9 turning points in British history

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The United Kingdom has experienced numerous important events since King William and his army invaded from Normandy in 1066.


Since then, the country has resisted invasion on several occasions, fought wars against some of its European neighbours and implemented one of the first pieces of legislation to safeguard human rights.

Norman invasion

The Norman invasion of 1066 marked an irreversible change in British society and founded a monarchy still in place today. The Normans, led by King William, traveled from northern France to lay claim to to the English throne. At the Battle of Hastings in October 1066 they defeated a much smaller English army led by King Harold, and although the war continued for a few more weeks, the English lords were forced to accept William as their ruler. He was crowned in London on Christmas Day - a new era in British history had begun.

Related: View the Norman invasion via the Bayeux Tapestry at the Museum of Reading website.

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Magna Carta

The Magna Carta, which translates as "Great Charter" placed limits on royal power for the first time. Signed in 1215 by King John, the charter established that monarchs could not act arbitrarily, but were subject to the rule of law like everyone else. Three of the charter's clauses survive in British law today; the most important of these is the principle that a free man cannot be imprisoned or punished except under the law of the land.

Related: View the British Library's copies of original Magna Carta documents.

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Defeat of the Spanish Armada

Throughout Queen Elizabeth I's reign, the threat of invasion loomed, but it was not until 1588 that it became real when King Philip II of Spain sent a fleet of 122 warships to invade England. After some initial success against the English navy, the Spanish fleet was scattered by fireship attacks and stormy weather which blew the ships into the North Sea. More than half the remaining ships were wrecked on their voyage home round Scotland and Ireland. England remained an independent nation.

Related: See Spanish treasure recovered from wrecked ships at the Ulster Museum.

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Gunpowder plot

Queen Elizabeth's reign had consolidated Protestantism as the dominating religion in England, but the Catholic church and some European leaders tried to wrest control from what they saw as a heresy. In 1605 a group of young Catholics, including Guy Fawkes, plotted to blow up the Houses of Parliament during its ceremonial opening, killing the royal family and many leading politicians. They got as far as placing explosives in a basement before being discovered. Fawkes was tortured and then executed. The anniversary of this event - 5 November - is still celebrated today with firework displays and bonfires.

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A British Republic

After forces led by Oliver Cromwell defeated King Charles I in the English Civil War, Britain briefly became a republic. Cromwell had Charles executed in 1649, gave himself the title "Lord Protector" and reorganised the country along Puritan lines. After his death in 1658, his son Richard proved unable to hold the country together and in 1660 a group of lords invited Charles' son to return as King Charles II. The return of the monarchy is known as the Restoration.

Related: Learn more about Oliver Cromwell at the Cromwell Association's website.

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The Glorious Revolution

Britain remained unsettled after the Restoration and when Charles II died in 1685, the crown was contested between his younger brother James II, a Catholic, and his Dutch Protestant son-in-law, Prince William of Orange. James fled to Ireland after William landed in England with a huge army in 1688, but William followed him and the two fought it out in battles at Enniskillen and Aughrim, while James unsuccessfully tried to lay siege to Londonderry. William won a decisive victory at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 and a Protestant succession was secured.

Related: Visit the site of the 1690 Battle of the Boyne in Ireland.

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Acts of Union

Two Acts of Union created the present-day united Kingdom. Although Scotland and England had shared the same monarch since 1603, the Act of Union passed in 1707 brought Scotland into the English Parliament. In 1800, a second Act of Union incorporated the island of Ireland into the United Kingdom. Twenty-six Irish counties left the Union again in 1921, leaving the six counties of Northern Ireland behind. The 1800 Act of Union also created the current Union flag, which incorporated the crosses of each country's national saint: St George, St Andrew and St Patrick.

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World War I

More than one million soldiers died serving with the armies of the British Empire during World War I. Britain declared war on Germany in August 1914 and the subsequent four years changed the country forever. The war supported growth in both farming and industry and brought women into the workplace in large numbers. Germany and its Allies were eventually defeated in 1918, but the war memorials which stand in cities, towns and villages across the United Kingdom stand testament to the high human cost of victory.

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World War II

Just 20 years later, the United Kingdom was at war with Germany again. This time, civilians were in the firing line as German planes bombed British cities, including London, Bristol, Belfast and Glasgow. British soldiers were evacuated from the continent in 1940, and the following year the Royal Air Force seized control of the air in the Battle of Britain, preventing Germany from launching a planned invasion. The British returned to the continent, alongside men from other nations, in June 1944 on D-Day. Hitler's Germany was finally defeated by the Allies in May 1945.

Related: See video related to the Battle of Britain at the BBC website.

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