What is a summary of Britain’s history and culture from the Neolithic Period to the 1600s?
Britain's knowable history stretches back to at least 5,000 years ago, when, at some point around 2,500 BCE, people constructed a stone monument—Stonehenge—that now serves as evidence of cultural life in the region. Stonehenge was built in the late Neolithic period and is one of England's oldest World Heritage Sites. However, despite growing amounts of archeological proof that culture was thriving well before Roman arrival in the first century BCE, much of the documented history of Britain begins with the conquests of Julius Caesar.
The Romans had added Britain to their empire by the time London was founded in 50 BCE. There was resistance from local populations, however—most notably that of Queen Boudica in 61 BCE. The period of Roman attempts to control Britain can still be seen today in the form of Hadrian's Wall, built in Northern England in the first half of the second century BCE.
During the slow collapse of the Roman Empire, Britain dissolved into a varying number of kingdoms and by the middle of the seventh century had been conquered by the Anglo-Saxons. These various kingdoms would eventually become known as English, despite what would prove a turbulent path to national identity.
The political chaos that we most often associate with early British history is properly exemplified in the eleventh century, where conflicts in Scotland began to put the northern reaches of Great Britain on a different trajectory and when characters like William the Conqueror emerged on the scene. Despite constant violence and a lack of political clarity, it is at this point that we begin to see a recognizable Britain take form.
The growth of Christianity influenced the history and culture of the following centuries as Europeans began their crusades to retake what they saw as sacred ground, in the holy lands of Jerusalem and the Middle East. British heroes such as King Richard made their mark during the crusades, the consequences of which still resonate today.
Following the signing of the Magna Carta in the early thirteenth century, the relationship between the king, the church, and the people would never cease to be a point of conflict in Britain's politics and culture (it should be noted that being a "person" in the eyes of the state meant something much different in the Middle Ages than it does today). The successive monarchs of this period varied widely in their ability to run the state, and this would remain so for centuries to come.
One of the more notable kings during this time was Henry V, whose brief reign was made famous by William Shakespeare. Shakespeare was active during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; however, his history plays turned the events of fifteenth-century England into national myths that continue to play a significant role in British cultural identity. The War of the Roses at the end of the fifteenth century also remains culturally significant.
The most famous of British royal lines took control of the throne by the end of the fifteenth century and ushered in the Tudor reign. Henry VIII ruled in England for the first half of the sixteenth century and became infamous for his many wives and separation from the Catholic church in Rome in 1534 CE. Henry's daughter Elizabeth would take control from her sister Mary in 1558 and usher in the Elizabethan age.
Beyond the works of Shakespeare, this time in British history solidified the nation as a cultural leader. By the middle of the sixteenth century, however, Britain would be torn apart by civil war that would challenge the nation’s political and cultural values and determine its place on the European and world stage for years to come.
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