This Sceptred Isle: Trollheart's History of England

I suppose it only seems fair really, if I’m going to badmouth the English in my History of Ireland journal, to give them a chance to talk back; and to be honest, though I’m still writing that journal it has given me something of a taste for looking into the history of our nearest neighbour and longtime oppressor. Yes, I have a million journals on the go, but when did that ever stop me? I actually tried to talk myself out of this one, but I know me: once I get an idea in my head I can’t dissuade myself, and I know it’s useless trying, so I gave up and left me to my own devices. All I can say is, if this turns out to be too much work for me, I’d better not come crying to me, because I told me so, but would I listen to me? Would I, as our English friends say in certain parts of their country, hell as like. So let it be on my own head. I’m done with me.

Identity crisis to one side, yeah, that’s what I’ve decided to do, and while I may slag England off as a true son of Erin would, I am quite aware that it has a truly fascinating history, and it should actually be fun getting into the nuts and bolts of it. Naturally, at points the two journals are going to meet, and cross, and in that case, rather than rewrite what I’ve written in Four Green Fields already, I’ll just refer or link to those entries. So events such as the Reformation, or at least, how it came about via Henry VIII, already well documented in the History of Ireland, will be noted but then linked; if there’s more to say, as in, events that went beyond how they impacted Ireland, then I’ll carry on the story in this journal. I’m sure you get what I mean.

But as I say, England has its own long and very rich history, and that does not by any means rely on Ireland and its oppression. In fact, for probably eighty percent of English history my country doesn’t play a part, and that’s fine. Linking into the history will be countries such as France, Spain and Holland - with whom England was all but perpetually at war - as well as Italy (Rome invaded England) and Scotland and Wales. Wait, I hear you say: aren’t those part of Britain? Yes they are. And shouldn’t this then, I hear you say again, be the History of Britain? Who do I look like, I ask: Simon Schama? No, though the history of England will invariably end up as that of Britain, I’m concentrating here on the English bit, as both Wales and Scotland have their own separate histories, and much of what happens in England doesn’t really involve them. So it’s the history of England, at least until the Kingdom of Great Britain comes to be, and there’s a lot happened before then.

What to expect here? Well if you’ve read my History of Ireland journal you’ll know. A timeline reflecting the greater (and lesser) events that went to make up the story of how England rose from being a tiny little insignificant island to being one of the biggest and baddest powers in the world, at least up until about World War II, when America pushed her aside and said “It’s all right, honey, we’ll take it from here.” Kings and queens, England has had more than you can shake a sceptre at, many of whom didn’t do a lot, many of whom are unforgettable, both in the history of England and that of the world, or at least Europe. We’ll be looking at them all. Battles? You want battles? We got battles. One thing England did better than almost anyone else in the world was pick fights. It seemed, at times (and may in fact have been) that they just got bored and wanted a war, or, to put it in the words of Captain Edmund Blackadder, it was just too much trouble not to have a war.

The English navy, or Royal Navy, grew to be the terror of the high seas, and was, almost single-handedly, responsible for the growth of England from an unregarded bit of land floating in the Atlantic Ocean to a force to be reckoned with, an empire on which it was said the sun never set, though of course eventually it did. The Royal Air Force alone kept the skies over Britain free of Nazi fighters and ensured Hitler would not be having tea in Windsor Castle any time soon, something for which I think nobody can deny we owe them a huge debt of gratitude. English artists, architects, musicians and writers spread His or Her Majesty’s fame far and wide, and of course they gave us names like Wren, Constable, Wellington, Nelson, Shakespeare and Dickens, to name but a very few. Speaking of Dickens, they were also one of the most inhumanly cruel people the world ever saw, at least when it came to the poor, who were treated almost worse than the slaves from Africa were by Americans.

As in all histories, there is good and there is bad, and unless history has already done so, I will try not to make judgements. I do have a bias against the English, merely by virtue of being Irish; my ancestors have suffered so much under them, but I don’t intend to let that influence or interfere with my chronicling their history here. I will try, as I always do, to be as even-handed as possible. And as in all histories too, it would be impossible to relate every event and talk about every character who featured in the story of England, but I will try to ensure nothing important is left out, while also trying to dig a little behind the scenes as it were and talk about some of the lesser figures we may not know about, but who may be important to English history.

There will not be, however, a rousing or otherwise chorus of “God Save the Queen”. I have to draw the line somewhere.

All right then. Let’s get started, shall we?

Part One: Albion Rising - In Fire and Blood, a Nation is Forged

Chapter I: Ruled Britannia: The First Conquest of Britain

Timeline: Approx 6,000 BC - 87 AD

There are certain sectors of English society who believe, rather naively or perhaps in a pig-headed way, that they are “true” Englishmen, original inhabitants of England, proper English and the only pure English. They are, of course, wrong; as is the case with just about any country, the original population are long gone, destroyed or gone extinct, they have vanished into the mists of time with often very little to mark their passing. I mentioned in my History of Ireland journal that even the Celts, seen by many as the original Irish, are not the first to have lived on the island, and so it is with the English*. Although the island (not an island at the time, as I’ll explain in a moment) has been occupied for about a million years, in common with every other habitation of humanity we have no written records to go on, and must glean the scant details of these disappeared civilisations through the artefacts and structures they left behind.

With stone tools and footprints thought to date back 900,000 years on the Norfolk Coast, this makes that area the oldest known part of England to have been inhabited by humans, Sussex providing the oldest human fossils (about 500,000 years old) and Neanderthal fossils found in Kent which date back 400,000 years, it’s clear England was occupied long before human history began being recorded, and this is probably, almost certainly, true of any country you look at. Possibly fleeing from advancing ice and rising seas, for about 120,000 years England was unoccupied by humans, with Neanderthals coming back about 40,000 years ago but only lasting a mere 20,000 years before becoming extinct. With the end of the last ice age, about 11,700 years ago (ah I remember it as if it were only yesterday!) modern humans, or Homo Sapiens, repopulated England and have remained ever since.

