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The evolution of English: From Romans to Shakespeare

Updated Thursday 19th June 2014

Part one: The history of colonialism was a major factor in the development of English. Follow the global spread of English starting with the Roman invasion.

Scroll back and forth through the dates in the timeline below using the arrows either side. You can then read more about each time period, see images and even play videos.

The evolution of English - Part one

A journey through time with the history of English.

Gaius Julius Caesar (100-44 BCE)

First Roman invasion


Julius Caesar invades Britain in 55 and 54 BC.

A monument to the Roman conquest of Britain in Walmer, Kent

Roman conquest of Britain


The Emperor Claudius invades Britain, leading to four hundred years of Roman control of much of the island. Latin becomes the dominant language of culture and government.

Romans leave Britain


The end of Roman rule in Britain, leading to a period of gradual Roman withdrawal.

Anglo-Saxon migration in the 5th Century

Anglo-Saxon invasions


Germanic tribes from the north of Europe settle in Britain, bringing with them their indigenous dialects.

Start of the ‘Old English’ period


What is known as the ‘Early Old English’ period runs from c. 450 to c. 850.

Caedmon’s Hymn


Caedmon, often described as the first English poet, composes his Hymn, a short, alliterative poem in Old English.

Folio 27r from the Lindisfarne Gospels, Incipit to the Gospel of Matthew.

Lindisfarne Gospels


Illuminated Latin manuscripts of the four gospels of the New Testament are produced on Lindisfarne in Northumbria.

Bede’s Ecclesiastical History


Bede writes his account of the Anglo-Saxon invasions of Britain in the 400s (Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum or Ecclesiastical History of the English People).

Beowulf composed


Composition of the anonymous Old English epic poem Beowulf.

Viking invasions


According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the Vikings first come to Britain in 783, but the date most often cited for the first Viking raid is 793, when a group lands on Lindisfarne.

Start of the ‘Later Old English’ period


The ‘Later Old English’ period runs from c. 850 to c. 1100.

The statue of King Alfred in Wincester

Alfred becomes king of Wessex


Alfred the Great (born 849) is king of Wessex from 871 to 899. He instigates the translation of many Latin works into English.

Battle of Ethandun memorial

Alfred defeats Danes at Ethandun


Following the Battle of Ethandun, a treaty is signed acknowledging the rule of the Danish king Guthrum in the north and east of Britain.

By Hel-hama (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
England in 878

Danelaw established


The area governed by the Danes in the north and east of Britain, known as the Danelaw, is established.

By Photographed by en:User:Geogre, original author, monastic scribes in Peterborough (English Wikipedia) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The initial page of the Peterborough Chronicle

Anglo-Saxon Chronicles


The collection of Old English writings chronicling the history of the Anglo-Saxons are first composed. They are originally compiled on Alfred’s orders.

Old English glosses added to Lindisfarne Gospels


Glosses in Old English are added to the Lindisfarne Gospels by Aldred the Scribe. These are the oldest surviving English version of the gospels.

Norman Conquest


William of Normandy defeats Harold Godwin at Hastings. Norman French is introduced as the language of the nobility in Britain.

Start of the ‘Middle English’ period


The ‘Middle English’ period runs from c. 1100 to c. 1450.

By Topography_Ireland. Credit: Elevation data used in this image were acquired by the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour
Invasion of Ireland in 1171

Invasion of Ireland


Henry II (r. 1154–1189) invades Ireland and creates the ‘Lordship of Ireland’. English and Norman French are introduced into the island.

The donjon of Château Gaillard. The loss of the castle would prove devastating for King John's military position in Normandy

King John loses Duchy of Normandy


King John loses his lands in Normandy to France. 

The Statute was formally proclaimed at Rhuddlan Castle

Wales annexed


Edward I (r. 1272-1307) passes the ‘Statute of Rhuddlan’, establishing English law in Wales. Legal use of the Welsh language is retained, however.

See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
A depiction of the Battle of Bannockburn from a 1440s manuscript of Walter Bower's Scotichronicon.

Robert the Bruce defeats English at Bannockburn


Robert the Bruce defeats Edward II, thus re-asserting Scottish Independence following wars between the Kingdoms of Scotland and England from the late thirteenth century onwards.

English first used in Parliament


In addition to being used in Parliament for the first time, English becomes the official language of the courts of law, replacing French.

