Historical Eras of British Middle Ages

    Early Britain     Saxons and Normans     Early Plantagenets     Lancastrians and Yorks     Tudors and Reformation     Stuarts and Civil War     Scotland     Ireland

Early Britain—43 to 800

Roman Conquest of Britain to First Viking Raid

The British isles were originally settled by Celtic tribes, a race of tall, fair-skinned, but non-Germanic people. They were known for their druid priests, colorful fabrics, clever metal-working, and ferocious warrior spirit. The Romans had extensive contact with the Gauls, or southern Celts, who inhabited most of Western Europe, and by the time they sought to take possession of the British Isles, they had already conquering most of Celtic Gaul (France) and Hispania (Spain). Julius Caesar was the first Roman conqueror who sent ships across the channel in order to subdue the Britons in 54 B.C. and succeeded in vanquishing a local tribe, but he did not follow up his victories by establishing permanent forts in the region.

Roman Britain

It was not until more than one hundred years later, in 51 A.D. that Claudius led a second, more permanent invasion of Britain. United under Caractacus, the Celtic tribes continued to resist for several years, but at last submitted to Roman rule. For the most part, the Britons submitted peacefully, especially after Agricola, a prominent Roman general, became governor and began building schools, roads, aqueducts, demonstrating the best aspects of civilization. The only rebellion of Britains against Romans was lead by queen Boadicea just ten years after the second invasion. Although the Romans were able to subdue the Britons in the south, they were never able to permanently conquer the wild tribes of Picts in the north. Emperor Hadrian therefore built a wall from the River Tyne to the Solway Firth, which composed the northern border of civilization. This same boundary remained the border between the countries of England and Scotland for more than a thousand years following.

Britain faired well under Roman rule. Many roads were built, trade and commerce thrived, and as Christianity spread throughout the empire, many native Celts became Christian. St. Alban, who was put to death shortly before Constantine legalized Christianity, is known for being the first Christian martyr in Britain. St. Patrick was a Celtic Christian who left Britain in 433 as a missionary to Ireland, and is well known for converting most of the Irish to Christianity. The Celtic Christians in both Britain and Ireland built monasteries, which were important repositories of learning. It was mostly the great Celtic Christians, lead by saints such as David of Wales, St. Brigid , St. Mungo, Cuthbert, and Columba, that kept Christianity alive in the British Isles during the years of struggle with Teutonic invaders.

Saxon Britain

In 402, Rome officially withdrew its legions from Britain, leaving the Celts to fend for themselves against the Pictish savages of the north and the Saxon pirates who raided the coastal towns. The Jutes, Angles, and Saxons were three northern German tribes and were well aware of the good roads, wealthy towns, and productive farmland that could be found in Britain. Almost as soon as the Roman legions were gone, these German tribes began their incursions. The first known Jute settlers were Hengist and Horsa. Vortigern, a Celtic king, sought their help in defeating his enemies and invited them in, but he soon regretted permitting them to settle in Britain, for they brought more of their tribemen and soon threatened the Celtic kingdoms. There followed several centuries of war between the Celts and the invading Saxons, at the end of which the "Anglo-Saxon" barbarians were the uncontested rulers of the rich and prosperous southeast lowlands. The great Celtic heroes of these wars were the legendary King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, but we know little of this struggle between the Celts and Saxons other than that the Christian Celts had been driven to the far reaches of Wales, Ireland, and Scotland. Much of what we know about Britain in these Dark Ages was given to us by monks such as Venerable Bede, who lived in monasteries in the British Isles which had been established by the 700's.

The next important event in British history was the conversion of Ethelbert, a Saxon king, to Christianity by the Roman missionary Augustine of Kent. The Saxons were too proud to be converted by the despised Celts, but they were impressed by the embassy from Rome, and gradually Saxon England became Christian. The Celtic and Saxon churches continued to be governed independently and were not officially joined for many years after Saxon Britain became Christian.

Saxons and Normans—800 to 1154

House of Wessex to Death of Stephen

At the end of the eighth century, the Saxons suffered their first attack by the Danes—also known as Vikings—a warlike race of pagans from Denmark and Norway. Shortly thereafter Egbert the Saxon unified the Saxon and Angle kingdoms for the purpose of common defense, and at that time the name of England (or Angle Land) was given to the country. Saxon kings descended from Egbert ruled the Kingdom of Wessex from 802 until shortly before the Norman conquest in 1066. The Danish incursions continued for the next hundred and fifty years until the Danes finally drove the Wessex king into exile. By that time, however, many of the Danes had become Christian and the age of Vikings was coming to a close.