For a long time, as alluded to a short while ago, England and indeed Ireland were connected to the mainland of Europe by a chalk ridge known as the Weald-Artois Anticline, which ran from southeast England to southern France, but rising sea levels as ice sheets melted and glaciers retreated, about 425,000 years ago, swamped the bridge and no longer made it possible for Englishmen to pop over to France by way of Shank’s mare. In place of the Weald-Artois Anticline was the English Channel, and as this now made of England an island, it was effectively cut off from the technological and cultural advances taking place in Europe at the time. Paul Pettitt and Mark White writing about Britain call it, rather fatalistically and quite dramatically, an island of the living dead.

* Note: though much of this concerns the history of Britain as an island, I’m mostly going to refer to the inhabitants as English where I can, as I want to differentiate them from the Scottish and the Welsh, with whom this history is not concerned. Initially though, they’re all going to be called the Britons, because, well, that’s what they were called back then.

Pytheas of Massalia (fl 310 - 306 BC)

The first written records of England come from the Greek navigator Pytheas, covered in my World Exploration journal, from which I’m going to shamelessly paste the article concerning him.

Pytheas is said to have travelled south to Spain and Portugal, and thence across to Britain and Ireland, becoming perhaps the first one to use the word “Britain” for the island country. His impressions of the British seem to indicate that he found the land cold and wet (quelle surprise!) which to a native of France would be quite a shock, that the people lived in thatched cottages and were ruled by many kings - another odd thing to a democratic Greek - but were at heart a simple people who lived in peace with each other. When they did war, he says, they rode in chariots just like his own people.
(From The Men Who Drew the Map of the World)

The origin of the word Britain is disputed, but seems to have been coined by Pytheas (or at least, he seems to have been the first to use it) to denote a “people of forms”, meaning that the British understood and used pictures and shapes, as they tended to tattoo their bodies for war or decoration. He described three “corners of Britain”, these translating as Kent, Orkney and Cornwall. By this point the English are already what could be called civilised, as engaging in commerce. They make tin ingots and sell them in France and other countries, and as they have to deal with buyers Pytheas says they are quite approachable.

There’s probably a lot more to be said about Neolithic Britons, but who cares about them? They couldn’t even be bothered to leave us any written record, so fuck them. The next period therefore in which we’re interested is some thousands of years later.

Settling Down (200 BC - 43 AD)

Expansion by the Roman Empire forced refugees from Gaul to migrate towards England, and probably Ireland too, bringing with them their Celtic language and customs, and also sophistication to the English way of life, Kent, Hertfordshire and Essex becoming the centre of the pottery trade around 175 BC, with iron bars replacing, um, whatever they had been using as currency up to that from about 100 BC.

What’s quite interesting about this is that unlike we Irish, who knocked seven bells out of the original Celts and then snaffled their country (Go Tuatha!) England does not seem to have proceeded along the same lines at all, with their peoples moving to and from Britain as it got colder or harder to live there, and returning when the weather or the living conditions improved. Nobody seems to have kicked anything out of anyone, and really, for a country that ended up being the bully of the world for a very long time, the top dog and the one all others would bow and scrape to (while secretly plotting their overthrow beneath the doffed cap, so to speak) that’s quite remarkable. So other than the likes of Neanderthals and so on going extinct, there was no major shift as to who controlled England. Makes us like the aggressive ones!

As temperatures began to rise and weather improve around about 5,000 – 6,000 BC, the hunter-gatherer population began to settle down a little more, and some animals, like the dog, were domesticated. DNA in human remains seems to indicate the migration of people from what would become Finland and Estonia, as well as other European countries, so it could possibly be said that the first real Englishmen were in fact what are now considered by certain sectors of their society as “foreigners”. Take that, English Defence League! Around 4,500 BC the idea of farming and raising crops seems to have been considered a good one, and more settling down occurred as the woodlands grew and hunting became more difficult. In fact, a program of extensive deforestation began around 4,300 BC to provide more land for crops and farming.

The original inhabitants of Britain were soon supplanted by what were known as the Beaker people. No, not them! These people came from all over Europe, and are so-called due to their creation of and usage of the inverted bell-shaped beaker which became prevalent everywhere. I don’t know, but I presume the precursor to that was a normal tumbler-style thing? Not sure, but anyway this is the reason they were called that, and by about 2400 BC they had more or less taken over Britain. They were able to exploit the vast reserves of tin in England, especially in Cornwall and Devon, and this provided them something to trade with other countries, and a form of commerce began.

Evidence of a certain belief in some sort of religion began around 2,500 BC – 2.000 BC, when huge stone monuments, burial chambers and possibly sites of religious worship, began to appear all over Britain. The most famous of these of course is Stonehenge, still a popular attraction in England today. Nobody has ever been able to work out definitively what Stonehenge was intended for - some say burial mounts, some say a place of worship, others say something to do with astronomy or even a place to gather at certain times such as the Summer and Winter Solstice (June and December 21 respectively). In addition to burying their dead the Britons also cremated them, with the urns then buried in cemeteries.

Manufacturing processes were changing too. From around 2150 BC British people learned to smelt copper and then bronze, heralding the arrival of what is known as the Bronze Age in Britain. As the previous age, the Stone Age, receded then, bronze became the go-to material, replacing stone in things such as weapons and tools until about 750 BC, when this great new thing was imported from Europe. They called it iron, and it was even stronger than bronze, making better weapons and better agricultural implements, and so improving the lives of the Britons and ushering in (say it with me) the Iron Age. This saw the organisation of people into clans headed by chieftains, and almost by default, the first proper wars between tribes.

