Britain’s prehistory: The Celts

Britain’s prehistory: The Celts

Around 700 BC, another group of people began to arrive. Many of them were tall, and had fair or red hair and blue eyes. These were the Celts, who probably came from central Europe or further east, from southern Russia, and had moved slowly westwards in earlier centuries. The Celts were technically advanced. They began to control all the lowland areas of Britain, and were joined by new arrivals from the European mainland. They continued to arrive in one wave after another over the next 7 hundred years. The Celts are important in British history because they are the ancestors of many of the people in Highland Scotland, Wales, Ireland, and Cornwall today. Celtic languages, which have been continuously used in some areas since that time, are still spoken. The British today are often described as Anglo-Saxon. It would be better to call them Anglo-Celt.

The knowledge of the Celts is slight. It is not known for certain if they invaded Britain or came peacefully as a result of the lively trade with Europe. The Celts were organized into different tribes. The last Celtic arrivals from Europe were the Belgic tribes. It was natural for them to settle in the southeast of Britain, probably pushing other Celtic tribes northwards as they did so. At any rate, when Julius Caesar  briefly visited Britain in 55 BC he saw that the Belgic tribes were different from the older inhabitants. “The interior is inhabited”, he wrote, “by peoples who consider themselves indigenous, the coast by people who have crossed from Belgium. Nearly all of these still keep the names of the (European) tribes from which they came”. The Celts were highly successful farmers. The hill-forts remained the center for local groups. The insides of these hill-forts were filled with houses, and they became the simple economic capitals and smaller “towns” of the different tribal areas into which Britain was now divided. Today the empty hill-forts stand on lonely hilltops. Yet they remained local economic centers long after the Romans came to Britain, and long after they went. The Celts traded across tribal borders and trade was probably important for political and social contact between the tribes. It is no accident that the present-day capitals of England and Scotland stand on or near the two ancient trade centers. Much trade was conducted by river and sea. According to the Romans, the Celt men wore shirts and breeches, and striped or checked cloaks fastened by a pin. It is possible that the Scottish tartan and dress developed from this “striped cloak”. The Celts were also “very careful about cleanliness and neatness”, as one Roman wrote. “Neither man nor woman.” He went on,” however poor, was seen either ragged or dirty.” The Celtic tribes were ruled over by a warrior class, of which the priests, or Druids, seem to have been particularly important members. These Druids could not read or write, but they memorized all the religious teachings, the tribal laws, history, medicine and other knowledge necessary in Celtic society. The Druids from different tribes all over Britain met once a year. They had no temples, but they met in sacred groves of trees, on certain hills, by rivers or by river sources. We know little of their kind of worship except that at times it included human sacrifice.

During the Celtic period women may have had more independence than they had again for hundreds of years. When Romans invaded Britain two of the largest tribes were ruled by women who fought from their chariots. The most powerful Celt to stand up to the Romans was a woman, Boadicea.  She had become queen of her tribe when her husband had died. She was tall, with long red hair, and had a frightening appearance. In 61 AD she led her tribe against the Romans. She nearly drove them from Britain, and she destroyed London, the Roman capital, before she was defeated and killed. Roman writers commented on the courage and strength of women in battle, and leave an impression of a measure of equality between the sexes among the richer Celts.