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The nation officially known as the “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” is home to the four distinct cultures of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. They are intertwined in a rich pageant of history that has been filled with conflict, but has also produced cultural and political legacies that have had lasting effects far beyond the boundaries of Britain.
England was home to Celtic peoples in prehistoric times, before rule by the Roman Empire from about AD 43 to AD 410. After the fall of Rome, Jutes, Angles, and Saxons established small kingdoms; Anglo-Saxon fiefdoms whose names still endure, such as Wessex, continued for centuries. King Alfred the Great of Wessex unified much of England against Viking invaders in the late ninth century. Among the monarchs who have ruled England in the centuries since, some are particularly notable for their lasting impacts on history. William the Conqueror brought Norman rule to England in 1066. Richard the Lionheart embarked on the Third Crusade in 1189. And it was King John who was compelled to sign the Magna Carta in 1215, laying the foundation for constitutional monarchy.
English King Edward I conquered Wales in 1283 and sought to rule Scotland as well. The relationship between England and Scotland took many twists and turns over the centuries, with Scottish King James VI becoming King James I of England in 1603 (succeeding Queen Elizabeth I). The United Kingdom came into being with the 1707 Act of Union between the parliaments of England and Scotland.
In the meantime, England under Edward III had fought the Hundred Years’ War with France between 1337 and 1453, with England ultimately losing its possessions on the French side of the Channel. Then, between 1455 and 1485, York and Lancaster battled on English soil in the Wars of the Roses. Henry VIII ruled in the 1530s, and his daughter Elizabeth later became the first Queen Elizabeth, who presided over the cultural flowering of the Elizabethan era (1558-1603).
England fell into civil war between 1642 and 1649, when Oliver Cromwell executed King Charles I and briefly replaced the monarchy with a republic. The monarchy was restored in 1660 with the enthronement of Charles II, though royal power was restored with limitations. The monarchy’s power became even further restricted during the reign of William and Mary, which began in 1689. The first of four King Georges ascended the English throne in 1714, beginning the Georgian Era during which England industrialized and became dominant in world trade. In the 19th century, the Victorian Era brought the globe-girdling ascendancy of the British Empire under the long reign of Queen Victoria, from 1837 to 1901.
During the 19th century, the entire island of Ireland was part of the United Kingdom, having been incorporated into the UK in 1801. The Irish however, sought independence, and in 1921, all but the six northern counties of Ulster became the Republic of Ireland—leaving the UK in its present form. In recent years, the desires of the Scots and Welsh for greater autonomy within the UK have led to the process called “devolution.” In 1999, Scotland regained its own parliament (in Edinburgh) and Wales established its own National Assembly in Cardiff.