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European legacy

The way we live, our beliefs, values, and social institutions are a product of our cultural history. If we want to create a better future then we need the best possible understanding of the historical circumstances that have brought us to the present day.

The focus of this series of articles on the history of Britain has occurred because it is the European accultured British who would later occupy the Neo-European continents of North America, Australia, New Zealand, India and elsewhere.

Not surprisingly, the further we go back in prehistory the more difficult it is to detect ideas and attitudes that influence us today. Is it possible to still get a weak signal from our distant relatives from thousands of years ago; a few glimmering clues about the way they felt and thought about life and the land they occupied?

Our only possible lines of communication seem to be through the objects they left behind (archaeology), the genes that we have inherited (genetic anthropology, palaeogenetics) and the uncertain information contained within language, oral tradition, and art. It might be that our strongest beam of light into the shadows of the past is hidden in the scientifically least respectable source: our record of myths, traditions, legends, superstitions and folk-lore.

Historical background

We know that there has been enormous technological change since the Industrial Revolution – the use of fossil fuels, atomic energy, electricity, telecommunications, jet aircraft – have, over a brief historical period, totally transformed human society. Such developments seem to dwarf into insignificance the events of history that happened before the 18th century. But human population and society have also grown in an organic way so that small changes that occurred in the distant past have matured into cultural institutions of major significance today. The cultivation of grain fields by small villages during the Neolithic Revolution about 10,000 years ago has become the industrial agriculture that now feeds the world. The functional apportioning of space in Bronze age cities about 5,000 years ago – spaces dedicated to commerce, religion, administration, parks and gardens, housing etc. – is largely the same as today. Urban living created the need for laws regulating the behaviour of large numbers of people, and other kinds of laws to ensure the efficient exchange of goods and services, and management of property ownership.

So much of the culture so familiar to us today emerged from social institutions that were a product of the Agricultural Revolution and urban living in Bronze Age cities. No doubt these city-dwellers still retained some of the beliefs and traditions of their hunter-gatherer ancestors (see British prehistory).

The emergence of agriculture and cities arose in both the West (cultures derived from the Mesopotamian core) and East (cultures mostly derived from valley communities of the Indus, Yangtze and Yellow Rivers) as a kind of convergence. However, if we wish to understand the more subtle differences that might distinguish Australian cultural tradition from that of an Asian country then we must look more closely at the European history that produced these distinguishing features.

European civilizations

In the West, cities that grew from the early agricultural settled societies of the Neolithic Revolution became city states in the Mediterranean civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the Near East. Europe itself would form a socio-political east-west divide: the western component developed out of the later Greco-Roman Empires and their eventual Christian extension, while societies that evolved out of the eastern Babylonian, Persian, and Arab empires would follow the religion of Islam. This world underwent rapid and dramatic change in the early modern era c. 1450-1800 when the countries of northwest Europe, during a phase of rapid scientific and technological change, launched an Age of Discovery – an era of colonial expansion.

Sailing west led to the discovery of the Americas (Columbus 1492) which opened up an Atlantic trade between the Old World Atlantic ports and New World settlements. Sailing east European ships rounded the Cape of South Africa (Diaz 1488) into the Indian Ocean and beyond into the Pacific. European colonies were established across the world – first by the Portuguese and Spanish in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Dutch in the 18th century, and then by the French and English in the 19th century.

The Great Divergence

This phase of global economic development dominated by European powers and culminating in a 19th century British empire (that incoporated a quarter of the world’s population) has become known as the Great Divergence. Anglo-European influence on world economics and politics became increasingly dominant as America became a global superpower in the 20th century. The economic domination of the world by European interests also widened the influence of European politics, social institutions, and culture through this definitive period of globalization. Indeed, as a consequence of this British history, colonies like America and Canada, Australia, New Zealand, parts of South Africa, along with many islands and protectorates, have been called Neo-Europes (Crosby 2010). This is why international political, academic, and economic communication is essentially anglophone.

Biological globalization

Intimately associated with the European way of life were the traditional European-specific practices of plant domestication and food production. The cultural extension of the Old World into the New World was also accompanied by a biological exchange on a grand scale as European temperate agriculture, along with its commensals and diseases, was dispersed around the world. Localized tropical crops were shared and exchanged to become pan-tropical. Ornamental plant trophies were eagerly accumulated in European gardens and a European stocktake of world biodiversity began (see cultivated plant globalization). The ‘Columbian exchange’ of plants was, of course, accompanied by a similar exchange of domesticated animals.

