Great Britain and England

British Islands. Celts. Roman. Christianity

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Great Britain - England

The name Britain comes from the Latin name Britannia, which the ancient Romans applied to the island, and the name Britain is still widely used to mean Great Britain or even all of the British Isles.

Pre-Roman Britain

Before the Roman conquest of Britain in the 1st century AD, the island was not significant in the history of Western civilization. The first detailed description of it and its inhabitants was written by the Greek navigator Pytheas, who explored the coastal region about 325 BC. Little trace, however, has been left of the language or civilization of the original inhabitants, other than megalithic monuments, such as Stonehenge, which date from the Bronze Age (circa 2000 BC). Between the Bronze Age and about the 6th century BC, Britain was inhabited by Picts and European Celts, who periodically invaded the British Isles until the 1st century BC.

Roman Britain

Julius Caesar invaded Britain in 55 BC and returned the following year to defeat the native forces. The inhabitants, referred to collectively as Britons, maintained political freedom and paid tribute to Rome for almost a century before the Roman emperor Claudius I initiated the systematic conquest of Britain in AD 43. By 47, Roman legions had occupied all the island south of the Humber River and east of the Severn River. The tribes, notably the Silures, inhabitants of what are now the Wales and Yorkshire regions, resisted stubbornly for more than 30 years, a period that was marked by the abortive and bloody rebellion in 61 led by the native queen Boudicca. At this time Britain became an imperial province of Rome, called Britannia, administered by Roman governors. About 79, Roman legions subdued the tribes in Wales and established partial control over those in Yorkshire. Between 79 and 85, Roman forces commanded by Gnaeus Julius Agricola moved through the northern section of the island, completing their conquest to the Firth of Forth. Agricola also pushed northward into Caledonia (now called Scotland), but the region between the firths of Forth and Clyde remained disputed territory. The Caledonian tribes, the Picts, retained their independence.

Little is known of the relations between the Britons and their conquerors between 85 and 115. Shortly after 115, the natives rose in revolt against their overlords and annihilated the Roman garrison at Eboracum (now York). As a result, the Roman emperor Hadrian visited Britain in 122 and began the construction of a rampart 117 km long, reaching from Solway Firth, on the Irish Sea, to the mouth of the Tyne River. Fragments of this wall, called Hadrian's wall, still stand. Twenty years later, another wall, called the Antonine Wall, was built across the narrowest part of the island, from the Firth of Forth to the Firth of Clyde. The region between the two walls was a defense area against the Caledonians, who were eventually driven north of Hadrian's Wall in the 3rd century. The wall marked the northern Roman frontier during the next 200 years, a period of relative peace.

During the period of conquest and military campaigns, Britain was a military stronghold of the Roman army, but the people of Britain benefited from Roman technology and cultural influences. The native tribes became familiar with many features of Roman civilization, including its legal and political systems, architecture, and engineering. Numerous towns were established, and these strongholds were linked by a vast network of military highways, many remnants of which survive. Archaeological evidence from the occupation period indicates that the Romans brought their entire culture to Britain. In general, however, only the native nobility, the wealthier classes, and the town residents accepted the Roman language and way of life, while the Britons in outlying regions retained their native culture.

At the end of the 3rd century, the Roman army began to withdraw from Britain to defend other parts of the Roman Empire. In 410, when the Visigoths invaded Rome, the last of the Roman legions were withdrawn from the island. Celtic culture again became predominant, and Roman civilization in Britain rapidly disintegrated. Roman influence virtually disappeared during the Germanic invasions in the 5th and 6th centuries. Thereafter the culture of the Angles and Saxons spread throughout the island. Historians refer to Britain after the Germanic invasions as England, Scotland, and Wales.

Religion

The Church of England, a Protestant Episcopal denomination, is the state church and the nominal church of nearly three-fifths of the population. The denomination next in importance is the Roman Catholic church, which has about 6 million members in England. Among the numerous Protestant denominations are the Methodist, Baptist, Congregationalist, Unitarian, and Society of Friends. England also has about 600,000 Muslims and 350,000 Jews. Large communities of Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs have immigrated to England since the 1950s.

Reintroduction of Christianity

The dominant themes of the next two centuries were the success of Christianity and the political unification of England. Christianity came from two directions Rome and Ireland. In 596 Pope Gregory I sent a group of missionaries under a monk named Augustine to Kent, where King Ethelbert had married Bertha, a Christian Frankish princess. Soon after, Ethelbert was baptized, Augustine became the first archbishop of Canterbury, and the southern kingdoms became Christian.

