Myths of Sovereignty and British Isolation, IX. British connections with Europe from the Stone Age to the Anglo-Saxon Invasion

Following on from the last post on post-war Germany and British attitudes to Germany, this post will jump back to the deep history of Britain’s links with Europe, though there will be a return at some point to more recent history and current concerns. There has always been trade and movement between the island of Britain and the mainland of continental Europe going back to the Stone Age.

The dominant Bronze Age peoples are usually grouped together as Celts, as are related peoples, stretching across Europe from Ireland to Anatolia. These peoples had no consciousness of existing as a pan-European civilisation, but communities of Celts overlapped and communicated so that the Druid Celtic culture of Britain was certainly related to that of France, or what was known to the Romans as Gauls. The Druids were the priestly elite of whom we know very little except that they were essential to the structure of self-governing Celtic communities and that the Roman destruction of Druidic power was part of their almost total conquest of the Celtic world. They did not trouble to record the knowledge and culture of the Druids, and associated Celtic elites, and given the lack of literary in the Celtic world they would have had some difficulty in grasping and writing down much of it.

The loosely trans-European aspect of the Celtic world was given much more structure and substance through the Roman Empire, which created an integrated administration and Latin speaking local elites across its large territory. What is now southern England was invaded by Julius Caesar in 55 and 54 BCE, at least partly in response to connections between the Celts of Gaul and the Celts of Britain, also known as Britons, who sent assistance to Gaul against the Romans.

There was no conquest and it is not clear whether or not any was intended, but alliances were formed between Rome and some tribes of Britons, which included taking some sons of the elite to Rome to foster relations and guarantee good behaviour of the families. What was known as Britannia to the Romans was completely incorporated into the Roman system from 43 CE when the Emperor Claudius sent an invasion force, apparently including elephants. The result was the incorporation of all of what is now England, though Cornwall in the extreme southwest was perhaps never fully under Roman control, along with Wales and very variable parts of what is now Scotland.

As with everywhere else in the Roman system, military camps and garrison towns were built on a standard cross-Empire plan, with a Romanised Latin speaking elite created from the Britons to aid in administration and ensure cultural dominance. This lasted until the early fifth century CE. 410 is the traditional date given for withdrawal of Roman legions and the end of Roman rule, but this may have been more of a moment in a process where Roman legions had already largely left Britannia for Gaul to deal with civil war on the mainland and a general weakening of Roman authority fostered by sea raids and incursions from the north.

Anyway that is more than three centuries in which what is now England and Wales was incorporated into Europe by virtue of Roman Imperial authority. Towards the end of that period the senior Emperor, or Augustus, was in Constantinople while the junior Emperor, or Caesar, was in Rome or some city in Italy, so that in principle Britannia was ruled from what is now Istanbul, though that was more a matter of abstract sovereignty than administrative control.

The attacks on Britannia from the northern seas became what is now known as the Anglo-Saxon invasion, with tribes coming over from what is now northwestern Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands. The resistance of the Britons became the source of the King Arthur stories, written in Welsh, English, French and Breton during the Middle Ages. Welsh and Breton are of course Celtic languages. There was a special link between what is now known as Brittany and the Britons, as what was then known as ‘Amorica’ was a place of refuge for Britons fleeing Anglo-Saxons.

The Arthurian stories also mix in elements from Welsh mythology and legends of Roman soldiers, providing a very mixed, multilingual and transnational history for one of the most famous of British stories, retold in many very different ways, across centuries, but still taken as a major source of British identity at various times, particularly when English kings wanted a source of legitimacy distinct from the Normans, were Welsh like the Tudors, or when the national culture became very taken up romanticised Medieval origins as in the nineteenth century. Boudicca, the Briton tribal queen who rebelled against the Romans has also like Arthur, been taken up as a national hero in a nation dominated by Anglo-Saxons.

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