The History of England from 4000 BC to 1625


A late Stone Age burial chamber in
Trethevy Quoit, Cornwall
4000 BC immigrants arrive from continental Europe and become farmers. Their descendants construct great stone tombs. By 2500 BC Stonehenge is underway. 500 years on immigrants from Holland and Rhineland arrive. 800 BC Celtic peoples skilled in bronze and later iron also arrive. They impose Bythonic language on England and introduce Druids. 55 BC Julius Caesar invades Britain and is repulsed. The Romans return a century later and colonise the country. Roman merchants follow and Cymbeline is British king. Cymbeline dies and his kingdom collapses. AD 43 Emperor Claudius adds Britain to his empire and there are 300 years of peace.
Christianity arrives and England has its first Christian martyr, St Alban, following which Emperor Constantine makes Christianity the imperial religion. The Roman Empire begins to crumble. In 367 England is under siege from wild Celts of the north and Saxon pirates in the east. The Romans hold onto their most northerly province for 50 years and then withdraw leaving the Britons to the barbarians who surround them. By the sixth century almost all trace of Roman civilization has been destroyed. Pope Gregory sends Augustine to convert England to Christianity. In the seventh century Edwin of Northumbria advances his frontier northwards into Scotland. 
Imaginative depiction of a Viking boat
The eighth century sees the rise of Mercia under its king Offa. Then in the ninth century Egbert the king of Wessex defeats the Mercians in battle and becomes the first king of all England, if only in name. New raiders arrive from the North, the Vikings of Norway and the Danes, and put down roots. By the middle of the ninth century the Northmen’s raids have become an invasion. Eastern England becomes a Danish kingdom. In 871 their advance is checked by Alfred, the young kind of Wessex. Alfred forces the Danes to withdraw and to accept Christianity. After Alfred’s death his kingdom falls into confusion. Edgar the Peaceful reigns 959 to 975 and is succeed by the worthless Ethelred the Unready. The Danes attack once more and in 1016 England submits itself to the Danish king, Canute. In 1042 the Danish empire collapses and England regains its independence under Ethelred’s son, Edward the Confessor. The pious 
The Bayeux Tapestry depicting the
death of Harold
Edward founds Westminster Abbey and brings friends and clergy into England from Normandy, his home during Danish rule. He dies childless is 1066 and is succeeded by his brother-in-law, Harold, Earl of Wessex. But Duke William of Normandy, Edward’s brother-in-law, believes England is his rightful inheritance, and prepares to seize the kingdom. Harold awaits the invasion but is forced to repel a Norwegian invasion in the north. William lands at Pevensey on the south coast and Harold races to confront him. A battle follows on 14 October 1066 on a ridge north of Hastings, and Harold is killed, traditionally an arrow in the eye. The Conqueror dispossesses English nobles and gives their lands to his Norman followers. He orders a detailed survey of all the manors of England to be entered in his Domesday Book, so called as there was no appeal from its judgements. He builds around fifty castles to defend his conquest, among them the Tower of London. He is succeeded by his sons, Rufus, William II and Henry I. When Henry dies in 1135 England is at peace and is more united that at any time in its history. But he dies without leaving a legitimate son heir and chaos returns to the kingdom. The barons are divided, some supporting Stephen, the son 
The murder of Becket in
Canterbury Cathedral in 1170
of the Conqueror’s daughter Adela, others Henry I’s daughter Matilda. Almost twenty years of civil war follows. Stephen dies in 1154 and the crown passes to Henry II, the son of Matilda. Plantagenet Henry introduces a common law and the jury system begins to replace trial by combat. But the king encounters an opponent to reforms of church courts in Thomas Becket, and the archbishop is murdered in his cathedral in Canterbury and becomes a martyr. Henry dies in 1189 and is succeeded by his son Richard I, who spends most of his reign on crusade in the Holy Land and gets the epithet of Lion Heart. Despite caring nothing for England, Richard becomes a popular hero, but England’s next king is one of the most detested of all, Richard’s brother John. He misuses his power, extorts money from subjects, Church and barons alike, and murders his nephew, Arthur, who has a better claim to the throne. The barons are driven into revolt and, with the support of the Church, force John in 1215 to sign the Magna Carter, to curb the despotic power of the king. 
Parliament in the reign of Edward I
John is succeeded in 1216 by his son Henry III. But in 1258 Henry faces a baronial revolt led by Simon de Montford. Henry is defeated and in 1265 Simon governs England as a virtual dictator, before being killed in battle. Henry regains the throne and reigns peacefully until his death in 1272. In 1274 the first university college at Oxford is founded. Edward I ascends to the throne and his reign is marked by aggression in Scotland, giving rise to nationalism in that country. William Wallace is executed in 1305, but the struggle for Scotland continues under the leadership of Robert Bruce. Then, while preparing to invade Scotland for a fourth time, Edward dies, and is succeeded by his son Edward II in 1307. The new king’s delight is Piers Gaveston, and  in 1327 he is his overthrown by his wife and her lover, and then murdered. He is followed by his son, Edward III, a brainless warmonger who instigates the Hundred Years’ War with France, England’s first sally into expansion beyond the British Isles. 
