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Other books by Ray Hamilton (all published by Summersdale)

Knowledge: Stuff You Ought to Know (2016)

M25: A Circular Tour of the London Orbital (2015)

Trains: A Miscellany (2015)

The Joy of Golf (2014)

The Joy of Cycling (2013)

Le Tour de France: The Greatest Race in Cycling History (2013)

Military Quotations: Stirring Words of War and Peace (2012)



Title Page


Other books by Ray Hamilton (all published by Summersdale)



Chapter 1: What’s in a name?

Chapter 2: Britain through the ages

• Being invaded

• Plantagenets and Tudors

• Uniting the kingdom under the Stuarts and Georgians

• The powerful Victorians and short-lived Edwardians

• The world wars

• Modern Britain

• The Royal Family

Chapter 3: Landmarks and famous buildings

Chapter 4: Great Britons

Chapter 5: British fashion

Chapter 6: Transporting Britain

Chapter 7: Food and drink in Britain

Chapter 8: British sporting highlights

Chapter 9: Britain in the arts

Tips on how to be British today


My thanks to Summersdale Publishers for the opportunity to write this book and to Chris Turton in particular for his very helpful input and for being such a pleasure to work with again. Thanks also to Emily Kearns for her sharp-eyed copy-editing and to my wife Karen for first-reading everything I write.

Note on dates used in this book

Just in case you haven’t come across the BCE and CE dating convention before, let me explain. We used always to say BC (before Christ) and AD (Anno Domini), but the world’s historians decided to standardise their dating conventions a bit, which has the added benefit of being a bit more inclusive from a faith point of view. So now we can use Before Common Era (BCE) and Common Era (CE) instead, which is what I have done in this book, because I’m a modern kind of a guy. No conversions will be necessary, because BCE equates exactly with BC and CE equates exactly with AD.

Note on the order of the home nations

For fear of displaying a preference for one home nation over another, I have referred throughout this book to England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales in alphabetical order.


Only by understanding our history can we fully grasp what it means to be British today, what it means to be English, Northern Irish, Scottish or Welsh within the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, whether we think our personal ancestors have always lived here or not (they haven’t). Only by understanding how we gathered our language, habits and cuisine from the far corners of the earth can we begin to understand the marvellous melting pot we live in today.

We can be proud of the astonishing array of inventions and products we have given to the world over the centuries, and it is fair to say that we have always punched above our weight on the world stage for such a small nation (think British Empire, Industrial Revolution, Olympic Games). We even invented the weather, which is why ours has always been more interesting than anyone else’s. Why else would we talk about it so much?

This book will look at all those things and more, at what has brought us to where we are today, starting with our ancient history and working our way through centuries of achievement, glory and, let’s not forget, a fair amount of war and infamy.



Before we start, let’s consider who we are. Much confusion surrounds the terminology of the country we call home and you may quite correctly consider yourself to live in the United Kingdom, the UK, Great Britain or Britain, all of which are widely used shorthand for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which is our formal and internationally recognised title. We then further complicate matters by living more specifically in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales. But how did we end up with so many names?


The word Britain derives from Britannia, the Latin word applied by the Romans to describe the territory of the Britons, the Iron Age tribes who inhabited what is now England and southern Scotland at the time of the Roman invasion in 43 CE.

Great Britain

In 1707 the Acts of Union brought England (which included Wales at the time) and Scotland together as the Kingdom of Great Britain, the first time that name had formally existed. The ‘Great’ referred to the larger geographical size of the new country, and was never intended to serve as a pompous declaration of our greatness.

United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland

The 1800 Acts of Union brought the Kingdom of Great Britain and the Kingdom of Ireland together as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, which was the first formal and lasting reference to a United Kingdom.

United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has only existed since 1922, when it succeeded the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland following the partition of Ireland.

British Isles

The British Isles is a geographical term that includes each and every island of the United Kingdom and of Ireland, including, therefore, the whole of the mainland of Great Britain and the whole of the island of Ireland. There are over 6,000 smaller islands, the vast majority being uninhabited, the most populated being Portsea Island, Isle of Wight, Jersey, Isle of Man, Anglesey and Guernsey.

The islands were established in their current form about 12,000 years ago, primarily as a result of the deglaciation that occurred at the end of the Ice Age.

Union Jack

Also referred to as the Union Flag, the Union Jack was designed to reflect the union of Great Britain and Ireland that had been brought about by the 1800 Acts of Union. It is an amalgamation of the red cross of St George (representing England), the white saltire of St Andrew (representing Scotland) and the red saltire of St Patrick (representing Ireland). As Wales was a part of England at the time, poor St David was left out in the cold.



It is close to a thousand years since our island nation was last invaded, by the Normans on that occasion and by the Vikings and Romans before them. After living under French influence for a while, Britain then suffered centuries-long strife as warring factions fought for the throne or for religious dominance. Eventually united as a kingdom, the country went on to build an empire that spanned the globe and subsequently brought many of those it had colonised home. Britons even became Europeans for a while, before deciding on 23 June 2016, for better or worse, that they would rather be an island nation again. Let’s start at the beginning, though, with our less-than-civilised ancestors.




All the tribes of Britain ever wanted to do was fight amongst themselves, but one invader after another had bigger ideas for them. One by one, the Romans, Angles, Jutes, Saxons, Franks, Frisians, Vikings and Normans turned up and took advantage of a vulnerability brought on by the inherent inability of the British tribes to join together for the common good.



