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About this book

A core introductory textbook that provides students with a concise overview of the full sweep of English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh history, from pre-Roman times right through to the present day. Jeremy Black offers a balanced and absorbing account of a group of islands, their peoples, their extraordinary shared past and their remarkable impact on the rest of the world.

This is an ideal set text for dedicated modules on British History, or a supplementary text for broader modules on European History, which may be offered at all levels of an undergraduate History or European Studies degree. In addition it is a crucial resource for students who may be studying the history of Britain for the first time as part of a taught postgraduate degree in British or European History.

Table of Contents

1. Pre-Roman and Roman Britain

Abstract
Among the stalactites and stalagmites of Kent’s Cavern, the impressive cave system at Torbay in Devon, early hominids, Neanderthals and Stone Age men successively lived. The caves gave them shelter from south-west winds and opened to the light from the east. Earlier, bears had hibernated in the darker recesses of the caves. Now the caves are an inspiring visit for tourists and a challenge for artists; but, for most of their long human history, they reflected the struggle of man, like other creatures, to adapt successfully to the land and the opportunities and problems it posed. The long and complex history of the British Isles in part represents the interaction of man and a very varied natural environment. This environment is the proper focus at the outset because it greatly helped shape life in Britain and is still very important today. The British Isles are both part of Europe and yet, from the Mesolithic period in about 6500 BCE,1 separated from it by the sea, an important aspect of national history and identity. The British Isles have a very varied geology, topography, climate and natural vegetation. We should be careful about projecting the modern environment onto the past: climate and drainage, even the coastline and water levels, were different. Yet, in simple terms, the bulk of the west and north of Britain is higher and wetter, its soils poorer and its agriculture pastoral rather than arable: centred on animals, not crops. Much of Ireland is like west and north Britain, although there is less high land. However, there are many exceptions to this description of the British Isles as a result of a highly complex geological history and of great climatic variations.
Jeremy Black

2. British, English and Scandinavians, AD 400–1066

Abstract
The fifth century is an especially obscure period. The early Germanic population, mostly invaders but also some descendants of people brought in as mercenaries and settlers in the late Roman period, left no written record. Bede (672/3–735), the first English historian, and other later written sources provide a different account from the archaeological evidence. The latter, anyway, has to be used with care because of the difficulty of interpreting evidence and its uneven spread, reflecting, in part, the varied pattern of excavation and fieldwork activity. It is far from clear how far continuity or discontinuity should be stressed between Roman and post-Roman Britain, and difficult to distinguish between the consequences of the end to imperial Roman rule and that of the invaders who brought Germanisation. In particular, it is unclear how far there were large-scale movements of people or invasions by smaller warrior groups; there is an active debate on this. It was traditionally thought, on the basis of language and place-names, that there had been a mass migration. In the 1970s and 1980s, in contrast, it was fashionable to argue for a small elite invasion. Now, DNA analysis is leading to a revival of the hypothesis of a mass-migration.
Jeremy Black

3. The Middle Ages

Abstract
The two dates most commonly associated with the Middle Ages in England are 1066 and 1485. William the Conqueror’s victory at Hastings in 1066 brought the Normans to the throne of England, and was ultimately responsible for shifting the British Isles from the Scandinavian world to one centred on France. Richard III’s defeat by Henry Tudor at the battle of Bosworth in 1485 is popularly seen to mark the close of the Middle Ages. There are dangers in endowing either of these dates, particularly 1485, with undue significance, but both are in a way appropriate. Both relate to England and each centres on a change in the ruling dynasty. Although there are no reliable population figures – the first national census was not until 1801 – medieval England contained more people, was wealthier, and featured more in European politics than Ireland, Scotland or Wales. The politics of England, as of Scotland, centred on the ruler, on his views and entourage, whereas for Ireland and Wales it was the case of the rulers. The character of a reign depended on the personality of the monarch, and this was of great importance for the stability of the country. The personal relationship between the monarch and the great nobles (aristocrats) was crucial to political order.
Jeremy Black

4. The Sixteenth Century

Abstract
The particular importance of the period was that it witnessed a new emphasis on religious division, one that created serious problems at home and abroad, and that there was a related stress on relations between the parts of the British Isles. It is also significant in the long term that England developed trans-oceanic interests and ambitions, not least in the New World. At the same time, there were important continuities, including the dynastic need for heirs, which, in the sixteenth century, was a cause of religious strife focused on the new disruption presented by the break with the Papacy and the Protestant Reformation. First, however, it is appropriate to turn to pressures on society and the condition of the people. The central fact affecting the lot of the British in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries was that there were more of them. The population of Wales, for example, rose from about 226,000 in the 1540s to about 342,000 in 1670; that of Scotland from about 500,000 in the fourteenth century to about one million by 1650. The biggest increase was in England – the population more than doubled from under 2.5 million in 1500 to about 5 million by 1651, thus increasing England’s strength within the British Isles.
Jeremy Black

