Two thousand years ago there was an Iron Age Celtic culture throughout the north-west European islands. We do not know much about who lived in the British Isles before the Celts arrived, and it is this sense of mystery that makes many people interested in these prehistoric times. There are architectural remains everywhere in the UK, the most famous of which is Stonehenge.
Stonehenge in Wiltshire is a major tourist attraction, but it is now fenced off to protect it from damage. It was built about 5,000 years ago, maybe as a Druid temple, maybe as a kind of clock?? One of its mysteries is how it was ever built at all with the technology of the time. Some of its stones come from over 300 kilometres away in Wales!
55 BC is really the first date in popular British history. This is when the Roman general Julius Caesar landed in Britain, won a battle, and left. In 43 AD, the Romans came to stay. They imposed their own way of life and culture, making use of the existing Celtic aristocracy to govern and encouraging them to adopt Roman dress and the Latin language. They never went to Ireland. It was during this time that a Celtic tribe called the Scots migrated from Ireland to Scotland, where, along with another tribe, the Picts, they became opponents of the Romans.
The remarkable thing about the Romans is that, despite their long occupation of Britain, they left very little behind. The baths, villas, and temples they built were soon destroyed or became unusable. Today in Britain almost the only evidence of their presence is a few “Roman roads”. These are very straight and follow the same route as the original roads.
In the year 410, the Romans left Britain, and the third main group of invaders took over – the Anglo-Saxons. They mostly came from today’s Denmark and the Netherlands, and their way of life soon dominated most of present-day England. They drove away most of the Celts to present-day Scotland and Wales, and this is why many people with Celtic origins live in these countries and Ireland.
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 villages which formed the basis of English society for the next thousand years.
Britain experienced another wave of Germanic invasions in the eighth century. These invaders, the Vikings, came from Scandinavia, and conquered coastal regions of present-day Scotland and Ireland. They also settled in north-east England, where Viking place-names can be found still today (e.g. Grimsby, Whitby).
The Vikings have a brutal and bloodthirsty reputation, but this is exaggerated. They were great sailors and had both technological and artistic skills. They led roughly the same way of life as the Anglo-Saxons and spoke different varieties of the same Germanic language. They soon converted to Christianity.
1066 is the most famous date in English history. In that year an invading army from Normandy in France defeated King Harold of England at the Battle of Hastings, and the Norman leader, William the Conqueror, was crowned king of England. 1066 is remembered as the last time that England was successfully invaded.
The Norman soldiers who had invaded were given the ownership of land – and of the people living on it. A strict feudal system was created, which consisted of the upper classes and the peasants. Rather like the Roman system of masters and slaves, the peasants were now not free; for example, they were forbidden to travel without the local lord’s permission. The peasants were the English-speaking Saxons, while the masters were the French-speaking Normans. This was the start of the English class system.
The Normans brought with them thousands of new words which found their way into the English language. Generally, the French words stood for sophistication. An example of this is the two ways of referring to farm animals: one for the living animal (cow, pig, sheep) and another for the animal you eat (beef, pork, mutton). The former set comes from Anglo-Saxon, the latter from the French that the Normans brought to England. Only the Normans normally ate meat; the poor Anglo-Saxon peasants did not!
It was in this period that Parliament began to slowly grow into the democratic body which it is today. As early as 1215, a group of aristocrats forced King John to sign the Magna Carta. This document is very important in British history, because it was the first time a monarch agreed in writing to follow certain rules of government.
King Arthur King Alfred Robin Hood
King Arthur is a legendary British hero of the Anglo-Saxon period, and many stories have developed around his life and times. In myth and on film, he is a great English hero, and he and his Knights of the Round Table are regarded as the perfect example of medieval nobility and chivalry. In fact, he lived long before medieval times and was a Romanized Celt trying to hold back the advances of the Anglo-Saxons – the very people who became “the English”!
King Alfred the Great was king of the part of Anglo-Saxon Britain called Wessex in the late 9th century. He successfully defended his kingdom against the Vikings, and is the only monarch in English history to be given the title “The Great”. Alfred was both an intelligent and a kind man. He is also well known for the story of burning the cakes. While he was touring the country organizing resistance to the Danish invaders, Alfred travelled in disguise. On one occasion, he stopped at a woman’s house. The woman asked him to watch some cakes that were cooking to check that they would not burn, while she went off to get food. Alfred became lost in thought and the cakes burned. When the woman returned, she shouted angrily at Alfred and sent him away. Alfred never told her that he was her king!
TASK: Fill each of the gaps in this text about Robin Hood with ONE suitable word! Robin Hood is one of England's _______________ (1) famous folk heroes, who robbed from the rich to give to the poor. In Robin Hood's long history, his story has appeared in many forms, from verse to film. The ways he became an outlaw, together _____________ (2) the list of his friends and enemies, have been just as diverse. However, there are some parts of the Robin Hood legend that have remained constant throughout his entire 800 or more ____________ (3) history.
Robin Hood was a Saxon noble, living near the castle of Nottingham, who hunted deer. At that time the deer in a royal forest belonged ____________ (4) the king, and killing one of the king’s deer was therefore treason, and punishable by death.
So Robin went off to Sherwood Forest, ______________ (5) a living by stealing from rich travellers and distributing what he’d stolen among the poor of the area. He collected a band of supporters - his wife Maid Marian, and his “Merry Men” dressed ___________ (6) green. These included Little John and Friar Tuck.
The King at the time, Richard the Lionheart, ___________ (7) away fighting the Crusades. In the meantime, Robin spent his time fighting the cruel Sheriff of Nottingham but managed to avoid capture. When ____________ (8) Richard returned from the Crusades, he pardoned Robin and gave him back his lands.
One thing to note about the early legends is that Robin Hood was not an aristocrat, ______________ (9) a simple farmer driven to a life of crime by the harsh rule of the law of the rich. As such, it is easy to see how his story soon became a favourite folk tale among ___________ (10) poor.
Adapted from O’Driscoll, Britain, by Julian Goddard