This week is the anniversary of the Battle of Britain where the RAF fought the Luftwaffe during the Second World War over dominance for Britain's skies. If the RAF had lost the battle then a German invasion of Britain may have occurred. Why is it not called the Battle of the United Kingdom? After all the nation at the time was called the United Kingdom. This week I'll explain the difference between England, Great Britain and the United Kingdom.
England is highlighted as red on the above map. It was founded sometime in the tenth century as the Kingdom of England and quickly became a leading military power not only in the British Isles but also Europe. In 1284 Wales was added to the Kingdom of England by Edward I. We commonly refer to Great Britain and the United Kingdom as 'England' for a few reasons. One is because Great Britain and the United Kingdom were united under England. Throughout England's history London has been its capital so as the strongest country it is clear to see why we still call the modern day nation England. It also happens to be the most populated and the geographically largest of the states which comprise Great Britain and the United Kingdom. It is similar to how we sometimes call the Netherlands Holland or the USSR (when it was around) Russia. In 1707 England ceased to be a nation with the Act of Union which formed Great Britain.
To understand Great Britain we first must discuss the Act of Union and the events which led up to it. In 1603 Elizabeth I of England died without an heir which ended the Tudor dynasty. Multiple English politicians had organized the great-grandson of Margaret Tudor (Henry VIII's elder sister) James VI of Scotland to ascend the throne of England. In 1603 he became James I and VI uniting the crowns of Scotland and England. His heraldic badge blended the English rose and Scottish thistle together.
Since 1603 there had been several attempts to permanently unite Scotland and England under one government (such as a failed attempt by the son of James, Charles I). Eventually in 1707 with English funds drying up thanks to the Spanish War of Succession and Scotland's economy destroyed thanks to a failed attempt to create a colony in Panama the Act of Union was passed. This united Scotland and England under one government in London called the United Kingdom of Great Britain. Britain having its origins in the Latin name for the island, Britannia. Even the flags of England and Scotland were blended together.
We often refer to the United Kingdom still as Great Britain and use such phrases as British people, British empire and British trade. This could likely be because under the title of Great Britain the first global power emerged from the British Isles. By the time of the formation of the United Kingdom Britain had territories in every continent. Another reason could be thanks to a need to unify the English and the Scottish. By adopting British as a nationality instead of English or Scottish this could allow previously opposing peoples to find common ground.
Everything in color on the above map is the modern day United Kingdom. What we now recognize as the United Kingdom came into being in 1800. Since 1542 Ireland had been a client state of England (and later Great Britain) after Henry VIII had been imposed as the King of Ireland. Since then Irish/English relations had not been great with the English often invading to expel Catholics or deprive them of rights (especially during the years of the English republic under Oliver Cromwell).In 1798 influenced by the ideas of the American and French revolutions and supported by French revolutionaries a group known as the United Irishmen rose up against British rule to have a truly independent Ireland. It was quickly and brutally crushed by the British but it influenced the 1800 Act of Union. This united the Kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland under one government and like with the previous Act of Union the flags were merged.
The above flag is still in use today. On January 1st 1801 the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was declared. During this time the British Empire became its most powerful which easily eclipsed the French, Portuguese and Spanish empires. Under the United Kingdom we also saw the Victorian era with Queen Victoria ruling for most of the century and became the longest ruling monarch (now only beaten by Elizabeth II just last week) as well as industrialization. However Irish nationalism did not end. By the 20th century call for Home Rule (a self rule) was demanded by Irish nationalists and several militant organizations such as the Irish Republican Brotherhood came into existence. When the First World War broke out there was even a violent uprising in 1916 called the Easter Rebellion which was crushed by the British army. From 1919 to 1921 there was an Irish War of Independence (sometimes referred to as the Irish Civil War) where the British fought a guerrilla war against Irish republicans who wanted a fully independent Ireland, including Ulster which wanted to remain apart of Great Britain. In 1922 the Irish Free State was created and the United Kingdom turned into the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. To this day this is what the country had been referred to as.
The Battle of Britain
So why is the Battle of Britain called this even though the fighting took place in England? Likely nationalism. People were more nationalistic towards Britain than the United Kingdom as most of the things to get nationalistic about, (a national identity, a democratic Parliament, an Empire), became huge when called Great Britain. During World War Two nationalism was required to keep the public wanting to win the war so that could be the reason why we call it the Battle of Britain and not the Battle of England or the Battle of the United Kingdom.
On a side note the blog will not be on every Friday now. It will remain a weekly blog but the days on which it is published may vary.