Two thousand years ago there was an Iron Age Celtic culture throughout the British Isles. It seems that the Celts, who had been arriving from Europe from the eighth century BC onwards, intermingled with the peoples who were already there. We know that religious sites that had been built long before the arrival of the Celts continued to be used in the Celtic period.
For people in Britain a day of mystery. This sense finds its focus most easily in the astonishing monumental architecture of this period, the remains of which exist throughout the country. Wiltshire, in south-western England, has two spectacular examples: Silbury Hill, the largest burial mound in Europe, and Stonehenge. Such places have a special importance for anyone interested in the cultural and religious practices of prehistoric Britain. We know very little about these practices, but there are some organisations today (for example, the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids – a small group of intellectuals and mystics) who base their beliefs on them.
Stonehenge was built on Salisbury Plain some time between 3050 and 2300BC. It is one of the most famous and mysterious archaeological sites in the world. One of its mysteries is how it was ever built at all with the technology of the time, since the stones came from over 200 miles away in Wales). Another is its purpose. It appears to function as a kind of astronomical clock and we know it was used by the Druids for ceremonies marking the passing of the seasons.
The Roman Period (43 – 410)
The Roman province of Britannia covered most of the present-day England and Wales. The Romans imposed their own way of life and culture, making use of the existing Celtic aristocracy to govern and encouraging this ruling class to adopt Roman dress and the Roman language (Latin). They exerted an influence, without actually governing there, over only the southern part of Scotland. It was during this time that a Celtic tribe called the Scots migrated from Ireland to Scotland, where they became allies of the Picts, another Celtic tribe, and opponents of the Romans. This division of the Celts into those who experienced direct Roman rule (the Britons in England and Wales) and those who did not (the Gaels in Ireland and Scotland) may help to explain the development of two distinct branches of the Celtic group of languages.
18 October 1066
Battle of Hastings
12 June 1953
1st September 1939
World War II
The remarkable thing about the Romans is that, despite their long occupation of Britain, they left very little behind. To many other parts of Europe they bequeathed a system of law and administration which forms the basis of the modern system and a language which developed into the modern Romance family of languages. In Britain, they left neither. Moreover, most of their villas, baths and temples, their impressive network of roads, and the cities they founded, including Londinium (London), were soon destroyed or fell into disrepair. Almost the only lasting reminder of their presence are place-names like Chester, Lancaster and Gloucester.
The Germanic invasions (410 – 1066)
One reason why Roman Britannia disappeared so quickly is probably that its influence was largely confined to the towns. In the countryside, where most people lived, farming methods had remained unchanged and Celtic speech continued to be dominant.
The Roman occupation had been a matter of colonial control rather than large-scale settlement. But, during the fifth century, a number of tribes from the north-western European mainland invaded and settled in large numbers. Two of these tribes were the Angles and the Saxons. These Anglo-Saxons soon had the south-east of the country in their grasp. In the west of the country their advance was temporarily halted by an army of Celtic Britons under the command of the legendary King Arthur. Nevertheless, by the end of the sixth century, they and their way of life predominated in nearly all of England and in parts of southern Scotland. The Celtic Britons were either Saxonised or driven westwards, where their culture and language survived in south-west Scotland, Wales and Cornwall.
The Anglo-Saxons had little use for towns and cities. But they had a great effect on the countryside, where they introduced new farming methods and founded the thousands of self-sufficient villages which formed the basis of English society for the next thousand years.
The Anglo-Saxons were pagan when they came to Britain. Christianity spread throughout Britain from two different directions during the sixth and seventh centuries. It came directly from Rome when St Augustine arrived in 597 and established his headquarters at Canterbury. It had already been introduced into Scotland and northern England from Ireland, which had become Christian more than 150 years earlier. Although Roman Christianity eventually took over the whole of the British Isles, the Celtic model persisted in Scotland and Ireland for several hundred years.
Britain experienced another wave of Germanic invasions in the eighth century. These invaders, known as Vikings, Norsemen or Danes, came from Scandinavia. In the ninth century they conquered and settled the extreme north and west of Scotland, and also some coastal regions of Ireland. Their conquest of England was halted when they were defeated by King Alfred of the Saxon kingdom of Wessex. This resulted in an agreement which divided England between Wessex, in the south and west, and the ‘Danelaw’ in the north and east.
However, the cultural differences between Anglo-Saxons and Danes were comparatively small. They led roughly the same way of life and spoke two varieties of the same Germanic tongue (which later combined to form the basis of modern English). Moreover, the Danes soon converted to Christianity. These similarities made political unification easier, and by the end of the tenth century England was one kingdom with a Germanic culture throughout.
