The United Kingdom is a confusing place for many people, and their not-quite-answered questions about it go all the way to what does and does not constitute the United Kingdom in the first place. Not to give the ending away, but the animated map above by historical-cartographical Youtuber Ollie Bye eventually reveals that, if you’re looking at the British Isles, you’re looking at the UK — unless, of course, you’re looking at the Republic of Ireland. But taking the long view, the political division of the British Isles has seldom been so simple. We know they were populated by what we now call caucasoids at least 44,000 years ago, but by 700 BC three groups had divided them up: the Britons, the Picts, and the Gaels.
The complications really start at the time of the Roman Empire, when, depending on where in the British Isles you went, you’d have encountered the Icenii, the Parisi, the Caledonii, the Iverni, and many other distinct peoples besides. When the Roman Empire gave way to the Roman Republic, Britannia, or Roman Britain, began its expansion (and its road-building) across the Isles, starting from the southeast.
But with Rome’s withdrawal in 410 a great many new borders appear like spiderweb cracks across the land. For centuries thereafter, the British Isles is a place of many kingdoms: Mercia, Wessex, Northumbria, Gwynedd, and Deheubarth, to name but a few. (Not to mention the Vikings.) And then you have a year like 1066, when the Norman conquest redraws a large chunk of the map at a stroke.
Even those most ignorant of British history will recognize a few of the kingdoms that arise later on in this period: the Kingdom of Scotland, for example, or the Kingdom of Wales. Starting from the mid-12th century, a certain Kingdom of England begins to paint the map red. By 1604, the British Isles are cleanly divided between the Kingdom of England and the Kingdom of Scotland; by 1707, the Kingdom of Great Britain is running the whole place. The situation hasn’t changed much since, though anyone who has traveled across the British Isles knows that the ostensible lack of political fractiousness masks many enduring cultural divisions subtle to the outsider: while everyone living everywhere from John o’ Groats to Land’s End may officially be British, few would countenance being lumped together with all the rest of them.
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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.