Great Britain, United Kingdom and the British Isles


The idea for this page is now almost a decade old. I moved to the United States from the United Kingdom in October 2001. Since then I have been asked to describe the UK to several groups of people, so I describe, in very broad strokes, what the United Kingdom is, our flag, some of our icons, how we are governed and some of our customs. This page was created from the PowerPoints I made for those as well as some new material.

Union Jack

Great Britain, the United Kingdom and the British Isles

It can be confusing for some people...

Taken from President Trump's Lou Barletta campaign rally in Wilkes-Barre, PA. on August 2, 2018.

Great Britain

Great BritainGreat Britain is a geographic, the island land mass that contains the countries England, Scotland in the north, and Wales in the west.

All three countries have a long, interesting and sometimes bloody history.

The name Britain derives from the Roman word Britannia. There are several reason it is called Great Britain rather than just Britain. The island has been called Britian since at least 100 BC. Claudius Ptolemy in 147AD referred to it as that to distinguish it from "Little Britain", now Ireland, to the west.

In the Middle Ages, around 1100 - 1450, the name Britain was also applied to a small part of France now known as Brittany. As a result, Great Britain came into use to refer specifically to the island.

United Kingdom

Great BritainThe United Kingdom is a political entity. Around the year 925 England was formed due to the unification of Anglo-Saxon tribes that lived in the area.

In 1536, King Henry VIII added Wales to the English kingdom. Between 1746 and 1967 the term "England" legally and automatically included Wales.

Through a quirk of history, James VI of Scotland (1567 - 1625) also became James I of England and Ireland (1603 - 1625). This was the first time Scotland and England and shared the same monarch.

Despite all their previous differences and all the blood that had been shed (think Rob Roy, Robert the Bruce and Braveheart), in 1707 the Acts of Union was signed by both countries and the Kingdom of Great Britain was formed.

The term United Kingdom, or to give it its full name, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was not used until 1801 when the whole of Ireland joined the Kingdom of Great Britain. This version of the United Kingdom only lasted until 1922 when most of Ireland, except for six counties in the northeast of the island, seceded. Feelings between the two islands had been troublesome for centuries and some say that the onset of WWI in 1914 prevented another British civil war.

Most of Ireland the island became the Republic of Ireland or Eire and the part that decided to stay part of the kingdom became known as Northern Ireland. The kingdom had to change its name and so became the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Everyone from England, Scotland and Wales are British. Everyone from both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland are Irish. Everyone from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are citizens of the United Kingdom.

British Isles

Great BritainThe British Isles are a geographic entity and is made up of Great Britain, Ireland, the Isle of Man, the Isles of Scilly, the Channel Islands (including Guernsey, Jersey, Sark and Alderney), as well as over 6,000 other smaller islands. The earliest known use of the phrase British Isles in the English language is dated 1577 in a work by John Dee.

Bishop's Rock

This is Bishop's Rock in the Scilly Isles, 28 miles from the Cornish peninsula, one of the many small islands that make up the British Isles.

Bishop's Rock

British Islands

Great BritainThings are complicaed a little further by the legal term the "British Islands." The British Islands were defined in 1889 and include the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the Crown dependencies of the Bailiwick of Guernsey (including the jurisdictions of Alderney, Guernsey and Sark), the Bailiwick of Jersey, and the Isle of Man.

A bailiwick is a territory administered by a Bailiff. The Bailiff of Guernsey is the civil head, and presiding officer of the States of Guernsey, likewise for Jersey.

to put all of this in persepctive, here's a map of the US with the UK superimposed.

The UK superimposed on the US

Union Jack

The United Kingdom is made up of four countries, England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. In 1194 A.D., Richard I of England introduced the Cross of St. George, a red cross on a white background, as the the national flag of England until James I succeeded to the throne in 1603. James I of England was also King James VI of Scotland and in 1606 the Scottish flag of St. Andrew, a diagonal white cross on a blue background, was combined with the Cross of St. George.

St. George's flag St. Andrew's flag Union flag of 1606
St George St Andrew Union Flag of 1606

By 1707 this flag was known as the "The Union" and was flown from the Royal Navy's mastheads. It was also flown from a jackstaff, a small flag pole at the bow of a ship and it was from this that it probably got its name of the "Union Jack". In 1801 Northern Ireland became part of the United Kingdom and St. Patrick's flag, a red diagonal cross on a white background, was added to the Union Jack by King George III.

