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History of England

England is the largest and most populous of the constituent countries of the United Kingdom. The division dates from the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons in the 5th century. The territory of England has been politically united since the 10th century. This article concerns that territory. However, before the 10th century and after the accession of James VI of Scotland to the throne of England in 1603, it becomes less convenient to distinguish Scottish and Welsh from English history since the union of these nations with England.

England before the English

Surprisingly few historical sources describe Roman England. For example, we have only one sentence describing the reasons for the construction of Hadrian's Wall. The Claudian invasion itself is well attested and Tacitus included the uprising of Boudica, or "Boadicea", in 61 AD in his history. Following the end of the 1st century, however, Roman historians only mention fragments of information from the distant province. The Roman presence strengthened and weakened over the centuries, but by the 5th century Roman influence had declined to such a point that the peoples who were to become the English were emerging.

Until recently it has been believed that those areas settled by the Anglo-Saxons were uninhabited at the time or the Britons had fled before them. However, genetic studies suggest that the British were not pushed out to the Celtic fringes but many tribes remained in what was to become England (see C. Capelli et al. 'A Y chromosome census of the British Isles'. Current Biology 13, 979–984, (2003)). Capelli's findings strengthen the research of Steven Bassett of Birmingham University; his work during the 1990s suggests that much of the west Midlands was only very lightly colonised with Anglian and Saxon settlements (though this is not supported by the place-names of the region).

England during the Middle Ages

The English Middle Ages were to be characterised by civil war, international war, occasional insurrection, and widespread political intrigue amongst the aristocratic and monarchic elite. England was more than self-sufficient in cereals, dairy products, beef and mutton. The nation's international economy was based on the wool trade, in which the produce of the sheepwalks of northern England was exported to the textile cities of Flanders, where it was worked into cloth. Medieval foreign policy was as much shaped by relations with Flemish textile industry as it was by dynastic adventures in western France. An English textile industry was established in the fifteenth century, providing the basis for rapid English capital accumulation.

The Black Death, an epidemic of bubonic plague that spread over the whole of Europe, arrived in England in 1349 and killed perhaps up to a third of the population. International excursions were invariably against domestic neighbours: the Welsh, Irish, Cornish, and the Hundred Years' War against the French and their Scottish allies. Notable English victories in the Hundred Years' War included Crécy and Agincourt. In addition to this, the final defeat of the uprising led by the Welsh prince, Owain Glynd?r, in 1412 by Prince Henry (later to become Henry V) represents the last major armed attempt by the Welsh to throw off English rule.

Tudor England

The reign of Elizabeth restored a sort of order to the realm following the turbulence of the reigns of Edward and Mary when she came to the throne following the death of the latter in 1558. The religious issue which had divided the country since Henry VIII was in a way put to rest by the Elizabethan Religious Settlement, which created the Church of England in much the same form we see it today. Much of Elizabeth's success was in balancing the interests of the Puritans (radical Protestants) and "die-hard" Catholics. She managed to offend neither to a large extent, although she clamped down on Catholics towards the end of her reign as war with Catholic Spain loomed.

The slave trade that established Britain as a major economic power can be attributed to Elizabeth, who granted John Hawkins the permission to commence trading in 1562. The number of Africans transported to England was so great due to the slave trade that by 1596 Elizabeth complained that "several blackamoores have lately been brought into this realm of which kind of people there are already too much here". She tried unsuccessfully to expel them via a Proclamation in 1601.

Elizabeth maintained relative government stability apart from the Revolt of the Northern Earls in 1569, she was effective in reducing the power of the old nobility and expanding the power of her government. One of the most famous events in English martial history occurred in 1588 when the Spanish Armada was repelled by the English navy commanded by Sir Francis Drake, but the war that followed was very costly for England and only ended after Elizabeth's death. Elizabeth's government did much to consolidate the work begun under Thomas Cromwell in the reign of Henry VIII, that is, expanding the role of the government and in effecting common law and administration throughout England.

In all, the Tudor period is seen as a decisive one which set up many important questions which would have to be answered in the next century and during the English Civil War. These were questions of the relative power of the monarch and Parliament and to what extent one should control the other. Some historians think that Thomas Cromwell affected a "Tudor Revolution" in government and it is certain that Parliament became a lot more important during his chancellorship. Other historians say the "Tudor Revolution" really extended to the end of Elizabeth's reign when the work was all consolidated. Although the Privy Council, which was the mainstay of Tudor government, declined after the death of Elizabeth, whilst she was alive it was very effective.

The Stuarts and the Civil War

The English Civil War broke out in 1642, largely as a result of an ongoing series of conflicts between James' son, Charles I, and Parliament. The defeat of the Royalist army by the New Model Army of Parliament at the Battle of Naseby in June 1645 effectively destroyed the King's forces. Charles surrendered to the Scottish army at Newark. He was eventually handed over to the English Parliament in early 1647. He escaped and the Second English Civil War began, although it was to be only a short conflict, with Parliament quickly securing the country. The capture and subsequent trial of Charles led to his beheading in January 1649 at Whitehall Gate in London. A republic was declared and Oliver Cromwell became the Lord Protector in 1653. After he died, his son Richard Cromwell succeeded him in the office, but soon abdicated. The monarchy was restored in 1660, after England entered a period of anarchy, with King Charles II returning to London.

In 1665, London was swept by a visitation of the plague, and then, in 1666, the capital was swept by the Great Fire, which raged for 5 days, destroying approximately 15,000 buildings.

The First Act of Union saw Scotland united with England and Wales (Wales had already been legally incorporated into England by the Laws in Wales Acts 1535–1542 by Henry VIII). This was no process of harmonisation, for Scotland had effectively capitulated to English economic pressure after the failure of the Darién scheme. This process was lubricated in the Scottish parliament by the political manoeuvrings of John Campbell, the 2nd Duke of Argyll and James Douglas, 2nd Duke of Queensberry. (NB: After the 1707 Act, the histories of Great Britain and England overlap heavily. Since England was the dominant hegemony, it is assumed for the purposes of this article that the two are largely coterminous.)

Colonial England

In 1607 England built an establishment in Virginia (Jamestown). This was the beginning of English colonization. Many English settled then in North America for religious or economic reasons. The English merchants holding plantations in the warm southern parts of America then resorted rather quickly to the slavery of Native Americans and imported Africans in order to cultivate their plantations and sell raw material (particularly cotton and tobacco) in Europe. The English merchants involved in colonization accrued fortunes equal to those of great aristocratic landowners in England, and their money which fueled the rise of the middle class permanently altered the balance of political power.

The Industrial Revolution

The late 18th and early 19th centuries saw considerable social upheaval as a largely agrarian society was transformed by technological advances and increasing mechanisation, which was the Industrial Revolution. Much of the agricultural workforce was uprooted from the countryside and moved into large urban centres of production, as the steam-based production factories could undercut the traditional cottage industries, due to economies of scale and the increased output per worker made possible by the new technologies. The consequent overcrowding into areas with little supporting infrastructure saw dramatic increases in the rise of infant mortality (to the extent that many Sunday schools for pre working age children (5 or 6) had funeral clubs to pay for each others funeral arrangements), crime, and social deprivation.

Recent history

The Act of Union of 1800 formally assimilated Ireland within the British political process, and created a new state "The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland" with effect from 1 January 1801, uniting England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland.

England bore the full brunt of German bombing during World War II, many of its cities were badly damaged and huge amounts of infrastructure destroyed. England rapidly recovered after the war, and while internationally the relative wealth and power of Britain have faded, England still remains paramount in the British Isles.