A Brief History of Britain & Ireland


Britain’s coastline had been explored by the Greek geographer Pytheas in the 4th century BCE, and may have been explored even earlier, in the 5th, by the Carthaginian sailor Himilco. But to many Romans, the island, lying as it did beyond the Ocean at what was to them the edge of the “known world,” was a land of great mystery.

The earliest known name for Great Britain is Albion (Greek: Ἀλβίων) or insula Albionum, from either the Latin albus meaning “white” (referring to the white cliffs of Dover, the first view of Britain from the continent) or the “island of the Albiones”, first mentioned in the Massaliote Periplus in the 6th century BCE, and by Pytheas in the 4th century BCE.

The name for Scotland in the Celtic languages is related to Albion: Alba in Scottish Gaelic, Alba (genitive Alban, dative Albain) in Irish, Nalbin in Manx and Alban in Welsh, Cornish and Breton. These names were later Latinized as Albania and Anglicized as Albany, which were once alternative names for Scotland.

The oldest mention of terms related to Great Britain was by Aristotle (c. 384–322 BC), or possibly by Pseudo-Aristotle, in his text On the Universe, Vol. III. To quote his works, “There are two very large islands in it, called the British Isles, Albion and Ierne”. Pliny the Elder (c. CE 23–79) in his Natural History records of Great Britain: “Its former name was Albion; but at a later period, all the islands, of which we shall just now briefly make mention, were included under the name of ‘Britanniĺ.’” The name Britain descends from the Latin name for Britain, Britannia or Brittānia, “the land of the Britons.” Britannia was used by the Romans from the 1st century BCE for the British Isles taken together. It is derived from the travel writings of the ancient Greek Pytheas between 330 and 320 BCE, which described various islands in the North Atlantic as far north as Thule (probably Norway).

The “Britons” were an ancient Celtic people who lived in Great Britain from the Iron Age through the Roman and Sub-Roman periods. They spoke a language that is now known as Common Brittonic. By the 6th century CE it split into the various Brittonic languages: Welsh, Cumbric, Cornish, and Breton. It is classified as a P-Celtic and Insular Celtic language. Common Brittonic is a form of Insular Celtic, which is descended from Proto-Celtic, a hypothetical parent language that by the first half of the first millennium BCE was already diverging into separate dialects or languages. With the beginning of Anglo-Saxon settlement in the 5th century CE, the culture and language of the Britons fragmented and much of their territory was taken over by the Anglo-Saxons. The extent to which this cultural and linguistic change was accompanied by wholesale changes in the population is still a matter of discussion. During this period some Britons migrated to mainland Europe and established significant settlements in Brittany (now part of France), as well as Britonia in modern Galicia, Spain. By the 11th century, remaining Celtic-speaking populations had split into distinct groups: the Welsh in Wales, the Cornish in Cornwall, the Bretons in Brittany, and the people of the Hen Ogledd (“Old North”) in southern Scotland and northern England. Common Brittonic developed into the distinct Brittonic languages: Welsh, Cumbric, Cornish and Breton.

Again, the earliest known reference to the inhabitants of Britain seems to come from records of the voyage of Pytheas, a Greek geographer who made a voyage of exploration around the British Isles between 330 and 320 BC. Although none of his own writings remain, writers during the time of the Roman Empire made much reference to them. Pytheas called the islands collectively ἁι Βρεττανιαι (hai Brettaniai), which has been translated as the Brittanic Isles, and the peoples of these islands of Prettanike were called the Πρεττανοί (Prettanoi), Priteni, Pritani or Pretani. The group included Ireland, which was referred to as Ierne (Insula sacra “sacred island” as the Greeks interpreted it) “inhabited by the race of Hiberni” (gens hiernorum), and Britain as insula Albionum, “island of the Albions”. The term Pritani may have reached Pytheas from the Gauls, who possibly used it as their term for the inhabitants of the islands.

