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United Kingdom - History & Background

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England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales: The term United Kingdom refers to the collective body of nations made up of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. The four cut a wide swath of territory across the eastern face of Europe, in spite of being geographically apart from the rest of the continent by virtue of separation by the North and Irish Seas, the Strait of Dover, and the English Channel. The four countries, over time, have experienced transformations in coastline, climate, and vegetation, as well as changing values, culture, and governments. Changes in the educational systems of the four nations of the United Kingdom have been dramatic, but at no time have changes been more extensive than the 1990s and first years of the twenty-first century following attempts to dissolve the House of Lords in England and accomplishment of devolution in Northern Ireland, Wales, and Scotland.

In this essay, references are to the mother country of England, except where headings or internal references clearly refer to the individual countries of Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. Although the countries have many similarities, the differences are important to acknowledge. The reader is urged to refer to the Ireland essay for earlier references to the north of Ireland. The political creation of Northern Ireland is a relatively recent historical event, traceable to the British putdown of an Irish rebellion in the seventeenth century, followed by its peopling of the six counties of the Ulster region with British and Scottish settlers of the Anglican faith. In 2001, Wales commenced a significant breakthrough for self-rule when it took large control of its system of higher education. Also, the Scottish Parliament has the power to pass or repeal legislation passed by the English Parliament, including education acts, or to amend portions of statutes.


Roman Occupation: The early inhabitants of Britain were pre-literate hunters, eventually cut off from the rest of Europe by the submerging of land under the waters of what became known as the English Channel. Extensive research by archaeologists in the twenty-first century has started to cast some light on early peoples of this area.

Protected by fierce inhabitants and a rugged climate, England was considered a prize for conquest and began to undergo attacks from Rome. Well known to any beginning student of Latin are the campaigns by Julius Caesar in 55 and 54 B.C. immortalized by his own writings; his early biographers paint a portrait of a much crueler conqueror than the self-image he presents.

Rome's attack on tribal leaders in Wales in the first century have become well known to twentieth-century players of fantasy games, because of the valiant, though doomed, fight of the Iceni warriors under Queen Boudicca, referred to by one Hollywood screenwriter as "a female Braveheart." Her story is dramatic. After being whipped and subject to vile indignities, including the rapes of her daughters, Boudicca massacred the residents of towns pledging allegiance to Rome until a counteroffensive wiped out her armies, and she committed suicide by taking poison. In spite of such furious fighting and heavy cost in lives, the Romans defeated the Welsh clans, failing to subjugate them. Little by little, however, their culture began reflecting the influence of Celtic Catholic missionaries among the Welsh people.

Likewise, the Roman forces relentlessly invaded Scotland, repelled the clans known as the Picts, and declared the country under its rule. For all practical purposes, Scotland's rugged geography, particularly in the Highlands and its numerous adjacent islands, left the Romans hardly in control of the defiant clans and their allied clans from Ireland, the Celts. Nonetheless, Rome did have some influence on the Scottish people during five centuries of occupation, in part because of the preaching of Christian missionaries.


Post-Roman Times, Invasions, & Power Struggles: In the fourth century, Roman Emperor Constant I gave his namesake son, Constantine II, the conquered lands of Britain, Gaul, and Spain, but he gave the remainder of the empire to another son, Constans I. The unhappy Constantine II waged war on his brother but was cut down and killed during a battle in Italy. In the fifth century, the Romans pulled out of the lands they had fought so hard to win, driven out themselves after years of assault by fierce warriors they dismissed as barbarian hordes. In addition to the clans, invasions to the vulnerable east and south of England came from Denmark and northern Germany from warlike peoples known as the Angles, the Jutes, and the Saxons. The latter, collectively called the Anglo-Saxons about the sixteenth century, later used the term themselves as they grew settled and became farmers or town dwellers. Eventually, the term "Anglo-Saxon" embraced all in Britain.

The Roman and British peoples of Wales also faced the invaders, but some pockets of the culture remained where they avoided enslavement. In general, culture and civilization declined until the seventh century when the Church of Rome sent missionaries to England and established monasteries dedicated to the preservation of learning and the transmission of culture and religion in written works. The immediate effect was to make the United Kingdom countries more open to trade and to developing the trappings of civilization already in place in other countries of Europe. Monasteries in the sixth and seventh centuries spread over Ireland and Scotland as well as England, though the politics of the time were chaotic, as kingdoms wielded power and waged conflict in these countries.

