A Brief History

A Brief History of Britain

I am not about to give you a complete history of the whole of Britain, but I will attempt to give you some background information to help you understand what you will be seeing and experiencing on your visit, and where things fall in the timeline. Yes, here we do have history, and lots of it – things are not a few hundred years old, but a few thousand!! Probably the oldest piece of history you will come across will be the stone monuments of Avebury, originating in about 3100 BC, and Stonehenge, 2800 BC, and their associated mounds and burrows, so we may as well start there. But first, let’s go back just a little further.

The Neolithic People

As you may or may not be aware, Britain has not always been separated from the rest of Europe by the English Channel, although most Britons will probably agree that it is a good thing it is, now. Up until 6500 BC, however, a land bridge enabled some of the very first Homo Sapiens (Modern Man), a culture known as the Aurignacian, and then later, the Gravettian, to migrate to this area between 38,000 and 27,000 BC. Their descendants, the Neolithic people, built the stone circles that are evident all over Britain and its islands, as well as in Eire. There is evidence to suggest that the building of Stonehenge and Avebury took place at about the same time as the building of the Great Pyramid in Egypt.

The Celtic People

The next significant people on the scene were the Celts, who moved into Britain from Europe, around 800 BC. The Celts, originally from Western and Central Europe, left an indelible mark on Britain as a whole, particularly within the present “New Age” communities. Their culture still lives to this day, especially in their music and art, and their descendants still live in Wales, Scotland, Ireland, France, and northwest Spain, where the Gaelic language is still spoken. The Celts were eventually pushed to the fringes of Britain by the invading Romans in about 40 AD. Just in case you were not sure, the word Celtic is pronounced Keltic, not Seltic. Seltic, spelled Celtic, is the name of a Glaswegian (as in, from Glasgow) football club, just to confuse the issue.

The Romans

The Romans, who remained in Britain until about 400 AD, never were actually able to conquer all of it. The area now comprised of England and Wales was known, at that time, as Britannia; Scotland was known as Caledonia, and Ireland as Hibernia. The Romans only managed to occupy the area known as Britannia, they were driven back from Caledonia, and did not dare to venture into Hibernia.

The Romans also left a legacy in Britain which is very much in evidence today. Their dead-straight road system is still largely intact, and still in use in many areas (although most of the old Roman roads have since been repaved and widened!). Their language, Latin, is still taught in some of Britain’s schools, and indeed, some words are still used as part of our everyday language, such as “status quo” and “et cetera” (etc), and their system of numerals is still very much in use, although as far as I can see, has no practical value. Many of their buildings, especially their villas and palaces, are tourist attractions, with much of their mosaic flooring still in place. Hadrian’s Wall, which was built to keep out the Scots, still marks the approximate border between England and Scotland. In the City of Bath, the Roman Baths are still in use today. Many place names in England, where the Romans had built their forts and had some kind of regional importance, end in “chester,” such as Winchester, Colchester, and of course, Chester itself, obviously! The Romans also brought to Britain their law, and of course (when the Romans themselves were converted to Christianity), the Roman Catholic Religion. They also brought plumbing and central heating, both of which are still in use in Britain today (and still sold at many hardware stores, it appears!). So, when you next watch that silly Monty Python movie, “The Life Of Brian,” and John Cleese asks the question, “what did the Romans ever do for us?” – well, they did quite a lot, actually!

There is also evidence to suggest that, at some point during their occupation, the Romans tried to pull down many of the British pagan sites, and this is one possible explanation as to why Stonehenge is in the state it is in today. The Romans also founded London in 43 AD, which they called Londinium.

The Legend of King Arthur

When the Romans finally withdrew in about 400 AD, Britain was left in turmoil, with various peoples and tribes battling to fill the power vacuum. It was during this time, as legend has it, that King Arthur, Merlin and the Knights of the Round Table were supposedly doing their good deeds. Arthur was allegedly born the son of Luther Pendragon at Tintagel in Cornwall, and became King by pulling the sword Excalibur from a stone. Many historians agree that Arthur did exist, but he may not have actually been a king. He was most probably a local chieftain.

Arthur held court at Camelot, the site of which is uncertain, but which may have been Cadbury Castle in Somerset, near the town of Yoevil. Arthur was mortally wounded during a battle with Mordred, his nephew, who had abducted Arthur’s queen, Guinevere. He was taken to the sacred Isle of Avalon to be healed. The Isle of Avalon is thought to be where the town of Glastonbury sits today, also in Somerset. Arthur apparently died in about 537 AD and is thought to be buried, along with Guinevere, at Glastonbury Abbey. The legend of Arthur ends with the prediction that he will one day return and rule England.

