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‘The whole race... is madly fond of war, high-spirited and quick to battle... and on whatever pretext you stir them up, you will have them ready to face danger, even if they have nothing on their side but their own strength and courage.’
- — Strabo
For most of the Classical Era, Britain was home to a wide number of Celtic tribes who farmed, smithed, and fought each other with a bitterly spirited resilience that did not endear them to Roman conquerors. Unlike the common view of the British tribes as base savages, the Celts of Britain were known for their skill in metalworking, and also maintained extensive trade routes between Ireland and Gaul.
Despite this, the Britons were never politically united, and soon fell foul to the divide and conquer tactics of the Romans, who successfully managed to occupy the southern half of Britain for well over three centuries. However, it is from the Romans that we know much of what the Celts were like. In fact, the name by which these Celts and they would be known to this day comes from their Roman name, the Britanni (or Briton) and Britannia for the Island they inhabited. Some of these Britons were also assimilated into the Roman empire and their descendents formed a foundation for the development of Britain for the next millenium.
The Early Ages (<5000BCE)Edit
The British Isles had known hunter-gatherer communities since the Ice Age, but the earliest evidence of farming seemed to have arrived from continental Europe between 5000BCE to 4000BCE The early farmers left a lot of evidence of their existence throughout England in the form of so-called "causewayed camps", burial sites, megalithic artwork such as "hill figures" as well as stone circles, and henges (a bank and ditch enclosure).
The Bronze Age began in England around 2500BCE with the arrival of the "Beaker people" so-called because of the beaker type pottery that were found in their burial sites. The "Beaker people" were skilled at archery and were a warlike patriarchal society, and quickly supplanted the earlier inhabitants as a sort of aristocracy. However, these people seemed to have adopted the religious practices of the earlier inhabitants. They even continued the tradition of henge building for the next thousand years, in fact much of the henges were built during this period. Stonehenge in Wiltshire is perhaps the most famous of these landmarks. They seem to have also mingled with another group of Europeans that spoke an Indo-European languages we call the "Battle-axe people" who are believed to be a proto-Celtic people, who had domesticated the horse, mastered the use of the wheel and worked with copper. Trade in metals and finished goods flourished between the different groups within the British Isles as well as with continental Europe. These two groups would eventually meld into what became known as the Wessex Culture.
The Celts in Britain (5000BCE-55BCE)Edit
By around 1500BCE clear evidence of a Celtic influx began to emerge in the British Isles. The Celts were extremely warlike, and if they weren't fighting with others they were fighting amongst themselves. So there was never really a Celtic Invasion of the British Isles. However, during the period of "Celtic conversion" much of the previous indigenous practices of building henges and stone circles seemed to have ceased. Instead, the appearance of Hill forts began to dominate the landscape, and in fact often built on top of ancient "causewayed camp" sites.
The Celtic immigrants arrived in several waves over a thousand years, bringing not only Iron working (and the Iron Age in 600BCE) but two major language families into the British Isles. These were Goidelic which separated into the three Gaelic languages spoken in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man; the other being Brythonic which separated into Welsh, Cornish and Breton. Many of the Celts who arrived in the last century BCE were driven to the British Isle as a result of Roman and Germanic expansion into Gaul. These Celts known as the Belgae introduced coinage to Britain and traded in corn, livestock, metals and slaves with their Gaulic cousins on the continent, and even with the Romans. The various Celtic tribes would become the major cultural groups found in the British Isles during the Roman invasion of Britain that would follow. Among these were the Picts, which arrived in what is now Scotland around 1000BCE, whom the Romans would never vanquish due in part to their fierce and barbaric disposition at least by Roman standards. There is also strong evidence that the Picts were a branch of Scythians since it should be noted that the Greeks and Romans from which we derive most of our historical anecdotal evidence from called any "barbaric" tribes, Celts.
Celtic society was divided into clans, a sort of extended family (the term clan itself meant "family" in may Celtic languages), which were loosely affiliated with other clans to form a larger tribe, each of which held their own customs. Celtic wisdom and traditions were held by a Druid caste. They formed a class of elites acting as priests, political advisors, teachers, healers, or arbitrators within their society. In fact, they even acted as a sort of cheerleader for the Celtic Warriors during battles by pronouncing praise for their own warriors while heaping curses at their enemies. They seemed to have held more authority and esteem in Celtic society then the Celtic Kings themselves, whose status and power were ultimately dependent on support from their people - or their ability to solicit it.
