English History

A basic History of England

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Mythic Past
Before the Normans
The Norman Conquest
The Plantagenets
The Hundred Years' War
The War of the Roses
The Tudors
The Civil War
The Restoration
After


Mythic past

Stonehenge
Stonehenge

Very little is known about Pre-Roman England. There are several theories as to how long people have lived on the island, and where they came from. What is known is that at some time before the Bronze Age tribes of Gauls (AKA Celts) from the mainland migrated to the British Isles. Some settled in England, such as the Cornish tribe, the Welsh tribe, and the Manx tribe. In the north the Scots tribe settled. There is some debate about whether the Pict tribe settled with the Scots, or were there before the Scots settled in Scotland. Either way the two tribes remained separate and distinct until after the Roman invasion. Other tribes continued to settle Ireland. During the Bronze age the Celtic tribes developed a culture, though we know little about it. At this time Stonehenge, and other stone circles were constructed. The Story of King Lear takes place during this time in England’s history.


Before the Normans

Roman Baths in Bath England
Roman Baths in Bath England

In 55 BC and 54 BC Julius Caesar invaded England encountering the Britons for the first time. Caesar did not actually control much of England, and when he abandons the island it fell back under the control of the Britons. Cunobelinus ruled as king after Caesar left, Shakespeare’s Cymbeline is based off of stories of Cunobelinus. Later, in 43 AD Claudius invaded England and officially annexed it into the Roman Empire. Britannia remained in the empire for over 300 years. During the reign of Hadrian a wall was built along the border of England and Scotland to keep the Scots and Picts out. Around the year 306 AD Constantine was first named Emperor of Rome in England. From there he marched on Rome and officially became the Emperor, and eventually made Christianity the official religion of Rome. Around 399 AD the Romans began pulling out of Britain, needing their resources to fight against Persia in the East.

After the Romans pulled out England was open to other invaders. The main invasions came from the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes, three tribes of Danes. In the next 500 years several kingdoms comprised of a mix of Danes and Celts formed. Unification began with [Wikipedia: Alfred_the_Great Alfred the Great], king of Wessex. He worked to gain power over all the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, after a stunning victory over invading Danes. Alfred’s work continued on in many of his descendants. By the 10th century England was under one monarch, Ethelred the Unready. Once again, the Danes attacked, and successfully occupied England.

By 1042 the native monarchy had regained power, and [Wikipedia: Edward_the_Confessor Edward the Confessor] sat on the throne. Unfortunately the next heir was no solidified. A descendant of the Danish kings, Harold Godwinson a cousin of Edward, and William of Normandy all claimed the throne at Edward’s death. Harold took power after Edward died, but William invaded on October 6th, 1066. In the Battle of Hastings the Norman king won and established a new monarchy that held England, and the French Duchy of Normandy. William the Conqueror’s descendants still sit on the English throne.


The Norman Conquest

Detail from the Bayeux Tapestry depicting a scene from the Battle of Hastings
Detail from the Bayeux Tapestry depicting a scene from the Battle of Hastings

The usurpation of the English throne by William I had some far reaching consequences. The first was the language. Before the Norman conquest the language of England was Old English, an Anglo-Saxon dialect. Today Old English is nearly incomprehensible to English speakers who have not had training. Being from France William brought the French language with him. For many years the nobility spoke French, while the peasants spoke Old English. The languages eventually merged into Middle English, the language that was spoken during the Hundred Years war, and the War of the Roses. This is why in English we have the word Beef for cow meat and poultry for chicken meat. Beef and Poultry come from the French, and were the nobilities’ terms, cow and chicken are the Anglo-Saxon peasant terms for the meats. It was in 1470, with the introduction of the Printing Press to England that Middle English began to change, it became Early Modern English, the language of Shakespeare. Modern English begins to take shape in the 1650’s, though the difference is mainly in the lack of certain anachronisms, and a codified set of spellings and grammatical rules. The Normans also brought their art and architecture to England. The Anglo-Saxon art and architecture was virtually destroyed, or recreated: very little remains for study.

William I’s French ancestry brought a connection with the French crown. While William was King of England, he was also the Duke of Normandy, and a vassal of the French king. This tension creates many problems between France and England, including the Hundred Years war. In fact all of the Norman kings and several of the Plantagenet kings of England are buried in Normandy, France. The fourth and last Norman king, Stephen, was the first king to be buried in England after the Norman Conquest


The Plantagenets

The Magna Carta
The Magna Carta

The Plantagenets became the royal family after Stephen’s death. Henry II was the first of this line. Until King John’s disastrous reign, the Plantagenets considered England second to their lands in France. John lost many of the Plantagenet holdings in France, and thereby stripped the Kings of England of their French lands. John also came into contention with the Barons of England. A civil war with the Barons forced John to sign the Magna Carta, a document that outlines the King’s power in the land. This document weakened the King’s ultimate power, forcing him to concede certain rights to the Barons. This document formed the basis for the Parliament that would eventually come to rule England.

