Cultures of The Islands

Introduction

One can read the history of Ireland in any library, but for this project I want to move to a higher level. We will do that by incorporating a sociological perspective to the raw history of the British Isles.

We will explore how invaders of history shaped the cultures in the British Isles. Many people in Ireland and Scotland celebrate our Celt heritage, but our culture is the sum of all cultures that came before it.

Some facets of old cultures never took hold in the Emerald Isles, but others like Kilts, Plaids and bagpipes became popular expressions of our culture.

Anthropological digs around the islands place small tribes of Neolithic peoples in many places. Some scientists radio-carbon dating methods put ages of artifacts back to around 7,000 BC.

I believe that early tribes may have arrived as early as 9,500 BC. Around 10,000 BC the glaciers of the last ice age were retreating northward. The islands were covered with ice then and could not support plants or trees or even animals as we know them.

We know from glacial action in Alaska that trees and plants fill in rapidly behind retreating glaciers. After five hundred years it was possible for man to cross the ice from the mainland to forage and hunt animals around edges of those rapidly disappearing glaciers.

Those early tribes left no written records of their passing. But they did leave artifacts, and they were known by ancient Greek writers who wrote about them as early as 1500 BC. Around 300 BC Greeks wrote about wild peoples beyond the Celts.

With so little known about them, much of what was written was written off by history as legends or myths. The Roman Empire kept good records about everything they did. It can be safely assumed that the most complete body of information extant to that era were written by scribes working for Rome.

Rome called the land, "Britannia" and their records date back to the Roman invasion in 54 BC. Angles, Saxons and Normans also kept good records and some of those records are extant to around 500 AD.

Each invader contributed facets of their culture to the peoples of Britannia. At the end of each section we will discuss relative cultural contributions by each invader.

 

Then Came The Celts

 

It seems quite normal to me to identify with those ancient Celtic warriors who so terrified Rome in 400 BC that the Emperor bribed them with 1,000 lb.. in gold to go away.

The Celts (Kelts) left no written records of their passing, but advanced cultures throughout Europe wrote down their experiences with barbarian invaders. Around 400 BC one such previously unknown tribe of barbarians invaded the Po Valley in northern Italy and expelled the native Etruscans.

The Etruscans sent an envoy to Rome to ask for military help to expel the Celts. The Emperor of Rome responded by dispatching envoys to interview the chief of the barbarians. They told the Celt Chiefs that their tribe was unknown to Rome and asked them what they were doing in the Po Valley.

The Celtic chief said that they were new to Rome, but that Rome was not new to them. We know the Romans are brave people because the Etruscans had asked Rome for help, and since the Romans had offered an embassy instead of arms, we would not reject an offer of peace in exchange for land.

The Roman envoy asked the Chief whether it was right to demand land from it's owners on pain of war. The Chief defiantly retorted, "Our rights lay in our arms. All things belong to the brave."

Trouble escalated when Envoy Quintas Fabius drew his sword and killed one of the Celtic Chiefs. The Celts immediately dispatched envoys to Rome who demanded that the entire Fabius family be handed over to them for justice.

Roman law would not permit the Roman Senate to turn Roman citizens over to enemies, so the Senate passed the matter to the Roman Assembly, which was the highest legal authority in Rome.

Quintis Fabius, who should have been punished, was instead promoted to the rank of Tribune. Tribunes like a General, the highest ranking officer in the Roman Army, had consular authority. That decision Rome would soon regret.

The Celts were insulted, mobilized their army and marched south to Rome. On the road to Rome they destroyed every military unit that opposed them, then besieged Rome for seven months.

Negotiations eventually produced a peace treaty whereby the Celts would accept one thousand pounds of gold to leave Rome.

Roman Pliny wrote:

While the gold was being weighed, one Roman accused the Celts of using faulty scales. Celt Chief Brennus stepped forward and added the weight of his sword to the gold and growled those famous words, "vae victis, Woe to the vanquished."

Roman Diodorus wrote:

Their countenance was terrifying, very tall in stature, with rippling muscles under light skin. Their hair is blond, artificially bleached with lime and tied back. They look like wood-demons with thick hair like a horse's mane.

Some have no beards; but others of higher rank shaved their cheeks, leaving a mustache that covered the whole mouth. Their dress is astonishing: they wear brightly colored and embroidered shirts, with trousers called, "bracae" and light cloaks fastened at the shoulder with a heavy brooch. The cloaks are striped or checkered in design, with stripes close together and in many bright colors.

