Learn About England And The United Kingdom

The changing of the guard in front of Buckingham Palace is one of London's biggest tourist attractions.

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is the official name of this island nation of northwestern Europe. It is more commonly referred to, however, as the United Kingdom, Great Britain, or Britain.

The United Kingdom consists of four distinct parts: England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. England, Scotland, and Wales together constitute the island of Great Britain. Northern Ireland occupies a small area of the island of Ireland, which it shares with the Republic of Ireland. The North Sea, the Strait of Dover, and the English Channel separate Great Britain from the mainland of Europe.

Individually, the different people of the United Kingdom may think of themselves as English, Scottish, Welsh, or Irish. Together they are known as Britons or the British. The British are united by a common language, English, as well as by their common government.

Although the United Kingdom is a relatively small country — about the size of the U.S. state of Oregon — it has had an enormous influence on world history. British ships carried explorers, and later traders and colonists, to almost every corner of the globe. Wherever the British settled, their traditions took root. The United States, to take just one example, was once a series of British colonies, and its first settlers were mostly of British descent. Many of the political documents that led to the creation of the United States, including the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, were based largely on British ideas, traditions, and laws.

Britain's form of government and its language have been especially influential. Many of the world's nations modeled their governments, at least in part, on the British parliamentary system. English is the world's most widely used language today, and English literature is one of the world's best known.

Britain's location, close to the European mainland but separated from it by bodies of water, has had an important role in its history. After the Norman Conquest in 1066, Britain successfully resisted all attempts at foreign invasion and developed a way of life that was distinctively British. Dependent on the sea for their commerce and their protection, the British became a great seafaring nation. By the late 1700s, Britain was the world's leading naval power, a rank it held until the mid-1900s.

The Industrial Revolution began in Britain in the mid-1700s, when the age-old agricultural economy first gave way to the growth of factories and to the rise of cities as centers of industry. Such early British inventions as the spinning jenny (which revolutionized the manufacture of textiles), the steam engine, the locomotive and railroads, and improved methods of making steel marked the beginning of the modern industrial age. Along with the growth of its industry, Britain acquired a vast empire. In the early 1900s, one-fourth of the world's land and about one-fifth of its people were governed either directly by the British government or according to British laws and customs.

Britain emerged from World War II (1939–45) victorious but greatly diminished economically and as a world power. The postwar era would be dominated by the two superpowers, the United States and the former Soviet Union. In the quarter century after the war's end, Britain lost its vast empire as most of its former colonies gained their independence. Britain's industry had generally survived the war's devastation. But many of its factories were old, and it had to catch up to the expanding economies of other Western European countries and Japan, whose industry, although destroyed by the war, had been quickly rebuilt with modern technology.

The far-flung British Empire of past days has ceased to exist. In its place is the Commonwealth of Nations, a voluntary organization composed of the United Kingdom and dozens of its former colonies (now independent nations) together with its few small remaining dependencies. But although they are no longer rulers of an empire, the British can be proud of their present achievements and their past glories. Modern British scientists and inventors have pioneered in many areas — medical drugs, radar, television, jet propulsion, and atomic and genetic research, among them.

Before it lost its empire, Britain was the wealthiest nation in the world. Today it ranks among the top twenty. Nevertheless, the nation has retained its status as a world power. Britain remains one of only five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. It is also part of the so-called G8, a group of the world's eight leading industrialized nations.

A second major change is Britain's new emphasis on being a part of Europe. This is a result of its entry into the European Union and its increasing role in European affairs. The most obvious symbol of this new outlook is the Channel Tunnel, which since its opening in 1994, has linked Britain and the European continent.

David C. Large
University of Reading (England)

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The Royal Family
From the history books to the tabloids, people are obsessed with England's royal family. This official site of the royal family discusses the role of the Queen today. It includes links to the history of the family.

Oxford University
Oxford is the oldest English-speaking university in the world. Read about its history and see its historic architecture.

Captivating audiences for hundreds of years, learn about the mystery of this structure. See pictures and read theories of how and why it was constructed.

Henry VIII
Henry VIII severed England's ties with the Pope and made England a Protestant country. He also had many wives. Read a biography of Henry, study his Tudor family, and find more info on both.