The Isle of Man effectively became an island around 85,000 years ago when rising sea levels caused by the melting glaciers cut Mesolithic Britain off from continental Europe for the last time. A land bridge had existed between the Isle of Man and Cumbria prior to this date, although the location and opening of the land-bridge remains poorly understood.
The earliest traces of people on the Isle of Man can be found as far back as the Mesolithic Period, also known as the Middle Stone Age. The first residents lived in small natural shelters, hunting, fishing and gathering for their food. They used small tools made of flint or bone, which have been found near the coast. Representatives of these artifacts are kept at the Manx Museum.
The Neolithic Period marked the coming of knowledge of farming, better stone tools and pottery. It was during this period that Megalithic Monuments began to appear around the island. Examples from this period can be found at Cashtal yn Ard near Maughold, King Orry's Grave in Laxey, Meayll Circle near Cregneash, and Ballaharra Stones in St Johns. The Megaliths were not the only culture during this time; there were also the local Ronaldsway and Bann cultures.
During the Bronze Age, the large communal tombs of the Megaliths were replaced with smaller burial mounds. Bodies were put in stone lined graves along with ornamental containers. The Bronze Age burial mounds created long lasting markers about the countryside.
The Iron Age marked the beginning of Celtic cultural influence. Large hill forts appeared on hill summits, and smaller promontory forts along the coastal cliffs, whilst large timber-framed roundhouses were built.
It is likely that the first Celtic tribes to inhabit the Island were of the Brythonic variety. Around AD 700 it is assumed that Irish invasion or immigration formed the basis of the early Manx population. This is evident in the change in language used in Ogham inscriptions. Manx Gaelic remains closely related to Irish and Scots Gaelic.
The secular history of the Isle of Man during the Brythonic period remains mysterious. The only surviving record of any event before the incursions of the Northmen, are attributed to Báetán mac Cairill, king of Ulster, at the end of the 6th century (though some have thought this event may refer to Manau Gododdin between the Firths of Clyde and Forth). Even if the supposed conquest of the Menavian islands - Mann and Anglesey - by Edwin of Northumbria, in 616, did take place, it could not have led to any permanent results; for, when the English were driven from the coasts of Cumberland and Lancashire soon afterwards, they could not well have retained their hold on the island to the west of these coasts. One can speculate, however, that when Ecfrid's Northumbrians laid Ireland waste from Dublin to Drogheda in 684, they temporarily occupied Mann.
In the later part of the first millennium AD colonists from Ireland settled in Mann. Manx, a Goidelic language, provides the main evidence of this; earlier evidence suggests that a Brythonic-speaking people lived there. One big historical argument addresses whether the present Manx language survived from pre-Norse days, or whether it reflects a linguistic reintroduction after the Norse invasion.
Evidence may yet be forthcoming to shed further light on this area of debate from the study of the landscape, place names and land tenure.
Tradition attributes the island's conversion to Christianity to St Maughold (Maccul), an Irish missionary who gives his name to a parish. The island's name derives from Manannán, the Brythonic and Gaelic sea god.
Between about A.D. 800 and 815 the Vikings came to Mann chiefly for plunder; between about 850 and 990, when they settled in it, the island fell under the rule of the Scandinavian Kings of Dublin; and between 990 and 1079, it became subject to the powerful Earls of Orkney.
There was a mint producing coins on Mann between c.1025 and c.1065. These Manx coins were minted from an imported type 2 Hiberno-Norse penny die from Dublin. Hiberno-Norse coins were first minted under Sihtric, King of Dublin. This illustrates that Mann may have in fact been under the thumb of Dublin at this time.
The conqueror Godred Crovan was evidently a remarkable man, though little information about him is attainable. According to the Chronicon Manniae he subdued Dublin, and a great part of Leinster, and held the Scots in such subjection that no one who built a vessel dared to insert more than three bolts. The memory of such a ruler would be likely to survive in tradition, and it seems probable therefore that he is the person commemorated in Manx legend under the name of King Gorse or Orry. He created the Kingdom of Mann and the Isles in around 1079; it included the south-western islands of Scotland (Sodor) until 1164, when two separate kingdoms were formed from it.
