Nationality: Noun--Briton(s). Adjective--British.
Population (2004 est.): 60.27 million.
Major ethnic groups: British, Irish, West Indian, South
Major languages: English, Welsh, Irish Gaelic, Scottish
Type: Constitutional monarchy.
Constitution: Unwritten; partly statutes, partly common
law and practice
The United Kingdom's population in 2004 surpassed
60 million--the third-largest in the European
Union and the 21st-largest in the world. Its
overall population density is one of the highest
in the world. A group of islands close to continental
Europe, the British Isles have been subject
to many invasions and migrations, especially
from Scandinavia and the continent, including
Roman occupation for several centuries.
Britons are descended mainly from the varied
ethnic stocks that settled there before the
11th century. The pre-Celtic, Celtic, Roman,
Anglo-Saxon, and Norse influences were blended
in Britain under the Normans, Scandinavian Vikings
who had lived in Northern France. Although Celtic
languages persist in Wales, Scotland, and Northern
Ireland, the predominant language is English,
which is primarily a blend of Anglo-Saxon and
The Roman invasion of Britain in 55 BC and most
of Britain's subsequent incorporation into the
Roman Empire stimulated development and brought
more active contacts with the rest of Europe.
As Rome's strength declined, the country again
was exposed to invasion--including the pivotal
incursions of the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes
in the fifth and sixth centuries AD--up to the
Norman conquest in 1066. Norman rule effectively
ensured Britain's safety from further intrusions;
certain institutions, which remain characteristic
of Britain, could develop. Among these are a
political, administrative, cultural, and economic
center in London; a separate but established
church; a system of common law; distinctive
and distinguished university education; and
Both Wales and Scotland were independent kingdoms that
resisted English rule. The English conquest of Wales
succeeded in 1282 under Edward I, and the Statute of
Rhuddlan established English rule 2 years later. To
appease the Welsh, Edward's son (later Edward II), who
had been born in Wales, was made Prince of Wales in
1301. The tradition of bestowing this title on the eldest
son of the British Monarch continues today. An act of
1536 completed the political and administrative union
of England and Wales.
maintaining separate parliaments, England and Scotland
were ruled under one crown beginning in 1603, when James
VI of Scotland succeeded his cousin Elizabeth I as James
I of England. In the ensuing 100 years, strong religious
and political differences divided the kingdoms. Finally,
in 1707, England and Scotland were unified as Great
Britain, sharing a single Parliament at Westminster.
invasion by the Anglo-Normans in 1170 led to centuries
of strife. Successive English kings sought to conquer
Ireland. In the early 17th century, large-scale settlement
of the north from Scotland and England began. After
its defeat, Ireland was subjected, with varying degrees
of success, to control and regulation by Britain.
legislative union of Great Britain and Ireland was completed
on January 1, 1801, under the name of the United Kingdom.
However, armed struggle for independence continued sporadically
into the 20th century. The Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921
established the Irish Free State, which subsequently
left the Commonwealth and became a republic after World
War II. Six northern, predominantly Protestant, Irish
counties have remained part of the United Kingdom.
Expansion and Empire:
Begun initially to support William the Conqueror's (c.
1029-1087) holdings in France, Britain's policy of active
involvement in continental European affairs endured
for several hundred years. By the end of the 14th century,
foreign trade, originally based on wool exports to Europe,
had emerged as a cornerstone of national policy.
foundations of sea power were gradually laid to protect
English trade and open up new routes. Defeat of the
Spanish Armada in 1588 firmly established England as
a major sea power. Thereafter, its interests outside
Europe grew steadily.
by the spice trade, English mercantile interests spread
first to the Far East. In search of an alternate route
to the Spice Islands, John Cabot reached the North American
continent in 1498. Sir Walter Raleigh organized the
first, short-lived colony in Virginia in 1584, and permanent
English settlement began in 1607 at Jamestown, Virginia.
the next two centuries, Britain extended its influence
abroad and consolidated its political development at
home. Great Britain's industrial revolution greatly
strengthened its ability to oppose Napoleonic France.
By the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, the United
Kingdom was the foremost European power, and its navy
ruled the seas.
in Europe allowed the British to focus their interests
on more remote parts of the world, and, during this
period, the British Empire reached its zenith. British
colonial expansion reached its height largely during
the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901).
Victoria's reign witnessed the spread of British technology,
commerce, language, and government throughout the British
Empire, which, at its greatest extent, encompassed roughly
one-fifth to one-quarter of the world's area and population.
colonies contributed to the United Kingdom's extraordinary
economic growth and strengthened its voice in world
affairs. Even as the United Kingdom extended its imperial
reach overseas, it continued to develop and broaden
its democratic institutions at home.
the time of Queen Victoria's death in 1901, other nations,
including the United States and Germany, had developed
their own industries; the United Kingdom's comparative
economic advantage had lessened, and the ambitions of
its rivals had grown.
losses and destruction of World War I, the depression
of the 1930s, and decades of relatively slow growth
eroded the United Kingdom's preeminent international
position of the previous century.
control over its empire loosened during the interwar
period. Ireland, with the exception of six northern
counties, gained independence from the United Kingdom
in 1921. Nationalism became stronger in other parts
of the empire, particularly in India and Egypt.
1926, the United Kingdom, completing a process begun
a century earlier, granted Australia, Canada, and New
Zealand complete autonomy within the empire. They became
charter members of the British Commonwealth of Nations
(now known as the Commonwealth), an informal but closely-knit
association that succeeded the empire.
with the independence of India and Pakistan in 1947,
the remainder of the British Empire was almost completely
dismantled. Today, most of Britain's former colonies
belong to the Commonwealth, almost all of them as independent
members. There are, however, 13 former British colonies--including
Bermuda, Gibraltar, the Falkland Islands, and others--which
have elected to continue their political links with
London and are known as United Kingdom Overseas Territories.
often marked by economic and political nationalism,
the Commonwealth offers the United Kingdom a voice in
matters concerning many developing countries. In addition,
the Commonwealth helps preserve many institutions deriving
from British experience and models, such as parliamentary
democracy, in those countries.