The Birth of Britain
Britain was founded by Celtic peoples but who are these Celts?
In order to answer
that question we'll have to delve back through history a little and ask
ourselves "who were the Celts?"
Europe has been inhabited for many thousands of years but we know little
- and nothing of the languages spoken there - before the introduction of
writing into the area from the Middle East in the first millennium BC.
By around 500 BC writing had reached both Spain (via North Africa) and
Italy (via Greece). A number of written texts have survived from this period
so it is from about this time that we begin to get some idea of what languages
were being spoken.
majority of the modern languages of Europe belong to the Indo-European
family of languages, descended from a common ancestor - that is, they all
started off as no more than regional dialects of a single language. As
far as we know, the first Indo-Europeans to reach western Europe were the
Celts. By 500 BC Celtic languages were spoken in Austria, Switzerland,
southern Germany, northern Italy, most of France, much of Spain, Britain
and Ireland. A related group of Indo-European languages, which we call
Italic, was spoken in much of Italy. One of these languages was Latin,
the language of the Latinii, destined later to become the most important
language in Europe. But in 500 BC it was only the local language of the
small city of Rome. The most important language of Italy at that time was
Etruscan, spoken in what is now Tuscany. Etruscan was not an Indo-European
language at all and it is not related to any other language we know of.
With the spread of Roman power in the following centuries the Etruscans
and others began turning to Latin, abandoning their ancestral languages.
At the dawn of European
history the Celts who had settled in present-day France were known to the
Romans as Gauls, and were described by Julius Caesar in his Gallic Wars.
Other Celtic tribes had invaded Italy, establishing there a city they called
Mediolanon (now modern Milan) and they sacked Rome itself in 390 BC.
The ancient Celts themselves left few records - their tradition was one
handed down from generation to generation by word of mouth rather than
of being committed to writing - so accounts of the Celts originate mostly
from Roman and Greek writers of the time. But the Celts also had dealings
with other cultures bordering on on their territories, enabling us to piece
together a fair picture from archeological evidence as well as from the
various historical accounts. These records are supplemented and corroborated
by early Irish literature, including the epic tales of the Ulster Cycle.
At one time, during the Hellenistic period, Celtica extended all the way
from Britain and the Iberian Peninsula in the west across Europe to Asia
Minor in the east, where a district still known as Galatia recalls the
former presence there of Celtic-speaking Gauls. Not until 192 BC were the Roman armies to conquer the last remaining Celtic kingdoms in Italy.
Today the Celtic languages that have survived into the modern era are limited
almost entirely to the British Isles and Brittany where these tongues are
spoken by a total of about two million people. The Celtic sub-family is made
up of three groups of languages: the Continental (primarily Gaulish), the
Brythonic (also called British), and the Goidelic (also called Gaelic).
Origins of the
The Celts called themselves
'Kelton', which means 'the hidden ones'. The Greeks called them 'Keltoi'
and from this came the Latin name 'Celtae'. The Romans also referred to
them as 'Galatae' and 'Galli'.
The first literary reference to the Celtic peoples is by the Greek Hecataeus
Hecataeus in 517 BC. By about 400 BC central and western Europe was dominated
by Celtic tribes, the most feared of all the so-called 'barbarian' peoples
beyond the urbanity of Greek and Roman civilization.
It is believed by some that these early Celts were head-hunters. "Amongst
the Celts the human head was venerated above all else, since the head was
to the Celt the soul, centre of the emotions as well as of life itself,
a symbol of divinity and of the powers of the other-world." - Paul Jacobsthal,
Early Celtic Art. The 'cult of the severed head' is documented not only
in the many sculptured representations of severed heads in La Tene carvings
but in surviving Celtic mythology. These Celtic headhunters venerated the
image of the severed head as a continuing source of spiritual power. If
the head is the seat of the soul then possessing the severed head of an
enemy, honorably reaped in battle, added prestige to any warrior's reputation.
According to tradition the buried head of a god or hero named Brand [?Brandus
?Brennus] protected Britain from invasion from across the British (now
Some scholars think that the Urnfield culture represents an origin for
the Celts as a distinct cultural branch of the Indo-European family. This
culture was pre-eminent in central Europe during the late Bronze Age, from
circa 1200 BC until 700 BC. This period saw a dramatic increase in population
in the region, probably due to developments in technology and agricultural
practices. The spread of iron-working led to the development of the Hallstatt
culture (circa 700 to 500 BC). The Hallstatt culture gave way to the La
Tène culture, the final stage of the Iron Age.