Edward, Prince of Wales,
the Black Prince
He is victorious at Crécy in 1346, and his eldest son the Prince of Wales, known as the Black Prince, has another brilliant victory ten years later at Poitiers. But the period is also marked by the catastrophe of the Black Death which reduces the population of England from about four million to little more than two. And it is also a period which sees the triumph of the English language, until then confined almost entirely to the peasantry. In 1362 English replaces French as the language of the law courts, and in 1385 it is the language of the grammar schools. It is also the period in which Geoffrey Chaucer grows up, the author of the Canterbury Tales, the first great poetry in the mother tongue. The Black Prince dies in 1376, and one year later Edward dies. The throne passes to the eldest son of the Black Prince who is crowned Richard II. In 1381 the new king suppresses the Peasants’ Revolt led by Wat Tyler. Later Parliament deposes Richard on a charge of violating his coronation oath. His cousin, Harry Bolingbroke, John of Gaunt’s son, rises and says in English: ‘In the name of Fadir Son and Holy Ghost, I Henry of Lancaster chalenge this Rewme of Ingland and the Corone’, and is led to the empty throne. 
The Tower of London in the
fifteenth century
Richard dies in prison and Bolingbroke becomes the new king, Henry IV. But Henry’s reign is a troubled one, and on his deathbed he tells his heir to ‘busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels’.The new king, Henry V, embarks upon a triumphant campaign in France, and marries the French king’s daughter. But he dies young, leaving the crown to the infant Henry VI. During the boy-king’s minority all French possessions are lost except for Calais. And in 1455 civil war breaks out, the White Rose of York against the Red Rose of Lancaster (the king). The Duke of York captures Henry and then is killed himself. His son Edward, the new Duke of York, continues the conflict and is finally victorious and crowed Edward IV. He is succeeded by his son, Edward V, a boy of twelve, with the boy’s uncle Richard, the Duke of Gloucester, as Protector. But Richard is ambitious for the throne, and persuades Parliament to crown him as Richard III. Soon afterwards 
Richard III by an
unknown artist
Edward and his younger brother are murdered in the Tower of London. But a new contender makes an entrance: Henry Tudor. In 1485 the final battle of civil war takes place at Bosworth. Richard is killed and Henry is crowned Henry VII on the battlefield. The Wars of the Roses has finally ended, and Henry’s marriage with Edward IV’s daughter Elizabeth reconciles the red and white roses.Henry’s reign sees great changes in the social order. Most of the villeins are freed and capitalist manufacturing is replacing the guild system. The invention of gunpowder revolutionises the way that war is conducted, and in 1477 William Caxton sets up his printing press in Westminster. On his death in 1509, Henry is succeeded by his son Henry VIII, an ambitious and impetuous young man of eighteen. His reign is marked by skirmishes with the Catholic Church. In 1534 the Act of Supremacy is passed, making Henry the Supreme Head of the Church of England. The Pope replies by excommunicating 
Woodcut from William Caxton's second edition
of the Canterbury Tales (1483)
Henry. Henry orders his chief adviser, Thomas Cromwell, to suppress the monasteries and sell their estates to speculators. Thomas Cranmer is made the first Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury and writes the Book of Common Prayer.  Henry has six wives and a son heir, Edward. He dies in 1547 and his nine year old son is crowned Edward VI. But the boy dies in 1553 and the crown passes to his half-sister Mary, an inflexible Catholic who believes that God has called her to save England from Protestant heresy. She marries an equally fanatical Philip II of Spain, and England is once again subject to the Pope. In 1555 Cranmer is burned at the stake. But when Mary dies without issue in 1558, the land reverts to Protestantism with its new queen Elizabeth II. She inherits a country divided on religious lines and surrounded by powerful external 
English ships engaging the Spanish Armada by
a contemporary unknown artist 
enemies. But by 1568, after a mixture of skill and compromise, prosperity is returning to England. In the same year a young Francis Drake makes his first voyage to the New World, and then circumnavigates the globe and returns laden with Spanish plunder. But the undeclared war with Spain continues, and in 1588 Philip II sends his long-awaited ’Invincible’ Armada, to catastrophic results for the Spanish king, as the venture is routed by the English ships and a timely storm. Meanwhile another revolution, led by Shakespeare, Marlowe, Jonson and others, is transforming English drama into the greatest the world has ever known. But the ‘Virgin Queen’ dies childless in 1603, and the crown passes to James I (James VI of Scotland). Two years later, Guy Fawkes and other plotters try to blow up the king along with his ministers and Parliament. The plot is foiled and Guy Fawkes is executed in 1606. James’s reign is marked with quarrels with his Parliament and the Thirty Years’ War of religion involving most of Europe, and ends in military disaster in 1625. But it also sees the publication of two books which are destined to have profound influence on the English language: the Authorized Version of the Bible, and the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays, as well as William Harvey’s ground-breaking lecture on the circulation of the blood. 

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