London & urbanization

In 55 BCE, today’s London was a marshy embankment on the Thames River (Thames, a word from Middle English Temese derived from Tamesas the Brittonic Celtic name for the river – Latin Tamesis) – possibly meaning ‘dark’.)

The earliest written reference to the river occurs in Julius Caesar’s account of his second expedition to Britain in 54 BCE when he encountered the Iron Age Belgic tribes, the Catuvellauni and the Atrebates, along the river.

The first Roman first occupation was in 43 CE under Emperor Claudius when fortified settlements were established along the Thames valley, notably at the confluence of the Thames and Cherwell rivers. 

Cornhill and Ludgate Hill were defendable locations where the river was deep enough for shipping and narrow enough to be bridged. Here, around the year 47 CE, Londinium (London) was established over the Walbrook, a subterranean river on the north bank which Julius Caesar considered suitable for continental trade, a site that gave Rome a convenient point of access to the rest of Britannia. Tacitus describes how merchants were importing grapes, opium poppies, coriander, and figs from the continent.

Roman occupation

Here Julius Caesar set up Londinium the emporium, the population quickly growing to about 10,000 people aided by a single wooden bridge that connected the two sides of the River Thames. This bridge would stand for 1600 years.

In 60 CE Boadica, Queen of the Celtic tribe of Icini (who, according to Roman historian Tacitus, was flogged and her daughters raped) led an uprising in which St Albans, Colchester and London were all burned to the ground, humiliating the Roman invaders. However, wooden tablets recovered in 2013 record (in beeswax incised with a stylus) that within two years Londinium was again a vibrant trade centre.

Londinium reached its Roman height in the second century CE with stone buildings that included a massive basilica and amphitheatre (on the site of today’s Guildhall) that could hold crowds of around 7000 people. A luxurious villa, with hypocaust, has been excavated at Billingsgate and dated to about 190 CE. By the early 3rd century Londinium had a multi-ethnic, multicultural population of about 30,000 people from distant lands including Africa, the Mediterranean, and Germany. The maximum population of Roman Londinium is estimated at about 60,000.

As the hub of the Roman Province of Britannia a city wall was now built around Londinium’s ‘square mile’: it was 6 m tall and 3 m thick (there are remains at Tower Hill), the bricks and masonry probably obtained from a quarry 60 miles away, constructed using slave labour, and completed in 280 CE.

As the Roman Empire faced increasing external threat, in 410 the garrisons were redeployed elsewhere in the empire and Londinium, for over 100 years, was almost deserted.[21]

Anglo-Saxon & Viking

By the 11th century London was by far the largest city in the country that in the 13th century had a population of around 80,000 people in two settlements: the exclusive and aristocratic royal precinct at the West End, dominated by the iconic Westminster Abbey (rebuilt by Henry III, beginning in 1245) and the eastern merchant City of London dominated by Guild Hall.

By the 12th century the strict hierarchy was beginning to dissolve. Rural life was becoming more peaceful, spreading out from the castles or the more recently built manor houses. Intra-dynastic territorial wars followed ending in 1216 with the death of King John marking a transition from the Angevin period (Anjou) to a Plantagenet dynasty. By this time the Church had become an independent organization answering to Catholic Rome which had inspired several Crusades against Muslim assertion in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Towns, especially along the eastern and southern coast were engaging in both local and continental trade.

In the 7th century Saxon raiders occupied the city, establishing wooden buildings in today’s Covent garden, the population rising to about 7000 to become a major Anglo-Saxon settlement, Lundenwic (London port) although Winchester had now become the capital of Saxon England. In 851 CE a Viking raiding party of 350 ships arrived to take over the city but this was met by Alfred the Great’s army in 886, Alfred re-building London in the late 9th century so that by the 9th century, a population of about 10,000 people lived in the city once again. Londinium became known as Lundenburh (London fort) or simply Lunden, and Lundenwic became ealdwic or aldwich. (‘old’ derived from ‘ald’ the OE ‘eald’ and German cognate ‘alt’). In 1014 Saxon King Ethelred evicted the Vikings until the arrival of Norman King William who secured the country with a system of castles and a dynasty of Norman nobles that lasted for over 100 years. The most famous of these castles was the Tower and Hampton Court, taking 20 years to build beside the Thames from stone carried across the English Channel from France. The name Aldewich (old port) was first recorded in 1211. By 1250 the population of London was 80,000, its place as capital now regained from Winchester.

