The earliest existing native literature of the territory of the modern United Kingdom was written in the Celtic languages of the isles. The Welsh literary tradition stretches from the 6th century. Irish poetry also represents a more or less unbroken tradition from the 6th century to the present day, with the Ulster Cycle being of particular relevance to Northern Ireland.
Anglo-Saxon literature includes Beowulf, a national epic, but literature in Latin predominated among educated elites. After the Norman Conquest Anglo-Norman literature brought continental influences to the isles.
English literature emerged as a recognisable entity in the late 14th century, with the rise and spread of the London dialect of Middle English. Geoffrey Chaucer is the first great identifiable individual in English literature: his Canterbury Tales remains a popular 14th-century work which readers still enjoy today.
Following the introduction of the printing press into England by William Caxton in 1476, the Elizabethan era saw a great flourishing of literature, especially in the fields of poetry and drama. From this period, poet and playwright William Shakespeare stands out as arguably the most famous writer in the world.
The English novel became a popular form in the 18th century, with Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719), Samuel Richardson's Pamela (1740) and Henry Fielding's Tom Jones (1745).
After a period of decline, the poetry of Robert Burns revived interest in vernacular literature, the rhyming weavers of Ulster being influenced by literature from Scotland.
The following two centuries continued a huge outpouring of literary production. In the early 19th century, the Romantic period showed a flowering of poetry comparable with the Renaissance two hundred years earlier, with such poets as William Blake, William Wordsworth, John Keats, and Lord Byron. The Victorian periodrealistic English novel, represented by Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters (Charlotte, Emily and Anne), Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, George Eliot, Lord Alfred Tennyson and Thomas Hardy. was the golden age of the
World War I gave rise to British war poets and writers such as Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves and Rupert Brooke who wrote (often paradoxically), of their expectations of war, and/or their experiences in the trench.
The Celtic Revival stimulated new appreciation of traditional Irish literature, however, with the independence of the Irish Free State, Irish literature came to be seen as more clearly separate from the strains of British literature. The Scottish Renaissance of the early 20th century brought modernism to Scottish literature as well as an interest in new forms in the literatures of Scottish Gaelic and Scots.
The English novel developed in the 20th century into much greater variety and was greatly enriched by immigrant writers. It remains today the dominant English literary form.
Other well-known novelists include Arthur Conan Doyle, D. H. Lawrence, George Orwell, Salman Rushdie, Mary Shelley, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Virginia Woolf, Ian Fleming, H. G. Wells and J. K. Rowling.
Important poets include Elizabeth Barrett Browning, T. S. Eliot, Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin, John Milton, Alfred Tennyson, Rudyard Kipling, Alexander Pope, and Dylan Thomas.