What Is the United Kingdom Known For?
It’s perhaps one of the best-known countries in the world, but despite its fame, there’s likely a lot you don’t know about the United Kingdom. For example, did you know that the UK isn’t just one country, but that it’s actually made up of four countries? And that’s just one of the interesting facts about the UK!
The United Kingdom is known for the British Empire and the Royal Family. It is also known for Shakespeare, Oxford and Cambridge, and J.K. Rowling. Additionally, it is home to numerous monuments, famous myths and legends, and more.
If you want to learn more about the United Kingdom, continue reading. I’ll cover the points that I’ve mentioned above, and I’ll also introduce you to some facts about this history-rich country that you may not have encountered previously.
The United Kingdom Is Made Up of Four Countries
Though it is considered a single country internationally, the United Kingdom is actually made up of four countries:
- Northern Ireland
The center of government is in Great Britain, and each of the other three countries has its own government, which has differing levels of governing power. The formation of the United Kingdom was a long and complicated process.
However, here’s a brief glimpse of how each country joined the UK:
- 925: The Anglo-Saxons unified tribes scattered around modern-day England, forming the Kingdom of England.
- 1536: Following a proclamation by King Henry VIII, England and Wales functionally became a single country, the Kingdom of England and Wales. Wales was formally annexed 6 years later, in 1542.
- 1707: The Kingdom of England was merged with the Kingdom of Scotland due to various political pressures, including the fact that the same monarchy governed both countries. The joining was formalized in the Treaty of Union, and the new country was known as the Kingdom of Great Britain.
- 1801: The Kingdom of Great Britain entered into a union with the Kingdom of Ireland to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.
- 1922: Following years of internal strife, much of Ireland withdraws from the union. The portion of the country that seceded is known as the Republic of Ireland, or Eire. The rest of the union is renamed the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
The British Empire Was the Largest Empire in History
At the height of the British Empire, the United Kingdom controlled nearly a quarter of the world, and the countries under the Empire made up 413 million people or 23% of the world’s population at the time.
The United Kingdom, along with many other European powers, including Spain, Portugal, and France, started establishing empires following the Age of Discovery during the 15th and 16th centuries.
England, France, and the Netherlands were the major powers in North America and Asia. However, a series of wars in the 17th and 18th centuries meant England became the dominant colonial power in these areas.
The American War Of Independence Reduced Its Power Somewhat
Along with the United States, the central jewel in the crown of the British Empire was the Indian subcontinent, which the UK captured following the Battle of Plassey in 1757. This meant that even following the American War of Independence, the Empire was still enormously powerful.
However, the loss of the American colonies did lead the UK to turn its focus to the rest of the world instead. In the 100 years between 1815 and 1916, the British Empire was at relative peace, and this period of time was known as Pax Britannica or the British Peace.
Its Economic Superiority Was Challenged In the 20th Century
The start of the 20th century saw British economic superiority increasingly challenged by the United States and Germany. World War I saw Britain relying heavily on resources and people from its empire, and the British Empire reached its peak territorially right after the end of the war.
However, this was relatively short-lived.
World War II erupted barely two decades after the end of the First World War and saw numerous British colonies across East and Southeast Asia being occupied by the Empire of Japan.
Additionally, the British Empire was no longer the foremost industrial and military power following the strain World War I had put on its resources, which was only exacerbated by the events of World War II. Though Britain and its allies, including its colonies, won the war, the events helped accelerate the end of the British Empire.
India, the crown jewel of the Empire, achieved independence two years after World War II in 1947.
Additionally, the Suez Crisis in 1956 and the loss of British and French control of the Suez Canal only confirmed Britain’s continued decline as a superpower. Most people marked the end of the British Empire in 1997, following the transfer of Hong Kong back to China.
The British Royal Family Have Captured the Hearts of People Around the Globe
When someone thinks about the United Kingdom, they almost always think of the British Royal Family.
There has been some version of a British monarchy in place since about the 10th century, before the Norman Conquest. As the United Kingdom became one entity, British monarchs also gained sovereignty over the new additions.
The current royal house, the House of Windsor, was founded in 1917.
The royal family’s popularity can be traced to the many wars that the royals of the UK were party to between 1066 and 1743. In this period of time, as The Atlantic points out, watching for British royals means watching out for invading armies.
However, following the reduction in the monarchy’s powers, the royals started to interact with wealthy members of society who would previously not have had access to them. This, in turn, made the British royal family more accessible to people of all social classes in a way that many other royal families weren’t.
Even people who did not have the wealth to interact with them directly could visit events where members would be present, such as the Royal Ascot or Wimbledon, or become interested in reporting on royal celebrations.
All of these factors have resulted in the British royal family essentially becoming celebrities themselves.
Furthermore, the monarch of the British royal family is still the Head of the Commonwealth and the monarch of several Commonwealth nations, including Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. This makes them royal global celebrities, not just British ones.
Significant royal figures that are popular around the world include:
- Queen Elizabeth II, the Queen of the United Kingdom.
- Charles, Prince of Wales, heir apparent to the British throne, and his wife Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall.
- Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, eldest son of Prince Charles, and his wife, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge.
- Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, second son of Prince Charles, and his wife, Meghan, Duchess of Sussex.
For example, the decision of Prince Harry and Princess Meghan to step back as senior members of the royal family in 2020 was covered internationally, including in a 2021 interview with the couple hosted by Oprah Winfrey, Oprah with Meghan and Harry.
Aside from current members of the royal family, past members also remain popular among both the media and audiences around the world. The most notable member of the royalty was Diana, Princess of Wales, who was married to Prince Charles for 15 years before their divorce in 1996.
London is the most populated city in all of the UK and is the capital of England. The city is also the biggest in terms of size in the UK spanning 1,572 km². The city is home to many of the most well known monuments and landmarks of the United Kingdom and is considered the financial hub of the UK.
Related: Top Things London is Known For
The United Kingdom Is Home to Major Literary Names
The United Kingdom has given the world some of the best-known, and most beloved, literary figures across history.
Shakespeare is perhaps not only the most famous British writer but also the best-known writer to write in the English language. He is also known as the “Bard of Avon” or the “Bard” and is sometimes called England’s national poet. His works include 39 plays and over 150 sonnets, including Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Othello, and Macbeth.
Best-known for writing A Christmas Carol, Oliver Twist, and Great Expectations, Dickens is considered the greatest Victorian novelist. He is known for using his writings to critique social ills and was a campaigner for social reforms, including children’s rights.
Austen’s best-known work is perhaps Pride and Prejudice, though she also wrote five other novels. Like many other women writers of her time, she published her books anonymously. Her works have been adapted multiple times in both television and film, dealt with the lives of upper and middle-class women, and are considered some of the best-known romantic novels in English.
Wordsworth was a poet laureate from 1843 to his death in 1850 and is known as one of the best British poets of all time. His best-known works include Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802, I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud, and The Prelude.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Poet laureate after Wordsworth, from 1850 until his death in 1892, Tennyson is one of the most popular British poets to date. His major works include Ulysses, The Charge of the Light Brigade, and The Lady of Shalott.
J. R. R. Tolkien
Tolkien is the author of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, works of high fantasy that led to a resurgence of the genre. He is often considered to be the father of modern fantasy literature and high fantasy in particular. Tolkien was a close friend of fellow author C. S. Lewis, a fellow member of the literary discussion group The Inklings.
J. K. Rowling
Rowling is perhaps the best-known contemporary British author and was named the world’s first billionaire author in 2014. She is known for writing the Harry Potter fantasy series, which has sold over 500 million copies around the world. Aside from these, she has also written the Cormoran Strike series under the pen name Robert Galbraith.
Dame Agatha Christie
Christie is perhaps the most famous British crime novelist after Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and is known as the creator of two of the genre’s most popular detectives – Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. She wrote 72 (six under a penname) novels, 14 short story collections, and several plays, among other works. She was made a Dame in 1971.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Though Doyle wrote several other works, he is best known as the creator of the most famous detective in English literature – Sherlock Holmes. Together, he wrote 56 short stories and 4 novels about Holmes’ adventures, many of which have been adapted to the screen.
The Beatles were an English rock band and quite possibly the most well known band to ever exist to date. The band was made up of Ringo Starr, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison.
Some of their most well known songs include (but are not limited to):
- Let it Be
- Come Together
- Hey Jude
- I Want To Hold Your Hand
Football in the UK is absolutely huge and has been the most popular sport in the nation since the 1860s, the game was invented in England after all. Other popular sports include rugby and cricket.
The UK is well known for its many bars and pubs across the lands. Pubs are popular in all four countries of the United Kingdom and you will find people at their local watering holes at any time of the day, any day of the week. Due to the UK’s history, there are many pubs that have been around for hundreds of years, The Old Ferry Boat Inn is said to have been around since 560 CE.
The Most Famous Universities Are In the United Kingdom
The United Kingdom is known as the home of some of the world’s most famous higher educational institutions.
The University of Oxford
The oldest university in the English-speaking world and one of the oldest universities in the world, the University of Oxford, was established around 1096. Today, it comprises 39 colleges, 6 permanent private halls, and numerous academic departments. Well-known alumni include Margaret Thatcher, Stephen Hawking, Lewis Carroll, Percy Brysse Shelly, and T.E. Lawrence.
The University of Cambridge
Founded in 1209, Cambridge is the oldest university in the UK after Oxford and is one of the oldest surviving universities in the world. It is made up of 31 colleges, over 150 academic departments, and more. Notable alumni include Charles Darwin, Stephen Hawking, William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, Stephen Fry, Oliver Cromwell, Sir Ian McKellen, and more.
The University of Edinburgh
Among the oldest universities in both Scotland and the English-speaking world at large, the University of Edinburgh was established in 1583. It has five campuses in Edinburgh. Notable alumni include Charles Darwin, Alexander Graham Bell, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson.
The University of St. Andrew’s
Among the oldest universities in Scotland, St Andrew’s was first established in 1413. It is made up of three colleges and 18 academic schools. Notable alumni include King James II of Scotland, Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, John Napier, Edward Jenner, and James Wilson.
