A brief history of England in brief
A brief tour of the extensive history of England, as a summary. But first of all, we leave you with this interesting analysis of what the British Empire would be like if it were a country today.
The history of England begins around 4,500 BC, when agriculture was introduced. Using stone axes, farmers began to cut down the forests that covered England. They grew wheat and barley and kept herds of cattle, pigs and sheep.
However, in addition to farming, they also hunted animals such as deer, horses, and wild boars, and smaller animals such as beavers, badgers, and hares. They also collected fruit and nuts. At the same time, early farmers mined stone to make tools.
They dug wells, some of them 15 meters deep. They used deer antlers as picks and ox shoulder blades as shovels. They also made ceramic pots, but still wore clothing made from fur. They built simple log cabins to live in.
Also, early farmers made elaborate graves for their dead. They dug burial chambers and then covered them with wood or stone. Above them they created mounds of earth called barrows. They also made mounds of stones called cairns.
From about 2,500 BC in what is now England, Neolithic (new stone age) farmers made circular monuments called henges. At first they were simple ditches with stones or wooden posts erected in them. The most famous henge is, of course, Stonehenge.
It started out as a simple ditch with an internal bank of earth. Outside the entrance was the Heel Stone. The famous stone circles were erected hundreds of years later. Stonehenge was altered and added to over a thousand years from 2250 BC to 1250 BC before it was completed.
Bronze Age in England
In any case, around 2,000 BC English society was changed by the invention of Bronze. Metal artifacts appeared in England as early as 2,700 BC, although they are believed to have been imported. Around 2,000 BC, bronze was being made in England.
Bronze Age people also rode horses and were the first in England to weave cloth. Bronze age women pinned their hair with bone pins and wore crescent-shaped necklaces.
By the late Bronze Age (1,000 BC – 650 BC) forts were built on the hills, so it seems that warfare was becoming commonplace. This may be due to population growth as it became increasingly difficult to obtain fertile land.
Meanwhile, Bronze Age people continued to build burial mounds. The dead were buried with useful artifacts. Presumably the living believed that the dead would need them in the afterlife.
Bronze Age people lived in round wooden huts with thatched roofs, but nothing is known about their society or how it was organized. However, it is almost certain that different classes already existed by then. Tin and copper were exported from Britain along with animal skins. Jet and amber were imported for the rich.
Then, around 650 BC, iron was introduced to England by a people called the Celts and the first swords were made. Warfare was common during the Iron Age and many hill forts (fortified settlements) were built at that time. (Although there were also many open villages and farms).
The Celts fought with horses or light wooden chariots. They threw spears and fought with swords. The Celts had wooden shields and some carried chain mail.
Most Celts were farmers, although there were also many skilled craftsmen. Some Celts were blacksmiths (working with iron), bronzesmiths, carpenters, leatherworkers, and potters. Celtic craftsmen also made gold and gemstone jewelry. Additionally, objects such as swords and shields were often finely decorated.
The Celts decorated metal items with enamel. The Celts also knew how to make glass and they made glass beads. The Celts farmed in rectangular fields. They raised pigs, sheep, and cattle. They stored the grain in pits lined with stone or wicker and sealed with clay. The Celts also brewed beer from barley.
The Roman conquest of Britain
In 55 BC, when Julius Caesar led an expedition to Britain, a decision that would transform the history of England. Caesar returned in 54 BC he both times defeated the Celts, but did not stay. Both times the Romans withdrew after the Celts agreed to pay yearly tribute. The Romans invaded Britain again in AD 43 under Emperor Claudius.
The Roman invasion force was composed of some 20,000 legionnaires and some 20,000 auxiliary soldiers from the provinces of the Roman Empire. Aulus Plautius led them. The Romans landed somewhere in south-east England (exact location unknown) and quickly prevailed against the Celtic army.
The Celts could not match the discipline and training of the Roman army. A battle was fought on the River Medway, ending in defeat and Celtic retreat. The Romans pursued them up the River Thames to Essex and within months of landing in England the Romans had captured the Celtic hill fort at the site of Colchester.
Meanwhile, other Roman forces marched towards Sussex, where the local tribe, the Atrebates, were friendly and offered no resistance. The Roman army then marched into the territory of another tribe, the Durotriges, in Dorset and southern Somerset.
Everywhere the Romans prevailed and that year 11 Celtic kings surrendered to Claudius. (Normally, if a Celtic king surrenders, the Romans allow him to remain as a puppet ruler.) In AD 47 the Romans controlled England from the River Humber to the River Severn estuary.
