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The Creation of the United Kingdom and the Incorporation of Ireland

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  • 0:02 Creation of Great Britain
  • 0:40 Wales & Scotland
  • 2:34 Ireland & Northern Ireland
  • 5:52 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we examine the piecemeal creation of the United Kingdom throughout the late Medieval and Early Modern periods as well as the tumultuous history of English control and partitioning of Ireland.

Creation of Great Britain

Most Americans today consider the terms 'Great Britain,' 'England,' and the 'United Kingdom' essentially synonymous. It's understandable why: the British Parliament sits in England's largest city, London, and largely governs the three technically distinct countries on the British Isle and the small chunk of Ireland, known as Northern Ireland.

But even today, travelers can cause affront abroad when conflating 'England' with the 'United Kingdom,' especially when in Scotland. This is largely due to the long and distinct histories of each nation. Though they are all governed currently in London, they all joined the United Kingdom (UK) separately, at different times, and under extremely different circumstances.

Wales & Scotland

Wales, for example, has been under English control for the longest of any current UK nation. Wales was effectively conquered by King Edward I in the 1270s and 1280s. Edward I conquered Wales largely through the building of fortresses and strongholds in English-controlled territory from where he could direct attacks against troublesome Welsh lords.

Wales remained a separate political entity, but entirely under English control, for a few more centuries until King Henry VIII and the English Parliament formally united Wales with England in the 1530s and 1540s through the Acts of Union. Welsh districts were created, modeled on the English system, and these districts were given representation in the British Parliament.

Scotland was a tougher nut to crack than Wales. Scotland had a long history of border and territorial disputes with England throughout the Medieval period. Additionally, Scotland possessed an important alliance with England's traditional continental enemy, France. Scotland and England were reluctantly brought closer when the Scottish king, James VI of Scotland, inherited the English throne from his cousin, Queen Elizabeth I.

In 1603, James VI of Scotland also became James I of England. Having the same king, however, did not make union a foregone conclusion. Indeed, in the mid-17th century, Scotland invaded the English north yet again, an event which in part instigated the English Civil War, leading to the public execution of the king, Charles I!

The union of the crowns, however, was formalized just over one hundred years after James VI of Scotland first took the English throne. Enacted in 1707, the Articles of Union formally combined the Scottish and English Parliaments into the Parliament of Great Britain and further formalized the Scottish-English crown that had already been combined for over a century. This created, for the first time, what we know today as the United Kingdom.

Ireland & Northern Ireland

Ireland was an even larger thorn in England's side. Ireland was conquered by England in the late 12th century. However, whereas in Wales, English authority was felt and the Welsh lords were closely monitored, English authority in Ireland was largely nominal throughout the Medieval and Early Modern periods. Though England claimed Ireland, the English really only had control over events in Dublin and the area immediately surrounding Dublin, known as The Pale.

Ireland was largely left to its own devices until the reign of Henry VIII in the mid-16th century. Henry VIII switched England from being a Catholic country to a Protestant country, largely due to his personal wish for a divorce from his wife - a procedure not allowed by the Catholic Church. Although England embraced the change, Ireland remained a staunchly Catholic country, and Henry worried that Ireland might become a launching point for a European, Catholic invasion of England.

Throughout the next half-century, various English monarchs slowly reconsolidated English control in Ireland, bringing Irish lords to heel and attempting to introduce Protestantism on the island. This was done through the confiscation of Irish land, particularly in the northern province of Ulster, which was then given to English and Scottish Protestant settlers.

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