Constitutionally, England does not exist. It is not mentioned in the title of the sovereign who rules ?the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her other Realms and Territories.? Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland have certain governmental institutions of their own, but England, having subsumed or created those institutions at one time or another, needs no special mention. Holding more than four-fifths of the population, however, England?s dominance in the United Kingdom is beyond question. London was the largest town in Roman Britain and has been the capital of a unified England since the Norman Conquest of 1066. England has played a dominant role in British history since that time.
By ethnic origin the English are a mongrel breed. Their language is polyglot, drawn from a variety of sources, and its vocabulary has been augmented by importations from all over the world. The English language does not identify the English, for it is the main language of Wales, Scotland, Ireland, many Commonwealth countries, and the United States. The primary source of the language, however, is the main ethnic stem of the English, the Anglo-Saxons, who invaded and colonized England in the 5th and 6th centuries. Their language provides about half the words in modern English vocabulary.
In the millennia following the last Ice Age, migrant tribes from the continent of Europe and, later, by traders from the Mediterranean area, inhabited the British Isles. During the Roman occupation, Celtic Brythons inhabited England, but the Celts withdrew before the Teutonic Angles, Saxons, and Jutes (from northwestern Germany) into the mountainous areas of western and northern Britain. The Anglo-Saxons neither preserved nor absorbed the Roman-British culture they found in the 5th century. There are few traces of Celtic or Roman Latin in the early English of the Anglo-Saxons, though some words survive in place-names.
Greek of the educated scholars of the Renaissance. The seafarers, explorers, and empire builders of modern history have imported foreign words, most copiously from Europe but also from Asia. These words have been so completely absorbed into the language that they pass unselfconsciously as English. The English, it might be said, are great anglicizers.
The English have also absorbed and anglicized people of alien race, from Scandinavian pillagers and Norman conquerors to Latin churchmen. In the royal line, a Welsh dynasty of monarchs, the Tudors, were succeeded by the Scottish Stuarts, to be followed by the Dutch William of Orange, and the German Hanoverians. England provided a haven for refugees from the time of the Huguenots in the 17th century to the totalitarian persecutions of the 20th century. Many Jews have settled in England. In recent decades there has been large-scale immigration from Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean, posing seemingly more difficult problems of assimilation, and restrictive immigration regulations have been imposed that are out of key with the open-door policy that had been an English tradition for many generations. To be counted English, it has never been necessary to be of purebred English stock, and indeed, there can be few English who are. Increasingly, England is a secular country. Though nearly three-fifths of the population is baptized in an Anglican church and for form-filling purposes would say they belonged to the Church of England, fewer than one in 40 of the baptized are communicant churchgoers. The Church of England still has some 16,500 churches, but it has been in financial difficulties. The nonconformist Free Churches has nominally fewer members, but there is probably greater dedication among them, as with the Roman Catholic Church. Apart perhaps from some isolated centers of Irish settlement in the North West, there is complete religious tolerance in England and no overt prejudice against Catholics. The decline in churchgoing has been thought to be an indicator of decline in religious belief, but opinion polls substantiate the view that belief in God and the central tenets of Christianity survives the flagging fortunes of the churches. There are also large communities of Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, and Hindus.
England?s contribution to both British and world culture is too vast for anything but a cursory survey. In the contemporary cultural scene, England is not always distinguishable from Wales and Scotland or even Northern Ireland.
It is, arguably, in its literature that England has attained its most influential cultural expression. For more than a millennium, each stage in the development of the English language has produced its masterworks.
The heroic poem Beowulf, dating from the 9th or 10th century, preserves the earliest literary language of Britain, the Germanic Anglo-Saxon, known as Old English. Following the Norman Conquest of 1066, French influence shaped the vocabulary as well as the literary preoccupations of Middle English. Geoffrey Chaucer epitomized both the courtly philosophical concerns and the earthy vernacular of this period in his Troilus and Criseyde and The Canterbury Tales, respectively. The Elizabethan era of the late 16th century fostered the flowering of the European Renaissance in England and the golden age of English literature. The plays of William Shakespeare, while on their surface representing the culmination of Elizabethan English, achieve a depth of characterization and richness of invention that have fixed them in the dramatic repertoire of virtually every language.
In the modern period, English literature demonstrated a remarkable capacity to absorb and transmute alien elements, taking into the mainstream of its tradition poets as Irish as William Butler Yeats, as Welsh as Dylan Thomas, or as securely in the classic line as the U.S. expatriates T.S. Eliot and Henry James. Massive immigration from the far reaches of the Commonwealth has in the late 20th century further diversified England?s literary landscape and has itself become the subject of numerous novels and plays.
Though England has a lively cultural life, its characteristic pursuits are of a more popular kind. The exploitation of leisure is increasingly the concern of commerce: holiday camps, foreign holiday package tours, gambling of many kinds from bingo to horse-race betting, and the transformation of the traditional English pub by trendy interior decoration. The English weekend is the occasion for countryside trips and for outdoor activities from fishing to mountaineering. England gave to the world the sports of cricket, association football, and rugby football, but team and spectator sports tend to be giving way to more individualistic activities. Despite persistent commercial tempting to do something else, the English remain a stay-at-home people. Domestic comforts, epitomized in the cozy charm of cottages and gardens and the pervasive ritual of afternoon tea, continue to figure prominently in the character of English life.
A specifically English role in contemporary government and politics is hard to identify, for these operate on a nationwide British basis. Historically, the English may be credited with the evolution of Parliament, which, in its medieval form, was related to the Anglo-Saxon practice of regular gatherings of notables; and the English may also be credited with the glory of the 1688 Revolution, which affirmed the rule of law, parliamentary control of taxation and of the army, freedom of speech, and religious toleration. Freedom of speech and opinion with proper opportunities for reasonable debate form part of the English tradition, but the development of party and parliamentary government in its modern forms took place after the Act of Union of 1707, when, in politics, the history of England became the history of Britain.
In government the English legacy remains conspicuous in local affairs, which are still largely administered on a county base that can be traced back to the Anglo-Saxon shires. The separation of county and town was the principle underlying the late Victorian reorganization of local government. The reforms of the 1970s established a two-tier system of counties and districts
The Local Government Act enacted by Parliament in 1992 created a Local Government Commission for England. Its task was to review periodically the structure of local government to ensure that boundaries equitably reflected regional demographics. The commission?s first review recommended reducing the number of two-tier constituencies in England. The reorganization, carried out in 1996-98, created 34 two-tier constituencies (county-districts) and 46 single-tier constituencies (unitary authorities); the structure of Greater London and of the six metropolitan counties remained the same.
Another local administrative unit is the parish, which is part of smaller boroughs and urban districts that existed prior to 1972. Of the some 10,000 parishes in England, four-fifths have their own councils. Although the functions of the county and district are distinct, the functions of the parish are concurrent with those of the districts.
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