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The first-known inhabitants of England were small bands of hunters, but Stone Age immigrants arrived around 4000 BC and farmed the chalk hills of Salisbury Plain, constructing the mysterious stone circles at Stonehenge and Avebury. They were followed by the Bronze Age Celts from Central Europe who began arriving in 800 BC, bringing the Gaelic and Brythonic languages (the former is still spoken in Scotland, the latter in Wales).
The Romans invaded in 43 AD and took only seven years to quell resistance and control most of England. The Scottish and Welsh tribes were more of a problem, resulting in the building of Hadrian's Wall across northern England to keep out the marauding Scots. The Romans brought stability, nice and straight paved roads and Christianity; in return, the Brits gave the Romans a headache and a dent in the empire's expense account. The Romans were never defeated, they just sort of faded away around 410 AD as their empire declined.
Tribes of heathen Angles, Jutes and Saxons began to move into the vacuum, absorbing the Celts, and local fiefdoms developed. By the 7th century, these fiefdoms had grown into a series of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms which had come to collectively think of themselves as English. By the mid-9th century, Vikings had invaded northern Scotland, Cumbria and Lancashire and the Danes were making inroads into eastern England. By 871, only Wessex - the half-Saxon, half-Celtic country south of the Thames - was under English control. At this low point, the English managed to neutralise the Vikings' military superiority and began a process of assimilation.
The next invader was William of Normandy (soon to become known as William the Conqueror), who arrived on the south coast of England in 1066 with a force of 12,000 men. After victory at the Battle of Hastings, he replaced English aristocrats with French-speaking Normans. The Normans built impressive castles, imposed a feudal system, administered a census and, once again, began to assimilate with the Saxons.
The next centuries saw a series of royal tiffs, political intrigues, plague, unrest and revolt. The Hundred Years War with France blurred into the domestic War of the Roses and enough Machiavellian backstabbing among royalty to make the present foibles of the monarchy seem even more trifling than they already are. In the 16th century, Henry VIII's matrimonial difficulties led to the split with Catholicism. Henry was appointed head of the Church of England by the English Parliament and the Bible was translated into English. In 1536, Henry dissolved the smaller monasteries and confiscated their land as the relationship between Church and State hit rocky times.
The power struggle between monarchy and Parliament degenerated into civil war in the mid-17th century, pitching Charles I's royalists (Catholics, traditionalists, the gentry and members of the Church of England) against Cromwell's Protestant parliamentarians. Cromwell's victory segued into a dictatorship, which included a bloody rampage through Ireland, and by 1660 Parliament was so fed up that it reinstated the monarchy.
A period of progressive expansionism followed, as England collected colonies down the American coast, licensed the East India Company to operate from Bombay and eventually saw Canada and Australia come within its massive sphere of influence. At home, England exerted increasing control over the British Isles. The burgeoning empire's first setback occurred in 1781 when the American colonies won their war of independence.
Meanwhile, Britain was fast becoming the crucible of the Industrial Revolution as steam power, steam trains, coal mines and water power began to transform the means of transport and production. The world's first industrial cities sprung up in the Midlands, causing severe dislocation of the population. By the time Queen Victoria took the throne in 1837, Britain had become the world's greatest power.