Why Britain’s called the United Kingdom, or Hey, what do you call your country anyway?

A steady trickle of what’s-Britain? questions have gradually formed a largish pool on my list of odd questions that lead people to this blog.

The Great British Public contributes heavily to one of them: the why’s-Britain-called-great? question. How do I know many questioners are British? They say things like. “Why are we called Great Britain?” It’s subtle, but if you pay attention, you can tell.

I’ve answered the question here so many times that I’ve worn the fun off it, so we’ll skip to the others, which come from baffled outsiders. One persistent question is why the British insist on having multiple names for their country. Is it Britain, Great Britain, the United Kingdom, or England? Wouldn’t it be simpler to have just one name?

Probably, but Britain isn’t a country that’s drawn to simplicity. You’re not convinced? Look at the spelling it invented.

So why is England different from Britain? For roughly the same reasons that New York’s different from the United States of Burgundy’s different from France. Heavy emphasis on roughly, but it’s good enough as a place to start.

The multiple names make sense if you drop into British history and set your assumptions aside. I’ll keep them safe and warm. You can pick them up when you leave.


Once upon a time two countries, England and Scotland, were neighbors. Think of them as living upstairs and downstairs, since the maps are drawn that way. And like—well, not like all neighbors but like some, they had fights about how loud the bagpipe music had been on Saturday night and about whose party didn’t end until the last guest passed out at sunrise and about who throws trash out the window.

A damn near relevant photo: This is Minnie the Moocher. It takes more than loud bagpipes to keep her up at night. Or during the day. If you’re going to throw a loud party, she’s the neighbor you want.

They also fought about cattle and massacres and who was the king of the mountain.

This went on for centuries.

Every so often, the two countries went to war, but even when they weren’t fighting, families from both sides of the border raided families on the other side. And for the sake of fairness, sometimes they raided families on their own side, because this wasn’t about  borders or countries, it was about cattle and kinship and which families weren’t big and tough enough to protect themselves.

If one source is correct, it was also about poor land and too little of it. If another source is correct, it was about the breakdown of order. Think of the border area as a kind of failed state. Both explanations sound credible.

Keep in mind that there’s no natural border between Scotland and England, and for a good part of the time we’re talking about the border was fluid. People on one side lived the same way as people on the other side. Families spread across it. You could cross over without saying “Captain, may I?” One or both countries could move it, and at one point, or possibly more, they did.

Which country behaved worse at this stage? My impression is that both did.

For what it’s worth, this part of the history was news to me. I’d read about the Scots raiding the English, but not the other way around. Any guesses on which country’s historians I got that from?

And while we’re talking about me, I knew that England invaded Scotland repeatedly, but not that Scotland invaded England. Guess which country’s songs I listened to.

Scotland and England became distinct countries during the medieval period, Scotland in 843, according to Lord Google, and England in—oh, hell, that’s messier. Wiki-this’ll-all-change-in-a-minute-pedia gives me two years, 927 and 953.

Close enough.

In spite of cohering later, England became the major power on the island of Britain. (The island of Britain, in today’s terms, is the chunk of land made up of Scotland, England, Wales, and—if you count it separately, which some people do and some don’t—Cornwall.)

The BBC (which publishes good, short bits of history on its website) writes, “England had absorbed Wales and Cornwall by 1543, through parliamentary incorporation, political and cultural integration of the ruling elites, and administrative cohesion across church and state.”

Not to mention warfare and a fair bit of brutality here and there.

I can date the English invasions of Scotland back to 1072, when England’s new king, William of Normandy, having conquered England in 1066 thought he’d have Scotland for dessert. He forced Malcolm III, the King of Scotland, to hand over his son as a hostage, which counts as a victory in my book, but he didn’t get to annex Scotland. Maybe he hadn’t been trying.

The two countries continued to be separate. And the English continued to complain about the Scots playing the bagpipes late at night.

To put this in context, the English also have a tradition of bagpiping. The only ones I’ve heard are Northumbrian, They’re smaller than the Scottish ones and use their indoor voice, which since I’ve only heard them played indoors, in a pub, my eardrums and I appreciate immensely.

