Timeline of British History
Invasion, war (both civil and foreign), empire, democracy, scientific progress, and sporting, literary and artistic genius.
The history of Great Britain is a fascinating and tumultuous tale. On this page, we introduce the 50 most important events in reverse chronological order so that you can see how far back your knowledge goes.
Britain has had to redefine herself after the Second World War.
No longer a political or economic superpower, she has instead excelled in the arts, the development of cutting-edge technology, the service industries and in sport.
23 June 2016 After a bitterly fought referendum, Britain votes by a small majority (51.9% to 48.1%) to leave the European Union.
2012 London hosts the Summer Olympic Games. Great Britain secures 65 medals (29 of them gold), ranking third in the medal table (behind the US and China and ahead of Russia and other European nations).
2005 England regains the Ashes, beating Australia in a thrilling summer of cricket that grips the nation.
2003 England wins the Rugby World Cup, beating the hosts Australia 20-17 after extra time in a topsy-turvy game in Sydney. Jonny Wilkinson's drop-goal seals victory in the final minute.
1979-90 Margaret Thatcher is prime minister. Her right-wing policies of privatisation and breaking the trade unions prove controversial but pave the way for the economic booms of the 1990s and early 2000s. Between April and June 1982, Britain successfully recaptures the Falkland Islands after they are invaded by Argentina. Thatcher was known for her big perm, handbags, strong leadership and oratory:
"The Lady's not for turning."
"In politics, if you want anything said, ask a man. If you want anything done, ask a woman."
1973 Britain is crippled by strikes, leading to the introduction of the three-day working week between January and March 1974 (designed to preserve electricity when coal miners were on strike).
1973 Britain joins the EEC, its membership having been blocked for a number of years by Charles de Gaulle. A referendum followed two years later, when voters emphatically ratified Britain's membership (67.2% for and 32.8% against)
30 July 1966 England wins the Football World Cup, beating West Germany 4-2 in the final held at Wembley, West London. The match was tied at 2-2 after full time, with Geoff Hurst's two extra time goals sealing victory.
1960 The Beatles are formed in Liverpool. Over the next decade the Fab Four become the most important band in history.
June-Dec 1956 President Nasser of Egypt forcibly nationalises the Suez Canal, previously owned and run by the Suez Canal Company (controlled by British and French interests). Britain, France and Israel jointly invade Egypt to retake control and oust Nasser. But their military operation comes to an end under political pressure from the US, USSR and UN. Anthony Eden, the then Prime Minister, resigns in humiliation. The Suez crisis is widely regarded as ending Britain's status as a superpower.
1953 Englishman Francis Crick and American James Watson discover the double-helix structure of DNA whilst working at Cambridge University's Cavendish research laboratory.
2 June 1953 Queen Elizabeth II's coronation (she has actually reigned since 6 February 1952). She is to become the longest-serving monarch, surpassing Queen Victoria's 63 years 216 days on the throne in September 2015. Elizabeth II's coronation comes less than a week after a British-led expedition conquers Mount Everest (though the triumphant climbers, Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, were from New Zealand and Nepal respectively).
5 July 1948 The National Health Service is founded, under Clement Atlee's labour government. Aneurin Bevan was the health secretary to oversee this healthcare revolution.
15 August 1947 After 89 years of rule, Britain grants independence to India. The last British troops leave through the Gateway of India in Bombay (now Mumbai) on 28 February 1948.
July 1945 Clement Atlee's labour party trounces Churchill's conservatives in an election held immediately after the conclusion of the Second World War. The country decided that the man to lead them in times of war was not a suitable peace-time premier.
The Second World War
The Second World War was a close-run thing.
Had the Battle of Britain been lost, Germany would have invaded. As it was, Britain's pilots defended her, America entered the war, the Enigma Code was cracked, the Battle of the Atlantic won, and Europe was re-taken following the audacious D-Day landings.
15 August 1945 Emperor Hirohito announces Japan's unconditional surrender following the dropping of atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima on 6 August and Nagasaki three days later.
8 May 1945 Victory in Europe is declared, following Germany's unconditional surrender the previous day.
10 July 1943 This date marked the invasion of Sicily and the start of the Allied invasion of Italy, a campaign that was not to end until 2 May 1945 (just under a week before Germany's unconditional surrender). The campaign was characterised by slow progress, bitter small-scale fighting and huge loss of life.
1941 to 1944 Alan Turing and his team at Bletchley Park crack the Enigma code used by the Germans (and in particular the German navy). Eisenhower was later to say that his work made a "decisive" contribution to the allied victory.
Mid-1943 The allies gain the upper-hand in the Battle of the Atlantic, with the cracking of the Enigma code and advances in radar technology meaning that U-boats were hunted down and destroyed. By this stage, submariners had a c. 75% casualty rate (the highest of all German forces).
11 November 1942 General Bernard Montgomery leads the British and American forces to victory in the Second Battle of El Alamein in north Africa.
7 December 1941 America enters the war following the Japanese attack on the naval base of Pearl Harbour in Hawaii.
June to September 1940 The Battle of Britain is fought over the skies of the southern counties. Britain prevails, but only just, thanks to the heroism of its pilots and the superiority of the Spitfire. As Churchill later said of the RAF pilots:
"Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few."
