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UK, or U.K., is an abbreviation for the United Kingdom, or, more formally, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. This is the country also known as Great Britain, or less formally, just Britain. It lies in the north-west of Europe, north of the English Channel, and west of the North Sea. The Republic of Ireland is the only country to the west of the UK, before the Atlantic Ocean; there is no large land-mass to the north before the Arctic Ocean, which is largely frozen water. The UK contains what have historically been four separate states: England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The peoples of each of these four nations tend to think of themselves as in some way 'not just British', although this tendency is perhaps stronger in the three smaller populations - Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

The UK is a monarchy. Such nations are never called queendoms, although the two longest reigning monarchs in the last two centuries have been queens (Queen Victoria (1837-1901), and Queen Elizabeth II, who was crowned in 1953 and is still reigning at the time of writing (2006). (Elizabeth I of England was also long-lived - 1558-1603). Nevertheless, monarchies are always called kingdoms. This is at least partly because, throughout the history of the UK, the crown has always passed preferentially to the eldest male child of the current monarch; only when there was no acceptable male heir did the title pass to a female.

The term Great Britain was first used as part of the title of James VI and I, born 1566, the first person to be King of England (of which he was the first King James, from 1603 to 1625) and Scotland (of which he was the sixth, from 1567 to 1625). James had inherited the crown of Scotland from his mother, Mary Queen of Scots, and that of England from his cousin, Elizabeth I, and descendants of James have held the throne(s) ever since. A hundred years after James, under Queen Anne, the Parliaments of the two countries of England and Scotland, which had been independent of each other until that time, although having the same person as their monarch, passed Acts of Union which became law in 1707. These Acts, usually called nowadays the Act of Union in the singular, created a new state, the United Kingdom.

There was a further Act of Union in 1801 which united the Kingdom of Ireland with the UK. (The whole island of Ireland had been treated as a Lordship of the English crown from 1171, until under Henry VIII it was re-formed as the Kingdom Of Ireland in 1541.) From 1801, the full title of the UK was United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. This came to an end with Irish independence in 1922, when the Anglo-Irish Treaty created the Irish Free State. This is now the country of Eire, or The Republic of Ireland, and consists of 26 counties of the old kingdom. The remaining 6 counties are still part of the UK. They are in Ulster - in the north - and are referred to in the last part of the UK's title - Northern Ireland. The split between North and South is part of 'The Troubles'.