In battle they wore bronze helmets with images of animals drawn upon them that made them appear to be even taller than the were. Some wear chain mail on their breasts. Others paint their bodies and rush into battle naked.

They charge wildly into battle, blowing discordant horns, chanting with deep voices, and beating their swords rhythmically upon their shields.

When a battle was over, the barbarians severed the heads of the vanquished and mounted the skulls over the doors to their huts. They preserved heads of high ranking Roman officers in cedar oil and stored them inside wooden chests.

NOTES: History did not record whether that particular tribe of Celts made it to the British Isles. What we do know was that Celts were in the islands long before 400 BC. We know that the first Celts in the British Isles spoke a dialect similar to an earlier version of Latin. The Celts that sacked Rome spoke a dialect of Latin. Though historians widely disagree, it seems sure that Celts first crossed the English channel between 1,000 and 2500 BC.

 

CELTS IN ENGLAND (BRITANNIA):

Each wave was classified by language groups, p-Celts, q-Celts, etc., instead of by tribe. Celts introduced up to six dialects to Britain, only three of which survived.

The first Celts spoke, "Goidelic" and were classified as q-Celts. That dialect was somewhat similar to that spoken by the sackers of Rome.

The q-Celtic Goidelic language alphabet contains no "p" and it substitutes an "a" wherever "an" is seen.

The second wave of Celts came hundreds of years later and they spoke the Brythonic dialect. They were classified as p-Celts because they had a "p" in their alphabet.

Two Celt dialects merged into similar dialects, Welsh and Cornish, while

the third dialect, "Breton", is still spoken in some parts of Brittany over on mainland Europe. More than two waves of Celts came to Britannia and from there spread to Scotland and Ireland and to some of the smaller islands. The traditional records of dialects does not show how their dialects differed.

Historical evidence does not indicate that the Celts stormed into Britain the same way the did into Rome. Like those ancient warriors who invaded the Po Valley of Rome, these British Celts seemed more interested in farming then in fighting.

In a few generations they spread to Wales, Scotland and across the Irish Sea to Ireland. By 200 BC., Celtic villages were founded throughout Alba, Wales and Britannia.

NOTES: As noted before every invader brought something to the cultures. It seems that the Celt cultures impacted native cultures to a far greater degree than did subsequent invasions by Romans, Anglos, Saxons, Vikings and/or Normans. The Celts melted into the landscape, married native women, and though proud of their Celtic traditions, were willing to become citizens of lands they conquered.

 

Came The Romans

When the Romans crossed the channel in 54 BC., the Celts they met were farmers, not the warriors of old. Native Brits and Picts joined forces with Celts and fought bravely, but could not match for the superbly organized and disciplined legions of Rome. The Celts were clearly not the same fierce warriors who struck terror into Rome just three hundred years before.

Though unequaled on the field of battle, the Romans never defeated the hit and run tactics of the ferocious barbarians. In the following five hundred years, the natives continuously resisted Roman rule, refused to pay tribute and attacked outposts. Some were eventually driven into the highlands of Scotland.

Emperor Hadrius built a wall across Britain to keep the barbarians bottled up in Scotland, but that ploy didn't work either. Besieged by invaders at home, Rome in Britannia relied more and more upon mercenaries to keep the peace. Most of those mercenaries were Anglos, Saxons and Normans from mainland Europe.

As Roman power in Britannia became weaker, the associated tribes became more adept at making war and grew steadily stronger. To add to Roman troubles, Vikings from Denmark had started raiding Roman outposts along the coast. Needed to fight invaders of their own homeland, Rome eventually discharged their mercenaries, then abandoned Britannia and sailed home to defend Rome.

NOTES: It really looks like the Romans spent most of their time defending Hadrians wall and living in fortified towns. Ruins of Roman settlements yield artifacts, but not usually mixed with native artifacts. In other words, they did not generally live with the natives.

When Rome could not support the troops in the field, the Roman soldiers farmed a little, not much. Social impacts upon native culture was minimal. Some families living on the Anglo-Scot border claim to be descended from Roman soldiers. It is of course possible that some soldiers managed to stay in Brittany. But the two most important and lasting cultural contributions by Rome were probably the first Christian missionaries who built monasteries, and though little more than a political figurehead, sat the first native King of Britannia on the throne.