Hiberni (Ireland), Pictish (northern Britain) and Britons (southern Britain) tribes, all speaking Insular Celtic, inhabited the islands at the beginning of the 1st millennium CE. Much of Brittonic-controlled Britain was conquered by the Roman Empire from CE 43. However, with the Roman conquest of Britain the Latin term Britannia was used for the island of Great Britain, and later Roman occupied Britain south of Caledonia. (Caledonia is the Latin name given by the Romans to the land in today's Scotland north of their province of Britannia, beyond the frontier of their empire. The etymology of the name is probably from a P-Celtic source. Its modern usage is as a romantic or poetic name for Scotland as a whole, comparable with Hibernia for Ireland and Britannia for the whole of Britain.)


Celtic Britain has frequently been the target of invasions, which have occurred throughout history. Indeed, various states within the territorial space that now comprises the British Isles were invaded several times; by the Romans, Scandinavians or Vikings, the French, and the Dutch.

The first time Great Britain was invaded was in 55 BCE and again in 54 BCE in the course of Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars. The first invasion was unsuccessful as it gained the Romans little else besides a beachhead on the coast of Kent. The second invasion achieved a little more: the Romans installed a king friendly to Rome, but no territory was conquered and held for Rome. The Roman conquest of Britain was a gradual process, beginning effectively in AD 43 under Emperor Claudius, whose general Aulus Plautius, served as first governor of Roman Britannia. In common with other regions on the edge of the empire, Britain had enjoyed diplomatic and trading links with the Romans in the century since Julius Caesar's expeditions in 55 and 54 BC, and Roman economic and cultural influence was a significant part of the British late pre-Roman Iron Age, especially in the south.

As the Roman Empire declined, its hold on Britain loosened. By 410 CE, Roman forces had been withdrawn, and small, isolated bands of migrating Germanic tribes began to invade Britain. There seems to have been no large invasion with a combined army or fleet, but the tribes, notably the Jutes, Angles, and Saxons, quickly established control over modern-day England. The peoples now called the “Anglo-Saxons” largely came from Scandinavia and northern Germany, first landing in Eastern Britain. However, there were a small number of Anglo-Saxons already living in Britain before the Roman withdrawal in 408 CE, the majority of which served in the army.

Viking invasions or, more properly, raids began in the late 8th century CE, followed by more permanent settlements and political change, particularly in England. By the late 9th-century the Vikings had overrun most of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms that constituted England at the time.

The first Anglo-Saxons arrived as Roman power waned in the 5th century CE and eventually dominated the bulk of what is now England. Thus the second foreign invasion was that of the Anglo-Normans, who were mainly the descendants of the Normans who ruled England following the Norman Conquest by William the Conqueror in 1066. The invading Normans and their descendants formed a ruling class in Britain, distinct from (although inter-marrying with) the native populations.

The Norman (or Anglo-Norman) invasion of Ireland took place in stages during the late 12th century, beginning in May of 1169. This military intervention had the backing of both King Henry II of England and Pope Adrian IV, who had authorized Henry to conquer Ireland as a means of bringing the unruly and heretical Irish church into line. At the time, Gaelic Ireland was made up of several kingdoms, with a High King claiming lordship over the other kings. The subsequent Norman conquest of England in 1066 and the later Angevin partial conquest of Ireland from 1169 led to the imposition of a new Norman ruling elite across much of Britain and parts of Ireland. In October 1171, King Henry, who had by this time married the famous Eleanor of Aquitaine, landed a large army in Ireland to establish control over both the Anglo-Normans and the Irish. As a result, the Norman lords handed their conquered territory to King Henry. After the Anglo-Norman conquest, a new imperialist attitude emerged among England's elite, and they came to view their Celtic neighbors as inferior and barbarous. The Anglo-Norman invasion was a watershed in the history of Ireland, marking the beginning of more than 700 years of direct English and, later, British involvement in Ireland. By the Late Middle Ages, Great Britain was separated into the Kingdoms of England and Scotland, while control in Ireland fluxed between Gaelic kingdoms, Hiberno-Norman lords and the English-dominated Lordship of Ireland.

