A Primer on the Geo-Political and Religious History of the British Isles

As an avid Anglophile and current resident of England, it irks me to no end when I hear otherwise intelligent, well-read, astute people fumble their way through British political history, religious history, and geography, and the current political and religious climate in the region.

If you have ever wondered what the difference is between Ireland and Scotland, or what the heck Wales is, or what religion is most prevalent in England—or if you have ever talked (or thought) about a “British” accent, then this post is for you!

British Isles: Ireland in the west, Britain in the east (public domain; courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Geography of the British Isles

  • Britain and Ireland are two separate islands in the North Atlantic. Britain is the larger, more easterly island, while Ireland is smaller and to the west. (See image above.)
  • The island of Britain includes England, Scotland, and Wales. England covers about two-thirds of the island, in the southern part; Scotland covers the remaining third, in the north. Wales is a small section in the west of the island, bordering on England. (See image below.)
  • The island of Ireland includes two countries: the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. The Republic of Ireland covers the vast majority of the island—maybe 7/8 or so—while Northern Ireland is a small chunk in the north-east corner. (See image below.)
Countries of the British Isles (courtesy of Pinterest)

Political History

  • Our earliest written records of life in Britain and Ireland date to the first few centuries AD, in the latter part of the Roman Empire. Before this period, we have no written record of what was going on in this part of the world, and must rely on evidence such as archaeological artifacts.
  • The Romans first arrived in Britain around 55 BC; they conquered later a large portion of Britain and ruled this part (called Roman Britain) from 43–410 AD. There are still several remains of Roman cities, camps, and fortifications all around England (the most famous perhaps being Hadrian’s Wall and the baths in Bath).
  • From this contact with the Romans, Christianity reached Britain and Ireland sometime before the 5th century AD. However, after the fall of the Roman Empire (around 476 AD), the people in Britain largely forgot about Christianity, while the Irish largely continued to grow and learn in this faith.
A Celtic cross in Ireland (shared under a Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons)
  • After the fall of the Roman Empire, several tribes of Germanic peoples (Angles, Saxons, and Jutes) arrived and conquered most of the area that the Romans had ruled earlier—roughly, the area that is today England. These tribes developed their own language—Anglo-Saxon, a direct ancestor of our modern-day English—and political systems. Early on, they were divided into several large tribes or kingdoms, often fighting with each other to establish political power and boundaries. Over several centuries, they finally grew into one large, mostly unified nation, which came to be called Angle-land, or England.
  • During this time—both the Roman invasion and the Anglo-Saxon invasion—Scotland, Wales, and Ireland (and, to an extent, Cornwall, in the south-west of modern-day England) were largely un-conquered by the invading forces, and the peoples who had lived there before continued to. These included the Picts, Scots, and Gaels, among others. Each of these areas—Scotland, Wales, and Ireland—were their own countries, who traded, married, and fought with the Romans and then the Anglo-Saxons, just as today we Americans trade, marry, and sometimes fight with our neighbors, Canada and Mexico, even though we are all separate and distinct nations.
  • In 1066, the Anglo-Saxons were conquered by the Normans, from northern France, which had a significant impact on the language, politics, and culture of England. But I won’t bore you with that information right now. Another post, another day. 🙂
  • Sometime before 1284, England conquered Wales and the two became part of one, united kingdom, generally known as England (more properly as ‘England and Wales’) for several centuries. Scotland and Ireland continued to be separate countries from England.
  • In 1603, through a series of unfortunate (and some fortunate) events, James VI, king of Scotland, became the king of England as well. He now ruled both Scotland and England and became known as James I of England. This effectively joined the two kingdoms as one entity, and in 1707 an act of Parliament was passed to make this official. At this point, the nation became known as the Kingdom of Great Britain.
James VI of Scotland, also James I of England (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
  • Throughout this period (from roughly the 1200s through the 1700s), the English and Irish frequently had wars with each other, and England continually tried to conquer the entire island of Ireland, partly because it was strategically in their interest to control a large-ish island that was situated so close to them. Finally, in 1801, England gained control of Ireland and passed an act of Parliament annexing the nation to Great Britain. At this point, the nation became known as the United Kingdom (of Great Britain and Ireland).
  • As you can imagine, the Irish people were not overjoyed about this annexation, particularly because the English tended to treat them as a lower class of people and passed egregious taxes and abusive laws (sound familiar, America?). They rebelled frequently and with increasing violence. Finally, in 1922, the Anglo-Irish Treaty released the majority of the island to their own independent government, which (eventually) became the Republic of Ireland. However, the majority of the residents in the north-east of Ireland wanted to remain in the union, and so this area was (and is) still held by the United Kingdom and became known as Northern Ireland. (The Economist has a fantastic article that goes into more depth about why Northern Ireland is separated from the Republic of Ireland, if you’d like to learn more.)
Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland (used under a GNU license via Wikimedia Commons)
  • This geo-political configuration has remained largely unchanged from 1922 to today.