The islands which were under his rule were called the Suðr-eyjar (Sudreys or the south isles, in contradistinction to the Norðr-eyjar, or the "north isles," i.e. the Orkneys and Shetlands, and they consisted of the Hebrides, and of all the smaller western islands of Scotland, with Mann. At a later date his successors took the title of Rex Manniae et Insularum (King of Mann and the Isles). The kingdom's capital was on St Patrick's Isle, where Peel Castle was built on the site of a Celtic monastery.
Olaf, Godred's son, exercised considerable power, and according to the Chronicle, maintained such close alliance with the kings of Ireland and Scotland that no one ventured to disturb the Isles during his time (1113 - 1152). His son, Godred (reigned 1153 - 1158), who for a short period ruled over Dublin also, as a result of a quarrel with Somerled (the ruler of Argyll) in 1156 lost the smaller islands off the coast of Argyll. An independent sovereignty thus appeared between the two divisions of his kingdom.
In the 1130s the Church sent a small mission to establish the first bishopric on the Isle of Man, and appointed Wimund as the first Bishop. He soon after gave up his role as fisher of men, and became the hunter of men, embarking with a band of followers on a career of murder and looting throughout Scotland and the surrounding islands.
Early in the 13th century, when Ragnald (reigned 1187 - 1229) paid homage to King John of England (reigned 1199 - 1216), we hear for the first time of English intervention in the affairs of Mann. But a period of Scots domination would precede the establishment of full English control. During the whole of the Scandinavian period the isles remained nominally under the suzerainty of the kings of Norway, but the Norwegians only occasionally asserted it with any vigour. Harold Haarfager did so first about 885, then came Magnus Barfod about 1100: both of these conquered the isles. From the middle of the 12th century till 1217 the suzerainty, because Norway had become a prey to civil dissensions, had remained of a very shadowy character. But after that date it became a reality and Norway consequently came into collision with the growing power of Scotland.
About 1333 King Edward III of England granted Mann to William de Montacute, 3rd Baron Montacute, (later the 1st Earl of Salisbury), as his absolute possession, without reserving any service to be rendered to him. In 1392 his son sold the island including sovereignty to Sir William le Scrope. In 1399 King Henry IV brought about the beheading of Le Scrope, who had taken the side of Richard II. The island then came into the possession of the Crown, which granted it to Henry Percy, 1st Earl of Northumberland, but following his attainder, Henry IV, in 1405, made a lifetime grant of it, with the patronage of the bishopric, to Sir John Stanley. In 1406 this grant was extended – on a feudatory basis under the English Crown – to Sir John's heirs and assigns, the feudal fee being the service of rendering homage and two falcons to all future Kings of England on their coronations.
With the accession of the Stanleys to the throne there begins a more settled epoch in Manx history. Though the island's new rulers rarely visited its shores, they placed it under governors, who, in the main, seem to have treated it with the justice of the time. Of the thirteen members of the family who ruled in Mann, the second Sir John Stanley (1414 - 1432), James, the 7th Earl (1627 - 1651), and the 10th Earl of the same name (1702-1736) had the most important influence on it. The first curbed the power of the spiritual barons, introduced trial by jury, instead of trial by battle, and ordered the laws to be written. The second, known as the Great Stanley, and his wife, Charlotte de la Tremoille (or Tremouille), are probably the most striking figures in Manx history.
Stanley's arrival, with English soldiers, soon put a stop to anything of this kind. He conciliated the people by his affability, brought in Englishmen to teach various handicrafts and tried to help the farmers by improving the breed of Manx horses, and, at the same time, he restricted the exactions of the Church, but the Manx people never had less liberty than under his rule. They were heavily taxed; troops were quartered upon them; and they also had the more lasting grievance of being compelled to accept leases for three lives instead of holding their land by the straw tenure which they considered to be equivalent to a customary inheritance.
Six months after the death of Charles (30 January 1649), Stanley received a summons from General Ireton to surrender the island, which he haughtily declined. In August 1651 he went to England with some of his troops, among whom were 300 Manxmen, to join King Charles II, and he and they shared in the decisive defeat of the Royalists at the Battle of Worcester. He was captured, imprisoned in Chester Castle and then tried by court-martial and executed at Bolton.