Wycliffe’s translation of the Bible


John Wycliffe translates the Vulgate (Latin) version of the Bible into English.

By Ranulf Higden (British Library) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
World map in a late-14th-Century manuscript of the Polychronicon

Trevisa’s Polychronicon


John Trevisa’s English translation of Ranulf Higden’s Polychronicon, a chronicle originally written in Latin. Trevisa notes that children are leaving the learning of French in schools, and shifting to English.

By Tagishsimon at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons
Henry IV of England - Illustration from Cassell's History of England

Accession of Henry IV


Henry IV (r. 1399–1413) becomes the first king in England since the Norman invasion to speak English as a first language.

By Unknown scribe [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
English chancery hand

Growth of Chancery Standard


Government documents begin to be written in English rather than French. The dialect chosen for them is that used by clerks in the Chancery at Westminster.

The start of the ‘Early modern English’ period


The ‘Early modern English’ period runs from c. 1450 to c. 1750.

By Testard, Robinet ([1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Raoul Lefèvre writing, from the Histoires de Troye

Caxton prints first English book


William Caxton produces the first English printed book, History of Troy, while living in Bruges. He later returns to England where his first publication is Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales in 1478.

By Henry Curwen (A history of booksellers) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
William Caxton's monogram (printer's mark)

Caxton’s Eneydos


Caxton publishes an English translation of Virgil’s Aeneid, titled Eneydos.

By Peter Schoeffer (printer); William Tyndale (British Library Board) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
First page of the Gospel of Saint John, from the 1526 Peter Schoeffer printing of William Tyndale's English translation of the Bible

Tyndale’s translation of Bible


The first publication of William Tyndale’s English translation of the New Testament. 

Joos van Cleve [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
King Henry VIII

English Reformation


Henry VIII breaks with the Roman Catholic Church.

First Act of Union between England and Wales


The ‘Act of Union’ of 1536 creates a single state by annexing Wales to England. It makes English the only language of administration and the legal system in Wales.

Henry VIII declares himself King of Ireland


The ‘Crown of Ireland Act’ of 1542 establishes that the king of England is also ‘King of Ireland’. This title replaces the ‘Lordship of Ireland’.

By Ptolemy Caesarion at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons
Title page published in 1549

Book of Common Prayer


Publication of the first prayer book with the forms of service written in English. This comes to be viewed as one of the major works of English literature. 

Hawkins starts British slave trade


Sir John Hawkins takes slaves from the coast of West Africa to the Caribbean, marking the beginnings of the British slave trade.

Shakespeare born


William Shakespeare (1554-1616), who in later centuries become canonised as the greatest writer in the English language, is born in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Bullokar’s Grammar


William Bullokar writes the first English grammar book, Pamphlet for Grammar.

Puttenham’s Arte of English Poesie


George Puttenham publishes his style guide, The Arte of English Poesie.

By Edinburgh Geographical Institute; J. G. Bartholomew and Sons. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Map of the British Indian Empire

East India Company chartered


The East India Company is granted a Royal Charter by Elizabeth I on 31 December 1600.

John de Critz the Elder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
James VI of Scotland, I of England and Ireland

Union of the English and Scottish crowns


King James I of England (James VI of Scotland) unites the crowns of England and Scotland.

Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall


Robert Cawdrey publishes his A Table Alphabeticall, the first monolingual dictionary in the English language.

By National Park Service: base map *Maps_template-fr.svg: Eric Gaba (Sting - fr:Sting) *derivative work: bamse (talk)*User:Morgan Riley: coloration, clean-up, legend, and arrangement [Public domain, CC-
Map showing terrain of Jamestown Island

English settlement at Jamestown


Establishment of the Jamestown colony in Virginia. This is the first permanent English settlement in the New World.

Publication of the Authorised Version


James I authorises the use of this bible translation in both his kingdoms. Known as the Authorised Version or the King James version, for centuries this remains the standard English-language bible throughout the world.

Pilgrim Fathers found Plymouth Colony


Plymouth Colony is founded in Massachusetts by the Pilgrim Fathers, who arrived in the New World in The Mayflower.

By William Shakespeare; copper engraving of Shakespeare by Martin Droeshout [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Title page of the First Folio

Shakespeare’s first folio


The first folio of Shakespeare’s plays is published.


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