Warfare was endemic to the Celtic social system, and this was not limited to Britain alone. Wars were fought between tribes as a means of establishing social hierarchy and to reinforce the power of local chieftains, who preferred to rule as the head of a confederacy as opposed to a single unitary empire as it happened in the Middle East. Thus, wars were fought not to conquer new lands and people, but to assert one's superiority. Trade was also conducted by the noble classes with this end in mind, with prisoners of war sent eastwards in exchange for gold and wine which in turn was used to buy social status and power. Celtic warfare thus revolved around the accumulation of glory and honour through violence, and some warriors often came into battle completely naked except covered from head to toe with a blue-dye called Woad. Going into battle naked served two purposes - the first was that if wounded, naked warriors could be assured that no fragments of dirty armour or clothes would infect their wounds, while the second was that it served to intimidate the foe - anyone willing to fight naked must be very mad, or very good at what he does - or possibly even both! If that wasn't enough they would charge their enemies screaming in a terrifying rage and took particular pride in collecting the severed heads of their enemies, from which they believed they gained the power of their vanquished foes.
The Coming of Caesar: Roman Britain (55BCE-800CE)Edit
The Romans' first incursion into the British Isles began with Julius Caesar during 55BCE at what would be now be known as Kent. The first expedition consisted of two legions resulted in the Celts seeking a truce with the Romans after a series of pitched battles. However, after a storm damaged the Roman ships, the Celts began harassment attacks on the Roman coastal encampments. It was during this expedition that the Romans learned of the wealth of agricultural resources available on the Island of Britannia, and the disunity that was part of Celtic politics. This gave birth to the second much larger expedition the next year consisting of five legions and two thousand cavalry. Upon seeing the huge Roman force, the so-called Britons withdrew into their Hill fort. Despite a valiant effort the fort was taken by the ingenuity of the Roman forces. However, the Britons were again saved when another storm wrecked the Roman fleet, forcing them to withdraw to the coast once again to regroup and establish a defensive posture. The British also regrouped, and were briefly united under Cassivellaunus, a leader of the Catuvellauni tribe and conducted harassment attacks on the Roman camp, but was defeated at every engagement. Cassivellaunus was eventually forced to offer terms of surrender to the Romans. However the terms were extremely lenient as Julius Caesar was anxious to return to Gaul to deal with problems that were brewing on the mainland. The Romans would not return however for another 97 years when Emperor Claudius invaded in 43CE.
Using the excuse of aiding a Celtic tribe that had an alliance with Rome, the Romans sent a force of 40,000 men to invade Britain. The Romans made quick work of all that opposed them, and within a few months established a zone of control that stretched from Lincoln to Exeter. By 60CE they would take control of almost all of what would be known as Wales and England. However in 61CE a revolt of Celtic tribes lead by Boudicea, of the Iceni tribe almost dislodged the Romans. Boudicea was the widow of the previous Iceni King, but when he died and left her half his realm, with the other half going to the Romans. The Roman overlords would not accept a woman in that position, and subjected her to a humiliating flogging in front of her people, ravished her daughters and annexed all Iceni lands. So it was no surprise in her fury, she ended up destroying three major Roman towns: Londinium (London), Verulamium (St. Albans) and Camulodunum (Colchester). The Roman garrisons had been ill prepared and lacking in numbers to defend them and abandoned them to the rebelling Celts. However, when the Romans finally gathered their forces for a counter attack, superior Roman discipline coupled with a curious habit of the Celts to bring along their entire family young and old to the battle, ended up with a great slaughter and an end to the Celtic revolt.
Although Boudicca had finally been destroyed, it did not mean the end of the Celts in general, because many other tribes still remained loyal to the Roman cause. Those who submitted to Roman hegemony had citizenship extended to them, and also enjoyed the benefits of Roman rule — improved infrastructure and, while the Empire remained a force to be reckoned with, access to trade in the other parts of the Empire. The Romans for their part left the people to their own devices as long as they could pay their taxes and pay their respects to the Imperial cult.
