Great Britain

2008/9 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: British History; UK Politics & government

Great Britain
Great Britain lies between Ireland and Scandanavia.
Great Britain lies between Ireland and Scandanavia.
Location Western Europe
Archipelago British Isles
Area 80,823  sq mi (209,331  km²)
Rank 8th
Highest point Ben Nevis
1344 m
Flag of the United Kingdom United Kingdom
Home Nations England
Largest city London
Population 58,845,700 (as of 2006)
Indigenous people Cornish, English, Scots, Welsh, others
Satellite Image of Great Britain
Satellite Image of Great Britain

Great Britain ( Scottish Gaelic: Breatainn Mhòr, Welsh: Prydain Fawr, Cornish: Breten Veur, Scots: Graet Breetain) is the largest island of the British Isles, the largest island in Europe and the eighth-largest island in the world (Great Britain is also the third most populated island on earth). It lies to the northwest of Continental Europe, with Ireland to the west, and makes up the largest part of the territory of the state known as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It is surrounded by over 1,000 smaller islands and islets.

England, Scotland and Wales are mostly situated on the island, along with their capital cities, London, Edinburgh and Cardiff respectively.

Geographical definition

Great Britain is the largest island of the British Isles. It lies to the northwest of Continental Europe, with Ireland to the west, and makes up the larger part of the territory of the United Kingdom. It is surrounded by 1000 smaller islands and islets. It occupies an area of 209,331  km² (80,823 square miles)

It is the third most populous island after Java and Honshū.

Great Britain stretches over about ten degrees of latitude on its longer, north–south axis. Geographically, the island is marked by low, rolling countryside in the east and south, while hills and mountains predominate in the western and northern regions.

Before the end of the last ice age, Great Britain was a peninsula of Europe; the rising sea levels caused by glacial melting at the end of the ice age caused the formation of the English Channel, the body of water which now separates Great Britain from continental Europe at a minimum distance of 21 miles (34 km).

Political definition

"Great Britain" is the eastern island of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Politically, "Great Britain" describes the combination of England, Scotland, and Wales, and therefore also includes a number of outlying islands such as the Isle of Wight, Anglesey, the Isles of Scilly, the Hebrides, and the island groups of Orkney and Shetland, but does not include other outlying islands such as the Isle of Man or the Channel Islands.

Great Britain evolved politically into a union of England and Scotland from a personal union in 1603 with the Union of Crowns under James VI of Scotland, I of England. The political union that merged the two countries happened with the Acts of Union in 1707 which merged the parliaments of each nation and thus resulted in the formation of the Kingdom of Great Britain, which covered the entire island.

In turn, in 1801, an Act of Union between Great Britain and Ireland created the larger United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (UK). The UK became the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in 1922 following the independence of five-sixths of Ireland as the Irish Free State.


Traces of early humans have been found in Great Britain from some 700,000 years ago and modern humans from about 30,000 years ago. Up until about 9,000 years ago, Great Britain was joined to Ireland. As recently as 8,000 years ago Great Britain was joined to the continent. The southeastern part of Great Britain was still connected by a strip of low marsh to the European mainland in what is now northeastern France. In Cheddar Gorge near Bristol, the remains of animal species native to mainland Europe such as antelopes, brown bears, and wild horses have been found alongside a human skeleton, ' Cheddar Man', dated to about 7150 B.C. Thus, animals and humans must have moved between mainland Europe and Great Britain via a crossing.

The island of Great Britain formed at the end of the Pleistocene ice age when sea levels rose due to isostatic depression of the crust and the melting of glaciers. The island was first inhabited by people who crossed over the land bridge from the European mainland. Its Iron Age inhabitants are known as the Britons, a group speaking a Celtic language, and most of it (not the northernmost part (beyond Hadrian's Wall), where the majority of Scotland lies today) was conquered to become the Ancient Roman province of Britannia. After the fall of the Roman Empire, over a period of 500 years, the Britons of the south and east of the island of Britain became assimilated by colonising Germanic tribes ( Angles, Saxons, and Jutes) who became known as the English people. Beyond Hadrian's wall, the major ethnic groups were the Scots, who may have emigrated from Ireland, and the Picts as well as other Brythonic peoples in the south-west.

The south-east of Scotland was colonised by the Angles and formed, until 1018, a part of the Kingdom of Northumbria. To speakers of Germanic languages, the Britons were called Welsh, a term that eventually came to be applied exclusively to the inhabitants of what is now Wales, but which survives also in names such as Wallace. In subsequent centuries Vikings settled in several parts of the island, and The Norman Conquest introduced a French ruling élite who also became assimilated.

Since the union of 1707, the entire island has been one political unit, first as the Kingdom of Great Britain, later as part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and then as part of the present United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Since the formation of this unified state, the adjective British has come to refer to things associated with the United Kingdom generally, such as citizenship, and not the island of Great Britain.

