Covering roughly 2% of the Earth’s surface, Europe might be the second smallest of the seven continents, but it is packed full of history. From the period of classical antiquity, which saw the rise and fall of Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire, to the Renaissance and Industrial Revolution, Europe has a long, storied past, with a cultural heritage dating back thousands of years. With such an extensive history, it is no real surprise then that Europe is also home to some pretty old countries. What are the oldest countries in Europe? Let’s take a closer look.
What Are the Oldest Countries in Europe?
Note: This list is not taking into account empires of the past, like those that existed in Greece and Rome. Those empires consisted largely of city-states and/or fiefdoms, and bear little resemblance to our modern notion of countries or nation-states. Furthermore, arguments could be made both for and against certain countries being included in this list. At the end of the day, a variety of complex factors make it difficult to precisely determine what countries in Europe are the oldest, but the following nations nonetheless are frequently included in any such list on the topic.
Portugal – 1143 AD
The Kingdom of Portugal gained its independence in 1143, after King Afonso I, ruler of the County of Portugal, broke the Treaty of Tui and invaded Galicia in the Kingdom of León. This led to a short conflict, known as the Battle of Valdevez. Following this battle, the belligerent rulers came together and signed the Treaty of Zamora, which made Portugal independent. Portugal would go on to become an important player in Europe, known for their tradition of sailors and explorers, especially during the Age of Exploration. Furthermore, as European countries have gone through many border changes over the years, Portugal’s original borders have remained relatively intact.
Denmark – 965 AD
Scandinavia had long been home to various groups of people, but it wasn’t until 10th century that Denmark was unified into a single kingdom. Though the first ruler of Denmark is considered to be the Viking king, Gorm the Old, it was actually his son, Harald “Bluetooth” Gormsson, who is credited with bringing Denmark into the nation-state-like governance we see today. In 965, he united and officially Christianized the Kingdom of Denmark. The current Queen of Denmark, Margrethe II, can actually trace her lineage back to Gorm the Old and Harald Bluetooth, thus making the Monarchy of Denmark among Europe’s oldest.
United Kingdom – 927 AD
The history of the United Kingdom typically begins in 1707, when the kingdoms of England and Scotland merged to form Great Britain. However, both England and Scotland had existed well before that. The Kingdom of Scotland is traditionally said to have been founded in 843, though its territories have expanded and decreased throughout history. The Kingdom of England emerged from the gradual unification of the early medieval Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. This unification was completed in 927 by King Æthelstan, and it is this date that is typically considered England’s foundation date.
France – 843 AD
The Frankish king Clovis I united most of the territory that is now France in the late 5th century, and Frankish power would reach its height under the rule of Charlemagne, King of the Franks from 768. Charlemagne would expand this Frankish territory, then known as the Carolingian Empire. When Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor, his son, Louis the Pious, would keep the Carolingian Empire united. After a brief civil war following the death of Louis the Pious, the Treaty of Verdun was signed in 843. This split the Carolingian Empire into three parts. The Kingdom of France emerged from the western part of the Carolingian Empire, known as West Francia, and would serve as the beginnings of modern France.
San Marino – 301 AD
The microstate of San Marino is not only one of the smallest countries in the world, but it is also among the oldest. According to legend, San Marino was founded in 301 when a Christian stonemason named Marinus fled from his home in what is now Croatia to escape religious persecution. He eventually settled on Monte Titano, a mountain of the Apennines, where he built a small church and thus founded what is now the city and state of San Marino. Despite its early founding, San Marino wasn’t recognized as independent by the Pope until 1631. San Marino’s Statute of 1600 functions as a de facto constitution, and is considered the oldest such document in the world.