Ancient Britons (600 BCE–84 CE)

Our early ancestors were mostly Celtic tribes who lived and fought each other in Britain throughout the Iron Age, until the Romans arrived and at least gave them a common enemy for a while.


The Celts dominated Britain from the well-defended hill forts they built everywhere they went.

As fierce warriors who often preferred to go into battle naked as a sign of personal bravery, they were surely the cause of many a nightmare within the ranks of the Roman centurions.

Queen Boudicca (or Boadicea) was the most famous Celtic warrior of all, rebelling against the Roman invasion where many male warriors had failed, and destroying several important Roman towns.

The Celts were also skilled metalworkers, their art still recognisable today by their trademark patterns.

Led by Druid priests, they shared common pagan beliefs, considering the oak tree to be sacred and building the mysterious stone circles like the one at Stonehenge.

The many different tribes spoke similar languages, including Scottish Gaelic, Welsh and Irish Gaelic.



Under Roman rule (43–410 CE)

The Roman empire was built on the premise that it was time to civilise barbarians everywhere and, in the case of Britain, they certainly had their work cut out. After a couple of failed invasion attempts by Julius Caesar, the Emperor Claudius finally succeeded in 43 CE, heralding the start of almost 400 years of Roman rule.


It took the Romans about 40 years to finally conquer present-day England and Wales. They finally gave up trying to conquer what is now Scotland, so they built Hadrian’s Wall to keep the Caledonians out instead.

They built magnificent towns, notably at Camulodunum (Colchester), Londinium (London), Verulamium (St Albans) and Aquae Sulis (Bath), and built perfectly straight roads between them.

They introduced shops and offices, marketplaces, running water and public baths, i.e. civilisation as we know it today.

After the Roman garrison on Hadrian’s Wall rebelled in 367 CE, the tribes of Britain took advantage and overwhelmed the Romans on many fronts. It proved to be the beginning of the end for Roman Britain.



The Anglo-Saxons (410–1066)

In the fifth century, with the Romans out of the way, a number of northern European peoples saw a gap in the invasion market and arrived in Britain in their droves. Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Franks and Frisians all sailed across to push the indigenous Celtic tribes north and west into Wales, Ireland and Scotland. Those left behind in England became Anglo-Saxons under Germanic or Danish rule.


The Anglo-Saxons were initially adept farmers who lived in rural villages in northern Europe.

After they got good at building ships, they sailed them to distant lands in search of ever greener pastures.

They ruled Britain for over 600 years, although hardly by Roman standards, because culture and commerce were slowly replaced with disease and violence.

They brought with them Bible translations and a passion for epic poetry, which resulted in the writing of Beowulf.

Benedictine monk the Venerable Bede provided an invaluable account of life under the Anglo-Saxons in his work The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completed in 731.

In 757 a civil war resulted in Offa of Mercia declaring himself ruler of all England and constructing a long-distance earthwork (Offa’s Dyke) to protect against Welsh raids.



At the mercy of the Vikings (793–1066)

The Vikings wreaked havoc around Britain since the time of their first raid on Lindisfarne in 793 all the way through to 1066. No town or village in England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales or even the Isle of Man was safe from their murderous intent in all that time.


866 – The Vikings took control of Jorvik (York) and turned it into the second biggest city in England after London.


878 – King Alfred, the Saxon King of Wessex, defeated the Vikings at the Battle of Edington.

886 – Alfred retook London but conceded the area of the Danelaw (all of England above Watling Street, the Roman road from Chester to London) to Guthrum, the Viking ruler of East Anglia.

10th century – Once the Vikings had what they wanted, i.e. most of Britain, they settled down for a while, allowing the Anglo-Saxons to learn much about farming, trading and shipbuilding from them.

927 – The Anglo-Saxons finally succeeded in converging England’s diverse kingdoms into a single country under King Æthelstan.

1012 – King Æthelred the Unready tried to buy off the Vikings ahead of a further invasion with what became known as Danegeld, but Sweyn Forkbeard attacked anyway and for a while the Vikings had control of the whole of England.



Being French for a while (1066–1154)

Many of the Normans who conquered Britain in 1066 had originally arrived in Normandy from Scandinavia, i.e. as Vikings, but their language and culture by then were much closer to what we know today as French. In no time at all, that language and that culture were the main ones to be found across England, including present-day Wales.


1028 – Birth of William the Conqueror (or William I), a direct descendant of Rollo, the first Viking to turn native and help the French defend themselves against the raids of his own brother Ragnar Lodbrok.

1066 – After victory at the Battle of Hastings, William was crowned at Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day 1066, the ceremony being conducted entirely in Norman French, the language of England for the next 300 years.

1070 – Construction of Windsor Castle started.

1078 – The original Tower of London (the White Tower) was erected.

1080 – The Normans built a fortification they named ‘New Castle upon the Tyne’ to stop King Malcolm III of Scotland constantly invading England, constantly being driven back and constantly promising not to do it again.

1086 – The Domesday Book was introduced to determine who owned which land and to impose harsh taxes accordingly, leading landowners to compare it to the Last Judgement, or Doomsday.

1100 – William II, son of William I and crowned following his father’s death in 1087, was suspiciously killed by an arrow while out hunting.

1100–54 – The reigns of the third and fourth Norman kings, Henry I (1100–35) and Stephen (1135–54), were plagued by civil war as neither had a strong claim to the throne.




The next 500 years under the Plantagenets and Tudors were beset with religious fervour, war, civil strife, rebellion and plague, and provided our history with some of its most colourful characters.



The Plantagenets (1154–1485)