A Brief History of Britain

Prehistoric Britain

The nature of the earliest Britons is up for debate. A traditional view was that early settlers were Celts who arrived between 700 and 500 BC from the mainland of Europe, however a more recent theory suggests that the earliest Britons were already here when the Celts landed. It is suggested that these natives spoke another language entirely and therefore were probably descendents of original neolithic inhabitants.

It is suggested that the original natives were forebears of the 'painted' or 'tatooed' people whose name was later Latinised as Picti or Picts. Some of these natives may have retained aspects of their cultural identity when overwhelmed by the Celtic tribes who marauded across Europe over the centuries. We cannot be certain as to whether the people who later gave rose to the Picts represent the earliest natives because no knowledge of their language survives to provide a clue to their origins.

However, once the Celt settlers/invaders had dominated the land, we assign them the name Brythons; a term which is a modern creation to help distinguish the nature of these people from other inhabitants. The Brythonic people excludes the afforementioned Picts who had their own distinctive cultural features, hence the questionmark over whether the Picts were a likely off-shoot of these same settlers.

The Celts overran the British Isles, as they did virtually all of western Europe. With iron ploughs they cultivated the heavy soil of the river valleys; with iron weapons and two-wheeled, horse-drawn chariots, they subdued and absorbed the indigenous inhabitants of the islands. Their priests, the Druids, dominated their society.

When the Greek merchant explorer called Pytheas sailed in 325 BC he found the natives of the south-west if the island calling themselves Preteni which was recorded in Greek as Prettanike. This was later rendered by the historian Diodorus as Pretannia, and this then became the preferred Roman name Britannia.

The Britannias islands consisted of mainland Albion (what we today call Britain) and Hibernia (today Ireland).

Cornwall was an important stop on Pytheas's voyage because it was a source of tin and he studied its production and processing.

Roman Britain - 1st Century

Although it had long been known to the Mediterranean peoples as a source of tin, Great Britain did not enter the Roman world until Julius Caesar’s two expeditions to the island in 55 and 54 BC—as an afterthought to his conquest of Gaul. Caesar’s contact, however, was temporary; permanent occupation had to wait until Rome had solved more pressing problems at home.

Emperor Claudius I invaded Britain in force in AD 43. Roman ports at Meols on the Wirral, and all around the coast were used to supply inland military bases, such as at Chester. Nearly two decades passed before the Romans had captured the nearby island of Anglesey in Wales, headquarters of the Druids, and put down the revolt of Boudicca, the queen of the Iceni. She had already wrought damage such as on the town at Colchester, where the only known Roman Circus in Britain was found. The Roman governor Gnaeus Julius Agricola won the Battle of Mons Graupius (AD 84), somewhere in Scotland, but the northern tribes proved hard to subdue. In 123, Hadrian’s Wall, stretching 117 km (73 mi) from the Solway Firth to the River Tyne, became the northern frontier.

One of the main stamps on Britain was the Roman villa which was a symbol of everything the Empire brought to the island, namely planning, construction and the wealth to build.

Sub-Roman Britain - 5th Century

When the Romans withdrew their administrative network and central military support, the country began a period of technological and sociological decline. Standards of literacy and education fell, and knowledge of surveying, building and organisation evaporated over the generations. The influence of the Roman system cannot be overstated, and with their interest in the island gone, the country slid into ruin.

The Anglo-Saxons - 6th Century

The Angles, Saxons and Jutes were Germanic peoples who, in the 5th to 6th centuries AD, sailed to Britain across the North Sea from Netherlands, Germany and Norway. They conquered and occupied most of Britain, dividing the country up into Kingdoms eached ruled by their own Royal Family. This period started in the first half of the 5th century and by around AD 600 the five main Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were: Northumbria, Mercia, Wessex, Kent and Anglia.

The Vikings - 8th Century

The Vikings also came from the east, or rather the north, hence their name Norse. They were a people who had not long migrated to the countries of Denmark, Norway and Sweden and after trying eke out a living amidst steep terrain in fjords, sailed to Britain where they landed on the east cost and formed their own nation, called the Danelaw, and travelled around the north of Scotland where they settled in Shetland, the West Coast of Scotland, and Ireland.

The Norman Conquest - 1066 AD

Click here for a timeline of Norman Monarchs (pt 1).