English History - A Condensed Version for the Average Tourist
Created | Updated May 6, 2014
So, you're visiting England? Taking in some of the sights, perhaps wandering about London as well? But you'd like to learn a little bit more about English history than what you'd glean from the back of your average tourist brochure, from the top of a big red bus, or from the driver of a Black Cab? The following condensed history of England will hopefully entertain that desire.
Prehistoric Ug and Ugette hunt wolves, bears, mammoths and anything else big and furry in the forests of England. Then they start making clans, and doing weird stuff with stones, and stacking rocks on top of other rocks. A few blokes call themselves Druids and take to wearing long beards, white gowns and pruning mistletoe. Then the Romans find out about this lovely spot just off the coast of France that'd be great for the summer hols.
60 AD: Roman 'England'
When the Romans arrive they introduce straight roads, agriculture, and their own special brand of living. By 50 AD, the city of Londinium is a thriving community on the river Thames. However, by 60 AD the Iceni1 chieftain's wife, Boudicca (who has a nice big statue at the corner of Westminster Bridge), decided that after her husband had died she should have a crack at fighting the Roman invaders too. So she put down her knitting, led the Iceni revolt against the Romans, and set fire to London (something it was going to have to get used to). The Romans defeat the Warrior Queen, and decide to lay off the locals for a bit, but still build a big wall around Londinium - just to be on the safe side.
The 5th & 6th Centuries: the Anglo-Saxons
By about 400 AD, the Romans had had just about enough of the Visigoths (the Barbarian Hordes if you like) rampaging through their Empire, so started withdrawing their armies from England. Come 410 AD they're all pretty much gone, but have left their mark on British culture. During the 4th and 5th Centuries England accepts immigrants from the regions of Angles and Saxony in Germany2. The lovely green fields of England are perfect for these farmers, and the Anglo-Saxons soon flourish. This new cultural mix brings about not only new farming techniques, the pulling down of a lot of Roman buildings, but also the development of a language which later became known as English - a rather successful method of communication.
789 AD: Viking Longships
According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the Vikings (Danes) cross the sea from the north to invade England, and settle in (amongst other places dotted along the north-east coast) Jorvik. There's a bit of the usual Viking raping, pillaging and plundering, but there's also quite a bit of socialising. The Danes don't have it easy though, as King Alfred makes life very difficult for the invaders during the mid to late 9th Century. He frees London, establishes the Danelaw, and is a continual thorn in the paw for the Vikings. He creates the first English Navy, a working Parliament, and a decent education system (although he only managed this because he convinced his subjects that the Viking raids were penance for their lack of smarts).
1066 AD: the Battle of Hastings
The Norman Conquest, when the French Normans teach the natives who's boss, William the Conqueror rides his horse up the aisle of Westminster Abbey (a big cathedral near the Houses of Parliament), then builds the Tower of London (a big castle-type thing on the Thames near Tower Bridge), conducts the Devastation of the North and initiates the Domesday Book. England turns to Europe and away from Scandinavia, thus blowing the whistle for the official kick-off of the Anglo-French love-hate games. The score still stands at:
France: 1 (the Battle of Hastings).
England: 2 (Trafalgar and Waterloo respectively, although some historians would include the various battles of Eurovision too).
The 12th Century: Family Squabbles
By the middle of the 1100s there is civil war between King Stephen and Empress Matilda. Stephen takes the throne, and Matilda wants it, so they fight over it for a while. Stephen dies, Matilda gets it, then she dies, leaving the ruling to Henry II. He manages to get England back on track, and spawns a couple of sons, Richard and John - who go on to play quite important roles in the history of the country. John is a bit of a weenie, and his father calls him John Lackland (due to his lack of land - quite a wit that Henry II), and Richard becomes king when Henry II joins the choir invisible. Richard takes an aggressive stance as King and rallies the English army, and with the blessing of the church goes off a-crusading and adopting some Turkish-born dragon-slaying knight called George as the Patron Saint of England.
1215 AD: The Magna Carta
After King Richard the Lionheart and his knights have finished crusading, he dies and leaves England in the hands of his little brother John (who incidentally appears to have some trouble keeping a certain Robin Hood under control). In 1215, the Magna Carta is signed between King John (singing his smash hit, 'Divine Right of Kings') and the English nobles (who then grab hold of the city of London and say, 'We really need to talk...'). Key provision of the document: even the King is not above The Law. Many later monarchs will continually try to weasel out of this little clause during much of the Middle Ages.
