Children are taught ‘British values’ in school. These are chosen by the government. The values are: democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance for those of different faiths and beliefs.
In many ways, these values are reflected in annual surveys of social attitudes. For example, most British people support same-sex partnership and abortion. Also, most believe that tax evasion or state welfare fraud is wrong.
Women and men should be treated as equals, with the same pay and rights. But this doesn’t always happen. There are still women who earn less than men for the same job. There are also men who think women are inferior. But only 8% of people believe it is the man’s job to earn money while the woman stays at home.
Women can vote and work. Most people believe women should also do what they like socially, even if they are married or in a relationship. This includes having male friends, living with male housemates, socialising in pubs and nightclubs, walking alone at night, and wearing the clothing of their choice.
People can worship any religion in Britain. You will find (for example) churches, mosques, temples, gurdwaras and synagogues across the country.
Christians are the largest religious group. In the 2011 census, about 59% of English and Welsh people said they were Christian (in Scotland, 54%).
Many Christian festivals are celebrated as national holidays, but most British people are not very actively religious. Only 2% of people go to church regularly. 25% of people in England and Wales said they had no religion (37% in Scotland).
The largest minority religion is Islam (5% of England and Wales). There are also many smaller religions (for example Hinduism (1.5%), Sikhism (0.8%), Judaism (0.5%) and Buddhism (0.4%).
MORE INFORMATION: There is no penalty for not being truthful about religion in the census, so in 2011 some people answered it in a joke way. For example, 0.3% of people said their religion was ‘Jedi Knight’ (from the film Star Wars). Thousands of others said it was ‘heavy metal’.
The main Christian religion in England and Wales is the national church, which is a protestant Christianity called Anglicanism. It is also known as Church of England. The monarch is the head of the church.
In Scotland, the national church is called Church of Scotland or The Kirk. It is independent of the state. In Wales, there is the Church in Wales (Yr Eglwys yng Nghymru).
You can also find churches for other Christian denominations, including Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Unitarian and Pentecostal. There are regional differences across Britain – the highest proportions of Catholics are in western Scotland, London and north-west England, for example.
Although attitudes to different types of Christianity are fairly relaxed today, it has not always been this way. Wars between Protestants and Catholics during the 1500s and 1600s resulted in thousands of deaths. Until the 1970s, there was tension between Catholic and Protestant communities in Liverpool; some continues in Glasgow. The Troubles in Northern Ireland also have some religious basis.
Over 50% of people in the UK live in a town below 125,000 people, or in a rural area. Towns can be good places to have a family. Schools, doctors and other services are usually close by.
Towns are often cheaper than cities. They can also be very welcoming because their populations are used to new people, making it easier to make friends and become part of the community. Some are also very beautiful and culturally rich.
Traditionally, a town had to have a license, or ‘charter’ to have a market. The market was often for selling animals, as well as fruit, vegetables, grain and wool from the local area. This usually made market towns a rural business centre.
Today, some market towns are large (over 100,000 people) while others are very small (under 1,000 people). Most still have regular markets, although they might not include local products.
The history of market towns makes them interesting places to live and visit. Some are still important centres of local government.
This is the name given to wild places or farmland around cities where building is not allowed. British people are often worried that there are too many houses. Green belts are supposed to help stop towns and cities getting too big.
Middle England is not a place. Instead it is used to describe people from the middle class, who traditionally have right-wing, conservative views. Don’t get it confused with the Midlands, which is the area around Birmingham.
The North/South divide is not between Scotland and England. Instead it is an imaginary line that divides the people of England.
The imaginary line is usually said to run through Watford Gap in Northamptonshire, 120km (75 miles) north of central London. Be aware this is not the same as Watford, a town 25km (16 miles) north of London.
Southerners have a reputation for being weak, privileged and rich. Northerners have a reputation for being tough, saying exactly what they think, and having a better sense of humour.
There is some truth to this. There is more wealth in the south, especially the south east. The north is generally wetter, colder and more industrial.
Crime figures come from county police services. In the year ending March 2019, there were a total of 701 homicides in England and Wales. This includes murder and unplanned killing. This is a rate of about 12 homicides for every 1,000,000 people.
Scotland’s crime rates are usually lower than those of England, but figures cannot be compared because of the way the data is recorded. For example, in Scotland total homicides for 2018/19 were 102 (18 per 1,000,000 people). However, this figure includes death by driving, which is not included in the England and Wales figures.
A long history of hunting means that there are few dangerous animals still wild in Britain. Our largest carnivore is the badger (Meles meles), which is only about 90cm long. It can give tuberculosis to cattle, but it does not attack humans.
Domestic dogs are the most dangerous animal, in terms of injury. Over 7,500 people went to hospital in 2017 because of dog attacks.
It is rare to be killed by an animal in Britain. Domestic dogs kill about 3 people per year. Cows are more deadly. They kill about 5 people a year, mostly agricultural workers. Take care when crossing fields with cows, even on a public footpath. You should also take care near male deer, especially in the autumn.
