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!
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.)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.)
- This geo-political configuration has remained largely unchanged from 1922 to today.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
|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|
|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|
Featured image: flag of the United Kingdom, by Zscout370; used under a Creative Commons License; see original image on Wikimedia Commons