What's Your British History IQ?


By: Zoe Samuel

6 Min Quiz

Image: Shutterstock

About This Quiz

The United Kingdom is currently is made of Northern Ireland, Wales, Scotland, and England, plus Gibraltar, the Falklands, and a few other places. Currently part of the European Union until its controversial exit next year, the UK is referred to as "British" due to being largely based on the island of Great Britain, but this technically refers only to the island containing Scotland, Wales, and England (it was named "great" as opposed to the province of Breton, or "little Britain", across the Channel).

While the Act of Union wasn't until the 1700's, which is when the United Kingdom formally became one entity, the history of the UK's component parts reach back 5,000 years and more beyond the building of Stonehenge. Its more "modern" history is generally deemed to start with the Norman invasion of 1066, though true experts will also study the Anglo-Saxon and Roman periods before that. As the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, the UK colonized a great deal of the world, creating the biggest empire in world history. It engaged in the slave trade for around 200 years, abolishing it in the 1830's and then putting ships to sea to end it: sadly, many fortunes were built on this labor while it lasted. The UK was later a key member of the Allies in World War One and Two during the 20th century, fighting alongside France, the Soviet Union, and the United States to battle Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, and imperial Japan. Victory in both wars resulted in the geopolitical ascendancy of the UK's ally, the USA.

We're focusing on the long history of the United Kingdom. Do you know enough to pass our test? 

Who was the first female Prime Minister of Britain?

Margaret Thatcher is considered a deeply polarizing figure, but one achievement no one can dispute is that thanks to her, a generation of British girls got to grow up with the idea that the Queen and the PM were women, and thus women in charge was a natural state of things. Thatcher is hated by former coal towns where she broke the unions - but Britain is now banning coal in favor of solar, wind, and other clean tech.


Who discovered penicillin?

Before penicillin, some of the most minor injuries and virtually all surgeries were considered a potential death trap. Fleming's experiment went wrong, resulting in a mold growing in a petri dish. Fleming noticed it had killed off some bacteria in the dish and decided to look further into its properties.


What territory in Spain is part of Britain?

The Rock of Gibraltar stands on the straits facing Africa. Some British troops undergoing a military exercise accidentally "invaded" Spain a few years ago by landing a few hundred yards inside the border. Fortunately, everyone thought it was rather funny.


In which town in England was William Shakespeare born?

Shakespeare was born in Stratford and was probably a teacher there for some time before moving to London and making his name as not just among the greatest writers who ever lived, but also a producer and even theater owner. The modern Globe in London stands near the site of his theater and is designed to be as similar as possible to it.


Who is the longest-reigning monarch (so far)?

Elizabeth II is the longest-reigning monarch now. The Queen has been on the throne for 65 years.


Who were the two sides in the Wars of the Roses?

The Wars of the Roses heralded the end of the Plantagenet line and the rise of the Tudors. Everyone's claim to the throne was actually pretty decent, though the Tudors' went through the female line.


What is the capital of Northern Ireland?

Ireland used to be entirely under British rule, but it was divided in largely religious lines and most of it became independent as the Republic of Ireland. Northern Ireland remains part of the UK and is its only land border with the EU.


Which famous English poet wrote the Canterbury Tales?

Geoffrey Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales and was the first poet to be buried in Westminster Abbey at Poets' Corner. He also wrote The Legend of Good Women and Troilus and Criseyde. What is important about his work is that he made it normal to write great epics in English, instead of Latin, French, or other languages considered more poetic.


What year did the Normans invade?

William had been promised the throne - he thought - by Edward the Confessor. He was very upset when King Harold decided to take it, and felt he had no choice but to invade and take it for himself.


Which engineer built the Great Western Railway?

Brunel is an architect of many of the finest works of Victorian engineering. Notable on the Great Western Railway is a tunnel where the light shines perfectly along its several miles of length only one day a year - a couple days off his birthday. No one knows if this is a mistake on his part and he intended it to be on the day itself, or if it is a happy coincidence.


Who was Hereward the Wake?

Hereward the Wake led the Anglo-Saxon resistance against the Norman invaders, based out of Isle of Ely in East Anglia. Sadly the Normans had the better of him, and he came to a bad end.


Who lost the Battle of Britain?

The Battle of Britain established British air supremacy during World War II, without which the Nazi invasion of Britain would have taken place. The Nazi plans for Britain were absolutely horrifying and are detailed in Hitler's Black Book. Anyone interested in what the end of the world might look like should read it.


What were the Cottingley Fairies?

The Cottingley Fairies were a hoax played by photographer cousins Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths in the first decade of the 1900's. The cousins claimed to have seen fairies in Cottingley Beck, a nearby stream, and produced five photos to prove it. Conan Doyle was one of many who were fooled, as photography was not widespread enough yet for people to realize the images were faked.


Who brought the printing press to Britain?

William Caxton brought the printing press to Britain in the late Plantagenet period. Before that, literacy was limited mostly to the aristocracy (and not even all of them) and monks. The printing press paved the way for English displacing any remaining French left over from Norman times.


Where did Sherlock Holmes live?

Sherlock Holmes wasn't actually a real person, but his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, wrote him so well that many people believed it then. 221B Baker Street wasn't a real address, but the stories were so popular that nowadays it is a real place with a Sherlock Holmes museum. Just don't tell anyone there that it's not true!


Who won the English Civil War?