Alfred the Great and the Danish Invasion

By far the most outstanding Saxon king was Alfred the Great. He reigned from 871 to 899 at a time when the Viking marauders had destroyed many important Saxon towns and monasteries, laid waste to acres of productive farmland and utterly disrupted civilized society. Alfred himself was driven from his throne and compelled to go into hiding, where he could only watch helplessly as his kingdom was ravaged by villainous pagans. However, he recovered from his ill fortune and secretly organized a Saxon army, which, when the time was right, attacked and defeated the Danes. Surprisingly, instead of merely slaughtering his enemies, he made a pact with their leader Guthrum and agreed to a settlement by which the Danes would lay down their arms, convert to Christianity, and help repel further incursions by pagans. This brought several decades of peace to the Saxon kingdom, during which Alfred rebuilt infrastructure, organized a permanent navy, and built schools and churches.

There were several other important Saxon kings. Athelstan, Alfred's grandosn, defeated a united army of Celts and Danes at the battle of Brunanburh. He, like his father and grandfather, was an excellent king. Unfortunately, by the beginning of the eleventh century, a series of ‘boy’ kings greatly weakened the Wessex monarchy. This series of immature rulers finally ended with Aethelred the Unready, who misgoverned his entire reign and was driven from the throne. For a time his son co-ruled with a Danish king, but eventually died, leaving a Dane as king of the Saxons. Fortunately, the Danish king's son, Canute the Great ruled well and again brought peace between the Saxons and Danes. When he died Edward the Confessor, the youngest son of Aethelred, was restored to the throne. He died without issue, bringing the Wessex line to an end, and William the Duke of Normandy, who was of Norse stock, won the throne at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

The Norman Conquest

The Norman conquest was one of the most important events in the history of England. The Saxon kings were never as powerful as the Dukes of Normandy, for the Normans had inherited the old Roman habits of centralized government whereas the Saxons kings were merely overlords of their earls and barons. William the Conqueror ruled England firmly but fairly hand, making sure that taxes were collected and justice was done in a uniform manner. He crushed all rebellions and replaced most of the Saxon overlords with Norman nobles. He made many changes in the government, all of which resulted in a relatively strong and independent central government and curtailed the power of the nobles. He was an effective king, but very unpopular with the Saxon population.

The house of Norman only lasted for three generations. After William died, his son William Rufus ruled. When he was killed in a hunting accident, his brother Henry Beauclerc ruled for 35 years, and also died without a male heir. The throne of England was then contested between Henry’s daughter Matilda of Englandand her cousin Stephen, a weak king favored by the mischievous barons. With the throne as good as vacant, the barons were allowed to have their own way, and civil wars plagued the country for almost 20 years. Finally, the Matilda's son, better known as Henry Plantagenet, fought his way to the throne; during his long reign, order and prosperity were restored to the realm.

Early Plantagenets—1154 to 1350

Henry II Plantagenet to Reign of Edward III

The rule of the Plantagenet dynasty was long and eventful. Henry Plantagenet (II) came to the throne in 1154, and the last Plantagenet, Richard III, was killed at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, over three hundred years later. During this time, great changes took place in England. In the early years of the Plantagenet dynasty, the barons revolted against king John and forced him to sign the Magna Carta, which guaranteed certain rights to the towns and nobles. Later, they forced the king to call a Parliament, or group of nobles to advise him in ruling the kingdom. The Plantagenets were involved in two long and ruinous wars. The first was the Hundred Years War with France, which went well for England at first but in the end proved disastrous. The second was the War of the Roses, a frightful civil war between rival claimants to the throne that nearly wiped out the entire Plantagenet line.

Henry Plantagenet and Sons

Henry Plantagenet, the founder of the Plantagenet line, was the grandson of Henry I, and the great-grandson of William Rufus. He inherited the throne through his mother, but had to fight to establish his claim. He married another very powerful monarch, Eleanor of Aquitaine, heir to the duchy of Aquitaine, so between the two they eventually controlled much of France as well as all of England. Henry spent much of his reign in various wars, consolidating his power. He had four sons, two of whom became king. The elder son, Richard I, is best known as a crusader. He spent almost his entire reign away from England, leaving the country in the hands of his devious brother John Lackland. John was one of the worst kings that England ever had and managed to lose most of the land in France that he had inherited from his parents. Finally, Archbishop Langton, and the barons forced him to sign the Magna Carta, limiting his power.

Edwards I, II, and III

John's son Henry III supposedly ruled for 56 years, but for much of that time his brother-in-law, Simon de Montfort , governed in his place and orchestrated the Parliament. When Henry III's son Edward I came to the throne the people rejoiced because they finally had a king who was half Saxon and spoke English instead of French, which had been the language of the ruling class since the Norman Conquest. He proved to be a competent king, and brought Wales, Ireland, and Scotland under his sway. His hold on Ireland was never strong though, and shortly after his death Scotland decisively won its independence from England at the Battle of Bannockburn. The Edward I's son was a no-account king with very unpopular favorites. He was deposed in favor of his young son Edward III, who ruled for fifty years and got England involved in the Hundred Years War with France. There were several important battles in the hundred years war, the first two being Crecy and Poitiers. England won both battles against great odds, but never succeeded in establishing Edward III's claim to the French throne.

