October 19, 2009

I. The Stonemen

The Stonemen were the first inhabitants of ancient Britain. These people came before the Gaels. We know only a little bit about them. On Salisbury Plain, the Stonemen left ruins that show their way of life and culture. They built a ring of temple stones that is called the Stonehenge. On the coasts of Wales and Ireland are enormous and extensive cromlechs (burial mounds). When the Gaels found the cromlechs, they named them the “tombs of the giants.” Inside these rough and large tombs, dead ancient bodies were found reclining, wrapped in garments made of skin alongside their weapons and instruments. The history of the Stonemen may be true or may be legend. When the Gaels came to Ireland, they pushed out these inhabitants forcing them to sail across the sea to the “fairy isles.” The Gaels claimed that sometimes the Stonemen came back friendly and peaceful, but other times they returned hateful and hostile. The history of these early peoples in Britain is very interesting and puzzling.

II. A.  Gaelic Invasion

The first Celts who entered Europe from the east were the Gaels. After they arrived from the Caucasus, they discovered a dark-haired race. Later this race was amalgamated into the Celtic culture and learned to speak the Gaelic language.

The Gaelic Celts were good fighters. In 300 BC, Alexander the Great considered it prudent to treat the Celts as equals. In the fourth century, Ammianus Marcellinus, a Byzantine writer, wrote of the Celts: 
Nearly all the Gaels are of a lofty stature, fair and of ruddy complexion: terrible from the sternness of their eyes,and of great pride and insolence. A whole troop of foreigners would not be able to withstand a single Gaul if he called his wife to his assistance, which is usually very strong and with blue eyes.

II. B.  Gaelic Religion

The Gaels were polytheistic. They worshipped different gods and goddesses. To honor these spirits the Gaels celebrated four holydays every year: Imbolc, Beltaine, Lugahnasadh, and Samhain. These festivals were equally spaced, dividing the year into four quarters. These people did not build temples for their rituals; they preferred to sacrifice in groves known as nemetons. They also believed that the natural realm contained spirits with whom they could communicate. Believing in life after death, the Gaels buried all dead people with food, ornaments, and weapons. It was their law. The Gaels were pagan people.

II.C.  Gaelic Law

The Gaelic law was a civil rather than a criminal code. If a clan member either intentionally or unintentionally harmed another tribal member, he must pay fines for his offense. Execution was rarely performed. Gaelic law was hierarchical. The chieftains took the responsibility for their clan making sure that all his members must pay their debts. The level of society the victim of a crime enjoyed bore weight in determining the fine that must be paid them; the higher their social class, the more they must be paid. If the offender could not pay his debt, his family was responsible to pay it. The chieftains also were responsible for the unmarried women if their father was dead. Most of the laws, by the first migration, were passed orally and were later written in the Old Irish in AD 600-900.

III. A. Cymri Migration

After the first migration of the Celts to Europe, a second migration took place from Russia. Over 3000 years ago, Homer wrote about these Celts.   In his Odyssey, he recorded that they lived in a land beyond the ocean where the sun did not shine.  Known as the “Cimmerians,” they were later called the “Cymri.” The Cymri were a passionate, excitable people given to extreme mood swings. One day they were fun-loving; the next, splattered with their enemies’ blood. They were a romantic people. They were a dramatic people. They were good fighters. To them manhood meant being able warriors, smooth talkers, and passionate romantics. These people did not inhabit mainland Europe forever; they, too, were eventually pushed into crossing the channel into England.

III. B. Cymri Advances

The Cymri expanded through Europe and pushed out the Gaels, making them first retreat into Spain before sailing to Ireland, Cornwall, Wales, and Scotland. Later, German armies pushed the Cymri, making them cross the English Channel to England. It is believed that the Celts entered Europe with the Bronze Age because when Julius Caesar arrived in Britain in 55 BC, he found the dark-haired race of Gaels in Ireland and Wales and the red-haired race of Cymri in England, besides other relics of much older civilization. After his discovery, Caesar wrote, “The inland part of Britain is inhabited by tribes declared in their own tradition to be indigenous to the island, the maritime part by tribes that migrated form Belgium to seek booty by invasion.” He makes clear that this was a recent development. Roman writers noted that the Cymri had an ancient tradition that they came from low-lying areas of the North Sea, driven away by floods. The exact dates of the migration of this shepherding race of people are unknown.

