The History of the British Isles

Studied in one of six periods, this paper requires students to consider the history of the societies which have made up the British Isles over an extended period of time. It aims to encourage appreciation of the underlying continuities as well as the discontinuities within each period, and to explore the relation between political, gender, economic, social and cultural developments in determining the paths followed by the societies of Britain, severally and together:


One of the excitements of studying this period is to realise how much of the Britain that we know today had its origins so long ago. Many of the fundamental characteristics of Western society took shape in these centuries. Out of the collapse of Roman civilization, new forms of social and religious organization emerged. The forging of ethnic and political identities brought into being the entities that we now call England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. This paper will look the makeup of Britain in this period, considering the influences of the Celts, Picts, and Vikings to name a few. It will also consider the developing artistic, literary and religious culture that was growing in Britain and what influenced it.

By 600, less than half of Britain was under English control. The West and North still comprised Celtic states, which remained Christian, literate and in contact with the Mediterranean world. The Irish, still in many respects an Iron Age society, were developing a remarkable artistic, literary and religious culture; their overseas impact involved the colonization of western Scotland and missionary activity in much of Western Europe. The conversion of the English to Christianity was associated with the building of kingdoms, and with an extraordinary interchange between Germanic, British, Irish, Gallic and Mediterranean cultures which produced such outstanding works of art as the Sutton Hoo treasures and the Lindisfarne Gospels. With the growth of continental trade, ports were established and coinage reintroduced. Prosperity financed a rich monastic culture, both in Ireland and, rather later, among the English. During c.680-750, north-east England became one of the intellectual centres of Europe, and the English launched missions to their still-pagan relatives abroad. Kingship and government operated on an ever-widening scale, though tempered by the enduring realities of warrior societies: marriage-alliances, gift-giving, plunder and the blood-feud. In 850 Britain was still divided between several British and English states, while in Ireland provincial kingships were forming. But soon the political map was transformed by Viking invasions. The countryside and its inhabitants were being organised into more self-contained farming and parish communities, often under an emergent class of small proprietors. To a large extent, it was during 900-1100 that market towns, villages and local churches came into existence. Important though it was, the Norman Conquest of 1066 changed little of this fundamentally.

Students are brought into contact with fast-developing investigations, not least in archaeology and ethnology. They also have an advantage which students of later periods lack: because the written sources are limited it is possible to approach the subject (and the work of historians) in direct and sometimes original ways. Texts such as Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, Beowulf and the other Old English poems, may be read in translation.



Medieval society with its warriors, kings, bishops and peasants, can seem alien to us. These three centuries saw the emergence of essential pre-conditions for modern society. The whole spectrum of human activity was transformed, both through increasing collectivisation – in villages, towns, churches, and under governments – and by greater pluralisation in the ways of life. England’s own particular turning-point, the Norman Conquest, opens the paper: but just how much did it change and how much endured from previous centuries – or indeed would have changed anyway in a period of European-wide development? Its immediate result was a century of political instability, as England was drawn into the politics of northern France. Yet the Conquest also provided the foundation for a precociously strong monarchy, and the system of common law which still endures.

These developments had important effects. Kings and their warrior nobles, increasingly characterized by the culture of chivalry, attempted to colonize and dominate Britain. The different societies of Wales, Ireland and Scotland were affected in different ways by English imperialism, especially in Edward I’s successful conquest of Wales and unsuccessful assault on Scotland.

On the other hand, the power of English kings had to be restrained internally: in Magna Carta the barons demanded that the ruler treat his subjects lawfully and make their interests the concern of government. This was developed into a sophisticated political ideology of royal accountability, which could be used at the end of the period to depose a king. Edward II was seen as inadequate to provide stable government and secure justice to a national community increasingly conscious of the duties of kingship.

Royal ideology was also challenged by the church as the clergy, backed by the papacy, sought to exempt themselves from lay authority, a conflict seen most dramatically in the murder of Thomas Becket. Yet church reform gradually transformed social experience by putting religion at its centre, seen in the prevalence of saints’ cults and shrines, the popularity of the crusading ethos, and the rapid spread of monasteries and parish churches.

Education also underwent a sea-change as the ‘twelfth-century renaissance’ inaugurated a literate society, which created new institutions and administered them in more regular and bureaucratic ways. It also revived the cultural leadership of the western world, evident in the glorious cathedrals constructed at this time, and the revival of scholarship in the universities.

These were centuries of important social and economic change. More land was settled by an expanding population, markets and towns multiplied, and increasing trade created a more commercialized mentality. Family structures and the position of women were thus fundamentally affected. Recently historians have become increasingly intrigued by the role of perception in economic, social, and political life: was change led as much by culture, ideology and attitudes as by what used to be seen as more tangible factors? Gender is an important case in point, given that changes in ideology had specific effects on the roles not only of women but also men, and on the social, legal and political relationships between them.

In some ways this phase of European development was decisively brought to an end in the fourteenth century, with economic slow-down, widespread political instability and above all the Black Death. Even so, the fundamental changes of the central middle ages left a legacy to the modern world of political sophistication, social and economic diversification, and cultural dominance.