Lancastrians and Yorks—1337 to 1485

Hundred Years War to War of the Roses

Plantagenet Wars—The second half of the Plantagenet era was dominated by two long lasting conflicts. The Hundred Years War was a conflict between England and France that lasted, on and off, from 1340 until 1453. The war is often broken up into three phases: The first campaign was led by Edward III and his son, the The Black Prince and went well for the English. The second phase of the war lasted from 1369 until 1389 but was mixed up with several other wars in the region and resulted in a loss of much of the territory previously gained by the English. A long peace followed, until it was interrupted in 1415 by Henry V's highly successful campaign beginning at Agincourt. This third phase of the war, called the "Lancastrian" war, was tied up with an on going war between the Armagnacs and the Burgundians in France. It went badly for the French until they were miraculously saved by the exploits of Joan of Arc. Her victories turned the momentum in France's favor, and England was finally driven out of France by 1453.


Shortly after the tide turned against England in the Hundred Years war, a conflict between two rival fractions of the Plantagenet line evolved into a full blown civil war. The War of the Roses, fought between the Yorks and Lancasters, families with rival claims to the throne, killed off almost all the direct claimants to the throne on both sides of the royal family. Over a period of almost thirty years, the conflict wreaked havoc on the kingdom, turned long term resentments into blood-feuds, and brought the entire Plantagenet line to an calamitous end.

The Lancastrians: Henrys IV, V, VI—The The Black Prince, the presumed heir to the throne, achieved great victories during the Hundred Years war and was very popular with the people. He never became king, however, because he died before his long long-lived father, Edward III. The crown then passed to the Black Prince's son Richard II, who is best known for his role in negotiating an end to Wat Tyler's rebellion. He was not a popular monarch however and was eventually deposed in favor of his cousin Henry IV (a.k.a Henry Bolingbroke). Other cousins had a somewhat better claim to the throne, but Henry's selection was not resisted because his father, John of Gaunt had been regent during most of Richard II's reign and was the most powerful man in England. The issue was not pressed for two generations but later became the basis for the Yorkist claim to the throne.

Henry Bolingbroke's son was Henry V, famous for his victory over the French at Agincourt. Henry V reopened the Hundred Years War and came close to gaining the French crown but he died only a few years after his great victory. He left a young son, Henry VI, who was a peace-loving and studious man, but a weak leader. During his reign the French rallied under Joan of Arc and reclaimed all of the land England had won, bringing an end to the hundred year war, and the king became extremely unpopular.

Yorks and the War of the Roses— Seeing his opportunity, his cousin the Duke of York made a claim for the throne. He denied Henry Bolingbroke's claim three generations back, which led to the disastrous War of the Roses, in which the Lancaster and the York lines vied for the throne. The plots turns and reverses of this war are difficult to follow, but the main contenders were not the monarchs themselves, but rather the Earl of Warwick, cousin to the Duke of York, and Margaret of Anjou, Henry VI's wife. The war proved bitter and deadly, and many great nobles lost their lives. It also greatly enhanced the power of the king, since the king was allowed to confiscate the estates of any noble that rose in rebellion to him; as the kingship passed back and forth between the Lancasters and Yorks, almost every house was at some point in alliance with a "rebel".

The Yorks were finally victorious, but they came to a bad end. Edward IV ruled for 22 years, but when he died, his brother Richard III plotted to usurp the throne by killing his Edward's young sons. This accomplished, he found he had made many enemies, and when Henry VII, a distant relative on the Lancaster side brought an army against him, several of his generals deserted him. Richard III, the last of the Plantagenet kings was killed on the battlefield of Bosworth, bringing the noble line that had ruled England for three centuries to an inglorious end.

Tudors and Reformation—1485 to 1603

Henry VII Tudor to Death of Elizabeth I

Henry Tudor was descended from John of Lancaster, but his claim to the throne was no greater than those of many other distant Plantagenet descendants. Soon after defeating Richard III at Bosworth fields, he married the daughter of the Yorkist king Edward IV in order to join the York and Lancaster houses into a single line. He then ruled with diplomacy and tried to avoid war and give England time to recover from the dislocations of the ruinous War of the Roses. Many doubted his claim, but few were willing to reopen the issue.

Henry VIII and the Break with Rome

Henry Tudor's son Henry VIII ascended to the throne in 1509 and ruled for 38 years. His reign coincided with the outbreak of the Protestant reformation in Europe, and during his reign that England became a Protestant country. England's conversion to Protestantism remains controversial because, although there were many sincere churchmen who favored reforms, the manner in which Henry VIII broke England's ties with the church of Rome was highly opportunistic. There were two issues which motivated Henry VIII to declare the Act of Supremacy. One was to remove any obstacles to his divorce from his wife of 20 years, Catherine of Aragon, so he could marry Anne Boleyn. The second, just as important, was for an excuse to dissolve monasteries, an issue which his minster Thomas Cromwell had been pushing in spite of tremendous outcry from the poor who depended on the monasteries for their living. It was true that several of the monasteries were very wealthy and corrupt, but instead of reforming them, Henry VIII closed them, turned hundreds of their inmates out onto the streets, and sold their lands to his friends and nobles for cash. Once this great theft had transpired there was no turning back, for a great many of the nobles of England were in possession of valuable property that the Roman Church claimed as its own. Henry outlawed the Catholic church, and executed hundreds of people who opposed him. Most of those who were executed under Henry's reign, including both the Catholic Thomas More and the Protestant Thomas Cromwell, did not suffer directly from persecution based on their beliefs, but were killed because they stood in the way of Henry's schemes.