27 May to 4 June 1940 The British Expeditionary Force, the country's professional army, is evacuated from Dunkirk using a flotilla of small fishing and pleasure boats. Codenamed Operation Dynamo, Churchill was later to describe the Dunkirk evacuation as a "miracle of deliverance". The turnaround was remarkable: only days earlier Churchill reported to the House of Commons that a "colossal military disaster" had taken place.
10 May 1940 Germany invades France, Belgium and Holland using its 'blitzkreig' tactics. On the same day, Churchill replaces Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister (though a number in the conservative party, and King George VI, favoured the appointment of Lord Halifax).
1 September 1939 Germany invades Poland. Britain and France declare war on Germany two days later, but do little to help Poland. Britain enters a period known as the "phony war", which was to last until April 1940.
The Inter-War Years
The interwar years re-shaped British society.
They saw the introduction of near universal suffrage, the nation suffer and recover from the great depression, the abdication of Edward VIII, and finally the misconceived policy of appeasement.
September 1938 Neville Chamberlain returns from a summit in Munich with Adolf Hitler. In return for agreeing to cede parts of Czechoslovakia to the dictator, Chamberlain said that Hitler he had secured Hitler's agreement to "peace in our time". Chamberlain's motives were good, World War I having killed over 8 million, but he was naive.
One of the few to see that Chamberlain was wrong was Winston Churchill. He told Chamberlain:
"You were given the choice between war and dishonour. You chose dishonour, and you will have war."
January 1936 Edward VIII abdicates so that he can marry Wallace Simpson, an American divorcee. In his abdication speech he says:
"But you must believe me when I tell you that I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties as King as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love."
1929-32 The Great Depression, following the New York stock market crash of 1929, hits the nation. Exports halve and unemployment doubles. The country begins to emerge from the downturn in 1934, following the slashing of unemployment benefit to save money and leaving the gold standard (reducing the value of sterling and thus encouraging exports).
1928 Englishman Alexander Fleming isolates penicillin, the antibiotic used today to fight a wide range of bacteria. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1945.
1925 Great Britain re-joins the Gold Standard, linking the value of the pound to the value of gold, a controversial move championed by Winston Churchill.
1918 Following the end of the First World War, the Representation of the People Act 1918 was passed by Parliament. It extended the vote to all men over 21, without any requirement that voters own property. The vote was also extended to women over 30. A decade later women were permitted to vote on the same terms as men.
World War One
The First World War, also known as the Great War, led to 1,114,914 British deaths, virtually wiping out a generation of young men.
11 November 1918 An Armistice is signed between the Allies and Germany at Compiègne, France at 5:45 am. It takes effect at 11 am.
9 November 1918 Kaiser Wilhelm abdicates following the success of the Allied Hundred Days Offensive (a series of victories, starting with the Battle of Amiens on 8-10 August 1918, that pushed the Germans back and destroyed their morale). By October 1918 the Germans were sending notes asking for peace to President Wilson and the German navy was mutinying.
21 March 1918 The Germans commence a series of major offensives on the allied line known as Operation Michael. They are repulsed and over the next months the allies counter-attack (buttressed by American forces). Operation Michael had petered out by July 1918
6 April 1917 The US, led by President Woodrow Wilson, enters the war to support Britain and France.
1 July to 18 November 1916 The Battle of the Somme takes place, one of the bloodiest battles in human history. Over three million men take part, with over one million killed or injured. The battle was also the first to feature primitive tanks.
Feb 1915 to Jan 1916 The Gallipoli campaign takes place, the chief sponsor of which is Winston Churchill. The audacious plan is to take control of one of the straits linking the Aegean and Black Seas, thereby weakening the Ottoman empire's supply routes and bolstering Russia. But the amphibious landing was difficult and little progress made. The allied forces give up in January 1916, having sustained casualties of about 302,000.
Christmas Day 1914 British and German soldiers hold football matches in no-man's land, a touching act of humanity in a thoroughly inhumane war. There were some similar gestures the next year, but by 1916 the use of poison gas and the Battle of the Somme brought an end to the tradition.
6-10 September 1914 The Battle of the Marne takes place on the outskirts of Paris. French and British forces, which were in retreat, counter-attack at the Marne River and split the German army in two. The Germans retreat for 65 kilometres and then "dig-in". Trenches soon extend from the channel coast to Switzerland and four years of trench warfare begins.
4 August 1914 Germany invades Belgium, hoping to march through it with little resistance to get around the French fortifications on the France/Germany border. The "Schlieffen" Plan is to overcome France and then focus attention on the Russians (who the Germans thought would take a long time to mobilize). But the Germans meet substantial resistance from Belgian army, supported by the British.
28 June 1914 Archduke Franz Ferdinand is assassinated in Sarajevo, sparking a series of events that lead to the outbreak of World War One: Austria-Hungary (with support from Germany) make a list of unreasonable demands of Serbia and declares war when they are not met; Russia comes to Serbia's aid; and France does likewise, with Britain joining in once Belgium is invaded.