The 14th Century: Bring Out Your Dead...
The Black Death, or Plague, officially comes to England (and London) in 1348, and many people are afflicted. In fact, one in three of the population is struck down by the horrible disease. King Edward III does remarkably well at keeping people's spirits up, most probably by encouraging them to join the army and go off to France and kill loads of Frenchmen, like they did at the battle of Crécy - and for much of the Hundred Years War. Parliament no longer speaks French, and everybody is reading English - particularly the works of a bloke called Chaucer. When Edward III shuffled off his mortal coil though, his son Richard II soon found that people didn't really want to keep dying, either from plague or military service, and there was a revolt that finished up in London. King Richard II was convinced by Wat Tyler to do something for the people. He did, and then hung a lot more for being traitors.
The 15th Century: Everything's Coming Up Roses
Richard II is deposed for starters, then in 1415 England is at war with France (again), and the Battle of Agincourt sees the English longbow and the bowmen's fingers going down in the history books (with the fact that England lost the war in the end sort of glossed over...). A chap called Richard Whittington becomes the Mayor of London - three times, and many a poor man seeks his fortune in the city also. Towards the middle of the century, the Wars of the Roses between the Houses of York and Lancaster take up much of England's time. The latter part of the 1400s sees King Richard III taking the limelight by apparently killing a couple of royal twins in the Tower of London, grabbing the throne and then apologising for the murders - from the relative 'safety' of the throne. In 1485 Richard III is defeated at the Battle of Bosworth Field, and the country goes all Tudor.
The 16th Century: Tudor Times
In 1534 Henry VIII starts the Anglican Church of England (aka Catholicism Lite), and Reformation (or religion as proxy for politics) debates are now showing in theatres near you, like the Globe Theatre in Southwark (a stone's throw away from the Millennium Bridge). Well, more likely something by that little known playwright, Will Shakespeare. Henry marries more women than he has clean pairs of underpants, and then his daughter Elizabeth ends up taking over, much to the chagrin of a Scottish lass called Mary. Mary loses her head (careless really), then Lizzy sends the Spanish Armada packing in 1588. In later centuries the English will conquer Spain, via the 'Under 30s Holiday Package to Ibiza' and fish and chip shops.
The 17th Century: Let's Be Civil
The 1600s get off to a roaring start with a chap called Guy Fawkes trying to blow up the Houses of Parliament, kill King James I and bring back Catholicism. The 'Gunpowder Plot' is discovered in 1605, and Guy ends up having his act of terrorism branded as a national celebration - held every 5 November night.
Then, in 1642, the English Civil War begins, which is basically a fight between the Royalists (Cavaliers) and Parliament (Roundheads). King Charles I ostensibly grabs the mike and does a cover of King John's old hit 'Divine Right of Kings', with the gig ending in Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans (more Protestant than Protestant) lowering the boom on London, and removing the king from his head. Londoners quickly get sick of no booze, no smoking, no theatre, and sex-for-procreation-only. When Cromwell kicks the bucket, the monarchy is restored, and the Puritans are kicked out (whereupon the Pilgrim Fathers hop over the Atlantic Ocean to America and begin work on screwing up the culture of a brand new country).
In 1666 there's a big fire through London, which started in a bakery on Pudding Lane (you just can't make this stuff up can you?!). It helps clean out a second dose of the plague, and some of the poor people, so a Monument (in Pudding Lane, just near London Bridge) is later built to celebrate the fact. Come 1689 a Glorious Revolution is undertaken, when King James II is about to restore a good 'ol' Catholic Monarchy to England (belting out that old favourite, 'Divine Right of Kings'). Parliament gets fed up and kicks the King out of the country, then seats King William and Queen Mary on the English throne to ensure Protestant succession and avoid yet another civil war. Clever lot, eh?
