British, Celtic, or Both?
Updated: Feb 21
If you attend a Celtic fair, you may hear about the seven Celtic nations. Unless you’re really into Celtic stuff, as I am, you may be surprised by this term. Perhaps a better phrase would be Celtic lands, places where a high percentage of the population consider themselves descended from the Celts and where there is a distinctive Celtic influence on the contemporary culture. Given this description, most people then would think of the four places this blog focuses on: Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and the Republic of Ireland. Some scholars say there are only six Celtic nations. Others say there are eight or more, including Cornwall, the Isle of Man, Brittany in France, Galacia in Northwestern Spain, as well as the country of Australia. Few seem to agree on the number or the places which should or should not be included, making the whole concept confusing and even controversial.
The historical fact is that the Celtic people were, at one time, varied and expansive in Europe. As I said, however, this blog has limited its focus to the Celtic cultures and people of the United Kingdom and Ireland. Of course, the people who used to occupy the area now known as England were Celts too, so I’ve decided to explore, over the next couple of posts, another controversial question: Can a person consider himself or herself Celtic and British at the same time? The answer is not that simple. It is impacted by history, politics, cultural identity, and emotion. That’s why I’m devoting more than one post to the question. Right, let’s get started!
In 55 BC, the island of Britannia was inhabited by various Celtic tribes. Julius Caesar, looking to expand Roman territories (Rome wasn’t yet an Empire) decided to invade the island and claim it for Rome (along with glory, riches, and power for himself). He was unprepared for the ferocity and un-Roman-like tactics of the Celts and his campaign resulted in abject failure. Undaunted, he tried again the following year. Again, he failed miserably. So, with disparaging comments about the barbaric Celts, he moved on.
Within a decade, Julius Caesar had been assassinated and Rome, under his nephew Octavian (aka Caesar Augustus), became an empire. In 43 AD, nearly a century after Julius Caesar’s attempts to conquer Britannia, a new emperor, Claudius, sent four of his legions to conquer the Celts and gain the island. During the next year, the Romans only succeeded in capturing the capital of the Catuvellauni tribe, an area that is now Colchester in Essex, England.
It took more than a decade and a half for the Romans to subjugate, little by little, the Celtic tribes in the area that is now England. The Celts (whom the Romans called Britons), in 61 AD, mounted their last rebellion of consequence. It was led by Queen Boudica of the Iceni tribe. She and her people gave the Romans a lot of grief before she finally was captured and committed suicide. After this, Roman rule was established in a large portion of Britannia and it remained in effect for the next three and a half centuries. It’s important to note, however, that two areas of Britannia remain unconquered: a potion in the west which is now Wales, and the northern part of the island, now called Scotland. These two unconquered frontiers became known as the Celtic Fringe.
The Romans left an indelible mark on Britain and its Celtic inhabitants. They established towns and cities, built a network of paved roads, and constructed permanent buildings from cement and bricks. Some twenty-first century readers may be surprised to learn that the Romans also brought to Britain the technology of indoor plumbing, heated baths, and central heating. The Celtic calendar was replaced by the Roman one. That calendar remains in use today.
Since the Celts had to deal with the Roman conquerors in both business and legal matters, Latin words entered their language which would, eventually, develop into English (after the impact of the Anglo-Saxon invasion, but I’ll address that later). In fact, the Celtic peoples who lived under Roman rule began to call themselves by a Latin word: British.
As a result of the conquest, these British Celts also transitioned from having a culture of oral tradition to one that was literate. While the Celts had a form of writing before the invasion, they believed that important things, such as genealogy, history, and poetry, should be committed to memory and passed on from generation to generation by word of mouth. Under Roman influence, they began reading and writing more routinely.
Initially, the Romans did not interfere with the Celts’ religious practices. The British, like other Celts, practiced a polytheistic religion led by Druids who functioned as priests, teachers, and judges. In 313 AD, however, Emperor Constantine made Christianity legal within the Roman Empire and, within the next decade, it became the official religion. Many scholars consider the introduction of Christianity into Britain as one of the gifts the Romans gave the British Celts.
Finally, the conquerors brought pax Romana, the peace of Roman. The war-like Celts could relax, let the Romans protect them, and settle down to life as famers and craftspeople (or so some scholars contend). But life in Roman Britain wasn’t one-hundred percent peaceful. Marauding Picts from the north made frequent raids on the British. In 122 AD, the Emperor Hadrian had a fortified wall built along the British / Scottish border in an attempt to keep the Picts out. The measure wasn’t entirely successfully. Additionally, some of the Celtic tribes living in the northern part of the Roman-controlled area were restless and posed an ongoing threat of rebellion.
By 250 AD, there were new threats from the Germanic Angles and Saxons as well as the Jutes and Frisians from Scandinavia. The Picts continued their raids and, occasionally, the Scots (Celtic tribes from Ireland) got in on the action too. This turbulent state continued for over a century until Britain came perilously close to anarchy. Then, in 369 AD, a large Roman force, led by a military commander named Theodosius, arrived to drive the barbarians back. It took almost thirty years to restore pax Romana. But the peace didn’t last long. In fact, things were about to get worse for the British Celts.
In 400 AD, Roman troops were withdrawn from Britain to defend Italy against attack from the Goths. As a result, raids and harassment from the Picts and the Scots returned and became constant. The Angles and the Saxons returned as well but, this time, they weren’t just looking for loot; they wanted land to settle on. They had come to stay.
The British Celts did their best against the invaders but after centuries of being protected by Roman soldiers, their fighting skills had rusted. They were no longer the fierce warriors Julius Caesar had encountered. In 410 AD, they sent a desperate appeal to the Emperor Honorius to send Roman troops to help defend them. But Rome was on the verge of being sacked by the Visigoths, so Honorius sent a reply that amounted to, “Deal with it yourselves; I’ve got my own problems.” Thus ended Roman Britain and pax Romana, such as it ever was.
Not only were the British Celts left to fend for themselves, but a fellow Celt, King Vortigern in Wales, actually invited the Saxons to come on over and grab themselves some land—not in Wales, mind you— but in the area abandoned by the Romans. Accounts of his treachery are given in histories written by Bede the Venerable and Geoffrey of Monmouth (who portrays him as an utter villain). Vortigern is said to have defended himself by saying he had only asked the Saxons to help stop the Picts and Scots.
Geoffrey of Monmouth also tells the story of the main hero of this turbulent time: Arthur Pendragon, later known in legend as King Arthur. Despite his often being portrayed in movies and stories as a medieval Anglo-Saxon king, Arthur is believed by most scholars to have been a fifth century Celt who most likely came from Wales. The historical Arthur was not a king but seems to have been a battle leader who fought to defend the Celts from the Angles and Saxons.
Despite a valiant resistance from Arthur and other Celts, the Angles and Saxons prevailed. Britain got a new name from these invader /conquerors. It became Angle-land, later known as England. The Anglo-Saxons would rule over England and its British Celts until 1066, when a new conqueror arrived. But that’s a story for next week.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this week’s post. In part 2, the English and the Celtic fringe grow further apart culturally while politics binds them closer together.
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Slan go foil!
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