Course Content
Environmental Studies
English Language and Linguistics
Private: BA English
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British Isles

Learning Outcomes

By learning this unit, the learners will be able to:

  • get exposed to the history, geography and chronology of the Great Britain/United Kingdom
  • get introduced to the political, cultural, geographical nuances and dynamics of the British Isles
  • get a sense of the history of annexation and consolidation of the parts of the Great Britain in the past and get the relevance and significance of considering the history of nations


The names Britain, Great Britain, and the United Kingdom are often used synonymously for the same country. Britain comprises whole of the island and includes England, Wales and Scotland; apart from these, the United Kingdom includes six counties collectively known as Northern Ireland, situated in the north-eastern part of the island of Ireland, situated on the west of Britain. The United Kingdom of Great Britain as well as Northern Ireland is the official name of the country whose history, culture and literature we study. London, the capital of England is also the capital of the United Kingdom, and is one of the greatest cities of the world. Some of the other important cities of England are Birmingham, Liverpool, and Manchester. Apart from the capital city of Belfast, Londonderry (called Derry by the nationalists) and Lisburn are the major cities in Northern Ireland. Scotland’s capital is Edinburgh and the other main cities are Glasgow, Aberdeen and Dundee. The major cities of Wales include the capital Cardiff, Swansea and Newport. The population of the United Kingdom is 68,621,147 as on 2022, based on Worldometer elaboration of the latest United Nations data.
The names Britain and England are also used interchangeably by some people and this causes confusion. Of these terms, Britain is used at least as early as the 1st century BC to refer to the Celtic people who were called Britons. The Celts were the earliest known inhabitants of the island and they were warrior tribes who had settled in the island by at least 600 BC. The term Britain was certainly used by the Romans to refer to the Celtic people when Julius Cesar invaded the island in 55 and 54 BC. It is believed that the Romans used an already existing name to refer to the Celts. The Romans under Emperor Claudius started the conquest of Britain in 43 AD and managed to extend its control over much of the present territory of England and Wales and some part of Scotland by 87 AD. But they were not successful in conquering the whole island. As the Romans were not interested in settling down, the Celts remained the main inhabitants of the island. The Romans remained in control till they were forced to withdraw their army in 410 AD due to threats elsewhere. The Celts who were under Roman protection for nearly four centuries had by this time lost traits of the warriors which made them vulnerable. When the Romans left, Germanic tribes Angles, Saxons and Jutes started invading and settling down in the southern part of the island from the middle of the 5th century AD onwards. It is believed that some of the Anglo-Saxons came even before the Romans left. The names England (land of the Angles) and English are derived from the Anglo-Saxons. As the Anglo-Saxons came in larger numbers, the vanquished Celts were forced to flee to the west and north of the island. Remnants of the Celtic culture and language survive today in parts of Wales, Ireland and Scotland.


