The Celts lived in Britain during the Iron Age. The Iron Age ended in AD43 (43 years after Jesus was born) when the Romans invaded Britain. The name 'Iron Age' comes from the discovery of a new metal called iron. We can find out a lot about the Celts through looking at objects made of iron. The Celts lived across most of Europe during this time.
The early Celts didn't leave books behind because they didn't read and write - word of mouth and memory were the Celts' way of recording events. But luckily, the Greeks and Romans did write about the Iron Age Celts. They tell us that the Celts lived in tribes, they wore gold and loved to fight and drink wine. They also wrote about the power of the Celts' priests, who were called druids.
The druids knew how to keep their gods happy - they sacrificed food, precious objects, and even people to their gods and goddesses. The Snowdon bowl in the picture was probably a gift to a god or goddess, as it was a valuable, important treasure. The design on the handle of the bronze bowl looks like an animal's head. Iron Age Celts lived in houses - but they were very different to the houses we live in today! Large families lived in a roundhouse. The walls were made of daub (straw, mud and tail) and the roof of straw.
The Celts would light a fire in the middle of the roundhouse for cooking and heating. This is a reconstructed Iron Age roundhouse. Iron Age people would have chosen where they lived for different reasons. The chieftain and his family, soldiers and craftsmen, lived in a hill fort because they were easy to defend. There are over 1000 Iron Age hill forts in Wales. Steep slopes, a high wall and deep ditch helped keep the Celts safe in their homes. Farmers lived on the land they farmed. Sometimes farms would be built in spots with a good source of water, or fertile ground of good pasture for the animals. The Celts grew corn and kept cows, pigs, horses, goats and sheep.
Their skill as metal workers was important when they were defending themselves from their enemies. They needed sharp objects like spears, as well as shields, to defend themselves from enemy attack. The Iron Age Celts' clothes might have looked like the tartan you see in Scotland and Ireland today, with checks and stripes. The Celts used berries and plants to dye the wool different colors. Not only did the Celts like brightly colored clothes - the Romans tell us that some of them painted patterns all over their bodies with blue woad made of a special plant. The Celts' clothes showed their status and importance within the tribe. Men would wear a tunic with a belt, a cloak and trousers. Women wore dresses fastened with brooches. And if you were an important member of the tribe, you would wear a neck torc of gold, silver or iron, decorated with patterns.
Roman historians say that Celtic soldiers had white spiky hair. They used lime l ike we use hair mousse today, and sometimes they tied their hair up in a ponytail. Around their necks they wore gold torcs like big necklaces. The most famous soldiers wore fancy bronze helmets on their head to show how important they were. Often there were model birds, animals or horns on the helmets which made them even more special. They carried huge shields decorated with signs or patterns. The Romans say that the Celts lost their tempers and quarreled often - but we don't know that. After all, they couldn't have been fighting all the time - they'd be too tired to do any farming! The farmers had to be ready to fight whenever the head of the tribe called on them. The Celts often fought naked - and it's believed that women would fight as well. Their main weapons were the sword and spear, like the iron sword in the picture above, and they sometimes fought in horse-drawn war chariots.
The Druids were very important in Iron Age society but we know very little about them. They were the Celts' priests, responsible for all sorts of religious ceremonies. They were educated and powerful members of the tribe and were well respected by the other Celts. The Romans tried to limit the powers of the druids because they were so important in Iron Age society.
The Celts traveled to Ireland from Gaul and Britain. The Celtic missionaries were travelers who journeyed far and wide, leaping into their tiny coracles and setting sail on the sea, often without oars or sails, and often without a specific destination, content to let God take them where God would. The coracle is a small, lightweight boat. Coracles are smallish vessels used for fishing or transportation. St. Patrick was one of greatest missionary. He was born in 387 C.E., and was a Briton who was captured by Irish pirates at sixteen and enslaved for six years. He eventually escaped, and later went back to Britain. He helped to spread Christianity in Ireland.