Edward III, the last great Plantagenet king, ruled England for over fifty years During his long reign he began a war with France that would become the hundred Hundred Years war, and he fathered many sons, a situation that would eventually become the War of the Roses. Richard II, Edward III’s grandson was the last Plantagenet king to rule England.


The Hundred Years' War
Due to the length and importance of this period in England's history the article is has its own page here.


The War of the Roses
Due to the length and importance of this period in England's history the article is has its own page here.


The Tudors

Henry VIII by Holbein
Henry VIII by Holbein

Henry VII claimed victory at the Battle of Bosworth field, ended the War of the Roses, and in marriage to Elizabeth of York united the two great houses of York and Lancaster. He became the progenitor of the Tudor line of English monarchs. The Tudors are perhaps the most famous of the English monarchs. Under their rule England became a European power, and began the long ascent to the British Empire of Queen Victoria.

Henry VII worked to solidify his reign in England. He understood the power of propaganda. It was in fact Henry VII and his wife Elizabeth of York who choose the roses. As a Lancaster descendant, Henry VII chose the red rose as a symbol of that family, as a York Elizabeth chose the white rose. Henry then created the Tudor rose, a combination of the Lancaster and York roses (sometimes shown as a pink rose, sometimes as a white over red rose). The term “War of the Roses” comes about even later, after Shakespeare’s time in fact.

Henry VII named his oldest son after England’s most famous king, Arthur. Arthur was married to Catherine of Aragon, daughter of the king of Aragon (Part of Spain). Unfortunately Arthur died before He could become king. Catherine was married to Henry VII’s second son, the future Henry VIII.

Henry VIII is arguably the most famous king of England. Like his father, Henry VIII was solidifying the Tudor dynasty, and ensuring the next generation of English monarchs. After 24 years of marriage, Catherine had bore one child, Mary. Henry VIII began the quest for a suitable mate to produce a son, a quest that became know and Henry’s Great Matter. Cardinal Thomas Wolsey was first put in charge of procuring an annulment of Henry’s marriage to Catherine, so he could marry Anne Boleyn, one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting. Henry argued that the marriage was cursed and illegal in the eyes of the church because Catherine had been married to his brother, and that the marriage had been consummated, though Catherine testified that her marriage to Arthur had not been consummated. As the Pope was at the time a prisoner of the [Wikipedia:Charles_V,_Holy_Roman_Emperor Holy Roman Emperor], Catherine’s nephew, the Pope was unwilling to grant a request that would upset his captor. In Henry’s eyes the failure was Wolsey’s. Henry would have executed Wolsey, save that Wolsey died of natural causes before Henry could act. Henry appointed Cranmer to annul his marriage. Cranmer held a council in England, and eventually annulled the wedding, and legitimized Henry’s secret marriage to Anne.

Henry VIII and his six wives
Henry VIII and his six wives

Eventually, after many heated arguments, the Pope excommunicated Henry and Cranmer for their actions. Henry, working with Parliament, declared himself the head of the English Church, and officially made England a protestant country, becoming the largest country to become protestant. Anne bore one child, Elizabeth, for Henry. After three years of miscarriages, Henry began looking for another wife. He accused Anne of using witchcraft to coerce him into the marriage, and declared that she had committed incest with her brother. Anne became the first English Queen to be executed. Within two weeks Henry married Jane Seymour, one of Anne’s ladies-in-waiting.

During his marriage to Jane, three important things happened. First Henry granted his assent to the Laws in Wales act that officially joined Wales and England into a single nation. With the parliament he then created the Act of Succession 1536, which declared Mary and Elizabeth to be illegitimate, and excluded them from the throne. The act also granted the King the power to declare the line of succession in his will. Finally, Jane gave birth to Prince Edward, but she died of complications from the birth. Henry now had a son.

Henry married three more times, his next wife was Anne of Cleves, the daughter of the protestant Duke of Cleves. Hans Holbein was dispatched to Cleves in order to paint Anne’s portrait. Henry, enamored of the portrait, agreed to marry Anne. When Anne finally arrived, Henry found her to be repulsive, reportedly calling her the “Flanders’s Mare.” Anne was reportedly not pleased with Henry either. Eventually the marriage was annulled, and Anne was given the title the “King’s sister” and Hever castle in which to live. This unfortunate marriage led to the death of yet another of Henry’s aides, Thomas Cromwell, who had pushed for the marriage. Holbein escaped punishment.

