Great Britain

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Jump to: navigation, search
For an explanation of often confusing terms like England, (Great) Britain and United Kingdom see British Isles (terminology).
Great Britain lies between Ireland and continental Europe.
Great Britain lies between Ireland and continental Europe.

Great Britain is an island lying off the north-western coast of Europe, comprising the main territory of the United Kingdom (UK). Great Britain is also used as a political term describing the combination of England, Scotland, and Wales, the three countries which together comprise the entire island and including some outlying islands. Great Britain is also widely, but incorrectly, used as a synonym for the sovereign state properly known as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.


Geographical definition

With an area of 219,000 km² (84,400 sq.mi) the island of Great Britain is the largest of the British Isles. It is the largest island in Europe, and eighth largest in the world. It is the third most populous island after Java and Honshu.

Great Britain stretches over approximately ten degrees of latitude on its longer, north-south axis. Geographically, the island is marked by low, rolling countryside in the east and south, while hills and mountains predominate in the western and northern regions. Before the end of the last ice age, Great Britain was a peninsula of Europe; the rising sea levels caused by glacial melting at the end of the ice age caused the formation of the English Channel, the body of water which now divides Great Britain from the European mainland.

The climate of Great Britain is milder than that of other regions of the Northern Hemisphere at the same latitude, because the warm waters of the Gulf Stream pass by the British Isles and exert a moderating influence on the weather. Cool, but not cold, temperatures, clouds more often than sun, and abundant rain are the rule in most years.

Political definition

Politically, Great Britain describes the combination of England, Scotland, and Wales. It includes outlying islands such as the Isles of Scilly, the Hebrides, and the island groups of Orkney and Shetland but does not include the Isle of Man or the Channel Islands.

Over the centuries, Great Britain has evolved politically from several independent countries (England, Scotland, and Wales) through two kingdoms with a shared monarch (England and Scotland), a single all-island Kingdom of Great Britain, to the situation following 1801, in which Great Britain together with the island of Ireland constituted the larger United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (UK). The UK became the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in the 1920s.

Great Britain's Capitals: England's capital is London, Wales' capital is Cardiff and Scotland's capital is Edinburgh.


The Roman geographer Ptolemy called the larger island Megale Brettania (Great Britain), and the smaller island Micra Bretannia (Little Britain). Hence, originally, the term Great Britain referred to the largest island in the British Isles, just as the largest of the Canary Islands is still called Gran Canaria, and the largest of the Comoros is Grande Comore.

Nevertheless, it is sometimes supposed that Great Britain is a translation of the French term Grande Bretagne, which is used in France to distinguish Britain from Brittany (in French: Bretagne), which had been settled in late Roman times by Romano-Celtic refugees from Roman Britain, then under attack by the Anglo-Saxons. Since the English court and aristocracy was largely French-speaking for several hundred years after the Norman Conquest of 1066, the French term naturally passed into English usage. The term was revived during the reign of King James VI of Scotland, I of England to describe the island, on which co-existed two separate kingdoms, both at that time ruled by the same monarch. Though England and Scotland each remained legally in existence as separate countries with their own parliaments, collectively they were sometimes referred to as Great Britain. In 1707, an Act of Union joined both parliaments. That Act used two different terms to describe the new all island nation, a 'United Kingdom' and the 'Kingdom of Great Britain'. However, the former term is regarded by many as having been a description of the union rather than its name at that stage. Most reference books therefore describe the all-island kingdom that existed between 1707 and 1800 as the Kingdom of Great Britain.

In 1801, under a new Act of Union, this kingdom merged with the Kingdom of Ireland, over which the monarch of Great Britain had ruled. The new kingdom was from then onwards unambiguously called the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. In 1922, 26 of Ireland's 32 counties gained independence to form a separate Irish Free State. The remaining truncated kingdom has therefore since then been known as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The United Kingdom now also formally includes a number of Overseas Territories.

Usage and nomenclature

Usage of the term Great Britain

Great Britain is also widely, but incorrectly, used as a synonym for the political state properly known as the United Kingdom (see below).

This common usage is technically inaccurate as the United Kingdom includes Northern Ireland, in addition to the three countries that make up Great Britain, as shown by its full name "the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland", and also because the three countries that make up Great Britain itself collectively include over 100 other islands, such as the Isles of Scilly, St Michael's Mount, the Isle of Wight, Lindisfarne, Lundy the Isle of Portland, and Steepholm in England; Flatholm and Anglesey in Wales; and the Isle of Arran, Bute, the Orkney Islands, Shetland Islands, and inner and outer Hebrides of Scotland.

The British themselves occasionally use the abbreviation GB, such as in the Olympic Games where the British team is sometimes informally referred to as 'Team GB'. The UK also uses the international foreign vehicle identification code of GB, although on number plates that include European Identification the code of UK is used. The UK short-code can be confused with the Ukraine. This is discussed further under Britain.

There is similar situation with the terms Britain and British, which are used to relate to the whole of the UK and not just the island of Great Britain. This usage is generally considered to be correct. Examples of this are "British monarchs", "British culture" and "British citizens" - which would generally be considered to embrace the whole of the United Kingdom. As if this was not confusion enough, the term "British" also has specific historical and archaeological usage, referring to the Celtic tribes present on the island prior to and during the Roman occupation.

In rugby league the RFL fields its representative side under the name Great Britain.


The name Britain is derived from the name Britannia, used by the Romans from circa 55 BC. The etymology of this term has been the subject of (sometimes fanciful) speculation, but is generally thought to derive from a Celtic word, Pritani, "painted", a reference to the inhabitants of the islands' use of body-paint and tattoos. (See Britain for further discussion of etymology.)

In Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae (circa 1136), the island of Great Britain was referred to as Britannia maior ("Greater Britain"), to distinguish it from Britannia minor ("Lesser Britain"), the Gaulish region which approximates to modern Brittany. The term "Bretayne the grete" was used by chroniclers as early as 1338, but it was not used officially until King James I proclaimed himself "King of Great Britain" on 20 October 1604 to avoid the more cumbersome title "King of England and Scotland".

Territories associated with Great Britain

Other lands of the archipelago

Related topics

External links

Personal tools