For England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales this was a period of dramatic conflict and change which presents many fascinating paradoxes. The Black Death of 1348-9 in which a third or more of the population died, the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, and frequent complaints of urban decay all suggest economic and social crisis; yet the cloth industry grew, living standards rose and economic opportunities for women temporarily widened. In the early fifteenth century the Welsh rose in revolt under Owain Glyn Dŵr, yet within a century and a half they were peacefully assimilated into the Tudor state. The Scots were united enough to resist English aggression, yet slew two of their kings in rebellion. The English won spectacular victories in France – Crécy, Poitiers, Agincourt – yet lost ground to the Gaelic lords in Ireland.

The English crown steadily endowed itself with one of the most effective governmental machineries in Europe, negotiating for the cooperation of local élites in the developing parliament, court and legal system; yet Richard II was deposed and his successors fell prey to factionalism in the Wars of the Roses, only for monarchical power to revive under the Yorkists and Tudors. The English church survived the challenge of the Oxford-grown heresy, Lollardy, and provided for an increasingly elaborate and informed popular piety, but fell victim to Henry VIII’s determination to become its supreme head. Architecture, music and vernacular literature flourished from Barbour, Chaucer and Langland to Lindsay, Wyatt and Surrey; yet by 1550 an increasingly influential humanism affected contempt for much of medieval culture.

All these aspects of the period continue to provoke debate among historians and this creates an opportunity for undergraduates to forge their own understanding of a field in which political, social, cultural and religious history interact in stimulating ways, and one in which the different societies within the British Isles can be studied both in their own right and in their mutual interaction.



Reformation, Revolution, Restoration: Throughout this period political and religious authority were contested, challenged, and re-imagined afresh.

The paper begins in the aftermath of the Wars of the Roses, with the Tudor dynasty consolidating a precarious grip on the English throne as well as a fragile hold on parts of Ireland and a delicate peace between Scotland and England. The long, contested process of Reformation unleashed a wide variety of religious ideas and encouraged new ways of understanding identity, community, and even family relationships. A period of sustained economic growth brought unimagined luxuries and new technologies to the growing cities, changing the social fabric of the country in complex ways. Literature, music and art flourished; Shakespeare’s plays, Tallis’s motets and Holbein’s portraits all express the grandeur and the individual anxieties of the period. Two hundred years later, the whole of Britain would be transformed, brought together into a Union with social and religious consequences no less important than the political implications. By 1700 Britain had moved from the fringes of Europe to become one of its leading powers, with a growing Empire in the Americas.

Students taking this paper have the opportunity to examine a wide range of social, political and religious developments across all three British kingdoms. The period is rich in source material, with texts and pamphlets ranging from royal proclamations to scurrilous, ‘tabloid’ newsbooks which are easily accessible in libraries and online. Historians are increasingly aware of the sophisticated political and religious culture which developed in this period, involving art, music and carefully staged rituals. Traces of the rich visual and artistic culture of the period can be seen across the city, in the Ashmolean and in many of the colleges, and students are encouraged to consider these sources alongside more traditional ones. Moreover, such a crucial period in British history has attracted some of the most passionate and engaged historians, and controversy over the nature of the Reformation, the flow of court politics, the causes of the civil war, and the events of the Glorious Revolution continues to arouse heated debate. No less important are questions of social and economic change, and historians now use the vast range of source materials in new and increasingly sophisticated ways. The paper offers students the opportunity to examine the central events and ideas of this period, but the flexibility of the tutorial system allows each student to spend time focusing on particular aspects of it, in consultation with their tutor.



This course begins with the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688-9, which had profound consequences for the nature of government across the British Isles, the relationship between the churches and the state, Britain’s role in Europe and the wider world, and relations between three of the four component nations of the British Isles. In England and somewhat later in Scotland, commerce and manufacturing flourished to the extent that contemporaries began to perceive a series of profound economic and social transformations. One of the most visible symptoms of change was accelerating and broadening urbanization in England and Scotland, and the growth of large provincial towns and cities. London rose to be a city of global importance, at the centre of an empire which stretched across the Atlantic, into the Pacific, and which exercised a superficially impressive hegemony in India. This period saw the making of the United Kingdom, starting with the Anglo-Scottish Union of 1707 and culminating in the Anglo-Irish Union of 1800, and Scotland in particular became a great centre of Enlightenment thought and learning. By the end of the period, Protestant Dissenters and Catholics had acquired full political rights, major political reforms had been enacted by the Whig governments of the 1830s, and Britain had become ‘the first industrial nation’. Such developments made Britain an object of fascination – often of admiration – to other Europeans.

