People have lived on the British Isles for about half a million years. About 800 B.C., Celts migrated from northern Europe to the islands. Between 55 and 43 B.C., the Romans invaded. They established towns, including present-day London, in the south and east, and built Hadrian's Wall in northern England to defend themselves from warrior tribes in what is now Scotland.

As Roman power waned in the 5th century, Germanic tribes-Angles, Saxons and Jutes-invaded England from northern Europe. During the 6th and 7th centuries, missionaries from Europe converted most of the population to Christianity. In the 9th century, Vikings from Scandinavia attacked the east coast.

In 1066, an army from Normandy in France, led by William the Conqueror, defeated the English in a decisive battle at Hastings on the south coast. The Normans established the monarchy that still rules England. In 1215, William's great-grandson, King John, signed the Magna Carta, a charter that laid the foundations of England's legal system.

From 1340 to 1450, England warred with France over land on the continent claimed by both nations. Between 1455 and 1485, two competing English families struggled for the throne in the War of the Roses. The war ended when the Tudor family came to power. One of the Tudor kings, Henry VIII, quarrelled with the pope in Rome and declared himself head of the English church. The reign of his daughter, Elizabeth I, was a time of overseas exploration and trade, as well as great artistic achievement.

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The prehistoric peoples of England built a massive stone structure at Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain in about 2000 B.C. No one knows how they were able to construct this circle of stone slabs, which weigh up to 50 tons each.
When Elizabeth I died, the King of Scotland inherited the throne. His son, Charles I, tried to reduce the powers of the English Parliament. This action led to civil war. The forces opposed to the king, led by Oliver Cromwell, defeated and executed Charles I in 1649. For the next 11 years, England was a republic. After the death of Cromwell, the monarchy was restored.

During the late 18th and 19th centuries, the country transformed itself from a rural, agricultural economy to an urban, industrial economy. Under Queen Victoria, who reigned from 1837 to 1901, the British managed a vast colonial empire. At its height, the British Empire included one-quarter of the world's population.

Britain fought Germany in the First World War (1914-18). Thousands of Englishmen died in the trenches of northern Europe. War with Germany broke out again in 1939. In the Second World War, thousands of civilians were killed in bombing raids. British troops fought in Europe, North Africa and Asia.

After the war, Britain worked to rebuild its economy. Many former colonies became independent nations in the 1950s and 1960s, but stayed connected to Britain through membership in the Commonwealth. In 1982, Britain fought a brief war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands. The economy strengthened in the 1990s.