The Medieval period (1066 – 1485)
The successful Norman invasion of England in 1066 brought Britain into the mainstream of western European culture.
This is the most famous date in English history. On 14 October 1066 an invading army from Normandy defeated the English at the Battle of Hastings. The battle was close and extremely bloody. At the end of it, most of the best warriors in England were dead, including their leader, King Harold. On Christmas day that year, the Norman leader, Duke William of Normandy, was crowned king of England. He is known in popular history as ‘William the Conqueror’. The date is remembered for being the last time that England was successfully invaded.
Previously most links had been with Scandinavia. Only in Scotland did this link survive; the western isles (until the thirteenth century) and the northern islands (until the fifteenth century) remaining under the control of Scandinavian kings. Throughout this period the English kings also ruled over areas of land on the continent and were often at war with the French kings in disputes over ownership.
Unlike the Germanic invasions, the Norman invasion was small-scale. There was no such thing as a Norman village or a Norman area of settlement. Instead, the Norman soldiers who had been part of the invading army were given the ownership of the land – and of the people living on it. A strict feudal system was imposed. Great nobles, or barons, were responsible directly to the king; lesser lords, each owning a village, were directly responsible to a baron. Under them were the peasants, tied by a strict system of mutual duties and obligations to the local lord, and forbidden to travel without his permission. The peasants were the English-speaking Saxons. The lords and the barons were the French-speaking Normans. This was the beginning of the English class system.
The strong system of government which the Normans introduced meant that the Anglo-Norman kingdom was easily the most powerful political force in the British Isles. Not surprisingly therefore, the authority of the English monarch gradually extended to other parts of these islands in the next 250 years. By the end of the thirteenth century, a large part of eastern Ireland was controlled by Anglo-Norman lords in the name of the English king and the whole of Wales was under his direct rule.
Despite English rule, northern and central Wales was never settled in great numbers by Saxon or Norman. As a result, the Celtic Welsh language and culture remained strong. The Anglo-Norman lords of eastern Ireland remained loyal to the English king but, despite laws to the contrary, mostly adopted the Gaelic language and customs.
The political independence of Scotland did not prevent a gradual switch to English language and customs in the lowland part of the country. First, the Anglo-Saxon element here was strengthened by the arrival of many Saxon aristocrats fleeing the Norman conquest of England. Second, the Celtic kings saw that the adoption of an Anglo-Norman style of government would strengthen royal power. By the end of this period a cultural split had developed between the lowlands, where the way of life and language was similar to that in England, and the highlands, where Gaelic culture and language prevailed – and where, because of the mountainous landscape, the authority of the king was hard to enforce.
It was in this period that Parliament began its gradual evolution into the democratic body which it is today. The word ‘parliament’ which comes from the French word parler (to speak), was first used in England in the thirteenth century to describe an assembly of nobles called together by the king. In 1295, the Model Parliament set the pattern for the future by including elected representatives from urban and rural areas.
The Sixteenth Century
The power of the English monarch increased in this period. The strength of the great barons had been greatly weakened by the Wars of the Roses. Bubonic plague contributed to the reduction of their power. It killed about a third of the population in its first outbreak in England in the middle of the fourteenth century and continued to reappear periodically for another 300 years. The shortage of labour which this caused, and the increasing importance of trade in the towns, helped to weaken the traditional ties between feudal lord and peasant.
The Tudor dynasty (1485 – 1603) established a system of government departments, staffed by professionals who depended for their position on the monarch. As a result, the feudal barons were no longer needed for implementing government policy. Parliament was traditionally split into two ‘Houses’. The House of Lords consisted of the feudal aristocracy and the leaders of the Church’ the House of Commons consisted of representatives from the towns and the less important landowners in rural areas. It was now more important for the monarchs to get the agreement of the Commons for policy-making because that was where the newly powerful merchants and landowners were represented.
Unlike in much of the rest of Europe, the direct cause of the rise of Protestantism in England was political and personal rather than doctrinal. Henry VIII wanted a divorce which the Pope would not give him. Also, by making himself head of the ‘Church of England’, independent of Rome, all church lands came under his control and gave him a large new source of income.
This rejection of the Roman Church accorded with a new spirit of patriotic confidence in England. The country had finally lost any realistic claim to lands in France, thus becoming more consciously a distinct ‘island nation’. At the same time, increasing European exploration of the Americas and other parts of the world meant that England was closer to the geographical centre of western civilisation instead of being, as previously, on the edge of it. It was in the last quarter of this adventurous and optimistic century that Shakespeare began writing his famous plays.
