As far as historical research could establish, the first inhabitants of
the British Isles were nomadic Stone Age hunters. They probably lived in
the dry caves of the limestone and chalk hills. The palaeolithic
population, unable with their rude stone tools to cope with the
impassable woods and wild tangled bush growth that covered nearly the
whole of the land, had to rely entirely on the bounty of nature. They
must have lived on what the woods, the ocean and the rivers had to
offer. When they finally passed over to agriculture the first farmers
had to cultivate some arable patches on the slopes of downs converging
on Salisbury plain. Historians refer to the original population as the
Scots and Picts with whom newcomers started merging. It was the
geographical position of the land that attracted the newcomers: the way
of Mediterranean civilization across the North Sea to Scandinavia, rich
in trade amber, lay straight from the Iberian peninsula between what
later came to be Ireland and Britain. Those newcomers must have been a
Mediterranean people. Their burial places in Cornwall, in Ireland, in
the coastal regions of Wales and Scotland are found to be either long
barrows, that is, man-made hills, or huge mounds covering hut-like
structures of stone slabs.
Thus one is led to think of them as of very numerous and rather well
organized people: tools more sophisticated than stone spades and
mattocks do not seem to have been found in the archaeological
excavations, so the newcomers must have been very good farmers to be
able to feed a huge crowd of stone-hewers engaged in all those
giant-like feats with only that primitive equipment at their disposal.
Among the suppositions made by historians and archaeologists about the
Late Stone Age population of Britain, those of special interest to us
concern the time (the time is usually given as around 2,400 B.C.) and
the reasons of their migration to the British Isles from the
Mediterranean areas, their territorial distribution there, the nature-of
These people are thought to have settled on the chalk hills of the
Cots-wolds, the Sussex and Dorset downs and the Chilterns. They were
joined after a few centuries by some similar southern people who settled
along the whole of the western coast, so that the modern inhabitants of
Western England and Wales and Ireland have good archaeological reasons
to claim them for their forefathers.
Their civilization as the monuments show was quite advanced, and the
splendour of their burial arrangements can be taken as a sign of class
differentiation. An Alpine race came to subdue them, however, about 1700
B.C. from the east and south-east, from the Rhineland and Holland.
Historians refer to these later immigrants who settled in the east,
south east and up the Thames Valley, as “the Beaker Folk” for they left
a characteristic relic of their civilization, an earthenware drinking
vessel called “beaker”.
They are believed to have been powerful and stocky, they surely had a
knowledge of bronze and employed metal tools and weapons. They gradually
merged with the previous arrivals; in the Salisbury plain area evidence
of both races was discovered, and the mixture was later supplemented by
more arrivals, though never so numerous or important as those described.
A characteristic monument to this civilization, primordially rude and
pri-mordially majestic, made mysterious by the clarity-obliterating
centuries, is the so-called Stonehenge, a sort of sanctuary erected by
the abovementioned fusion of peoples on Salisbury Plain about eleven
hundred years B.C. or somewhat earlier. This circular structure, or
rather semi-circular ruin as it is now, was formed by a mere
juxtaposition of tall narrowish slabs standing so as to provide support
for the horizontal slab, capping those perpendicular props for all the
world like houses built of playing cards by infant architects reckless
enough to disregard the seemingly precarious balance of the hanging
stones — whence the name of the structure, the “Hanging Stones”,
The structure, however, proved to be quite durable since we are in a
position to take pictures of it and wonder about its purpose after all
these thirty centuries and more. The purpose was believed to be that of
a place of worship, since the circular earthwork around the double
horseshoe of the standing and hanging stones did not look like a
fortification. The cult was guessed at, and the general supposition
placed it as the suncult; the guess was supported by other historical
evidence; the geometrical precision of the structure promoted later
hypotheses associating it with astronomical observations. Both guesses
may be close to the target, though, for the ancient priests were surely
in need of astronomical data to control their less enlightened
The thick dark oak and ash woods, thickets of bushes growing in tangled
profusion on the damp clay soil made even the east and south-east lands
that were not mountainous unfit for cultivation while all the implements
the islanders had to combat the thicket and clear the arable land with
were unwieldy stone axes or soft bronze ones. Probably, that was the
reason why traces of earlier civilization are only found on the treeless
slopes of Western downs. Iron tools appeared only after a new stream of
invaders, tall and fair, poured from the continent, from what is now
France and Germany. Whole tribes migrated to the Isles, warriors with
their chiefs, their women and their children. The invasion of these
tribes known as Celtic tribes went on from 8th-7th cc. B.C. to 1st c.
