Monday, March 27, 2017



by A. Joseph Lynch

In a previous Map on Monday post, we mapped the British Empire as it stood in its height and as British holdings look today. The "Brexit" vote for Great Britain to leave the European Union, however, leads us to look at the history of Great Britain's formation and its potential dismemberment.

England has and remains the core of Great Britain. Some make the mistake that England and Britain are synonymous. "Britain" comes down from the Roman name for the island: Britannia. England is a name for the kingdom of the Angles: "Angle-land" - which became England. The formation of England is a history in and of itself, with important moments taking place during the reign of Alfred the Great "King of the Anglo-Saxons" and defender against the Vikings (d. 899), the Norman Conquest under King William the Conquer at the Battle of Hastings (1066), and the signing of the Magna Carta (1215).

The rugged topography of Wales and Scotland naturally brought about independent development from England. But where the comparatively gentle terrain of England led to royal consolidation, the terrain of Wales and Scotland made internal unity and cohesion difficult (the mountainous Balkans historically suffered from the same problem). English influence increased in both areas and gradually brought both into London's orbit. Although Wales had long been deeply connected to England, the Act of Union in 1536 fully integrated Wales and England, bringing with it the English administrative system.

Ireland had also come increasingly under English sway. Henry VIII made Ireland a full kingdom in 1541, and he was soon declared the King of the Irish by the Irish parliament. As England, Wales, and Scotland moved into the Protestant camp, however, Catholic Ireland refused political conversion in fear it would lead to religious conversion. The 1603 Union of the Crowns gave England, Wales, and Scotland a common king and effectively made Ireland a subject nation of the English crown.

The Acts of Union in 1707 created the Kingdom of Great Britain. Both kingdoms of England and Scotland were abolished, along with their respective parliaments. In their place was Great Britain and a single Parliament. At this point, the old island of Britannia had become officially united.

1801 witnessed the merger of the Kingdom of Great Britain with the Kingdom of Ireland (which had been a kingdom since 1541). With it came a new title: the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. This union lasted until the rise of the Irish Free State of 1922. This, however, left Ireland divided between a Protestant-dominated Northern Ireland and a Catholic south, known today as the Republic of Ireland. The official titled of the U.K. today is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

This name, however, might undergo a new revision. With the exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union, Scotland might seek independence. Though it favored remaining in the U.K. by a vote of 55-45 in the 2014 Scottish Referendum, the map below (blue = stay, red = leave) reveals that Scotland heavily favored remaining in the E.U. North Ireland also sought to remain in the E.U. - and a movement is underway to reintegrate North Ireland into the Republic of Ireland so that it may return to the European Union under a reunited Ireland. Meanwhile, Spain seeks the return of Gibraltar.

The areas in shades of blue sought to stay in the European Union. They include London, North Ireland, and Scotland. In addition to this, polls showed that around 75% of the young wanted to remain in the European Union.

The formation of Great Britain is a relatively recent phenomena that began to break down within  about a hundred years of its fullest formation. The future of Great Britain remains to be seen, but it is not altogether unlikely that it may soon encompass only England and Wales.

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