Rise of the Three Kingdoms (800CE-1070)Edit
When Roman rule faded away, however, the many Celtic tribes of the land soon found themselves at war with one another - as well as a new enemy from across the seas: the Germanic tribes. These tribes, the Angles, Jutes, Danes and Saxons exploited the rifts between the locals and by the onset of the Middle Ages, most of the native British had been forced away from south-eastern Britain and were either confined to the west and the distant north, or were forced to migrate southwards into Gaul. Contrary to popular belief, these peoples did not die out, but still live on today as the modern Welsh in present day Britain, as well as the Bretons in north-western France. Edward the Confessor did not leave a clear heir to succeed him. Two claimants came forward, a prominent Earl called Harold Godwinson and William, Duke of Normandy, Edward's illegitimate son. Harold being a native of the Britain and a prominent figure in the political scene of England naturally was crowned King, so he prepared to meet William of Normandy in battle to quash the rival claim. However, at the same time the King of Norway, Harald Hardrada, also decided it was a good time to invade England. As the Norman fleet was delayed by storms, Harold had to release his levied troops and take his personal army North to meet the Norwegian threat. Harold managed to defeat the Norwegians at Stamford Bridge. But as fate would have it, the storm preventing the Norman fleet from crossing the channel lifted while Harold was fighting in the North. This allowed William time to land on English soil unopposed. So Harold had to hurry his tired troops south to meet the Norman army. The Normans would lure the Saxons into a series of fatal charges, and eventually the Saxons fled the field when Harold himself was killed. It is then at the Battle of Hastings, that England passed into Norman hands. William was soon dubbed William the Conqueror.
Norman and Plantagenet Rule (1070-1500)Edit
Norman rule was rather oppressive, importing feudalism into England wholesale. The Saxon power structure was completely removed from any position of importance, and the citizenry were reduced to serfdom. Norman influence unlike the previous invaders did not supplant a new populace into England, but merely a new aristocracy, which was French in character and in language. French would remain the language of the nobility and administration in England for the next 400 years. The Normans were also keen on castle building, and it was under Norman rule that many of the castles in England were built. Norman rule also brought England closer into the political sphere and machinations of continental Europe. The Norman Kings frequently had to deal with securing their titles and land claims back in Normandy. In addition, Norman involvement in the Crusades drained further the already overtaxed population of England. However harsh Norman rule was in England, by the time of King Henry I (1100-1135) it was recognised by the populace as being at least just and enforced uniformly throughout the land. Henry II (1154-1189) would also introduced the system of trial by jury. He was succeeded by Richard, dubbed Richard the Lionheart on account of his bravery in battle. However his rule was a poor one for England as he needed vast amounts of money to fund his wars in foreign lands and generally leaving the rule of England to his brother John who continued to rule after Richard's death in France. During his rule England lost much of their continental holdings to Philip of France. The disgruntled nobility then forced him to sign the Magna Carta, or Great Charter, which put the Crown under the rule of common law. Contrary to popular belief Magna Carta was not per se an outline for universal freedom and democracy, but more as a way for the nobility to take more power for themselves at the expense of the Crown. Nevertheless it did represent a significant step in that some of the wordings were indeed later used in the modern English constitution for those loftier ideals. In 1337 the English renewed their ambitions on the continent, thus the conflict known as "The Hundred Years War" between France and England took place. It was begun under the rule of Edward III, and despite successes at Crecy and Poitiers, and further ones under his descendants, especially under Henry V (1413 to 1422) at the Battle of Agincourt (the battle where the English Longbowmen became immortalized in history for the devastating effects they had on the French forces), the English eventually lost almost all of their continental possessions that they gained during this long conflict, and eventually resulted in a civil war in England itself.
The remainder of the 15th century saw bouts of internal conflicts as various factions vied for power. The best known was the so-called "War of the Roses", between the House of York and the House of Lancaster. However, it was the House of Tudor that finally emerged to rule England. A new middle class was also emerging out of the turmoil, direct taxation and the creation of a permanent national standing army also allowed the crown to finally break the power of the landed nobility. With this, the feudal period in England was finally coming to an end, and a new link in England's history was about to be forged in lands distant from its dull and misty shores.
Call to Power (1500-1800)Edit
The period between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries saw a great change in the status of England from a poor, war-torn nation, to the wealthiest nation on earth, truly a power to be reckoned with. The path the nation took was, however, a rocky one, with several dynastic changes. The ruling houses in England were the Tudors and the Stuarts. During the time of the Stuarts, England had flirted with a republican government between 1649 and 1660, which was deposed in favour of a monarchy. When the last Stuart ruler, Anne, died in 1714, and the Stuart line ran out of suitable (that is, Protestant) male heirs, the English looked towards Germany and modern England would have two "imported dynasties" - the Hannoverians, and later on, the Saxe-Coburg-Gothas, later known as the House of Windsor.