When I asked nicely, Lord Google led me to a list of eight English invasions of Scotland, For some reason, it didn’t include the one in 1072, so let’s make that nine. Compare that to seven Scottish invasions of England, one of which happened after the two countries were united so I’d call that a rebellion. That takes us down to six.

Another happened during the English Civil War at the request of the English Parliament. I’m not sure whether that’s an invasion, so what the hell, let’s call it five.

This isn’t just about numbers, though, it’s about power. According to History Today, England was “the major power in Britain and Ireland. By the end of the thirteenth century only Scotland stood in the way of the king of England’s claim to be sovereign of Britain.”

So basically, whether it invaded England or not, Scotland wasn’t about to conquer it, but an English conquest of Scotland was a very real possibility. And that’s another reason I knew of the English invasions, not the Scottish ones. They had a different impact. It’s also why I know the Scottish songs—that have that smaller-country-fighting-for-independence purity about them. Even if history’s never as pure as a good song.

A low point in relations between the two countries came in 1328, when Edward III signed the Treaty of Northampton, recognizing Scottish independence, then waited a year and invaded.

Yes, diplomacy’s a wonderful thing.

One form of diplomacy in this period was to marry someone from the royal family of Country A into the royal family of Country B. It guaranteed twenty minutes of good feeling and generations of warfare, because someone in the royal line of Country A was always being born into the royal family of Country B, and a fair portion of them grew up to claim the crown of the country they didn’t grow up in.

Which is how Scotland and England formed the United Kingdom. James IV of Scotland married Henry VII of England’s daughter, Margaret. (Don’t worry about the names. They’re purely decorative.) They duly produced a line of offspring who had a claim on the English throne, which is why:

(A) Mary Queen of Scots was executed. She was Catholic, she had an arguable claim on the English throne, and she was someone English Catholics could rally around if they could only get the Protestant Elizabeth I out of the way.

(B) When Elizabeth, being a professional virgin, died childless, which tends to happen to virgins, England had find a successor, fast. And the successor had to be Protestant. And have some vaguely credible claim to be a descendant of England’s past kings. So they turned to the Scottish king, James VI, who became the English king as well, making him James the VI of Scotland and I of England.

James packed his bags and moved from Scotland to England, which tells you where the power lay, so even though the Scottish line took over the English throne, I don’t think anyone would argue that Scotland took over England. Officially, it was a merger of two separate kingdoms under one king. In reality, Scotland was the junior partner.

As he made his way south, he was so struck by England’s wealth that he said he was “swapping a stony couch for a deep feather bed.”

Doesn’t it warm your heart when a leader puts the nation’s interests first?

So now it’s 1603 and we have one king ruling two separate countries. Each has its own parliament, courts, and laws. James wants to unite the two countries under one parliament. Both parliaments respectfully suggest that he take a hike off a short pier. What does he do? He sidesteps them and proclaims himself King of Great Britain. The English Parliament has already refused to vote him the title, but he does manage to wring it out the the Scottish one.

It wasn’t until 1707 that the United Kingdom was created by the Acts of Union, passed by the English and Scottish parliaments. A united parliament met for the first time in 1707.

James was long since dead.

Let’s go back to History Today:

“The Union actually enshrined the separate existence of central aspects of Scottish society–law, education and the church–and did not create a homogeneous unitary state, a situation which has continued to this day.”

And that, children, is how the crocodile got its tail. It’s also why England is not Britain, why Britain is not England, why Scotland almost voted to secede in 2014, and why the United Kingdom has so many names.

Your assumptions are on the table by the door, with your name written on the side. Be careful not to pick up someone else’s, because you may find it doesn’t fit comfortably.

90 thoughts on “Why Britain’s called the United Kingdom, or Hey, what do you call your country anyway?

  1. The natives are confused, so I don’t know why we expect anyone else to understand.

    I will say a word in Edward III’s defence. He didn’t want to sign the treaty and he didn’t want his sister to marry the king of Scotland to ‘celebrate’ it. He was 15 and he was forced to sign it, so he didn’t feel particularly bound by it.

    Liked by 5 people

    • As a former teenager, I can understand feeling that way. Which is one reason we shouldn’t let teenagers anywhere near that kind of power. Or, quite possibly, former teenagers. Or possibly humans. We have an, um, spotty track record.

