Last week’s post posed the question: Is it possible to be both Celtic and British? As identity, politics, history, and emotion come into play with that question, the answer is neither straight-forward nor simple. To set a foundation for arriving at an answer, last week’s post addressed the history and impact of the Roman invasion and occupation of Celtic Britannia. To read that post, click here. The Roman occupation created an area with British Celtic people in what is now England. Their culture, language, governmental structure and, eventually, religion became different from that of the other Celts on the island. Those other Celts who lived outside of the Roman controlled area inhabited the “Celtic fringe” in the places now known as Wales, Cornwall, and Scotland.
After occupying Britannia for over three and a half centuries, the Romans left in 410 AD to protect a besieged Rome. This withdrawal of Roman troops opened the door for new invaders, in particular the Germanic Angles and Saxons. This week’s post will look at how the Anglo-Saxon invasion impacted the British Celts and led to the creation of England as a place and culture quite separate from that of the Celtic fringe. It also will look at how politics in the Anglo-Norman, Tudor, and Stuart periods of English history re-tied the Celtic people in Wales and Scotland to England as well as mention how the Irish got pulled into this tangle.
Resistance to the Anglo-Saxon Invasion
Historians state that the Anglo-Saxon period in Britain lasted from 410-1066 AD. That’s a neat and tidy statement but the details of the history are not so neat and tidy. The British Celts, after living under Roman protection for nearly four centuries, had lost some of the ferocity and battle skill for which Celts are known. Their reaction to the invasion from the Angles and Saxons was ineffectual at first.
Then, somewhere between 450 and 500 AD, a charismatic leader (or maybe more than one) appeared and the Celts (from Wales as well as from Roman Britain) put up a fierce resistance. Chroniclers, such as Bede, Gildas, Nennius, and Geoffrey of Monmouth, describe these leaders and their efforts to protect their homeland. One of those leaders was Arthur Pendragon (aka King Arthur). He was believed to have come from Wales or from northern Britain. Another was Ambrosius Aurelianus, a British Celt who had spent his childhood in Brittany (now northwest France) then returned to Britain to get the guy who’d killed his father.
Ambrosius is considerably less known in popular culture than King Arthur but they may have been related. In fact, some details of their stories indicate they may even have been the same person. According to the chronicler, Gildas, Ambrosius grew up in exile in Brittany with his brother Uther Pendragon. Both were the sons of Celtic king, Constans. Geoffrey of Monmouth says a Welsh king, Vortigern, murdered Constans to become High King. To keep from being murdered too, young Ambrosius and Uther fled to the continent. When Ambrosius reached adulthood, he returned to Britain, defeated Vortigern, and became High King himself. After which, he took possession of Vortigern’s fortress Dinas Emrys which, in legend, is strongly associated with Merlin.
Next, Ambrosius rallied the Celts to repel the Anglo-Saxon invaders (who’d been invited to the island by Vortigern). According to Gildas, Nennius, and others, he was highly successful, defeating the Saxons in a number of battles. The most significant of these was Mons Badonicus (Mount Baden) in 496. After this, the Celts had about fifty years of peace. This story is supported by archaeological evidence which indicates that the Saxons stopped moving south after Mons Badonicus until the mid-sixth century.
Despite the Celts’ best efforts, however, the Angles and Saxons ultimately won out and took possession of a good portion of Britannia, most of the real estate now considered England. In fact, during the Anglo-Saxon period, this portion of Britannia would come to be called “England.”
Effects and Aftermath
The immediate effect of the Anglo-Saxon invasion was death. Naturally, people die in war, but non-combatant Celts were slaughtered at home as they were just going about their daily tasks. To get land (and perhaps gain submission from the natives) the Germanic invaders raided towns and villages, killing women and children as well as men. Those Celts who weren’t killed were enslaved. Some Celts escaped and fled to the Celtic fringe and to Brittany.