In Northumbria the Christianity from Rome met Celtic Christianity, which had been brought from Ireland to Scotland by Saint Columba and then to Northumbria by Saint Aidan, who founded the monastery of Lindisfarne in 635. Although not heretical, the Celtic church differed from Rome in the way the monks tonsured their heads, in its reckoning of the date of Easter, and, most important, in its organization, which reflected the clans of Ireland rather than the highly centralized Roman Empire. At the Synod of Whitby in 664, Northumbria's King Oswy chose to go with Rome, giving England a common religion and a vivid example of unification. Theodore of Tarsus, who became archbishop of Canterbury in 668, created dioceses and gave the English church its basic structure.

The meeting in Northumbria of Celtic and Mediterranean scholarship produced a flowering of letters unequaled in western Europe. The Venerable Bede, a Northumbrian monk, was the outstanding European scholar of his age. His Ecclesiastical History of the English People made popular the use of BC and AD to date historical events. It also treated England as a unit, even while it was still divided among several kingdoms. Charlemagne chose Alcuin of York, another Northumbrian, to head his palace school.

Culture

Little is known of the earliest inhabitants of England. The megaliths at Stonehenge attest to the early presence of an able people, as do early historical and archaeological reports, but the first lasting influence on English culture was contributed by the Celts. Roads and ruins bear witness to the Roman occupation, which began with the invasion of Julius Caesar in 55 BC and extended until the 5th century AD. Christianity was introduced by Roman soldiers but made little headway with the populace, and its spread awaited the arrival of Saint Augustine, first archbishop of Canterbury, in the 6th century.

Following the Roman departure, the Saxons became dominant. A record of their era is provided by the annals known as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and by the writings of Saint Bede the Venerable, the theologian and historian. The Norman Conquest in 1066 overthrew the Saxon dominance and, in its mixing of elements from the Saxon and Celtic past with the Norman, created a new culture. The Normans introduced feudalism and the French language to the upper classes. From the 11th to the 14th century French was used at court and in vernacular literature; Latin was used in scholarly literature.

A major task for William the Conqueror and his successors was the amalgamation of Norman and Saxon and their common defense against warlike factions in Scotland, Wales, and Scandinavia. A stable social order directed toward these goals evolved slowly; elements of it still persist today. For example, both the strong class system of the English and their hereditary peerage have their roots in the Norman period.

The decline of feudalism, starting late in the 14th century, led in England as elsewhere to the rise of cities and the development of a middle class. By the 14th century a national secular culture was beginning to emerge, and the English language (an amalgam of Anglo-Saxon and Norman-French elements) was being adopted by the educated. The English, however, had unique limitations caused by the size of their island and the limited type and amount of resources found there. To fill their needs they developed into a nation of traders and mariners. The exploits of Sir Francis Drake and the defeat of the Spanish Armada (1588) led to commercial advantage as much as to naval victories. Supremacy at sea not only gained England an empire but put the English in touch with peoples the world over. Wealth flowed back to the island in consequence, and so did ideas that enriched the traditions of England. Limited local work forces contributed to the invention of machines and to the earliest manifestations of what became known as the Industrial Revolution.

Among the prime traditions of the English are a fierce pride in their freedom, a unity against adversity, and an ability to bring differing factions together in compromise. Pride in being English is also a national trait, although the English show considerable diversity in habits, manners, and even in speech. Perhaps because of this diversity, the closest thing to a national holiday in England is Guy Fawkes Day, celebrated on November 5. The sports most favored are cricket, rugby football, association football and tennis. Both dog and horse racing are also popular.

Libraries and Museums

More than 500 public library authorities administer some 40,000 branch libraries throughout Great Britain. Among the libraries in London are the British Library, the various divisions of which constitute the largest library in Great Britain; the University of London Central Library; the Science Museum Library; and the Public Record Office Library, which contains the National Archives. Many cities and towns have museums of art, natural history, and archaeology. The best-known and largest museum is the British Museum in London, which contains collections of art and archaeological specimens from all over the world. Other outstanding museums in London are the Tate Gallery, the National Gallery, and the Victoria and Albert Museum.

The Ice Age, during which Neandertals and then Cro-Magnons inhabited Great Britain, ended about 8000 BC. The rising sea level produced the English Channel and made Great Britain an island. In the new environment of forest and swamp the Middle Stone Age came and passed, followed by the New Stone Age, during which the practice of agriculture was begun. This period brought a stream of new people to Britain. By 3000 BC the Iberians, or Long Skulls, were farming the chalk soil of southern England, and by 2500 BC the pastoral Beaker folk had established themselves. The latter, named for their characteristic pottery, are noted for their bronze tools and their huge stone monuments, especially Stonehenge. These monuments attest to their social and economic organization as well as their technical skill and intellectual ability.

In the 1st millennium BC the Celts overran the British Isles, as they did virtually all of western Europe. With iron plows they cultivated the heavy soil of the river valleys; with iron weapons and two-wheeled, horse-drawn chariots, they subdued and absorbed the indigenous inhabitants of the islands. Their priests, the Druids, dominated their society.

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