Meanwhile, the Iceni tribe of East Anglia rebelled. At first, the Romans allowed them to keep their kings and have some autonomy. However, the Romans easily crushed him. In the years that followed, the Romans alienated the Iceni by imposing heavy taxes.
So when the king of the Iceni died, he left his kingdom partly to his wife, Budica, and partly to Emperor Nero. Soon, however, Nero wanted the kingdom for himself. His men treated the Iceni very badly and provoked a rebellion. This time a large part of the Roman army was fighting in Wales and the rebellion was, at first, successful.
Led by Boudicca, the Celts burned Colchester, St Albans and London. However, the Romans were quick to deal with the rebellion. Although the Romans were more numerous than his superior discipline and tactics ensured total victory.
After the rebellion was crushed, the Celts of what is now southern and eastern England settled and gradually accepted Roman rule. Then, in AD 71-74, the Romans conquered the north of what is now England.
In AD 122-126 the Emperor Hadrian built a great wall across the northern border of Roman Britain to keep out the people the Romans called the Picts.
The end of Roman Britain
By the middle of the third century the Roman Empire was in decline. In the second half of the third century, the Saxons from Germany began raiding the east coast of Roman Britain. The Romans built a chain of fortresses along the coast, which they called the Saxon coast.
The forts were commanded by an officer called the Earl of the Saxon shore and contained both infantry and cavalry. In 286, an admiral named Carausius seized power in Britain. For 7 years he ruled Britain as emperor until Allectus, his finance minister, assassinated him.
Allectus then ruled Britain until 296 when Constantius, Emperor of the Western Roman Empire invaded. Britain was brought back into the Roman fold.
In the fourth century the Roman Empire in the west went into serious economic and political decline. Town populations fell. Public baths and amphitheaters stopped working. In 367 Scots from Northern Ireland, Picts from Scotland, and Saxons attacked Roman Britain.
They invaded Hadrian’s Wall and killed the Earl of the Saxon coast. However, the Romans sent a man named Theodosius with reinforcements to restore order. However, the last Roman troops left Britain in 407.
In 410 the leaders of the Romano-Celts sent a letter to the Roman Emperor Honorius, asking for help. However, he had no troops to spare and he told the British that they must defend themselves.
Roman Britain was divided into separate kingdoms, but the Romano-Celts continued to fight against the invading Saxons. Roman civilization slowly collapsed. People stopped using coins and went back to bartering. Roman cities continued to be inhabited until the middle of the 5th century. Then the life of the city came to an end. Roman civilization in the countryside also disappeared.
The Anglo-Saxon conquest of England
By the 5th century the Romano-Celts had split into separate kingdoms, but a single leader named Superbus tyrannus had emerged. At that time and possibly earlier, the Germanic peoples were being hired as mercenaries. According to tradition, the Superbus tyrannus brought the Jutes to protect their kingdom from the Scots (from Northern Ireland) and the Picts (from Scotland).
He also feared that the Romans would invade Britain and make it part of the Empire again. The Superbus tyrannus installed the Jutish leader, Hengist, as king of Kent. In return, the Jutes were to protect Britain.
However, after about 7 years, the Jutes and the Romano-Celts fell. They fought a battle at Crayford and the Jutes won a decisive victory. The war lasted several more years, but the Celts were unable to dislodge the Jutes.
At the end of the 5th century the Saxons landed in Sussex and after about 15 years the Saxons had conquered all of Sussex. They gave the county its name. It was the kingdom of the South Saxons.
Meanwhile, in the late 5th or early 6th century, more Jutes landed in eastern Hampshire and on the Isle of Wight. At the same time the Saxons landed in western Hampshire. They founded the kingdom of Wessex (the West Saxons). Then, at the end of the 5th century, a great leader and general arose among the Celts.
We know him as Arthur. Very little is known about him, but he defeated the Saxons in several battles. His victories culminated in the Battle of Mount Badon, around 500 AD (We don’t know exactly where the battle took place). The Saxons were crushed and their advance halted for decades.
Meanwhile, in the early 6th century, the West Saxons, from western Hampshire, annexed the Jutes from eastern Hampshire. Around 530 they also seized the Isle of Wight. Then in 552 the West Saxons won a great victory somewhere near modern Salisbury and captured what is now Wiltshire.
In the year 577 they won another great victory. This time they captured Bath, Cirencester and Gloucester. They also separated the Celts of South West England from the Celts of Wales.
Meanwhile, in the middle of the 6th century, other Saxons invaded Essex. (The kingdom of the East Saxons). A town called The Angles landed in East Anglia. They obviously gave East Anglia its name. They also gave England its name (Angle land). Other angles landed in Yorkshire.