The last Roman soldiers left Britain in AD 410, and then new people came in ships across the North Sea. Historians call them Anglo-Saxons. The new settlers were a mixture of people from north Germany, Denmark and northern Holland. Most were Saxons, Angles and Jutes. Most Anglo-Saxons were farmers. They lived in family groups in villages, not cities. Since they lived close to the sea and big rivers, many Anglo-Saxons were sailors too. They built wooden ships with oars and sails, for trade and to settle in new lands. Some Saxons built wooden houses inside the walls of Roman towns. Others cleared spaces in the forest to build villages and make new fields. Settlements were very small, with just two or three families.
In an Anglo-Saxon family, everyone from babies to old people shared a home. Anglo-Saxon houses were built of wood and had thatched roofs. Each family house had one room, with a hearth with a fire for cooking, heating and light. A metal cooking pot hung from a chain above the fire. People wore clothes made from woollen cloth or animal skins. Men wore tunics, with tight trousers or leggings, wrapped around with strips of cloth or leather. Women wore long dresses. Women spun the wool from sheep and goats to make thread. They used a loom to weave the thread into cloth. Men, women and children helped on the farm. Men cut down trees to clear land for ploughing and sowing crops. Farmers used oxen to pull ploughs up and down long strip-fields. Children with dogs herded cattle and sheep. They kept a lookout for wolves - which still lived in Britain at this time. Some people had special skills. The smith made iron tools, knives and swords. Woodworkers made wooden bowls, furniture, carts and wheels. Potters made pottery from clay. The shoemaker made leather shoes. Jewellers made metal brooches, beads and gold ornaments for rich people.
Most people in Anglo-Saxon society were either freemen or slaves. A freeman owned land and slaves. A slave owned nothing. A slave might be a prisoner captured in war, or someone born into slavery. The richest and most powerful freemen were the thanes who helped the king rule the land. While kings and thanes lived in large halls (big wooden houses), free peasants or ceorls (churls) lived in small huts. Poor slaves were glad for a cowshed or barn to sleep in at night. Many slaves were badly treated. They could not leave their owner unless they were sold or set free.
The most famous ruler of the Anglo-Saxons was Alfred, the only king in British history to be called 'Great'. Alfred was born in AD849 and died in AD899. His father was king of Wessex, but Alfred became king of all England. He fought the Vikings, and then made peace so that English and Vikings settled down to live together. He encouraged people to learn and he tried to govern well and fairly. King Alfred was advised by a council of nobles and Church leaders. The council was called the witan. The witan could also choose the next king. Alfred made good laws. He had books translated from Latin into English, and translated some himself. He told monks to begin writing the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Alfred built warships to guard the coast from Viking raiders. He built forts and walled towns known as burghs. He split the fyrd (the part-time army) into two parts. While half the men were at home on their farms, the rest were ready to fight Vikings.
Viking attacks on Anglo-Saxon England started at the end of the AD700s. The Vikings came by sea in their longships. They attacked monasteries and churches to steal gold and other treasures. By the 800s, great armies of Vikings roamed England. After King Alfred of Wessex fought the Vikings, he made peace with them allowing them to live in the northeastern part of Britain called Danelaw. During this time he built ships, strengthened his army and walled towns to defend his kingdom against Viking attacks. He never became strong enough to drive the Vikings completely out of Britain.
After the Romans left Britain, Christianity continued in places where Anglo-Saxons did not settle. Christian monks, such as St Patrick (who went to Ireland in the 400s) and St. Columba (who went to Scotland from Ireland around 563AD) taught the 'Celtic' form of the Christian religion. The Pope in Rome wanted the Anglo-Saxons in southern Britain to hear about Christianity. So he sent a monk called Augustine to Britain, to persuade the king to become a Christian. Over the next 100 years, many Anglo-Saxons turned to Christianity. New churches and monasteries were built. Monasteries were centers of learning, where monks and nuns spent their time in prayer, study and worked in fields and workshops. Monasteries were the only schools in Anglo-Saxon England. In the monasteries, monks copied out books by hand and decorated the pages in beautiful colours. Bede lived in the monastery at Jarrow in Northumbria. He went to live with monks in 680AD when he was just 7 years old. When he grew up, he became a historian. He wrote a book about the history of the Anglo-Saxons, called 'A History of the English Church and People'.
Stowa: An Anglo-Saxon Village