By the tenth and eleventh centuries, parish churches were a reality in the Anglo-Saxon country of England, as they were elsewhere in Europe. However, instability in England and Ireland continued because of attacks by seas and rivers by marauding Vikings. Attacks by Danish warriors had begun in the eighth and ninth centuries, resulting in the destruction of monasteries and their manuscripts. The scholar-king Alfred the Great, king of Wessexin England, defeated the Danes in London in 886 and at Edington in 878. Had he been defeated, the Danes would have controlled England's main kingdoms in the ninth century. In addition to his heroics as a leader and contributions to the development of English law, Alfred was known for his championing of Old English literature and the translation of Latin classical writings into English.

Alfred's contributions to learning made him a heroic figure of that era. In other areas, pandemonium was the rule. Ireland and Scotland were infiltrated by Norse warriors, who also sacked some monasteries in a quest for the abundant loot within. Alfred was the first ruler in a succession of rulers of Wessex who gained power for themselves, even as they drove out the powerful Scandinavians. The defeated Danes were assimilated and adopted Christianity. Rather than peace reigning, the kingdoms of Wessex and the West Saxons vied for power; Scotland was also invaded. In the end, Eadred emerged as the one supreme ruler of England. His successor, Eadgar, was crowned king, and his reign (957-975) brought stability to the country and an alliance with England's large, widespread Danish population.

Ireland and Scotland experienced upheaval at the hands of invaders and men that vied for supreme rule. Battles for power were common between the ninth and twelfth centuries. The politics of Wales between the ninth and twelfth century were marked by almost constant intrigue, assassinations, battles, truces, and treaties.


Danish & Norman Rule: The persistent Danes continued to pour into England in their quest to subjugate England. At last, Denmark's King Swein prevailed early in the eleventh century, driving England's Aethelred the Unready into exile in Normandy. King Swein died, but his successor-son Cnut finished the fight against England, reigning as king of England from 1016 to 1035, as well as the kingdom of Demark from 1019 until his death. Like Alfred the Great, Cnut was a champion of the preservation of learning in the monasteries. His children were less wise and squabbled for power.

The English regained control of the kingdom of Wessex between 1042 and 1066 under King Edward the Confessor, a son of Aethelred. Edward's death brought conflict between two men, William, the Duke of Normandy, and Harold, who claimed that the dead king had promised them the throne. Harold was given the crown and was occupied with an invasion by the Norwegians in the north. Although Harold's army prevailed, they were weakened and fell to a crushing attack in the south of England led by William, and Harold fell in battle. On Christmas Day, William the Conqueror was proclaimed King of England, and though he kept alive the English laws and customs, the French language and other customs led to immense cultural changes during this Norman occupation.

The Middle Ages: The history of England from 1066 through the end of the fifteenth century is usually told through the accomplishments and failures of whatever monarch ruled at a particular time. Throughout this period, England experienced unity and prosperity to a greater degree than did Ireland, Wales, and Scotland. A system known as feudalism that was rampant in other parts of Europe became the norm in England as lords of manors extracted work and rents from their serfs, and knights served their lords, the supreme king, and the Church, marching on Crusades to try to wrest the Holy Lands from the Muslims.

Royal power was, for a time, at its height during the reign of King Henry II (1154-1189), who elevated the power of royal courts of law and put down attempts of feudal barons who challenged his unlimited powers.

Perhaps Britain's best-known constitutional document directly linked to feudalism was the Magna Carta of 1215. Signed by King John, known for his political inveigling and battles with the Pope, this "Great Charter," signed as a sign of appeasement by the embattled monarch, offered protections to the feudal lords that not even royalty could usurp, but it also guaranteed certain rights and privileges for the Church and even some rights for royal subjects.

Throughout the Middle Ages, an uneasy relationship existed between English kings and barons. The various Crusades continued until 1291, and wars against France and other kingdoms were commonplace, costly, and counterproductive—seemingly designed to satisfy the vanity or rulers or their desire for the acquisition of lands. The long reign of Henry III (son of King John) from 1216 to 1272 was marked by the waste of human lives in war and by great expenditures to satisfy Henry's lust for lands in France and Sicily. His successor, King Henry IV, achieved the throne by force and established the Lancaster dynasty, but during his reign (1399-1413), he constantly needed to dispatch the royal troops to put down rebellions by the Scots and Welsh. Far more popular (and later immortalized by playwright William Shakespeare), King Henry V also engaged in great wars during his reign from 1413 to 1422, but he mainly kept the allegiance of his people because of his personal magnetism and the number of his great, yet costly, victories against the French.