Also in the late 6th century the Saxons sailed down the Thames and landed in what is now Berkshire. They gave Middlesex its name. (The land of the Middle Saxons). They also landed on the south bank of the River Thames. They named the area Suth Ridge, which means south shore. Over time the name changed to Surrey.
The conquest of the west of England
So by the end of the sixth century, the east of England was in the hands of angels and Saxons. In the seventh century they continued their relentless advance. In 656 the East Midlands Saxons won a battle on the River Wye and captured the West Midlands.
Further south, in 658, the West Saxons won a great battle and drove the Celts back to the River Parrett in Somerset. In 664 they won yet another battle. This time they captured Dorset.
By AD 670 the West Saxons had captured Exeter. Then in 710 the East Somerset Saxons invaded West Somerset. At the same time, the Saxons from south-east Devon marched north and west.
The two groups advanced in a pincer movement and soon occupied Devon and western Somerset. However, the Saxons never gained effective control of Cornwall. So Cornwall kept its own language.
The English kingdoms
In the 7th century there were 9 kingdoms in what is now England. In the south were Kent, Sussex, and Wessex (Hampshire and Wiltshire). In the early 9th century, Wessex took control of Sussex and Kent. The East of England was divided into Essex, East Anglia, and a kingdom called Lindsey roughly modern Lincolnshire.
The Midlands were ruled by a kingdom called Mercia. In the late 8th century, a great king named Offa ruled Mercia. He famously built a dike (ditch) to keep the Welsh out. He also absorbed the kingdom of Lindsey (roughly Lincolnshire).
In the year 600 the north was divided into two kingdoms. Deira (roughly modern Yorkshire) and Bernicia further north. However, in 605 the two were united to form a powerful kingdom called Northumbria. So in the middle of the 9th century England was divided into just four kingdoms, Northumbria in the north, Mercia, East Anglia in the east, and Wessex in the south.
The conversion of England to Christianity
In the year 596 Pope Gregory sent a group of about 40 men led by Augustine to Kent. They arrived in 597. Aethelbert allowed the monks to preach and eventually converted. In addition, his nephew Saeberht, the King of Essex, also converted.
Meanwhile, in the year 627, King Edwin of Northumbria (northern England) and all his nobles were baptized. (He may have been influenced by his wife, Ethelburga, who was a Christian.) Most of his subjects followed him. A man named Paulinius became the first Saxon Bishop of York. Paulinius also began to convert the kingdom of Lindsey (Lincolnshire).
However, things did not go well in Northumbria. King Edwin was killed at the Battle of Hatfield in 632 and most of Northumbria later reverted to paganism. They had to be converted again by Celtic monks from Scotland.
Further south, in 630, a Christian named Sigebert became King of East Anglia. He asked the Archbishop of Canterbury to send men to help convert his people. Meanwhile, Pope Honorius sent a man named Birinus to convert the West Saxons (who lived in Hampshire).
The missionaries also preached in the kingdom of Mercia (The Middle Lands). In the year 653 King Penda of Mercia was converted and baptized and gradually the kingdom was converted. The last part of England to convert to Christianity was Sussex. It was converted after 680 by Saint Wilfrid. Finally, by the end of the seventh century, all of England was at least nominally Christian.
Vikings in England
In 793 the Vikings raided a monastery at Lindisfarne (northeast England). A respite followed until 835 when the Danes descended on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent. Although the Viking invaders were fearsome, they were not invincible. In 836 the Danes joined the Celts of Cornwall.
However, they were defeated by Egbert, King of Wessex, at Hingston Down. However, the Danes continued to attack England. In 840 a force of Saxons from Hampshire crushed a Danish force at Southampton. However, the same year the Dorset Saxons were defeated by the Danes at Portland.
In 841 the Danes laid waste to Kent, East Anglia and what is now Lincolnshire. In 842 they sacked Southampton. Other Viking raids occurred in 843 and 845. In the latter year the Saxons defeated the Danes in a battle at the mouth of the River Parrett in Somerset.
Then, in 850-51, the Vikings wintered on the Isle of Thanet. In the spring they attacked the Mercians and defeated them in battle. However, they were later defeated by a Wessex army. In 854, another Danish force wintered on the Isle of Sheppey before raiding England. A relatively peaceful period followed in which the Vikings attacked England only once.
However, the Danes eventually stopped raiding and turned to conquest. In the fall of 865 an army of Danes landed in East Anglia. The following year, 866, they captured York. The Northmen attacked the Vikings occupying York in 867, but were defeated. The Danes then installed a man named Egbert as the puppet ruler of Northumbria.