Henry left three children by three different wives. His only son, Edward VI, reigned for six years, but was under the sway of his uncles, the Dukes of Somerset and Northumberland. Both were Protestants who had benefited greatly from the dissolution of the monasteries and were primarily interested in consolidating their own power. Like Henry VIII, they persecuted Catholics based on political factors rather than ideology. When Edward VI fell ill, the Duke of Northumberland arranged for his young cousin Lady Jane Grey to assume the throne, since he believed she would be easier to control than Mary Tudor, Edward’s elder sister. However, most people believed that Mary had a better right to the throne and supported her claim, even though she was known to have Catholic sympathies.

Mary I

Mary Tudor was a sincere Catholic, and as soon as she came to the throne tried her best to mend the breach with the Church of Rome. By this time, however, Protestantism was fairly well established, especially among the aristocracy and the merchant class. Her greatest miscalculation was to take Philip II, the most powerful Catholic monarch in Europe, for her husband. Even among devout Catholic Englishmen, Spain was feared and hated because they controlled all of the trade with the new world and were the world's predominant sea power. To make matters worse, her marriage was an unhappy one and did not produced an heir as Mary hoped. Mary is said to have put over three hundred people to death in her efforts to restore the faith, which is no more than her predecessors did. However, being a sincere Catholics instead of merely a cynical politician, she harassed some of the most able and articulate Protestant leaders for their heretical beliefs, which made her unpopular with those who genuinely sympathized with the protestant cause.

Elizabeth I and the Great Armada

During Mary's reign, her sister Elizabeth I was accused of a conspiracy against her and imprisoned. She was still being closely watched when news came that her sister had passed away and she was the Queen of England. She was only 24 at the time she became queen and her reign lasted over 45 years. Elizabeth was exceptionally politic in her manner of ruling, and although Protestant she sought to ease the religious strife of the times, and did not aggressively persecute Catholics. Whenever possible she tried to avoid direct conflict. She never married, but kept dozens of suitors on the line, presumably to gain favors. She signed a death warrant for her arch-rival, Mary, Queen of Scots, but protested loudly when she was executed. It was often difficult to discern her true motives, but she lived in troublsome times, and her two-faced demeanor may well have been discreet diplomacy. For example, England’s relationship with Spain was very poor for many years, but she managed to put off direct confrontation for nearly three decades by obfuscations and ambiguous promises. When the Spanish finally did invade, the entire country united against them. The defeat of the Spanish Armada was the decisive battle of the Anglo Spanish Wars and profoundly affected the perceived strength of England and Spain, both in Europe and in the New World.

The reign of Elizabeth is best known for her outstanding sea-men. Francis Drake, Martin Frobisher, Sir John Hawkins, and Richard Grenville were some of the men who made great names for themselves before, after, and during the Spanish Armada. It is also known for some of the literary greats of the time, including Edmund Spenser, Philip Sidney, Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare.

Stuarts and Civil War—1603 to 1688

First Stuart king to Glorious Revolution

The reign of the Stuarts, lasting from 1603 to 1714, coincided almost exactly with the 17th century and was the most significant in English history in terms of formation of modern ideas of political and religious liberty. By the end of the Stuart reign, England was governed primarily by a democratically elected parliament and the idea of "freedom of conscience" was well established. Obviously these ideas had not yet been followed to their ultimate conclusion, since only the wealthiest class was allowed to vote and Catholics were still persecuted, but it was Englishmen living under the turbulent Stuart reign who laid the foundations for western style democracy and religious pluralism, an achievement unparalleled by any other nation, even within Christendom.

Charles I turned over to the army.

The problem of reporting on the evolution of ideas is that ideas are complicated and controversial, whereas events are relatively straight forward. The "dictates of conscience" were not a particularly important factor during the War of the Roses, for example, since loyalty by all parties was determined primarily through self-interest. The English Civil Wars, on the other hand, were the result of a convoluted mixture of strongly held religious principles, ideals of self-government, dismay at the corruption of existing institutions, loyalty to traditional institutions, and good old-fashioned self-interest. There were brave and heroic men on all sides (not both sides, for this was a many-sided conflict) as well opportunists and tyrants. Bearing in mind the complexities of the situation, the Stuart reign proceeded as follows:

James I

When Elizabeth died, the crown passed to her grand-nephew, James I, (a.k.a. James VI of Scotland). Scotland was governed independently of England at the time, but was a much poorer and more backward nation. Like England, Scotland had been greatly affected by the reformation, but instead of merely breaking with Rome and establishing a state church, the Scottish Presbyterians favored more radical Calvinist style reforms, which did away entirely with the priesthood, the organized church, and the liturgy. This was important because although the Catholic religion had already been proscribed in England by the beginning of the Stuarts' reign, the worst persecutions and religious wars in England’s history were still to come. Rather than between Protestants and Catholics, they were between two forms of Protestantism. These antagonists were the Anglicans, who urged preservation of much of the traditional liturgy and organization, and the Puritans, who favored the complete abolition of an established church.

