Ancient Britain

By Tim Lambert

The Bronze Age

At any rate, by 2,000 BC English society was changed by the invention of bronze. Metal artifacts appeared in England as early as 2,700 BC although it is believed they were imported. By about 2,000 BC bronze was being made in England. Bronze is made of 9 parts copper and one part tin. It is, of course, harder than stone and provided more efficient tools and weapons.

The Bronze Age people also rode horses and they were the first people in England to weave cloth. Bronze Age women held their hair with bone pins and they wore crescent-shaped necklaces. In the late Bronze Age (1,000 BC-650 BC) forts were built on hills so warfare was, it seems, becoming common. This may have been because the population was rising and fertile land was becoming harder to obtain.

Meanwhile, the Bronze Age people continued to build barrows, although cremation was practiced. The dead were buried with useful artifacts. Presumably, the living believed the dead would need these in the afterlife. Unfortunately, since they had no written records nothing is known about the Bronze Age religion. We know that Bronze Age people lived in round wooden huts with thatched roofs but nothing is known about their society or how it was organised. However, there were almost certainly different classes at that time. Tin and copper were exported from Britain along with animal hides. Jet and amber were imported for the rich.

Meanwhile by 1,800 BC people in Scotland had learned to make bronze. The Bronze Age people continued to live in simple huts but they are famous for their stone monuments. They arranged huge stones in circles. The fact that they were able to do so indicates they lived in an organised society.

The Celts

About 650 BC iron was introduced into England by a people called the Celts and the first swords were made. Warfare was common during the Iron Age and many hill forts (fortified settlements) were built at that time. (Although there were also many open villages and farms). The Celts fought from horses or light wooden chariots. They threw spears and fought with swords. The Celts had wooden shields and some wore chain mail.

Most of the Celts were farmers although were also many skilled craftsmen. Some Celts were blacksmiths (working with iron), bronze smiths, carpenters, leather workers, and potters. (The potter’s wheel was introduced into Britain c.150 BC). Celtic craftsmen also made elaborate jewelry of gold and precious stones. Furthermore, objects like swords and shields were often finely decorated. The Celts decorated metal goods with enamel. The Celts also knew how to make glass and they made glass beads.

At the top of Celtic society was a class of nobles headed by a king or chieftain. Below them were the craftsmen (of whom metalworkers were the most important). Then came the farmers who provided the food supply and also fought for the chief. The Celts were divided into tribes. There was no political unity among them and a great deal of fighting.

Trade with Europe was common. Metals like copper, tin, iron, and lead were exported from England. Wool, cloth, skins, and grain were also exported. Luxury goods like fine pottery and expensive metal goods were imported from Europe. At first, the Celts used iron bars as a form of currency but by about 50 BC they were using gold coins.

The Celts lived in roundhouses. They were built around a central pole with horizontal poles radiating outwards from it. They rested on vertical poles. Walls were of wattle and daub and roofs were thatched. Around the walls inside the huts were benches, which also doubled up as beds. The Celts also used low tables.

Celtic men wore tunics and trousers and women wore long dresses and mantles. They used bronze mirrors. Women wore belts around their dresses made of cloth, leather, or bronze rings. Celtic men soaked their hair in lime water to make it stand up straight. They wore mustaches but not beards. Wealthy Celts wore gold ornaments around their necks called torcs or torques. The Celts made dyes from plants, woad, for blue, madder for red, and weld for yellow.

For amusement Celts played board games. They were also very fond of music and played flutes and lyres. In good weather, they held horse or chariot races. The Celts also enjoyed hunting wild boars on horseback.

The Celts had priests called Druids. The Druids were very important in Celtic society. As well as being priests they were scholars, judges, and advisers to the kings. The Celts were polytheists (they worshiped many gods and goddesses). They did not build temples but instead worshiped at natural sites such as groves of trees, springs, rivers, and lakes. Sometimes the Celts sacrificed valuable goods by throwing them into lakes and rivers.

In Celtic times the practice of building barrows died out. Instead, people were interned in individual graves. They were still buried with grave goods showing the Celts had a strong belief in an afterlife. They believed that when you died your spirit went to a place called the Other World. Unfortunately, although the Celts did have a system of writing most of what we know about their religion comes from Roman writers. Since they conquered the Celts the Romans were likely to have been biased. According to Roman writers, the Druids practiced human sacrifice.

The main Celtic festivals were Imbolc at the beginning of February at the start of the lambing season, Beltane at the beginning of May, when cattle were sent out to graze in the fields after being kept indoors and fed on hay during the Winter, Lughnasadh in August when the crops were growing ripe and Samhain at the beginning of November. That was the time when animals were brought in from the fields for the Winter. The Celts could not grow enough hay to feed them all so those not needed for breeding were slaughtered.

The Celts grew crops in rectangular fields. They raised pigs, sheep, and cattle. They stored grain in pits lined with stone or wicker and sealed with clay. The Celts also brewed beer from barley. Although the Romans viewed the Celts as barbarians they created a sophisticated and advanced society. Celtic craftsmen were superb.

Roman Britain

The Romans invaded England in 43 AD under Emperor Claudius. The Roman invasion force consisted of about 20,000 legionaries and about 20,000 auxiliary soldiers from the provinces of the Roman Empire. Aulus Plautius led them. The Romans landed somewhere in Southeast England (the exact location is unknown) and quickly prevailed against the Celtic army. The Celts could not match the discipline and training of the Roman army. A battle was fought on the River Medway, ending in Celtic defeat and withdrawal. The Romans chased them over the River Thames into Essex and within months of landing in England, the Romans had captured the Celtic hill fort on the site of Colchester.