Charles Stanley's next act was to dispute the permanency of the tenants' holdings, which they had not at first regarded as being affected by the acceptance of leases, a proceeding which led to an almost open rebellion against his authority and to the neglect of agriculture, in lieu of which the people devoted themselves to the fisheries and to contraband trade.
Charles Stanley, who died in 1672, was succeeded firstly by his son William Richard George Stanley, 9th Earl of Derby until his death in 1702.
The agrarian question subsided only in 1704, when James, William's brother and successor, largely through the influence of Bishop Wilson, entered into a compact with his tenants, which became embodied in an act, called the Act of Settlement. Their compact secured the tenants in the possession of their estates in perpetuity on condition of a fixed rent, and a small fine on succession or alienation. From the great importance of this act to the Manx people it has been called their Magna Carta. As time went on, and the value of the estates increased, the rent payable to the Lord became so small in proportion as to be almost nominal, being extinguished by purchase in 1916.
Up to the time of the revestment, Tynwald had passed laws concerning the government of the island in all respects and had control over its finances, subject to the approval of the Lord of Mann. After the revestment, or rather after the passage of the Smuggling Act 1765 (commonly called the Mischief Act by the Manx), the Parliament at Westminster legislated with respect to customs, harbours and merchant shipping, and, in measures of a general character, it occasionally inserted clauses permitting the enforcement in the island of penalties in contravention of the acts of which they formed part. It also assumed the control of the insular customs duties. Such changes, rather than the transference of the full suzerainty to the King of Great Britain and Ireland, modified the (unwritten) constitution of the Isle of Man. Its ancient laws and tenures remained untouched, but in many ways the revestment affected it adversely. The hereditary Lords of Mann seldom, if ever, functioned as model rulers, but most of them had taken some personal share in its government, and had interested themselves in the well-being of its inhabitants. But now the whole direction of its affairs became the work of officials who regarded the island as a pestilent nest of smugglers, from which it seemed their duty to extract as much revenue as possible.
Some alleviation of this state of things happened between 1793 and 1826 when John Murray, 4th Duke of Atholl served as Governor, since, though he quarrelled with the House of Keys and unduly cared for his own pecuniary interests, he did occasionally exert himself to promote the welfare of the island. After his departure the English officials resumed their sway, but they showed more consideration than before. Moreover, since smuggling, which the Isle of Man Purchase Act had only checked – not suppressed – had by that time almost disappeared, and since the Manx revenue had started to produce a large and increasing surplus, the authorities looked more favourably on the Isle of Man, and, thanks to this fact and to the representations of the Manx people to British ministers in 1837, 1844 and 1853, it obtained a somewhat less stringent customs tariff and an occasional dole towards erecting its much neglected public works.
The Isle of Man was used as a base for Alien Civilian Internment camps in both the First World War (1914-18) and the Second World War (1939-45). During the First World War there were two camps, one a requisitioned holiday camp in Douglas and the other a purpose built camp at Knockaloe in the parish of Patrick. During the Second World War there were a number of smaller camps in Douglas, Peel, Port Erin and Ramsey.
The early 20th century saw a revival of music, dance, and the Manx language, but this proved only partially successful, as the last native speaker of Manx died in the 1970s. In the middle part of the twentieth century, the Taoiseach Éamon de Valera visited, and became so distressed at the lack of support for Manx that he immediately had two recording vans sent over. As the century progressed, the Manx tourist economy declined greatly, as the English and Irish started flying to Spain for package holidays. The Manx government responded to this situation by making the island a tax haven. While this has had beneficial effects on the Manx economy, it has had its detractors, who have pointed to corruption in the finance industry and money laundering. This has given the biggest impetus to Manx nationalism in recent years, spawning the parties Mec Vannin and the MNP, as well as the now defunct Fo Halloo (literally 'Underground'), which mounted a direct-action campaign of spray-painting and attempted house-burning.
The 1990s and early 21st century have seen a greater recognition of indigenous Manx culture, such as the first Manx language primary school, as well as a general re-evaluation of the island's economy.