Although James had grown up entirely under the sway of the Presbyterian Scots, he was by no means sympathetic to many of their ideas. He saw that rejecting the ideal of traditional authority was but a step towards rejecting the idea of a king. The Scots as a whole were greatly bound by traditional loyalty to their Stuart kings, who had ruled in Scotland for hundreds of years, but there were radicals among the Presbyterians with dangerous ideas regarding self-government. James therefore allied himself with the interests of the Anglican Church and repressed the non-conformists in England. It was during the reign of James that the Puritans settled the New England colonies in America. Other important events of the reign of James I included a failed Catholic rebellion called the Gunpowder Plot and the publication of the King James Bible.

Charles I and the English Civil War

James I quarreled with his Parliament, which was becoming more sympathetic to the cause of the Puritans, but a full scale war between Parliament and the king did not break out until the reign of his son Charles I. Compared to previous kings Charles I was not particularly tyrannical, but the disposition of Parliament had changed considerably since the age of the Tudors. England was becoming a wealthy and powerful trading nation; the cities were growing larger; the middle-class was rising in importance; gunpowder and long-bows had changed the nature of warfare; and the old ideas of being ruled by a landed aristocracy was resisted by many of the best men of the nation. The ideas of self-government and freedom of conscience in religious matters were hopelessly intermixed, but when war finally broke out the essential division was between the traditionalists, who supported the king and the Anglican Church, and the Puritans, who supported more rights for Parliament and the disestablishment of the state church. From the very beginning, however, loyalties were mixed on both sides. For example, about a third of Parliament decided to fight for the king, and many Scots who opposed the Anglican Church were entirely loyal to their Stuart king.

Cromwell and Parliament

Cromwell and the Commonwealth

After the first phase of the English Civil Wars (1642-1645), the king was captured. Parliament and the army sought a compromise but could not find one. The king was eventually beheaded by his enemies, but even this brought no closure to the conflict. The civil war continued to rage, first in Ireland and then in Scotland. The man who had come to the fore during the civil war was Oliver Cromwell, whose highly disciplined "Ironsides" had brought Parliament the victory. He was an extremely controversial figure, who, like Charles I, attempted to dissolve parliament when it disagreed with him. He presided over the Commonwealth of England, ruling essentially as a dictator. During this period the Anglican church was disestablished and many prominent families, including the ancestors of some of America’s founding fathers, moved to Virginia, a royalist stronghold. Cromwell did much to advance the cause of religious freedom for everyone but Catholics and Anglicans, but was extremely unpopular with the general population, who decided that the only thing worse than a lax and corrupt government was a stringent and incorruptible government.

The Restoration and "Glorious Revolution"

When Cromwell died, therefore, one of his Puritan generals proposed ro restore Charles II to the throne as long as he promised to respect the rights of Parliament and the religious freedom of the Puritans. Naturally this did not resolve the issue; persecutions and abuses continued. Charles II's reign was wrought with crises, including a terrible plague, the great fire of London, and an invasion by the Dutch navy. But although troubles and controversies continued between the monarchy and parliament, the inclination to turn to civil war to resolve them was abated. A crisis within the monarchy did not arise again until the death of Charles II, at which time his brother James II, a Catholic, ascended to the throne. His attempt to pass laws granting tolerance and opportunities to Catholics united the always feuding Protestants in hysterical opposition, and within a short time he was driven from the throne in favor of his daughter and son-in-law, who were loyal Protestants. The English refer to this as the "glorious revolution" because it was accomplished almost entirely without bloodshed on English soil although it did result in the Jacobite Rebellion in Ireland and Scotland. William III and Mary assumed the throne at the behest of Parliament, thereby permanently establishing the precedence of Parliament over royal prerogative.

Scotland—1403 to 1707

Macalpine Unifies Scots to Act of Union

Very little is known of Scottish history until the age of the Roman occupation of England. At that time, Scotland was inhabited by Celtic Britons who had fled from the Romans, and by Picts, who may or may not have been Celtic, but who were definitely fearsome and uncivilized. In spite of many campaigns, the Romans were never able to conquer the land north of Hadrian's Wall because the population was too spread out, there were no important towns to conquer, and the Scots engaged in guerilla-style warfare. The great pride of the Scottish nation is that it has lost many battles but never been conquered, and this is true. In spite of sharing a border with a much stronger nation for hundreds of years, Scotland largely retained its independence until its voluntary union with England in 1707.

