Very Early British History

Updated February 21: I have decided to rewrite this post and make it a bit more knowledgeable and scholarly. The previous version contained many errors of tone as well as fact and overall vision. During the Dark Ages and prior to the Roman Conquest, England was in a state of continual chaos. There were all sorts of tribes all over Britain. There were Kings all over the lang. If we pretend that New York is a part of Britain, there would be a King of Manhattan, a King of Brooklyn, a King of the Bronx, a King of Long Island, etc. Also, there might be an “overking” of all of New York City. And within the King of Manhattan’s realm, there might be subkings, like the King of Greenwich Village, the King of the Upper East Side, etc. It is not correct to say that these tribes were in a continual state of warfare. In truth, they often made temporary alliances. So the Kings of Bronx and Brooklyn would get together to fight the King of Long Island. These Kings mostly just wanted “tribute.” They didn’t want slaves. They lorded over the peasantry. The peasants had crops and animals, and the Kings would collect taxes from the peasants. You did get a modicum of protection from other invading Kings by paying taxes to the King of your region. The various tribes were scattered all over England and engaged in regular tribal warfare from their “hillforts.” Before the Roman Conquest, the Britons, or “Brythons”, were speaking “Britonic” or Brythonic. This is a form of Celtic known as P-Celtic. It was probably many different languages and not just one. The only surviving forms of P-Celtic are Welsh and Breton, and all of the others have gone extinct. Sadly, very little remains of the dead Brythonic languages that were spoken all over Britain before the year 600. They had some sort of runic writing, painted their faces blue and worshiped trees and built Stonehenge, but beyond that, we know little. No one really knows what Stonehenge is all about – it’s a gigantic mystery. Some of the runes seem to be poorly translated and we can’t make out much of what they were trying to say. The wars were over tribute and slavery. Basically, you were either master or slave, like in S & M. Tribes would attack each other with the sole purpose of conquering the others so the others would be forced to “pay tribute” to your tribe. None of this endless warfare accomplished much in the way of civilizing activity. With the coming of Rome, this chaos finally stopped. The Roman Army was so impressive it was like fighting the aliens. Most of the Britons just gave up and quit fighting. The Romans pretty much showed up, said, “Here we are, we’re the Romans, we have civilization and all this cool stuff, and we want to take over.” The Britons pretty much said, “Help yourself.” There was some opposition, but not much, and most of it was from the Britons in Scotland and Wales. The Romans also used bribes and various other non-violent methods of conquest. As in Palestine and elsewhere in the Empire, the Romans mostly just wanted taxes and in some cases slaves. First and foremost, they wanted to avoid local rebellions. At one point during Roman rule, a British tribe called the Briganti under the warrior queen Boudicca attacked the Romans ferociously. This was not the first time the Romans had dealt with this tribe (Did we get the word “brigands” from them?) and the Romans massacred the Brigands, killing 40,000 people,  men, women and children. It wasn’t genocide by any means, as there were many Brigands left alive, but it was more to teach them a lesson. To describe Roman rule of Britain as genocidal is completely mistaken. The Romans, while imperialists, also brought high civilization like flush toilets, roads, cities, advanced weaponry, the works. The advantages of Roman Civilization for primitive and barbaric British tribes were considerable. After Rome fell, Britain fell apart. Churchill said the Roman plumbing system, collapsed in 400, was not equaled again by the British until the late 1800’s. That’s pretty impressive. There is much misunderstanding about the walls the Romans built in Scotland and Wales. The truth is that the Romans couldn’t really conquer either Wales or Scotland, so they blew both places off. Romans were smart, and they knew how to cut their losses. If you couldn’t defeat someone quickly, you shined them on and forgot about them. But the Welsh and Scottish Britons would not stop attacking the Romans, even though the Romans were not even occupying their lands. After the Romans left, a post-Roman, “pseudo-Roman” King named Offa built a huge earthen wall 25 feet high called Offa’s Dyke that went all across Wales. This little-known structure is actually longer than Hadrian’s Wall. Same thing up in Scotland with Hadrian’s Wall. The Romans wanted nothing to do with the Scots, but the Scots kept charging south to attack the Romans. The Romans finally built a big wall and said you guys stay over there now. It’s important to note that the Romans also had little interest in Wales or Scotland. These areas are mountainous and were not conducive to growing cash crops like wheat. The Romans were mostly interested in flat areas where crops could be grown. Roman imperialism was definitely exploitative. The Romans principally got metals, lead and tin, out of England. Those mines were built with slave labor. Those slaves were generally Englishmen. The life of a Roman slave, as with a Greek slave, was not so bad, as slave life goes. It was surely better than the life of a slave in the Arab World, the Americas, or Africa. In Ancient Greece, there wasn’t a whole lot of difference between a “slave” and a “free man.” This was before unions and collective bargaining, so both worked really hard all day under less than optimal conditions. But at the end of the day, at least the slave got to go home to a nice room in his master’s house and a good square meal. God knows where the free man slept, maybe under a tree. The Romans were quite civilized, and they had smelting metals and mining down. They used these metals primarily for making cool weaponry with which to kick ass on most of Europe. Rome’s weaponry and army was what Rome was all about. Take away that pillar, and the whole thing falls down. English slaves were often taken to the mainland and were highly valued there. For one thing, once on the mainland, an English slave was seriously lost. He didn’t know where the heck he was at, and no way was he going to try to make it back to England. So English slaves on the mainland seldom ran away. The Roman period was the longest period of stability that Britain had ever known. No sooner had Rome fallen and the Romans left then the British went back to their endless wars. Since these wars were fought with primitive weaponry, no one was able to get the upper hand and conquer most of the country, necessary for nation-building. It is important to unite lands under a flag with unity and dedication to a common goal. Otherwise you just have the human equivalent of three dozen monkeys running about around every bend in the road. It’s impossible to make an economy, get an army together, or get much done as a civilization. So much for radical decentralization. It wasn’t until the Normans conquered Britain in 1066 that the  British finally stopped their incessant tribal wars. There were surely wars under the Normans, but it was a far cry from the neverending chaos of the Dark Ages. At this time, the Normans were able at least to engage in enough nation-building to create a semblance of a state. And weaponry was advanced enough to solidify that rule and to get the British to stop fighting amongst themselves and unite to defend the Isle against the invaders instead. Churchill once said that the history of Britain for the first 1000 years (1-1000) was one of continuous invasion. In the second 1000 years, Britain was not successfully invaded a single time. That’s what nation-building, modern weapons and a Navy will get you, a good night’s sleep for once.

