The Universe and Me, Part 8: Nations

The Story of the Universe and Me: Where Did I Come From?

By Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Land Rapid Response Team, NASA GSFC (Goddard Space Flight Center) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Land Rapid Response Team, NASA GSFC (Goddard Space Flight Center) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Part 8: Nations

The Romans defeated the Briton and Celtic tribes pretty quickly, incorporating them into the Empire. They stopped short of the Scottish Highlands, whose inhabitants didn’t really like the idea of subjugation, and withdrew to Northern England. The Romans proceeded to greatly improve British technology, including agriculture, architecture and urban planning. Although they never formally incorporated Ireland, Roman influence certainly made its way there.

Eventually, a combination of civil war, several rebellions by native British tribes and attacks by Saxons and Irish tribes led to Rome's withdrawal at about 410 CE. This left it open to invasions by the Saxons from northern Germany, who formed gradually conquered Britain to form seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Then, as the ninth century progressed, these kingdoms were conquered by Danish and Norwegian Vikings. Only the kingdom of Wessex remained, and it went on to reclaim and unify England. The back and forth continued with Danish raids and the eventual total conquest of England by Denmark. The Vikings also raided Ireland, but were pushed out in the tenth century.

After a brief reclamation in the 11th century, England was conquered yet again by Normandy, a small nation in northern France. Not content to be a purveyor of delicious wines, the Norman king Edward managed to force Wales and Scotland into servitude and appointed Normans to the majority of important positions, creating a French-speaking upper class. The languages began to mix, and the addition of French words to the already muddled Germanic tongue spawned a bizarre Frankensteinian language known as Middle English, which would go on to become even more ridiculously convoluted.

The continued Middle Ages in Norman Britain were characterised by civil war and internal strife, with a long chain of succession conflicts. Economically, however, it had become a boom country. Its great supply of wool supplied a successful textile industry, which traded extensively with mainland Europe. In the 12th century, it succeeded in subsuming Ireland. Its power over the neighbouring island was limited, however.

In the early thirteenth century, a coalition of barons who had become unhappy with the rule of the current king John (who, incidentally, had recently declared England a vassal to the Vatican) proposed the Magna Carta, an early constitution that would limit the power of the king. It failed at first, causing even more civil war, but eventually the first English parliament was called and would continue to evolve into something resembling modern democracy.

A century later, in 1315, poor weather struck Europe. The rains continued unabated through the spring and summer. This might not sound too out of the ordinary to an Englishman, but it had disastrous consequences to the continent, causing crop failures which continued for the next two years. This led to the Great Famine, starving millions of people. Britain was no exception, losing a full tenth of its population from 1315 to 1317. But this was a shadow of the catastrophe that would strike thirty years later.

Although the evolutionary line of humanity had long broken free of single-cellularity, microorganisms have always played a role in our lives. They fill our guts, accounting for as much as 3% of our biomass. We exist in uneasy truce with them, relying on them for digestion and immune defence against more hostile species. Such a hostile species was Yersinia pestis. This bacterium exists fairly harmlessly in common rodent fleas. When passed along to humans, however, it is somewhat less benign. Such a transmission occurred in 14th century China, causing a plague which made its way swiftly across Europe and spread to the British Isles by 1348.

The Black Death was an unparalleled disaster, wiping out as much as half of the population of Europe (England included). Ireland was also affected, but as the native Irish lived in diffuse country settlements, they were impacted much less. The colonial English and Normans, on the other hand, were hit hard, and English control shrank to a small territory around Dublin.

Meanwhile, the Hundred Years War with France went on. This conflict had begun prior to the Plague, when England decided it would quite like a nice French countryside in its trophy case. It would end with English defeat after about - surprise - a hundred years. This was followed by even more civil war in England, a common theme in European history. One of these, the War of the Roses, ended with the throne coming to a rest with the Tudors. Henry VIII was such a Tudor, inheriting the kingship in 1509. He would go on to reconquer Ireland and declare himself King of that as well. The Irish people were then considered subhuman savages, which was used to justify forced their occasional use as slaves.

King Henry found himself with an aging wife Catherine and only one surviving child, his daughter Mary. Henry felt that he should divorce his wife and start afresh, but this would prove to be a problem. The Pope of the time was currently enjoying a kidnapping at the pleasure of Holy Roman Emperor, who happened to be Catherine’s nephew. This made divorce impossible, as the Pope would have to grant it personally. Henry decided, instead, to form his own damn church and to hell with all this Catholic stuff. The Church of England was hence founded, and at first was pretty much the Catholic church but with Henry instead of a Pope. With the aid of executions to anyone who resisted its advance, the Church would gradually differentiate itself into the Anglican religion we all know and love.

After a string of yet more unsuccessful successions, Elizabeth I, one of Henry VIII’s illegitimate-but-later-legitimate daughters, found her way to the throne. Under her reign, what is sometimes called the English Renaissance occurred, with an expanded role of government, economic prosperity, international expansion, and a flowering of English culture. Shakespeare penned his works and British poetry and music hit its stride. There were military victories over Spain, which was the other great naval power of the time, and trade across the Atlantic with the recently-colonised Americas became quite beneficial.

After Elizabeth’s death in 1603, the King of Scotland, James VI, found himself in the strange circumstance of also being the inheritor of the English throne, and became James VI of Scotland and I of England (James VI and I to his friends). Scotland and England were now effectively unified, along with Ireland thanks to Henry’s machinations.

Throughout the 17th century, the crown of Britain began to lose more and more of its power, with the Civil War between Royalists and Parliamentarians and, later, the signing of the Bill of Rights, which granted greater influence to parliament. Finally, in 1707, the Acts of Union formed the United Kingdom of Great Britain from the Kingdoms of Scotland and England, putting into writing what had been a reality for some time; much later, the Acts were adapted to include Ireland.

By this time, the machine of British colonialism was well-established, with a firm foothold in North America and a long history of exploiting the natives of both Africa and the Americas. A land which was new to England (but old news to certain European and Asian powers) was “discovered” in 1770 by Captain James Cook. Already aware of “New Holland”, thanks to Dutch explorers, he sought the east coast of Australia, and indeed became the first European to land there. He recommended colonisation, and eighteen years later his wishes came to fruition with the First Fleet.

Things only got worse from there.

Back to Part 7: Humans


This post has been a very, very brief summary of British history, with a focus on England to make things easier. I’ve skimmed over some events and skipped others entirely. I definitely would not use this as a history textbook, in case you were considering that (of course as an Astrophysics major I am the best source for all things historical). I’ve also largely omitted the fascinating story of the English language, which developed gradually from a Germanic root under a motley assemblage of different influences. For more, I really recommend Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue by John McWhorter.