars of the Roses. Briefly it went like this: Henry VI of the House of Lancaster (emblem: a red rose) was challenged by Richard, Duke of York (emblem: a white rose). Henry was weak and it was almost a walkover for Richard, but Henry's wife, Margaret of Anjou, was made of sterner stuff and her forces defeated the challenger. Then 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.
Dark Deeds in the Tower
Edward IV hardly had time to catch his breath before facing a challenge from the Earl of Warwick, who teamed up with the energetic Margaret of Anjou to shuttle Edward into exile and bring Henry VI back to the throne. A year later Edward IV came bouncing back, killed Warwick, captured Margaret and had Henry executed in the Tower of London.
Edward IV was succeeded by his 12-year-old son, Edward V. But in 1483 the boy-king 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, the throne was open for their old Uncle Richard. Whether he was the princes' killer remains the subject of debate, but his rule as Richard III was short-lived: in 1485 he was tumbled from the top job by a Welsh nobleman (from the rival Lancastrian line) named Henry Tudor, who became King Henry VII.
Peace & Dissolution
With the Wars of the Roses only recently ended, Henry VII married Elizabeth of York, so uniting the House of Lancaster and the House of York. He adopted the 'Tudor rose' symbol, which features the flower in both colours. Henry also married off his daughter to James IV of Scotland, linking the Tudor and Stuart lines. The result? A much-welcomed period of peace for England.
The next king, Henry VIII, is one of England's best-known monarchs, mainly thanks to his six wives – the result of a desperate quest for a male heir. He also had a profound impact on England's religious history; his rift with the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church led to the separation of the Church of England from papal rule, and to the 'Dissolution' – the infamous closure of many monasteries, the ruins of which can still be seen today at places such as Fountains Abbey and Rievaulx Abbey in Yorkshire.
The Elizabethan Age
Henry VIII was succeeded by his son Edward VI, and his daughter Mary I, but their reigns were short. And so Elizabeth, third in line, unexpectedly came to the throne.
Elizabeth I inherited a nasty mess of religious strife and divided loyalties, but after an uncertain start she gained confidence and turned the country around. Refusing marriage, she borrowed biblical motifs and became known as the Virgin Queen – perhaps the first English monarch to create a cult image.
The big moments in her 45-year reign included the naval defeat of the Spanish Armada, the far-flung explorations of English seafarers Walter Raleigh and Francis Drake and the expansion of England's trading network, including newly established colonies on the east coast of America – not to mention a cultural flourishing, thanks to writers such as William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth's Catholic cousin Mary Stuart (daughter of Scottish King James V) had become queen of Scotland. She'd spent her childhood in France, marrying the French dauphin (crown prince), thereby becoming queen of France as well. After her husband's death (so no longer France's queen), Mary returned to Scotland to rule but was eventually forced to abdicate amid claims of infidelity and murder.
She escaped to England and appealed to Elizabeth for help. But Mary had a strong claim to the English throne. That made her a security risk and she was imprisoned by Elizabeth. Historians dispute whether the former Scottish queen then instigated or was simply the focus of numerous Catholic plots to assassinate Protestant Elizabeth and put Mary on the throne. Either way, Elizabeth held Mary under arrest for nearly 19 years, moving her frequently from house to house. As you travel around England today, you can visit many stately homes (and even a few pubs) that proudly claim, 'Mary Queen of Scots slept here'. Elizabeth eventually ordered Mary's execution in 1587.
United & Disunited Britain
Elizabeth died in 1603, but despite a bountiful reign, the Virgin Queen had failed to provide an heir. She was succeeded by her closest relative, the Scottish King James, the safely Protestant son of the executed Mary. Thus, he became James I of England and VI of Scotland, the first English monarch of the House of Stuart. James did his best to soothe Catholic-Protestant tensions and united England, Wales and Scotland into one kingdom for the first time – another step towards British unity, at least on paper.
But the divide between king and parliament continued to smoulder, and the power struggle worsened during the reign of Charles I, eventually degenerating into the English Civil War. The antiroyalist (or 'Parliamentarian') forces were led by Oliver Cromwell, a Puritan who preached against the excesses of the monarchy and established Church. His army (known as the Roundheads) was pitched against the king's forces (the Cavaliers) in a conflict that tore England apart. It ended with victory for the Roundheads – the king was executed and England declared a republic, with Cromwell hailed as 'Protector'.
