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History Scroll

The History Of England

by Peter Williams Ph.D

 

Chapter One: Prehistoric Britain

 

Though the scribes that accompanied the Roman invaders of the greater part of the islands of Britain gave us the first written history of the land that came to be known as England, its history had already been writ large in its ancient monuments and archeological findings.

 

Present day England is riddled with evidence of its long past, of the past that the Roman writers did not record but which is indelibly etched in the landscape. Where the green and cultivated land is not disfigured by cities and towns and villages of later civilizations -- those dark Satanic mills so loathed by William Blake -- one can see what seem to be anomalies on the hillsides. There are strange bumps and mounds; remains of terraced or plowed fields; irregular slopes that bespeak ancient hill forts; strangely carved designs in the chalk; jagged teeth of upstanding megaliths; stone circles of immense breadth and height; and ancient, mysterious wells and springs.

 

Humans settled here long before the islands broke away from the continent of Europe. They found there way here long before the seas formed what is now known as the English Channel, that body of water that protected the islands for so long, and that was to keep it out of much of the maelstrom that became medieval Europe. Thus England's peculiar character as part of an island nation came about through its very isolation.

 

Early man came, settled, farmed, and built. His remains tell us much about his life style and his habits. We know of the island's early inhabitants from what they left behind. In such sites as Clacton-on-Sea in Essex, and Swanscombe in Kent, the exploration of gravel pits has opened up a whole new way of seeing our ancient ancestors dating back all the way to the lower Paleolithic (early Stone Age). Here were deposited not only fine tools made of flint, including hand-axes, but also animal bones including those of elephants, rhinoceroses, cave-bears, lions, horses, deer, giant oxen, wolves and hares. From the remains, we can assume that man lived at the same time as these animals, most of which have long disappeared from the English landscape. So we know that a thriving culture existed around 8,000 years ago in the misty, westward islands the Romans were to call Britannia, though some have suggested the occupation was only seasonal, due to the still-cold climate as the glacial period came slowly to an end.

 

As the climate improved, however, there seems to have been an increase in the movements of people into Britain from the Continent, attracted by its forests, its wild game, abundant rivers and fertile southern plains. An added attraction was its relative isolation, giving protection against the fierce nomadic tribesmen that kept appearing out of the east, forever searching for new hunting grounds and perhaps, people to subjugate and enslave.


The new age of settlement took place around 4,500 B.C, in what we now term the Neolithic Age. Though isolated farm houses seem to be the norm, the remarkable findings at Skara Brae and Rinyo in the Orkneys give evidence of settled, village life. In both sites, extensive use was made of local stone for interior walls, beds, boxes, cupboards and hearths. Roofs seem to have been supported by whale bone, more plentiful than timber, and more durable. Much farther south, at Carn Brea in Cornwall, another Neolithic village attests to a life-style similar to that enjoyed at Skara Brae, except in the more fertile south, agriculture played a much larger part in the lives of the villagers. Animal husbandry took place at both sites.

 

Very early on, farming began to transform the landscape of Britain from virgin forest to ploughed fields. An excavated settlement at Windmill Hill, Wiltshire, shows us that its early inhabitants kept domestic animals; they cultivated wheat and barley, and also grew flax; they gathered fruits, and they made pottery. They buried their dead in long barrows -- huge elongated mounds of earth raised over a temporary wooden structure in which several bodies were laid. These long barrows are found all over southern England, where fertile soil allied to a flat, or gently rolling landscape greatly aided settlement, the keeping of animals, and soil cultivation.
To clear the forests, stone axes of a sophisticated design were used. Many of these were provided by trading with other groups of people or by mining high-quality flint. Both activities seem to have been widespread, as stone axes appear in many areas away from the source of their manufacture). At Grimes Grave, in Norfolk (in the eastern half of England), great quantities of flint were mined by miners working deep hollowed-out shafts and galleries in the chalk.

 

At the same time the Windmill people practiced their way of life, other farming people introduced decorated pottery and different shaped tools to Britain. The cultures may have combined to produce the striking Megalithic monuments, the burial chambers and the henges. The tombs consisted of passage graves, in which a long narrow passage leads to a burial chamber in the very middle of the mound; and gallery graves, in which the passage is wider, divided by stone partitions into stall-like compartments. Some of these tombs were built of massive blocks of stone standing upright as walls, with other huge blocks laid across horizontally to make a roof. They were then covered with earthen mounds, most of which have eroded away.
One of the most impressive of these tombs is New Grange in present-day Ireland. They are the oldest man-made stone structures known, older even than the great Pyramids of Egypt.

 

Sometime in the early and Middle Neolithic period, groups of people began to build camps or enclosures in valley bottoms or on hilltops. Perhaps these were originally built to pen cattle, later being developed for defense, for settlement, or as meeting places for exchange of products. These enclosures began to evolve into more elaborate sites that may have been used for religious ceremonies, perhaps even for studying the night stars so that sowing, planting and harvesting could be done at the most propitious times of the year.
Whatever their purpose, most of these henges, are circular or semi-circular in pattern. They include banks and ditches; the most impressive, at Avebury, in Wiltshire, had a ditch 2l meters in width, and 9 meters deep in places. Many sites still contain circles of pits, central stones, cairns or burials, and clearly defined stone or timber entrances.


