Recently, I've been searching a lot about Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and England. One after the other, England vassalized its neighbors and became the head of Great Britain.

I can understand that Wales, which was really decentralized, couldn't really stop the English. But for Scotland and Ireland, how was it done?

In history lessons, we learn that Ireland was effectively separated into many fiefdoms (4 before the British invasion) but supposedly united against invaders. Thus, how could they lose their lands so easily? Was their army too old? Was there no will to keep their lands?

For Scotland, they indeed often fought against England and often allied with France for protection. They were nonetheless crushed by the English. Why is that? Was their economy too bad to sustain their army? Supplies trouble?

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    A few Scots that I know would take exception to the idea that they were in any way crushed by the English.
    – Steve Bird
    Commented Aug 10, 2016 at 13:33
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    As it stands, I think this is too broad as it covers almost a thousand years of history with multiple factors to be considered. That is, there was no single reason why England became dominant (beyond the obvious advantage in population size).
    – Steve Bird
    Commented Aug 10, 2016 at 13:36
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    the fact that the english were the much more numerous.
    – pugsville
    Commented Aug 10, 2016 at 13:37
  • 3
    If the demographically dominant population is politically organize (united), they almost always prevail. "United we stand, divided we fall" is a well tested theory. The question then becomes: what united the English? Commented Aug 10, 2016 at 15:07
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    @SteveBird - In fact, I've actually heard a Scott argue that the original union between the two countries was a Scottish takeover of England, not visa-versa.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Aug 10, 2016 at 15:09

6 Answers 6


To answer this question, you first have to answer another complex question: Who are the English?

This question turns out to be quite complex indeed because to this day scholars are unsure whether to subscribe to an invasionist/migrationist view or a diffusionist view in regards to the Britons, the Celtic people of Great Britain (excluding Scotland) which are one of the early peoples which preceded the English. To give a rough explanation, the former would mean that the Briton culture came to Great Britain from the continent with its people, whereas the latter would mean that contact with the continent transformed the existing people on the island into the Briton culture.

So, who were these people that were already in Great Britain? Modern humans first reached Britain around 42,000 years ago, but during the last glacial maximum between 25,000 and 15,000 years ago, the island is generally believed to have been unoccupied again. People may have begun occupying the island immediately after the last glacial maximum, but by 9600 BC there was certainly an established population. To give these people some context, some Mesolithic postholes were dug in the Stonehenge area around 8000 BC, so ritual activity had certainly begun.

Over the years prior to the Britons, the cultural changes are generally believed to have happened within a more or less consistent population. For example, 4000 BC brought the Neolithic culture, and the Bronze Age culture arrived about 2300 BC. By 800 BC, the Briton Iron Age had begun in Britain, and this population expanded to about three or four million by the first century BC, mostly concentrated in the south.

Update 4/23/2018: It looks like the Neolithic culture that built Stonehenge may have been replaced by a Bronze Age invasion, after all. See Ancient-genome study finds Bronze Age ‘Beaker culture’ invaded Britain - Ewen Callaway in Nature.

One possible argument for the diffusionist theory is that the Briton druids are understood to have made use of Stonehenge, which was built prior to the Britons. It is certainly possible that invaders made use of the existing religious monument, but it is perhaps somewhat more likely that there existed at least a strain of continuity between the Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age peoples of the island.

Some of the Iron Age Britons may have been the first to call themselves British, or Pretanoi. The Greek Pytheas "discovered" Britain in c. 325 BC. This event marked the beginning of the expansion of the Greco-Roman world northward in Europe. Between 200 BC and AD 43, the Germanic-Celtic refugees from Gaul began migrating to Britain, as the Romans expanded into Gaul. The southern tribes started to become more Romanized, and it is this influence of Germanic and Roman culture which began the transition of the Britons into the English.

By AD 40, the Roman Empire had conquered southern Britain, and the period known as Roman Britain began. It is the Romano-British culture which gave rise to the early legends which would later be transformed into the Arthur myth. After the Romans withdrew from Britain in about AD 410, the Germanic Anglo-Saxons began their series of invasions of the island. As Wikipedia puts it:

Traditionally, it was believed that a mass invasion by various Anglo-Saxon tribes largely displaced the indigenous British population in southern and eastern Great Britain (modern-day England with the exception of Cornwall).