United Kingdom, Great Britain, Geography, History, Annexation, Islands


Tracing the origins of the United Kingdom would take us back to the Anglo-Saxon period, particularly the period of the West Saxon King Athelstan (died in 939). By the early 10th century AD, the King succeeded in annexing and consolidating his kingdom by overcoming the other Saxon and Celtic rulers in the neighbourhood. He controlled more territory than any previous Anglo-Saxon king. Through subsequent efforts and conquests over the following centuries, kingdoms in the northern and western parts of the Island— Wales, Scotland and Ireland also came under English domination. Efforts were made to conquer Wales in the middle of the 11th century, even before the Norman Conquest. It was in 1284 that England finally annexed Wales but it was only during the period of the Tudor ruler, Henry VIII that Wales was legally incorporated into England by the Act of Union of 1536 and 1542.
When Queen Elizabeth I of England died childless in 1603, she was succeeded by her cousin James VI, who was the reigning King of Scotland. From that year onwards, the two nations were unified under a single monarch. But it was only in 1707 with the Act of Union that England and Scotland were unified under the name the United Kingdom of Great Britain. The term “British” came into use at this time to refer to the people of the entire Kingdom. Scotland’s relationship with England before and after the merger has been problematic.
Ireland had a history of a long conflict with England starting at least from 1166 when King Henry II invaded it. Ever since that year, the control of England over Ireland waxed and waned, interspersed with constant rebellions by the Irish people. It was only during the 17th century that the UK was able to establish some control. Despite bitter resistance from the Irish people, the British Government enacted an Act of Union with Ireland in 1801 which created the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Following the Irish War of Independence (1919-21), the British Government was forced to accept the creation of an Irish Free State from 1922 onwards. Only 6 counties (territorial division) of the northern province of Ireland remained with the UK. At the moment, the island of Ireland consists of an independent Republic of Ireland which came into existence in 1949 and a smaller Northern Ireland.
Britain started growing in prominence in Europe only during the second half of the 16th century during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (reign from 1558-1603). It was also the golden age of English literature and drama exemplified by the presence of William Shakespeare. With the Industrial Revolution that appeared in the second half of the 18th century, Britain rose to great prosperity. It was probably the most powerful and prosperous country in the world by the time Queen Victoria died (reign from 1837 to 1901). Britain lost its dominant position in the world after the end of the Second World War when the United States of America emerged as the most important political, military and financial power. The UK has seen its position further diminished in the third decade of the 21st century. Perhaps
Britain’s great contribution to the world has been the English language, now spoken in every corner of the world as one of the leading international mediums of political, cultural and economic exchange. The fact that English is the language spoken in the USA has considerably helped in this regard.
It is difficult to say exactly whether England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are countries or states in a country. Foreigners are confused, for instance, by the sight of separate teams fielded in Football by England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland. But in cricket separate teams appear only from England, Scotland and Ireland. But then again in cricket, Cricket Ireland contains players from both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and the players from Wales are available for selection in the team fielded by the England and Wales Cricket Board. Perhaps the United Kingdom can be better understood as a federation of countries that have considerable autonomy in some areas but do not enjoy full autonomy. It has to be noted that England does not exist as a political unit and does not have a legislative assembly of its own unlike the other constituent units which enjoy varying degrees of autonomy. Thus it is evident that all the institutions in England have been subsumed into those for the UK. Following referendums held in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the UK Parliament passed three devolution acts: the Scotland Act 1998, the Northern Ireland Act 1998, and the Government of Wales Act 1998. The Scottish Parliament, National Assembly for Wales (Senedd Cymru in Welsh language) and the Northern Ireland Assembly have consequently came into existence. Further powers have been devolved since these original acts, most recently through the Scotland Act 2016 and Wales Act 2017. Ever since Britain broke away from the EU, there have been growing demands for full independence for Scotland.