Other changes that took place during the Anglo-Saxon period include the:
1) loss of literacy and a decrease in Christianity (these made a comeback in the 8th century when monks from Ireland came to re-Christianize and educate the inhabitants of Britain).
2) development of Old English as the common language within the Anglo-Saxon region.
3) loss of a central government. Initially, Anglo-Saxon Britain consisted of small kingdoms which, occasionally united under a High King but, mostly, warred with each other.
Over time, the Anglo-Saxon area became known as the Heptarchy (seven kingdoms). Those kingdoms, however, faced incursions from the Celts and from a new invaders: the Vikings. In the ninth century, the Vikings had established control of an area to the east of the Heptarchy, and called it the Danelaw. Vikings also took possession of land in what are now Northumbria and York in northern England.
But the Vikings (aka the Norsemen) wanted more land and soon the Heptarchy had been reduced to only four kingdoms. In an effort to stop the encroachment, Æthelstan, the Anglo-Saxon king of Wessex and Mercia, decided to take proactive measures against the Danes. In 928 AD, he attacked them at York, routed them, and annexed their kingdom to his.
This got the attention of Celtic King Constantine of Alba (northern England / southern Scotland) who didn’t want Æthelstan to get any ideas about attacking and annexing his kingdom. Constantine joined forces with the Norsemen and they marched south to attack Æthelstan. The Anglo-Saxon king got wind of the plan and marched north with his army to confront them. In 937 AD, the confrontation culminated into the Battle of Brunanbruh, which Æthelstan won. He was named King of all England and the Celts were chased back to the fringe, firm borders in the north and the west were established, and the Celts ironically were labelled wealas (foreigners). Less than a century later, though, the situation in England would change again.
The Normans (Plus Some Tudors and Stuarts)
In 1066, William of Normandy arrived on British shores along with his army, horses, long bows, and a somewhat shaky claim to the throne of England. Harold Godwinson, who was already on that throne, objected to William’s assertion. Their respective armies met in the Battle of Hastings. Harold got hit in the eye with an arrow and died. William (later known as the Conqueror) took the throne. This began the Norman period of English history, important to this post only because of what happened to the English / Celtic political relationships during the Norman period.
During Norman rule, the English attacked the Welsh, won some devastating battles and, in 1284, enacted the Statue of Wales, which annexed about a third of Wales to England. In the 16th century, Henry VIII claimed kingship over the rest of Wales through the Acts of Union. On the plus side, this legislation allowed for the Welsh to be represented in the English parliament. On the not so positive side, the Welsh members of Parliament had to speak English. Also, all law courts in Wales thenceforth were conducted in English too, creating hardship for the Welsh-speaking regular people.
In the early 12th century, England also laid claim to the Celtic island of Eire. Pope Adrian IV, the only English pope in history, issued a Papal Bull which gave Henry II of England both permission and blessing to invade Ireland. The pope justified the invasion by stating it was “for the correction of morals and the introduction of virtues, for the advancement of the Christian religion.” Yeah, right. The morality of this “permission” is a debate for another post. The point is Celtic Ireland became politically connected to England during the Norman period. The Tudors again took things a step further by establishing British “plantations” in Ireland (i.e, kicking Irish nobles off their land and giving the estates to English aristocrats whom the monarch deigned to reward).
When the last Tudor, Elizabeth I, died, the Scottish king, James VI inherited the throne of England. The Stuart king became James I of England and the Union of Crowns proclamation in 1603 created a political tie between the two countries. Still, Scotland and England remained independent sovereign nations until 1707, when both the English and Sottish Parliaments passed the Acts of Union. This led to the establishment of the United Kingdom of Great Britain.
So the Celts found themselves British—whether they wanted to be or not. In turn, the British invader-settlers found themselves impacted by Celtic culture whether they wanted to be or not. As a result, a kind of British Celt or Celtic Brit emerged. Recently, however, there are signs that the union may be starting to unravel and that’s the final topic of this series. So come back next week for that and be sure to voice your perspective on this controversial issue in the comment section below.
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