Back To CourseAP European History: Exam Prep
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Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.
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, 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 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.
This, naturally, did not make the native Irish Catholics very happy. Over the subsequent centuries, Ireland intermittently rebelled against the renewed English presence in Ireland, and England often took advantage of the rebellions to demonstrate the need for further direct English control of Irish affairs. This issue came to a head in 1798 when the English put down a formidable rebellion.
Afterward, British parliamentarians, under the leadership of William Pitt the Younger, took advantage of this rebellion to renew calls to fully incorporate Ireland into the United Kingdom and remove the ambiguities that resulted from the Irish having their own parliament that was separate and quasi-subordinate to the British Parliament. In 1801, legislation was passed that incorporated Ireland into the British state.
For over a century, the United Kingdom consisted of the entirety of Britain and Ireland. However, Ireland was not as willing to be governed from London as were Wales and Scotland. Various groups and organizations plotted for Irish independence throughout the 19th century, and soon after the conclusion of World War I, all-out war broke out between Irish republicans and the British army in Ireland.
The war was largely a guerrilla conflict, as the Irish Republican Army tried to avoid open conflict with the better equipped and more mobile British regulars. Before long, the British public tired of the war, and pressure mounted on parliamentarians and other decision-makers to end the conflict peaceably. However, the UK government refused to abandon the Protestants in the north of Ireland who were largely anti-Republican.
As a result, in May 1921, the British Parliament partitioned Ireland, separating the northernmost six counties of Ulster into the new country of Northern Ireland. When the truce was signed two months later, Great Britain granted the rest of Ireland its independence while maintaining Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom. The Irish Free State - as the rest of Ireland was now called - never formally recognized this partition, and the separation of Northern Ireland from Ireland caused numerous political problems and significant social unrest later in the 20th century.
The United Kingdom as it stands today - made up of Scotland, England, Northern Ireland, and Wales - came together over several centuries. Whether through military conquest like in Wales or parliamentary acts like in Scotland, all of the UK is now governed by the British Parliament in London. However, political, ethnic, and religious factors led the Irish to rebel against English authority and gain their independence in 1921.
Just as with Ireland, the current configuration is not set in stone; in autumn 2014, Scotland will hold a referendum to decide whether it too will become independent and leave the United Kingdom. Indeed, the United Kingdom, which took centuries for England to painstakingly cobble together, could very well disappear before the end of the century.
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Back To CourseAP European History: Exam Prep
27 chapters | 244 lessons