However, these developments were associated with strains, tensions, and frequent conflicts. Britain spent much of this period at war, defending its positions in Europe and the world. At least up until the crushing of the Jacobite army at Culloden in 1746, the Jacobite challenge to the future of the Protestant and Hanoverian Succession was menacing. The nature and meaning of empire were called into question by the rupturing of the first British empire and the creation of the United States of America in the War of American Independence (1776-83). Empire was associated not just with commerce and prosperity but with violence and an often undisguised rapacity. Slavery and the slave trade were its key props. Britain’s claims to liberty and humanity as national values looked increasingly threadbare to a growing number of people. Meanwhile, the prosperity associated with commercial and industrial society was shadowed by the problem of mass poverty that became ever more acute after 1795. Self-scrutiny and introspection were intensified and complicated by the rise of Evangelicalism, and the outbreak of the French Revolution, the long ensuing war, and the social, economic, and political turbulence of the next two decades. Scotland might have emerged as Britain’s loyal province by the early nineteenth century, but the capacity of the United Kingdom to bring peace and prosperity to an uneasy, restive and combustible Ireland was under renewed question with the calamity of the Great Famine and the Irish rebellion of 1848. Only three years later (in 1851), a million or more international visitors would pour into London to witness Britain’s technological, industrial and financial supremacy at the Great Exhibition. Yet in the ‘backyard’ of this ‘nation’ had just occurred the catastrophe of famine. 

During recent decades, this period has been the subject of a great deal of lively historical writing and debate as scholars have explored all these developments, their impact on values and culture, and the ways in which they were experienced by men, women and children from across the social spectrum and in different parts of the British Isles. The range and intensity of discussion on this period reflects its fundamental importance and interest for the understanding of modern Britain and Ireland.



The period covered by this paper was characterised by rapid and wide-ranging changes to the political, social, cultural and economic fabric of the United Kingdom. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the Great Reform Act in 1832, and further constitutional reforms in 1867, 1884, and 1918 and 1928 transformed Parliament, shifting the balance of power from the House of Lords to the House of Commons, and increasing the political influence first of the growing professional and commercial middle classes, and then of an increasingly self-conscious working class. In the process, in response to campaigns for women’s suffrage, the vote was extended to women and ideas of political participation and citizenship were re-defined. By the 1950s, the British political system was well-defined and well-entrenched, emerging from two world wars with its political institutions intact and increasingly democratic, at least with respect to those in the British Isles.

For many of those living through these transformations, the possibilities for change and improvement seemed boundless. While those living in industrial cities endured terrible conditions, and the population of Ireland was devastated by the famine, many more prosperous Victorians conceived of themselves as the harbingers of progress, a self-confidence reflected in ambitious building projects for schools, hospitals, civic buildings, and whose results still stand in many British cities, towns and villages. In the early twentieth century, new ideas about national efficiency and social welfare prompted the development of projects for social insurance, education reform and the protection of workers which would underpin the development of the welfare state during and after the Second World War. Alongside these changes to civil society, the period saw smaller scale shifts in family dynamics, with children accorded increasing importance within family life, and new ideas about the role and responsibilities of mothers and fathers shaping conceptions of masculinity and femininity. 

The ambition of the Victorians was also reflected on the world stage, as the British sought to extend their influence in other parts of the world and to draw on its resources, through colonisation, diplomacy and war. Over the course of the century ideas of Britishness were increasingly articulated in relation to an imperial ‘other’ while the daily life of those in Britain was enriched by goods and resources from the Empire. The population of the British Isles was dynamic, with growing emigration to the US, Canada, Australia and the growth of communities of migrants, coming particularly from East Eastern Europe and from other parts of the British Empire and Europe into different parts of the British Isles. By the beginning of the twentieth century, Great Britain stood at the centre of a world-empire, the hub of the world’s financial system, and Ireland was still politically united to Britain. By mid-century, an independent Ireland had been established, and nationalist movements were fostering movement for independence throughout the British Empire. 

For the Victorians, progress was also envisaged on an individual scale; this was the age of self-help, as Samuel Smiles put it, and ideas of hereditary privilege and status were increasingly challenged by a new emphasis on achievement and meritocracy, sometimes extending to women as well as to men. Such changes were affected by and reflected in a flourishing literary and intellectual culture; writers and thinkers like Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, Matthew Arnold, Charles Darwin, John Ruskin and Oscar Wilde transformed the way in which Victorians understood themselves and the world around them. A vibrant and dynamic popular culture absorbed and reinterpreted these elite cultural productions but also drew on folk traditions and popular entertainments of longer standing, new sports and recreations, as well as on newly forms of cheap print media. In the twentieth century, cinema and film, live and recorded music, dance halls and sporting events, formed a key part of social and cultural life, and new and iconoclastic literary and cultural movements rejected Victorian cultural forms in favour of modernist experimentation. 

Although the period might often be seen as usefully divided by the turn of the 19th century, the 1830-1950 chronology allows us to call into question over simplified explanations for change that attribute too much simply to the change of century, or to the impact of war. The paper and lectures also try to give the period a unity, to allow people to consider questions about long range social, economic, and cultural changes across the period while also taking into account short-range and particular political developments. Political, social, cultural and economic and structural changes are thus considered as mutually reinforcing phenomena, but also recognised as having their own chronologies and historiographical frameworks.


Please note that the options listed above are illustrative and may be subject to change.

Teaching: 16 lectures in Michaelmas Term; 7 tutorials, normally over one term, for each of which an essay is prepared.

Assessment: this papers is assessed by a 3-hour written examination.