England offers rich combinations of beautiful landscapes where apparently timeless villages nestle within easy reach of modern towns, and every stone seems to breathe its heady historical and cultural air. Having been a state for over a thousand years, despite the twists and turns of its history, England has a wealth of well-preserved and accessible archaeological and cultural sites. As a country which pioneered archaeology, its long story, which stretches back thousands of years, is readily available for you to explore. From the first farmers of the Neolithic, through the splendours of the Bronze and Iron Ages, the contrasting cultures of the imperial Romans and the Anglo-Saxons, you can move to the mighty castles and abbeys of the mediaeval period, and the studied refinement of the country house. England’s culture and history has a depth and variety that is hard to match. The importance of her language, and the example of her hard-won right to say that rulers could not do as they wished make England’s story an essential one.
Here is a country that possesses some of the finest and best-preserved monuments from the earliest days of humans building their mark into the landscape, where you can observe their successors developing a distinct array of identities by alternately adopting, adapting or rejecting continental influences, their nameless makers leaving mysterious earthworks and burial mounds or elaborate grave goods in their wake to match anything from the rest of Europe. With the coming of the Romans, England emerges into history as the province of Britannia and gives us a fascinating chance to see the interplay between Celtic and Mediterranean civilisation, illuminated by World Heritage Sites like Hadrian’s Wall. After Rome, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings and Normans all leave their impact on the landscape, language and historical DNA with their great monuments, and in the country’s first-rate museums which proudly display the wonders of their art and the fascinating reminders of their daily life. England’s increasing involvement in European and World history from the Middle Ages on gives her an unbeatable appeal to the cultural traveller keen to immerse themselves in the many stories written into the web of the landscape here.
England’s thread is woven with that of all its neighbours, and its blend of familiar modernity with the old and obscure makes a perfect and accessible introduction to the history of the whole continent. Its spectacular historical path has inspired all forms of retellings, as well as producing a fertile literary, intellectual and artistic culture that has inspired the world. Here you can see the wellspring that it all flows from.
Whether you come with a desire to connect with an ancestral home, to see the world that Turner, Constable and Ravilious saw, walk the lanes that produced Shakespeare, Austen and Dickens in a country that gave its language to the world, something in your encounter with England with enthral you. It’s not easy to tell that long story briefly, but here’s an introduction to the main steps along the way.
England: A Brief Timeline
10000-4500 BC: The Mesolithic Period – At the beginning, England is still a peninsula attached to the continent. The retreat of most of the ice sheets allows the gradual return of trees and humans to re-colonise the land. Hunter-gatherers occupy the thickening woods and make the first alterations to the landscape by setting up ritual poles. Later on, Britain becomes an island.
4500-2500 BC: The Neolithic Period – Farming and pottery are introduced. The population expands and the first buildings emerge: tombs such as long barrows and enclosures called causewayed camps. Growing communities are marked by increased land clearance, the first megaliths and earthworks like cursuses and henge monuments. Later in the period, growing signs of hierarchy emerge.
2500-2200 BC: A transitional period sometimes called the Chalcolithic Period. There are rapid developments as new ideas – and some people – arrive from the continent bringing the first metals and the Beaker culture. There is another burst of monument building, notably stone avenues.
2200-750 BC: The Bronze Age – Emergence of fields with boundaries as arable farming grows in importance. Great swathes of land are cleared, producing a level of tree cover similar to today’s. Round barrows, sometimes in large cemeteries, appear. After some early interest, henge monuments go out of use.
750-60 BC: The Iron Age – Increasing conflict is marked by the emergence of hillforts, particularly in central and western Britain, and by a profusion of weapons as archaeological finds. By the end of the period, Britain has close links to the La Tene culture that dominates Western Europe and growing signs of political organisation.
60 BC-AD 43: The Late Pre-Roman Iron Age – Britain emerges into history, as Classical authors reveal a region of large tribal states, Celtic in language and ruled by kings. The south is in close contact with the continent. Hillforts go out of use. Emergence of oppida, proto-towns ruled by elites importing Gallic or Roman luxuries, mostly in the south-east. Julius Caesar undertakes two expeditions to the island in 55 & 54 BC; Rome can no longer be ignored by the Britons.
AD 43-300: The early Roman Period. The island is invaded by the emperor Claudius in AD 43, and by AD 100 is occupied up to the north of England, despite the rebellion of Boudica (AD 60/1). Development of Roman towns, villas and religious sites. Some Britons adopt elements of Roman culture. Hadrian’s Wall is built from AD 122.
AD 300-410: The later Roman Period. A time of great change in the Roman Empire, as from the early fourth century it becomes Christian. The first signs of that religion appear in Britain. The first half of the century is a prosperous ‘golden age’, when we see the largest villas and mosaics. Signs of possible decline emerge in the cities. There is increasing uncertainty on the frontiers and bouts of civil war, culminating in the end of official Roman rule in 410.
AD 410-597: The Roman order in Britain breaks down. Towns and villas disappear in this ‘SubRoman’ Dark Age, reputedly the time of King Arthur. Settlers and attackers from abroad – Irish, Scots, Picts and Anglo-Saxons. The latter settle in the east of England and gradually spread west.
