England — History and Culture
There is archeological evidence to suggest that England has been inhabited for about 700,000 years. However, it wasn’t until about 4,000 BCE that groups we know of began to settle and start farming the lands, especially in the south of the country. It was around this time that the mysterious Stonehenge is believed to have been constructed. In the centuries that followed, the migration of people known as the Celts from Central Europe consumed the country and by 500 BCE, they were the main inhabitants divided into a number of tribes throughout the new nation. Up until 1066, England was invaded a number of times by European and Scandinavian tribes before settling down into a period of monarchic rule. After the industrial revolution, the British Empire went on to rule a vast portion of the world before a period of decolonization after WWII.
Around the turn of the 1st millennium, the ever-expanding Roman legions made their way from modern-day France to the shores of England. While some of the natives initially put up a fight against the domineering forces of Rome in what is now England and Wales, the then Britannia was firmly under the control of Emperor Claudius by CE 80. For more than four centuries, the Romans ruled the land, introducing wealth, stability, and structure to the young nation. However, the declining strength of the empire’s stronghold in mainland Europe meant that by CE 410, Rome abandoned Britannia, leaving it essentially without a commander-in-chief and throwing it back into the hands of feudal, power-hungry warlords.
Over the next two centuries, tribes from the modern-day Germany, known as the Angles and Saxons, sailed the English Channel and picked up where the Romans left off. The impact they had on the country was huge, pushing out the Christian religion initiated by Rome and replacing it with Paganism, and instilling the Anglo-Saxon dialect, from which the English language stems. Christianity did, however, slowly begin to reemerge over the coming years.
It wasn’t long before young England was once again paid a visit by unwelcome guests, this time the Vikings. Hailing from Scandinavia, tribes of ruthless conquerors began their mission in the north, setting up camp in today’s York. They would come up against armies of the legendary Alfred the Great, the southern Anglo-Saxon king and first proclaimed monarch of England. Alfred pushed the Vikings north, causing a divide between the northern and southern regions of the country. For the next century, battles raged on between the competing tribes, with the throne passed back and forth time and time again. However, as a new millennium dawned, another competitor for the crown entered the ring.
Things in the country were comparatively stable for a short time under the rule of Edward the Confessor until his death in 1066. Edward’s mother passed the crown on to his brother-in-law Harold Godwinson. Unfortunately for the new king, Edward’s cousin William of Normandy believed his claim to the throne was stronger. He formed an army and headed across the Channel to fight for it. The Battle of Hastings in 1066 is one of the most famous events in English history, as William succeeded in defeating the Anglo-Saxon army and conquering the rest of the country. This would be the last successful invasion of England.
The Normans efficiently went about implementing a feudal class system, placing the king at the top and everybody else, in ranking order, below. This hierarchy was upheld until 1215, when the ruling King John was forced by his barons to sign the Magna Carta, reducing his absolute control. In essence, this symbolic document was not only the first human rights bill, but also the building blocks of the country’s first parliament. While this may sound like the start of democracy, the feudal system continued to suppress those at the bottom, leading to the unsuccessful Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.
Infighting at the top never really stopped and Henrys, Edwards, and Richards came and went along with wars with France, and for a short time, civil war between the Houses of Lancaster and York. The House of Plantagenet, whose lengthy rule over the country lasted from 1154 to 1485, was eventually replaced by a new dynasty, the Tudors. While the first monarch of the House of Tudor, Henry VII, tends to be forgotten in favor of his erratic son, Henry VIII, he did bring about much needed stability to the country.
Henry VIII is best remembered for his six wives, two of which he had beheaded, and his dismissal of the Roman Catholic Church and creation of the Church of England. After his death, his three children ascended to the throne, with the third, Elizabeth I, becoming one of the country’s most successful monarchs. She united a fractured country and oversaw a golden period which included an increase in England’s global reach thanks to the exploration of Walter Raleigh and Francis Drake, and a period of booming culture spearheaded by William Shakespeare.
Although England’s international presence was steadily growing, problems back home continued to brew between the Protestants and Catholics, and the crown and parliament, bubbling over in 1644 in civil war. The monarchy was overthrown, Charles I was beheaded, and a republic led by Oliver Crowell was formed. The republic lasted for little over a decade before the monarchy was restored, bringing with it a new age of expansion and the first steps towards the creation of the empire.
During the 18th century, the bickering over the crown died down as the kings relied more on parliament to govern the nation, paving the way for today’s constitutional monarchy system. The empire expanded throughout Asia, the Americas, and Australia, while back home it was full-steam ahead for the Industrial Revolution. The landscape and population rapidly changed, and with mass migration from the country to new cities built upon industry, England started to dominate world trade. For the next 100 years, the country experienced its golden era under the strong leadership of Queen Victoria. However, what goes up, must come down, and with the transition into the first half of the 20th century came poor governance, depression, and two world wars, devastating the English people and firmly hammering the nails in the empirical coffin.
England didn’t really recover until the 1960’s, which saw a cultural revolution led by the boys from Liverpool, The Beatles, and economic good fortune which inspired Prime Minister Harold Macmillan to proclaim, “We’ve never had it so good”, and he was right. Over the next few decades, England experienced economic and social decline, as the list of dependents on the welfare state increased alongside the growing wealth of big business, particularly under the rule of the Conservatives and Margaret Thatcher. After becoming England’s longest serving prime minister, Thatcher was eventually ousted in 1990.
Due to its long and prestigious history, England’s culture is rich, recognizable, and has been exported to most corners of the world. The nation has, for centuries, been one of the world’s epicenters for fantastic art, literature, theatre, music, and the birthplace of industry. Even within this small country, the culture is divided regionally, with the heart of the economy located in the south, primarily in London, and the north traditionally serving as the heart of industry. Yet in the past 30 years, considerable deindustrialization has affected the north, resulting in a great deal of significant music, art, and film. During the same period, immigration from former British colonies has started to change the face of traditional England, especially in major cities, such as London and Manchester. The British are known for being prim and proper people, fiercely loyal to their heritage and proud of their crown, highly competitive in sports and academia alike.