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Britain from it's Beginnings

The Dawn of Britain

The earliest inhabitants of Britain were hunter-gatherers, residing in the era we refer to as the Stone Age. During most of the Stone Age, a land bridge connected Britain to the continent, allowing people to move freely, tracking the herds of deer and horses they hunted. Britain only became distinctly separated from the continent by the Channel around 10,000 years ago.
The first agrarian societies appeared in Britain around 6,000 years ago. These early farmers likely originated from south-east Europe. They constructed houses, tombs, and monuments on the land. One of these ancient monuments, Stonehenge, endures in what is now known as the English county of Wiltshire. Stonehenge probably served as a significant venue for periodic ceremonies. Other Stone Age sites have also persevered. Skara Brae on Orkney, situated off the northern coast of Scotland, is the best-preserved prehistoric village in northern Europe, providing archaeologists with valuable insights into life during the late Stone Age.
Approximately 4,000 years ago, societies discovered how to manufacture bronze, marking the onset of the Bronze Age. These people dwelled in roundhouses and laid their deceased to rest in burial sites known as round barrows. The Bronze Age people were skilled metalworkers, crafting exquisite items in bronze and gold, such as tools, jewelry, and weapons. The Bronze Age gave way to the Iron Age when people mastered ironworking, forging weapons and tools from this material. Communities still inhabited roundhouses, which formed larger settlements and occasionally fortified sites known as hill forts. One of these hill forts, Maiden Castle, stands to this day in the English county of Dorset. Society consisted primarily of farmers, artisans, or warriors. They communicated in a language belonging to the Celtic language family, which was widespread throughout Europe during the Iron Age. Relatives of these languages continue to be spoken today in parts of Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. The Iron Age societies were complex, with a developed economy and culture. They introduced the first coins minted in Britain, some bearing the names of Iron Age kings, signifying the inception of British history.

The Roman Era

Julius Caesar instigated the first Roman invasion of Britain in 55 BC, which proved unsuccessful, and for nearly a century, Britain remained independent from the Roman Empire. However, in AD 43, Emperor Claudius launched a new invasion with the Roman army. Although met with resistance from some British tribes, the Romans succeeded in establishing control over the majority of Britain. One prominent tribal leader who battled the Romans was Boudicca, the queen of the Iceni, located in what is now eastern England. Her memory persists to this day, with a statue erected on Westminster Bridge in London, near the Houses of Parliament.
Certain regions of present-day Scotland were never subdued by the Romans. To deter the Picts (the forebears of the Scottish people), Emperor Hadrian ordered the construction of a wall in northern England. This wall incorporated several forts, and remnants of Hadrian’s Wall, including the Housesteads and Vindolanda forts, are still visible today. It is a favored spot for hikers and has been recognized as a UNESCO (United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Heritage Site.
Roman rule in Britain persisted for 400 years, during which they constructed roads and public edifices, established a legal system, and introduced new flora and fauna. It was amidst the 3rd and 4th centuries AD that the first Christian communities began to emerge in Britain.

The Age of the Anglo-Saxons

In AD 410, the Roman army departed Britain to protect other regions of the Roman Empire and never came back. Subsequently, Britain was invaded once more, this time by northern European tribes, namely the Jutes, the Angles, and the Saxons. Their languages have significantly influenced modern-day English. Despite the battles fought against these invaders, by around AD 600, Anglo-Saxon dominions were established in Britain, predominantly in what is now England. One of the notable kings was buried at Sutton Hoo in present-day Suffolk, surrounded by treasure and armor, all placed in a ship then buried under a mound of earth. Some parts of western Britain, including substantial areas of what is now Wales and Scotland, remained unaffected by Anglo-Saxon rule.
Initially, the Anglo-Saxons were not Christians upon their arrival in Britain. However, during this era, missionaries arrived in Britain to promote Christianity. Missionaries originating from Ireland propagated the faith in the north. Among the most prominent were St Patrick, who would later become the patron saint of Ireland, and St Columba, who established a monastery on the island of Iona, off the coast of present-day Scotland. St Augustine led missionaries from Rome, who disseminated Christianity in the south. St Augustine was subsequently appointed as the first Archbishop of Canterbury.

The Era of the Vikings

Originating from Denmark and Norway, the Vikings first arrived in Britain in AD 789, primarily to raid coastal settlements and seize goods and slaves. Eventually, they began to settle and establish their own communities in the eastern regions of England and Scotland. The Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in England unified under King Alfred the Great, who managed to defeat the Vikings. A large number of the Viking invaders decided to remain in Britain, particularly in the eastern and northern parts of England, an area referred to as the Danelaw (a fact reflected in many place names such as Grimsby and Scunthorpe, which derive from the Viking languages). The Viking settlers integrated with local populations, and some even converted to Christianity.
The Anglo-Saxon monarchs continued to govern what is now known as England, barring a brief period of rule by Danish kings, the first of whom was Cnut, also known as Canute.
In the northern regions, the looming threat of Viking invasions motivated the local populations to unite under a single king, Kenneth MacAlpin. From then on, the term Scotland started being used to refer to that region.

The Normans' Arrival

The year 1066 saw a critical turn in British history, when William, the Duke of Normandy (currently part of northern France), led an invasion that overpowered Harold, the Saxon king of England, in the Battle of Hastings. Harold perished during this battle. Subsequently, William assumed the English throne, earning the moniker William the Conqueror. The battle's story is retold in an intricate embroidery known as the Bayeux Tapestry, which remains on display in France today.
The Norman Conquest marked the last successful foreign invasion of England and precipitated numerous modifications in the country's governing system and social organization. Norman French, the new ruling class's language, had a profound influence on the evolution of the English language. The Normans initially managed to conquer Wales, but over time, the Welsh succeeded in reclaiming some territory. Battles ensued on the England-Scotland border between the Scots and the Normans; the latter managed to secure some border land, but they did not invade Scotland.
William orchestrated the creation of exhaustive lists of all towns and villages across England, including their inhabitants, landowners, and their livestock. This comprehensive record became known as the Domesday Book. This document still exists today and provides a detailed snapshot of English society shortly after the Norman Conquest.

Make Sure You Understand

  • Grasp the history of the UK prior to the Roman era
  • Comprehend the Romans' influence on British society
  • Understand the diverse groups that invaded Britain following the Roman period
  • Recognize the significance of the Norman invasion of 1066