They would soon have a new and powerful enemy to fight though, and would have to band together and forget old enmities, or perish under the onslaught of the greatest empire the world had ever seen.


We had a burial chamber in the next village.In Welsh a Cromlech.

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Romans go home (55 BC - 43 AD)

One man, of course, would make it his business to attempt to bring Britain to heel, and he was perhaps the most famous of all the Roman emperors. It is pretty amazing to hear that Romans feared the area in which Britain was said to lie, the island existing, as it was seen at the time, on the edge of the known world. It’s even more intriguing to find there were Romans who refused to believe Britain existed at all! Fake News, huh, in the Empire! Nevertheless, news of Britain’s vast stores of tin (very much a coveted item in those times, it seems) had reached the empire, and so they naturally assumed they could just go and take it.

And they did.

Well, they tried.

I’m not going to run a profile of Julius Caesar, as I don’t think it’s warranted. Anyone who doesn’t know him or of him, or know something about him clearly has not been paying attention, or has been holidaying on Alpha Squiggle IX for most of their lives. I hear it’s lovely there. But back down here on Earth, I might as well try to tell you about Hitler (which I do, in my World War II journal, but that’s different). So suffice to say we won’t be going too deeply into Caesar’s biography.

Part of the reason for invading Britain seems to have been a matter of revenge, as the Britons had supported the Gauls in their war against the Roman general, and as already noted, some of the refugees from that defeat had fled to the shores of Britain to escape the advancing Roman hordes. Caesar landed in Britain in 55 BC but did not have things his own way, the capricious English weather proving as much an enemy to him as the Britons, swamping his low-built ships and driving them against each other, wrecking some. In essence, Caesar’s first attempt at subduing the Britons failed miserably, on just about every level, but with his usual talent for turning potentially bad press about him to good (in other words, Julius Caesar was as good a propagandist as Goebbels, if not better) he claimed victory in having successfully sailed “beyond the known world” and come back alive. The Senate agreed, and ordered a twenty-day holiday of thanksgiving in his honour. It wasn’t quite the triumph he had hoped for, but it was a good result for him that papered over the cracks in his campaign, and ignored the fact that he had utterly failed in his objective.

He would not, of course, leave it at that.

The next year, armed with his experience of England and with better-built boats (and also with hundreds of allies, traders who were willing to shift loyalties in return for the chance of earning more than a few sesterces) Caesar was back. This time, whether due to the size of the fleet or as a delaying tactic while they prepared defences, the Britons did not oppose him, and the legions marched inland, where they met a British force in Kent. These guys did offer opposition, but to no avail. Rather oddly, it seems our man Julius had not taken on board (sorry) all the lessons he had learned in the previous year’s campaign, as once again the high tides and wild winds that plagued the English coast damaged his ships, and he had to return to oversee their repair. Having done so, he returned to Kent, where he met his first real challenge.


If we want to frame it in such terms, seeing Caesar as Hitler, trying to advance across England as Der Fuhrer swept across Europe in 1939, then it would seem that Cassivelaunus was the equivalent of perhaps Churchill, or maybe Montgomery. He was the one who marshalled all the English tribes together to resist Caesar, realising that no one clan could hope to defeat him alone. However, such alliances have always been fragile and hard to hold together, and given that Cassivelaunus had defeated the king of the Trilobites, sorry Trinovantes, and caused his son Mind Your Braces sorry Mandubracius to flee to Gaul to seek Caesar’s aid in regaining his father’s kingdom, well, you can see where this is going, can’t you?

As almost always happens in history, and as we’ve certainly seen happen time and time again in Irish history, the deposed and vanquished look to a foreign power to restore them to their throne, in return for which they will sell out their countrymen. And so it was with Mandubracius, who revealed the location of Cassivelaunus’s stronghold, which was then put under siege by Caesar. Although he fought well, and enlisted four other kings to his cause, Cassivelaunus had to surrender, and Mandubracius was crowned king of the Trinovantes, his erstwhile enemy having had to undertake not to engage in war against him. With things wrapped up and unrest simmering back in good old Gaul, Julius Caesar once again bade farewell to the shores of old Blighty and left for friendlier climes.

An interesting point to note here is that, until he beheld them being used in Britain, Caesar had never seen chariots used in war, in fact no Roman had, and the intelligence of these he brought back to the empire surely set in motion their own love affair with the things, which in turn must have been of great assistance to them in winning future battles and wars. He notes, with obvious deep interest, “Their mode of fighting with their chariots is this: firstly, they drive about in all directions and throw their weapons and generally break the ranks of the enemy with the very dread of their horses and the noise of their wheels; and when they have worked themselves in between the troops of horse, leap from their chariots and engage on foot. The charioteers in the meantime withdraw some little distance from the battle, and so place themselves with the chariots that, if their masters are overpowered by the number of the enemy, they may have a ready retreat to their own troops. Thus they display in battle the speed of horse, [together with] the firmness of infantry; and by daily practice and exercise attain to such expertness that they are accustomed, even on a declining and steep place, to check their horses at full speed, and manage and turn them in an instant and run along the pole, and stand on the yoke, and thence betake themselves with the greatest celerity to their chariots again.”

