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.