The Anglo-American legal system known as ‘Common Law’, along with the traditions of limited monarchy and representative government (through Parliament) that are closely associated with it, first came into existence in medieval England, and more specifically in the late-twelfth and thirteenth centuries (ca. 1170-1300 CE/AD). For more detail, see the pages on: the Origins of Common Law; the Magna Carta (1215); the Origins of Parliament (ca. 1300).
For the next four centuries this legal-political system continued to develop and change, but without durably altering the balance of power that favored the king over the Parliament. The pace of change quickened in the seventeenth century, when the English Civil War (1642-49) and Revolution (1688-89) led to Parliament finally displacing the king as the dominant partner in Britain’s parliamentary monarchy.
The first American colonies were founded in the seventeenth century, which as explained above saw tumultuous, often violent change in England. Partly for this reason, the colonies were from the start in most respects effectively self-governing. This situation persisted through most of the more domestically peaceful and very prosperous eighteenth century. But prosperity did nothing to settle the arguments that continued to divide political leaders in America and Britain about the precise nature of the colonies’ subordination to the mother country. Over the 1700s Britain’s own government developed towards a greater degree of Parliamentary sovereignty, which created additional friction with Britain’s overseas colonies.
The remainder of this page provides a very brief Outline of Early Anglo-British History, through the end of the Middle Ages (ca. 1500), and more precisely until the beginning of the Tudor Dynasty in 1485.
I. ANCIENT and MEDIEVAL TIMES (to ca. 1500 CE)
Roman Britain, ca. 100-400 CE
The written history of the island of Britain begins essentially with the Romans, who conquered most of the island by ca. 100 CE, ruling over a native Celtic population.
Anglo-Saxon England, ca. 500-1066 CE
The collapse of Roman power in the early 400s led to invasions by various Germanic tribes, including the Angles and the Saxons, from whose names scholars invented the generic term “Anglo-Saxons.” They conquered most of Britain, an area that would later be known as England (‘Angle-Land’). The dominant language of this area became Anglo-Saxon or Old English, which is closer to German than to modern English. Celtic peoples and cultures survived in Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. Originally divided into several separate kingdoms, the Viking invasions of the 800s led the Anglo-Saxons to unite under Alfred of Wessex (871-99). Over the 900s the kings of Wessex began calling themselves the kings of England, and the country of “England” first emerged as a single political entity.
The Norman Conquest & Dynasty, 1066-1154
In 1066 the French-speaking Normans from Normandy (France), under William I the Conqueror, conquered England. William’s conquest created a highly centralized monarchy and introduced a systematic form of feudalism to England, so that in theory all land was held from the king. England’s rulers and nobility continued to speak French for almost 300 years. Despite these changes, Norman kings like Henry I (1100-35) promised in their coronation oaths to uphold traditional laws and customs, including those of the pre-Conquest era (see the page on early medieval custom).
The Angevin Dynasty, 1154-1399
After the crown passed to another French-derived dynasty (from the region of Anjou), three constitutional developments of lasting significance occurred. First, Henry II (1154-89) oversaw the expansion and reform of royal justice, creating a formal judicial system that was applicable across England as a new Common Law. Second, the Magna Carta, which King John was forced to sign in 1215, spelled out the principles of a limited monarchy, one that was supposed to rule under law, obtain consent for taxation, and observe due process in legal matters. Third, under Edward I (1272-1307), a new institution of representative government, the Parliament, began to develop the means of controlling taxation and legislation. Over the 1300s the two houses of Parliament emerged: the House of Commons and the House of Lords.
The Late Middle Ages, to 1485
The later Middle Ages were marked by severe crises, including the Black Death (1348), the 100 Years War with France (1337-1453), and the civil war known as the War of the Roses (1455-85)—and also the advent of gunpowder warfare. By ca. 1400 English had finally replaced Latin and French as the language of law and government.
II. THE EARLY MODERN ERA (ca. 1500-1800)
In Anglo-British history the three centuries of the early modern period correspond to or overlap with three dynasties of rulers: the Tudors (1485-1603); the Stuarts (1603-1714); and the Hannoverians (1714-1901).