The idea of England did not appear until the eighth century when the “Venerable” Bede, a Northumbrian Benedictine monk, wrote his famous Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (or “Ecclesiastical History of the English People”), a book which highlighted the tension between Celtic and Catholic interpretations of Christianity across the isle. The book took place during the Anglo-Saxon invasions of Britain in the fifth and sixth centuries.
Prior to Bede’s 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, haunting, 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 his expedition northward, including a visit to the British isles. His adventure was a popular tale in antiquity. However, latter-day writers have doubted the authenticity of his claims and Pytheas’s book has not survived. Instead, we find only fragmentary quotes of Pytheas buried in the writings of Strabo, Pliny, Diodorus, and others. Another early exploration was undertaken by Himilcus, a Carthaginian navigator who may have landed in Britain, but this text also is also now 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 based on trade across the English Channel with mainland Europe, particularly ores like 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 searching for 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: 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 AD 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 renamed the island from ‘Albion’ to his own name ‘Britannia’). 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”).
Of course, the English isle was once populated by a mysterious scattering of peoples for thousands of years. Their politics, languages, hopes, dreams, and prayers are all lost to us today. But out of the mist and twilight of this ancient humanity we can slowly piece together a likely story of their world. We find spears and arrowheads, grave mounds and cave art, as well as early examples of farming and politics. However, all roads ultimately lead to Stonehenge. Today, Stonehenge looms large over the history of ancient England. It is an impressive monument, likely a ritualistic burial site composed of several thirteen-foot Sarsen stones carefully arranged in a semi-circle. The mysteries of Stonehenge continue to yield fertile theories of what life may have been like in prehistoric England.
For this reading I used Winston Churchill’s essential History of English Speaking Peoples, David Starkey’s Crown and Country, Peter Ackroyd’s Foundation: The History of England From Its Earliest Beginnings To The Tudors, and a variety of sources from the Venerable Bede, Tacitus, and Geoffrey of Monmouth.