1.1.1 The British Isles
The British Isles are a group of islands in the North Atlantic Ocean off the north- western coast of mainland Europe. The United Kingdom is situated on an archipelago known as the British Isles, which includes the main islands of Great Britain and Ireland, and several surrounding island groups, such as the Hebrides, the Shetlands, the Orkneys, the Isle of Man, and the Isle of Wight. The Channel Islands are also sometimes included in this grouping. Not all the islands are part of the United Kingdom. Although the term ‘British Isles’ has been used for a long time, many, particularly in Ireland, object to the use of the term.
The United Kingdom is located between the North Atlantic Ocean in the west and the North Sea in the east, north of the English Channel, and off France’s northern coast. The only land border the UK has is with the Republic of Ireland. Since 1994 the Channel Tunnel beneath the English Channel links the UK with France. The country shares maritime borders with Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, and the Faroe Islands (Denmark). With an area of 242,900 km², the United Kingdom is about half the size of Spain, or slightly larger than half the size of the U.S. state of California. The kingdom has a population of 66.8 million people (in 2019). The capital, largest city, and the country’s political and financial centre is London.
British Isles comprise two large islands and over 5,000 smaller ones like, Isle of Man, Isle of Scilly, Isle of Arran and Isle of Wight, etc. Politically, the British Isles are divided into two independent countries namely the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland. Geographically, the British Isles are divided between highlands to the north and west, and lowlands to the south and east. Low rolling hills, high moorlands, and small fields with high hedges are all typical of the British Isles. Ireland is known as the Emerald Isle, because heavy rainfall gives it a green appearance. The United Kingdom is surrounded by sea. To the south of England and between the UK and France is the English Channel, a narrow strip of water which separates England from the mainland.
The UK’s official language is English; recognized regional languages are Scots, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, Irish, and Cornish. The official religion of the United Kingdom is Christianity, but churches of all denominations can be found throughout the country. As mentioned earlier, the UK comprises four geographical parts – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Let’s have a brief description about the people and livelihood of the United Kingdom.
1.1.2 Geographical Features
Geography and chronology are the two important and inevitable elements for the studying of history. Famous English writer Richard Hakluyt rightly remarks that “geography and chronology are the sun and the moon, the right eye and the left eye of history” (Richard Hakluyt, Principal Navigation, Voyages, Traffiques, and Discoveries of the English Nation). This statement indicates the importance of geography in studying the historical antecedents. The evolution of British history and culture cannot be properly understood without a proper appreciation of the part played by the geographical factors. The often-quoted statement “geography governs history” is clearly manifested in the trajectory of Britain and its people.
The United Kingdom is surrounded by sea on all sides except for Northern Ireland which shares a land border with the Irish republic. The English Channel, a narrow arm of the Atlantic Ocean, separates the south of the United Kingdom and the north of France. The North Sea, a part of the Atlantic Ocean, lies to the east, separating it from countries like Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany on the south-east and Norway, Sweden and Denmark on the east. The Irish Sea, another part of the Atlantic Ocean separates Great Britain from the island of Ireland; it lies on the west of Wales and northern England and to the south-east of Northern Ireland. Southwestern England, western Scotland and the northwestern coast of Northern Ireland face the Atlantic Ocean. At its widest, the United Kingdom is 300 miles (500 km) across. From the northern tip of Scotland to the southern coast of England, it is about 600 miles (1,000 km). No one in the UK lives more than 120 kms (75 miles) from the sea. The capital, London, is situated on the river Thames in southeastern England.
1.1.3 England
England is geographically the most important part of the United Kingdom and occupies more than half of the island of Great Britain. It shares land borders with Wales to its west and Scotland to its north. It is possible to identify a division between southern England and northern England on the basis of the geographical features. The southern parts of England, particularly Greater London, (Greater London is an administrative area combining the city of London, city of Westminster and 31 other London boroughs, formed in 1965) are the most densely populated areas of the British Isles. More than seven million people live in Greater London. England has one of the highest population densities in the British Isles, with 380 people per square Km. There are more industries and more jobs here than anywhere else in the UK. London is one of the world’s top financial centres and is also a leading centre for other service industries including insurance, the media and publishing. Several cities including Cambridge and Swindon are centres for the hi-tech industry. Thousands of tourists visit the historical and cultural centres in southern England every year. Due to fertile soils and reliable rainfall a wide range of crops are cultivated in southern England. The landscape of southern England exhibits a wide variety. Cornwall in the far west has rough hills and an unevenly cut coastline shaped by the Atlantic Ocean. Southern England has a warm temperate climate.
The Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries began in northern England. The area is abundant in rich minerals and resources needed for industry. South Wales was once a major coal-mining and heavy industrial area. The region is reputed for traditional industries, such as iron, steel, coal mining and textiles. The eastern lowlands have an ideal climate for arable crops. Oats and potatoes grow in the north and west. The southwest is mainly used for grazing cattle and sheep. Forestry is important in mountain areas. The weather of northern England is cooler and wetter than the south. Important industrial cities of Northern England are Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and Bradford.
1.1.4 Wales
Wales is an important geographical unit of the United Kingdom. It is bordered by England to the east, the Irish Sea to the north and west, Celtic Sea to the south west and the Bristol Channel to the south. It had a population in 2021 of 3,107,500 and has a total area of 20,779 km2 (8,023 sq. miles). Wales has
a big coastline of over 2,700 km and is largely mountainous with its higher peaks in the north and central areas, including Snowdon as its highest summit at an altitude of 3560 feet. Wales lies within the north temperate zone and has a changeable, maritime climate. Cardiff is the largest city and administrative centre of Wales.
Wales was traditionally an agricultural society. But at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, development of the mining and metallurgical industries transformed the country from an agricultural society into an industrial nation; the South Wales Coalfield’s exploitation caused a rapid expansion of Wales’ population. Two-thirds of the population live in South Wales, including Cardiff, Swansea, Newport and the nearby valleys. The eastern region of North Wales has about a sixth of the overall population with Wrexham being the largest northern town. The remaining parts of Wales are sparsely populated. Now that the country’s traditional extractive and heavy industries have gone or are in decline, the economy is based on the public sector, light and service industries, and tourism. In livestock farming, includingdairy farming, Wales is a net exporter, contributing towards national agricultural self-sufficiency.
1.1.5 Scotland
Scotland lies off the northern part of Britain. Scotland covers 32 percent of the United Kingdom’s land area but has only 9 percent of the population. It is the least populated area of the United Kingdom. Scotland has one of the lowest population densities in Western Europe, with only 65 people per square km. The eastern side of Scotland has a drier climate than the west and is suitable for growing cereal crops and vegetables. Most of the mountain areas are too wet and barren for arable farming, but people use it for a variety of purposes which include sheep and deer farming, forestry, tourism and recreation. Edinburgh is the chief centre of administration and almost two-fifths (five million) of Scotland’s people live in four main cities namely, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee and Aberdeen. The lowlands of Scotland have a temperate climate and plenty of rain. Highland areas experience heavy cold winters with heavy, drifting snow.
1.1.6 Northern Ireland
The island of Ireland, located in northwestern Europe, has as its borders the Atlantic Ocean in the west, the Irish Sea in the east, the St. George Canal in the southeast, and the Celtic Sea in the south. Irish Sea separates the island of Ireland from Britain. From 1801 onwards Ireland became a constituent part of the United Kingdom by an Act of Union passed by British parliament. Following the Irish Easter Rebellion of 1916 which was crushed and the Irish War of Independence (1919-21), the British were forced to conclude the Anglo- Irish Treaty in December 1921, They accepted the partition of Ireland into two- Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland and the northern part was given the options for opting out or remaining in the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland with its Protestant majority opted to remain in the UK. Southern Ireland with its Catholic majority was recognized as the Irish Free State by the UK with dominion status in 1922. Only about one sixth of the island of Ireland, remained within the UK with the nomenclature Northern Ireland.
Geographically, the eastern side of the island has more people and industry than any other part. In the west, traditional ways of life based on farming remain strong and the native Irish language is still spoken by some people. Potatoes were once the staple food of the Irish. Potatoes and cereals flourish in the drier east. The climate of Ireland is too wet for many types of crops, particularly in the west, where the soils are thin and the land is mostly used for sheep grazing. In bog areas a type of soil called peat is cut from the ground and dried to be burned as fuel. Ireland’s location in the path of the Gulf Stream ocean current produces warm, moist air masses which pass over the country from the west. Rainfall is abundant, which allows many plants to grow, giving Ireland the name the “Emerald Isle’’.