English monarchs faced many challenges from the time of the Tudors. One of these was religion, which intermingled with politics with disastrous results. This happened because of the nature of the English Reformation in the 1530s — the issue at the heart of the matter was that Henry VIII Tudor wanted a divorce, and the Pope wouldn't give him one. As a result, the Pope was removed as head of the Church of England, and replaced by Henry himself. Only later did religion actually come into play, as increasing numbers of people sought to worship outside a church that reeked of "Popery". Charles I lost his throne (and eventually his head too) because he refused to do away with some of the 'Papist' practices within the church, and his son James II would be ingloriously hounded out of the country in 1688 into exile in France by people who feared his Catholicism.
The other important feature of English political life was the rise of Parliament. A relatively insignificant part of government in 1492, it became crucially important as a result of the Reformation, which was legitimised by being brought in via Parliament. Thereafter Parliament, especially the House of Commons, would be a consistent thorn in the sides of English monarchs (especially the Stuarts). It even took up arms against one monarch (Charles I again), because it feared that it was about to be bypassed and rendered permanently powerless. By 1792, the process by which Parliament became de facto rulers of the country was well underway.
Queen of the Waves (1800-1914)Edit
One would have been forgiven to think that at the onset of the 18th century, that England was doomed forever to be a minor power beset by political troubles, but in fact the creation of a parliament as well as the limitation of power would most benefit England in later centuries. This drive towards limiting the sovereign power of the monarch would be most vital in creating a vibrant economy and an industrialised society. Coupled with the Royal Navy, which could protect English interests, this led towards the modernisation of the English economy.
Beginning with the American colonies, the English (subsequently known as the British) would then reach out towards India and the Spice Islands. Early industrialisation and a powerful trade empire created tremendous wealth in the country, which was often diverted into the pockets of European allies, who would fight as England's proxy (as would happen, with varying degrees of success, during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars between 1792 and 1814). The British Empire reached its zenith under Queen Victoria (1837-1901), who ushered in the Victorian dynasty. The two other prominent figures of this period were Gladstone and Disraeli who both served as Prime Ministers during Victoria's reign. Gladstone was a liberal and a humanitarian while Disraeli was an imperialist and nationalistic. These two opposing figures fought on opposite sides of the issues but it was Disraeli and his policies that got the Queen's favour. India was at this time administered by the East India Company, but after a mutiny of Indian troops (in fact a mass rebellion), the country became fully under control of the British government, with the monarch as its Emperor. A trade dispute with China would also result in the Opium War, which saw Britain, make further colonial gains in Asia. In Africa, Rhodes was carrying out ambitions to see British influence stretch from the North in Egypt all the way to South Africa. Including her colonies in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, British influence was felt literally around the world. Although by the end of the 19th century all three would gain its independence they would remain staunch allies of Britain and part of the Commonwealth. However, Ireland was again trying to reassert its independence and resorted to measures that seem crazy because they were starved by the british. In order to make its point, the fruits of which are still a problem to this day, you should probably just let them be a country idk. Great writers such as Charles Dickens and Alfred Tennyson as well as musicians such as Edward Elgar echoed the social sentiments and romanticism of the Victorian era.
Despite the seemingly apparent success of Britain's empire, storm clouds were brewing in Europe, as British success engendered European jealousies. Britain had to contend with French and American influence in the Pacific, and also had to engage with Russia in what was to be known as the Great Game - a scramble for more power in Central Asia to protect her interests therein. Yet however, the greatest threat to the British Empire would be neither one of these countries, but one of its staunchest allies: Prussia.
The Age of Extremes (1914-1991)Edit
Formerly, Prussia had been an ally of Britain since the Westminster Convention of 1758, and even faced down Napoleon together, yet by the mid-19th century, things were coming to a head. Through conquest and diplomacy with the guidance of its gifted chancellor Otto von Bismarck, and several wars with Denmark, Austria and France, Prussia would unify the German petty kingdoms and principalities into a single Reich in 1871 with its king as its emperor or Kaiser. Bismarck, however, rationally saw that Germany was in no position to challenge the United Kingdom, and did all he could to keep Germany out of a war; yet in 1890 he was forced to resign, and the more hawkish elements, encouraged by Germany's glory-seeking Kaiser Wilhelm II, steered Germany towards conquest.
Ultimately, the Great War broke out in 1914, and Germany and Britain went to war with one another, Germany being allied with the central powers of Austria-Hungary and Turkey, and Britain on the side of the so-called "Triple Entente" comprising Russia and France as well. Although Germany was defeated, and the British soon found themselves in charge of a more enlarged empire with additions of former German and Ottoman territory, the war was a bloody one that cost Britain well under a million lives and also ushered in the socioeconomic and political crises that would lead to the dissolution of Britain's empire in the 20th century.