Tudor & Stuart

The positivism that had developed up to 1250 was curtailed by the arrival of the Black Death in 1348 and the Little Ice Age, during a time of internal popular revolt and constant warfare between countries (The Hundred Years War) and the splitting of the Catholic Church into western and eastern chapters- known as the western schism.

In 1348 the Great Plague, Yersinia pestis, struck as in 18 months half the population died. Those that survived entered a new period of growth and prosperity.

The two settlements were divided by a river known as the Fleet which was filled in Tudor times the two combined settlement divided by Fleet Street as a major artery of communication between the two. In the 1530s about 60% of the property in London was owned by the Catholic Church and much of this property passed to Henry VIII in a land grab that including the 650 acre Hyde Park. Henry confiscated Whitehall and Wolsey’s Palace for himself, passing on other properties to his nobles.

Declining numbers of monasteries in the early 16th century showed increasing ornamentation and it was classical themes that took precedence in the new Renaissance mansions of the wealthy. When Elizabeth assumed the throne the population was about 60,000 but when James succeeded her in 1603 this had increased to 200,000 by 1640.

In 1650 the population had reached about 350,000 but in September 1666 a massive fire destroyed over 80% of Old London in 5 days leaving about 100,000 homeless. With the destruction of St Paul’s cathedral Charles II sought a plan of renovation. Though Christopher Wren had made a proposal, and though rejected, his plan for a new domed St Pauls was eventually accepted and completed in 35 years.

Over the years while the affluent in the western end of the city developed a fashionable shopping district the poor in the east turned into a ghetto.


By Victorian times the city, especially the Thames embankment, displayed the factories and warehouses that were part of the Industrial Revolution’s trade as, in 1836 Railway Bridge was erected and the first line constructed between Euston and Birmingham as 19 private railway companies competed for the development of new lines, the magnificent Paddington station designed by Brunel as the first of Britain.s London commuters arrived in the city.

In 1850 the population was 3 million as conditions became increasingly polluted. Citizens obtained their water from well and sewage was dumped in cesspools and the Thames which was full of all kinds of effluvia. Eventually, prompted by outbreaks of cholera, the government commissioned Joseph Bazalgette to construct 1300 miles of sewers to take London’s sewage east, by gravity, towards the mouth of the Thames where it could be washed out to sea. Vast pipes were installed along the Victoria, Albert and Chelsea embankments and around 1884 new bridges were built and the old ones rejuvenated in a vast Victorian engineering scheme that improved conditions for London citizens, much of the work still in place and functioning today.

By the mid-20th century London was a world centre with a population that had grown from 1 million in 1801 to 3 million in 1860 following the benefits of railways, roads and sanitation. One difficulty was that the provinvial rails terminated at the city’s periphery, a situation that was corrected by the introduction of the first underground rail in 1863, a Metropolitan line running from Faringdon to Paddingtion using cut-and-cover (trains in drains) technique and gas-lit carriages. The first truly bored underground was the Northern Line and by 1890 there were 5 major underground lines relieving the above-ground congestion.

By the 1880s growth had also produced slums with about half (2 million) the population living in poverty and squalor of the kind described in Charles Dickens’ (1812-1870) novels, and made famous by the 11 Whitechapel Jack-the-Ripper murders of 1888. Victorian-era engineering and ingenuity turned all this around such that by the time of Victoria’s funeral in 1901 Britain controlled 25% of the world’s population and land mass. The Edwardian era that followed from, 1901 to 1914, brought improved and brightened science and architecture to London along with motorized buses, the telephone, a now fully-integrated underground system and suffragettes.

Word War I (called ‘the war to end all wars’) was a total war of 4.25 years that transformed London which, as a manufacturing and trade centre, was a primary target for bombing, at first by zeppelins and airships, then by aeroplanes in 1917. At the end of the war the populationof 7 million was once again reduced to poverty, the soldiers from the from bringing back Spanish Flu that, world-wide, would kill 50 million people – about three times the deaths resulting from the war itself. Rebuildin of London began again in earnest, the population doubling in the next 20 years and moving outwards to vast surburban housing estates or ‘metro-land’. In 1939 the population was 8.6 million covering an area 34 miles wide as a halt to sprawl attempted with a Green Belt.

World War II produced widespread devastation across the city resulting from 57 consecutive nights of bombing that included 10s of thousands of incendiary bombs – all meticulously recorded in the London Metropolitan Archives. It took 20 years to recover as, in 1948, the first immigrants arrived to help rebuild the city which received a major set-back with the introduction of container-ships in the 1960s – too large to pass up the Thames as, from 1967 to 1981 the docklands became derelict. In 1979 it was decided to convert the old imperial trading hub – relic of the time when ‘Britain ruled the waves’ – the Isle of Dogs – into a modern global financial centre as Canary Wharf linked to 26 miles of ‘Crossrail’.