The Celtic peoples possessed vibrant cultures, and developed superb artistic
styles originally influenced by the La Tène decorative and metal-working
practices of Greek, Etruscan, and Scythian communities with whom they frequently
traded. This led to a blossoming of an unique Celtic artistry, characterised
by complex flowing lines and patterns. The 'art nouveau' of the 19th century was derived from this Celtic style.
The Celts and
the Romans - First Contact
From their heartland
in central Europe, the Celts settled northern Italy, France and Britain,
and these were the 'Gauls' encountered by Caesar. One group crossed into
Anatolia and north-western Turkey; these were the Galats or Galatians,
whose descendants were to receive an epistle from St. Paul.
The first historically
recorded encounter with the Celts comes from
northern Italy around 400 BC, when a previously unknown group came down
from the Alps, displacing the earlier Etruscans from the fertile Po valley. The
Romans sent three envoys to the beseiged Etruscans to study the new Celtic
force. We know from Livy's
The Early History of Rome that the Celts'
first encounter with Rome was quite civilized:
[The Celts told the Roman envoys that] this was indeed the first time they had heard of them, but they assumed the Romans must be a courageous people
because it was to them that the [Etruscans] had turned to in their hour
of need. And since the Romans had tried to help with an embassy and not
with arms, they themselves would not reject the offer of peace, provided
the [Etruscans] ceded part of their superfluous agricultural land; that
was what they, the Celts, wanted . . . If it were not given, they
would launch an attack before the Romans' eyes, so that the Romans could
report back how superior the [Celts] were in battle to all others . . .
The Romans then asked whether it was right to demand land from its owners
on pain of war, indeed what were the Celts doing in Etruria in the first
place? The latter defiantly retorted that their right lay in their arms:
To the brave belong all things.
The Romans' response was to ally themselves with the Etruscans. Whereupon
the Celts scattered the combined Etruscan and Roman armies and then marched
south to Rome to lay seige to the capital of the Roman Empire. Seven months
of seige resulted in negotiations wherby the Celts promised to abandon
the seige in return for a tribute of one thousand pounds of gold. The historian
relates that this was very difficult for the city to muster and that when
the gold was being weighed out the Romans claimed the Celts were cheating
with faulty weights. It was then that the Celts' leader,
threw his sword into the balance and and uttered the words
to the defeated". Never before had Rome been subjected to such humiliating
defeat and the Celts made a magnificent step into the limelight of history.
Other Roman historians tell us more of the Celts. Diodorus notes
is terrifying . . . They are very tall in stature, with ripling muscles
under clear white skin. Their hair is blond, but not naturally so: they
bleach it, to this day, artificially, washing it in lime and combing it
back from their foreheads. They look like wood-demons, their hair thick
and shaggy like a horse's mane. Some of them are cleanshaven, but others
- especially those of high rank, shave their cheeks but leave a moustache
that covers the whole mouth and, when they eat and drink, acts like a sieve,
trapping particles of food . . . The way they dress is astonishing:
they wear brightly coloured and embroidered shirts, with trousers called
and cloaks fastened at the shoulder with a brooch, heavy in winter, light
in summer. These cloaks are striped or chequered in design, with the seperate
cheques close together and in various colours.
Up until now the Celts had had free reign and by 200 BC were establishing
their first planned urban centres but now the new, tightly disciplined
Roman armies under Caesar were about to turn the tide. The Romans' avowed
aim was to take over all the Celtic lands and to dominate the world.
[The Celts] wear bronze
helmets with figures picked out on them, even horns, which made them look
even taller than they already are . . . while others cover themselves
with breast-armour made out of chains. But most content themselves with
the weapons nature gave them: they go naked into battle . . . Weird,
discordant horns were sounded, [they shouted in chorus with their] deep
and harsh voices, they beat their swords rhythmically against their shields.