Religious History

  • Christianity had arrived in both Britain and Ireland through interaction with the Romans. As mentioned above, the Irish continued to embrace Christianity after the fall of the Roman Empire, while the people in Britain largely forgot about it and returned to their pagan worship.
  • The Irish actually sent some Christian missionaries to Britain. They even established some monasteries, such as Lindisfarne.
ruins at Lindisfarne Priory, originally established by Irish Christian missionaries (Creative Commons via Wikimedia Commons)
  • Meanwhile, Pope Gregory I (the Great) sent a missionary expedition from Rome to the Anglo-Saxons in 596 AD. They made decent headway, and within the next century or so, Anglo-Saxon England was almost entirely Christian (at least in name, if not always in practice).
  • Over the succeeding centuries, and all the political upheavals and wars between Ireland and England/Britain, the Irish Christians and the English (=Anglo-Saxon) Christians were often at loggerheads with each other, arguing over things like how to calculate the date of Easter and proper monastic principles. The Irish often felt they had a purer form of Christianity, since they had been Christian for longer than the English, but the English felt they had proper authority, since they had close connections with the Pope in Rome.
  • In 1534, King Henry VIII of England (and Wales) separated the church in England from Rome, establishing the Protestant Church of England. Not everyone in England was happy about this, as they wanted to continue to practice their religion in the Roman Catholic tradition, and this led to a period of bloody wars and brutality. Eventually, however, England became firmly established as a Protestant country. Ireland continued to be Catholic.
Henry VIII of England and Wales, founder of the Church of England (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
  • When the English began settling in Ireland, particularly after 1801 when Great Britain annexed Ireland, they practice their Protestant religion, and tried to force this on the local population, who continued to want to practice the Catholic religion they had grown up with and embraced. This is part of what led to the Irish resentment of the British and to their increasingly violent rebellions.
  • As a result of the 1922 Anglo-Irish Treaty, the Republic of Ireland established their national religion as Roman Catholic (often called Irish Catholic), while the national religion of Northern Ireland was established as the Protestant Church of England (more properly, the Church of Ireland, which is part of the Anglican Communion).
  • Over several centuries, religious freedom gained ground in both islands, and today it is legal to practice any religion in both Ireland and the United Kingdom. However, Catholicism remains the dominant religion in Ireland, while Protestantism (specifically, Anglicanism) is the dominant religion in England, Scotland, and Wales.


Now that you know all this, perhaps this terminology will make more sense:

Term Refers to
Britain an island, containing England, Scotland, and Wales
Great Britain a political entity, consisting of England, Scotland, and Wales
United Kingdom a political entity, consisting of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland
Ireland (1) an island, containing the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland; (2) a short-hand name for the Republic of Ireland
If you’re still confused, this excellent slide show from Re-bloggy may help:
click image to see the full slide-show (originally from Tumblr)
When you are discussing Scotland and Ireland, please remember that they are separate countries, with separate histories, traditions, values, and religions. Part of the reason that we so often confuse Scotland and Ireland with each other is that they were painted with the same broad, racist brush by the English, when the latter were trying to subdue the former. The English treated each population in a truly atrocious manner at times and tended to view them both as a lower species of human being, with low intelligence, base instincts, and violent tendencies. They caricatured both populations as being red-headed, which throughout the Early Modern period (roughly 1500–1800) was symbolic of a lascivious and violent temperament; they likewise caricatured the accents of both, representing them as sounding very similar to each other, even though are in reality quite different (and differ significant within Scotland and Ireland, as well). Our modern American stereotypes of these two peoples are largely colored by those centuries-old caricatures, even though they are largely untrue. For example, red hair is relatively uncommon in Ireland; it is far more common to see Irish people with dark hair, pale skin, and light eyes (blue, green, grey).