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12 thoughts on “Very Early British History”

  1. As I understand it the epicenter of O negative blood is the Basque region of Spain. It also occurs along the Celtic fringes of Britain. Evidently carriers of this blood type do not make good subjects. Most notable were the Lusitanian’s who the Romans eradicated, and the Scots against whom the Romans launched two separate scorched earth expeditions. According to Bede the Venerable, who is the only source of information concerning post Roman Britain, early Britain’s imported the Angles specifically to protect themselves from the depredations of the war like Scots.
    Scotsmen’s ancestors were driven off the European land mass by better tempered better organized civilizations, who prepared for battle by means other then strong drink. After being devastated by Roman arms, they spent the next 1000 years having their asses handed to them by the English during an endless series of border wars. Latter the English used them as cannon fodder. The highlands was nearly denuded of men during the Great War. Having learned nothing from there unillustrious past areas in both Canada and America today, that have the highest percentage of Scots Irish, also have the highest rate of enlistment into the arm services. They are born hating there own government and are easily incited into hating foreign governments. A neocons wet dream.

  2. Great comment cursed. I dare say you know this subject better than I do. I am just now dipping into it. Are you Scottish? I think I am like 1/8 Scottish, 1/8 Welsh and 3/8 English, among other things.
    It’s nice to have so many really smart commenters on here.