1.1.7 Cultural relics
The cultural history of the United Kingdom is very unique. But the cultural diversity can be seen in the cultural history of Britain as much as in its geographical features. The individual cultures of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are diverse and have varying degrees of overlap and distinctiveness. English culture was undoubtedly the predominant culture but in course of time, it has assimilated the cultures of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. At the same time, the traditions, heritage, language, festivals and cuisine of the three countries are also preserved. This has contributed to the uniqueness and richness of the culture of the UK. However, some unique cultural relics can be found in the history of Britain.
Stonehenge is a prehistoric stone circle monument, cemetery and archaeological site on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, England, three kilometre west of Amesbury. It is believed to have been a pre-Christian or pagan religious place. It consists of an outer ring of vertical sarsen standing stones, each around 13 feet high, seven feet wide, and weighing around 25 tons, topped by connecting horizontal lintel stones. Inside is a ring of smaller bluestones. Inside these are free-standing trilithons, two bulkier vertical sarsens joined by one lintel. The whole monument, now ruinous, is aligned towards the sunrise on the summer solstice. The stones are set within earthworks in the middle of the densest complex of Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments in England. The monument evolved between 3,000 BC and 1,600 BC and aligned the rising and setting of the sun on the solstices, but its exact purpose remains a mystery. Stonehenge was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986.

Fig 1.1.1 Stonehenge
The Tower of London is a 900-year-old castle and fortress in central London that is notable for housing the crown jewels and for holding many famous and infamous prisoners. It was founded just after the Norman Conquest in 1066. The White Tower in the centre of the fortress was built by William the Conqueror in 1078. Used as a prison since the 12th century, the Tower has played an important part in the history of England Throughout its history, the tower has served many purposes: it housed the royal mint (until the early 19th century), a menagerie (which left in 1835), a records office, an armoury and barracks for troops. Until the 17th century, it was also used as a royal residence.

Fig 1.1.2 The Tower of London
Warwick Castle is another castle built by William the Conqueror, in 1068. Warwick was later remodelled in stone in the 12th century. Warwick Castle was home to the powerful Earls of Warwick, including Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick, nicknamed ‘The Kingmaker’ for his role during the Wars of the Roses. Over the centuries several of the Earls of Warwick met with untimely and violent deaths, including one executed for high treason in the Tower of London.

