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Who were they? The Iron Age is age of the “Celt” in Britain. Over the
500 or so years leading up to the first Roman invasion a Celtic culture
established itself throughout the British Isles. Who were these Celts?
For a start, the concept of a “Celtic” people is a modern and somewhat
romantic reinterpretation of history. The “Celts” were warring tribes
who certainly wouldn’t have seen themselves as one people at the time.
The “Celts” as we traditionally regard them exist largely in the
magnificence of their art and the words of the Romans who fought them.
The trouble with the reports of the Romans is that they were a mix of
reportage and political propaganda. It was politically expedient for the
Celtic peoples to be coloured as barbarians and the Romans as a great
civilizing force. And history written by the winners is always suspect.
Where did they come from? What we do know is that the people we call
Celts gradually infiltrated Britain over the course of the centuries
between about 500 and 100 B.C. there was probably never an organized
Celtic invasion; for one thing the Celts were so fragmented and given to
fighting themselves that the idea of a concerted invasion would have
The Celts were a group of peoples loosely tied by similar language,
religion, and cultural expression. They were not centrally governed, and
quite as happy to fight each other as any non – Celt. They were
warrious, living for the glories of battle and plunder. They were also
the people who brought iron working to the British Isles.
Hill forts. The time of the “ Celtic conversion” of Britain saw a huge
growth in the number of hill forts throughout the region. These
were often small ditch and bank combinations encircling
defensible hilltops. Some are small enough that they were of
no practical use for more than an individual family, though
over time many larger forts were built. The curious thing is
that we don’t know if the hill forts were built by the
native Britons to defend themselves from the encroaching Celts,
or by the Celts as they moved their way into hostile
Usually these forts contained no source of water, so their use
as long term settlements is doubtful, though they may have
been useful indeed for withstanding a short term siege. Many
of the hill forts were built on top of earlier causeways
Celtic family life. The basic unit of Celtic life was the
clan, a sort of extended family. The term “family” is a bit
misleading, for by all accounts the Celts practiced a peculiar
form of child rearing; they didn’t rear them, they farmed them
out. Children were actually raised by foster parents. The
foster father was often the brother of the birth – mother.
Clans were bound together very loosely with other lans into
tribes, each of which had its own social structure and
customs, and possibly its local gods.
Housing. The Celts lived in huts of arched timber with walls
of wicker and roofs of thatch. The huts were generally
gathered in loose hamlets. In several places each tribe had
its own coinage system.
Farming. The Celts were farmers when they weren’t fighting. One
of the interesting innovations that they brought to Britain was
the iron plough. Earlier ploughs had been awkward affairs,
basically a stick with a pointed end harnessed behind two oxen.
They were suitable only for ploughing the light upland soils.
The heavier iron ploughs constituted an agricultural revolution
all by themselves, for they made it possible for the first
time to cultivate the rich valley and lowland soils. They came
with a price, though. It generally required a team of eight
oxen to pull the plough, so to void the difficulty of turning
that large a team, Celtic fields tended to be long and
narrow, a pattern that can still be seen in some parts of
the country today.
The lot of women. Celtic lands were owned communally, and
wealth seems to have been based largely on the size of cattle
herd owned. The lot of women was a good deal better than in
most societies of that time. They were technically equal to
men, owned property, and could choose their own husbands. They
could also be war leaders, as Boudicca later proved.
Language. There was a written Celtic language, but it developed
well into Christian times, so much of Celtic history they
relied on oral transmission of culture, primarily through the
efforts of bards and poets. These arts were tremendously
important to the Celts, and much of what we know of their
traditions comes to us today through the old tales and poems
that were handed down for generations before eventually being
Druids. Another area where oral traditions were important was
in the training of Druids. There has been a lot of nonsense
written about Druids, but they were curious lot; a sort of
super – class of priests, political advisors, teachers, healers,
and arbitrators. They had their own universities, where
traditional knowledge was passed on by rote. They had the
right to speak ahead of the king in council, and may have
held more authority than the king. They acted as ambassadors in
time of war, they composed verse and upheld the law. They were
a sort of glue holding together Celtic culture.
Religion. From what we know of the Celts from Roman
commentators, who are, remember, witnesses with an axe to
grind, they held many of their religious ceremonies in woodland
groves and near sacred water, such as wells and springs. The
Romans speak of human sacrifice as being a part of Celtic
religion. One thing we do know, the Celts revered human heads.
Celtic warriors would cut off the heads of their enemies in
battle and display them as trophies. They mounted heads in
door posts and hung them from them from their belts. This
might seem barbaric to us, but to the Celt the seat of
spiritual power was the head, so by taking the head of a
vanquished foe they were appropriating that power for
themselves. It was a kind of bloody religious observance.