The day of Cromwell’s death Henry married Catherine Howard, a cousin of Anne Boleyn. Unfortunately Catherine was just as lusty as Henry, she had several affairs, including one before the marriage. Cranmer, who was opposed to the powerful Catholic Howard family, brought this news to the King, who eventually set Cranmer to investigating the affairs. Catherine eventually became the second English Queen to be executed. In the same year Henry ordered the last of the monasteries to be dissolved (he had been working on them for some time). The property and land of the monasteries came to the crown.

Henry’s final wife was Catherine Parr, a wealthy widow. She argued with Henry over religions reform, but also helped to reconcile Henry w9ith his two older daughters, Elizabeth and Mary. In 1544 by act of Parliament, Mary and Elizabeth were put back into the line of succession, after Edward. Catherine Parr lived a full life, surviving Henry by several years.

After Henry VIII’s death, his only surviving legitimate son, Edward VI, took the throne. Edward was a young king, crowned at the age of 9. His uncle, Edward Seymour, the 1st Duke of Somerset and later John Dudley, the 1st Duke of Northumberland ruled the Regency Council that held power in England during Edward’s reign. Somerset and Northumberland moved the protestant conversion of England further along, moving it further away from Catholicism. When Edward fell ill in 1553 the Council drew up a device for the succession that would prevent Henry VIII’s oldest daughter, Mary, from the throne, as Mary was a devout Catholic. Lady Jane Grey, Edward’s cousin, was named heir. Jane survived as queen for nine days before the Privy council was forced to proclaim Mary queen due to uprisings all over the country.

Mary I, sometimes known as Bloody Mary, married King Philip II of Spain in an effort to produce an heir and bar her protestant sister Elizabeth from succeeding and queen. Mary earned the epithet “Bloody” by burning some 300 religious descanters during her reign. Mary suffered two phantom pregnancies, but did not produce an heir, so that on her death in 1558 Elizabeth became queen.

Elizabeth I restored the protestant church of England, and ruled England over 40 years. It is debatable whether Elizabeth or Victoria is the most famous English Queen. In all her 80 years Elizabeth never married, and is thus known as the Virgin Queen. She used this title in many of her portraits, pieces that were made for propaganda purposes. During her reign there were several uprisings, and several attempts on her life, though none were successful. An uprising in Scotland placed Mary Queen of Scots into Elizabeth’s hands. At that time the Catholic Mary was the successor for the English Crown. Mary could not be delivered back to Scotland, and she could not be allowed to run free in England, so Elizabeth imprisoned her in England. Mary was forced to abdicate in favor of your young son, James, who was raised by the protestant rebles in Scotland. Many plots centered on the imprisoned Mary, including the Ridolfi Plot and the Babington Plot. These, and other problems, led Sir Francis Walsingham to assemble a case against Mary. Eventually Mary was beheaded by Elizabeth’s order. Mary’s execution was a first in European history; no monarch had ever been executed by another in this manner. Even Elizabeth was unsure whether she had any legal right to put Mary on trial, let alone execute her.

Elizabeth attempted to avoid war, but the world around her made that difficult. Before Mary’s execution Elizabeth had sent an army to aid the Protestant Dutch rebels in the Spanish controlled Netherlands. The operation, lead by Robert Dudley Earl of Leicester went badly, and Dudly resigned in 1587, his reputation, and campaign in the Netherlands in tatters. In 1588 Philip II, believing he was the Hand of God acting against the excommunicated Elizabeth, took the war to England. The Spanish armada massed of the southeast coast of England in late July. The Armada was defeated by a combination of miscalculation and misfortune. The Spanish came onto the English fleet trapped in Plymouth harbor. Instead of attacking, the Spanish opted to sail to the Isle of Wight, the English fleet gave chance. The English used the weather to their advantage in tacking upwind of the Spanish fleet near the Isle of Wight. Over the next week things went badly for the Spanish. They lost two galleons to accidents, these ships were captured by the English, supplying them with much needed gunpowder. Eventually the Spanish fleet was forced to take harbor in Calais, waiting for the Duke of Parma, who commanded the land force that the Armada was supposed to help land on England. The Spanish fleet found itself cornered by the English fleet, and Dutch flyboats. On the night of July 28th English fire ships attacked the Spanish. No Spanish ships were burned, but the confusion of the night scattered the fleet, and broke their crescent formation. The Armada was now scattered to far from Calais to recover its position, and a rising storm was heading in. The English moved in for an attack around the small Flanders’ port of Gravelines.