St. Patrick's flag Union Jack of 1801
St Patrick Union Jack of 1801

But what about the other country in the United Kingdom, Wales? Because when the first Union Flag was created in 1606, Wales was already united with England. Wales was conquered by England in the 13th Century and in 1536, under Henry VIII, the Act of Union officially joined England and Wales. Therefore Wales is represented by the English flag instead of the Welsh red dragon on a white and green background or the yellow cross on a black background of St. David.

St. David's flag Welsh Flag
St David Welsh flag

The George Rogers Clark Memorial stands on the site of what was Fort Sackville, a British outpost located in the frontier settlement of Vincennes, Indiana. Begun in 1777 and named after a British government official, it was one of several forts built by the French, British or Americans from 1732 to 1813 in this important frontier settlement. Inside the Memorial is a British flag, but it is the Union Flag of 1606 because in 1777 the Union Jack of 1801 had not yet been devised.

1779 British flag

1779 British Union Flag in the George Rogers Clark Memorial - beautifully demonstrated by Patty

Monarchy and Parliament

Monarchy and Parliament

The monarchs of the United Kingdom rule by Royal Prerogative. That is, The Queen holds the ultimate, absolute authority over Parliament but at the same time Parliament has the authority to override Royal Prerogative. I know that sounds a bit strange but it's worked for nearly 400 years and isn't likely to change any time soon.

Between 1135 and 1688, Britain had 8 civil wars. Most of them concerned WHO was going to govern the land but the English Civil War of 1642 to 1651 determined HOW the British were to be governed.

Battle of Marston Moor, 1644

Battle of Marston Moor, 1644

Up until 1642, Parliament was used as a means of raising taxes and simply advising the monarchy. It was convened and dissolved by the Monarchy at their command. What started the English Civil War were those three great causes of conflict – power, money and religion. Britain had been Protestant since King Henry VIII had separated from Rome in 1533. The Thirty Years War, which started in 1618, was mainly a religious war between Protestants and Roman Catholics and Britain was fighting throughout Europe. The war was horrendously expensive and Parliament was already balking over raising taxes again to pay for it when King Charles I married a Roman Catholic, Henrietta Maria of France, in 1625, much to the horror of many in Protestant Britain. Arguments and mutterings of dissent were heard with growing hostility between the Royalists and Parliamentarians and eventually erupted into open conflict in 1642.

After several bloody battles King Charles was captured, tried for treason against the British nations and beheaded in 1649, but the war dragged on for another two years before the Parliamentarians overcame all resistance in 1651.

Execution of King Charles I

Execution of King Charles I

The civil war was brutal. In the nine years of fighting England had lost nearly 4% of the population to war, disease and famine. Scotland lost around 6% and the poor old Irish lost at least 30% of the population.

Ten years later, in 1661, the monarchy was restored but as a Constitutional Monarchy, not an absolute one.

The Royal Prerogative includes the powers to summon and dissolve Parliament, appoint and dismiss ministers, regulate the civil service, issue passports, declare war, make peace, direct the actions of the military, and negotiate and ratify treaties, alliances, and international agreements.

The British legislature consists of three components, the House of Commons which is made up of elected politicians, the House of Lords, which is made up of the senior bishops of the Church of England and the peerage and the Monarchy. Laws in the United Kingdom normally have to be passed by all three before entering the statutes, but the House of Lords can only delay a bill presented by the House of Commons for a year before it passes on for Royal Assent. As a point of interest, no Monarch has refused to give Royal Assent to an Act of Parliament for over 300 years – since 1708 to be exact.

There are only four countries in the world without a written constitution – New Zealand, Israel, San Marino and, of course, the United Kingdom. One reason we don't have a written constitution is our law system evolved rather than being thrust upon us. Almost every country in the world has a written constitution that was formulated after revolution, invasion or independence, apart from the odd civil war; the United Kingdom hasn't had any of those in over 1,000 years - not since King Harold was killed by getting an arrow in the eye at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Instead of a written constitution we are governed by case law and custom.


Some images are iconic and recognizable anywhere around the world. Big Ben, red buses, the black taxis, the transport signs, Tower bridge, soldiers in bearskins - all London based. Nationally there are the red telephone and Royal Mail boxes, and the tall British police helmets. Probably the most patriotic are the following:

Britannia John Bull British Lion British Bulldog

Just as the United States have Uncle Sam, who is the personification of the government then we too have our national icons. There's Britannia which represents the monarchy and government and John Bull who represents the people. The lion represents strength and the bulldog which represents tenacity.