The first Celtic comers were the Gaels, but the Brythons arrived some
two centuries later and pushed the Gaels to Wales, Scotland, Ireland and
Cornwall taking possession of the south and east. Then, after a
considerable lapse of time somewhere about the 1st c. B.C. the most
powerful tribe, the Belgae, claimed possession of the southeast while
part of the Brythons was pushed on to Wales though the rest stayed in
what is England today, and probably gave their name to the whole
country. Thus the whole of Britain was occupied by the Celts who merged
with the Picts and Scots, as well as with the Alpine part of the
population; the latter predominated in the West while the rest of the
British Isles became distinctly Celtic in language and the structure of
society. The Gaelic form of the Celtic dialects was spoken in Caledonia
(modern Scotland) and Ireland, the Brythonic form in England and Wales.
The social unit of the Celts, the clan, superseded the earlier family
groups; clans were united into large kinship groups, and those into
tribes. The clan was the chief economic unit, the main organizational
unit for the basic activities of the Celts, farming.
This Celt-dominated mixture of Picts, Scots and other ingredients came
to be called Brythons, or Britts.
In their farming they used a light plough which merely scratched the
surface of their fields: the latter therefore had to be ploughed twice,
the second time cross-wise, hence the square shape of the Celtic field.
The introduction of the iron axe opened up new possibilities; woods
could be cleared and more areas put under cultivation. Later on, with
the advent of the Belgae, the heavy plough was introduced, drawn by
oxen, so the slopes of downs could be used only as pasture land, and
fertile valleys cleared of forests could be farmed so successfully that
soon the south-east produced enough grain and to spare. It could
therefore be exported to Gaul and the Mediterranean and luxuries from
those lands brought a new brightness to the otherwise austere existence
of the tribesmen. Besides, rough crockery-making, hide-processing and
the like, were practised.
They must have traded with the Phoenicians (whom a student of history
finds mentioned in most historical works as professional traders of the
ancient world); in this case the Phoenicians were attracted by the
British tin and lead (“the Tin Islands” they called them) which were
taken by those traders to the Continent, to Gaul and the Netherlands.
It was a patriarchal clan society based on common ownership of land.
Soon the primitive ways of land-tilling began to give way to improved
It was then that social differentiation began to develop. Even slight
technical improvements created opportunities for the tribal chiefs to
use the labour of the semi-dependent native population. Along with the
accumulation of wealth the top elements of the clans and tribes showed
tendencies of using military force to rob other tribes.
Fortresses were built on hilltops, tribal centers in fact, towns began
to appear in the more wealthy south-east; true, they were at first no
more than large groups of wattle-and-clay houses encircled by a sort of
fortified fence. Among the first towns mentioned are such as Verulamium,
Carnulodunum, Londinium. The population of the towns grew apace. Some of
the inhabitants of the continental countries trading with the British
Celts, such as the Celts of Gaul, etc. came over to Britain and settled
in Kent, contributing to the civilization of that part of Britain since
they could teach the British Celts some useful arts. The British
craftsmen perfected their skill mostly in bronze work and learned to
give an adequate expression to the subtle artisticism of the Celtic
spirit. Their characteristic curvilinear design, often a composition in
circular shapes, is to be found on weapons, vases, domestic utensils,
The Celts were good warriors, as later invaders had a chance to find
out. Celtic war-chariots were famous even beyond the limits of the
country. They were reliably built to hold one man standing up to drive
and two more to do the fighting.
The chariot itself was a destructive force, the well-trained horses
trampling down the enemy and the wheels fixed with sharp knives or
swords, rotating with the wheel movement, a grave menace to everything
living that chanced to be in the way.
The Celts of the British Isles were heathens until Christianity was
brought to them by later invaders, the Romans. Their religion was a
weird mixture of heathenism, that is the worship of certain Gods and
Goddesses, with the worship of the Sun and Moon, and of the Serpent, the
symbol of wisdom. The priests were called Druids, and their superior
knowledge was taken for magic power. Thus, their temples were so
superior to the general run of buildings that the believers were sure
they had profited by some supernatural assistance in their construction.
The Druids themselves must have been well pleased with this sort of
reputation and enhanced its spell holding awe-inspiring vigils and
observing terrible night rites in open-air temples arranged somewhere in
dark woods called Sacred Groves.
The rites were associated with bloody sacrifice usually of animals but
sometimes human beings, which increased the Druids’ power and authority
over the masses.
By the end of the B.C. era there were attempts at unification. At the
time of the Romans’ first expedition (the middle of the 1st c. B.C.)
Carnulodunum is believed to have been the capital of a powerful chief,
Cassivelaun; some historians mention the word “king” in this connection.