Like Alfred the Saxon, King Henry VI was a proponent of literature and learning, a patron of artists, and the founder of Eton College in 1440. However, he was a king unfit for governing, ruling at a time (1422-1461 and 1470-1471) of great unrest in England. He was murdered by Edward. Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of King Henry VII, contributed significantly to the support of universities, according to scholar Michael Van Cleave Alexander.

A later ruler, Henry VIII, who reigned from 1509 to 1547, was a ruthless husband notorious for putting two of his six wives (Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard) to death. However, learning and great universities flourished under him. Henry VIII tried, unsuccessfully, to end fighting with Scotland by uniting the two nations. Warring with Scotland continued under his reign, but one of his successes was to bring Wales into the kingdom in 1536, although Wales retained its culture and the Welsh language. Scotland's destiny changed from that of a separate kingdom to part of the United Kingdom under King James I of England, whose other title was Scotland's James VI as the son of Mary Queen of Scots, who was forced to abdicate and later executed.


The Victorian Era: Queen Victoria ascended the throne at a time of unrest and unhappiness with royalty, particularly during the reign of the dissolute King William IV who ruled from 1830 to 1837. Nonetheless, during his era was the start of important changes in England, including recognition for the strengthening of human rights. The Factory Act was passed in 1833, which eliminated, on paper if not in fact, the practice of child labor. In addition, slavery was abolished in the United Kingdom and its possessions by another historically important act. Although William IV gave some words of support to such reforms, he was befuddled by them and distressed by a growing clamor for political and social change in the United Kingdom.

Strong nationalistic feelings and greater national unity occurred during the reign of William IV's niece, Victoria, who ascended the throne in 1837 and ruled as queen of the United Kingdom until 1901. Influenced greatly by her husband, Prince Albert, whom she wed in 1840, Queen Victoria set a town for moral reform and a toning down of the more scandalous conduct of the nobles that had been commonplace before her reign. In education, her reign produced strong attempts to introduce literacy to all of the United Kingdom because of an 1870 act of Parliament establishing compulsory elementary education.


The Modern Era: From Victoria's death in 1901 through the twenty-first century, the United Kingdom has seen periods of calm and prosperity as well as unstable times caused by two world wars, strong nationalism on the part of English colonies, and the assimilation, particularly in England, of immigrants with diverse backgrounds.

A national system of education was adopted for England and Wales in 1902. By 1944, the system had developed strong local governing bodies for the schools, and yet there was a central administration as well. In 1922, Northern Ireland received a separate Parliament, while the Parliament in London governed England, Scotland and Wales.

As of 1998, the United Kingdom's population tallies at 58.8 million. The largest nation, England, has a population of 49.1 million. Scotland's population is 5.1 million. Wales has a population of 2.9 million, and Northern Ireland's population is 1.7 million people.

Scotland does not control the universities, but it does govern primary and secondary education. In 2001, the term "United" in United Kingdom is nearly a misnomer; all four UK countries have separate educational systems. Northern Ireland and Wales Assemblies, as well as the Scottish Parliament, are empowered to keep existing laws regarding education and governance, or they can repeal or amend existing legislation.

As this volume goes to press, the climate in the United Kingdom can be characterized as one of uncertainty, but also one of great nationalistic excitement and an opportunity for positive changes that reflect each individual nation's needs. Illiteracy rates in Wales are high and troubling. English schools need to solve the challenges of a diverse population with many immigrants. While Scotland remains stable with its own educational curriculum and a stable higher education system, Northern Ireland continues to adjust as it carries on with an uneasy political alliance with Ireland. The needs of England's urban, heavily populated island contrast sharply with those of less-populated, mixed urban and rural cultures of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

Traditionally, in England the Labor Party has advocated regulation, reform, or abolishment of elite schools in spite of their historical traditions. The Conservative Party favors the status quo and protection of these institutions. Without question, the most significant proposals for reform after 1900 have occurred between 1992 and 1991 as English reformers have attempted to alter the makeup of the House of Lords to reflect the changing democratic society in England. Loud cries for the abolition of the House of Lords arose from numerous critics in 1974 with the election of the Labor Party that considered the House of Lords to be an anachronism and a remnant of an earlier England. The Conservative Party reacted with attacks on the Labor Party. In 1999, the government moved ahead to make major changes in the composition of the House of Lords, and most observers of social conditions in England anticipated additional party bickering and legislation regarding the ongoing House of Lords controversy in the twenty-first century.


United Kingdom - Constitutional Legal Foundations [next]

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