Celtic territories gradually began to fall to unrelenting pressure from
the Romans to the south, and from Germanics to the north and east. Gaul,
the last of the free Celtic territories, was finally subjugated by Julius
Caesar in the Gallic Wars (58-51 BC) and the final routing at Dijon effectively
destroyed the remainder of Celtic authority in Europe. The age of the Roman
Empire had dawned. In the course of Roman conquest, Celtic speech yielded to Latin, and by the 5th century AD Celtic would have virtually disappeared from continental Europe.
of the Celts
The Celtic tongues,
like most European languages, were derived from an universal common language
spoken probably between 3000 BC and 2000 BC. Celtic was part of the Celto-Italic
group of Indo-European tongues. (Some of the characteristics which differentiated
Italic from Celtic were its use of -on, -os (as in Greek) instead
of -um, -us (as in Latin) and the use of 'x' instead of 'ks'
'sk'. There was also the lack of a 'p' in Celtic and the use of
'a' in place of the Italic 'o'. )
The Celto-Italic group devolved into so-called 'p' and 'q' Celtic (the
precursors of Welsh, Breton, Cornish and Gaulish on the one hand, and Irish
on the other and into various Italic languages. Although Latin was only
of numerous Italic languages it was Latin alone which ultimately survived
due to the Romans' military-economic predominance. It was Latin - originally
the language of the Latinii - which was to give rise to today's
languages (Italian, Spanish, etc.).
The first wave of Celtic immigrants to the British Isles were the q-Celts,
Goidels. It is not known exactly when this immigration occurred but it
may be placed sometime between 2000 BC to 1200 BC. At a later date, a second
wave of immigrants took to the British Isles; they were the 'p-Celts',
the British. Goidelic ultimately led to the formation of the three Gaelic
languages spoken in Ireland, Mann and, later, Scotland. British eventually
gave rise to Welsh and Cornish, and surviving on the Continent as Breton,
spoken in Brittany.
The label q-Celtic stems from the differences between this early Celtic
tongue and the later p-Celtic. The differences between the two Celtic branches
are simple in theoretical form. Take for example the word 'ekvos' in Indo-European,
meaning horse. In q-Celtic this was rendered as 'equos' (compare Latin
'Equus') while in p-Celtic it became 'epos' (compare modern Welsh 'Ebol'),
the 'q' sound being replaced with a 'p' sound. The first group is called
'q-Celtic' because the Indo-European [kw] sound was written as 'q' (now
written as 'c') in these languages. The second group is called 'p-Celtic',
because this [kw] sound developed into a 'p'. For example, the Irish word
for 'four' is 'ceathair', whereas the Welsh is 'pedwar' and the Breton,
The rules of pronunciation for all the Celtic languages are complicated.
For example, the final sound of a word frequently brings about a changed
initial consonant in the next word, as in Irish fuil, “blood,” but
bhfuil, “our blood.” Another example is Welsh pen, “head,” but
mhen, “my head.” In order to look up a word in the dictionary, one
has to be familiar with these rules of phonetic change, or mutation.
Words of Celtic origin that have been absorbed by English include bard,
blarney, colleen, crock, dolmen, druid, glen, slogan (battlesong), twig
(to understand), and whiskey. An interesting feature of Celtic languages
is that in several characteristics they resemble some of the non-Indo-European
languages. These characteristics include the absence of a present participle
and the use instead of a verbal noun or gerund (found also in Egyptian
and Berber), the frequent expression of agency by means of an impersonal
passive construction instead of by a verbal subject in the nominative case
(as in Egyptian, Berber, Basque, and some Caucasian and Eskimo languages),
and the positioning of the verb at the beginning of a sentence (typical
of Egyptian and Berber).
which includes all Celtic idioms on the Continent with the exception of
Breton, died out following the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the
late 5th century AD. The principal example of this group is the now extinct
language Gaulish, for little remains of any other Continental Celtic tongues.
Gaulish was once the language of Gaul proper (now modern France).
Evidence of Gaulish is found both in words and in personal and proper names
referred to by ancient Greek and Latin writers as well as in more than
a hundred Gaulish inscriptions from France and northern Italy (ranging
in date from the 3rd century BC to the 3rd century AD). Coins and Greek
and Latin inscriptions in Europe also preserve Celtic place-names and personal
names. Yet the material as a whole is quite limited, furnishing only a
number of proper names, a small vocabulary, and certain indications regarding
the sounds and grammar of Gaulish and of Continental Celtic in general.
The Brythonic group
includes Breton, Cornish (now extinct), and Welsh. They are all descendants
of British, the Celtic language of the ancient Britons of Caesar’s day.
