British History You Should Know Before Heading to University in the UK

Looking at the title of this blog post, I myself feel a little bit intimidated. How could you possibly understand the whole of British history in a few short paragraphs? Don’t worry, I won’t attempt to explain it all, just a few of the major eras, events, and places. I think it’s important for any student embarking on a year (or several) of schooling in the UK to have a basic understanding of the country’s past. You don’t want to make the mistake of asking if William Shakespeare and Jane Austen were neighbors! Textbooks and encyclopedias will give you much more detail (with more accuracy, I’m not an expert), and I encourage you to explore the events and history that interest you.

Prehistoric and Neolithic Eras (Before 43 AD)

Think: Stonehenge. The people who lived on the British Isles thousands of years ago left some pretty monumental records of their existence. The true purpose of the famous stone circle near Salisbury is unclear, but since it was not lived in, is not in an easily defended position, and lines up with the sun at the solstices, it likely had spiritual significance. The stones came from between 20 miles and 180 miles (in Wales) away; a magnificent feat for its builders. Stone circles, burial mounds, and other evidence of ancient life are scattered all over the UK, giving us hints into the lives of the people who lived thousands of years ago.

Roman Conquest (42 AD – 5th Century AD )

Think: Roman Bath and Hadrian’s Wall. Throughout the times of the Roman Empire, several leaders made attempts to conquer Britain; Julius Caesar failed more than once. In 43 AD Emperor Claudius finally turned the tides and the Romans moved into Britain and northwards. In 122 AD Emperor Hadrian built a wall nearly 75 miles long to mark his border (encountering resistance from the native Britons at around the same place as the Scottish/English border today), parts of which are still extant. The city of Bath, known as Aquae Sulis, was a thriving spot in Roman times due to its natural hot springs; you can visit today and see the archaeological work done to uncover the structures of the Roman baths.

Photo Credit: English Heritage

Anglo Saxons and Vikings (6th Century AD – 1066)

Think: King Arthur, Sutton Hoo. The Saxons started making their way over from the Netherlands and Northern Germany and since the Romans had other problems, the newcomers were able to take over the British Isles. In the archaeological record, this time period is characterized by elaborate ship burials. Check out the exhibit on the Sutton Hoo burial at the British Museum; you can tell from the grave goods that the Vikings could afford the luxury. King Arthur was said to have lived during this time, his heroic deeds taking place in the context of Saxon attacks against Britain. The tales of King Arthur originated later around the 12th century and there’s not much evidence to link him to an actual historic figure named Arthur, but when you hear about swords and lakes and feats of honor, think of Arthur as the middle of the first millennium AD.

The Medieval Period (1066 – 1485)

Think: William the Conqueror, Robin Hood, the Crusades, the age of cathedrals, Monty Python, the Black Plague. Consult any list of the kings of England and you’ll find William I at the top. After establishing his rule over most of northern France (Normandy), William made his way across the Channel to England. The year 1066 saw a decisive Norman victory over the English in the Battle of Hastings, and William was crowned king of England on Christmas Day of that year. Thereafter followed centuries of kings and queens with varying degrees of success in their endeavors. You may have heard of Richard the Lionheart, who spent most of his time outside of England pursuing the Holy Land, or his brother John (one of the legendary Robin Hood’s enemies), who gave in to the pressure of some rebel barons and signed the Magna Carta, one of the most influential law documents in history. Across Europe, people began to build monumental cathedrals, with some of the finest examples in England (Winchester, Salisbury, and York Minster to name a few). The 14th Century is famous for the Black Death, one of the most devastating pandemics in human history which resulted in the deaths of at least 1/3 the population of Europe. Further north in the British Isles, conflict continued between the native peoples of Scotland, Wales, England, and their Norman invaders. Many of the castle ruins scattered across the UK were built around this time. The Middle Ages were a turbulent time but laid the important foundations for much of British history thereafter.

Tudor and Stuart Periods (1485 – 1714)

Think: Henry VIII and his many wives, Elizabeth I, William Shakespeare, world exploration, Cromwell and the English Civil War, the Enlightenment. The Tudor Era began after a considerable conflict over the succession (you will hear of the red rose of Lancaster versus the white rose of York, combined in a bit of propaganda as the Tudor Rose). The next few centuries seem to be a series of debates over the succession; Henry VIII’s famous divorce of both his wife and the Catholic Church was motivated in part by lack of a male heir, and he got one—Edward VI, who died when he was 15 after a six-year reign. The succession was juggled around a bit between Catholics and Protestants until settling on Elizabeth I, who herself had no children; not a mess I would want to deal with! Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, and Ben Jonson were just a few of the influential writers in an age where improved compasses and sailing technology brought the world closer together. Science in many aspects improved by leaps and bounds. Religious and political disputes continued.

The Georgian Era (1714 – 1837)

Think: the American War of Independence, the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, Jane Austen, naval heroes. From 1714 to 1820 all of the kings of Great Britain (at this point England and Scotland were combined under one monarch) were named George, so we call it the Georgian Era. It seems as if Britain was constantly at war during this era, although few were fought on British soil. Fans of literature will recognize the term “Regency”; King George III, who reigned for 60 years, was affected by mental illness in his later years, and his son was established as regent for the last decade of the former’s life. Jane Austen lived during that time, and her novels often touch on current events, such as the continuing Napoleonic Wars. Much of Britain was affected by the long-lasting conflicts being fought on the Iberian Peninsula and in France, ending in the final battle at Waterloo in 1815. Strict class divides persisted, science continued to advance, Neoclassicism became popular, and women’s skirts went from box-shaped to columnar to bell-shaped again.

The Victorian Era (1837 – 1901)

Think: The Industrial Revolution, the Bronte sisters, the Great Exhibition, Charles Dickens, colonial expansion. In all of the time periods we’ve touched on so far, this is the first era that is named solely for a single ruler. Queen Victoria ascended the throne when she was 18 years old and reigned until she was 81. The Industrial Revolution completely changed the way people lived and worked and died. Social activists and authors decried the terrible conditions of poverty under the new economic boom. Britain continued to expand across the globe as “the Empire on which the sun never set”; Victoria and her husband Albert sponsored the Great Exhibition of 1851, which celebrated scientific innovations as well as interesting people and objects from around the world. Much of the celebrated architecture in London comes from this period.

Edwardian, the Great Wars, and Moving Forward (1901 – present)

Think: Downton Abbey and the Titanic, the horrors of modern warfare in the First Great War, the roaring twenties, collapse into the Second World War, colonial independence, and beyond. I couldn’t possibly cover the entire scope of 20th-century history in Britain. This century started with horse-drawn carriages and ended with cell phones and is filled with fascinating stories and people; just take a look at the London skyline to see the juxtapositions of new and old in its architecture.

Photo Credit: Kelsey Grode

I hope this brief outline of the past millennia of British history has given you a better understanding of this amazing place. With such wonders to explore, I hope your time studying here is fulfilling.

If you would like to find out more about studying in the UK, please fill out the “Contact an Advisor” form on the bottom or side of this page.

Published Originally: March 3rd, 2020
by Ellyn Cardon, ATP Student Ambassador
Studying at: SOAS University of London