Great Britain (GB) and the United Kingdom (UK) Explained

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The name ‘Great Britain’ (Latin: ‘Magnae Britanniae’) refers to a large geographical landmass when compared to a relatively small geographical landmass (Latin: ‘Minorem Brittanniam’), and does not historically refer to an over-inflated sense of political or cultural importance of the British people, although this connotation has often been applied since at least the Victorian era by some, to refer to British imperialism and the spread of British political and cultural influence throughout the world. This is a distortion of the term ‘great’, which within this context refers to a broad expanse of land, and which has no connection to the use of political power to dominate others. Those who reject the imperialist associations of the term ‘Great Britain’, tend to use the shorter name of ‘Britain’.  Ancient Greeks mention the earliest recorded names of ‘Albion’ and ‘Prettan’ (for the landmass that is now known as ‘Great Britain’) as far back as the 4th century BCE.  This is not surprising, as Pytheas of Massalia (350-285 BCE) is believed to have been the first Greek to have ‘discovered’ the island.

The name ‘Albion’, was used by Pytheas as a description of what is today known as the white cliffs of Dover.  Although the works of Pytheas are nolonger extant, its content lives on through numerous quotations contained in the works of other scholars, and it appears that Pytheas may have also referred to ‘Albion’ as ‘Prettan’ (or similar) and to the indigenous people as ‘Prettanic’.  This observation is given credence in the 1st century CE, as the Roman occupiers of this landmass referred to it as ‘Britannia’ (a Latin transliteration of ‘Prettan’), in reference to its inhabitants – the Celtic-speaking ‘Britons’ (also known as the ‘Brythonic’ and ‘Pict’). Whatever the case, a shift from the use of the Greek ‘Albion’ and ‘Prettan’ to the Roman ‘Britannia’ is confirmed in the work of the 2nd CE century Greek scientist named Claudius Ptolemy, who referred to the landmass as ‘Greater Britain’ and its neighbour to its west as ‘Lessor Britain’ (what is today the landmass of Ireland).  Later, the name ‘Lesser Britain’ would be used to refer to the area of France known as ‘Brittany’, a place eventually settled by Cornish Celts in the service of Rome (c. 5th and 6th centuries CE).  It is probable that Pytheas – who landed in Britain – may well have asked the indigenous people what they called their land, and the reply he received was ‘Pretani’ – a Celtic word that refers to a people that ‘paint’ (or ‘tattoo’ their bodies).  In Latin, this terms appears to have been also rendered in translation as ‘Picti’ or ‘Pict’, again referring to a ‘picture’ painted or tattooed onto the skin.  Politically, the term ‘Great Britain’ refers to the whole of England, Wales and Scotland, but does not include Northern Ireland.  However, ‘Great Britain’ does include the Isle of Wight, Anglesey, the Isles of Scilly, the Hebrides and the island groups of Orkney and Shetland, but does not include the self-governing islands of Isle of Man and the Channel Islands.

Whereas the term ‘Great Britain’ is an ancient reference to comparative geography and cultural practice, by way of contrast, the term ‘United Kingdom’ is far younger and entirely political in nature, and represents the spread of English political hegemony over the home nations.  Technically speaking, the full name is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and is often seen in its shortened form of ‘UK’. Between the early Middle Ages and the 11th Century Norman Conquest of England, Wales was considered an independent nation.  However, its independence was slowly eroded by the Norman (and later) English military incursions, that saw Wales invaded and its sovereignty ended. In 1535 and 1542, the Welsh monarch of England – King Henry VIII (i.e. ‘Henry Tudor’) – passed the Laws in Wales Acts (sometimes referred to as ‘Acts of Union’) which saw ‘English’ law extended to include the entirety of the geographical area of Wales.  In 1603, the formerly independent kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland were united under King James VI (King of Scotland) who had also inherited the crowns of England (which included Wales) and Ireland, before moving his royal court from Edinburgh to London (where he ruled as ‘King James I’ of England).  This is often referred to as a ‘personal union’ (through the 1603 ‘Union of Crowns’) established through the rule of an absolute monarch, but which is not necessarily expressed in formal law.  However, it was not until 1707 that the parliaments of Scotland and England passed the Acts of Union that ratified the 1706 Treaty of Union.  This formally united Scotland and England into a single political (legal) entity referred to as the ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain’.  Ireland had in fact been in a ‘personal union’ with England since the Irish Parliament had passed the Crown of Ireland Act (1542), recognising English King Henry VIII as King of Ireland.  In 1800, the parliaments of Britain and Ireland both passed the ‘Act for the Union of Great Britain and Ireland’ and established in law the union of Ireland and Britain.  This saw the formation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland that lasted until 1922.  In 1922, around 80% of Ireland seceded from the union with Britain and away from British rule (becoming the ‘Irish Free State’), with the remaining 20% becoming known as ‘Northern Ireland’ (which remained under British rule). This created the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.  As the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man, and the British Overseas Territories (BOT), (or what is left of the British Empire), are dependencies of the Crown, they are not considered part of the UK.

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