It was not too long before stone circles began to dot the landscape, spanning the period between the late Neolithic and the early Bronze Ages (c. 3370 - 2679 B.C). Outside these circles were erected the monoliths, huge single standing stones that may have been aligned on the rising or setting sun at midsummer or midwinter. Some of these, such as the groups of circles known as the Calva group in present-day Scotland, also were used for burials and burial ceremonies. Henges seem to have been used for multiple purposes, justifying the enormous expenditure of time and energy to construct them.

 

The arrival of the so-called "Beaker people" brought the first metal-users to the British Isles. Perhaps they used their beakers to store beer, for they grew barley and knew how to brew beer from it. At the time of their arrival in Britain, they seem to have mingled with another group of Europeans we call the "Battle-axe people," who had domesticated the horse, used wheeled carts, and smelted and worked copper. They also buried their dead in single graves, often under round barrows. They also may have introduced a language into Britain derived from Indo-European. The two groups seem to have blended together to produce the cult in southern England that we call the Wessex Culture, responsible for the enormous earthwork called Silbury Hill, the largest man-made mound in prehistoric Europe. Silbury is 39 meters high; it was built as a series of circular platforms, but its purpose is still unknown. Nearby is the largest henge of all, Avebury -- a vast circular ditch and bank, an outer ring of one hundred standing stones, and two smaller inner rings of stones. Outside the monument was a mile-long avenue of standing stones. Stonehenge, in the same general area as Silbury and Avebury, is perhaps the most famous, certainly the most photographed of all the prehistoric monuments in Britain. We can only guess at the amount of labor involved in its construction. The task was enormously complex, including the transporting of the inner blue stones from the Preseli Hills in distant West Wales; and the erection of the great circle and horseshoe of large sarsen stones, shaped and dressed. The architectural sophistication of the monument bears witness to the tremendous technological advances being made at the time of the arrival of the Bronze Age. Grave goods also attest to the sophistication of the Wessex culture: these include stone battle axes; metal daggers with richly decorated hilts; precious ornaments of gold or amber; gold cups and amulets; even a scepter with a polished mace-head at one end.


To make bronze, tin came from the western peninsula now known as Cornwall; gold came from what is now Wales, and products made from these metals were traded freely both within the British Isles and with peoples on the continent of Europe. Bronze was used to make cauldrons and bowls, shields and helmets, weapons of war, and farming tools. It was at this time, too, that the Celtic peoples arrived in the islands we now call Britain.


One of the most significant elements in the new culture was the system of burial. Important people were buried along with their most precious possessions, including wheeled wagons, in timber built chambers under earthen barrows. The Celts were very highly skilled craftsmen, using iron, bronze and gold, and producing fine burnished pottery. It wasn't long after they reached the British Isles that their culture began to infiltrate the mineral-rich islands off the Continent. The Greeks called these people Keltoi, the Romans Celtai. Their arrival into the British Isles from the Continent probably took place in successive waves. In present day Yorkshire, "the Arras Culture" with its chariot burials attests to the presence of a wealthy and flourishing Celtic society in the northeast of Britain. In the southwest, cross-Channel influence is seen. Here, a culture developed that was probably highly involved in the mining and trading of tin. Hill forts from the Iron Age, the age of the Celts, are found everywhere in the British Isles. Spectacular relics from prehistoric times, they had as many purposes as sites; varying from shelters for people and livestock in times of danger, purely local settlements of important leaders and their families, to small townships and administrative centers.

 

Long practiced in the arts of warfare, the people of these isolated settlements were responsible for some of the finest artistic achievements known. In addition to their beautifully wrought and highly decorated shields, daggers, spears, helmets and sword, they also produced superb mirrors, toilet articles, drinking vessels and personal jewelry of exquisite form and decoration.

 

The Celts in Britain used a language derived from a branch of Celtic known as either Brythonic (later becoming Welsh, Cornish and Breton) or Goidelic (giving rise to Irish, Scots Gaelic and Manx). Along with their languages, the Celts brought their religion to Britain, particularly that of the Druids, the guardians of traditions and learning. The Druids glorified the pursuits of war, feasting and horsemanship. They controlled the calendar and the planting of crops, and they presided over the religious festivals and rituals that honored local deities. Many of Britain's Celts came from Gaul, driven from their homelands by the Roman armies and by Germanic tribes to their east. They brought with them a sophisticated plough that was to revolutionize agriculture in the rich, heavy soils of their new lands. Their society was well organized in urban settlements, the capitals of their tribal chiefs. Their crafts were highly developed; bronze urns, bowls, and torques illustrate their metal working skills. They also introduced a coinage to Britain, and they conducted a lively export trade with Rome and Gaul, including corn, livestock, metals, leather and slaves.

 

Of the Celtic lands of the mainland of Britain, Wales and Scotland have received extensive coverage in the companion volumes of this history. The largest non-Celtic area by far, at least linguistically, is now known as England, and it is here that the Roman influence is most strongly felt. It was here, in the southern half of the island that the armies of Rome came to stay, to farm, to mine, to build roads, small cities, and to prosper, but mostly to govern.

 

Next Chapter: Roman Britain >>

 

Chap1 - Chap2 - Chap3 - Chap4 - Chap5


This History of England was written by Peter Williams Ph.D. Peter is the author of some fantastic history books which we will soon be recommending on the site. Peter also has a website which is well worth a visit - CelticInfo.com

 

The History of England

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