I. Pre-Roman Britain: Before 10,000 BC to AD 43 and Roman Britain: AD 43 to AD 410
The first people in Britain were nomadic hunters followed circa 3500 BC by Celtic farmers. Iron Age Britain, 1000 BC, saw metalworking, wheeled vehicles, and horsemanship. Julius Caesar landed troops in 55 BC, but the Romans did not set up a permanent presence until AD 43 under the emperor Claudius. The Iceni king Prasutagus and his queen Boudica placed themselves under Claudius’s rule. In AD 60, however, with the emperor Nero in charge, the Briton lands were conquered. Prasutagus was killed, and Boudica took revenge by becoming the first war-chief of Britain. Lesser began burning Roman British towns, including Londinium (London). The well-trained Romans won the war. By 100, the Romans had built towns and roads. The remaining Britons became slaves or married into Roman families, thus giving their descendants Roman citizenship. In 410, Roman was being invaded, and most Roman soldiers returned to the continent to fight.
II. Minor Invasions and the Anglo-Saxon Invasion
After the Romans left the Picts from the northlands (Scotland) and the Scots from the west (Ireland) invaded. Germanic tribes, the Jutes, Angles, and Saxons invaded Britain around 449. In the 500s, a Briton-Celtic warlord named Riothamus (“Great Leader”) fought the Saxons in a series of battles. This leader was the real King Arthur. In the 500s-600s, the Land of the Angles, or England, was formed into seven small kingdoms known as the Heptarchy. King Egbert was the first High King. He was the grandfather of Alfred the Great.
All primitive peoples go through the same social evolution. First, the oldest family member is the leader. When several relatives move in, the clan unit is established. When clans join together, the tribal unit is formed. When tribes cooperate, the county-kingdom develops. If several county-kingdoms can unite, a true kingdom is created, with a High King, chosen because of military reputation. From the continent, the Anglo-Saxons had brought with them legends of Norse gods: Woden/Odin, the chief god; Thor/Thunor, the warrior god in charge of weather; Tiu/Tyr, the god of conflict and war; Freya/Frigga, the goddess of the home; and Wyrd, the spirit of Fate. Tuesday through Friday are named for the Norse gods. It was in 597 that Augustine was sent by Pope Gregory of Rome to preach to King Ethelbert of Kent and established churches.
IV. The Writing
The greatest work left to us is Beowulf. It is pre-Christian in origin, but monks who copied the story have changed our AD 1000 version. They inserted Bible elements into the story. The monks who came to Britain mixed pagan warrior elements into their sermons and writings. Their poetry is complex, containing strong rhythm but no rhyme. Literary devices common to their poetry are kenning (compound metaphor, such as “whale-road” for ocean) and understatement. Britain produced many educated churchmen, including Bede, who wrote the Ecclesiastical History of the English People, the first history book about England (written in Latin, 731). The monasteries became the first schools in England since the monks were the only literate people.
V. King Alfred and the Vikings
King Egbert’s grandson was Alfred, born in 849. Alfred was the educated member of the family. Alfred was made king at age 21. Eventually, too many Vikings arrived and attacked Wessex. Alfred’s forces trapped the Viking leader Guthrum’s forces in a swamp; eventually Guthrum surrendered. In 886, Alfred awarded the Vikings the eastern seaboard of England. The new land was the Danelaw. Alfred’s experiences give him his title “Alfred the Great,” such as building new towns, forts, and strengthening London. He encouraged nobles to send their sons to the monastery schools. He translated many books himself into Old English (Anglo-Saxon). He initiated the first history of England written in English, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The Saxon period ended in 1066 with the invasion of the Norman French.