Angles, Jutes and Saxons

It was also at this time that the Angles, Jutes and Saxons began to get a foothold in post-Roman Britain. The Angles were members of a Germanic people who migrated to England from southern Denmark and founded the kingdoms of Northumbria, East Anglia and Mercia. These names are still in use today. Together with the Jutes, another Germanic tribe (who were from an area known as Jutland, the peninsular of land that “juts” out into the North Sea, forming the northern mainland of Denmark), and the Saxons, who were from Saxony (now a part of western Germany), they collectively formed the Anglo Saxon peoples, who came to dominate the southern half of Britain for the next six centuries. The Anglo Saxons founded the kingdoms of Sussex (South Saxon), Essex (East Saxon) and Middlesex (Middle Saxon), all of which are modern English counties.

Probably the most important and influential of the Anglo Saxon kingdoms, however, was that of Wessex (West Saxon), which today comprises an area covered by the counties of Hampshire, Wiltshire, Somerset, Devon and parts of Cornwall, Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire and Berkshire. In essence, this area comprises central southern England, the area where most of the crop circles are found, and the area mostly covered by this website. More information about the Anglo Saxons and the area of Wessex can be found on the page entitled The Area of Wessex.

The Norman Conquest

The next, and final, people of consequence to invade and settle Britain, were the Normans, who invaded under William the Conqueror in 1066, defeating the then King Harold at the Battle of Hastings. Hastings is a coastal town in the south eastern county of Sussex.

The Normans were from Normandy, a northern region of France, but were originally Nordic people from Scandinavia. When their king, William the Conqueror, or William I, as he became known, established himself on the throne of England, he ordered what was known as the Domesday Book (pronounced Doomsday), which was basically a census and survey of English landowners and their property.

The Normans quickly became the ruling class, or aristocracy, in England, and this is still felt today, with many old aristocratic English families having French sounding names. Also, anything upper class, even today, has a Norman, or French feel. English food names, such as beef and pork came from the old French words ‘boeuf’ and ‘porc,’ and much in evidence today is the Norman architecture seen in many churches throughout England.

The Normans never really left England. At the time of William’s invasion he was also the King of Normandy. It was not until his death in 1087 that his two sons, William and Robert, took over the thrones of England and Normandy, respectively, and William’s descendants ruled England until the death of King Stephen in 1154.

Richard The Lionheart, The Sheriff of Nottingham, and Robin Hood

From 1154 until 1485, another French aristocratic family, the House of Plantagenet, ruled England, beginning with Henry II and ending with Richard III. It was during this time that Richard I, Coeur-de-Lion (Richard the Lionheart), who succeeded Henry II, fought in the third crusade, and Robin Hood, along with his merry men, were romping through Sherwood Forest wearing tights, taking from the rich and giving to the poor, much to the annoyance of the Sheriff of Nottingham.

Reformation, Exploration, Some Very Famous Plays, and the Birth of the United Kingdom

In 1485, the House of Tudor took control, starting with Henry VII, and succeeded in 1509 by one of the most famous and outrageous kings of all, Henry VIII. He kicked out the Catholics, and introduced the Protestant Church in England so he could get divorced from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and marry Anne Boleyn. In 1547 (and five wives later), Henry VIII died and was succeeded briefly by his only son (the sole reason for Henry having had six wives in the first place, to produce a male heir!), Edward VI. Edward was succeeded by his half sister, Mary I, a Catholic, and otherwise known as Bloody Mary for her bloodthirsty persecution of Protestants.

In 1558, the throne passed to one of England’s most famous queens, Elizabeth I (sister to Mary and Edward, and daughter to Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn), who, along with Sir Francis Drake, Sir Walter Raleigh and William Shakespeare, defeated the Spanish Armada, explored the globe, brought back potatoes and tobacco from distant lands, and wrote some of the most incredible literature the world has ever seen! In 1603, Elizabeth died and was succeeded by her Catholic cousin, James I (who was also James VI of Scotland). Since Henry VIII had previously assumed the title, King of Ireland, in 1541, this made James the King of England, Scotland and Ireland, and interestingly, marked the birth of the United Kingdom, otherwise known as Britain.

Parliamentary Democracy, Global Expansion, and the Beginnings of Our Modern Technological World

The succession to the throne of James I also marked the start of the Stuart Dynasty, which, in its latter days, encompassed the English Civil War, which brought the start of parliamentary democracy to Britain, and government by the people. This period also marked the start of global expansion that culminated in the British Empire, the largest in history, and which, at its height, ruled over one quarter of the World’s population. Along with improved civil liberties, international free trade, textile machines and steam power, Britain led the Industrial Revolution, which then slowly spread all over the world.