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Unit 1: Earliest times.
1. Prehistoric Britain. During the ice age, the British Isles were still connected with the European continent, and then there’s a time where they separated and became isles.
During the years, there are different people travelling from the continent to the isles and living there. The first group arrived during the Stone age (Neolithic). We think this people were Iberians from the Iberian Peninsula and arrived around the year 3000 BC. We believe that they were short and with dark hair. Many of these Iberians settled in Wales and Cornwall. There are evidences these Iberians knew how to do pottery. From this period, we have the Barrows. A barrow is a burial ground. They dug a deep hole in the ground and used it to bury several corpses. Then they covered it in rocks and those rocks were covered with grass. It is a very basic funerary ritual.
Then, we have a new group of people after 3000 BC. We don’t know who they were or what they did, but they are famous for making henges. They did circles with earth or stones and then they built small houses or buildings inside of them. We don’t know what were the purposes of the henges, some people say they were religious, others that they were politics. The most famous one is Stonehenge, in the south-west of England. It isn’t only the most important and biggest henge, but also it took more than a thousand years to build. Besides, some of the stones were brought from Wales. Some people think that they have an astronomical meaning apart from the religious ones.
We have a third group of people coming to England 2400 BC. They were taller and stronger and they knew how to work with bronze. That’s why this period is called the Bronze Age. They had some basic military organization. Besides, they brought to England the first individual graves. They also use pottery and the special characteristic of this group was that they put a beaker over the tombs. The meaning behind that could be that they believed in the afterlife and if they filled the beaker with food they would have food in the other life, or it could be as a gift to the gods. This is why in history this group is called the Beaker people. They also brought a new cereal, the barley.
This cereal was popular in the continent, but not in the isles. It is important because it grew fast and you can make bread out of it, which was a great way of surviving during winter when there weren’t vegetables. Some people say they came from the north of Europe.
In the year 1300BC, the henge civilization finished and we have evidences of a new farming society. They began building villages and Hill forts. The villages were made on top of the hills, and they were surrounded by fences of earth or stones for protection. This means that they had enemies.
The historic name for people living in this Britain during this historical time is Britons.
2. Celtic Britain. We know that the first Celtic invasions arrived in Britain in the year 700 BC. It wasn’t just one, but several waves of invasions, and kept going for 700 years. They came from Centre and Easter Europe. We don’t know why, these Celtics groups started invading Europe. After some time, they disappeared from most of their conquest areas, but stayed in some others. When the Celtics arrived, most Britons living in England escaped to Wales, Scotland and Ireland.
The Celts were divided into small tribes. Most of them have small differences. Sometimes they fought between each other while other times, they joined to fight together against a common enemy.
We know the Celts were technically advanced and that they were very good with iron. This is why this period is called the iron ages. They were also very good creating jewellery.
The Celts didn’t have a written alphabet, so there aren’t any documents, but romans wrote about them in Latin because they found them interesting. The roman people wrote that they were big, strong, with blonde or red hair and usually blue eyes.
Celtic men were very keen on being clean and well dressed, and roman wrote that they wore trousers that were knee-length and shirts. Men usually wore a cloak and women wore a shawl. They described that the pattern of these clothes were stripped. This design is considered the origin of the Scottish tartan.
We know thank to the roman documents, that the Celtic society was divided into classes. It was a ruling class of warriors, and we know that there was also a group called the druids. They are the Celtics priests. The druids were very important members of the Celtic society, because they were the priests and communicated the gods with the people, but most importantly, because in a society with no books, all the information and knowledge of the tribe were memorized by them: legends, songs, mathematics, history, medicine, astrology, myths, legislation… So it was very important for the survival of the tribe that they learnt all of it.
We have evidences that sometimes they did human sacrifices and we know that they didn’t have temples or religious buildings. All the religious ceremonies were located outdoors. Some tribes had a sacred tree (usually oaks) and they would have the ceremonies next to them. They kept in touch with nature. Once a year, all the druids from all of Britain, would come together for a few days and in his period of time, they would exchange information.
If we pay attention to roman documents about Celtics tribes, they were very surprised by Celtic women because they had a lot of power. Some documents talk about a woman called Boadicea, who was the wife of the chief of a tribe and she took his place when he died, becoming the leader.
She’s described as a woman with red hair and she looked frightening. The Celtics usually had blue inked tattoos. She was so powerful that when the romans started organising an army, she killed a lot of romans before she was killed herself. This gives the idea that women had a better position in Celtic society than in roman society.