  3. Where to start? I know that you know more than you’re letting on here, Robert, because you’ve covered some of this stuff in other posts.
    First, there were no Scots or English in mainland Britain until after the Romans had left. Pedantic, but true. Britain was inhabited, funnily enough, by Britons, believed to be Celts, speakers of the Brythonic or P-Celtic dialect. Celtic ‘civilisation’ stretched from Switzerland through Gaul (France) to Northern Spain and the British Isles. There is some question these days about whether it is accurate to single out the Celts as a distinct and coherent group, but there seems to be agreement that there was a language, and religious and material cultures that had common features throughout the Celtic Realms. They had a ‘heroic culture’ like that of the Greeks in Homer, the Irish of the old legends, and the Germans (Angles) of Beowulf. They could sometimes unite under a high king ( or the queen Boudicca) against a common threat, but were, as you say, prone to feuding – this fighting amongst themselves is believed to be a big reason for their collapse in the face of the aggressive Angles and Saxons after the Romans left.
    They painted their faces and bodies BLUE, with something called woad, and often fought naked, for spiritual protection.
    In Scotland, on the East coast, North of the River Forth, there are runes whose meaning has never been established. It is believed that the people living here, the Picts, had a distinct language, but it was probably a Celtic dialect. The Picts were sometimes called ‘Cruthin’ or ‘Cruithni’, and are believed to have something in common with a group in Ireland called also ‘Cruthin’ or ‘Cruithni’.
    The Britons, south of Hadrian’s Wall, were by and large domesticated by the Romans – their leaders were co-opted into the Roman good life, and the people seem to have been reasonably happy with the stability and prosperity, after the initial resistance had been put down. When the Romans pulled out, the Britons, having been dependent on them for protection, were short on martial skills, and invited the Angles and Saxons in as mercenary help. Then the Angles and Saxons decided to help themselves to the land. Gradually the Britons were squeezed out of the best farming land, and so could not sustain as large a population as the newcomers, and so they were swamped – or what? This is the real dark age of British history. No-one really knows what became of the Britons, except for the remnants in Wales and Cornwall; it seems that there has been next to nothing passed from the old British tongue into English. Some river names remain of course. But some sizeable British kingdoms endured for hundreds of years. I recommend reading Myles Dillon and Nora Chadwick’s classic ‘the Celtic realms’ for this period of British history’ – I’ve found nothing better, though it is for the seriously interested – available on currently for, incredibly, $1.72 – quick, you won’t get it cheaper! This is a rare work of scholarship. The first six chapters are historical, containing all you could wish to know up to chapter six ‘the early history of the modern Celtic kingdoms’. The rest is to dip into over a lifetime – on language, literature, religion and mythology.
    Then the Vikings came, and areas of Britain were settled by Danes and Norsemen. Britain actually came under the crown of Denmark for a while. Alfred the Great is a famous Anglo-Saxon King who led the ‘English’ back from their nadir, and re-established kingdom, though still with Danish areas which acknowledged the English King. Later, another king, Harold, had to make a forced march from defeating yet another Norse invasion to fight the Normans, under William the Conqueror. Obviously, William conquered.
    So, it’s not quite a story of ‘the English’ fighting amongst themselves.
    As for the Scots – well they came from Ireland, about 600 AD. I realise you probably don’t know the areas I’ll talk about, so it wouldn’t hurt to look at a map.
    The British tribes between Hadrian’s wall and the Forth-Clyde line had been free but ‘clients’ of the Romans. There were centres in what are now roughly Glasgow and Edinburgh – modern central Scotland. Pictland was North of the Forth on the East coast. The Scots, from Northern Ireland, migrated to Argyll on the West coast of (Scotland), and founded the kingdom of Dalriada. These were speakers of Goidelic (Q-Celtic), the ancestor of modern Gaelic in both Scotland and Ireland. Standard wisdom, though no-one claims to be certain, is that the Goidelic Q-Celtic is a much more antiquated dialect which came with the original Celtic influx, and that there were later migrations from the continent which didn’t reach Ireland, which brought the Brythonic P-Celtic to Britain. The best authorities all point out that all this is tentative, and could be subject to radical revision.
    The ‘Great Glen’ is a valley with a string of ‘lochs’ (lakes, including loch ness, of monster fame.) that connects Argyll with North East Scotland i.e. Pictland. There seems to have been some commerce along the Glen, and intermarriage between the Scots of Dalriada
    and the Picts of the East. When the flower of Pictland’s manhood fell repelling yet another Norse invasion, the Scots took over, uniting the kingdom of Dalriada with Pictland to form Scotland. Macbeth, of Shakespeare fame, was one of its early kings. And this is how gaelic came to be spoken in Highland Scotland. The descent of the language of the ancient Britons (Brythonic. or P-Celtic) is Welsh.
    South of the Forth, there had been some changes. There were 2 main British kingdoms: Strathclyde (loosely centred around where modern Glasgow now is), and Manau Gododdin (Edinburgh) home of the Gododdin, formerly known as the Votadini, to the Romans. The earliest British poem (usually known as Welsh) is called the Gododdin, by the poet Aneirin; it is believed this was written down in the 13th century, but is based on an oral transmission that could stretch back to the 6th century. The original ‘ Old King Cole’ is believed to be Coel Hen, a king of Gododdin. At some point the new Anglian kingdom of Bernicia (Northumbria) expanded North, and the Gododdin seem to have left for Wales. On the West side, there had been a contiguous British presence from Strathclyde through the kingdom of Rheged (Cumbria ) to Wales. But at some point the Vikings conquered and settled part of the West Coast, separating Strathclyde from the remaining Britions to the South. Eventually Strathclyde and the Anglian kingdom came to accept the Scots King as their overlord. or war-leader, because of the necessity to pool together against external threats. Some later Scots kings came under Norman influence, and introduced Norman Lords and castles, and the merchant burghs came into being, whose language was mostly English – this is posited as an explanation of how English came to be the language of lowland Scotland, but it seems that no-one really knows. Especially frustrating is that I’ve never read a single word about how the British language of Strathclyde disappeared – this bugs me because my real name supposedly originates in that old British language.
    Other collections of ancient British poetry, readily available in Penguin edtions, are the Book of Taliesyn, and the Mabinogion ( which contains a tale or 2 involving the princess Rhiannon, sung about by Stevie Nicks with Fleetwood Mac).
    As the kingdom of Scotland evolved, the highlands remained practically a separate country, not being finally subdued until the battle of Culloden ( which was by no means a battle between Scots and English), and not being finally depopulated until their clan cheifs evicted them to make way for more profitable sheep-grazing in the 19th century- many of the highlanders were sold into bonded labour in the USA. Not too different from the fate of the American Indians.
    ‘Cursed’ is right to a point, though. In order to tame the independent spirit of the highlands, the old traditions were repackaged as facets of a ‘ proud military tradition’: the kilt, which had been outlawed for decades became, like the bagpipes, something associated with the Highland regiments of the British army. It is a sad facet of modern Scotland that so many still take pride in this colonial subservience; and compare Irish piping with the stilted, lifeless output of the lauded Scottish pipe majors – compared to Paddy Keenan (Bothy Band), Liam O’flynn (Planxty), Tommy Peeples, Willie Clancy and more, the Scottish pipers are a joke. It is really sad that so many of my countrymen feel that our music is the property of the British army.
    Enough said.

