Chapter 2. The United Kingdom

England is a country but it isn’t a state. It is part of a state called ‘The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’. This name is less than a hundred years old, but English rule in other parts of the United Kingdom started soon after the time of William the Conqueror.


When England was safely under their control, the Normans started the conquest of Wales. The conquest was completed by William the Conqueror’s son. There were a few years of independence in the 12th and 13th centuries, but since 1284 the rulers of England have also ruled in Wales. The Welsh language is still spoken by half a million people.


Scotland stayed independent much longer than Wales - until the end of the 13th century, when it was conquered by the English king, Edward I. But thirty years later it became independent again. England and Scotland finally came together in 1603. Queen Elizabeth 1 of England died without children, and her nearest relative was James, King of Scotland. During the next century the two countries had the same kings and queens, but different parliaments and laws.
Twice in that time, the English parliament chose a new king for both countries. The Scots were very angry. Some wanted war with their more powerful neighbour. Hut others saw a better future. England was growing rich from its empire abroad. Scotland was failing to build its own empire. So Scotland should join England, and as one country they could enjoy the empire together.
The English liked this idea, but the Scots weren’t so sure. Finally, in 1707, the Scottish parliament voted to join England. (Many Scottish politicians were paid to vote this way.) Scotland lost its own parliament and the Scottish politicians moved south to London. England, Scotland and Wales were now one state: Great Britain.

When Scotland joined England, the two countries’ differences didn’t just disappear. In 1715, and again in 1745, people from the Highlands, in the northwest of Scotland, and from other areas fought to have a new king. They were defeated both times. In 1745, the English destroyed complete villages. Many people were killed, and the ‘lucky’ ones were sent abroad.
The Scots never fought the English again. By the end of the 18th century, they were joining the British army in large numbers and playing an important part in the government of the British Empire.


Ireland’s story was very different. Ireland was first conquered by an army from Britain in 1171. The Irish finally won independence for most of their island in 1922. In all that time, British rule brought Ireland very little money and a lot of trouble.
The Norman invasion of Ireland in 1171 was the idea of an Irish king, Dermot of Leinster. When he stole another king’s wife, he lost power over his lands. He asked the English king, Henry II, for help. Henry sent an army, and the island of Ireland has never been completely independent since then.

Henry II

Henry II became King of England because of his Norman mother. He was the first king from the Plantagenet family that ruled England after the Normans. He also ruled the French lands of his wife and his father. At its greatest, his empire reached from Ireland to the Pyrenees, mountains in the south-west of France. The kings of England continued to rule lands in France until 1557.

Norman lords ruled the area around Dublin, and most of the time they were independent of the government in England. Irish kings continued to control the rest of the country. Little changed until the 16th century, when most people in Britain became Protestant. Most Irish people stayed Catholic. The Catholics tried to push the Protestants out of Ireland, blit they failed. In 1607, the last Catholic lords left the country and, for the first time, all of Ireland was controlled by England.

The Protestant rulers of England wanted to make Ireland less Catholic. So they decided to send large numbers of Scottish Protestants there. Most of these Scots made their home in the north of Ireland, and their families still live there today.
The Irish Catholics didn’t like the Protestants in the north or the English government. In every British war of the 17th century, the Catholics fought for the side that lost. As a punishment, Catholics in the early 18th century couldn’t own land, or even a good horse. There was an Irish parliament, but Catholics couldn't vote or be politicians. And they couldn’t go to university. Irish Catholics became very poor, and the rich Protestant landowners weren’t interested in their problems. Some of the laws against Catholics were changed after a few years, but too little was done too late.

In 1798, the Irish fought unsuccessfully for independence from England. After this, the English decided to end the Irish parliament. Irish politicians, like the Scots before them, moved to London. There, they joined the parliament of a state that was now called the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.
Most Catholics in Ireland ate little except the potatoes that they grew on their very small farms. In the 1840s, potatoes failed to grow in Europe. In most countries this was not a serious problem, because there was other food. But in Ireland the result was terrible. People started to die. The British government did very little to help. The Church of England offered free food, but only to people who became Protestant. Of a population of eight and a half million, about one million died and another million went abroad, most of them to the US.

The Catholic dream of an independent Ireland continued. After battles in Parliament and in the streets of Irish cities, independence finally came in 1922. But the Protestants in the north refused to be part of a Catholic Irish state. So Ireland was cut in two. Northern Ireland continued to be part of the United Kingdom.

Northern Ireland

About 35% of the people in Northern Ireland were Catholic. They wanted to be part of the independent state of Ireland.
The Protestants were afraid of the Catholics, so they controlled the votes for politicians unfairly. They also kept the best jobs and houses for themselves. In the 1960s, Catholic demonstrations were stopped violently. So the British government sent their army to protect the Catholics.
13ut Catholics didn’t want the British army in their country. A Catholic group, the IRA, started to fight for independence from Britain in the north. When the first IRA fighter shot a British soldier, many Catholics were pleased. The IRA killed British soldiers and Protestant policemen and politicians. Later they killed anyone who was Protestant or British. Catholic violence was answered with more violence by the British army and the Protestant Irish. Terrible things were done by all sides, but perhaps the worst violence has now passed. In the last few years, IRA activity has stopped. Many Catholic and Protestant politicians, and the British and Irish governments, are trying to build a Northern Ireland which is free of violence and fair for all.

National parliaments

The Welsh and Scots haven't fought battles against the English for many centuries, but the idea of independence from England never really died. England is the biggest of the four countries in the United Kingdom, so it has the largest number of politicians in the parliament in London. Many people in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland felt that the London parliament didn't do enough for them. In the 1990s, the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish were given their own parliaments. They still have politicians in London, but they have others in their own capitals: Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast. These national parliaments make some decisions, for example about schools and hospitals, but tax, the army and other important matters are still controlled from London.

The United Kingdom - A History of Britain