Early Kings of Scotland

St. Columba
The Romans referred to Northern Britain as Caledonia, and when the region was first unified under a single king, the land was referred to as Alba. The name Scotland came from a tribe of Irish 'Scots' (the Roman name for Ireland was Scotia), that migrated to the region soon after the Romans left Briton. For several hundred years, the Scots, Picts, and Britons in the northern regions lived in independent tribes and clans. The Scots eventually became the dominate tribe and in 843 after a great battle, the King of the Picts submitted to Kenneth Macalpine, who became the first King of Scots to rule the unified region.

The Irish had been converted to Christianity in the fifth century by St. Patrick, and because of the close relationship between Ireland and Scotland, Celtic missionaries such as St. Mungo and Columba were important in the conversion of Scotland to Christianity. As in Ireland, the monasteries founded by the Celtic Christians became great centers of learning and culture, while the surrounding regions remained relatively primitive. Some famous monasteries founded by Celtic missionaries include Iona and Lindisfarne. The Scots as well as the English suffered Viking attacks during the ninth and tenth centuries, but as the Scots were less civilized and more disperse, there was little outside of the monasteries to plunder. The Vikings, however, took over several northern islands, including Orkney and Shetland, and held them for many years.

Malcolm Canmore was one of the most important early Scottish kings, and his long reign spanned the period immediately before and after the Norman invasion of England. He was the son of Duncan, who was murdered by the Macbeth of Shakespeare fame. He married Margaret of Scotland, one of last heirs of the royal Wessex family, and she had a great civilizing effect on him. Their daughter, Maude the Good , married Henry I, so during this period Scotland was on reasonably good terms with England. After this marriage, many Norman nobles were granted lands in Scotland, including one of the ancestors of Robert the Bruce, the great Scottish patriot.

The Scottish Wars of Independence

The Scottish population consisted of many very poor, but proud and fiercely independent war-loving citizens. The fiercest, and most war-loving were the Celtic Highlanders, who continued to speak Gallic even after many Lowlanders had adopted English ways. The overlords and barons of Scotland were powerful and difficult for the king to control. The barons tended to prefer weak kings so that they could do whatever they wanted. The descendents of Malcolm Canmore continued to rule Scotland until Alexander III died without an heir. During the ensuing period of confusion, Edward I quickly installed , one of several royal cousins on the throne, on condition that Baliol agree to acknowledge him as an overlord. Edward I was a powerful monarch and at first everything went his way—most of the Scottish nobles agreed to pay homage to him. Not until William Wallace rallied the whole population against him did he begin to lose his hold on Scotland. Even Robert the Bruce fought on the side of Edward I in his youth, but once inspired with true patriotism, Bruce dedicated the rest of his life to freeing Scotland from the English yoke. The Battle of Bannockburn, which was fought against the weak son of Edward I, was the high point of the Scottish Wars of Independence. It abolished English power in Scotland for generations and firmly established Bruce as the rightful monarch in Scotland.

Bruce's son David died without heirs, so the crown passed to Robert II, a grandson of Robert the Bruce and first of the Stuart kings. The Stuart kings continued to rule Scotland until James II (a.k.a. James VII of Scotland), was deposed. Even afterwards the Scots remained loyal to the Stuart line, and a Jacobite party, dedicated to restoring the Stuart monarchy, remained active until the 19th century.

The Stuart kings were of mixed ability; Scotland's relationship with England was always tense and throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries there were continual border wars. In addition, many Scottish barons became so strong that the Stuarts had a great deal of difficulty controlling them. The Douglas clan in particular, descended from a favorite knight of Robert the Bruce, became so powerful that the Stuart kings resorted to murder and civil war to bring them down. The Stuart's reign was not particularly peaceful, but the Scots were a war-loving people and could not be kept at peace except by a very strong hand.

Mary Queen of Scots and the Reformation
Mary Stuart and John Knox

The Scots and French had a long-standing strategic agreement that called upon each of them to come to the others aid when at war with England. This relationship continued strong until Scotland, under the influence of John Knox, started to turn Protestant. This complicated the relationship with Catholic France and lead to numerous civil wars within Scotland. The problems came to a head during the reign of Mary Stuart, who inherited the throne from her father James V when she was only a few weeks old. The royal family remained Catholic, and Mary was raised in France and briefly married to the king of France. It was not until the death of her husband that she returned to rule Scotland herself, only to find the country torn by religious wars. Her reign was active but brief. She married her cousin, Henry Stuart Darnley and produced a son, James I (aka James VI of Scotland), but quickly became embroiled in a scandal involving the murder of her husband and an affair with a renegade noble. After a decisive defeat, she was deposed by the Protestant faction, who reigned in the name of her infant son. She was then driven from the country, imprisoned, and finally executed by her arch-nemesis, Elizabeth I.