St Thomas’s Hospital Medical School
This was one of the oldest medical schools in the United Kingdom and was absorbed in 1982 to form the United Medical and Dental Schools of Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospitals. Before the merger, it could trace its roots to 1106. Notable alumni included Dame Cicely Saunders, W. Somerset Maugham, and Max Theiler.
Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry
Colloquially known as Barts, this is one of the best-known medical schools in the United Kingdom. Though the modern version of the school was established in 1995, it can trace its roots to 1123. Notable alumni include Graham Chapman, John Hunter, John Langdon Down, and James Parkinson.
British Myths and Legends Are Known Worldwide
Some of the best-known myths and legends can trace their roots to the United Kingdom. Let’s take a look at two of them.
Robin Hood is a heroic outlaw typically linked with Nottingham. The legend can trace its roots to the 13th or 14th centuries, though he only became a popular figure in the Middle Ages.
Hood is a skilled archer and swordsman and is often depicted as being of noble birth. Characters commonly found in these stories include his lover, Maid Marian, the Sheriff of Nottingham, the chief antagonist in these tales, and the Merry Men, his band of outlaws.
Most Robin Hood stories depict him dressed in green, stealing from the rich to give to the poor. Stories often involve the villainous Prince John, a fictional version of King John of England.
Perhaps the best-known figure in British legend, King Arthur, was a legendary king who is said to have helped defend Britain against the Saxons in the 5th and 6th centuries. The myths and stories of his reign make up Arthurian legend.
Prominent figures in Arthurian legend include:
- Merlin, a magician who served as an advisor to the king.
- Guinevere, wife to King Arthur.
- Lancelot, a close friend to Arthur and among the greatest of the Knights of the Round Table.
- Mordred is depicted variously as Arthur’s nephew or illegitimate son. He serves as the chief antagonist of the stories and is usually the cause of his downfall.
Legend holds that King Arthur never died. Instead, he is taken to the isle of Avalon. There, he is healed of his wounds and can rest until he is needed again. Here he would rest until the moment of Britain’s greatest need when he would return to defend his kingdom.
The stories of King Arthur are often associated with older Welsh tales of figures such as Myrddin Wyllt and Gwenhwyfar.
Other folkloric figures include:
- Spring-Heeled Jack: A figure first introduced in the 1800s, Spring-Heeled Jack is said to be an entity capable of leaping across rooftops. Reports claimed his eyes resembled fireballs, could breathe out fire, and had sharp, metallic claws.
- Herne the Hunter: A ghost who is supposed to have antlers growing from his head, Herne is supposed to have once been the leader of the Wild Hunt. The oldest written source of the legend is Shakespeare’s play The Merry Wives of Windsor.
- Green Man: A legendary figure that is supposed to represent nature, rebirth, and spring. The figure is found in churches and carvings across the United Kingdom and numerous legends, including Arthurian legend.
- The Loch Ness Monster: Better known as Nessie, the Loch Ness Monster is a creature from Scottish folklore that is supposed to live in Loch Ness. It is one of the best-known cryptozoological entities, though evidence of its existence is anecdotal and unproven. However, Nessie remains a creature that has captured widespread interest, and there have been several searches carried out to prove its existence.
Some of the World’s Most Famous Monuments Live In the UK
Aside from having a rich history and culture, the United Kingdom is also home to some of the world’s best-known and most easily recognizable monuments.
Dating back about 5000 years, Stonehenge is a prehistoric stone circle shrouded in mystery and folklore. It is considered a cultural icon in the country and was added to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites in 1986.
Located at the north end of the Palace of Westminster, the name Big Ben specifically refers to the great bell of the clock, though it usually refers to the clocktower as well. The tower was designed by Augustus Pinot and was completed in 1859. It was added to the list of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites in 1987 and was made a Grade I listed building in 1970.
Begun in 122, Hadrian’s Wall is a defensive structure that marked the boundary between the Roman conquered Britannia and unconquered Caledonia. It lies entirely within England and is the largest piece of Roman architecture in the UK. Large portions of the wall are still visible today.
Tower of London
A castle in London, the Tower of London was initially founded in 1066 as part of the Norman Conquest. Over the years, it has served as home to the Royal Mint, an armory, and a menagerie, among other functions. It is said to be haunted by several people imprisoned or executed in the tower, including Anne Boleyn, Lady Jane Grey, and the Princes in the Tower.
Located on Castle Rock in Edinburgh, the location of Edinburgh Castle has been occupied by humans since the Iron Age. A castle has stood on the spot since the 12th century, and it was historically one of the most important strongholds in the Kingdom of Scotland, withstanding at least 26 sieges. Today, it houses the Honours of Scotland, the Scottish regalia.
The name given to a series of approximately 40,000 interlocking basalt columns, Giant’s Causeway is the only UNESCO World Heritage Site in Northern Ireland. According to legend, the structure is the remains of a causeway built by the giant Finn MacCool and destroyed by another giant, Benandonner.
The United Kingdom is one of the most history- and culture-rich countries in the world. Though its history may not always have been pretty, it has undoubtedly played a critical part in shaping the world as it is today.