The Return of the King
By 1653 Cromwell was finding parliament too restricting and 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 strait-laced ethics of Cromwell's time. Exploration and expansion were also on the agenda. Backed by the army and navy (which had been modernised 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 overthrow and defeat at the Battle of the Boyne by William III, the Protestant king of Holland, aka William of Orange. William was married to James' daughter Mary. William and Mary had equal rights to the throne, and their joint accession in 1689 was known as the Glorious Revolution.
By 1702, both Mary and William had died. They were succeeded by William's sister-in-law, Anne. During her reign, in 1707, the Act of Union was passed, uniting England, Wales and Scotland under one parliament – based in London – for the first time.
Queen 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, commonly known as the Georgians.
Meanwhile, the British Empire continued to grow in the Americas as well as in Asia, while claims were made to Australia after James Cook's epic voyage of 1769.
The Industrial Era
While the Empire expanded abroad, at home Britain had become the crucible of the Industrial Revolution. Steam power (pioneered by James Watt in the 1760s and 1770s) and steam trains (developed by George Stephenson in the 1820s) transformed methods of production and transport, and the towns of the English Midlands became the first industrial cities.
Industrial growth led to Britain's first major period of internal migration, as vast numbers of people from the countryside came to the cities in search of work. At the same time, medical advances improved life expectancy, creating a sharp population increase. For many ordinary people the effects of Britain's economic blossoming were dislocation and poverty.
But despite the social turmoil of the early 19th century, by the time Queen Victoria took the throne in 1837 Britain's factories and fleets dominated world trade. The rest of the 19th century was seen as Britain's Golden Age – a period of patriotic confidence not seen since the days of the last great queen, Elizabeth I.
The times were optimistic, but it wasn't all tub-thumping jingoism. Prime Minister Disraeli and his successor, William Gladstone, also introduced social reforms to address the exploitative excesses of the Industrial Revolution. Education became universal, trade unions were legalised and the right to vote was extended in a series of reform acts, finally being granted to all men over the age of 21 in 1918, and to all women in 1928.
World War I
When Queen Victoria died in 1901 the country entered a period of decline. Meanwhile, in continental Europe, the military powers of Russia, Austria-Hungary, Turkey and Germany were sabre-rattling in the Balkan states, a dispute that eventually started the 'Great War' (now known as WWI). By the war's weary end in 1918, millions had died, with hardly a street or village untouched, as the sobering lists of names on war memorials all over England still show.
For the soldiers that did return from WWI, disillusion with the old social order helped strengthen the Labour Party – which represented the working class – as a political force, upsetting the balance long enjoyed by the Liberal and Conservative parties.
Labour came to power for the first time, in coalition with the Liberals, in the 1923 election, but by the mid-1920s the Conservatives were back. The world economy was now in decline and industrial unrest had become widespread.
The situation worsened in the 1930s as the Great Depression meant another decade of misery and political upheaval, and even the Royal Family took a knock when Edward VIII abdicated in 1936 so he could marry Wallis Simpson, a woman who was twice divorced and – horror of horrors – American.
World War II
The next monarch was Edward's less charismatic brother, George VI. Britain dithered through the rest of the decade, with mediocre governments failing to confront the country's deep-set problems.
Meanwhile, Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany and in 1939 invaded Poland. Two days later Britain was once again at war. The German army swept through Europe and pushed back British forces to the beaches of Dunkirk, in northern France. In June 1940 an extraordinary flotilla of tiny, private vessels (the 'Little Ships') 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. Russia had negotiated a peace agreement and the USA was neutral, leaving Britain virtually isolated. Into this arena came a new prime minister called Winston Churchill.
Between September 1940 and May 1941, the German air force launched 'the Blitz', a series of (mainly night-time) bombing raids on London and other cities. But morale in Britain remained strong, thanks partly to Churchill's regular radio broadcasts. The USA entered the war after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, and in late 1941 the tide began to turn.