However, recent genetic studies show that there was not really a mass displacement at all. Rather, the relatively small groups of Anglo-Saxon invaders had a large cultural impact on the existing British population. The most notable theory to explain why the Anglo-Saxon culture had such a profound effect on the indigenous people is that the political and economic dominance of the Anglo-Saxons made their culture more desirable. Of course, what exactly gave the Anglo-Saxons an advantage is more complex, and I'll leave that up to the reader to pursue further (more information is available in the linked Wikipedia articles).

By 1066, when William the Conqueror took the English throne, the English culture was already well established, and William's advancements--such as new castles and a census--served only to strengthen the fledgling nation.

The answer to your question, then, is that the English are likely dominant because they are probably composed of the steadily growing population sprung from the more or less original inhabitants of the island. Wales and Scotland, then, are the exceptions, and they deserve further scrutiny.

Some of the Welsh tribes made peace with the Romans, and thus were able to maintain some of their identity through the Roman period. The Anglo-Saxons were not able to penetrate all the way into Wales, possibly because the Romans had not built as much infrastructure there.

The Romans were never able to invade much of Scotland, possibly because it was hard to fight the tribes in the Highlands. Eventually the Romans gave up their land in southern Scotland, and the territory was dominated by native tribes, such as the Picts in the north. After the Romans withdrew from Britain, the Gaels from Ireland invaded Scotland in the west, and the Picts withdrew to the east. Eventually, gaelicization (the influence of the Gaels), transformed Scotland, and the Gaelic and Pictish crowns merged. The strength of this new kingdom is what kept Scotland independent from the English in the south, and that is another topic that deserves further study by the reader.

Wikipedia References:

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    @LamaDelRay You're welcome, and I'm glad it was helpful! I do want to stress again that this is definitely an area worth further study. There are lot of intricacies lost in my summary. Also, I neglected to address Ireland, because until the pope authorized the English king to take Ireland in 1155, that island was really a very separate place. Commented Aug 10, 2016 at 15:24
  • Well, they were quite isolated. Even the vikings had trouble contacting them (Even for trade). Also, the Island of Man wasn't mentioned but your arguments were solid and understandable.
    – LamaDelRay
    Commented Aug 10, 2016 at 15:26
  • Quibble: "refugees from Gaul began migrating to Britain, as the Romans expanded into Gaul. The southern tribes started to become more Romanized, and it is this influence of Germanic and Roman culture which began the transition of the Britons into the English." The Gauls were Celts, not Germans. Since you are talking about the pre-43 AD era, there weren't many Germans around to influence the Britons. I don't believe there was much German influence until the Saxons.
    – kingledion
    Commented Jan 4, 2017 at 1:22
  • @kingledion This was not Germans proper but the broader Germanic peoples. The Romans muddied who was Celtic and who was Germanic in Europe. The Gauls were certainly Celts, but there were peoples in the area who were Germanic. But I agree that most if not all of the Germanic influence comes from the Saxons. Commented Jan 4, 2017 at 1:50

England lies in the warmest, richest, and most fertile parts of the British Isles. These are modern population figures, but they are indicative of past relative strengths:

England, 55 million; Ireland (counting northern Ireland), 6 million; Scotland, 5 million, Wales, 3 million. Frankly, I was surprised at the disparity between England, and all others (14 million). This is in spite of the fact that England has slightly less land area than the others put together. England also had the highest per capital GDP of the four until modern times when an influx of foreign capital enabled the other regions to catch up to, or even overtake England.

So historically, a lot of the competition was not between England and the others, but rather between various "English" factions; e.g. Alfred and Guthrum, or William the Conqueror and Harold. Put another way, the competition was between "British" factions, of whom only some were non-English.

