The difference between England, Great Britain, the United Kingdom and the British Isles

What is the difference between England, Great Britain (GB), the United Kingdom (UK) and the British Isles? Aren’t they all the same thing? They’re not, but you’re forgiven for making this mistake.  Distinguishing between the four is a common source of confusion.

To be clear, this is a complicated subject and for me to cover every nuance would be impossible to do in a little blog article.  Instead, I will give a brief overview of each heading drawing upon history, geography and socio-politics.


England is a country.  That’s it. Its capital city is London, although other great cities include Brighton, Newcastle and York.  However, England has not always been one unified country.  From the 5th to the 9th centuries, England was a heptarchy consisting of the seven kingdoms of Northumbria, Mercia, Essex, Wessex, East Anglia, Kent and Sussex.  By the second half of the 9th century, many of these kingdoms had fallen to the Danes.

However, the king of Wessex, Alfred the Great, put a stop to this.  He began resisting the Danes and pushed them back. His son Edward the Elder pushed the Danes further north and took control of Mercia.  In 925, Edward’s son, Athelstan became the first king of England..

The more common narrative is that England, as a unified country, came into existence in 1066 with the Norman Conquest and William the Conqueror.  By defeating Harold Godwinson, the last of the Anglo-Saxon kings, William I became the first king of England.

The name ‘England’ is a modern version of ‘Engla land’ or land of the Angles.  The Angles were a Germanic tribe who invaded Britain in the 5th century.

Great Britain

England is a country, but Great Britain is a landmass consisting of the three countries of England, Scotland and Wales.  Out of the four terms, it is probably the most widely used. People often use Britain and England interchangeably, inadvertently labelling the Scots and Welsh as English.  A mistake that is none too pleasing to these two proud peoples.

To say that the Scottish/Welsh have had a contentious history with the English would be an understatement.  In the 13th and 14th centuries, there were the Scottish Wars of Independence led by such men as William Wallace.  In modern times, the relationship between Scotland and England hasn’t always been harmonious.

The Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) is the largest political party in Scotland and is constantly campaigning for Scottish independence.  In 2014, the Scots held a referendum on leaving the UK, which was ultimately rejected.

Wales haven’t had a happy history either with men like Owain Glyndwr trying to win Welsh independence.  In 1536, King Henry VIII united England and Wales creating the Kingdom of England and Wales, although this was more simply referred to as the Kingdom of England.

In 1603, after the heirless Elizabeth I died, King James VI of Scotland took the crown of England to become James I of England, the first combined monarch of the kingdoms of England and Scotland.

The 1707 Act of Union only cemented this relationship by joining the kingdoms of England and Scotland together to become the Kingdom of Great Britain.  And why is it called Great Britain?

When the Romans occupied modern-day England and Wales, they called it Britannia, which over time became Britain.  The ‘Great’ part is to distinguish it from the similar sounding Bretagne or ‘Brittany’ in France.

United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland

The UK is the landmass of Great Britain and, originally, the entire island of Ireland.  Having been under English control for 300 years, in 1801 the Kingdom of Ireland officially joined the kingdoms of England and Scotland to become the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.  

When I say control, I’m being generous.  Just like Scotland and Wales, Ireland suffered under English rule.  From 1845-1849, a million people died as a result of the Irish potato famine, which itself was the result of poor British management. 

Atrocities like these led to calls for Irish independence, which manifested in the 1916 Easter Rising and culminated in the Anglo-Irish war.  During this time, a paramilitary force called the Irish Republican Army (IRA), representing the Catholic majority of Ireland, arose to free Ireland from Protestant England.  

Ireland gained independence in 1922, all except the six northernmost counties of  Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry and Tyrone, which chose to remain within the UK.  This birthed Northern Ireland and the UK, as we know it today.

The UK is the political entity that represents the interests of each of its members on a global scale.  For example, Brexit was a referendum determining whether the UK i.e England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would be remaining within the European Union. 

British Isles

The British Isles is a geographical distinction rather than a political one.  Although it is not widely used in the common vernacular, it is still important to know.  It consists of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.  This is the entirety of the island of Ireland. And also, all of the thousands of islands which surround Britain and Ireland.  

These include the Hebrides, Shetland and Orkney islands off the coast of Scotland, the Isle of Man in the Irish sea between England and Ireland, and the Channel Islands of the Isle of Wight, Jersey and Guernsey, in between England and France.

Like I said, this is a complicated subject and I could not hope to cover every single aspect in this article.  But to summarise, England is the country, Great Britain is the landmass of England, Scotland and Wales, the United Kingdom is the political entity comprising of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and the British Isles is the UK plus the Republic of Ireland and the other surrounding islands. 

And, most importantly, now you know that Britain is most commonly associated with England, never call the Scots, Welsh or Irish, British.  Just don’t do it. Just don’t.  

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