The Iron Age is when we first find cemeteries of ordinary
people’s burials (in hole – in – the- ground graves) as opposed
to the elaborate barrows of the elite few that provide our
main records of burials in earlier periods.
The Celts at War. The Celts loved war. If one wasn’t
happening they’d be sure to start one. They were scrappers
from the word go. They arrayed themselves as fiercely as
possible, sometimes charging into battle fully naked, dyed blue
from head to toe, and screaming like banshees to terrify
They took tremendous pride in their appearance in battle, if
we can judge by the elaborately embellished weapons and
paraphernalia they used. Golden shields and breastplates shared
pride of place with ornamented helmets and trumpets.
The Celts were great users of light chariots in warfare. From
this chariot, drawn by two hoses, they would throw spears at
enemy before dismounting to have a go with heavy slashing
swords. They also had a habit of dragging families and baggage
along to their battles, forming a great milling mass of
encumbrances, which sometimes cost them a victory, as Queen
Boudicca would later discover to her dismay.
As mentioned, they beheaded their opponents in battle and it
was considered a sign of prowess and social standing to have
a goodly number of heads to display.
The main problem with the Celts was that they couldn’t stop
fighting among themselves long enough to put up a unified
front. Each tribe was out for itself, and in the long run
this cost them control of Britain.
The first invasion of Britain. The Celts of Britain had ties
to the tribes of Gaul and were quite familiar with the Romans
to have know better. Caesar, on the other hand, claimed that
Britain’s people had been helping the Gauls in their wars
against Rome. Britain was about to be conquered.
At dawn broke Caesar saw that the southern tribes of Britain
had massed on the cliffs of Dover to meet them. Caesar sailed
on in an attempt to find somewhere to land his troops. They
came to a shallow beach whereupon the tribes of the Britain
moved onto the beaches and did their best to intimidate the
Romans. The ?Roman legionaries refused to go ashore – until a
lone standard leapt ashore and was straight away cut down.
The rest of the army were shamed into making a bloody
The Britons met the legionaries at the beach with a large
force, including chariots (two horses with a driver and
warrior), an antiquated fighting method not used by the Roman
military. After an initial fight, the Celtic chieftains sought
a truce, and handed over hostages, but Caesar had already
decided to abandon the invasion.
Bad weather delayed a fleet carrying Roman cavalry. With no
cavalry the mobility of Caesar’s troops were seriously
obstructed. The Roman legions had to survive in a coastal
region, which they found both hostile and with problems to
obtain food locally. After repairing most of the three weeks
The second invasion. The next yea saw the Romans organize a
much larger expedition to Britain, with a total of 800 ship
used to transport five legions of 50,000 infantry and 2000
cavalry troops, horses and a large baggage train. They sailed
as the year before from Boulogne at night on July 6, 54 BC,
and landed unopposed the next day on the beach between Deal
Upon seeing the large size of the Roman force, the Britons
retreated inland to higher ground. Caesar marched with most of
his troops and encountered British forces close to Canterbury.
The Romans easily broke the resistance, who retreated to a
hillfort at Bigbury. After first being blocked the Romans then
captured the stronghold.
After the first victory Caesar once again had bad luck. An
overnight storm drove most of the Roman ships on shore. The
army spent ten days building a land fort to protect and
repair the 760 ships left.
During the pause in the invasion the British Celts briefly
united under a single commander of the Catuvellauni tribe, a
chieftain the Roman called Cassivellaunus. After a hard fight
with a British chariot army the Romans eventually drove the
British back toward the River Thames.
Stuck by the lack of military success the Celts eventually
adapted a scorched – earth guerrilla – warfare by destroying
local food source and harass the Roman legions with constant
attack by chariots. Then the Celtic unity broke when
neighbouring tribes resented the domination of the Catuvellauni
tribe, and went over to join Caesar’s side.
From these traitors, the rival tribe of the Trinovantes, Julius
Caesar’s learned the location of Cassivellaunus’ secret
stronghold, which he attacked with massive forces. A counter –
attack on the Roman beach camp at Deal from Cassivellanus’s
allies at failed. After a short time the enemy proved unable
to resist the violent attack of the Legion, and they rushed
out of the fortress on another side. Many of those trying to
escape were captured or killed. Chieftain Cassivellanus resigned
by the many defeats and devastation of the country. The Celts
On the moment of triumph Caesar got the news that Gaul was
rebelling. A counter – attack on the Roman beach camp at Deal
from Cassivellaunus’s allies at Kent failed after a short time
the enemy proved unable to resist the violent attack of the
Legion, and they rushed out of the fortress on another side.
Many of those trying to escape were captured or killed.
Chieftain Cassivellaunus resigned by the many defeats and the
devastation of the country. The Celts surrendered. Again.