  4. Dear Robert
    There was also constant warfare between pre-Columbian Amerindians. However, I doubt very much that Amerindians in Latin America were better-off in 1592 than in 1492. I also doubt that that Amerindians in North America were better-off in 1710 than in 1610. Imperialists may reduce wars in the area that they conquer, but it is quite possible that the people in the conquered area have far more oppression than they had before. War is not the only curse. Constant oppression may be worse than occasional war.
    I have seen no evidence that the bulk of people in England became better-off by the Roman invasion. Remember, the majority of pre-Roman Brits were peasants. The Romans may have brought toilets to England, but rural people don’t really need toilets, and Roman toilets probably existed only in cities anyway, in which only a minority lived.
    Before the Roman imperialists arrived in Brtitain, the inhabitants were surviving, which means that they were doing more than waging war. They were also farmers.
    It should be interesting to see what the population in England was in the year 0, the year 400 and the year 1066. Population growth indicates that conditions are really not that bad. Did English population really grow during Roman times? Did it drop between 400 and 1066?
    We should be very careful in arguing that imperialism brings benefits to the conquered peoples. When Leopold II of Belgium, one of history’s greatest criminals, died in 1909, there was a lot of infrastructure in the Congo which wasn’t there 30 years earlier. However, for the Congolese, Leopold’s rule was a prolonged nightmare. Their role became that of forced laborers who had to enrich Leopold. They were better-off without all that Belgian-built infrastructure.
    I think that we should always look at history through the eyes of ordinary people and not be blinded by beautiful buildings or fine art, which usually exist only for a tiny elite.
    Regards. James