The Danes then marched south and spent the winter of 867 in Nottingham. In 869 they marched to Thetford in East Anglia. In the spring of 870 they crushed an army of Eastern Anglo-Saxons. The Danes now controlled Northumbria, part of Mercia, and East Anglia.
They then turned their attention to Wessex. In late 870 they captured Reading. The Wessex men won a victory at Ashdown. However, the Danes won two battles, at Basing and at an unidentified location.
Then, in the spring of 871, Alfred became King of Wessex. He became known as Alfred the Great. The Saxons and the Danes fought several battles during 871, but the Danes could not break the Saxon resistance, so they made a peace treaty and the Danes turned their attention to the other parts of England.
In 873 they attacked the unoccupied part of Mercia. The Mercian king fled and was replaced by a puppet ruler. Afterwards, Wessex remained the only independent Saxon kingdom.
In 875 a Danish army invaded Wessex again. However, they were unable to conquer Wessex, so in 877 they withdrew to Gloucester. In 878 they launched a surprise attack on Chippenham. King Alfred was forced to flee and hide in the marshes of Athelney. Alfred fought a guerrilla war for a few months and then engaged the Danes in battle.
The Danes were defeated at the Battle of Edington. Later Guthrum, the Danish leader, and his men were baptized and made a treaty with Alfred. They divided southern and central England between them. Guthrum took London, East Anglia and all the territory east of the old Roman road, Watling Street.
Also, the wars with the Danes were not over. In the year 892, some Danes who had been attacking France turned their attention to Kent. In 893 the Saxons defeated them and withdrew to Essex (part of the Danelaw). Meanwhile, in 893, another group of Danes sailed into Devon and laid siege to Exeter. They withdrew in 894.
They sailed to Sussex and landed near Chichester. This time the local Saxons marched out and defeated them in battle. The war with the Danes continued in 895-896. The Danelaw Danes marched into what is now Shropshire, but were forced to withdraw. Some years of peace followed.
During his reign, Alfredo reorganized the defense of his kingdom. He created a fleet of ships to fight the Danes at sea. (It was the first English navy). He also created a network of forts throughout his kingdom called burhs. Finally Alfred died in 899. His son Edward succeeded him.
Late Saxon England
In the middle of the 9th century there were 4 Saxon kingdoms: Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia and Wessex. By the end of the century only one remained, Wessex. In the 10th century Wessex gradually expanded and took over the entire Danish territory. So a single united England was created. The process began under the reign of King Edward.
The Treaty of Wedmore in 879 gave King Alfred control over western Mercia. However, the people of that area still saw themselves as merciful and not as Saxons or English. Over time they merged with the people of Wessex.
Meanwhile, in the years 915-918, King Egbert defeated the Danes in eastern England. He took control of all of England south of the Humber River. By 954 all of England was ruled by descendants of Alfred the Great.
In the late 10th century, England enjoyed a respite from Danish raiding. England was peaceful, although a young king, Edward, was assassinated at Corfe in Dorset in 978. His brother Aethelred replaced him.
Despite this, at the end of the 10th century there was a religious revival in England. A man named Dunstan (c.1020-1088) was Archbishop of Canterbury. He reformed the monasteries. Many new churches and monasteries were built.
In 991 they were paid £10,000 to go home. In 1002 they were paid £24,000, in 1007 they were paid £36,000. England was stripped of its resources by paying these huge sums of money called Danegeld (Danish gold).
King Aethelred or Ethelred also stupidly angered the Danes by ordering the massacre of the Danes who lived in his kingdom. He was persuaded that they were plotting against him and ordered his people to kill them on November 13, 1002. This terrible crime, the Saint Brio’s Day massacre, ensured that the Danes had a personal hostility towards him.
Eventually the Danes were reconquered. In 1013 the Danish king Sweyn invaded England. His fleet sailed up the River Humber and down the River Trent to Gainsborough. The people of the north of England welcomed him. Swein marched south and captured more and more of England. King Ethelred fled abroad.
Swein was about to become king of England when he died in February 1014. Unbelievably some of the English invited Ethelred back (provided she agreed to rule more justly). When he arrived, the Danes withdrew.
However, they soon returned. In 1015, Swein’s son Canute or Cnut led an expedition to England and occupied southern England. Ethelred finally died in April 1016.
There was then a fight between Canute and Ethelred’s son, Edmund, known as Edmund Ironside. The Danelaw people accepted Cnut as king, but London supported Edmund. England was divided between the two contestants.
They fought at Ashingdon in Essex. Cnut won the battle, but he was not strong enough to capture all of England. Instead, he made his peace with Edmund. Canute took the north and the midlands while Edmund took the south. However, Edmund conveniently died in November 1016, and Cnut became king of all England.
