This week we’re back in the UK, this time to visit the largest of the four member states – England. It’s a land with a history like no other, from humble beginnings to the heart of the world’s largest empire.
- Capital (and Largest City): London
- Population (2011): 53,012,456
- Total Area: 130,395 km²
- National Language: English
- Currency: Pound sterling (£) (GBP)
Civilization in England dates back thousands and thousands of years. Remnants of these ancient people can still be seen today, with the Neolithic monument Stonehenge the most famous example. Eventually, the Celtic culture became the most dominant in the British Isles, including England. These people enjoyed trade with the nearby Roman Empire for many years.
In 43 AD however, the Romans invaded and conquered most of the island, including what is now England. Renamed ‘Britannia’, the Romans remained in power until the dying days of their empire. Christianity was also introduced to the region during this time, however it remains unclear exactly when this was.
As the Romans withdrew from Britain, the land was left vulnerable to seafaring invaders from other lands – namely Saxons, Angles, and Jutes. While the native Britons were able to keep them at bay for a time, England was predominantly under Anglo-Saxon rule by the end of the 6th century. During the Dark Ages, numerous Saxon kingdoms rose and fell. Northumbria, Mercia, and Wessex in particular all jockeyed for power, each of them enjoying a time as the preeminent kingdom in the area. Danish invaders decimated many in the north and east, leaving Wessex as the sole Anglo-Saxon power in England. Under Alfred the Great, the kingdom expanded and eventually England was united (for a time) in the early-mid 900’s.
Of course, the date 1066 remains one of the most important in English history. The Normans led by William the Conqueror made landfall on the south coast, and following a victory at the Battle of Hastings proceeded to conquer most of the island. The French speaking Normans replaced the Anglo-Saxon monarchy, and a line was established that still remains in some form till this day.
The late Middle Ages saw much upheaval in the country. Magna Carta was signed, laying the foundation for all modern democracies from Western Europe to the United States, while Wales and Ireland were brought under the rule of the English monarchy. The Hundred Years’ War against France also kicked off during the 14th century and lasted for 116 years (not as catchy). In addition the Black Death killed about half of England’s population while the Wars of the Roses also broke out. Fought between rival claimants (the House of York and House of Lancaster), the civil war ended in 1487 with a Lancaster victory and the Tudor dynasty on the throne.
The Tudor period saw England change a great deal. Henry VIII ended the country’s association with the Catholic Church, proclaiming himself head of the Church of England. While his daughter Mary later reverted to Catholicism, his other daughter Elizabeth I reaffirmed Anglicanism as the predominant religion. The age of discovery also began during this time, and England was left to compete with other powers such as Spain, France, and the Dutch for resources and land in the New World.
Another Civil War was fought between 1642 and 1651 between the Parliamentarians and the Royalists. The Parliamentarians were victorious, King Charles I was executed, and Oliver Cromwell took power as Lord Protector. After his death, the Restoration brought Charles II back to rule (reestablishing the monarchy), together with parliament this time. To cap off a busy century, the Great Fire of London devastated the City in 1666, the Jacobites in the north continued to support exiled Catholic King James II, and Scotland joined the Kingdom of Great Britain in 1707.
The 18th and 19th centuries ushered in the industrial revolution. As the first country to truly industrialize, England was at the forefront of manufacturing, invention, engineering, and much more. Cities such as Manchester and Newcastle in the north and Birmingham in the midlands grew to accommodate the factories and workers. Oh yeah, during this period England lost the American colonies, fought against and ultimately defeated Napoleon, and continued to grow in stature at home and abroad.
The Victorian era (Queen Victoria’s rule from 1837-1901) is commonly seen as the height of English power. Military strength was at its apex, the British Empire stretched across the known world, industrialization continued at full tilt, and social reforms took place. The early 20th century sent Europe into a dark spiral however.
With the outbreak of World War I, Britain as a whole found itself fighting against the Central Powers. Hundreds of thousands died and, while victorious, England soon found itself involved in another, even more devastating conflict – World War II. The Blitz (sustained bombing of England by the Germans) targeted industrial and manufacturing centres throughout the country. Eventually, the Allies won the war, though Britain was no longer the preeminent global power it once was. The Empire quickly decolonized, with newfound independence for countries such as India.
Modern England has moved away from manufacturing and towards the service and finance industries – the City of London (a distinct entity within London) is rivaled only by Wall Street in its wealth and global reach. The demography of the country is also shifting, with high amounts of immigration especially from the Indian subcontinent. While England (and the UK as a whole) isn’t a great power anymore, it remains important both regionally and globally. Whether it’s bilateral relations with the US, membership in the EU (albeit a sometimes contentious one), or a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, Britain (with England at its heart) promises to be at the centre of events that will shape the world.
