Great Britain

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: British History; Politics and government

Great Britain lies between Ireland and mainland Europe
Great Britain lies between Ireland and mainland Europe

Great Britain is an island lying off the northwestern coast of mainland Europe and to the east of Ireland, comprising the main territory of the United Kingdom. Great Britain is also used as a geopolitical term describing the combination of England, Scotland, and Wales, which together comprise the entire island and some outlying islands. In everyday speech and non-official writing in all English-speaking and most other countries, "Great Britain", and simply "Britain", are much more commonly used than "United Kingdom" to designate the sovereign state officially known as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (see United Kingdom). In addition, "Great Britain" and/or the abbreviation "GB" (or "GBR") are officially used for the entire country by the Universal Postal Union, the International Olympic Committee, NATO, the International Organization for Standardization, and other organisations. (See also country codes and international licence plate codes).

The adjective British has come to refer to things associated with the United Kingdom generally such as citizenship, and not just the island of Great Britain.

Geographical definition

With an area of 80,800 square miles (209,000  km²) the island of Great Britain is the largest of the British Isles. It is the largest island in Europe, and eighth largest in the world. It is the third most populous island after Java and Honshū.

Great Britain stretches over approximately 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).

The climate of Great Britain is milder than that of other regions of the Northern Hemisphere at the same latitude, because the warm waters of the Gulf Stream pass by the British Isles and exert a moderating influence on the weather. Cool, but not cold, temperatures, clouds more often than sun, and abundant rain are the rule in most years.

Political definition

Politically, Great Britain describes the combination of England, Scotland, and Wales. It includes 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 the Isle of Man or the Channel Islands.

Over the centuries, Great Britain has evolved politically from several independent countries (England, Scotland, and Wales) through two kingdoms with a shared monarch (England and Scotland), a single all-island Kingdom of Great Britain, to the situation following 1801, in which Great Britain together with the island of Ireland constituted the larger United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (UK). The UK became the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in the 1920s ( 1922) following the independence of five-sixths of Ireland as first the Irish Free State, a Dominion of the then British Commonwealth, and then later as an independent republic outside the British Commonwealth as the Republic of Ireland.


As recently as 9,000 years ago, Great Britain was not an island at all. The end of the last ice age saw the southeastern part of Great Britain still connected by a strip of low marshes to the European mainland in what is now northeastern France. In Cheddar Gorge near Bristol, the remains of animals 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.

Albion (Alouion in Ptolemy) is the most ancient name of Great Britain. It sometimes is used to refer to England specifically. Occasionally, it refers to Scotland, or Alba in Gaelic, Albain in Irish, and Yr Alban in Welsh[1]. Pliny the Elder in his Natural History (iv.xvi.102) applies it unequivocally to Great Britain. The origin of the name Britain may be connected with the Brythonic 'Prydyn' (Goidelic: Cruithne), a name used to describe some northern inhabitants of the island by Britons or pre-Roman Celts in the south. "It was itself named Albion, while all the islands about which we shall soon briefly speak were called the Britanniae." The name Albion was taken by medieval writers from Pliny and Ptolemy. For etymology, see below.

Flag of the historical Kingdom of Great Britain (1707-1800)
Flag of the historical Kingdom of Great Britain (1707-1800)

The term was used officially for the first time during the reign of King James VI of Scotland, 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 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 onwards unambiguously called the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. In 1922, 26 of Ireland's 32 counties were given 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.

Usage and nomenclature

Usage of the term Great Britain

Great Britain is an informal name for the political state properly known as the United Kingdom.

This common usage is technically inaccurate as the United Kingdom includes Northern Ireland, in addition to the three countries that make up Great Britain, as shown by its full name “the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”, and also because the three countries that make up Great Britain itself collectively include over 100 other islands.

The United Kingdom has been assigned the international foreign vehicle identification code of GB, and the ISO 3166 geocodes GB and GBR, as abbreviations for “the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”. The same abbreviation, 'GB', is used informally, for example, in the Olympic Games, where the United Kingdom team may refer to themselves as 'Team GB'. The UK abbreviation, as used in Internet domain names, can be confused with Ukraine.

There is a similar situation with the terms Britain and British, which are used to relate to the whole of the United Kingdom and not just the islands of Great Britain. This usage is generally considered to be correct. Examples of this are "British monarchs", "British culture" and "British citizens" - which would generally be considered to embrace the whole of the United Kingdom. As if this was not confusion enough, the term "British" also has specific historical and archaeological usage, referring to the Celtic Brython peoples on the island prior to and during the Roman occupation.

The designation 'British Isles', usually refers to Great Britain, Ireland, the Isle of Man and all other islands as listed above. The Channel Islands are often not included in this designation, as they are located approximately 12 miles off the coast of northwestern France and are geologically related to mainland France.

In rugby league the RFL fields its representative side under the name Great Britain.


The name Britain is derived from the name Britannia, used by the Romans from circa 55 BC and increasingly used to describe the island which had formerly been known as insula Albionum, the "island of the Albions". The name Britannia derived from the travel writings of the ancient Greek Pytheas around 320 BC, which described the British isles, including Ireland, as the αι Βρεττανιαι, the Brittanic Isles. The peoples of these islands of Prettanike were called the Ρρεττανοι, Priteni or Pretani. These names derived from a " Celtic language" term which is likely to have reached Pytheas from the Gauls, who may have used it as their term for the inhabitants of the islands. 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 called Picts or Caledonians by the Romans. (See British Isles (terminology) for further discussion of etymology).

Great Britain may well be a translation of the French term Grande Bretagne, which is used in France to distinguish Britain from Brittany (in French: Bretagne), which had been settled in late Roman times by Romano-Celtic troops from Maximus' army and later by refugees from Roman Britain, who were then under attack by the Anglo-Saxons. Since the English court and aristocracy was largely French-speaking for about two centuries after the Norman Conquest of 1066, the French term naturally passed into English usage. The Normans being descendants of Vikings who had occupied the area of Normandy for some time demanding land and tithes from Gaul in exchange for peace and no more invasions.

Where is 'Minor' Britain?

In Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae (circa 1136), the island of Great Britain was referred to as Britannia major ("Greater Britain"), to distinguish it from Britannia minor ("Lesser Britain"), the continental region which approximates to modern Brittany. The term "Bretayne the grete" was used by chroniclers as early as 1338, but it was not used officially until James I proclaimed himself "King of Great Britain" on 20 October 1604 to avoid the more cumbersome title "King of England and Scotland".

In Irish, Wales is referred to as An Bhreatain Bheag which means 'Little Britain' although the closely related Scottish Gaelic uses this term - "A'Bhreatainn Bheag" - to refer to Brittany.

Little Britain is also the name of a BBC radio and television sketch show, and the name of a street in the City of London.

Other lands of the archipelago

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