  5. Thx James, I can see that my Romanophilism is really an endorsement of imperialism. I thought I could get away with it, but maybe I cannot. If one is an anti-imperialist, perhaps one’s anti-imperialism should also apply to the ancient past?

  6. This is an awesome post, LS. I really do not know where to begin here. Actually, I am just learning about this now.
    Strathclyde speech was Brythonic Celtic, no? Like Welsh?
    I am glad to see that you are a proud Scottish nationalist though. Now all you need to do is learn to speak Scottish Gaelic. You don’t speak it, right?

  7. Yes, Strathclyde speech was Brythonic (P-Celtic) like Welsh. There are some records of the ministry of Saint Columba to the Picts and the Britains, and some Strathclyde kings are mentioned by name. Also, in the tales of Saint Kentigern (also known as Saint Mungo), several British kings are mentioned by name. Kentigern/Mungo is the patron saint of Glasgow, the kernel of which has existed since the 6th century. Certainly, Strathclyde was still British in the 11th century; the conversion to Christianity may have altered the culture, but I know of no discussion of what happened to the language. I wouldn’t be surprised if it lingered in some communities up to the introduction of universal education in English, but being only spoken in the family, as the number of people you could speak it to decreased. There must have been some words passed into local dialects, but I don’t know of any – the gaelic seems to have been more influential.
    Worth a read too is English culture-vulture (regular BBC presenter) Melvyn Bragg’s novel ‘ Credo’. He’s no great novelist, but it’s an easy read, and it’s the only novel I know that is set in the world of the late British kingdoms – actually in Rheged, which I mention above. Rheged is now Cumbria, where Bragg hails from, and which he often writes about. It gives a good feel of a people on a slow wane.
    There are plenty of histories of dark age England, but they generally only deal with the evolution of the English State – the Anglo-saxons and their wars with the Norsemen, completely ignoring the continuance of the British kingdoms. Norman Davies, author of much praised histories of Europe, Poland and Bratislava, has a book, ‘ The Isles’ , which addresses this deficit. Only some early chapters deal with the dark ages, so it’s more of an overview, but it’s a readable introduction. But if you want to know what can be known about the dark age British (that’s not English or Norse or Irish) kingdoms, Dillon and Chadwick’s book is it – I really can’t recommend it too much, though it’s not an easy read; more to be absorbed over years and repeated dipping into. Here’s the link again
    No, I’m not a nationalist; I don’t think there’s any historic difference between the Scots and English. If Edward I had treated the Scots better, the average Scot couldn’t have cared less if he was ruled by a French aristocrat in England, or a French aristocrat in Scotland.
    I’m against militarism, and against shit piping being presented as ‘the standard to aspire to’ because the said pipers are majors in the army.
    Why would I want to speak gaelic? It’s never been the language of central and Southern Scotland; and it hasn’t been the language of most of the rest of Scotland for hundreds of years.

  8. Dear Lafayette
    I read recently that. according to genetic researchers, 80% of the genes in the British gene pool come from the pre-Roman inhabitants of the British Isles. This is really not surprising given that conquerors often succeed in imposing their language, culture and religion on the conquered even though genetically they remain a minority. That’s how it is in many Latin American countries. For instance, in Guatemala and Bolivia the language is Spanish and the religion is Catholic, but most of the genes of Guatemalans and Bolivians are of Amerindian origin.
    The Roman Empire at its height can be compared to the British Empire in 1939. Of the hundreds of millions of people in the British Empire at that time, only about 10% could be considered British in terms of race. If the British Empire had lasted much longer, more Africans and Asians would have become British in terms of language and culture, but they would have remained genetically non-British.
    Similarly, as the Roman Empire grew, more and more of its inhabitants were genetically non-Roman even though many of them were being Romanized.
    It is quite possible that the Angles and Saxons and other Germanics who conquered Britain before 1066 were only a small percentage of the indigenous population of the British Isles, but big enough to eradicate the Celtic languages in most of the territory of the British Isles, a process of eradication which is nearly complete today.
    The Norman conquerors in 1066, who racially were partly Germanic, were really a small minority in England, so their language only partly displaced Anglo-Saxon. It is interesting that the Scandinavian languages didn’t take root anywhere outside of Scandinavia even though many parts of Europe once had Viking rulers.
    Regards. James