On the moment of triumph Caesar got the news that Gaul was
rebelling. With heavy heart he once again had to give up the
conquest of Britain and early in September 54 BC returned to
Gaul with his whole army. The British were left to their own
The final invasion. Before Rome attacked Britain, the British
Celts had no need to neither build tribal coalitions nor seek
alliance on the continent, but when Caesar invaded the first
glimmering of a national consciousness of a national
consciousness come into being.
After Caesar, the focus of trade to and from Britain shifted
from southeast, and surrounded by traditional small farms and
fortified farmsteads developed into towns that had specialised
crafts. Two rival powers dominated the southeast of Britain;
the Atrebates and the Catuvellauni.
When the last name of the two blocks was ousted, their ruler
actually send out appeals to Rome requesting military
In AD 43 Emperor Claudius ordered the long – anticipated
invasion of Britain. The Roman army landed unopposed at
Rutupiae in Kent, and marched north. The command of the
invading force was Aulus Plautius, leading an army of four
Legions and auxiliary troops, complete with a contingent of war
elephants, about 40,000 men – in the attack on Camulodunum,
capital of the Catuvellauni tribe. Claudius’ exuse was to
satisfy Roman law by restoring the local power of King Verica
of the Atrebates.
Claudius himself personally supervised the attack. Celtic Britain
most influential and steadfast military leader was a chieftain
the Roman called Caratacus of Catuvellauni, and the son of
Cunobelinus. He fought bravely but when the Romans captured his
stronghold he fled to Wales. Cludius stayed in Britain for
about 15 days and when he left he gave the army instructions
v to carry on with battle against the Celtic tribes. By AD 50
the tribes of southern Britain were under Roman rule and the
Roman army started to move northwards.
The Legions moved over the British land, smashing Celtic
hillforts by the numbers. No organized resistance was possible
to coordinate due to the petty tribal self – interest and
Betray and rebellion. In Wales Caratacus continued the fight
against Rome, but with little chance to win. After yet another
devastating loss he was desperate to escape. He and his
family fled north seek shelter at the Brigantes, the biggest
Celtic tribe in the North, in the part of West Yorkshire and
much of northern Britain. A pro – Roman queen named Cartimandua
ruled the Brigantes, a loose, but large association of clans
and tribes. Caratacus begged the queen to protect him and his
wife and cildren.
Cartimandua smiled and saw her chance. Secretly,
she sent messages to the Roman authorities, which in AD 51
captured Caratacus and his family. Archaeologists have found
large quantities of Roman roof tile at Stanwick and it is
possible that, as part of her agreement with the Roman
authorities Cartimandua was having a house built there in Roman
rather than British style. Cartimandua’s pro- Roman relationship
probably benefited both sides: the Romans helped Cartimandua to
keep control over opposing factions among her people, while the
Romans had a buffer state between them and more hostile
tribes further to the north.
Caratacus was taken to Rome where Claudius actually spared his
lie. Tacticus records the chieftain as saying in his defense:
“If you want to rule the world, does it follow that everyone
else welcomes enslavement? “
Cartimandua’s had golden years. She was the living
representative of the goddess of sovereignty, Brigantia. Suddenly
she divorced her husband Venutius, which she could since it
was from her family that the right to rule the tribe came.
Venutius himself was thought to have been a ruler of some
northern tribes in his own right. In stead she re – married a
man half her own age, a teenager called Vellocatus, who was,
to add further insult, Venutius’ own armour – bearer.
However this was no simple divorce for, by this action, her
new husband became king.
King and queen. Cartimandua’s rule ended in AD 69. Emperor
Nero had died and a struggle broke out among the powerful men
of Roman Empire to decide who would be his successor. Troops
were taken away from Britain to fight abroad. Venutius, who
had previously fought for the Romans, saw his chance and
gathered his own warriors and foes among other members of his
family as hostages in an attempt to prevent him from moving
With an army Venutius struck against the queen. The civil war
between the Celtic tribe continued for a time until Venutius
gained the upper hand and Cartimandua herself was only saved
from capture by a unit of Roman soldiers. Venutius became
king of the Brigantes, and ruled it brieflyas an independent
Roman intervention saved Cartimandua but in the end her
actions gave the Romans an excuse to conquer Brigantia. The
Romans could not tolerate the long Brigantian border in the
hands of a hostile king.
A few later Venutius was defeated by the Roman governor
Petilius Cerialis. What happened to Cartimandua is not know,
except that she never regain her former power and her role in
history was over. The Brigantes and the rest of northern
Britain were finally conquered and absorbed into the Roman
Celtic Britain was doomed. Then, suddenly another ruler raised
a new and more serious teat toward the Romans. This leader
was also – against all odds – also a woman, but her story
was different. Her name was Boudicca. She was not pro – Roman.
She hated them and she had good reasons to be furious.
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