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Introduction to the history of the United Kingdom


James Ier of England
James Ier of England

Beginning in the 16th century, the British Isles underwent a series of political changes that eventually led to the establishment of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in 1801. The creation of the United Kingdom brought England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales (the four cultural regions of Britain) under the rule of a central government headed by a common monarch and administered by a single parliament. When Ireland (with the exception of its six northern counties) achieved independence in 1922, the kingdom was renamed the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. England and Wales were the first regions to function under a single government. During the 13th century, England established control over Wales after several centuries of intermittent warfare. The two nations officially merged in 1536 and were known collectively as England.

Scotland and England moved toward union after the Scottish monarchs inherited the throne of England in 1603. Although a common ruler united these two countries, Scotland and England remained separate nations with separate governments. In 1707 the Scottish and English parliaments passed an Act of Union, which merged the formerly independent nations into the Kingdom of Great Britain. The English established control over Ireland beginning in the 12th century, when English colonists invaded the island. They gradually established English domination over the entire island. Ireland remained a separate country under the rule of the English and British monarchs until the British Parliament passed the Act of Union of 1800.

This act created the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. However, opposition to the United Kingdom remained strong among Ireland’s predominantly Roman Catholic population. Many Irish citizens resented the long history of domination by Britain’s Protestant majority. In 1922 Ireland achieved its independence, although its six northern counties, where Protestants are in the majority, remained a part of the United Kingdom.

England and Scotland in the 17th Century


Henry VIII king
Henry VIII king

A union of England and Scotland seemed unlikely at the beginning of the 17th century. The two nations had been periodically at war with each other for almost 700 years as a result of disputes over control of border regions and occasional attempts by the English to expand northward into Scotland. In order to protect its independence, Scotland maintained a traditional alliance with France, England’s primary enemy on the European continent. When Elizabeth I of England died childless in 1603, James VI of Scotland, a member of the royal house of Stuart and a relative of Elizabeth, inherited the English throne. In addition to ruling as James VI of Scotland, he then became James I of England.

James held royal authority in two kingdoms that were very different. Scotland was sparsely populated, and its land was largely barren and infertile. Rocky soil, a cold and wet climate, and insufficient irrigation prevented agriculture from thriving. A long tradition of self-sufficient farms and estates discouraged trade and limited the growth of industry. Scotland was divided into two distinct regions, the Highlands and Lowlands. By far the largest concentration of population in Scotland was in the southern Lowlands around the two principal cities: Glasgow and the capital city, Edinburgh. The Lowlands were fully integrated into royal government; the king ruled with little opposition. Scotland’s Parliament met rarely and dealt with limited issues. In the Highlands, however, the royal government had little direct influence. Clans—social groups based on extended family ties—still dominated the region.

In contrast, England at the beginning of the 17th century was a dynamic society, growing rapidly in population and wealth. England’s south and east had fertile agricultural land. In the north and west, estates carried out sheep herding on a large scale. A thriving export trade existed in wool, grain, and other products. England’s capital city, London, was one of the largest cities in the world. The Tudor monarchs, who ruled England from 1485 to 1603, had effectively centralized English government by the early 17th century. The nobility—the once powerful class of landowning aristocrats—no longer formed a powerful independent political force, but instead served the crown and became dependent on royal support. The gentry—landowners with country estates—formed the core of royal government in the countryside, enforcing the law as sheriffs or serving as justices in the local courts. Although the Tudors centralized administration, they failed to implement a financial system to pay for the escalating costs of government. Rents on royal lands, supplemented by limited taxes on imports and on the church, barely financed government administration. During wars or times of emergency, the monarchy had to request funds from Parliament, which alone had the right to approve additional taxes and to pass new laws.

Religious issues also separated the two nations. Both the Church of Scotland and the Church of England were Protestant churches. However, in England the monarch reigned as head of a compliant, centralized church. Henry VIII had established the Church of England in 1534 with the monarch as its supreme head. His successors maintained tight royal control over church affairs and held the final say in matters of religion. James had less control over Scotland’s church. Protestantism had made major gains among the people, and a Presbyterian system, built upon independent local church organizations, formed without royal approval. In 1560 the Scottish Parliament accepted the Presbyterian form of Protestantism as the official religion. James appointed bishops to establish his authority over the church, but the Presbyterian system remained intact on the local level and continued to decide many religious matters independently of the king and the bishops. "England" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia

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