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What is the Difference Between Great Britain, the United Kingdom, and England?

By Sheri Cyprus
Updated May 23, 2024
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The United Kingdom (UK) is often incorrectly referred to as England, Britain, or Great Britain. In fact, the UK is the union of four constituent countries: England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. The name United Kingdom is short for: The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Great Britain refers to one of the two major islands that comprise the British Isles; it is made up of England, Scotland, and Wales.

Some people likely confuse England as being the same as the whole of Great Britain or the United Kingdom because of England's dominance and power in Great Britain and the UK. As the largest part of the UK, England holds about 84% of the population of the entire United Kingdom and geographically covers approximately 57% of Great Britain. Moreover, London, as England's capital and the largest city in the UK, has been the ruling center of government for the United Kingdom since 1707. In 1999, however, Scotland and Wales were granted some self governing powers, and the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly of Wales now has some ruling power.

It is also easy to confuse the term "British" as meaning the same as "English." "British" correctly refers to any people from Great Britain and not only the "English" from England. For the most part, people from England, Scotland, and Wales, prefer to be referred to as "English," "Scottish," and "Welsh" respectively, as opposed to the more generic "British" term.

Scotland occupies the top portion of Great Britain. It was a separate country from England until 1603, when King James VI, the king of Scotland, inherited the English throne as well. The countries, however, remained separate until the Acts of Union were passed in 1707 merging the English and Scotish parliaments into a single United Kingdom parliament. By this time, England already controlled Wales and Ireland.

Wales, on the other hand, occupies a sort of southwestern region of Great Britain and is separated from Ireland and Northern Ireland by the Irish Sea. While its complex history with England has spanned many centuries, it has been officially considered separate from England since 1955.

The final component of the United Kingdom is Northern Ireland, which was established in 1920 and is independent from the Republic of Ireland. It is the only of the four UK countries that is located on a different island. Both Ireland and Northern Ireland occupy the island west of Great Britain. These two islands, the Irelands on one hand and Great Britain (England, Scotland, and Wales) on the other, as well as thousands of little islands comprise the British Isles. The Channel Islands, The Isle of Wight, the Hebrides, and the Isle of Man are some of the more well-known small islands in the British Isles.

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Discussion Comments

By anon238178 — On Jan 02, 2012

@anon148984: England is the name of the dominant country within the United Kingdom. It received it's name from one of the two main Germanic groups who invaded and settled after the Romans left early in the 5th cent. A.D., the Angles (the other group being the Saxons, and there was already a Saxony). So the name was originally "Engla land" meaning "land of the Angles" and got corrupted over time to the present form. England is never called United Kingdom, though often, when you hear English people talking about Britain, they are actually talking about England (Scots and Welsh rarely use Britain except to talk about the physical island).

The United Kingdom came about by the personal union of the crowns of England and Scotland (Wales always been considered an integral part of the Kingdom of England since William the Bastard {yes he was called that} who conquered England in 1066) under the house of Stewart (James VI of Scotland became James I of the UK)in 1603. This was later made fully institutional in 1707 by acts of parliament in both England and Scotland (the Scottish parliament dissolving itself and transferring powers to London). The UK was then aggrandised by the incorporation of the parliament of the Kingdom of Ireland (part of the British Crown territories but a separate country) into the London parliament and dissolving of that kingdom.

By anon191692 — On Jun 29, 2011

@anon164845 - Only Northern Ireland is part of the UK. Ireland and Northern Ireland both occupy the same island, but are now considered to be separate countries.

By anon164845 — On Apr 02, 2011

is the rest of ireland also part of the uk or only Northern ireland?

By anon158157 — On Mar 06, 2011

Thanks a lot! it was very helpful for me. I was so confused before. Now it's cleared up.

By anon148984 — On Feb 03, 2011

how did the united kingdom got the name England? Why is England called United kingdom?

By TrogJoe19 — On Jul 27, 2010

"England" comes from the name "Angleland" which was the name derived from the Germanic Angle tribe which invaded Northeastern England in the 5th century. "Britain" is an older term which derives from the Roman word for the Brythonic Celtic tribes which inhabited the island from ancient times, which in turn derives from Greek. Many Irish view the term "United Kingdom" with great chagrin, since, in their view, the forcible settlement of the Ulster Scots in Northern Ireland is the only reason why that small part of the island has come to be part of the "UK."

By anon36314 — On Jul 11, 2009

That clears the confusion! Jeez, I have been searching for this information for like forever!

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