The Armada portrait of Elizabeth I
The Armada portrait of Elizabeth I

The Spanish strategy was to fire their massive cannons once, and then the men would climb into the rigging to prepare for hand to hand combat. Unfortunately the English chose a different tactic. With superior maneuverability the English fleet provoked the Spanish to fire, without getting into range of the big guns. Once the Spanish has spent their heavy shot, the English moved in to broadside the Spanish galleons. Five Spanish ships were lost in this engagement, many others were severely damaged. This engagement forced the Armada to break off its plan to join with Parma’s army, but the Armada remained in English waters. The Spanish Armada headed north, and eventually due to dwindling food and water plotted a course home sailing around Scotland and Ireland and finally back to Spain. However the Spanish did not prepare for the dangerous waters of the North Atlantic. Many Spanish ships wrecked on the Coast of Ireland, and the survivors found themselves at the mercy of both Irish and English forces, though some Spaniards were protected by the Irish. Eventually 67 of the original 130 ships returned to Spain, many of those who made it home to Spain died later of disease. The Spanish Armada was touted as the most Victorious English battle sense Agincourt. The victory boosted the English moral, and Elizabeth’s popularity.
Elizabeth died with no children, so James VI of Scotland was named King. James became the first of the Stuart (sometimes Stewart) line of kings, though he was the great-great-grandson of Henry VII. James continued to support the protestant religion of Elizabeth, even commissioning a new translation of the Bible into English, commonly known as the King James Version of the Bible. James supported the arts, and made every attempt to make peace in Europe, including with Spain and France. There were several attempts on his life, the most famous being the Gunpowder Plot: an event that Shakespeare hints at in Macbeth. James was not, however, good with money and spent far more than he took in. When Charles, James’s son, took the crown in 1625 his actions, along with James’ lavish spending lead to disaster for the English monarchy.


The Civil War

Oliver Cromwell
Oliver Cromwell

Charles I supported the Arminian religion, a protestant faith, but one that seemed by many to be too close to Catholicism. This support, and Charles’ insistence on the divine right of kings, lead to many conflicts with the Puritan parliament of the time. Eventually this conflict of interest broke down into a civil war between the Puritan parliamentary and the Cavalier Royal factions. In 1647, after sever losses to the Parliamentary forced, Charles fled to Scotland, where in accordance with certain treaties, the Scots handed Charles over to the Parliament. Charles was tried for tyranny by the Parliament, an unprecedented move by the parliament. No reigning monarch had ever been tried by their own people. The trial went badly for Charles who refused to accept the court’s jurisdiction. Charles was sentenced to death, and on January 30th, 1649 was publicly beheaded at Whitehall Palace. After Charles I’s death England became a commonwealth, ruled by the Parliament. Eventually the general of the Parliament’s New Model Army, Oliver Cromwell, took dictatorial command of England and ruled as Lord Protector until his death in 1558. After his son Richard Cromwell became the Lord Protector for nine months, after which many political and financial troubled force Richard to resign as the Lord Protector. For about a year England was controlled by the Council of State, until they invited Charles II to assume the crown in 1660.

Charles II had been crowned as King of Scotland after his father’s death, but fled to the continent. After Richard Cromwell’s resignation Charles II was asked to return as the King by General George Monck who forced the Council of State to dissolve.


The Restoration

William and Mary
William and Mary

Charles II had no surviving children, so his brother, James became King James II upon Charles’ death. James caused problems because he was a Catholic, and worked toward an absolute monarchy. After three years the people of England banded together in what is known as the Glorious Revolution and declared James II to have abdicated on December 11th, 1688, the Scottish Parliament declared him to have forfeited the Scottish throne in April of 1689 and Mary II and William III were declared the monarchs of England and Scotland. William III and Mary II were the only joint monarchs of England. When they took power they signed the English bill of rights that define a new cooperation between the Parliament and the Monarchs of England.


After

1838 portrait of Queen Victoria
1838 portrait of Queen Victoria

After both Willaim and Mary died Mary’s sister, Anne, was named Queen. She ruled for five years as the queen of England. In 1707 the Act of Union was passed and England became part of a larger kingdom, Great Britain, or the United Kingdom. Anne ruled for seven years after as the first Queen of Great Britain. Anne was the last of the restored Stuart monarchs. After her death the great grandson of James I, George of Hanover, was named King. The Hanovers ruled England until the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, after nearly 70 years on the throne. During that time England lost the American colonies, and a second war with the new Unites States of America. They did, however add to the great empire of Britain, including Australia, New Zeeland, India, and many smaller holdings. During Victoria’s reign England was the most powerful country in the world. (Image: 1838 portrait of Queen Victoria)

Edward VII, the son of Victoria and Prince Albert was the only Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (His father’s surname) to rule England. In 1917, during WWI, the name was changed from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor due to anti German sentiment. The Windsor’s reign in England to this day, and by royal decree from Elizabeth II, all heirs to the throne will take the name Windsor.

Elizabeth II at her coronation
Elizabeth II at her coronation

The Power of the English monarch has continued to diminish. Presently the monarch is simply a patriotic figurehead; Elizabeth II has no real governmental powers. The British monarchy is, however, the longest continual monarchy still active in Europe today.

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