      Liked by 4 people

  2. Given the number of different ways we refer to our country, I’m trying to figure out why we (the portion of the broader we that are us) wonder why you have the names you have. I think it’s “royalty envy” – you have a King or a Queen and we have…well, let’s not go there today.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Every so often, someone tells me, in all seriousness, that the advantage of having a queen or king is that it keeps the country from having a [fill in the blank–I think I first heard this about Bush the Jr., but I’ve heard it a lot lately about Trump]. That makes no sense whatsoever, especially after Cameron, the Brexit vote, and Theresa May, with the prospect of Boris Johnson and even more absurd candidates being taken seriously. Still, I’ve never convinced anyone that it doesn’t make sense.

      Liked by 3 people

  3. Being called Great is never good.

    For example, we live in “Greater” Minnesota. We would never call ourselves greater anything – but the people in the Twin Cities insist upon it. It is like being called “special” and is just a way for metropolitans to rub in the fact that we have to drive two hours to get to IKEA.

    Liked by 5 people

  4. Eh, Jaysus, Ellen–what about Norn Irne?? Ye cain’t abandon us tae them southern barbarians, who cain’t even spake Anglish! We’re the hard-liners kaypin’ the current UK governmnet in plaeace and headed grimly tords Brexxit, no?

    Liked by 4 people

  5. There was some talk, after Brexit, of Scotland voting on secession once again. Over here in ‘Murica, we’ve heard nothing about that lately, and I wondered if you had an update ? (Over here we’re still apparently dealing with the secessions of 1861-65.)

    Liked by 4 people

    • There was a vote–it happened before Brexit–and the decision was to stay. There was talk of another vote after Brexit, but the wind was pretty much out of the sails by then. For the moment, at least, it seems to be off the agenda.

      Liked by 1 person

        • There’s nothing like hiding a book–or I guess a condom–to guarantee that a kid’ll find it. And pay rapt attention to it. My grandmother hid home-made peanut brittle that way. What does it all mean?


          • Ellen–I loved “1066 And All That”! I seem to recall Robert Benchley also doing some great send-ups of historical and academic linguistic writings and that was so refreshing! I have a clue about Britain and Great Britain: In Irish Gaelic, the Scottish tribe we called Picts are called Cridhni (pronounced”kreenyee”) which is the Q-Celtic sound transition of Q for P and a nasal sound for d in the middle of some words–so the same word as Prydanni in P-Celtici! The original Brits from the view of near neighbors pre-Rome. And when a bunch of Cornish post-Roman Brits got sick of sea-raiding both from the Irish and the Angles and Saxons, a bunch moved over to France where there still was some Roman protection. They pretty much took over far western Gaul and called it Brittany (or Bretagne in later French) and the usage became “Less(er) Britain” vs.” Great Britain” back across the Channel. The strongest Breton (current name for the language) -speaking part is called “Kernow” (Cornwall) even though the whole place is called “Breizh” in Breton–still very close to Cornish as it was. Confusing but kind of holds together if you have the translations…

            Liked by 1 person

        • Now you’ve got me trying to remember if we were taught any foreign history, because I was a Cold War baby too. The reason I can’t remember is the the teaching of history was so completely awful that I don’t remember what they thought they were teaching us. The Pilgrim Fathers. No Pilgrim Mothers. The Missouri Compromise. Lewis and Clark. So far, so within the borders. I think you’re right.


  6. What is interesting is that the first record of Britain comes from a Greek explorer called Pythias who visited us before Caesar. He said the island was called Pretanni meaning island of the painted people which may be a reference to the celts. But pretanni is similar to Britanni, which again is what the Romans called us, Britannia.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. And the history of the UK/Great Britain/England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Cornwall and Uncle Tom Cobley and all, is the history of elites. (Not suggesting this is a novel idea – at least, not since the latter half of the 20th century.) With the proles getting shafted on all sides, no matter who was invading who. Divide and conquer, work up a bit of xenophobic spirit, keep ’em fighting each other and maybe the poshos with the crowns will keep their gold and their hides intact…

    What do I have in common with the Teutonic/Greek aristocrats who constitute, randomly, by pure chance, the British monarchy? (Who regularly demand billions from the UK’s coffers, taxes paid by doctors and bike couriers and Uber drivers and hospital cleaners, by folk who actually work for a living? These highwaymen, muggers, welfare-sponging chavs with fancy jewellery.) Damn little.