By 1944 Germany was in retreat. Russia pushed back from the east, and Britain, the USA and other Allies were again on the beaches of France. The Normandy landings (D-Day, as it's remembered) marked the start of the liberation of Europe's western side. By 1945 Hitler was dead and the war was over.
Swinging & Sliding
The aftermath of WWII saw an unexpected swing on the political front. An electorate tired of war tumbled Churchill's Conservatives from power in favour of the Labour Party. There was change abroad too, as parts of the British Empire became independent, including India and Pakistan in 1947 and Malaya in 1957, followed by much of Africa and the Caribbean.
But while the Empire's sun may have been setting, Britain's royal family was still going strong. In 1952 George VI was succeeded by his daughter, Elizabeth II.
By the late 1950s, postwar recovery was strong enough for Prime Minister Harold Macmillan to famously remind the British people they had 'never had it so good'. Some saw this as a boast for a confident future, others as a warning about difficult times ahead. But many people didn't care either way, as the 1960s had arrived and grey old England was suddenly more fun and lively than it had been for generations.
The '60s may have been swinging, but by the 1970s decline had set in, thanks to a combination of inflation, an oil crisis and international competition revealing the weaknesses of Britain's economy. Britain joined the European Economic Community in 1973, with the country voting in a referendum to remain two years later; 67% were in favour of remaining.
The rest of the '70s were marked by strikes, disputes and general all-round gloom, but neither the Conservatives (also known as the Tories) under Prime Minister Edward Heath, nor Labour, under Prime Ministers Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan, proved capable of controlling the strife. The British public had had enough, and the elections of May 1979 saw the arrival of a new prime minister: a previously little-known politician named Margaret Thatcher.
The Thatcher Years
Soon everyone had heard of Margaret Thatcher. Love her or hate her, no one could argue that her methods weren't dramatic, and many policies had a lasting impact, one of the most prominent being the privatisation of state-run industries that had been nationalised in the late 1940s.
Some commentators argue that in economic terms the Thatcher government's policies were largely successful. Others claim in social terms they were a failure and created a polarised Britain: on one side were the people who gained from the prosperous wave of opportunities in the 'new' industries, while on the other were those who became unemployed and dispossessed as the 'old' industries, such as coal mining and steel production, became an increasingly small part of the country's economy.
Despite policies that were frequently described as uncompromising, by 1988 Margaret Thatcher was the longest-serving British prime minister of the 20th century, although her repeated electoral victories were helped considerably by the Labour Party's ineffective campaigns and destructive internal struggles.
New Labour, New Coalition, New Start
The pendulum started to swing again in the early 1990s. Margaret Thatcher was replaced as leader by John Major, but the voters still regarded Labour with suspicion, allowing the Conservatives to unexpectedly win the 1992 election. It all came to a head in the 1997 election, when 'New' Labour swept to power under a fresh-faced leader called Tony Blair.
Blair and the Labour Party enjoyed an extended honeymoon period, and the next election (in 2001) was another walkover. The Conservative Party continued to struggle, allowing Labour to win a historic third term in 2005, and a year later Blair became the longest-serving Labour prime minister in British history.
In May 2010 a record 13 years of Labour rule came to an end, and a coalition government (the first in the UK since WWII) was formed between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. It was an experiment that ended disastrously for the Lib Dems at the 2015 general election: they lost 49 seats, and were left with just eight MPs. The same vote left the defeated Labour Party searching for a new identity, and the Conservatives back in sole charge under David Cameron.
But just over a year later a referendum saw the people of the UK vote, by 52% to 48%, to leave the EU – in defiance of the main parties, which had wanted the country to stay in. Cameron resigned almost immediately after the vote, and was succeeded by former home secretary Theresa May, whose premiership has been marred by wrangling over the Brexit issue – as well as a misjudged decision to hold a snap general election in 2017, which resulted in her losing her majority in a hung parliament in the House of Commons.
May's plan had been to exploit the apparent unpopularity of the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, whose strongly socialist policies had caused division in his own party. But unexpectedly, Corbyn's leftist agenda proved popular with the public – particularly disillusioned younger voters. Whether he'll ever be able to take the final step to power still remains to be seen.