There is one poisonous snake, the adder (Vipera berus). If you are bitten, get medical help immediately. You should survive (the last person to die was in 1975).
Tick bites can be dangerous because some ticks carry Lyme Disease.
Like other countries, some spiders, ants, mosquitos and flies can bite. Wasps and bees can sting. None will kill you (unless you are allergic).
Britain is a long way from any tectonic plate boundaries. There are many minor earthquakes, but only about 25 quakes a year are strong enough to be felt (usually weakly). The strongest officially recorded earthquake on land measured 5.4 on the Richter scale.
Earthquakes are most common in northwest Scotland and Wales.
One of the biggest recent earthquakes hit an area near Swansea in south Wales in 2018. It measured 4.6 on the Richter scale. It was reported that a trophy fell off a shelf in a local golf club.
For most of England, temperatures in spring reach 12˚C or more, in summer 20˚C or more, in autumn 13˚C or more, and in winter 6˚C or more. Scotland is usually colder in all seasons.
Across Britain, it can get much hotter (up to 39˚C) or colder (down to -27˚C), but this is unusual. In 2019, there was some surprisingly warm winter weather too – 21˚C in February and 19˚C in December.
Unfortunately, forecasts are not very reliable in the UK because the weather changes so much – not just during the day, but even from town to town! If it is sunny and warm in the morning, it might not stay sunny and warm. It might be cold and rainy by 14.00.
As a general rule, Scotland and northern England are coldest. The west coast of Britain is wettest and windiest, while the southern and eastern parts are driest and warmest. Snow is most common on hills, moors and mountains.
Extreme weather is uncommon. It is rare to get snow and even when there is thick snow, it usually lasts only a day or two – especially in southern England. The worst winter in living memory was back in 1963, when temperatures dropped to -22ºC between December and March.
February is the most common month for snow, but it can even snow in April or May. It often melts as soon as it hits the ground. In most areas, it is not worth paying to change to winter tyres, although in rural areas in the north of England and Scotland it might be a good idea.
You will notice that many trains and buses stop when it snows. This means it can be difficult to get to work. We are not too worried. Most people enjoy having some time off!
It gets very hot in Britain sometimes. But only sometimes. People don’t want to have air conditioning for their homes because they might only use it for a few days a year.
When the weather is hot, you will be sure to hear about the hot and dry summer of 1976, when some people had to get their water from a communal tap in the street. But even then, it was only above 30°C for 6 days in a row.
It can be difficult to compare Fahrenheit with Celsius without a calculate. As a guide, water freezes at 32°F, so any temperature below this is very cold. A warm day of 20°C would be 68°F; a very hot day of 38°C would be 100°F.
The year 1066CE is probably the most famous date in English history. That year, Saxon King Edward (‘the Confessor’) died. The new king was also a Saxon, Harold II. But two others believed they had a better claim to the English throne: Harold Hardrada (King of Norway) and a Duke of Normandy (in France) called William.
Harold II defeated Harold Hardrada at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in Yorkshire, northern England. But only a few weeks later, William invaded England on the south coast. To fight them, the army of Harold II had to walk 440km (275 miles). They were very tired. In contrast, William’s army had weeks to prepare while they waited for Harold II. Harold’s army lost to William at the Battle of Hastings.
Over the next 4 years, the Normans travelled through England and south Wales, fighting, burning houses, taking land and forcing people to work for them. They killed thousands of people, but brought a new language and culture. This is called the ‘Norman Conquest’.
MORE INFORMATION: The Bayeux Tapestry is a 70-metre embroidery that tells the story of the invasion. It was made in about 1070. The original is in France, but you can see a copy in Reading Museum. See the Reading Museum website for details.
Some of the earliest people to live in Britain were the Celts, who arrived in 800BCE. After them came the Romans. Their soldiers came from across the Roman Empire as far as Africa, creating diverse communities. The Romans withdrew in the year 410CE.
The Anglo-Saxon people came to Britain slowly from German regions in about the year 450. At first there were many kingdoms, but by 700 there were just seven main kingdoms: Mercia, Wessex, East Anglia, Essex, Sussex, Kent and Northumbria. Wales and Scotland were separate. In 937, the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms came together as one large kingdom (England) in order to fight invading Vikings.
The Anglo-Saxons had a sophisticated system of government and taxes. They lived in small village districts called manors, each with a ruling lord. Some people were slaves, but most people were free.
After the Norman Conquest in 1066, everything changed in England and south Wales. The ruthless new king, William I, gave the land to his own lords. People were forced to work for this new lord and could not leave his land.
In Scotland, big Celtic families called ‘clans’ owned the land, with people loyal to the chief of their clan.
After the Norman Conquest in 1066, King William I introduced the feudal system (getting land in exchange for work). But by 1400 this system was uncommon and most peasants were paid for their work and rented land. However, conditions were bad so this was only slightly better for them.
A big social change happened in 1485. For 400 years, there had been fighting between rival lords. Eventually, Henry Tudor became King Henry VII of England and Wales. He wanted peace, so he took a lot of power away from the lords.