The term was used officially for the first time during the reign of King James VI of Scotland, James I of England. Though England and Scotland each remained legally in existence as separate countries with their own parliaments, on 20 October 1604 King James proclaimed himself as 'King of Great Brittaine, France and Ireland', a title that continued to be used by many of his successors. In 1707, an Act of Union joined both parliaments. That act used two different terms to describe the new all island nation, a 'United Kingdom' and the 'Kingdom of Great Britain'. However, the former term is regarded by many as having been a description of the union rather than its formal name at that stage. Most reference books therefore, describe the all-island kingdom that existed between 1707 and 1800 as the "Kingdom of Great Britain".

In 1801, under a new Act of Union, this kingdom merged with the Kingdom of Ireland, over which the monarch of Great Britain had ruled. The new kingdom was from then onward unambiguously called the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. In 1922, 24 of Ireland's 32 counties attained independence to form a separate Irish Free State. The remaining truncated kingdom has therefore since then been known as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Great Britain went on to become a rich 'Great Power' in the 19th and 20th centuries. A vast empire, covering one quarter of the globe emerged after the Industrial Revolution, under the reign of Queen Victoria. As territories declared their freedom from The British Empire, the power was lost. The United Kingdom was one of the major parties participating in The First World War, fighting for Triple Entente. After World War One was won, Germany rose up again and caused The United Kingdom and its colonies to fight and win (alongside Russia, the USA and other countries), The Second World War.



The earliest known name of Great Britain is Albion (Ἀλβίων) or insula Albionum, the "island of the Albiones", first mentioned in the Massaliote Periplus and by Pytheas.

The name Britain is derived from the Latin name Britannia, via Old French Bretaigne (whence also Modern French Bretagne) and Middle English Bretayne, Breteyne. The French form replaced Old English Breoton, Breoten, Bryten, Breten (also Breoton-lond, Breten-lond).

Brittannia or Brittānia was the name used by the Romans from the 1st century BC for the British Isles taken together. Latin Britannia is derived from the travel writings of the ancient Greek Pytheas around 320 BC, which described various islands in the North Atlantic as far North as Thule (probably Iceland).

The peoples of these islands of Prettanike were called the Πρεττανοι, Priteni or Pretani. Priteni is the source of the Welsh language term Prydain, Britain, which has the same source as the Goidelic term Cruithne used to refer to the early Brythonic speaking inhabitants of Ireland and the north of Scotland. The latter were later called Picts or Caledonians by the Romans.

Derivation of 'Great'

After the Old English period, Britain was used as a historical term only. Geoffrey of Monmouth in his pseudohistorical Historia Regum Britanniae (circa 1136) refers to the island of Great Britain as Britannia major ("Greater Britain"), to distinguish it from Britannia minor ("Lesser Britain"), the continental region which approximates to modern Brittany.

The term Britain re-surfaces in Early Modern period, in the context of efforts toward unification of England and Scotland. In 1604, James I proclaimed himself "King of Great Britain".

Sources such as the New Oxford American Dictionary (NOAD) define Great Britain as "England, Wales, and Scotland considered as a unit" and Britain as "an island that consists of England, Wales, and Scotland."

Thus, Britain is the name of the island, while Great Britain is the name of the geopolitical unit. NOAD advises that while Britain "is broadly synonymous with Great Britain ... the longer form is usual for the political unit." However, in the United Kingdom itself, "Britain" is usually taken to be synonymous with the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland .

In Irish, Wales is referred to as An Bhreatain Bheag which means, literally, Little Britain, although a truer translation would be Britain Minor. On the other hand, the closely-related language, Scottish Gaelic, uses the term, A'Bhreatainn Bheag, to refer to Brittany.

Use of the term Great Britain

"Great Britain" often is used to mean the "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland" (UK). However, Great Britain is only the largest island within the United Kingdom; still within the United Kingdom, but not on the island of Great Britain are several much smaller surrounding islands, as well as Northern Ireland in the island of Ireland. In the introduction to his history book The Isles, Norman Davies explains how confusion persists about what "Great Britain" and the "United Kingdom" denote, even in some eminent educational institutions.

Terms associated with Great Britain – such as Britain or British – generally are used as short forms for the United Kingdom or its citizens respectively.

Great Britain and its abbreviations GB and GBR are used in some international codes as a synonym for the United Kingdom, largely due to potential confusion with "UA" or "UKR" for Ukraine. Examples include: Universal Postal Union, the International Olympic Committee, international sports teams, NATO, the International Organization for Standardization, and other organisations. (See also country codes, international licence plate codes, and technical standards such as the ISO 3166 geocodes GB and GBR.)

On the Internet, .uk is used as a country code top-level domain for the United Kingdom. A .gb top-level domain was also used to a limited extent in the past, but this is now effectively in abeyance because the domain name registrar will not take new registrations. Ireland has its own separate Internet code, .ie, which can be used in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Capital cities

Other major settlements

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