He also reported back on other aspects of Britain, such as the geographical layout (such of it as he got to see anyway) and the climate: “The climate is more temperate than in Gaul, the colds being less severe. The island is triangular in its form, and one of its sides is opposite to Gaul. One angle of this side, which is in Kent, whither almost all ships from Gaul are directed, [looks] to the east; the lower looks to the south. This side extends about 500 miles. Another side lies toward Hispania and the west, on which part is Ireland, less, as is reckoned, than Britain, by one half: but the passage from it into Britain is of equal distance with that from Gaul. In the middle of this voyage, is an island, which is called Mona: many smaller islands besides are supposed to lie there, of which islands some have written that at the time of the winter solstice it is night there for thirty consecutive days. We, in our inquiries about that matter, ascertained nothing, except that, by accurate measurements with water, we perceived the nights to be shorter there than on the continent. The length of this side, as their account states, is 700 miles. The third side is toward the north, to which portion of the island no land is opposite; but an angle of that side looks principally toward Germany. This side is considered to be 800 miles in length. Thus the whole island is about 2,000 miles in circumference.”

He had things to say too about the people:[I] “The interior portion of Britain is inhabited by those of whom they say that it is handed down by tradition that they were born in the island itself: the maritime portion by those who had passed over from the country of the Belgae for the purpose of plunder and making war; almost all of whom are called by the names of those states from which being sprung they went thither, and having waged war, continued there and began to cultivate the lands. The number of the people is countless, and their buildings exceedingly numerous, for the most part very like those of the Gauls… They do not regard it lawful to eat the hare, and the cock, and the goose; they, however, breed them for amusement and pleasure.

The most civilised of all these nations are they who inhabit Kent, which is entirely a maritime district, nor do they differ much from the Gallic customs. Most of the inland inhabitants do not sow corn, but live on milk and flesh, and are clad with skins. All the Britons, indeed, dye themselves with woad, which occasions a bluish colour, and thereby have a more terrible appearance in fight. They wear their hair long, and have every part of their body shaved except their head and upper lip. Ten and even twelve have wives common to them, and particularly brothers among brothers, and parents among their children; but if there be any issue by these wives, they are reputed to be the children of those by whom respectively each was first espoused when a virgin.”[/I]

Shipbuilding: “[T]he keels and ribs were made of light timber, then, the rest of the hull of the ships was wrought with wicker work, and covered over with hides.”

Religion: "The institution [of Druidism] is thought to have originated in Britain, and to have been thence introduced into Gaul; and even now those who wish to become more accurately acquainted with it, generally repair thither, for the sake of learning it.”

And resources: “[T]he number of cattle is great. They use either brass or iron rings, determined at a certain weight, as their money. Tin is produced in the midland regions; in the maritime, iron; but the quantity of it is small: they employ brass, which is imported. There, as in Gaul, is timber of every description, except beech and fir.“

For all his bluster however, the greatest general the world had ever seen since Alexander the Great proved unable to subdue Britain, leaving without so much as a Roman garrison in place, although he did sponsor two separate kings to rule over Britain, and in that way made it part of the Roman Empire, if in name only. It would be almost another century before Rome would try again to take on this mysterious land beyond the known limits of the world.

The British would probably have been conquered by helpless laughter alone, had they seen the so-called preparations for war laid by the unhinged emperor Caligula, who lined his troops up at the sea facing in the direction of Britain and ordered them, without prejudice and without mercy or quarter, on pain of death to… gather seashells! Yeah, well, the guy was a nut, we all know that. You only have to read a little history to see what he was like.


Or watch “I Claudius”

I enjoyed the BBC series This Sceptred Isle and bought the book .
The book became tatty I’ve now the audio version narrated by the excellent Anna Massey .

I never saw that. It was based in a more modern setting, wasn’t it? I did watch a film about Caligula; probably somewhat inaccurate and sensationalised (or maybe not) but it was pretty harrowing to watch. Kind of a cautionary tale against a) someone having absolute power and b) madmen getting into that position. In another of my journals, one on serial killers, I note some of his story and it seems to be that at one point he got really sick and thought he might die. All the senators - or some of them - offered their lives to the gods if they would spare him, and when he recovered he demanded they follow through on their promise, so they all had to commit suicide! Nice guy!

BBC This Sceptred Isle covers 2000 years of British history a monumental award winning series.
I’ve the boxed audio addition from Roman - 1959
Also another 1959 - 1979
I often use it as an Encyclopedia to refer to a particular era.
Honestly it’s amazing one of the best things to come out of the BBC


I’ll have to check it out. I very much enjoyed Simon Schama’s A History of Britain also a BBC production.
His style of presentation was compelling yet laid back.

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Yes do look out for it, you can buy separate eras , they regularly turned up on EBAY

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I’ll do that… thanks :+1:

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Yes Schama is excellent. Also David Starkey’s Monarchy; that was tremendous. There’s a guy does Scottish history - Neil something? - and he’s very good too. I also enjoy Lucy Worsely’s “historical fibs” series, though her voice (lisp) is hard to ignore. Entertaining show though.


The next, proper invasion would be prosecuted by, again, one of the greatest Roman emperors ever known, and here’s a clue as to its success or failure: it’s gone down in history as the Claudian conquest of Britain.

It’s one thing to set up client - which is to say, puppet - rulers in another country, but unless you have a way of reinforcing your wishes (in other words, unless you have an actual force that will ensure they’re carried out) there’s nothing to stop your new king being deposed by another who seizes power.

And that’s exactly what happened once Julius Caesar left Britain. Wars broke out - or, I should probably say, resumed, as the Britons had been at war with each other for yonks, only ostensibly joining forces to oppose the invader - and our man Mandy Brunches sorry Mandubracius was unceremoniously (or perhaps with great ceremony; it amounted to the same thing) kicked off the throne of Britain, the throne basically given to him by Rome, and another chieftain, Cataractus sorry Caracatus had taken his place.