With the beginning of our era royal power in the land of the Britons
began to unite great areas. Thus, from 5 A.D. to 40 A.D. the Belgic
tribal chief Cunobelin (Shakespear’s Cym-beline) united the Celtic
tribes of southern Britain under his rule and called himself, after the
Roman fashion, “Rex Britonum” that is “King of the Britons” — a title
which was impressed on the coins that he struck in his capital,
The act was surely imitative, for formerly the Celts used rude bars of
metal for coins, and it shows that Roman influence was penetrating into
Britain. It was this king who invited Roman traders and craftsmen to
come and settle in Britain. Some historians attribute the origin of
London to his reign (the Celtic phrase Llyn-din, “Lake-Fort” is believed
by some to have given the town its name) and archaeologists state that
the first wooden London bridge was built at that time. The city was
called Londinium, for this was the time when, after Caesar’s first
“reconnaissance” raid in 55 B.C. the Romans started infiltrating into
the country as immigrants and traders bringing in eastern luxuries and
taking out corn, metals and slaves. Thus, ground was prepared for the
On the eve of the Roman conquest the Brythons were at the stage of decay
corroding the primitive community structure; elements of a new, class
society were appearing, with patriarchal slavery as a new feature. The
rapid economic development of that time led to a weakening of the Celtic
clan structure and that to a certain extent may account for the
comparative ease with which the conquest was effected.
Many historians attribute the interest that the Romans took in the
British Isles to purely strategic reasons.
The thing is, that Gaul, at that time but freshly conquered by the Roman
Empire, completely subdued and reduced to the status of its province,
was restless under the Roman yoke and Britain not infrequently figured
as a sort of Celtic resistance centre.
Other reasons could also be found, however. Under the Belgic tribes,
with the introduction of the heavy iron plough, agricultural advancement
elevated Britain to the position of a major corn-producing country. Now,
Rome, more and more parasitical with each decade, wanted food badly —
hence Caesar’s expedition in 55 B.C. when a 10-thousand-strong Roman
army was repulsed by the iron-weapon-possessing Celts with the help of
the Channel storms.
A year later the expedition was repeated with an increased army of 25
thousand, and Camulodunum, the probable capital, was taken possession
of. However, it led to practically nothing more serious than Caesar’s
departure with Celtic hostages and a promise of ransom which he doesn’t
seem to have ever returned to claim. But Roman influence, nevertheless,
came in other ways than that of military conquest. Trade contacts were
developing all through the ninety years separating Caesar’s attempted
invasion from the actual conquest. That took place in 43 A. D. when the
Emperor Claudius sent a 50-thousand strong army which landed in Kent and
crossed the Thames. Since that time up to 410 Britain was one of the
remote provinces of the Roman Empire. It was military occupation that
the Romans established, and it lasted 4 centuries.
The Celtic tribal chiefs must have been sensible enough to see when they
were beaten and so agreed to recognize the Romans as their rulers. That
could not be said about the wide masses of the people, though. These
openly expressed their discontent caused by the Romans’ unabashed and
unlimited plunder as well as their endless taxations. In 51 A.D. the
wild tribes of the Celtic North headed by Caradoc or Caractacus, were
defeated, and the priests of the Britons, the Druids, were expelled from
the island of Mona where they had their religious centre (modern
Anglesey off the northern coast of North Wales). But the people’s
resistance grew to a pitch in 59-61 A.D. when the Celts of what is now
Norfolk rallied and, increasing their numbers with their progress like a
rolling snowball, in an irresistible avalanche poured upon the Roman
strongholds; Roman military camps were razed to the ground, separate
Roman detachments were annihilated, and Camulodunum, Verulamium and
Londinium were destroyed and burnt down; thousands of Roman settlers and
tneir adherents were killed. The rebellion was headed by Boadicea whom
the Celts called their queen (a statue to this brave lady can be viewed
as a monument of historical importance in London to-day); she used to
rush at the invaders in her war chariot, with her daughters to fight, at
the head of the vast army of freedom-loving Celtic people. After the
defeat of the uprising, to escape humiliation she took poison together
with her daughters.
The suppression of the Celts was a hard enough job, it tasked the Roman
legions to the utmost. Frightened by its scope, the Romans must have
decided to think twice before they violated the Celtic people’s rights
All this while the Romans kept pushing on; at the end of the 1st c. A.D.
when Agricola was the chief Roman governor of Britain (78-85 A.D.), he
invaded Caledonia and in the battle of Mons Grampius defeated the chief
oi the Picts, Galgacus. However, the Picts of Caledonia must have
produced a strong impression upon the Romans, for in 121 A.D. the
Emperor Hadrian caused a wall to be erected from the Tyne to the Solway
Firth, that is in a line cutting through what is Newcastle today. They
had erected another wall somewhat earlier, nearer south, so Hadrian’s
wall was a step further to the North. From the Forth to the Clyde the
wall of Antonine was built (140 A.D.), later called Grime’s Dyke.