With England making up a large portion of the UK (both in population and area), the two cultures are sometimes tough to differentiate. English cultural works have had a global impact for centuries – whether it’s Gothic architecture as exemplified by Canterbury Cathedral and Westminster or great works of literature. Some of the most famous and renowned literary works come from England, including those in Old English and the modern tongue. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the works of William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Agatha Christie, J.R.R. Tolkien, Rudyard Kipling, George Orwell, and J.K. Rowling are just a handful of the commonly recognized names and works. We’re not even mentioning famous folklore such as the tales of King Arthur and his knights (though I guess we just did).
English cuisine and drink is also known across the world – though not always for the right reasons. Despite the sometimes-disparaging view of the country’s food, England has many recognizable dishes and traditions – such as the full English breakfast or afternoon tea. In addition, beer and the pub culture are strongly associated with England, with the public house an integral part of life in the country for centuries.
England has a very strong sporting tradition, with many of the most well known games invented in the country. Most importantly, England is the birthplace of football (soccer), with the first rules drafted in 1863. The oldest club (Sheffield F.C.) was founded in 1857; the first international match was played between England and Scotland, as well as many other firsts. Today, the English Premier League (the top level of soccer in the country) is the most-watched league in the world – with teams such as Manchester United, Arsenal, and (more recently) Chelsea attracting global interest. The intense club and regional rivalries are a huge part of English culture and local pride, whether at the top of the EPL or the bottom of the lower leagues. While the national team won the World Cup in 1966, they have since had little success, with the long-suffering fans still holding out hope (or not) for more international glory.
Beyond soccer, rugby, cricket, and tennis are amongst the most popular British sporting inventions and are widely enjoyed at home and abroad. Wimbledon remains one of the most prestigious of the tennis Grand Slam tournaments while rugby and cricket are commonly played in former British colonies. With England hosting the Rugby World Cup later this year, it’ll be interesting to see if they can defeat other heavyweights (e.g. New Zealand, Wales, etc.).
England consists of about two-thirds of the island of Great Britain, and it shares borders to the west with Wales and to the north with Scotland. While the mountains are higher in Scotland, England features a varied topography – consisting of rolling hills and plains, an ancient mountain range known as the Pennines, long coastlines, and distinctive white cliffs in the south.
While a relatively small country area wise, England is home to a large population (almost 20 million more than Canada). A large proportion of this amount lives in or around London – one of the most famous and most-visited cities in the world. The second largest city is Birmingham, which fights for the title of ‘Second City’ with northerly Manchester. Many other important population centres are found throughout the country from Brighton on the south coast to Newcastle in the northeast.
England is often thought of in divided regional terms. You’ll often hear of the South or the North. These cultural regions differ strongly in historical, economic, and social terms – with each fond of disparaging the other. With the ‘South’ the heart of governance and the ‘North’ historically more industrial working class, there is a distinct difference between the two areas. This is a vast over-simplification however, as you can also throw in the Midlands, and go about dividing each region by smaller region (e.g. Lancashire and Yorkshire), city (Manchester and Liverpool), and different parts of a city (Stockport and Salford in Manchester, or East London and North London if you look to the south).
Did you know?
- In the English Civil War, the Royalists were known as ‘Cavaliers’ and the Parliamentarians as ‘Roundheads’
- The War of the Roses served to inspire major themes and story in A Song of Ice and Fire (i.e. Game of Thrones): York (Stark) vs Lancaster (Lannister)
- Big Ben is NOT the clock or the tower, it’s the bell
- England fought a war against Zanzibar in 1896 that lasted 38 minutes
- There are more chickens than humans in the country
- English police generally don’t carry guns
- Some of the most well-known English soccer players are David Beckham, Alan Shearer, Gary Lineker, and Wayne Rooney
- The first fish and chips restaurant opened in 1860
- Some of the most well-known British actors are…on second thought we don’t have enough room
- The English drink more tea per capita than anywhere else in the world
- The world’s oldest railway is either Tanfield Railway in County Durham (oldest section from 1725) or Middleton Railway in West Yorkshire (operating continuously since 1759)
- And finally, during the Napoleonic Wars a French ship wrecked near Hartlepool with a monkey the only survivor. It was found guilty of being a spy, and duly hanged
The impact that England has had on the world over the past several centuries is hard to quantify, and we only scraped the surface of it here. From histories and stories that continue to be told, to the world’s most popular sport – England will continue to be near the world’s forefront in culture, politics, and entertainment.
Stay tuned to the Current for our Country of the Week. We’ll explore the familiar and the foreign, plus uncover some hidden gems. Be sure to check out our Currency Spotlight for more information on the pound.
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