There were now four levels of society:
the nobility (who owned very big areas of land),
the gentry (rich merchants/landowners)
yeomen (who owned a small amount of land)
tenant farmers (who rented their land and had to farm the lord’s land as well).
Most people were tenant farmers and they lived in small villages. Land was divided into strips to make sure everyone shared the good and bad areas. There was also land that everyone could use for grazing animals (common land).
Gradually, this democratic way of life ended. Landowners realised they could make more money by dividing the land into fields for sheep because wool was very profitable. This process was called ‘enclosure’ and continued for several hundred years. It made many landowners rich and powerful. But it was bad for tenant farmers because there was less space to live and grow food. Thousands starved or lost their homes or jobs.
From 1750, new farming methods brought more food and new machines made farming easier. The population grew, but because there were not so many farming jobs, many people moved to the cities and got jobs in factories. At this time in Scotland, whole communities were moved to make space for sheep (the ‘Clearances’).
Britain was also starting to develop its modern multicultural character, with people moving to escape religious persecution in France and Russia, or recruited from countries across the British empire.
In 1837 when Victoria became queen, only 5% of the population owned property or land. Working class men and women worked long hours, up to 17 hours a day. About 25% of people worked as a servant in middle-class or upper class homes. Other workers included those in factories, mines, railways or farming.
Although women worked, there were only some jobs they were allowed to do. But during World War 1, things changed. Many women worked in ‘men’s jobs’ because the men were fighting overseas. Women proved they could do the jobs just as well as men. Over time, this helped make life more equal for women.
After World War 1, some places (mostly the north) had very high unemployment and life was very hard. In other places, people found well-paid jobs in new industries. They could buy their own home. Gradually, help from the government made life easier for the poorest people.
World War 2 mixed so many people together that it helped to break down the class structure and bring more equality. In 1948, the NHS was started. People came from across the world to help Britain rebuild. This included Ireland, Poland and British colonies in the Caribbean, Africa and Indian subcontinent. Many settled here. A new ‘social security’ system of state welfare payments was started to help the poorest people.
Today, there still is still inequality in Britain, but for most people, the quality of life is much better than it was before World War 2 and about 65% of the population now owns property. Poverty still remains, however. It is estimated 2.4 million children live in families who regularly can’t afford enough food.
For a long time, it was raw wool that brought money to England. Then from 1400CE, the country exported woollen cloth. From the 1500s, English explorers discovered new lands. England became rich and powerful, but it was often through the exploitation of millions of people both at home and abroad.
From 1600, Britain started colonies, which brought new and valuable products. Some crops (like cotton, sugar and tobacco) used the work of thousands of slaves. Until slavery ended, an estimated 2.3 million slaves were brought to work on plantations in the Caribbean. The money paid for the growth of cities like London, Bristol and Liverpool. It also paid for improvements in some rural communities. Many merchants built large country houses and lived in extreme luxury.
Slavery ended in 1833. As part of this, the government agreed to give slave owners (but not the slaves themselves) a huge amount of money as compensation for the loss of ‘assets’. Thousands of people received compensation and were suddenly wealthy. Some of this money was used to modernise Britain. Factories were built and British manufactured items were sent across the world.
Meanwhile, there were still many working class people living in dirty, crowded houses. And although electricity and piped water started to become standard at the end of the 1800s, some rural villages had to wait until the 1960s.
Today, the UK no longer has its empire and the manufacturing industry has declined since the 1900s. Most of the country’s money now comes from service industries, like banking, media and IT (computing).
Long distance British exploration started in the 1496 when a man called John Cabot tried to discover a sea route to Asia.
Over the next 400 years, hundreds of British explorers travelled the world, paid for by the royal family, or by private companies.
In many places, the explorers created British colonies or protectorates. At one time, the British empire covered about 20% of the world. The empire brought wealth and new products to Britain, but it was often by exploiting people, or through slavery. It also changed British society, with people from across the empire moving to Britain to work.
As society changed after World War 1, Britain realised it was wrong to rule other countries if they did not want it. It also could not afford to look after them.
The empire was gradually dissolved, but its effect is still felt today in Britain and overseas. This includes the mix of people who live in Britain and the culture they have brought, the structure of the British economy, and the number of countries that use English.
A few countries chose to keep the British Queen as a Head of State. These are called the Commonwealth countries.
The UK is rich in raw materials, like copper, tin, iron, stone, clay and wood. From about 1700CE, people across the country used these materials to invent machines. Factories were built, especially in the centre and north of England where there is coal (which was burnt to heat water for steam power). Canals and railways were built to move goods.
By 1822, only 20% of working people were on farms. Most were servants or they worked in factories, mines, mills or ‘cottage industries’ (making things at home). In the poorest families, this included women and small children as young as 4. Gradual law changes improved conditions and raised the lowest permitted working age, but in 1901 things were still bad for many people. 77% of people lived in cities, where there was often severe overcrowding and hygiene problems (in some places, 150 people would share 1 toilet).