Ireland was in those days inhabited by the Scots (some of the Scots must
have migrated in their fight against the Romans later) in the 4th c.
The Romans made no attempt to subdue Ireland; as to Wales, it belonged
to the so-called military districts of Roman Britain together with the
other mountainous areas of the north and west (as opposed to the civil
districts of the east and south where the greater part of the large
towns were located).
The mountainous parts must have seemed prohibitive, inhabited as they
were by those disobedient Celts who had retreated there to retain their
independence; the same applied to Cornwall, or West Wales as it was
So forts were built at Carleon, Chester and York with a legion in each
to ensure the safety of the occupation zone where the towns were
restored and walled with ditches supplementing the protective power of
walls. Thus, for instance, the wall around Londinium built after the
Boadicea fright, was about 2 and a half metres thick at the base. London
was made an inland port and lively trade was concentrated there since
Roman Britain exported grain for the needs of the metropolis and of
other Roman provinces as well, skins of wild and domestic animals, tin,
pearls — and slaves, too.
London’s position was especially fortunate for it was a centre of both
external and internal trade: the Romans built roads leading to the
garrison towns, for they couldn’t have kept the country without reliable
and efficient means of transportation. Three of those roads converged
upon London making it a veritable commercial centre (not administrative
centre, however, for though it was by far the largest of the towns, it
was not given the Roman municipium status).
There were four principal roads: Ermine Street, leading to Lincoln and
York (from York a special road led to Hadrian’s Wall); Watling Street
from London to Chester; Icknield way connecting London with Cirencester,
Gloucester and Caerleon in South Wales, and the Fosse way that passed
through the Cotswolds and connected Lincoln with Exeter, the extreme
south-western Roman fort.
The roads were certainly an improvement on an otherwise impassable
territory (though, of course, they made it accesible for numerous future
invaders); the extensive cleared areas along the roads and rivers as
well as the general improvement on agriculture that the rapacious Romans
introduced using the cheap or practically free provincial labour — all
that was no doubt beneficial for Britain’s agricultural development.
There’s something to be said for the cultural influence as well:
Christianity was a step forward as compared to the heathenish Druidical
rites; there was a handful of Latin words to enrich the Celtic
vocabulary. There were some brutal laws that stayed on after the Romans
left, chiefly concerned with the institution of slavery, such as the one
mentioned by Mark Twain in his “Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s
Court”, saying “if one slave killed his master all the slaves of that
man must die for it,” etc.
For the rest, the imported and therefore superficial civilization was
never more than skin-deep with the country since it did not include the
broad masses of the people to whom it was alien, so it evaporated as
soon as the importers left, which happened four hundred years after they
Those historians who base their observations on the data derived from
town life, that is, the life of the romanized upper layers of the
British Celts, state that Romanization was completed and the Celts
forgot they were Britons.
Romanization was nearly non-existent in Ireland and Scotland. In the
countryside, the old Celtic way of life was preserved, the Celts
continued living in their old Celtic way, suffering from the invaders’
exploitation, passing their native customs and traditions from
generation to generation and speaking their Celtic dialects enriched by
some of the Latin words like “castra” — military camp (found now in
names like Lancaster, Winchester, Chichester, Cirencester, Leicester,
Chester, etc.), “vallum”- wall (Hadrian’s Wall, Anto-nine’s Wall), “via
strata” — street (Wailing street, Ermine street}. True, the wealthy
British farmers had their lands tilled by slaves in the Roman fashion
while the old Celtic social structure of the village coexisted with
these imported arrangements.
The decay of Roman power in Britain became apparent already at the end
of the 4th c.; the attacks of the wild Celtic tribes from behind the
walls that had sealed off those dangerous areas, were no longer so
efficiently and promptly repulsed in the latter part of the 5th c. as it
used to have been the Romans’ way; the usual grain-laden ships were no
longer sent to the metropolis. Finally in 407 orders came for the
legions to return. Evidently, the safety of Rome itself was in question:
its rotten economy based on the sand of slavery, its greed-swollen
conquest craze that lured the Romans on to bite off more than they could
chew, its clay-legged military dictatorship aggravated by the bickerings
of the would-be emperors who were constantly at each other’s throat in
their scrambling for power, made the great city an easy prey to any
west-migrating barbaric tribes like the Germanic tribes of the period.
As it is, there are suppositions to the effect that the British Roman
ruler of the time, Constantine, was himself eager to try and get the
crown for himself, using the legions at his disposal for the purpose. So
the Romans left, and failed to return.