Located off the northwest coast of Europe, the United Kingdom includes England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.
The biggest part of the United Kingdom (also called the U.K.) is the island of Great Britain, which is made up of England, Wales, and Scotland. The U.K. also includes Northern Ireland, which is on another island. (South of Northern Ireland is the separate country of Ireland, which gained its independence from the U.K. in 1937.) Northern Ireland is just 12 miles from the island of Great Britain, across the North Channel of the Irish Sea.
Scotland and Wales are the most mountainous parts of the U.K. and are covered in knife-edged mountain ridges separated by deep valleys. This terrain was shaped some 20,000 years ago during the last Ice Age, when thick glaciers covered the land. When the Ice Age glaciers melted in northwest Scotland, they left behind thousands of lakes, called lochs (pronounced LOCKS). Long and narrow, some of the lochs are very deep. (Legends say that a giant monster called Nessie lives in Loch Ness in this region, also called the Scottish Highlands.)
The largest freshwater lake by surface area in the U.K., Lough Neagh (pronounced LOCK NEE), is in Northern Ireland. It stretches 20 miles long and nine miles wide. Rolling hills and plains dot the countryside of both Northern Ireland and England.
PEOPLE AND CULTURE
After the end of World War II in 1945, thousands of refugees from other war-torn European countries settled in the U.K. In the 1950s and 1960s, people from places that the United Kingdom once ruled as colonies—such as Jamaica in the Caribbean, Nigeria in Africa, and India in Asia—came to the country to work.
Today, more than 80 percent of the people in the United Kingdom live in England. London, the capital of both England and the U.K., is home to just under nine million residents. Nearly half of the U.K’s population is Christian, with most belonging to Protestant churches. The country is also home to large and growing communities of Muslims, Hindus, and Jews.
The U.K. is known all over the world for its sports and literature. Soccer, rugby, cricket, boxing, and golf were all invented in the United Kingdom. And the U.K. has produced many notable writers, including William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, and Jane Austen. J.K. Rowling, the writer of the Harry Potter series, and J.R.R. Tolkien, the writer of the Lord of the Rings series, are both from the U.K.
The United Kingdom is a crowded country, with few truly wild places left. The most successful wildlife species are those that can live alongside people, including smaller mammals like hedgehogs, hares, and badgers. Roe deer, which are native to the country, and red deer are the largest mammals found in the U.K.
The Scottish Highlands, which are largely untouched by humans, are home to animals like the Scottish wild cat, pine martens, and golden eagles. Lough Neagh in Northern Ireland is home to some 20 species of waterfowl, including ducks, gulls, geese, and swans.
In Wales, one of the most spotted mammals is the red fox; visitors can also see Ley’s Whitebeam trees, which grow only in Wales.
In England’s moors—open areas with poor soil covered by grass and a purplish-flowering plant called heather—visitors can see venomous adder snakes, emperor moths, and ground-nesting birds called snipes.
The United Kingdom’s 7,723 miles of coastline, ranging from tall cliffs to beaches to marshes, provide homes for seabirds like puffins and great skuas. Minke whales, bottlenose dolphins, and orcas can be spotted in the waters surrounding the U.K.
GOVERNMENT AND ECONOMY
The U.K.’s system of government has developed over many centuries. As early as the ninth century, kings and queens ruled with advice from a council of religious leaders and nobles.
Today, the country is a constitutional monarchy, which means the reigning king or queen is the head of state but doesn’t have any real political power.
The old council of advisers eventually expanded into a government body called Parliament. That’s why today, the United Kingdom’s system of governing is called a parliamentary democracy.
Members of Parliament now pass all the country's laws from two chambers: the House of Commons, made up of officials elected by the people, and the House of Lords, in which members are appointed, usually by the reigning king or queen based on recommendations by an independent group called the House of Lords Appointments Commission.
The head of the government is the prime minister, who is usually the leader of the political party in charge of Parliament.
Oil, iron, and steel products are some of the United Kingdom’s main exports, or goods sold to other countries. The country also exports electrical equipment, and parts for automobiles and aircrafts. Its main crops produced include barley, wheat, and potatoes.
Over the centuries, the United Kingdom has accumulated wealth from foreign lands the country colonized, or took control over. Some estimates say the U.K. earned as much as $45 trillion in today’s dollars just from its former colony of India, when trade from goods that India produced went to the U.K’s economy. Other former colonies include Australia, Canada, and South Africa.
Among the first Britons (people who live in the United Kingdom) were the Picts, who arrived some 10,000 years ago likely from mainland Europe. In the sixth century B.C., the Celts arrived from Europe, and the Picts moved north into Scotland. In A.D. 43, the Romans invaded and ruled for nearly 400 years. They built roads, bathhouses, and sewers.
By the sixth century A.D., German people known as Angles, Jutes, and Saxons were moving into the U.K. The Angles gave their name to England, and English people became known as Anglo-Saxons. From the 900s to the 1400s, England was ruled by Viking, Danish, and Norman invaders. Many different Celtic kingdoms maintained control throughout Ireland and Wales for hundreds of years, and the ancestors of the Picts still ruled over Scotland.