Meanwhile, other Roman forces marched into Sussex, where the local tribe, the Atrebates were friendly and offered no resistance. The Roman army then marched into the territory of another tribe, the Durotriges, in Dorchester and southern Somerset. Everywhere the Romans prevailed and that year 11 Celtic kings surrendered to Claudius. Normally if a Celtic king surrendered the Romans allowed him to remain as a puppet ruler. Aulus Plautius was made the first governor of Roman Britain.

By 47 AD the Romans were in control of England from the River Humber to the Estuary of the River Severn. However, the war was not over. The Silures in South Wales and the Ordovices of North Wales continued to harass the Romans. Fighting between the Welsh tribes and the Romans continued for years.

Meanwhile, the Iceni tribe of East Anglia rebelled. At first, the Romans allowed them to keep their kings and have some autonomy. However in c. 50 AD the Romans were fighting in Wales and they were afraid the Iceni might stab them in the back. They ordered the Iceni to disarm, which provoked a rebellion. However, the Romans easily crushed it. In the ensuing years, the Romans alienated the Iceni by imposing heavy taxes. Then, when the king of the Iceni died he left his kingdom partly to his wife, Boudicca, and partly to Emperor Nero.

Soon, however, Nero wanted the kingdom all for himself. His men treated the Iceni very high-handedly and they provoked rebellion. This time a large part of the Roman army was fighting in Wales and the rebellion was, at first, successful. Led by Boudicca the Celts burned Colchester, St Albans, and London.

However, the Romans rushed forces to deal with the rebellion. Although the Romans were outnumbered their superior discipline and tactics secured total victory. After the rebellion was crushed the Celts of southern and eastern England settled down and gradually accepted Roman rule.

Hadrian's Wall
Hadrian’s Wall

Then in 71-74 AD, the Romans conquered the north of England. In the years 74-77, they conquered South Wales. Then in 77 AD Agricola was made governor of Britain. First, he conquered North Wales. Then he turned his attention to what is now Scotland. By 81 AD the Romans had captured the area from the Clyde to the Forth. In 82 they advanced further north. In 83 the Romans won a great victory at Mons Graupius (it is not known exactly where that was). However, in 86 the Romans withdrew from Scotland.

The End of Roman Britain

By the middle of the 3rd century, the Roman Empire was in decline. In the latter half of the 3rd century, Saxons from Germany began raiding the east coast of Roman Britain. The Romans built a chain of forts along the coast, which they called the Saxon shore. The forts were commanded by an official called the Count of the Saxon Shore and they contained both infantry and cavalry.

However, the Saxon raids were, at first, no more than pinpricks, and most of Roman Britain remained reasonably peaceful and prosperous. Then in 286, an admiral named Carausius seized power in Britain. For 7 years he ruled Britain as an emperor until Allectus, his finance minister, assassinated him. Allectus then ruled Britain until 296 when Constantius, Emperor of the Western Roman Empire invaded. Britain was then taken back into the Roman fold.

In the 4th century, the Roman Empire in the West went into serious economic and political decline. The populations of towns fell. Public baths and amphitheaters went out of use. In 367 Scots from Northern Ireland, Picts from Scotland and Saxons joined to raid Roman Britain and loot it. They overran Hadrian’s Wall and killed the Count of the Saxon Shore.

However, the Romans sent a man named Theodosius with reinforcements to restore order. In 383 some Roman soldiers were withdrawn from Britain and the raiding grew worse. The last Roman troops left Britain in 407. In 410 the leaders of the Romano-Celts sent a letter to the Roman Emperor Honorius, appealing for help. However, he had no troops to spare and he told the Britons they must defend themselves.

The Picts and Scots

The Picts lived in round huts of wood or stone with thatched roofs. Some Picts lived in crannogs, which were huts erected on artificial platforms in lochs or estuaries. Pictish chieftains built hill forts of stone, wood, or earth. Pictish farmers raised cattle, pigs, and sheep. They also fished, hunted deer and seals, and caught birds. They grew crops of wheat, barley, and rye. They also gathered wild fruits such as crab apples, sloes, raspberries, blackberries, and damsons.

Although the vast majority of Picts were farmers some worked as craftsmen such as blacksmiths, bronze smiths, goldsmiths, and potters. The Picts were very skilled at making jewelry. They also carved pictures on stones. Upper-class Picts spent their days hunting on horseback or hunting with falcons. In the evenings they drank and feasted.

Scotland’s written history begins with the Romans. The Romans invaded Scotland in 80 AD led by Agricola. They advanced into southern Scotland and then marched into the northeast. In 84 the Romans severely defeated the Picts at a place called Mons Graupius (its exact location is unknown). However, in the years after the battle, the Romans slowly withdrew and in 123 Emperor Hadrian began building a wall to keep out the Picts.

Later in the second century, the Romans advanced again and in 140 they built the Antonine Wall from the Clyde to the Forth. However, the Romans finally abandoned the Antonine Wall in 196 AD. Afterward, Hadrian’s Wall became the frontier. The Romans advanced into Scotland again in 209 AD but only temporarily. In 367-68, the Picts took part in a great raid upon Roman Britain.

In the 6th century, a people from Ireland called the Scots invaded what is now Scotland. They settled in what is now Argyll and founded the kingdom of Dalriada.