Fig 1.1.3 Stratford-Upon-Avon
Stratford-Upon-Avon, Warwickshire. Located on the banks of the river Avon, Stratford-upon-Avon is one of the most popular places in England. Stratford became famous as the birthplace of William Shakespeare. He was born in a lovely half-timbered house in 1564 and his descendants continued to live there until the 19th century. Stratford is situated 146 km to the north-west of London. Although Shakespeare had a prolific dramatic career in the city of London, he stopped writing plays and returned to Stratford around 1613. He died in 1616 and was buried in the city of his birth. Every year April 23- his date of death and possibly his birth as well- is celebrated from March till October in a festival when his plays are presented in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford. Stratford is one of the most important tourist destinations in the UK.

Fig 1.1.4 Warwickshire.
Hadrian’s Wall. After the Roman invasion in Britain in AD 43, the Romans quickly established control over southern England. The conquest of the people in the North however was not going to be so easy. In the AD 70s and 80s the Roman commander Agricola led a series of major assaults on the tribal people of northern England and the Scottish Lowlands. Despite a successful campaign into Scotland, the Romans failed in the long term to hold on to any lands gained. Forts and signal posts were built back in the lowlands linked by the Stanegate road which ran from the waters of the Tyne in the East to the Solway estuary in the West. Some four decades later in around AD 122, with the indigenous still untamed, these lowland forts were again under intense hostile pressure. A visit by the Emperor Hadrian that year to review the border problems at the boundaries of his empire led to a more radical solution. He ordered the building of an immense barrier stretching over eighty Roman miles from the west coast of Britain to the east. Built of stone in the east and initially of turf in the west (because lime for mortar was not available), Hadrian’s Wall took at least six years to complete. This impressive structure was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988.

Fig 1.1.5 Hadrian’s Wall
Domesday book is Britain’s earliest public record. It contains the results of a huge survey of land and landholding commissioned by William I in 1085. Domesday is by far the most complete record of pre-industrial society to survive anywhere in the world and provides a unique window on the mediaeval world.
St. Paul’s Cathedral, London. This famous dome dominates London’s skyline, and is England’s architectural masterpiece and place of national celebration. The present cathedral was designed and built by Sir Christopher Wren and completed in 1710 but a cathedral has stood on this site since 604 AD.

Fig 1.1.6 St. Paul’s Cathedral


  • Britain started growing in prominence in Europe only during the second half of the 16th century during the reign of Queen Elizabeth
  • Irish Sea separates the island of Ireland from Britain.
  • In the Industrial Revolution that appeared in the second half of the 18th century, Britain rose to great prosperity.
  • The only land border the UK has is with the Republic of Ireland
  • The recognized regional languages of UK are Scots, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, Irish, and Cornish.
  • England is geographically the most important part of the United King- dom and occupies more than half of the island of Great Britain.
  • The Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries began in north- ern England

Objective Type Questions

1. In which year England finally annexed Wales?
2. During whose period Wales was legally incorporated into England by the Act of Union of 1536 and 1542?
3. When Queen Elizabeth I of England died childless in 1603 who succeeded her?
4. Mention the time period of Irish War of Independence
5. In which year onwards British Government was forced to accept the creation of an Irish Free State?
6. Which is regarded as Britain’s greatest contribution to the world?
7. Identify the Geographical position of The United Kingdom
8. Which are the major islands of British Isles?
9. Which channel, a narrow arm of the Atlantic Ocean, separates the south of the United Kingdom and the north of France?
10. Which is the least populated area of the United Kingdom?
11. Scotland lies in which part of Britain?
12. What is the geographical position of the island of Ireland?

Answers to Objective Type Questions

1. 1284.
2. Tudor ruler, Henry VIII.
3. Her cousin James VI.
4. (1919-21).
5. 1922 onwards.
6. English language.
7. Between the North Atlantic Ocean in the west and the North Sea in the east, north of the English Channel, and off     France’s northern coast.
8. British Isles comprise two large islands and over 5,000 smaller ones like, Isle of Man, Isle of Scilly, Isle of Arran        and Isle of Wight, etc.
9. The English Channel.
10. Scotland.
11. Northern part of Britain.
12. Atlantic Ocean in the west, the Irish Sea in the east, the St. George Canal in the southeast, and the Celtic Sea in          the south.


1. Geography and chronology are the two important and inevitable elements for the studying of history.
Explain this statement in the background of the unit.
2. Write five important events in the history of Great Britain

Suggested Readings

1. Carter EH, RAF and Mears A History of England, Stacey International, 2012. 2. Trevelyan, G. M. A Social History of England, Vol.1, Books Way, 2014.
3. Hollister, Warren. The Impact of Norman Conquest, Wiley, 1969.
4. Brown, Allan. Origins of English Feudalism, Routledge, 2020.