History of England I: Earliest Times to c.1600 CE
In this unit, you have three major areas to study: One is the Geography and early settlers. The second one is the Roman conquest and its results. The third one is the arrival of Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, and the Advent of Christianity. If you study these areas dividing them into three different sections, connected but separate for convenience, you can score good marks in the exams.
History of every country is profoundly influenced by its geography. Geographical features like mountains, plains, valleys, rivers, seas, climate and vegetation are decisive in forming the national character and culture of any region. Just like the popular dictum, “geography governs history”, this history of England is also governed by its geography.
The British Isles is a group of small islands, 5,500 in number, situated in the Atlantic Ocean. The two major islands are Britain and Ireland. The low-lying coasts of the eastern side are separated from the continent of Europe only by a narrow strip of a shallow sea, the English Channel. The English Channel is only 21 miles wide in some places. Britain forms the greater part of the British Isles, which lies off the North-West coast of Europe. Total area: 242,400 sq KM, half the size of France. England, Scotland, and Wales are the important political divisions of the island of Great Britain.
The name Britain was first given to this island by the Romans. By the name, they indicated a group of people who lived in the Southern part of the Island, namely Brythons. After the Anglo-Saxon conquest, the south-western part of Britain came to be known as England. The name Great Britain was first introduced by King James I (1603-1625). He integrated Scotland and England.
Britain acquired a geographical identity as an island around 5000 BC. In the course of the drastic geographical changes, the Pleistocene ice-sheets flooded over the present North sea. Consequently, the water of the present English channel merged with the North Sea, separating England from continental Europe. The environment changed drastically. The air that used to be full of moisture was now replaced with dry winds from the North and East. Rainfalls increased and altered the vegetation. The island had turned out to the land of chalk downs (chalk hills), limestone hills, and forests. The chalky ridges extended in the Southern and Northern directions meeting in a spacious plateau, now known as Salisbury plains.
Great Britain was surrounded by seas on all sides. This strategic position helped the birth and growth of a distinct culture. The separation of England from mainland Europe and the security given by natural boundaries enabled the country to develop her own characteristic institutions, laws, customs, and manners. At the same time, it was not far away from the mainland. This facilitated the coming of conquerors and settlers like the Celts, the Romans, the Anglo-Saxons, the Danes, and the Normans.
Immigrants and political refugees from Europe, the Caribbean, and South Asian subcontinent, Cyprus and even China have made Britain a multi-racial society. The nearness to the European continent is one of the reasons for the British involvement in the European movements like the Crusades, the Renaissance, and the Reformation.
Surrounded by the sea, Britain became a great maritime nation. She became known as ‘the mistress of seas’. After the discovery of America, she became the centre of a new maritime movement, holding the key position of the world. She was situated on the pathway of travel between Europe and the rest of the world. Thus she occupied a central position in the modern routes of trade and colonization in Africa, Asia, and America.
The south-eastern parts of England had been highly fertile. Hence these areas were more populous and prosperous in the past when England was mainly an agricultural country. Because of this reason, these regions were the target of foreign attacks.
Regions in the North West of England are mountainous and less fertile. Consequently, these regions were backwards in every respect. However, after the discovery of coal mines, this region has transformed itself into a location of heavy industries. This led Britain to become the world's first industrialized country.
The possession of long irregular coastline enabled England to enjoy the facilities of a natural harbour system. England is also rich with navigable rivers. These factors accounted for England’s maritime greatness. Despite its isolation, a series of foreign invasions influenced the formation of the island kingdom to an empire which later subjected many countries including India under colonial rule.
Reference: A Handbook of British History by K M Abraham