Crowns of Scotland and England United

On the death of Queen Elizabeth, James VI of Scotland became heir to the throne of England, so from that time the Stuart kings resided in England rather than Scotland and the management of the country was left in the hands of Scottish Parliament. Although James VI was raised as Presbyterian, he and his descendants subscribed to the Anglican faith and did not tolerate non-conformists. This caused considerable conflict between the Stuart kings and their Scottish subjects, which flared up during the reign of Charles I, triggering the English Civil Wars. Although many Scots fought against the king during the English Civil War, they fought only for the principles of religious freedom and self-government, and strongly resisted Cromwell's effort to eliminate crown altogether.

The Stuarts presided over the independent countries of England and Scotland for over 100 years before the Parliaments were combined into the United Kingdom of Great Britain by the Act of Union in 1707. Even then there was great popular resistance to the Union among native Scots, and it is thought the Union was brought about by strategic bribery. Anti-English feeling was still strong enough to fuel the Jacobite Rebellion in 1715 and 1745, but by the mid 18th century the industrial revolution, spurred on the by Scottish inventor James Watt and Scottish economist Adam Smith, was well underway. Rail transportation and commercial trade helped close the distance between the two countries, and pride in the growing empire unified patriot feeling between the two countries. The Scots reputation as fearless fighters and dauntless explorers was greatly enhanced by their important contributions to colonial development, and from the 18th century on, the history of Scotland is the history of the British Empire.

Ireland—450 to 1922

Life of Saint Patrick to Irish Independence

Ireland, like Scotland, was a Celtic country, with a language and culture different from their powerful neighbor England. Like Scotland, it had a long history of resisting English dominance and had been, for the greater part of history, antagonistic to England. But in spite of their similar Celtic heritage, the histories of Ireland and Scotland diverged dramatically, particularly at the time of the Reformation. During the late Tudor era, Scotland became Protestant, and Ireland remained Catholic. From that point on, Scotland and England, although remaining antagonistic on many points, were eventually able to merge their countries under a single protestant government, and live in relative peace. Ireland, on the other hand, became even more fiercely Catholic in response the oppressions of the English government, and the antagonism and hatred between the races, became ever worse over the years. When Scotland and England merged to become Great Britain, the Scotsmen enjoyed all due rights of citizenship. The greater population of Ireland, on the other hand, was entirely disenfranchised, dispossessed, and enjoyed no rights of self-government. It was ruled as a conquered colony, and badly ruled at that. As one politician stated in 1892: "the condition of Ireland is universally recognized as the chief scandal and chief weakness of the Empire." How it came to be so, is the sad story of Irish History.

St. Patrick and the Celtic Church

Celtic Ireland was never ruled by a single powerful king, but rather by local tribal chiefs. A large part of Ireland's inability to resist the continued oppressions of England rested on this fact, that the Irish, from their earliest history, were disorganized and disunited. Ireland never came under Roman rule, and therefore never enjoyed the benefits of an advanced civilization or centralized government. There were no roads, bridges, sewers, aqueducts, or public buildings of note, and the weapons and tactics of the Celtic tribes could not resist the organized armies of more advanced civilizations.

Ireland was converted to Catholicism by St. Patrick in the fifth century A.D. and after that time the Irish monasteries were centers of learning and scholarship. It was mainly Irish missionaries, such as St. Columba and St. Mungo who converted Scotland to Christianity a few decades later. Until the ninth century, the Celtic Church thrived, but then, like all of Western Europe, Ireland suffered from Viking attacks. The general disunity of the Irish tribes however, made it impossible for the Vikings to actually conquer Ireland and the relative scarcity of booty in the impoverished country, to some degree, discouraged the worst depredations. Finally, around 1000 AD Brian Boru, an Irish Chieftain arose who managed to briefly unite the Irish tribes. He is credited with driving away the Vikings, although most of his wars were actually against other Irish clans. He governed well, but subsequent kings were less successful in holding the kingdom together.

The Normans in Ireland

One Hundred Years after the Normans conquered England, a Norman army was sent to conquer Ireland. The Normans succeeded in making many of the chieftains own them as overlords, but failed to actually impose a Norman government outside of a few towns on the eastern and northern coasts. Soon after the Battle of Bannockburn, Edward Bruce, the Brother of Robert the Bruce, landed in Ireland with Scottish troops with the idea of driving the English out of Ireland. The attempt enjoyed early success, but eventually Bruce was killed, and the rebellion died with him. Over time however, English influenced decreased in Ireland, particularly during the War of the Roses, while for two generations, England was involved in a ruinous civil war.