Australia as a Neo-Europe

Europeans disembarking from their ships onto the shores of Australia in the 16th to 18th centuries encountered an Aboriginal people who had (after walking from Africa across the Arabian Peninsula, coastal India and coasts of southeast Asia) occupied the continent for about 55,000 years. It is likely that many of the biological formations seen by the Europeans had already been changed by Aboriginal Fire and hunting.


British settlement brought an entirely new set of beliefs, attitudes and practices that, in a brief 250 years, would totally transform the landscape although, only 50 years after the first landing at Botany Bay the British had just a few settlements dotted around the periphery of the land.

Australia’s convicts and early settlers arrived in Australia with the beliefs and traditions of their British homeland – but where did these traditions come from? The British arrival in Australia was, in effect, an invasion. Britain was a country that in prehistory had been part of the north-western European mainland, becoming separated after the last Ice Age. But its status as an island did not mean that it was immune from incursion. Britain itself was itself a product of multiple invasions and occupations, the original Celtic Britons from the Iberian Peninsula (see British prehistory) were invaded and settled by the Roman army for several hundred years. The departure of the soldiers heralded an influx of continental peoples, the Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Picts and others forming an amalgamated Anglo-Saxon culture subsequently invaded by Scandinavian Vikings, and then the Normans.

Is it possible to trace any traditions of land use and environmental management to any of these specific groups of people? The signal from these distant ancestors may be weak, but it can be heard.

Commentary & sustainability analysis

This sketchy and highly simplified broad-brush account of the historical background to Australian settlement is developed in other articles. Historical influences on our lives come from many sources harking back into the unknown past. The influence of British culture through its empire has been pervasive, especially in the neo-Europes like America and Australia. There is a bias in this particular set of articles on the ‘English’ rather than European components of this story (Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, Normans) but it is interesting to examine their possible influence, through Britich cultiure, on modes of politics, economics, culture, and even gardening traditions. Though, as we have seen, English culture is an amalgamation of its preceding cultures, it is to England that Australians must look first if they are to understand their own way of life.

This series of articles examines the distant legacy of ideas, traditions, and beliefs that would take control of the people of the British Isles and therefore be subsequently passed on to the continent of Australia through its British settlers – a cultural mix derived from post-Ice-Age early hunter-gatherers, Bronze Age Neolithic farmers, Celts, Romans, Anglo-Saxons (Angles, Saxons, Picts and Jutes), Vikings, and Normans, peoples who had themselves arisen from Mediterranean communities and those of the Neolithic Revolution that occurred in the Fertile Crescent.

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The title page of Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum
The title page of Englishman Francis Bacon’s influential Novum Organum of 1645 outlining a new approach to science that looked beyond the learning of the Classical world. The fronticepiece shows European galleons sailing through the pillars of the strait of Gibraltar, out of the Old World confines of the Mediterranean Sea and into the unknown Atlantic Ocean, in search of a New World
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons[/caption]

Sailing west led to the discovery of the Americas (Columbus 1492) which opened up an Atlantic trade between the Old World Atlantic ports and New World settlements. Sailing east European ships rounded the Cape of South Africa (Diaz 1488) into the Indian Ocean and beyond into the Pacific. European colonies were established across the world – first by the Portuguese and Spanish in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Dutch in the 18th century, and then by the French and English in the 19th century.



B = Britain, E = England
W = Wales, S = Scotland

200 -   2.9     B
400 -   3.6     B
1100 – 2.0     B
1300 – 5-6     E
1550 –    3     EW
1600 –   4     EW
1700   -     6     EWS
1750 –  6.5     B
1800 - 10.5     B
1850 - 27.4     B
1900 - 38.2     B
1950 - 50.2     B
2000 - 59.1     B
2010 - 63.0    B


100 - 35,000
200 - 60,000
1100 – 18,000
1300 – 80,000
1400 – 10,000
1500 - 65,000


1800 - 1
1900 - 6.5
1940 - 8.6 (peak)
2000 - 7.2
2010 - 8.2

Media Gallery

The History of the British Isles: Every year

Ollie Bye – 2020 – 7:29

First published on the internet – 1 March 2019


Map of the world showing the extent of the British Empire at its height in 1886.
British territories are coloured in pink.
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

British Empire
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