    When the proles fully, collectively understand that they have more in common with each other than with bankers and kings, irrespective of race and nation, then the jig will really be up. Vive la revolution!

    Well, I can dream anyhow. In fact I think the majority of Brits have a servile spirit and enjoy their serf status. Humans aren’t changing anytime soon.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s odd how quickly the tone of a country can change. I base that on the way the U.S. of the fifties (repressed, and with a population that you’d have sworn was 600% apolitical) became the U.S. of the sixties–and here I’m thinking less of the wild-haired element of the sixties than of the Civil Rights Movement and all that followed it, which seemed to spring out of nowhere–although they didn’t. But yes, I hear what you’re saying,

      I will quibble, though, about the proles getting shafted no matter who was invading who. It’s true, but all told invading armies tend to be a lot more brutal than your average home-grown blood suckers. Which is one reason it’s easy to work up xenophobia.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Do you think maybe the U.S. of the 50s, as we think of it, was an adman-imposed wishful-thinking version, approved by TPTB? Rather than an accurate representation of the political sympathies of the whole population? It’s not as if the net was around for ‘free’ and instantaneous communication, organisation and enlightenment: and plenty of folks, if told what to think forcefully and often enough, will go ahead and obediently think it.

        Liked by 1 person

        • That’s a complicated question–or at least my version of an answer is complicated and I’m only likely to brush the surface here. I think it’s a mix of things, including the Cold War, the advertising blitz you mention, and the Red Scare. What I remember–and I was a kid in the fifties, so this is anything but scientific–is a sense of crushing conformity, and a fear of being different. There was also a lot of political fear. Some wiseacre ran around with a copy of, I think, the Bill of Rights, and asked people to sign it as if it were a petition, and reported that people were afraid to go out on a limb and put their names to it.

          Liked by 1 person

  8. Yes, I recsll high school with hge ambivalence–had some terrific history teachers who explained class systems, etc, and some real duds who inspired me to bring novels to class in order to stay awake—just wanted dates memorized, etc, which I don’t like.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Again Ellen, I agree with you about the ’50s, which I lived through too. Very stultifying, very repressive, though a kind of materialistic (short-lived) paradise for the working class, which my Dad was and is. Free schoolng from the GI bill, cheap cars and gasoline, motor boats, lots of cigarettes and steaks, lots of backyard barbecues for families with same-age kids in new houses out in the suburbs! But try coming out as anything but straight…try expressing doubt about politics or practically anything…eek.

    Liked by 3 people

        • Americans–at least some of them–are still fighting our civil war, so I don’t suppose I should be surprised. Except that involved something that’s still alive issue in the country: race. If the War of the Roses involved anything similar, I missed it.

          Liked by 1 person

          • I’m not sure how much Scotland was affected, but many people, innocent bystanders too, were hurt, killed or impoverished in the Wars of The Roses and people have long memories on that—look at the ethnic groups of the former Yugoslavia! Scottish clans still have some distrust of some others and , heck, why not growl at the English while they’re at it. But I hadn’t heard the phrase before and roses are popular, even prized, in both ends of Ireland who have little historical reason to love English royalty.

            Liked by 2 people

    • Ditto for Great Russell Street in London. And it’s amazing the number of people who mistake that “great” (at least in Britain; probably not in Russell or Yarmouth) for a value judgment. At least if the number of search questions I get on the subject is any indication.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hmmm__I think I wrote that the title goes way back to when (Middle Ages) there were “Lesse Britagne” (Brittany in France where people spoke Breton/Brythonic Celtic especially ones who fled from Cornwall to there as the Anglo Saxons and Vikings were raiding) and “Grand Britagne” where you are now—the Cornish were a Breton-speaking group until Cornish went extinct. The distinction was important in the Arthurian legend cycle, the “Matter of Britain”. Or don’t you think that has any bearing on the name?

        Liked by 1 person

        • It does, but the previous comment was on the great part of the name, which a surprising number of people take as a value judgment, as in, “Isn’t it a great country?” not as a measure of size.


  10. Pingback: What the world wants to know about Britain, part I’ve forgotten what | Notes from the U.K.

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