5. 1603–88

Abstract
In 1603, for the first time, one individual came to power throughout the British Isles: James VI of Scotland and James I of England, Wales and Ireland. However, the male line of his family, the Stuarts, were expelled from Britain twice within the century, first in the British civil wars of the 1640s and early 1650s, generally known, inaccurately, as the English Civil War; and, second, in the civil war that began with the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and ended when the Stuart cause in Ireland capitulated in 1691. In retrospect, the period is usually so dominated by the (English) Civil War of 1642–6, its causes, course and consequences, that it is difficult to appreciate that both the war and its results were far from inevitable. The war was certainly a major struggle: more than half the total number of battles fought on English soil involving more than 5000 combatants were fought in 1642–51. Furthermore, out of an English male population of about 1.5 million, over 80,000 died in combat and about another 100,000 of other causes linked to the war, principally disease. Possibly one in four English males served in the conflict.
Jeremy Black

6. 1689–1815

Abstract
What was to become known as the Glorious Revolution was both the last successful invasion of England (and one that was largely bloodless) and a coup in which the monarch was replaced by his nephew and son-in-law, though William III’s success also depended on an absence of extensive opposition in England, an absence reflecting apathy, reluctant compliance and a measure of active enthusiasm in his favour. The change of monarch led to war with Louis XIV of France, who gave James II shelter and support; and the need for parliamentary backing for the expensive struggle with the leading power in Western Europe helped to give substance to the notion of parliamentary monarchy. The financial settlement obliged William to meet Parliament every year, the Triennial Act (1694) ensured regular meetings of Parliament and, by restricting its life-span to three years, required regular elections, thus limiting potential for the management of Parliament by corruption. William’s was truly a limited monarchy. The Glorious Revolution was to play a crucial role in the English public myth, being presented as the triumph of the liberal and tolerant spirit and the creation of a political world fit for Englishmen, which provided the taproot of the Whig interpretation of history.
Jeremy Black

7. Age of Reform and Empire, 1815–1914

Abstract
In this century, the British Isles, from 1801 the United Kingdom of Britain and Ireland, were affected by the economic transformation summarised as the Industrial Revolution, by a process of political transformation, and by Britain’s position as the world’s leading empire. In turn, these changes threw up fresh problems, while the ‘Irish Question’ increasingly became a vexed issue in British politics. The rise of Britain to become the greatest imperial power in history was not alone responsible for the major divergence between her and the other European powers, a divergence that very much struck contemporaries. Economic development and the rise of nationalism further constituted and accentuated the process of divergence that already existed. Nevertheless, the Industrial Revolution fundamentally altered the nature of the British Isles. Historians have been deeply divided on the speed of industrial change. For long, it was seen as very fast, then there was an emphasis on evolution rather than revolution, but now there has been a swing back to a stress on revolutionary development.
Jeremy Black

8. The Twentieth Century

Abstract
War and the loss of empire framed the political experience of Britain from the outbreak of the First World War (1914) to the 1960s, but the environmental, medical, social and economic contexts of British life, as well as the nature of personal experience, were all to be transformed totally as a result of technological innovation and application. The nineteenth century had brought major changes and an increasing sense of continual change. The twentieth century truly witnessed revolutionary transformations in theoretical and applied science and in technology in most fields, whether transport, the generation and distribution of power, medicine, contraception, agricultural yields, or the accumulation, storing and manipulation of information.As a result of these changes, the wealth was created, and means provided, to make feasible the suggestion that man’s lot on earth could be substantially improved.
Jeremy Black

9. The British Isles Today

Abstract
Throughout this book, there has been stress on the importance of the physical environment, which, itself, has been greatly affected by human activity. Woods have been cleared, so that, outside the Forest of Bere in Hampshire, very little of the original virgin forest has survived. Indeed, since 1945, 45 per cent of the United Kingdom’s remaining ancient seminatural forest has been damaged or destroyed. Rivers have been deepened and straightened, coastlines altered. This has been a long process. The marshland of the Fens, for example, has been progressively drained from the Roman period to the present day, with particular activity in the seventeenth century and following the arrival of steam pumps from the 1820s. Yet, at no stage, has there been such pressure on the environment as in modern Britain. Other creatures are decimated by human activities, between 3000 and 5000 barn owls being killed on UK roads each year. On the other hand, the Welsh red kite has been brought back from the brink of extinction, while fish have returned to previously polluted rivers such as the Taff, Thames, Tyne, Wandle and Wear, as de-industrialisation and better management have greatly increased their cleanliness. There is a regional dimension, with animals doing least well in the crowded south of England.
Jeremy Black

10. Conclusions

Abstract
History is like travel. To go back in the past and then to return is to have seen different countries, other ways of doing things, various values. The traveller might not have the time or resources to appreciate fully what he or she is seeing, but is nevertheless made aware of variety and change. To travel today is to be made aware of some of the strengths and weaknesses of the British Isles and its inhabitants. Reviewing the history of the British Isles, it is possible to conclude by stressing continuity, and to emphasise a constant expression of a deep sense of history, an organic, close-knit society, capable of self-renewal, and the rooted strength of institutions and culture. The British certainly have a genius for the appearance of continuity, although the manufacture of traditions often masks shifts in the character of power. Linked to that, change is readily apparent both in the landscape and in the experience of the people. It is also possible to stress the role of chance. The relative stability of Britain in the twentieth century was due not only to deep-lying forces and trends, but also to victory, albeit exhausting victory, in both world wars.
Jeremy Black
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