The emergence of Welsh, Cornish, and Breton from British as separate languages
probably took place during the 5th and 6th centuries AD and was a result
of divisive Germanic incursions into Britain. Welsh and Breton have discarded
the originally numerous Indo-European cases for the noun and use only one
case. The accent in Welsh and Breton generally falls on the next-to-last
syllable, with the exception of one Breton dialect that has the accent
on the last syllable.
Breton today is spoken by more than 500,000 people in Brittany, most of
whom are bilingual, speaking also French. It is not surprising that Breton,
unlike Welsh, has many loan words from French. Breton is not directly descended
from ancient Gaulish but from the Celtic dialects taken by Welsh and Cornish
immigrants from the British Isles who were fleeing the Germanic invasions
and found refuge in Armorica (now Brittany) in the 5th and 6th centuries
AD. Surviving literary documents in Breton go back only as far as the 15th
century but the earlier stages of the language are known through glosses
and proper names.
Cornish, once the Celtic language of Cornwall, became extinct in the late
18th century Cornish proper names in manuscripts of the 10th century AD
are the oldest recorded traces of the language. A number of Cornish place-names
have survived, and some Cornish words appear in the English spoken in Cornwall
today. Modern efforts to revive Cornish have so far had little success.
Medieval maps show that Wales was then known as 'North Wales' whereas Cornwall,
Devon, and Somerset, were shown as 'West Wales'. The word 'Welsh' is derived
from the Saxon word 'wealas' meaning 'foreigner' or 'slave' and was applied
by the English to all the native British.
Welsh, called Cymraeg by speakers, and known as 'British' until the name
was hijacked by the English for political advantage, is today the language
of over 600,000 people, chiefly in Wales but also in the United States,
Canada, and Patagonia (Argentina), where a number of Welsh people migrated.
In Pictish times several Irish colonies were established in present-day
Wales. The local inhabitants called the Irish arrivals 'Gwyddel', hence
'Goidel' and 'Gael'. The modern language was also to a material extent
affected by Irish immigrants into the west of the country in the late middle
ages. Until relatively recent times Welsh was also widely spoken in the
Lancashire, Merseyside, and Shropshire areas of England. Most speakers
of Welsh in Britain also use English. The oldest extant Welsh texts are
from the 8th century AD.
The third group of
the Celtic sub-family is Goidelic, to which Irish (also called Irish Gaelic),
Scots Gaelic, and Manx belong. The term Erse is used as a synonym for Irish
and sometimes even for Scots Gaelic.
All the modern Goidelic tongues are descendants of the ancient Celtic speech
of Ireland. It is thought that the Celtic idiom first came to Ireland shortly
before the Christian era. An official language of Ireland, Irish is spoken
natively by approximately 75,000 people; roughly a third of Ireland’s population
can speak and understand it to some degree. Most speakers of Irish also
Scots Gaelic is the tongue of about 60,000 persons in the Highlands of
Scotland and an additional 3,000 in Canada. Most of these people also speak
English. Gaelic speech began to reach Scotland in the late 5th century
AD when it was brought by the Irish invaders of that country. However,
a truly distinctive Scots Gaelic did not appear before the 13th century.
The chief difference between Scots Gaelic and Irish results from the Norse
and Welsh influence on the former. There are four cases for the noun (nominative,
genitive, dative, and vocative) in Scots Gaelic.
Manx is a dialect of Scots Gaelic that was once spoken on the Isle of Man,
but it has almost entirely died out there. First recorded in writing in
the early 17th century, Manx does not have an important literature. It
shows a strong Norse influence.
The 'Celtic Twilight'?
As the Roman war machine
finally gained a decisive foothold in Britain in the 1st century AD this
marked the beginning of the end of Celtic Britain. Only along the Atlantic
fringe of Europe was Celtic culture to survive in distinct form.
From about 500 AD, as Roman military power waned, Germanics, predominantly
Anglo-Saxons, entering the British heartland from the east, began to fragment
and push back the Celts to the west, south-west and north of the island.
Cultural differences soon began to emerge among the Celts in these regions
and these soon gave way to the formation of new dialects: Cornish (in Cornwall
and Devon), Welsh (in Wales) and Cumbrian (in Cumbria and parts of Scotland).
Many of the Celts in the south-west fled across what was then known as
the British Channel to Brittany (where the Breton language developed).
The Celts were ceasing to exist as an united people.