Pre-Roman Britain

The idea of England does not appear until the eighth century when the “Venerable” Bede, a Northumbrian Benedictine monk, writes his famous Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (or “Ecclesiastical History of the English People” -a book which highlights the tension between the Celtic and Catholic versions of Christianity in England. In addition, the book details the Anglo-Saxon invasions of Britain in the fifth and sixth centuries which had destroyed what was left of the Roman Britons.

Prior to this publication, England was an island of almost mythological proportions, populated with varying tribes but with no unifying culture or people. The idea of England was dubious, mysterious, foreign, and yet tantalizing to the peoples of mainland Europe. For example, in the fourth century before Christ, a seafaring Greek explorer named Pytheas published an account of an expedition northward, including a visit to the British isles. His adventure was a popular tale in antiquity. However, latter-day writers doubted the authenticity of his claims and Pytheas’s book has thus not survived the ravages of time. Instead, we find only fragmentary quotes buried in the writings of Strabo, Pliny, and Diodorus, and other writers. Another early exploration was undertaken by Himilcus, a Carthagian navigator who may have landed in Britain, but this text is also lost to us.

Despite the mysterious nature of the early English peoples, contemporary archaeological evidence points us to a political world of tribal chieftains (mainly Celtic and Welsh groups) with hillside castles and an economy that included trade across the English Channel with mainland Europe, particularly tin mined in southwest England. This was the era of the Druids, a pagan Celtic religion that was characterized by Tacitus many centuries later as a group of forested people who sacrificed captives upon strange altars while enquiring about the hidden messages found in human entrails. Thankfully this gruesome practice died out in the Saxon wars, but nevertheless the early Celtic Britons left their lasting mark upon the isle with important geographic names, like London, Manchester, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dover, Kent, and York; in addition to rivers like the Thames and the Severn (the longest river in Britain).

We can only imagine what life was like for these early fiefdoms of Britain, and fascination has continued to entice writers for the past two thousand years, including writers like Geoffrey of Monmouth, a Welsh cleric who wrote his Historia Regum Britanniae (“History of the Kings of Britain”) around 1136. The book offers a popular, mythological account of the early kings of Britain: Brutus, the great-grandson of Aeneas, is said to be the founder of Britain (hence why he renames the island from ‘Albion’ to his own name ‘Britannia’), and also the book tells of King Leir and his three daughters, a harrowing tale incomparably re-imagined in Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy, King Lear, and lastly Geoffrey’s book paints a picture of the legendary King Arthur, one of the last great kings of the Britons prior to the Saxon invasions. These early stories showcase chivalry, timocratic kingdoms, and a fascination with swords, like Excaliber. Our earliest and best glimpse of Britain comes down to us in Julius Caesar’s Commentarii de Bello Gallico (“Commentaries on the Gallic Wars”).

For this reading I used Winston Churchill’s essential History of English Speaking Peoples, David Starkey’s Crown and Country, and a variety of sources from the Venerable Bede, Tacitus, and Geoffrey of Monmouth.

One thought on “Pre-Roman Britain

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s