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

In the political cartoons above, you can see some of the similarities in how the English caricatured the Scottish and Irish: large, brutish stature; fierce expression; large, animalistic facial features, etc. (The Irish caricature is from the cover of a book, which I pilfered from this blog post; the Scottish caricature, by 19th-century cartoonist John Leech, I could only find at Jantoo.com.)
This terminology also helps explain why people in Britain never use the term “British accent.” First, most of them don’t identify primarily as British, but as English/Scottish/Welsh/Irish. So at most, someone from this part of the world has an “English accent” or “Scottish accent,” etc. Secondly, there are so many accents in this nation—despite its relatively small size, compared with the United States—that it is virtually impossible to pin down a generic “English accent” (or Scottish, Irish, or Welsh accent), since one individual’s accent is so heavily dependent on what part of the country they grew up in, what part of the country they currently live in, their level of education, their social status, and what kind of socio-economic group they most strongly identify with.


Again, with this history in mind, this chart may help clear up the question of religions:
Country Dominant Christian Religion(s)
England Protestant (Church of England, part of the Anglican Communion)
Scotland Protestant (Church of Scotland, part of the Anglican Communion)
Northern Ireland roughly equal split between Catholic and Protestant (Church of Ireland, part of the Anglican Communion)
(Republic of) Ireland Catholic
 So, when you are talking about an Irishman and wonder what religion he is, the smart money is on Catholic—that’s not necessarily the case, but it’s highly likely. On the other hand, an Englishwoman is most likely Protestant.
Remember earlier, when I said that the Irish Christians and the Anglo-Saxon Christians used to argue a lot about things like how to calculate the date for Easter? Well, those tensions between Ireland and the rest of the UK are still not entirely resolved. These issues have deep, deep roots in the respective countries (so deep that most people living in those countries today are not even aware of their origins), and occasionally rioting and violence still breaks out. During the latter half of the 20th century, the southern Irish became particularly violent in an effort to get attention and make their voice for a united Ireland heard. They set off bombs in public buildings, shot people, and generally caused terror and panic among the English and the Northern Irish, who often responded with violence themselves. This guerilla-style conflict lasted from 1966 to 1998 and is known as “The Troubles.” (Most participants and historians would claim that it was not a religious conflict at all, but I disagree—as I said, it has roots going much farther back than the political tensions that are deemed to have started the The Troubles.)

Featured image: flag of the United Kingdom, by Zscout370; used under a Creative Commons License; see original image on Wikimedia Commons


5 thoughts on “A Primer on the Geo-Political and Religious History of the British Isles”

  1. A really good summary! But I have two things to point out:

    You have a typo, James of Scotland became King of England in 1603, not 1503.

    Also, I would gently dispute that the IRA bombings ” generally caused terror and panic among the English and the Northern Irish”. The main reactions were anger and hate.

    Even when my 10 year old brother missed a bomb in central London in the 1970s by 10 minutes, we still went back to London, as we were not afraid. In the early 1980’s I was a student in central London during a series of large IRA bomb attacks. This sounds weird, but we simply worked around them, they became a part of life. But after every attack, I had to go looking for a Protestant Northern Irish friend as the London police would always to retaliatory round ups of any one who sounded Irish. In the summer I worked in a shop on Oxford Street, and we evacuated it twice one summer, each time because an Irish sounding customer had left a shopping bag behind. The second time, that bag contained a bomb. We all thanked the Army for defusing it, then went back in and re-opened the shop!

    Old habits die hard. I have taught my sons never to kick or pick up litter, as the IRA used to hide explosive devices in them — I had a school mate who lost a foot that way.

    1. Thanks—I’ve fixed that typo as well, now.
      And thank you for sharing your experience and perspective about the IRA bombings. Those took place in an era when I was only vaguely aware of what was happening in the British Isles, as a teenager living in the western United States. Some of the Brits I’ve spoken to who are about my age have expressed that they grew up thinking of Ireland as a scary place, since that’s where all the bombs came from. So it’s great to hear a different perspective about how The Troubles affected people on the ground.

  2. Neat & tidy commentary of my native lands. Good insight for an outsider.

    What many people, including the “natives” fail recognise that our former pre-Roman & Anglo- Saxon kingdoms & tribes still have a “subliminal” effect on language – dialect & to lesser degree social norms. e.g (Anglia/ Mercia/ Wessex/ Northumberland/ Wales /Scotland etc).
    Typo: James I /VI of England & Scotland.

    1. Thank you, Tony. You’re absolutely right, those ancient kingdoms still have strong influences on the modern culture, dialect being only one example.
      I’ve fixed that typo—well spotted!

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