For some reason traditional British food has never been very highly regarded by the rest of the world; it's had the reputation for being rather plain and boring. Not only that, but some British delicacies don't sound too pleasant, but taste wonderful.

There are some meals that are synonymous with the UK. One is the "full English breakfast", which consists of tea, toast, bacon, sausage, beans, egg, tomato, mushrooms and black pudding. A delicious way to start the day!

Full English Breakfast

Full English Breakfast

Just as good is the traditional Snday dinner of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding...

Roast beef dinner

Roast beef dinner

Not forgetting fish and chips which can be eaten ant time of the day or nght...

Fish and chips

Fish and chips

Take the Scottish Haggis, usually now only eaten to celebrate the birth of the poet Robbie Burns on January 25, 1759. The haggis is made from sheep' heart, liver and lungs along with onion and oatmeal and cooked in a sheep's stomach. It's traditionally eaten with turnips and mashed potatoes. Another delicacy is black Pudding which is a sausage made from pig's blood and fat. Personally, I don't like it, but millions of people do.

Haggis neeps and tatties

Haggis, neeps and tatties

The truth is we've a huge variety of food but thanks to the old Empire we enjoy food from all over the world. One of Britain's favorite foods is curry, the popularity of which dates back to the days of Empire when it was brought back to the UK by soldiers serving in India.

British table manners haven't changed much in centuries. The following appeared in Francis Seager's "School of Virtue" published in 1557...

Seager's School of Virtue

In sitting down, to thy betters give place.
Suffer each man first served to be;
For that is a point of good courtesy,
When they are served, then pause a space,
For that is a sign of nurture and grace,
Salt with thy knife then reach and take,
The bread cut fair, and do not it break,
Thy spoon with pottage, too full do not fill,
For [de]filing the cloth, if thou fortune to spill,
For rudeness it is thy pottage to sup,
Or speech to any his head in the cup.
Thy knife see be sharp to cut fair thy meat,
Thy mouth not too full when thou dost eat;
Not smacking thy lips, as commonly do hogs,
Nor gnawing the bones as it were dogs;
Such rudeness abhor, such beastliness fly,
At the table behave thyself mannerly,
Thy fingers see clean that thou ever keep,
Having a napkin thereon them to wipe;
Thy mouth therewith clean do thou make,
The cup to drink in hand if thou take,
Let not thy tongue at the table walk,
And of no matter neither reason nor talk.
Temper thy tongue and belly alway,
For "measure is treasure," the proverb doth say,
And measure in all things is to be used.


We all know that Europe is old, but what's got that do with me? Actually, quite a lot. For hundreds of years travel was difficult. For most people the only transportation was their feet. This meant that most people never left the area they were born in. Even the very poor couldn't move to a different area as the Poor Laws meant they couldn't get assistance from any parish except the one they were born in. What this lack of movement meant was that strong local accents developed.

I'm from Bristol, and my accent is unique to south Bristol. Even people born in north of the city will have a different accent than mine. Not only do accents mean that words are pronounced differently but words are used that aren't found in other areas. For example, Bristolians use the word "gert" which isn't found anywhere else in Britain. No-one seems to know where the word comes from but it's been in use for many generations and means "very". Go something described as "gert lush" is fantastic whilst something described as "gert little" is small.

My wife and I were sat in a pub one time and a group of people sat down near us and started chatting. When they had gone, she asked me "What country were those people from." I thought it was hilarious; the people were from Liverpool – just 180 miles away.

In a business setting you'll find the use of regional words, slang and even accents modified to more Standard English but in a social setting they are as strong as ever.

I mentioned people didn't get around much in days gone by. Below is an image of Cheddar Gorge, which is 20 miles southwest of Bristol.

Cheddar Gorge

Cheddar Gorge

In 1966, scientists examined the DNA of 6,000 and 10,000 year old skeletons found in the caves of the area.

Cheddar Man

Cheddar Man

What they found was that people living within five miles of the gorge shared the same DNA with the DNA from the skeletons. What's funny about it is that some people in the area not only know who their ancestors were 300 generations ago, but can go and visit them in the local museum.

This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,--
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.

William Shakespeare (1564 - 1616), "King Richard II", Act 2 Scene 1

This page created 29th December 2018, last modified 31st December 2018