The problem here for Rome was not the deposing of Mandubracius; his tribe had already fallen out of favour with the empire for the heinous sin of allowing a stronger enemy to defeat and supplant him, and they left him to his fate. What they did not take kindly to was that chieftain ignoring the edict of Rome, which held that Verica, of the Mastur - sorry Atrebates clan was the officially sanctioned ruler of Britain, and taking the throne for himself, in the process exiling poor old Verica. Who, as had his predecessor, went crying to the emperor, demanding his throne back.

With the supposed intention of reasserting the claim to the throne of Verica, Claudius set sail in 43 AD for the shores of merry old England, to have a frank exchange of views and see if they couldn’t sort this out over tea and crumpets. Possibly.

Now it wasn’t just a case of taking their lands and resources due to the Hillary principle, ie because it was there. No, now it was personal. Caratacus had given the finger to the world’s mightiest empire, and the world’s mightiest empire did not take that sort of insult lying down.


Probably one of the first great leaders of the Britons, and given how he stood up to Claudius, possibly one of their first real heroes. Caratacus was a member, and later leader of the Catavellauni, one of the two most powerful and respected tribes in Britain at that time. He was a prince, son of the king Cunobelinus, taken under the wing of his uncle Epaticcus, who was responsible for expanding the territory of the Catavellauni as far as that of their rivals, the Atebates, whose leader, Verica, as already explained, had been chosen by Rome as king.

That didn’t matter a red deer’s jawbone to Epaticcus though, and after his death in 35 AD his protege carried on his work, eventually defeating the Atebates, exiling their king and setting himself up as ruler of Britain. After Claudius invaded Caratacus had enough sense to see that the only way to deal with the Roman legions was with guerilla warfare, and in this he was quite successful. For a time. But unlike Julius Caesar ninety years ago, Claudius had come to Britain with the very definite intention of conquering it, and to that end brought with him three legions, as well as other allies, so Caratacus would have been well outnumbered and would not have stood a chance in open, direct combat with the battle-hardened and well-armed and armoured Roman legionnaires.

Not surprisingly, Caratacus’s stronghold at Camulodunon - where the city of Colchester now stands - became the focus of the Roman efforts, and he and his brother fought but lost two major battles, the Battle of the River Medway (no I said MEDway) and the Battle of the River Thames, where his brother was killed.

Caratacus could only hold out so long, and eventually he was defeated and fled to Wales, where he took up the fight again, but when his wife and daughter were captured by the Romans and his other brothers surrendered, Caratacus legged it to Yorkshire (then called Brigantes) seeking sanctuary there with its ruler, Queen Cartman I mean Cartimandua. She, however, betrayed and sold him out and he went back to Rome in chains.

Sentenced to death, he earned himself an unlikely reprieve due to the eloquence of his speech, which he made before the Senate, proving, perhaps surprisingly to them, that he, and indeed all Britons, might not be the unprincipled, ignorant barbarians they had been told they were. Caratacus was allowed to live in peace in Rome, and marvelling at its wealth and opulence, wondered why such people would covet a crappy land like Britain?

Not on your nelly! Living engines of war

If, when Julius Caesar had first visited Britain, Romans had never before seen chariots being used in war, they were able to repay the compliment by bringing as part of their invasion force something no Briton had ever laid eyes on: elephants. And not just any elephants (though the mere sight of the beasts was enough to send the Britons into a panicked rout) - war elephants. Elephants armoured for war, carrying men on their backs who fired spears down from their great height advantage. This was enough to force the surrender of most of the tribes of southeast Britain, and the conquest continued apace.

By 47 AD there was a Roman governor of Britain, Publius Ostorius Scapula, and he launched an invasion of Wales. The Welsh, however, proved harder to conquer than the English, and Claudius decided to leave them to it. What, after all, was there of worth in Wales? Nero, when he came to the throne, thought differently, and consequently many Welsh druids were killed when he had the new governor, Quintus Veranius, invade Anglesey. He was almost directly responsible for the creation and rise of one of Britain’s first true legendary figures, and as you might expect, she was a woman.

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Boudica (died c. 60/61 AD)

Boudica’s story is that of one woman being pushed way, way too far, and an arrogant, overbearing occupier who believed he was invincible, had no reason to fear a mere female, and acted accordingly. It is surely also one of regret for Rome, partial triumph for Britain and a legend for the ages. Boudica did not start out as a rebel, far from it. She and her husband had signed treaties with Claudius during the conquest of Britain in 43 AD and had remained loyal to his successor, Nero. In fact, her husband, Prasutagus, was such an arselick that when he died he left half of his kingdom to his two daughters, and the other half to Nero. I suppose it’s expensive running an empire, and every little sesterce helps.

Nero however didn’t see it this way, and sent his emissary to take the lot. When Boudica protested that these were not the terms of her late husband’s will, said functionary is reported probably not to have said, “are you calling the emperor a liar? That’s treason, that is!” and proceeded to have her whipped. Humiliating enough, you would think, for a woman who was now queen of the Iceni tribe, and for someone who had thrown in her lot with the very people who were now abusing her. But no, apparently it was not enough. Spotting Boudica’s two daughters, the unnamed centurion directed his men to rape them, which they did. In the final analysis, and understandably, this would have been the last straw. It would lead to the first proper revolt in Britain under Roman rule.