AD 597-899: The early and middle Anglo-Saxon periods – A time of revival: emergence of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, revival of towns and artistic culture. From 597, the Anglo-Saxons begin to convert to Christianity and later produce their own missionaries who help to convert Germany. Power shifts constantly between the kingdoms, and from the 790s, the English come under assault from the Vikings of Denmark and Norway. After the trauma of facing the Great Army, and the destruction of several kingdoms, English resistance stiffens and gains the upper hand under Alfred the Great of Wessex.
AD 899-1066: The Late Saxon period – The kings of Wessex go on the offensive, driving into the north and conquering Viking and northern English alike to create a unified kingdom which asserts a growing domination over its neighbours. Despite a renewed bout of Danish rule under King Cnut after 1016, this Kingdom of England becomes a stable, wealthy and well-organised European power, an attractive target for a new enemy.
AD 1066-1272: The early Mediaeval period – William of Normandy conquers England in 1066, ushering in a wholescale change in how Britain is ruled, and implanting a new ruling class. The period is marked by the building of large numbers of castles, vast cathedrals and monasteries. Despite bouts of civil war, the population grows, government becomes more sophisticated and rooted in law (including the Magna Carta of 1215).
AD 1272-1485: The middle and late Mediaeval Period – English power increases dramatically and King Edward I asserts control over Wales and Scotland. After an interlude of weakness under Edward II, when the north falls under constant Scottish attack after their revival under the Bruce dynasty, and despite the apocalyptic horrors of the Black Death from 1348, Edward III completes the subjection of Wales and begins the long contest for the French throne which comes to be known as the Hundred Years War. Great English victories at Crecy, Poitiers and Agincourt see England eventually rule half of France under Henry V. In the fifteenth century, however, the reign of Henry VI sees a series of disasters. Beginning with Joan of Arc, English control in France is eroded and finally ended in 1453, and at home, the realm is convulsed by the Wars of the Roses which end with the death of Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth (1485).
AD 1485-1603: The Tudor Dynasty – Another period of dramatic changes with far-reaching consequences. A long period of internal peace sees castles replaced by country houses as the expression of noble wealth and artillery fortresses as the bulwark of royal defences. The religious turmoil in Europe is used by Henry VIII to profit from a breach with Rome by suppressing the monasteries in the 1530s and turning the country to Protestantism. The discovery of the Americas in 1492 is followed by English exploration in the north and the first colonies under Elizabeth. The Renaissance arrives in England and sees an explosion of literary and artistic culture, culminating at the end of the dynasty with the works of Shakespeare.
AD 1603-1642: The early Stuarts – Elizabeth’s childlessness sees a union of crowns with Scotland and the accession of James I. Cultural milestones continue to appear, including the King James Bible. James and his son Charles’ reigns are marked by episodes of conflict with Parliament and debates over the limits of royal power.
AD 1642-1688: The civil war, Commonwealth and Glorious Revolution – Political conflict erupts into civil war between Charles and Parliament, with Charles eventually driven to military defeat at Naseby (1645) but engaged in intrigues until his shock execution in 1649. A decade of republican government, which degenerates into military rules, follows under Oliver Cromwell. It is an excitingly fertile period of intellectual and political argument, with some precocious debates on the nature of liberty in government. The republic (or Commonwealth) ends with the Restoration of Charles II whose busy reign sees both the Plague and the Great Fire of London (1666) as well as the further expansion of English colonialism, including into India. Continued quarrels over the balance of power between Parliament and monarch, combined with the religious strife between Protestant and Catholic see Charles’ brother James II overthrown in the Glorious Revolution (1688) and Parliamentary power confirmed by the Bill of Rights (1689).
AD 1688-1837: The age of the Enlightenment – England and Wales are united with Scotland as Great Britain (1707). Britain is involved in over a century of wars on the continent which spread to her colonies and see her win arguably the first world wars, culminating in the Napoleonic War. Culturally, it is an age of great writers (Defoe, Dr Johnson, Pope, Blake, and Austen), artists (Reynolds, Hogarth, and Constable), architects (Wren, Hawksmoor) and scientists (Newton, Priestley). Aristocratic social life becomes ever more refined and rarefied, producing the great age of the country house. The benefits of imperial power flow in, the independence of the American colonies offset by gains in India, Canada and new colonies as far as Australia. At home, the country is transformed by the agricultural and industrial revolutions, with the first railways emerging by the 1820s.
AD 1837-1900: The reign of Victoria – A new unification settlement produces the United Kingdom (incorporating Ireland). Britain experiences nearly a century of unprecedented power and social change which produces some of her finest artists and thinkers, among them Dickens, Darwin, Bronte, Turner and Hardy. The Empire extends into every inhabited continent, Britain is for long the industrial power-house of the world and political progress sees her government, with its ‘Mother of Parliaments’ regarded as a inspiration to those under less free regimes. By the end of the century, a sense that her power is no longer unassailable sets in.