The 1603 Union of the Crowns, Acts of Union 1707 and Acts of Union 1800 attempted to consolidate Britain and Ireland into a single political unit, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, with the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands remaining as Crown Dependencies. The expansion of the British Empire and migrations following the Irish Famine and Highland Clearances resulted in the distribution of the islands' population and culture throughout the world and a rapid de-population of Ireland in the second half of the 19th century. Most of Ireland seceded from the United Kingdom after the Irish War of Independence and the subsequent Anglo-Irish Treaty (1919–1922), with six counties remaining in the UK as Northern Ireland.

A hundred years later the Act of Union of 1800 officially made Ireland part of “Great Britain” or the “United Kingdom,” and the name “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland” was first used. (Since 1921, only Northern Ireland has been part of the United Kingdom and so the name changed.) The Irish Home Rule movement emerged following the Act of Union 1800 (sometimes called the Acts of Union 1801), which abolished the Parliament of Ireland and moved control of Irish affairs to the Parliament of the United Kingdom in London. The four Irish Home Rule bills introduced in the House of Commons of the United Kingdom during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, were intended to grant self-government and national autonomy to the whole of Ireland within the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and reverse parts of the Acts of Union 1800. Of the two that passed the Parliament of the United Kingdom the Third Bill, enacted as the Government of Ireland Act 1914 and then suspended, while the Fourth Bill, enacted as the Government of Ireland Act 1920 established two separate Home Rule territories in Ireland, of which the one was implemented by the Parliament of Northern Ireland, but the second Parliament of Southern Ireland was not implemented in the rest of Ireland. Coming in between the third and fourth bills was the “Easter Rising” to “Easter Rebellion,” an armed insurrection in Dublin, Ireland during Easter Week in 1916. The Rising was mounted by Irish republicans to end British rule in Ireland and establish an independent Irish Republic. The Irish Home Rule movement came to an end in most of Ireland with the granting of independence to the Irish Free State in 1922 (known today as The Republic of Ireland).

Attempts to establish home rule in Northern Ireland were frustrated by what was called “The Troubles,” i.e., the ethno-nationalist conflict in Northern Ireland between the Unionists/loyalists (mostly Protestants), who considered themselves British and wanted Northern Ireland to remain within the United Kingdom, and the Irish Nationalists/republicans (mostly Roman Catholics), who viewed themselves as Irish and generally wanted it to leave the United Kingdom and join a united Ireland. In other words, the conflict was over constitutional status of Northern Ireland. The “civil war” began in the late 1960s and is deemed by many to have ended with the Belfast “Good Friday” Agreement of 1998. Today the Republic of Ireland has sovereignty over approximately five-sixths of Ireland while the Northern Ireland Assembly exercises numerous devolved powers.


 “Great Britain” is both a political and a geographical term. The political term describes the combination of England, Scotland, and Wales, the three nations that together include all the land on the island. The geographical term refers to the island on which the greater parts of England, Wales and Scotland are situated. The term “Britain” is just England and Wales. The name Britain goes back to Roman times when they called England and Wales “Britannia” (or “Britannia Major”, to distinguished from “Britannia Minor”, i.e., Brittany in France.) The Roman province of Britannia only covered the areas of modern England and Wales. The area of modern Scotland was never finally conquered. However, it is important to note here that Britain has not existed in the true sense since the Roman times. Wales became a separate country in its own right, and then became a principality of England, which it still is today. The Union in 1707 joined Scotland and England and Wales to create Great Britain.

The term “Great Britain” was first used during the reign of King James I of England (James VI of Scotland) in 1603, to refer to the separate kingdoms of England and Scotland on the same landmass, that were ruled over by the same monarch. Despite having the same monarch, both kingdoms kept their own parliaments.) England used to be known as “Engla land,” meaning the land of the Angles, people from continental Germany, who began to invade Britain in the late 5th century CE, along with the Saxons and Jutes.

The “United Kingdom” refers to the united Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The “United Kingdom of Great Britain” was formed in 1707 by the Act of Union that created a single kingdom with a single Parliament. Scotland has always retained its own legal system.