Waking the Lion: the Revolt of Boudica

“'But now, it is not as a woman descended from noble ancestry, but as one of the people that I am avenging lost freedom, my scourged body, the outraged chastity of my daughters. Roman lust has gone so far that not our very persons, nor even age or virginity, are left unpolluted. But heaven is on the side of a righteous vengeance; a legion which dared to fight has perished; the rest are hiding themselves in their camp, or are thinking anxiously of flight. They will not sustain even the din and the shout of so many thousands, much less our charge and our blows. If you weigh well the strength of the armies, and the causes of the war, you will see that in this battle you must conquer or die. This is a woman’s resolve; as for men, they may live and be slaves.”

I’ve said it in the History of Ireland journal, and it holds true for most peoples: you can only push them so far, and if you think a populace is so beaten into submission that you can ride roughshod (perhaps literally) over them, then all I can say is you have not been reading your history, my son, and you had better sleep lightly, because when you least expect it, when you feel at your most secure and are at your most arrogant, that’s when they’ll come for you.

Believing the Britons no threat (he had, after all, subdued their entire island) Nero was surely taken by surprise by the uprising that broke out, and cost so many Roman lives. Gathering all the disaffected tribes to her - for she was not the only one with whom the empire had broken faith - she marched on Camulodunum, the Roman capital as already noted, modern-day Colchester.

Here many Roman veterans had retired, and the people there had been mistreated by them, forced to build a temple to Claudius at their own expense, so they were just in the mood to kick some Roman butt. All they needed was an impetus, which arrived in the form of Boudica and her allies. Laying siege to the town they took it easily, destroying a large bronze statue of Nero and knocking its head off, which Boudica took as a trophy.

The rebels scored another huge victory when a Roman legion, coming to relieve the town, was met by them and roundly defeated, leaving its few survivors to fly for their lives. On hearing of the comprehensive defeat, and of the fall of Camulodunum, Catus Deciamus, the Roman procurator decided Gaul was a much safer place to be, and departed English shores. With the rebels on the way, the governor, Gaiuis Seutonius Paulinus, decided to abandon Londinium (anyone?) and evacuated all his people from the city, everyone left behind tortured and slaughtered by the rebels when they arrived. Whether they discriminated between their own people and the Romans is not made clear. What is made clear, apparently, is that being a woman did not imbue in Boudica any pity or sympathy, or indeed weakness shown towards others of her sex.

The Roman historian Dio - that’s Cassius, not Ronnie James! - tells us that the Britons were not taking prisoners, slaughtering, hanging, burning as they came, and that the noblest of the Roman women were impaled on spikes (that’s a real pain in the arse. Sorry) and as if this wasn’t enough, also had their breasts cut off and sewn to their mouths. Must have felt like right tits. And left tits. Okay, I’ll stop now.

As, eventually, did Boudica, whose revolt was of course doomed to failure, if a glorious one. Once the Romans regrouped, there was no way a ragtag band of pretty much untrained and undisciplined barbarian warriors were going to get one over on the cream of the empire, and this was only going to end one way.

As ever in such battles, he who controls the terrain controls the battle, and from Scotland to Agincourt we’ve seen that strength in numbers can mean nothing if the territory is used to best advantage. Despite being outnumbered by Boudica’s forces by a factor of, say some historians, twenty to one, others claim thirty to one, Suetonius had fought many a campaign whereas this was Boudica’s first. Not a good time to be learning!

A seasoned soldier, though not of course a native of Britain, Suetonius selected a narrow gorge with a forest behind him opening out into a wide plain. The forest protected him from an attack from the rear while the gorge of course meant his forces could not be outflanked. In contrast to the well-armed and drilled legionnaires, Boudica’s people were poorly armed, their tribes having been disarmed previously by Suetonius prior to their revolt. The Roman governor disdainfully told his men “Ignore the racket made by these savages. There are more women than men in their ranks. They are not soldiers—they’re not even properly equipped. We’ve beaten them before and when they see our weapons and feel our spirit, they’ll crack. Stick together. Throw the javelins, then push forward: knock them down with your shields and finish them off with your swords. Forget about plunder. Just win and you’ll have everything.”

It was a good speech, and in truth it seems that overconfidence was Boudica’s undoing. The tribes even brought their families along and set them in wagons behind the battle lines, promising them a mighty victory they could enjoy. A real day out, huh? Except of course, it didn’t quite turn out that way.

Perhaps naively, perhaps desperately, perhaps arrogantly, the warrior queen led her army in a frontal attack, playing right into Suetonius’s hands. Javelins launched by the Romans at the Britons killed many and damaged the shields of others, forcing them to discard them and thereby leave themselves defenceless.

The legions attacked, and once their cavalry joined the melee it was all over for the Britons, who tried to flee but found their exit blocked by their own wagons. A mass slaughter ensued, as even the women, children and animals were butchered by the victorious Romans. Boudica herself is said to have taken poison rather than be captured.

A rather amusing side-note concerns a Roman centurion who was believed to have robbed his legion of a share in the triumph by not turning up for the battle and who fell on his own sword in disgrace. His name? Poenius Posthumus. :laughing:

Despite her defeat, Boudica is recognised as a true hero of Britain, an example of the fighting spirit and a role model for women in a time when they did little but support their men. Indeed, her revolt shocked Nero so deeply that he seriously considered pulling his forces out of Britain, but decided to let them remain, not wishing to lose face in front of the Senate. It would be another nine years before Britain would rise again in revolt, and this time it would be in the north.


Having defeated Boudica comprehensively and shown Britain that it was unwise to awaken the wrath of Rome, Suetonius pillaged the land around, carrying out reprisals against anyone suspected of having supported, agreed with or perhaps even heard of the warrior queen, or who he just didn’t like the look of. His blood was up, and Nero decided so too was his time in Britain, the emperor removing him before he could do more harm than good, and provoke further rebellions. It was, however, a little late for that.