 

Came The Anglo-Saxons.

As indicated by historians, the first documented Anglo-Saxons in Britannia were probably mercenaries who served in the Roman army.

The Anglos and Saxons were a mixture of ancient Germanic tribes from the channel seaboard, Normandy in the west up to Denmark in the east. Those tribes included Frisians, Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Franks and smaller tribes of probably Celts. The Angles came from south Denmark, Saxons from north Germany; Jutes from Jutland at the mouth of the Rhine, Frisians and Franks from the low countries of western Germany, Austria and Normandy.

As Rome poised to leave Britain, the Foderati (mercenaries) returned home to their tribal villages in Northern Europe. But as Rome withdrew legions, Anglo and Saxon tribesmen were already busy mobilizing for a full scale invasion of Britannia.

In the sixth and seventh centuries, Anglo and Saxons commanders were kept busy carving out petty kingdoms for themselves. They had to fight both Britons and each other to consolidate their gains. By the eighth century the differences between the tribal cultures had blended to the extent that the people considered themselves as either Anglo-Saxon or English and spoke basically the same languages.

NOTES: England was forged in the crucible of the Roman exodus, invasions by Vikings, and the influx of Anglo, Saxon and Norman settlers. What the wars really came down to were struggles between the English and their continental cousins over who would rule England.

Although the Anglo and Saxon tribes often found it difficult combine forces to meet a common threat, never-the-less left lasting contributions to native cultures.

To help fuse relationships, The British Royal family forged hereditary links to old Anglo-Saxon Kings, brought rules of law to govern civil and criminal courts; recorded land ownership, made inheritance of land possible, and to aid tax collectors by mandating the use of surnames to identify family and tribal affiliations.

 

Came The Normans

By 800 AD the Danish Vikings had been routinely raiding England and Ireland for several decades. The Vikings had at first raided and later settled small communities along the coast and up navigable rivers of Europe. But within two hundred years the Viking settlers in Normandy had converted to Christianity, spoke French as their first language, and they considered themselves to be Norman. Virtually all feelings of ancient kinship with Denmark was in time lost.

Public relations between the Normans and Anglo-Saxon England were fairly good, but continued raiding by Danish Vikings into England and Ireland caused a rift with Normandy. Such raids were creating problems and becoming an increasing embarrassment to Christianized Normans.

Eventually the Dukes of Normandy signed a treaty with England to help blockade the English Channel and force the Viking fleets go around.

That alliance failed when the Normans supported Edward of the House of Wessex instead of King Cnut of Denmark to assume the Anglo-Saxon throne in England.

When Edward (the Confessor) returned from exile in Normandy in 1042 and took the English crown, he was pro-Norman, sympathies which did not set well with his English subjects.

The Norman Duke's fear of Danish intervention led to William's alliance with Flanders in 1066. Meanwhile, the Danish Vikings still managed to back-door the channel blockade and to support their trading settlements in Ireland.

Many mainland Normans were soldiers or administrators who formerly worked in England, fighting the Picts and Welsh, building government buildings or setting up new courts. Some previously served in England under Edward the Confessor, and while there in 1055 they organized the English army and tried to train the English soldiers to employ traditional Franco-Norman cavalry tactics in battle. The English would later pay dearly for their failure to adopt those heavy cavalry tactics in battle.

In 1066, more by accident than by design, the famous battle of Essex was fought. The superior Norman cavalry and foot soldiers invaded Britain, killed the Anglo-Saxon King and placed William The Confessor back on the English Throne.

Later on in old age he expressed regret for killing the English King and taking the British throne to which he was not by blood or succession entitled.

NOTES: Like the Celts and Anglo-Saxons before them, the Normans never really left Britain and their social influences in England to some extent remained. The Royal family of England trace their royal roots to Normandy and most countries in Europe.

Norman influence, always strong in England, was not as strong in Ireland or Scotland. Both countries to this day remain more strongly influenced by Celtic cultures.

The Normans improved upon the systems of law and administration and some roots of those laws are still in effect today.

England broke away from the Roman Catholic Church and founded the Church of England. Neither country has ever been able to resolve those conflicts that later arose between Catholics and Protestants, or accept the separation of the Royal Church of England from the Catholic Church of Rome.

Corrections of facts and new information of a material nature will be posted to this record as it becomes known.


by Don Kelly 1999 - 2003

™ DAI Systems Co., Anchorage, Alaska