3. Roman Britain. The romans gave a name to Britain. They decided that it shout be called Britannia. The romans decided to invade the British Isles, because they were helping France. They had a problem with the Gaul, an area in France, because the British Celts sent food and weapons when the French Celts were surrounded by the Roman Empire. It was a political decision so that they could conquer every part of France.
One of the first things the romans did in Britain was making roads.
By the year 43 AD, the Roman Empire controlled most of Britain, except the north of it, a zone they called Caledonia, because they were organized in a different way. They didn’t have an army, but they fought in a guerrilla way.
As the people from Caledonia kept attacking the Roman Empire, the romans built the Hadrian’s Wall. It crossed the country and had control towers all over it, with soldiers patrolling along the wall.
They also brought Latin, and for the first time in Britain, they had the first written language, and some of the Celts living in town started learning to speak Latin.
Another thing they brought was the different types of towns. Coloniae is a town where all the people living there are romans. In the Municipia we have Celtic people who are given Roman citizenship. And then the civitas were the old Celtic towns in the countryside. They are smaller and the people living there don’t have roman citizenship.
The romans respect all the Celtic towns, but they also create new towns. They began being military camps (castras) and then it grew to be a town. We can see the origin in the name of the town (Chester, Leicester, Manchester…)
Apart from these three, there were villas all over the country. They were big farms producing food that would be eaten in towns.
4. Saxon Britain. The Roman Empire began to collapse because the barbarians were attacking them. They arrived to Italy and the Roman Empire decided to protect Rome, so they took the armies of their conquered lands, and went to defend the capital of the Empire.
Some of the Germanic tribes go south to attack the Roman Empire, and some other decide to go west and invade Britain when the Roman Empire moved their tropes. The Germanic tribes were three: the Angles, the Saxon and the Jutes.
Many of the Celts living in Britain became slaves, while other escaped to Wales, Scotland and Ireland. The Saxons occupy the centre, the Jutes the south east and the Angles northern England. They stablish seven kingdoms in England:
Essex → Saxons east. Sussex → Saxons south. Wessex → Saxons west. East Anglia → Angels east Northumbria → Angles north (north of the river Humber) Mercia → Angles n ear the welsh border (it means “border people”) Kent → Jutes (“coast”)
When they decide that they’re going to fight against the Roman Empire, they are Germanic, but once they arrived in England, they started fighting each other, and that’s when they stablished the kingdoms.
The Anglo-Saxon culture leaves a lot of evidences in the mother England, for example the days of the days.
Tig’s day → Tuesday. Wodin’s day → Wednesday. Thor’s day → Thursday. Frei’s day → Friday.
We have toponyms that come from the Anglo-Saxon language. For example: -ing regarding to places mean the family that lives there (Reading, home of the Rada family) -ham is an Anglo-Saxon suffix meaning farm, so Nottingham is the farm of the Nott family. -ton is an Anglo-Saxon suffix meaning settlement (asentamiento). Southampton is a settlement in the south.
Of all the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms we have, the most important one was Mercia. It became the most powerful and it was because in the eight century, King Offa of Mercia declared himself King of the English. It was the first time in history that someone declares himself “King of the English”.
The Saxons stablished in England a number of important concepts that are important from a political point of view, for example, they stablished the Witans. They were a group of senior warrior and priests who advised the king in difficult matters. One thing to remember is that in Anglo-Saxon culture, monarchy is not hereditary. It is the Witan who decide who is going to be king. It was very important for the king to be friendly to them, so when he died, the Witan would accept the king’s son to take the throne.
It was the Witan who passed or approved the law. When a king died, the Witan had a meeting to decide who, from all the important Saxon families, should be next king. The witan is considered to be the origin of the Cabinet.
Another political institution of the Anglo-Saxon culture is the division of the territory in shires (condados). Each shire was an administrative unit. They are the equivalents of provinces nowadays (Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire). Each shire was supervised by a representative of the king. This man was the Shire Reeve (in contemporary English, it is the sheriff).
More concepts that come from Anglo-Saxon culture are the words “manor”, “lord” and “lady”. A manor nowadays is a big house that belongs to a rich family, but it used to mean the building that held all the politic/administrative businesses. There as one in each district. It was the place to go to talk to the shire reeve, pay taxes or join the army. The man in charge of supervising a district and managing the activities of the manor was the Lord, and his wife was the lady. The manor is divided into a house where they lived, and the area for bureaucracy. Iyrd is the Anglo-Saxon word for army. Each lord is responsible for organising the local army.