Rumblings in the North: the revolt of Venutius and Cartimandua

You’ll remember the second name; she was the queen of the Brigantes who delivered up poor old Caratacus to his hated enemies when he went seeking shelter from her. So why did she and her husband turn against Rome? Well, apparently it was all down to marital strife. No, I said marital, not martial, though of course that figured in the deal too.

See, apparently Cartimandua had lost interest in her husband and had abandoned Venutius to go with, of all people, his armour bearer, a guy called John. well no actually he was called Vellocatus (didn’t anyone in this age have a name without ten or twelve letters? Sounds like a very soft kitten, doesn’t it?) Hey, at least she chose someone whose name began with the same letter, so that if she and Venutius had ever carved their names on the bark of a tree (or more likely, in the skull of some enemy) the sentiment would still stand. Anyway Venutius initially went to war against his old lady because she had set Vellocatus up on the throne that was his, you know, by right. The little woman was, however, well protected by her Roman masters, but Venutius wasn’t having any of that.

History does not record their conversation but it’s entirely unlikely he said “I’m not having any of that!” while she smiled sweetly and invited him “Come at me, hubby dear. I’ll wipe you out,” and that he responded “Oh yeah? You and what army?” and that she grinned and said “This one.” Even if she had, this guy was no coward, or alternatively, thought only with his sword, and so might have snapped back “Think you can hide behind them? I’ll do you, and your bloody Roman lapdogs!” And so he did. Or tried to.

To nobody’s surprise - and no doubt his wife’s delight - he was quickly beaten, but that was in the AD 50s, and by almost the time of the 70s he was ready again. This time the Romans weren’t so quick to come to Cartimandua’s rescue, being a trifle more concerned with matters at home. Nero had finally pissed off and died, having burned Rome almost to the ground before he went, and in that year, 69 AD, no less than four emperors came to the throne in quick succession, each gone almost before he could warm his arse on the seat. This, as you can imagine, caused great unrest and political turmoil in the empire, and Britain was not seen as a priority. Thus, when Venutius attacked his ex again, they really weren’t that interested and thought best to leave them to it, no point getting involved in petty family squabbles.

In the end, all they could do was get Cartimandua out of England, and this left Venutius possibly beating his chest and standing on some high mountain roaring “YES! I am the BEST!” and according to some sources (all right: according to me) giving Rome what was traditionally referred to in Britain as the Finger.

They weren’t going to stand for that.

And they didn’t.

Now, you see, the problem here is that the only written accounts that we have left are those made by Roman historians such as Tacitus and Dio, and invariably, and unsurprisingly, these are written with a strong Roman bias. So mostly you get a version of “the brave Roman army pushed the barbarians back” and so forth, leaving us with little hard detail - indeed, any detail - about the nuts and bolts of the battles. But from these sources and archaeological finds it appears that Venutius was relatively easily beaten, though his people, the Brigantes, made life tough for the occupiers for the next few decades. The Scots, too, rose in revolt but that’s another story, and one we’re not concerned with here, though it does deserve a short mention.

So here it is.

Suffice to say, by around 87 AD Britain was more or less completely under Roman control, and for the first time the people of Britain felt what it was like to be under the heel of an oppressor. It wouldn’t be the last time.

Mother Should I Build a Wall? Scotland Attacks

Although Britain as an island had been subdued by Rome, they certainly did not have it their own way, and rebellions and uprisings continued to break out for another eighty or so years. Much of this resistance to Roman rule came from the far north, the area they called Caledonia but which we know as Scotland. While the Scots - Picts, mostly, at the time - had no love for Britons (Englishmen) and there would be strife between the two for centuries (and even still is, to some extent) they weren’t going to sit back and let this foreign power invade their homeland, and they fought fiercely, more savagely and with more abandon than Romans had ever seen, even with the English. Although this journal isn’t concerned with the history of Scotland, as such, it is impossible to imagine the eventual forced withdrawal of the Roman Empire from Britain without the constant attacks on them from there taking place.

This so concerned Rome that in 122 the new emperor, Hadrian, commissioned the building of a wall at the northern border, which would effectively provide a barrier between the “barbarians” and his people.

Hadrian’s Wall, as it came to be rather unoriginally known, is still there today, stretching from Wallsend on the river Tyne to Bowness-on-Solway, more or less bisecting the island from west to east and cutting off Scotland from what is now England. Of course it’s a ruin now, and a tourist attraction, but that any of it at all survived is testament to the prowess of Roman engineering and construction. The wall was, and remains, seventy-three miles long, and originally was said to have reached to twelve feet in height, though of course most of that has now fallen and it’s much lower.

Hadrian’s Wall marked the “boundary of the civilised part of Britannia” (as they came to call England) and the unconquered, barbarian, mostly unknown land of Caledonia, Scotland, though it is built entirely in England and does not form a true border between the two countries.

Of course, the wall was also a physical representation and reminder of the might of the Roman Empire in Britain. Its construction provided employment for thousands of soldiers who might otherwise have been idle and restless, and helped to control the flow of commerce, and people, through that part of the empire.

It wasn’t just a wall though, being supplemented by a number of forts and milehouses along its length, staffed by Roman soldiers. It took six years and three legions - approximately 15,000 soldiers - to build. After three more emperors had unsuccessfully attempted to subdue the Scots, the last of them, Septimius Severus, withdrew to Hadrian’s Wall around 211 and it became the northernmost border of the Roman Empire in Britain. Even so, Picts breached it in 180, killing the commanding officer. Roman soldiers and officers were beginning to resent being in Britain, and a withdrawal was on the cards as events further afield began to occupy the empire’s attention.

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But first…

(Note: I have no idea if this is a real flag that was used or not, but it’s pretty damn cool, isn’t it?)