III. C. Cymri Lifestyle

The Cymri were a pastoral people who lived in simple houses grouped together by clans. The Celts made conquests of rich meadowlands for their animals. Their main sources of wealth were cattle and battle plunders. The construction of their houses was simple. Their houses were a little larger than one-room huts with vivid colors that gave the impression of barbaric splendor. The Celtic government was tribal. Each tribe was divided by clans. Each clan had its own chief whose members were related by blood, habit, and duty. The Celts were a war-like, pastoral race who lived together in clans.

III.D. Cimmerian War

The Celts were brave warriors. Strabo, a geographer of the first century AD recorded, “The whole nation is war-mad, both high-spirited and ready for battle, but otherwise simple, though not uncultured.” Little is known about the daily lives of the Cymri, but much is known about their warfare for two reasons. The Cymri were a bronze and iron age people who used these metals in order to make their weapons. These weapons, buried for many years, are being discovered and analyzed. Why? Because The Cymri had an unusual and unique way of honoring their dead. They built huge barrows of earth above the ashes of the deceased; inside, these barrows contained arms and ornaments such as two-edged swords of bronze, gigantic battle axes, trumpets, hair ornaments, rings, bracelets, combs, and diadems. Secondly, the best writers and record keepers of ancient history, the Romans, kept writings about their fights against the Celts. These manuscripts have survived to this day. The Cymri were a showy and war-like people.

III.E. Cimmerian Weapons

The Celts were known as swordsmen to the ancient Western world. Their swords were made of iron. By the first century BC, the length of each sword was up to three feet long; these longer swords were commonly used by mounted warriors. In comparison, swords in Ireland generally remained shorter. Javelins (or mandaris) were used by warriors who threw them with violence at the enemy. Bows were used minimally in battles; they preferred to use archery in hunting. Slings were used to protect the forts. Many Iron Age Celtic forts were designed for easy targeting against the enemies by slingers. The Cymri did not only make swords, but armor also.

III. F. Cimmerian Armor

The Celtic warriors wore little if any armor. Many warriors were protected by only a tall shield decorated with artistic forms, or by a helmet decorated with feather plumes or metal engravings of animals. The helmets protected only the top of their heads, and sometimes the back of their necks and sides of their faces. Certain Iron Age Celtic nobles used armor made of linked rings of metal. Many other nations’ warriors wore this armor, but it was rarely used by those who invented it. Why? Perhaps because they believed that warriors killed in battle passed on to a glorious afterlife. They also believed that the metal torque necklaces and the blue painted body designs possessed a powerfully magical protection. It is believed that some Celtic warriors were even naked in war; it is supposed that this was an identification of the status of the special unit to whom they belonged. Women also participated in war.

III.G. Women Warriors

Ancient Celtic women could be warriors. Legend says that Scathach, a female warrior from Isle of Skye in Scotland, trained a great Irish hero, Cuchilainn. Boudicca, a red-haired queen of the British Iceni tribe, led a revolt against the Romans following her husband’s death.

III.H. Celtic Feuds

Celtic warriors did not only fight enemies outside their own tribes and clans. The ancient Celts fought among themselves; they called these fights “ritual combat.” Instead of going to war, the most able warriors from each clan would compete against each other in contests. Kings and leaders challenged each other, yelling out their courageous deeds and those of their ancestors. They insulted and humiliated each other in abusive language. Generally, at least one duel would occur. Sometimes, the duel ended the conflict, but at times, all present might become involved in the fight.

III. I. Celtic Downfall

During large battles, the Celts had a strategy to terrify their opponents: they blew war horns, they roared, they rumbled chariots, they banged their swords on their shields, and then they attacked the enemy. These tactics did not work against the well-trained Romans who were trained to resist the attacks of their enemies. Little by little, the Cymri became disheartened by their inability to break the Romans quickly. Why was this? Because the Cymri tribes were unkind to one another. They attacked farms and stole cattle and other goods. This caused them to view their own clans as enemies and kept them from uniting as a people. Every time that the Cymri fought against the Romans, they suffered terrible losses. What a tragedy! What a disaster! What a catastrophe! The Cymri did not understand how important it was to fight together as an army against the Romans. In every conflict, each Cymri fought as an individual; at the end, all was lost. They never came to be one, so the Romans conquered them. They were too divided.