The Roundheads were the colloquial name for the parliamentary forces, so called because unlike the Cavaliers - the aristocracy - they had short hair. They were led by Oliver Cromwell, who made himself Lord Protector. The monarchy was restored in 1660.


Who wrote Principia, widely regarded to be the most important mathematical text of all time?

Isaac Newton is always on the top ten greatest mathematicians of all time for his Theory of Gravity. Principia is one of his great works. There are two copies left including one in Huntington Library in San Marino, California, which has Newton's handwritten notes in it.


What's important about Dido Belle Lindsay?

Dido Belle Lindsay is thought to have informed Lord Mansfield's decision in the case of the Zong slave ship, whose crew murdered sick slaves so they could claim insurance on the dead. Mansfield's biracial niece had been raised in his home after the death of her father, Lord Lindsay.


Who fought at the Battle of Bosworth Field?

Richard III lost this famous battle, and his head, to the first king of the Tudor dynasty. Henry VII was crowned on the battlefield with a bloody crown, ushering in five Tudor monarchs. Under the Tudors, England went from being just a reasonably prosperous country to being on the cusp of becoming a great power.


Which British family founded the state of Pennsylvania?

William Penn was an aristocratic Englishman who founded the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania as a place for Quakers, giving it the family motto of "Virtue, Liberty, and Independence".


What did James Watts invent?

James Watts invented the modern steam engine, which brought about the Industrial Revolution. There was a steam engine before that, but it wasn't up to par for driving trains etc. The watt, a measure of electrical power, is named for Watts.


Who discovered the structure of DNA?

Franklin, Crick, and Watson discovered the structure of DNA, but as Franklin's work with X-ray crystallography gave her ovarian cancer, she did not live long enough to share the Nobel Prize the others received.


What literary genre was invented by English writer, Mary Shelley?

Mary Shelley is best known for Frankenstein, generally agreed to be the first true work of science fiction as we know it. She wrote it during the Year Without A Summer when she and several friends including Lord Byron could barely leave the house in Geneva due to terrible weather brought on by the Mount Tambora volcanic eruption.


What semi-precious stone, which is common in blue and yellow varieties, is mined in the Peak District?

Bluejohn comes in blue and yellow, and is thought to be named for the French words "bleu et jean", meaning "blue and yellow". The Peak District in Derbyshire is very beautiful and so full of caves - some containing lakes, and many that you can visit - that it is said that if you struck the whole region with a celestial hammer, it would resound like a giant bell.


What stately home is the inspiration for Pemberly, Mr. Darcy's house in Jane Austen's novel "Pride & Prejudice"?

Jane Austen's 1797 novel "Pride and Prejudice" is one of the most successful of all time and has been adapted multiple times, most successfully by the BBC in 1995, starring a then young and very gorgeous Colin Firth.


When William Wallace invaded the north of England, how far south did he get?

While Wallace managed to sack York, it is unlikely he would have made it further south as he really did not have the manpower to hold the land. He was defeated by Edward Longshanks and ended up hanged, drawn, and quartered.


Who is Ada Lovelace?

Augusta Ada King-Noel, Countess of Lovelace was a Victorian mathematician who worked on Charles Babbage's "computing machine". She was the first person to write an algorithm and to realize the machine could do more than just calculate things. She invented the concept of coding and is the first computer programmer.


When did Britain give women the right to vote?

Votes for women were the obvious next step after women stepped into all the male jobs during World War One. Pioneering suffragettes such as the Pankhurst sisters led marches, demonstrations, write-ins, and sit-ins to get women their democratic recognition.


When did the British Empire ban slavery?

Britain banned slavery in 1833. Part of the Abolitionists' success came about due to regulating slave ships out of existence. They also undertook a major propaganda campaign where it became fashionable to say that your sugar was not slave-picked, and also used tricks like making pro-slavery Members of Parliament think they had won tickets to important horse races on the days of crucial votes, so they wouldn't be in Parliament to vote.


What sort of star did astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell discover?

Bell discovered the pulsar while studying for her thesis, discerning that it wasn't the same thing as the quasars they set out to analyze. At first, her supervisors thought the regular flickers simply must indicate intelligent life as they were so obviously in a rhythm. Bell showed that pulsars are neutron stars, which are rapidly spinning collapsed stars which did not have the mass to turn into a black hole.


Which king came to an absolutely ghastly end in part due to his love affair with Piers Gaveston?

The play The Troublesome Reign and Lamentable Death of Edward the Second, King of England tells Edward's story. The king came to a terrible end involving a red-hot poker. He made his lover Piers Gaveston, the Earl of Cornwall. Gaveston is commemorated every year with a very riotous and naughty party in the woods near the University of Oxford.


When was the Act of Union that joined England and Scotland?

The Act of Union made King James VI of Scotland, King James I of Scotland and England. There were plenty of uprisings which were eventually crushed in 1743 with the Battle of Culloden.


What did Sir Tim Berners-Lee invent?

Sir Tim invented the World Wide Web, which is how we access servers and thus is key to the internet existing. Sir Tim invented hypertext which enabled computers to talk to one another in an entirely new way.


Who is the second longest-reigning monarch?

Queen Victoria reigned 63 years, presiding over Britain's ascent to become the greatest imperial power in the history of the world. She had an arranged, but ecstatically happy marriage to Albert.


What did Sarah Guppy design?

Guppy designed the famous Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol. The bridge still stands to this day as a marvel of Victorian engineering.


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