Canute turned out to be a good king. Under him, trade grew rapidly and England grew rich. When Canute died in 1035, England was stable and prosperous. Canute also divided England into four counties: Northumbria, East Anglia, Mercia, and Wessex. Each earl was very powerful.
Unfortunately, after Cnut’s death, there were seven years of fighting over who would rule England. Then in 1042 Edward, known as Edward the Confessor, became king. During his reign, which lasted until 1066, England became increasingly prosperous.
Trade grew and English cities flourished. England was stable and well governed. Edward also built Westminster Abbey. However, Edward’s mother was Norman, and Norman influence was increasing in England. The next king, Harold, was to be the last Saxon king.
The Norman conquest
Edward the Confessor died without leaving an heir. William Duke of Normandy claimed that Edward once promised him that he would be the next king of England. He also claimed that Harold had sworn an oath of support after Edwards’ death. If Harold ever took such an oath it was because he had been shipwrecked off the Norman coast and was coerced into taking the oath.
In Anglo-Saxon times the crown was not necessarily hereditary. A body of men called the Witan played a role in choosing the next king. No one could become king without the support of the Witans.
In January 1066, after Edward’s death, the Witan chose Harold, Earl of Wessex, to be the next king. Duke William of Normandy would have to obtain the crown by force.
However, William was not the only contestant for the throne. Harald Hardrada, King of Norway, also claimed it. He sailed to Yorkshire with 10,000 men in 300 ships. The Earls of Northumbria and Mercia attacked him but were defeated. However, King Harold marched north with another army. He took the Norwegians by surprise and defeated them at Stamford Bridge on September 25, 1066. That ended any threat from Norway.
Meanwhile, the Normans built a fleet of ships to transport their men and horses across the Channel. They landed in Sussex at the end of September. The Normans raided English farms for food. They also burned houses. Harold ran to the south shore. He arrived with his men on October 13.
The Anglo-Saxon army consisted of the chariots of the house, the bodyguard of the king. They fought on foot with axes. They wore mesh coats called Hauberks. Kite-shaped shields protected them. However, most Anglo-Saxon soldiers had no armor, only axes, spears, and round shields.
They fought on foot. Their normal tactic was to form a “wall of protection” by standing next to each other. However, the Anglo-Saxons did not have archers.
The Norman army was much more up to date. Norman knights fought on horseback. They wore chain mail and carried kite-shaped shields. They fought with spears, swords and maces. Some Normans fought on foot, protected by chains, helmets and shields. The Normans also had a force of archers.
The Battle of Hastings was fought on October 14, 1066. The Anglo-Saxons assembled on Senlac Hill. The Normans formed up under them. Both armies were divided into three wings. William also divided his army into 3 ranks. At the front were archers, in the middle foot soldiers, and then mounted knights.
The Norman archers advanced and loosed their arrows, but they had little effect. The foot soldiers advanced, but were repelled. The mounted knights attacked, but were unable to break through the Anglo-Saxon shield wall. So the Anglo-Saxons made a disastrous mistake. Foot soldiers and knights from Brittany fled.
Some of the Anglo-Saxons broke formation and followed. The Normans turned and attacked the pursuing Anglo-Saxons. They annihilated them. According to a writer named William of Poitiers, the Anglo-Saxons made the same mistake twice.
Seeing the Normans flee a second time, some men followed them. The Normans turned and destroyed them. The battle was lost.
Harold was killed with all his cars. The surviving Saxons melted away. William captured Dover and Canterbury. He finally captured London and was crowned King of England on December 25, 1066. The Anglo-Saxon era was over. William, Duke of Normandy, was crowned King of England on December 25, 1066. However, at first his position was by no means secure.
He only had several thousand men to control a population of about 2 million. In addition Swein, King of Denmark, also claimed the throne of England. At first, the Normans were hated by the invaders and had to hold off a resentful Saxon population.
One method the Normans used to control the Saxons was to build castles. They raised a mound of earth called a motte. They built a wooden palisade on top. Around the bottom another palisade was erected. The area within was called the bailey so it was called a motte and bailey castle. The Normans soon began building stone castles.
In 1078 William began to build the Tower of London. William remained in Normandy from March to December 1067. When he returned to England his first task was to put down an uprising in the south-west. He besieged Exeter. Finally, the walled city surrendered on honorable terms.
Although the south of England was now under Norman control, the Midlands and the North were a different matter. In 1068 William marched north through Warwick and Nottingham to York. The people of York submitted to him – for the time being and William returned to London via Cambridge and York.