IV.A. Roman Conquest

The Roman conquest of Britain was superficial. The Romans respected the Celtic way of life in Britain. Basically, the Romans built military camps for the governors of provinces and built roads for their troops so they could move more easily. The Romans built a wall across northern England to hold back the Scottish tribes, whom they never succeeded in pacifying. The Roman conquerors respected the manners and customs of the Celts. These rulers maintained peace, kept open trade routes, and collected taxes in return. The Romans left everything untouched, allowing the Celts their way of life. The Romans did not force them to change.

IV.B. Roman Influence

The Romans impacted Britain in two main areas that endured: writing and Christianity. The Celtic writing was called Ogam, an ancient Gaelic form of writing that was cut on stone, carved on metal, or on the four sides of a stick. It was too difficult to use this form of writing on a daily basis. The specimens of this old writing survive mainly on memorial stones, which recall the great laments of the great Irish poet Ossian for his son who was slain in the battle of Gabhra in AD 283. Curiously enough, the Roman form of writing was not used until the Romans left England. This proves the superficiality of Rome’s British conquest. A few Roman words were used in Early English: street came from strata, a Roman highway; the terms “caster” or “chester” came from castra which means camp. These terms were used in many English towns like Chester, Worcester and Casterbridge. Even though this Roman conquest was superficial, their influence was undeniable. The Roman influence on this culture was important. Writing improved Celtic literature and preserved their culture and history. Christianity gave them a moral code to follow.

IV.C. St. Patrick's Legacy

In the fourth century, circa 387-493, St. Patrick was born on the Scottish border to a Christian Roman centurion and a native British woman. Only two of his letters survive telling details about his live. When he was fourteen to sixteen years old, he was taken into captivity in Ireland by the Irish raiders in Britain; he tended cattle for more than six years. In this time of captivity, he drew closer to God before finally escaping on a trading ship. Perhaps after his escape, he wandered in Gaul or Rome. After twenty years of absence, Patrick returned home to his aged parents a Christian.

For Patrick, it was impossible to forget about the heathen people in Ireland; he decided to sail to Erin to preach and convert them to Christianity. Making many converts, he raised monasteries and taught the illiterate people to read and write. The Irish chiefs and kings supported Patrick’s efforts. He began the reform of the old pagan customs. The king of Ireland, King Laoghaire, permitted St. Patrick to destroy and burn the books of the druids at Tara, a famous palace of many Irish kings and the center of Ireland’s pagan faith. Replacing the office of the tribal druid, the clans opened tribal monasteries. The abbot was chosen from the chief’s family while the druid became a bard or poetic historian. St. Patrick left behind followers who carried on his education and Christianization of Ireland after his death. St. Patrick is one of the three patron saints of Ireland.

V.  Conclusion

Though little is known of the Stonemen, the culture uncovered in early Britain is colorful, warlike, and romantic. Britain was settled by several waves of migrating peoples. They worshipped many gods. Their way of living was supported by keeping cattle and stealing from other clans. Chiefs were responsible for keeping their people in order and safety. However, because the clans never came together as an army to fight against the Romans, they were finally conquered. The Roman influence is evident in key words adopted into the Celtic language, the construction of roads, the adaptation of Ogam to a more easily written language, and the introduction of Catholicism. British history is a colorful portrayal of a warlike, romantic people.Sources:

Allen, S. (2001). Celtic Warrior, 300 BC - AD 100. Great Britain: Oxford.

Cunliffe, B. (1986). The Celtic World: an Illustrated History of the Celtic Race. England: Greenwich House.
Jimenez, R. L. (1995). Caesar against the Celts. New York: Sarpedon.
Williams, G. (1993). The Iron Age Hillforts of England: a Visitor’s Guide. Great Britain.