Tudor Conquest of Ireland

It was not until the reign of Henry VIII, that England began to reassert its dominance of Ireland, with the idea of bringing the monasteries and church under control of the king. Henry's primary objective, as it was in England, was to obtain lands through conquest and foreclosures that he could sell to his noble friends to raise cash for himself. He did not however, complete the conquest, and the matter was not taken up seriously again until the reign of Elizabeth I. Once England had won significant military victories over Spain, it was decided that having an independent Catholic nation so close at hand was a strategic risk. The idea of confiscating Catholic land to pass on to English nobles however, was probably an even more important a motive. The Nine Years War in Ireland was fought between 1594 and 1603 and resulted in the complete exile of the traditional Gaelic overlords of Ulster. This gave England free reign to establish Protestant colonies throughout the area. Over the next few decades hundreds of protestant colonists moved into Northern Ireland, pushing the Irish natives to the south and west. At the same time Penal laws were passed which discriminated against both the Irish Catholics and the Scottish Presbyterian residents, leaving virtually all power in the hands of the Anglican English.

Ireland, Cromwell and the Commonwealth

When the English Civil War broke out, the Irish took the opportunity to rebel, and in the Irish uprising of 1641, hundreds of Protestant settlers were slaughtered. Eventually the native Irish gentry and clergy put an end to the killing, and formed a defacto government, that ruled until Oliver Cromwell invaded Ireland during the English Civil Wars. At this time he took a terrible revenge for the Catholic outrages against Protestants which had occurred nearly a decade previously. At the Siege of Drogheda he ordered the indiscriminate slaughter of every man, woman, and child in the town, and all of Ireland was under his heel within a year. Cromwell remains one of the most hated characters of Irish History, and the atrocities committed on both sides during the civil war era did much to fan the religious hatreds of the following centuries.

Ireland suffered much under the commonwealth, but worse was yet to come. When the Catholic James II was deposed from the English throne, Ireland immediately declared for him, and against William III. When the Williamite War in Ireland broke out, the Catholics laid siege to Protestant Londonderry, and the town was nearly starved when English reinforcements arrived. It was finally relieved when one of the English ships rammed through the boom that had prevented reinforcements and provisions from reaching the city. This unexpected setback sent the Irish army into confusion. The following year, the Irish resistance was firmly crushed at the Battle of Boyne, and the English victors took very hard measures to punish the rebels. Penal laws were now passed which not only disenfranchised, and dispossessed Catholics, but discriminated against them in all sorts of other ways, with the explicit intent to force them to convert to Protestantism or be driven to destitution. Instead of converting to Protestantism, however, the Irish only embraced their Catholicism, and suffered under horrible oppressions rather than convert to the religion of the hated English.

Eighteenth and Nineteenth century Ireland

By the mid-eighteenth century, there was a large native protestant Irish population, centered mainly in Ulster, and eastern coastal towns. Ireland, however, was governed as a colony, and inspired by the example set by the American Colonists, the local protestant population favored an independent parliament, and eventual Irish self-rule. The idea of extending the franchise to Catholics of course, occurred to no one, but the Protestant population, lead by Henry Grattan, eventually won the right to hold a local parliament. Grattan, was himself sympathetic to granting a very limited franchise to the Catholic gentry, but such proposals only provoked a firestorm of controversy. Very soon after the establishment of the Irish Parliament, the French Revolution occurred, an event which caused great consternation within England, particularly since the Irish Catholics were thought to be sympathetic to the Revolutionaries, and there was fear of an Irish alliance with France. Finally, in the Irish Rebellion of 1798 did occur, and was accompanied by desperate atrocities on both sides. Grattan's parliament was dissolved, and the government of Ireland was taken under direct control of the English government. Ireland was absorbed into the "United Kingdom of Ireland and Great Britain", and although the Irish protestants were still able to elect representatives, they had to meet in London, and had virtually no clout within the English dominated Parliament.

Soon after the Napoleonic Wars, a Catholic hero appeared on the scene. Daniel O'Connell worked tirelessly for years to obtain the franchise for Irish Catholics, and eventually succeeded in doing so. He did this by actively foreswearing violence, and gaining support among protestants as well as Catholics. His heroic stance did much to advance the cause of Irish sympathy among the English, who feared the worst sort of violence were the Irish ever to gain political power. A few years later, spurred on by the Irish Potato famine, the English Parliament was compelled to abolish the corn-laws, which had done so much to create the crisis. Gradually, minor political relief was provided to Ireland, but their desire for Home Rule was violently opposed, not only by the English, but by many Irish Protestants. Charles Parnell and William Gladstone were two statesmen who worked tirelessly for Irish reform, but could not manage to get a Home Rule bill through Parliament. There remained a violent and radical element to the Irish cause, which sabotaged the efforts of moderates to work out a compromise.

Irish Independence

It was not until the midst of The Great War that another Irish uprising took place. This one began during the Easter season of 1916, but turned into a guerilla war for Irish Independence. The solution finally agreed to by parliament was to allow Irish counties to withdraw from the United Kingdom on an individual basis, meaning that the Protestant county of Ulster, would be allowed to retain its British identity. Although unpopular with the Irish Nationalists, the partition of Ireland finally occurred in 1922. Even today the republic Ireland includes only the provinces of Leinster, Munster, and Connacht, while Ulster is still governed as part of Great Britain.