During the Anglo-Saxon period, there was an important change in English agriculture. During the Celtic era, they used a very small light plough (arado) that could be pulled by one animal or two people, so it was very easy for this plough to turn corners. The Anglo- Saxon plough was made of iron, so it was more resistant but it was also much heavier. It required six or eight oxen (bueyes). During the Celtic period, the territory that could be cultivated outside a village was divided into small squares. Instead of small squares, they divide the land into long stripes.
Also connected with the Anglo Saxon period is the rise of Christianity. It began during the Roman Empire, and continued when it fell. It arrived in the British Isles in the year 197, when the Pope sent Saint Augustine to spread the word and convert them into Christians.
Many of the important families living in the British Isles accepted Christianity as the new religion. St. Augustine concentrated on the rich and powerful people. During this people we find out that the Christian church is divided into the Roman church and the Celtic church. St. Augustine is the leader of the Roman church, and they pay special attention to the rich people. The Celtic church concentrates on ordinary people.
The Celtic church stablished many monasteries, especially in Wales, Scotland and Ireland, and the priests of the Celtic church went from village to village converting people. After some time, the Roman church took over the Celtic church.
The truth is that the British Isle became Christian very easily. From the moment people in Britain became Christians, the king and the Church worked together to control people. The king gave lands and properties to the church, so it could stablish monasteries and convents, and in exchange for that, the church convinced that kings were sent by God.
The establishment of monasteries was important from an economical and cultural point of view.
From an economical point of view: people would use the mill from them to make flour out of cereal, or they’d make markets so that villagers could sell their extra food, and the monasteries would take part of the money. From a cultural point of view: during this period, most people were illiterate. Some monasteries became school for children to learn to read the Bible. They taught those children to read and write with the promise that they would become monks or priests when they grew up. It also was the place where the monks copied the books. In a period when most people couldn’t read or write, they depended on monks to copy the books. Also, culture becomes more international because all over Europe, all books were written in Latin, and everybody could understand what the other countries’ books said.
5. The Vikings. At the end of the eight century, there is a new group of raiders arriving in England. They are called the Vikings, and they came from Norway, Denmark and, occasionally, Sweden. At first, they raided but they didn’t invade. From 865, they began stablishing themselves in Britain. The expansion of the Vikings was very quick because the Anglo Saxon kings were fighting each other.
Another characteristic of the Viking invasion is that they accepted Christianity very easily, and so they had two beliefs, Christianity and their own.
By the year 875, the Vikings controlled most of England. King Alfred of Wessex was the most powerful Anglo-Saxon king at this time. He was so powerful that people called him King Alfred the Great. He was the only Anglo-Saxon king powerful enough to fight the Vikings. After some years of fighting, King Alfred had to admit that he couldn’t control the Vikings and he signed a peace treating.
Then, England was divided into two parts: the Anglo-Saxon territory controlled by King Alfred, and the territory controlled by the Vikings. This territory was controlled with Danish laws, and they were called Danelaw.
We have a period of peace between Anglo-Saxons and Vikings. This period ends in the year 950. This year, the Vikings began raiding Anglo-Saxon villages. The Anglo-Saxon King Aethelred II signed a new treating with the Vikings, stablishing that the Anglo-Saxon would pay some money every year so that the Vikings wouldn’t attack them anymore.
To pay this money, King Aethelred II stablished a new tax. This special tax was called the Danegeld. In the Viking language, “geld” means “gold” or “money”.
When Aethelred II died, the Witan had a meeting to decide who should be next king of England, they decided that it was going to be a Viking Lord called Cnut (or Canute). It’s important to remember is that Cnut was born and raised in England, but considered himself a subject (súbdito) of the King of Norway, even after he was named King of England, so this was a dangerous decision by the Witan. When Cnut died in the year 1035, the Witan decided that it should be one of Aethelred’s sons the one to be king next.
Edward I was known as Edward the confessor because he was more interested in religion than in politics. Edward was the son of Aethelred II and a French princess from Normandy. When he became King of England, he had spent most of his life in Normandy. When he had to go to England, he took some of his friends from Normandy with him. The Anglo-Saxon aristocrats are not pleased that the best positions were taken by Normans. When Edward died, the Witan decided that the new king should be Harold Godwinson, a very important Anglo-Saxon aristocrat. The moment when the Witan decided it, we have two competitors who want the throne: the king of the Vikings sends an army against Harold and declares war. Harold travels north to York with his army to fight the Vikings and wins. Then, he is informed that the Normans are invading England in the South. William Duke of Normandy says that he should be king of England because he was Edward’s cousin.
Harold’s army and the Norman army meet in a place called Hastings. In the battle of Hastings, the Normans killed Harold. This was the year 1066, and it marks the end of the Anglo-Saxon period and the beginning of the middle ages and Norman period.