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    "So historically, the competition was not between England and the others, but rather between various "English" factions" - Indeed, in fact you could say there was competition between the various British factions throughout history. Exactly why a majority of these people became "English" is what I explain in my answer. Commented Aug 10, 2016 at 15:22
  • Your answer mixed with that of called2voyage made me understand it better. So thanks a lot!
    – LamaDelRay
    Commented Aug 10, 2016 at 15:22
  • @Tom I agree with your answer overall, but ireland and I believe also scotalnd have higher per capita gdp than england. also irish population closer to 6 million
    – Colin
    Commented Aug 11, 2016 at 17:53
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    @ColinZwanziger: I said "counting northern Ireland" for the 8 million figure. And when I checked, the Scots had a slightly lower per capita GDP than the English. But that is only in recent years because of North Sea oil. Earlier on, the Scots had a per capital GDP closer to that of the Irish or Welsh, a bit more than half of England's.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Aug 11, 2016 at 17:56
  • @TomAu My googling gives me 4.6m for R. of Ireland and 1.8m for N. Ireland for a total of 6.4m. You may be right on Scotland. I believe Ireland surpassed England in per capita GDP around 2000. Again, otherwise I agree w the thrust of your answer
    – Colin
    Commented Aug 11, 2016 at 18:08

The obvious reason for Scotland being "conquered" by England is that King James VI of Scotland was heir to the English throne, and upon the death of Elizabeth I of England (and Ireland) found himself ruling both kingdoms. The larger English population and stronger economy then led to the English language gradually pushing aside both Scottish Gaelic and Scots (a Germanic tongue descended from Old English).

However, the legal system of Scotland is distinct from that of England, and the establishment of the Scottish Assembly promises to retain that distinction.

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    This is really important and not covered in the other answers. The OP seems to think that England conquered Scotland militarily and that's simply wrong. It was the union of crowns followed by cultural imperialism, as this answer makes clear.
    – Bob Tway
    Commented Aug 11, 2016 at 8:56
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    It's not just the legal system of Scotland that is distinct. Scotland has its own educational system and its own church system (In England, the Queen is the had of Church of England - the Church of Scotland has an elected head). Commented Aug 11, 2016 at 14:14
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    @MattThrower plain old cultural domination doesn't account for having Parliament being in London (the Brits having only allowed a Scottish Parliament just 18 years ago), and there not being a Scottish Army.
    – RonJohn
    Commented Nov 4, 2017 at 15:40
  • the act of union was 100 years after James though
    – jk.
    Commented Nov 20, 2017 at 15:46
  • I would have thought English was largely the official language of Scotland well before James VI/I. Spelling was peculiar in Scotland but it was also peculiar in England looked at with modern eyes. Compare a Scottish law of 1560 with an English law of 1547, both apparently still UK law in force
    – Henry
    Commented Oct 4, 2022 at 10:50

Scotland joining England and Wales: The Darien Disaster was an ill-fated attempt to build a roadway across Central America by the Scots. It was backed by most of the Scottish nobility, and its failure nearly bankrupted them. This in turn, nearly bankrupted the Scottish Treasury. This lead to the Union of the Parliaments between Scotland and England in 1707. This was meant to be a equal union, but the merged parliament was in Westminster, London.

  • This is a good addition on how Scotland lost some of its ground. Commented Aug 10, 2016 at 19:47

Although England has always been the most populous country, migrations caused by the Irish potato famine, the Highland clearances and the Industrial Revolution caused the differences in population to be increased vastly. As well as migrations of Irish and Scottish to the US, and countries in the British Empire, large numbers of migrants came to England. Particularly during the Industrial Revolution. Plenty of English people have Scottish, Irish and Welsh names.

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    I think England dominated Britain long before the Industrial revolution or the potato famine.
    – MCW
    Commented Aug 11, 2016 at 19:44

The OP refers to medieval Ireland being divided into four fiefdoms before the English Conquest. Fiefdom is a feudal term and there wasn't any feudalism or fiefdoms in Ireland before the English first invaded.

Before the English invasion medieval Ireland had tens of realms (possibly over a hundred) called Tuaths, each ruled by a ri, or king. Most kings had overlords who in turn had overlords who reigned over the four to six "fifths" or provinces of Ireland, who in turn had the high king of Ireland as their overlord. There were also city states ruled by Scandinavians.

There were a number of cases where warriors from many different kingdoms joined together to fight vikings or Anglo-Normans. The medieval English conquest of Ireland soon fizzled out and the English didn't really conquer most of Ireland until Tudor times about 400 years later.

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