At the end of the 8th century there was no such thing as ‘Britain’- in fact England did not exist as a unified kingdom for another century and a half. The story of how an island at the edge of the northern Atlantic grew to control most of the world’s trade and rule a quarter of the world’s population began with the unification of the different kingdoms of England in the 10th century in response to the threat of Viking raids and invasions.
King Alfred the Great defeated the Vikings by creating unity amongst the Anglo-Saxon Christians against their common enemy but he also accepted the establishment of a separate Viking kingdom that covered large areas of England, which became a magnet for migrants from across Scandinavia. The Viking kingdom, known as the Danelaw, was gradually absorbed into England but its people retained strong cultural connections to Scandinavia. This made it easy for the eventual conquest of England in 1016 by the Danish King Cnut who made England the centre of a North Sea Empire that included Scandinavia and Ireland.
The disintegration of Cnut’s North Sea Empire in 1035 created the political instability that made England the target of another foreign invasion force, this time from Normandy in Northern France. The Norman Conquest of 1066 shifted England’s political outlook south, towards Continental Europe. The migration of large numbers of Normans after the Conquest introduced the French language and French culture to England. This connection to France had a strong influence on England’s development between 1066 and 1453.
Throughout this period, the kings of England also held land in France; at one point during the reign of King Henry II in the late 12th century, England was part of a vast Angevin Empire that stretched from the Scottish border to the Pyrenees Mountains. People and goods moved freely between England and the rest of Europe and this increased the wealth and prestige of the English Crown. The loss of these French territories in the 13th and 14th centuries was a setback for English imperial ambitions. That change also saw English replacing French as the official language of government.
A growing sense of English national identity encouraged King Edward III to invade France in 1346 to restore the French territories of the old Angevin Empire. This attempt to conquer French territory for England was the start of the Hundred Years’ War which ended in defeat for England. However the famous victories England enjoyed during the war would go down in history. The battles at Crecy, Poitiers and Agincourt helped to form a distinctive and unique national identity.