The 18th Century: the Empire Expands
The beginnings of the 1700s sees the growth of the British Empire as the English force other European settlers out of their colonies in North America, India, Africa and various islands stuck out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. In 1776 there is a colonial uprising in North America, and the revolting Americans settle on a great constitution - the American Declaration of Independence. The United States of America then quickly goes about butchering the English language just to show the mother country who's boss, alright?
In 1788 Captain Cook discovers a little place called Australia, and many Londoners soon find themselves on a one-way trip to the 'colonies' there (for colonies, read prisons). In 1789 the French decapitate their king, and establish a Republic. The English say, 'Thanks, but no thanks' and the Scarlet Pimpernel apparently rides from London to rescue French aristocrats from the new republic...
The 19th Century: War & Peace
A little Frenchman called Napoleon grabs power in Europe during the early 1800s, and almost conquers the world. After much to-ing and fro-ing, Wellington and Nelson (who has a big column with his statue on top in Trafalgar Square) finally put a lid on this guy. Slavery is abolished by 1807, well supposedly, and the Industrial Revolution has its beginnings in London, with Dickensian workhouses, chimney-sweeping pick-pocketing orphans (slaves...), and disease the norm. Queen Victoria takes to the throne in 1837 and soon marries a German bloke called Albert. WE Gladstone, a dour liberal, becomes the Prime Minister, and while he seems to be a nice guy, he got on good Queen Vic's nerves as he thought money was best spent at home, not on the Empire (and he hated his rival Disraeli). The London Underground is opened in 1863, and even back then travelling on the Metropolitan line was abysmal.
In 1876 Benjamin Disraeli, a laid-back conservative, becomes Prime Minister (which pleased Queen Vic no end) and he engineers a huge imperialist push (the Suez Canal, Queen Victoria as Empress of India, China etc.) He is probably most famous for his 'I have climbed to the top of the greasy pole' statement (and he hated his rival Gladstone). English Literature blossoms, with characters like Sherlock Holmes (who has a museum at 221b Baker Street) and Dracula feeding the public's imagination - along with the opening of the Natural History Museum (in South Kensington with the Science Museum and V&A). However, in London, reality was far too close to fiction with its most famous serial killer, Jack the Ripper, lurking the dark and foggy backstreets of the East End in the autumn of 1888.
Introducing the 20th Century
During Queen Victoria's reign, there is decade after decade of peace and prosperity (give or take the Crimean War), including various grand constructions throughout London like Tower Bridge (near the Tower of London), a 'Jurassic Park' and the Crystal Palace, which of course lulls everybody into thinking that things will always be this way. Old Vic finally pops her clogs in 1901, and her son Edward becomes King. At the beginning of 20th Century King Edward VII brings about an Edwardian age, nice buildings, and a bit of humming and hawing about his relatives in Russia, which in turn sets us up for the unpleasant surprise of the First World War, which breaks out after an Archduke gets shot in Sarajevo3.
Nobody really thought it would happen, last that long, or be so bloody. Of course, everybody was wrong. The Germans wanted bits of Europe that weren't really theirs for themselves, and the rest of Europe didn't want them to, so France ended up becoming a muddy battleground. London is bombed by Zeppelin raids, men become heroes both on the ground and in the air, and a generation loses its young men. But come 1918 Germany is fighting a two front war against the Allied forces, and (surprise) loses. The victors (not to be outdone in stupidity) then impose a vindictive peace on Germany, from inside a railway carriage.
The 1920s & 1930s
The 'Roaring Twenties' are a decadent time, not only in London and England, but much of Europe and North America. There's the advent of Art Deco, flappers, the 'Charleston' dance, Charlie Chaplin, television, the BBC, and all manner of other fine things. In 1928, women are finally given the vote in England with the passing of the Equal Franchise Bill, so there is much joy from the suffragette quarter. However, the looming clouds of war over Europe start swirling about at the beginning of the 1930s, but in amongst the clouds the British Imperial Airship Service makes headway into the future.
Air travel grows and grows during the early 30s despite the R101 disaster and the onset of a global Depression, so London's airport, Heathrow, attempts to meet those demands (the struggle continues to this day). During the years of the Depression (including the Jarrow March to London), England is kept distracted due to the Wallis Simpson Affair and the abdication of King Edward VIII. The growth of socialism in Germany also begins in 1934, and by 1939 when the Nazi Party led by Adolf Hitler takes annexing a little too liberally, the Second World War sweeps across the English Channel (the German Army Blitzkreig's through France in six weeks). Originally thought to be 'World War I - Part Deux', the Nazis have something entirely else in mind, though. Everybody in England prepares to learn how to conjugate German verbs, but then come...