UNITING THE KINGDOM
In the 13th century, England took control of Wales. About 200 years later, in 1485, Welsh noble Henry Tudor claimed the English crown and became Henry VII, the first of five Tudor monarchs. The Welsh territory was officially united with England in 1536.
After many battles to keep its independence, Scotland eventually united with England in 1707. The union of the three nations—England, Wales, and Scotland—became the kingdom of Great Britain, ruled by Queen Anne, who became the first monarch of the newly-formed Great Britain.
The Celts who ruled over Ireland also fought to remain independent from England, which had been invading the country since the late 1100s. By the late 1600s, England had gained control of all of Ireland. Ireland officially became united with England, Scotland, and Wales in 1801, forming the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.
Eager to find the wealth that Portugal and Spain had found after taking control of other lands, the U.K. began establishing colonies in what would eventually become the United States. In 1607, Jamestown, in what's now the state of Virginia, became the first permanent English settlement in the Americas.
But in the 18th century, American colonists began to rebel against British rule. They fought for their independence during the Revolutionary War, which lasted from 1775 to 1783. The Americans won the war—and their independence.
After the loss of its American colonies, the U.K. shifted its attention to Asia. It established the East India Trading Company to trade in what’s now Indonesia, India, and other parts of southeast Asia. The company’s control of trade in the region eventually led to the colonization of India in 1858.
By the mid-1800s, the United Kingdom was one of the most powerful nations in the world. The country built a huge overseas empire, setting up colonies throughout Africa and even Canada in North America. These colonies were part of the British Empire, which ruled more than one-quarter of the world’s people by the 1900s.
THE EARLY 20th CENTURY
In the late 19th century, Germany began competing with the U.K. and other European countries to set up colonies in Africa and Asia. These tensions led to World War I in 1914. The United Kingdom—alongside France, Italy, Japan, the United States, and the Soviet Union (now called Russia)—defeated Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire to win the war in 1918.
In the middle of World War I, protestors calling for independence in Ireland staged an uprising on Easter Monday in 1916. Known as the Easter Rising, the revolt was stopped, and many of its Irish leaders were executed. But many people in Ireland still wanted to be independent from the U.K. In 1919, the Irish Republican Army, or the IRA, fought the British Army in the Irish War of Independence, which lasted until 1921.
A truce in 1921 led to the Irish Free State Act of 1922, which stated that the southern part of Ireland would become the Irish Free State, a self-governing country with some ties to the United Kingdom. Six counties in the north chose to remain part of the U.K. and became Northern Ireland. (Eventually, in 1937, the Irish Free State—now known as Ireland—became a fully independent republic. By 1949, they had no ties to the U.K.)
During Ireland’s ongoing fight for independence, the U.K. found itself involved in another world war when Germany’s Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party invaded Poland in 1939, starting World War II. The United Kingdom, alongside the United States and the Soviet Union, fought against Germany, Italy, and Japan (called the Axis powers). The war ended in 1945 with the Axis countries’ defeat.
The United Kingdom spent a lot of money fighting and recovering from World War I and II. Unable to support and oversee its empire, it withdrew from some colonies, allowing them to become independent.
India, often referred to as “the crown jewel of the British Empire,” had been pushing for independence for decades before the world wars. Indian activist Mahatma Gandhi joined the fight in 1914 by encouraging his fellow Indians to engage in nonviolent forms of protest, such as not buying U.K. goods and refusing to pay taxes. Although the struggle for independence sometimes turned violent, Gandhi’s leadership helped India become its own country in 1947.
In 1952, Elizabeth II became queen. During her 70-year reign, more than 50 countries that were colonies of the British Empire became independent. This period of history has been called the decolonization of the British Empire.
TROUBLE IN NORTHERN IRELAND
People in Northern Ireland started fighting for independence during the 1960s. Sometimes called the Troubles, the conflict was mostly between Nationalists, who wanted to leave the United Kingdom and form a united Ireland, and Unionists, who wanted Northern Ireland to remain part of the U.K. Like most of Ireland, Nationalists were Catholic; Unionists were Protestants, like many in the U.K.
The violent conflict mostly took place in Northern Ireland, but fighting occasionally happened in England and Ireland as well. Nearly 4,000 people died during the Troubles, which lasted until the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1988. Also called the Belfast Agreement, the peace talks formed a new government in Northern Ireland that would allow Unionists and Nationalists to share power as part of the United Kingdom.
BREXIT AND THE DEATH OF QUEEN ELIZABETH II
In 1973, the United Kingdom joined the European Union, or EU. Member countries—all from Europe—follow certain trade, security, immigration, and environmental laws. But some U.K. citizens didn’t like that they had to follow these laws. The country voted to leave the EU in 2016 and officially left in January 2020. People around the world called the United Kingdom’s departure “Brexit,” a combination of “Britain” and “exit.”
In September 2022, Queen Elizabeth II died at 96 years old after 70 years on the throne. Her son, Charles, became king. Under his reign, decolonization will likely continue—the latest country to leave the British monarchy behind was Barbados in 2021.