It was therefore patriotism as much as religious conviction that had caused Protestantism to become the majority religion in England by the end of the century. It took a form known as Anglicanism, which was not so very different from Catholicism in its organisation and ritual. But in the lowlands of Scotland it took a more idealistic form. Calvinism, with its strict insistence on simplicity and its dislike of ritual and celebration, became the dominant religion. However, the Scottish highlands remained Catholic and so further widened the gulf between the two parts of the nation. Ireland also remained Catholic. There, Protestantism was identified with the English, who at that time were making further attempts to control the whole of the country.
The Seventeenth Century
When James I became the first English king of the Stuart dynasty, he was already king of Scotland, so the crowns of these two countries were united. Although their parliaments and administrative and judicial systems continued to be separate, their linguistic differences were lessened in this century.
In the sixteenth century religion and politics became inextricably linked. This link became even more intense in the seventeenth century. Anger grew in the country at the way that the Stuart monarchs raised money, especially because they did not get the agreement of the House of Commons to do so first. This was against ancient tradition. In addition, ideological Protestantism, especially Puritanism, had grown in England. Puritans regarded many of the practices of the Anglican Church, and also its hierarchical structure, as immoral. Some of them thought the luxurious lifestyle of the king and his followers was immoral too.
This conflict led to the Civil War, which ended with complete victory for the parliamentary forces. The king, Charles I, was captured and became the first monarch in Europe to be executed after a formal trial for crimes against his people. The leader of the parliamentary army, Oliver Cromwell, became ‘Lord Protector’ of a republic with a military government which, after he had brutally crushed resistance in Ireland, effectively encompassed the whole of the British Isles.
But when Cromwell died, he, his system of government, and the puritan ethics that went with it (theatres and other forms of amusement had been banned) had become so unpopular that the son of the executed king was asked to return and take the throne. The Anglican Church was restored. However, the conflict between monarch and Parliament soon re-emerged. The monarch, James II, tried to give full rights to Catholics, and to promote them in his government.
The ‘Glorious Revolution’ (‘glorious’ because it was bloodless) followed, in which Prince William of Orange, ruler of the Netherlands, and his Stuart wife Mary, accepted Parliament’s invitation to become king and queen. In this way it was established that a monarch could only rule with the support of Parliament. Parliament immediately drew up a Bill of Rights, which limited some of the power of the monarch.
James II, meanwhile, had fled to Ireland. But the Catholic Irish army he gathered there was defeated. Laws were then passed forbidding Catholics to vote or even own land. In Ulster, in the north of the country, large numbers of fiercely anti-Catholic Scottish Presbyterians settled, in possession of all the land. The descendants of these people are still known today as Orangemen, after their Patron William of Orange. They form one half of the tragic split in society in modern Northern Ireland, the other half being the ‘native’ Irish Catholics
The Eighteenth Century
Politically, this century was stable. Monarch and Parliament got on quite well together. One reason for this was that the monarch’s favourite politicians, through the royal power of patronage (the ability to give people jobs), were able to control the election and voting habits of a large number of Members of Parliament (MPs) in the House of Commons.
Within Parliament the divisions of the previous century, though far less bitter than before, were echoed in the formation of two vaguely opposed loose collections of allies. One group, the Whigs, were the political ‘descendants’ of the parliamentarians. They supported the Protestant values of hard work and thrift, were sympathetic to Dissenters and believed in government by monarch and aristocracy together. The other group, the Tories, had a greater respect for the idea of the monarchy and the importance of the Anglican Church.
At the beginning of the century, by agreement, the Scottish Parliament joined with the English and Welsh Parliament at Westminster in London. However, Scotland retained its own system of law, more similar to continental European systems than to that of England.
It was cultural change that was most marked in this century. Britain gradually expanded its empire in the Americas, along the west African coast and in India. The increased trade which resulted from the links with these new markets was one factor which led to the Industrial Revolution. The many technical innovations in the areas of manufacturing and transport during this period were also important contributing factors.
In England, the growth of the industrial mode of production, together with advances in agriculture, caused the greatest upheaval in the pattern of everyday life since the Anglo-Saxon invasions. Areas of common land, which had been available for use by everybody in a village for the grazing of animals since Anglo-Saxon times, disappeared as landowners incorporated them into their increasingly large and more efficient farms. Some pieces of common land remain in Britain today, used mainly as public parks. They are often called ‘the common’. Hundreds of thousands of people moved from rural areas into new towns and cities. Most of these new towns and cities were in the north of England, where the raw materials for industry were available. In this way, the north, which had previously been economically backward compared to the south, became the industrial heartland of the country.