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Pre-Roman and Roman Britain

The Romans in Britain

As with other parts of Europe all knowledge about pre-Roman history in Britain is derived ultimately from archaeology. Even for the Romans, Britain was on the edge of their empire and did not enjoy their interest to the same extent as countries which boundered on the Mediterranean.

After the end of the Ice Age (c. 11,000 BC) an improvement in climate was to be noted in Britain with the development of forests which provided a habitat for hunting people, remains of whose settlements have been found at Star Carrin Yorkshire. This is the first firm evidence of life in Britain. It was not, however, until the late Mesolithic (Middle Stone) Age (c. 6,000 to 5,000 BC) that Britain was cut off from the continent by the strait known as the English channel. The people who were in Britain at that time became the indigeneous population and all later settlers are classified, due to England’s insular geography, as immigrants, if not to say invaders.

In these early days not many dates stand out as of significance for the country’s history. The most important change is probably the introduction of agriculture by immigrants from western and north-western Europe in the Neolithic (New Stone) Age. There are one or two sites (such as Windmill Hill and Durington Walls, both in Wiltshire) which offer evidence of ritual activity.

The first people to which we can give a name are probably the Beaker folk from the Low Countries and the middle Rhine who turn up in the Britain in the Bronze Age (after 2,300 BC). The name of this people derives from their habit of burying their dead individually with the vessels which they had. These people were active in trade and had dealings with countries as far removed from Britain as Greece and the Baltic countries. They are furthermore responsible for continuing the construction of Stonehenge (an original megalithic monument in Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire completed about 1,500 BC).

Whether or not the Beaker folk were ultimately of Indo-European origin is something which has not been cleared to this day. From about 1,200 BC onwards there is increasing evidence of agriculture in the south of England with small circular huts, tilled fields and animal enclosures. This type of settlement remained characteristic up to and including the Roman period.

Various peoples found their way into Britain in the early part of the first millennium BC. These are referred to by the cultures in mainland Europe with which they are associated, e.g. the Urn field and Hallstatt cultures. The latter group is especially important as they are assumed to be early Celtic (Hallstatt is a term given to them after a particularly rich site discovered in Switzerland). From 700 to 400 BC waves of immigration of varying intensity led to Britain increasing in population and to it becoming quite distinctly Celtic. This can be seen in the decoration of war implements which is strongly reminiscent of La Tène Celtic art. The linguistic characteristics of Britain developed to such a degree for one to be able to talk of Insular Celtic as opposed to Continental Celtic (as evidenced in Gaulish inscriptions and a few remains from the Iberian peninsula). Note in this connection that Gaul (the term used to refer to present-day France before it was taken over by the Romans, i.e. when it was still Celtic) did not survive the Roman era. The Celtic language spoken in Brittany today goes back to secondary migrations of Celtic speakers from Cornwall in the 6th and 7th centuries AD as a result of pressure from the Germanic tribes in the east of Britain. Thus Breton is an insular Celtic language.

The Romans in Britain

Written history in Britain starts with Julius Caesar who in 55 or 54 BC invaded the island and left an account of this for posterity. The Romans were never really interested in Britain and did not take the trouble to conquer it entirely. Thus in the West Cornwall and Wales remained firmly Celtic, as did the North and all of Scotland. It is true that Hadrian’s Wall (built c. 122-130) is quite far north (near the present-day border with Scotland but Roman settlements in the north of England are rare. The two main Roman groups are the Catuvellauni north of the Thames and the Atrebates south of this river. The Roman groupings in Britain tended to distance themselves from Rome and to some extent enter alliances with local (Celtic) leaders. The Celtic areas provided welcome refuge for Roman leaders who were in trouble with fellow Romans in Britain. Things came to a head in the early part of the first century AD and a Roman invasion of Britain in 43-47 AD under the emperor Claudius was supposed to put an end to this strife. Military engagements continued throughout the first century and into the second with an approximate status quo being achieved with the building of Hadrian’s Wall. Wales remained a stronghold of Celtic resistance to Roman rule and no attempt to subdue the Welsh was successful.

Hadrian’s Wall in the far north of England. The wall ran roughly from present-day Newcastle in the east across to Carlisle in the west.

As might be expected Romanisation was greatest in Britain in the towns and among the ruling classes. The countryside remained linguistically Celtic, despite the presence of Roman villas. Equally no influence of the substrate Celtic language is to be found in the Latin written in Britain at this time.

By the end of the third century Britain had become almost independent of Rome again due to the activities of Carausius who commanded the Channel by means of an efficient naval force. This led to Constantius I invading Britain (by then under the rule of one Allectus) to re-establish Roman rule and authority in 296 AD. He divided Britain into provinces and reformed the administration of the island.

The fourth century was a period of relative stability and prosperity despite raids by the Picts of Scotland and the Scots of Ireland. However in the fifth century matters deteriorated as a succession of tyrants gained power in Britain. The main one of these is Vortigern (obtained power c. 425) whose chief interest was in ruling Britain firmly. It was he who made the fatal mistake about 430 AD of inviting continental tribes from the North Sea area (i.e. Germanic tribes) to settle on the east coast of Britain to form a bulwark against sea raids by Picts. This they did but later (in the 440's) invited their fellow Teutons to join them in Britain. This led to their gaining a definite hold on Britain which led to more waves of immigration and permanent settlements of Germanic tribes not just in coastal regions. By the beginning of the 5th century all the Romans had been either assimilated or banished from Britain, the Celts had been subdued and various ‘kingdoms’ such as those in Kent and Wessex had been established with Germanic chiefs.