  9. Impressive array of scholars. I’ll try to bring my best game next time. Incidentally the Viking men did not involve themselves in educating their offspring in areas they raped and plundered. This is why their kids grew up speaking their mothers tongue.

  10. Impressive array of scholars.
    Can you believe these guys? We actually have Medieval scholars lurking in the comments section! Dang.
    Truth is, a lot of my posts are just educational, educational for me! If I’m just starting to learn about something, I write about it. So often it’s pretty weak scholarly-wise.
    OTOH, the purpose of this blog is to write to your average American. Saying that they don’t know much is a horrible understatement. So I try to dumb down my posts as much as possible. And I figure even a rather inaccurate “learning” post of mine is miles ahead anything they seriously read before. And I have all these really smart commenters here to correct me when I screw up.
    This blog isn’t so much me showing off to you guys how much I know. It’s more a diary of the journey of an auto-didact on the trails of learning.

  11. James Schipper – yes, that’s right. I was going to post something to that effect, but you beat me to it; but it’s not just that the genetic markers trace back to pre-Roman times, but to pre-Celtic times – the Celts themselves seem to have been an aristocratic class superimposed on a larger pre-existant population. Stonehenge was not built by the Celts, who only started coming about 600 BC, but by some earlier Britons, maybe a thousand years earlier. This early period is a very mysterious period. There are underground villages in Shetland and Orkney which had plumbing, sewage, and possibly a sort of central heating – no-one appears to know anything about who these people were, where they came from or what happened to them.

  12. Robert – I never realised before where the word brigands came from. The Briganti were the tribe of the warrior queen Boudicca ( or Boadicea, as she used to be known)
    Sorry to quibble again, but a moment’s reflection should recall that Britain did not have internal peace under the Normans, any more than before. Read the plays of Shakespeare, Henry I – IV, Richard II – all those contenders for the throne; the contest between the crown, the church and the nobility; John I being forced to sign the Magna Carta; Edward I’s conquest of Wales, and the Scottish wars of independence against him; the Wars of the Roses; Owen Glendower’s Rebellion; the civil war; the 1715 rebellion; Bonnie Prince Charlie’s 1745 Jacobite Rebellion – the battle of Culloden, in the aftermath of this, WAS the last battle fought on British soil. Culloden was the last gasp of the old gaelic catholic highland Scotland, arguably the last gasp of Dalriada.
    What the Normans DID seem to achieve eventually, is a concrete and enduring state which eventually superseded the previous self-identification of the peoples by their variious ethnic origins – British, Anglo-Saxon, or Dane. This was a conscious strategy – the Church was a big unifier, as was the promotion of English as a roughly common language. The travelling harper and bards were banned, as bearers of seditious messages and traditions that kept alive ethnic rather than national identities. Cromwell banned the harpers when he ruled Ireland, but an instrumental tradition stayed alive, whereas in England it was replaced by more formal lute music, a more classical and staid approach, patronised by the powerful. In Scotland, after Culloden, as I noted above, the musical tradition was absorbed into the army. This was part of a deliberate ‘ploughman’s lunch’, a false propaganda history. The great writer Sir Walter Scott was one of the architects of this, introducing the kilt (apparently never worn by the highlanders) to the Scottish regiments, and a whole paraphernalia of false tradition, all to transfer the romantic nationalist sentiments of the Scots to a pride in the Scottish regiments – as ‘cursed’ suggested above, this may have led to something like ” put them in kilts and give them bagpipes, then the Germans will shoot them first, and give our lads a chance”.

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