The Fighting Forties
Winston Churchill finally gets to be Prime Minister of England. Neville Chamberlain, the previous PM, was supremely confident that saying 'nice doggy' to Germany and Hitler was better than having a Big Enough Stick. He retires bewildered that Hitler lied to him (he would have been a good guy to play poker against, eh?). The summer of 1940 brings the Battle of Britain and the Blitz to London, where the Luftwaffe tries (hard) and fails to drop the dome of St Paul's Cathedral. Eventually the English under Churchill have the last laugh, and VE Day (Victory in Europe) is celebrated in London on the 8 May, 1945, effectively ending World War Two for Londoners. By 1948 London has recovered enough from the war to host the Olympic Games, in fact the city actually offered its services (Japan and Germany are not invited, for obvious reasons).
Come the 1950s, the victorious English have kicked Winston to one side after the war, and then try a bit of socialism, which (you'd better sit down now) fails. Ration books allow Londoners to eat more potatoes than previously thought possible, and recipes with lard become even more complex. It is the dawning of the Atomic age however, and pre-fab housing helps rebuild the vast areas of London razed by the Blitz. London sees congestion increase smog, and in 1952 it is at its worst, however this is quickly forgotten when Queen Elizabeth II has her Coronation Day on 2 June, 1953 - and 'Coronation Chicken' fast becomes an English signature dish, like curry...
The 1960s & 1970s
The Beatles lead the First 'Brit' Invasion of the USA. Liberation, revolution, civil rights, antidisestablishmentarianism. These are just some of the buzz-words of the 'Swinging Sixties', and London becomes a centre for people wanting to try out various new 'lifestyles' - like being hippies. 1963 sees the introduction of Doctor Who and his time-travelling Police Box (look for one outside Earl's Court Tube Station) to television screens. The television becomes an integral part of English life, particularly in 1966, when the football World Cup is televised, and England wins - something that it doesn't let the loser Germany forget about any time soon. All the noise heralds the explosion of punk rock into the 1970s, and London quickly becomes the music epicentre of the world. The Irish Republican Army claims responsibility for most of the other explosions in London during the 1970s. Some politicians try to link the IRA and punk rock. The BBC retaliate with further series of Monty Python's Flying Circus.
The '80s & '90s
The '80s were the age of Duran Duran and Maggie Thatcher (the Falklands War and the Poll Tax Riots), but despite this London rises to become the top financial centre in the world - and speaking of rising, Tower 42 is officially opened by the Queen in 1981. The United Kingdom refuses to join the European Commission, but the combination of Mark Knopfler and Dire Straits strikes a chord in Europe. In 1989 the Berlin Wall comes down and by the early '90s the Soviet Union has imploded (not literally of course, just geo-politically), the European Union expands (with the 'euro' becoming common tender), and punk rock morphs into 'emo-screamo'. In other music news, London sees the beginning and (collective sigh of relief) end of 'Girl Power'. In 1997 'New Labour' and Tony Blair take the reigns of the country, and the world sees the PM's wife Cherie opening the door of Number 10 Downing Street in her nightgown. Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament had not seen such a sight since the Great Stink of 1858.
The 21st Century: a New Age?
After surviving the Millennium Bug Crisis, just barely, by constructing both the Millennium Dome and the Millennium Bridge, England races headlong into the new millennium. Amy Winehouse leads the Second 'Brit' Invasion of the USA, the London Eye (found on the banks of the Thames near Waterloo Station, the original terminus of the Eurostar) begins its first 'flights', but the city also becomes a target for terrorists again. Politically 'New Labour' then gets very old, very quickly, its new face being Gordon Brown. London wins the right to host the 2012 Olympic Games, and Boris Johnson is elected Mayor of London. In 2010, the General Election lands the UK its first coalition government since 1945. The Conservative Party join forces with the Liberal Democrats and begin an uneasy alliance in difficult financial times.
And that's about it. Just remember to look right when you cross the street to get to the other side!