The Britannic Empire (286 - 296)

There were two things every man needed to possess in order to progress, even survive, in the Roman Empire, and those were ambition and a sense of ruthlessness. If you were squeamish, if you were weak, if you were idle or just not prepared to do what needed to be done, you didn’t last long. Most of the emperors had risen to power by one of two means: bribery or murder, often both. Even when there was a clear line of succession to the throne, a prospective claimant could be unseated or even prevented ascending if his enemies - often from within his own family - were powerful or rich enough, or had enough support to oppose him. Thus, while Greece was the world’s first democracy, Rome was anything but, and the men who sat on the throne were forever restive, anticipating - sometimes with cause, sometimes without - a challenge to their reign.

It was enough to drive you mad. And some emperors did indeed descend into madness, such as Nero and Caligula, and surely others too. But then again, it could be seen perhaps as a good thing that, unlike the line of royal succession a millennium later in England, in effect any Roman could rise to be emperor, somewhat like the American presidency. Of course, he usually had to be from the right background, but theoretically, once enough money had crossed enough palms or enough knives had been sunk into enough backs, the way was often clear for a man to take power who should, and often did, have no such claim to the throne.

Thus it was with Marcus Aurelius Mausaeus Carausius, who was a commoner who had clawed his way up the ranks of the Roman military and was given command of keeping the seas around France clear of Saxon and Frankish raiders. However accusations that he was in fact in league with the pirates, that he allowed them to loot and then they paid him a percentage, in a sort of perhaps ancient foreshadowing of the Mafia, led to the order being given for his execution by the then-emperor, Maximian. In response, Carausius declared himself “Emperor in the North” (shades of Game of Thrones, huh?) and with the fleet at his command he was able to back this up. Maximian sent a force to take back Britain from him in 288 or 289 but suffered a defeat, and Carausius remained emperor of that part of the world.

He also made alliances with the natives, who were at this point weary of Roman rule, and set himself up as Restitutor Britanniae (Restorer of Britain) and Genius Britanniae (Spirit of Britain). In this way he presumably hoped to show or prove that he was the great liberator who would release Britain from the yoke of its longtime oppressor, and allow them some form of autonomy. Whether he had any intention of doing this or not is unknown, but he needed the support of the Britons and, like most Romans, was ready to say what was needed. He could always go back on his word later.

He therefore set up what became known as the Britannic Empire, which was not to last long, with the end beginning in 293, when the emperor Constantius Chlorus cut Carausius off from his Gaul allies by besieging the port of Gesoriacum, modern Boulougne-sur-Mer, and invading Batavia. After seven years in power, Carausius fell victim to the favourite Roman pastime, assassinate-my-leader, when his treasurer, Allectus, did just that, taking the title of emperor for himself. He was not to hold it long, as an invasion fleet arrived in 296, quickly routing his army and once again Londinium was the scene of a massacre. The Britannic Empire had lasted ten short years, and direct Roman rule was once again established over the island.

Barbarians at the Gates: The End of Roman Rule in Britain, and the Beginning of the Fall of the Roman Empire

I’m sure that, to someone living at the time, especially those living under Roman rule, it must have seemed completely inconceivable that this might empire could ever fall, but as history tells us, nothing lasts forever, and while Rome may not have been built in a day, for an empire that had lasted a thousand years she certainly fell within a couple of hundred. Incursions by German (Teutonic) tribes such as the Goths and the Visigoths and the Franks proved too strong for the empire to resist, perhaps as a result of being spread too thin, or perhaps due to internal politics or bad management, or arrogance and overconfidence, or bad strategy. I’m sure scholars have many reasons why Rome fell, but the barbarians didn’t care why, they just intended it should.

And it would.

Certainly, internal power struggles which often erupted into civil war did not help the cause of the Romans, and to some degree the Visigoths and their allies had only to sit back and watch the greatest empire the world had ever known tear itself apart, though of course they made sure they did some of the tearing themselves. As the situation became increasingly desperate for Rome, they began to consolidate their forces to defend the empire against the encroaching hordes, and this meant that Britain became less a priority, as troops were shipped back home to assist in the defence of the motherland.

By about 383 the north and west of Britain had been cleared of any Roman presence, and around 407 Constantine III took what troops remained from Britain to aid in the defence of Rome (or actually, to try to set himself up as emperor), but neither he nor the currently-serving emperor, Honarius, could prevent the Visigoths breaking through and Rome was sacked in 410, effectively bringing to an end the mighty Roman Empire.

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aka Caradoc.

Chapter II: Dying Groans, Birthing Cries - A Nation is Born

Timeline: 446 - 770

After the end of the Roman Empire Britain entered the medieval age, the Britons once again faced attack from the north, from the Picts, and appealed to the emperor for help, in a letter which has been recorded by history as “The Groans of the Britons”, but he was rather busy fending off barbarians. Historians argue (as they invariably do) over what was in the letter, and what was the reply, if any, but a part of it seems to have been this:

To Agitius [or Aetius], thrice consul: the groans of the Britons. […] The barbarians drive us to the sea, the sea drives us to the barbarians; between these two means of death, we are either killed or drowned.

The message is believed to have been sent between 446 - 454, and when it was not responded to (or was, but not favourably; at any rate, when no assistance was sent) the Britons battled, were invaded by and eventually defeated by German troops from the region of Saxony, known as Saxons. On their settlement of Britain, and in order to distinguish the new inhabitants from their German cousins, the new race were called Anglo-Saxons, as some had come from Anglia (not to be confused with the later English county) on the border between Denmark and Germany.

Saxon Violence: The Second Conquest of Britain

Though Hitler failed in his attempt to conquer, or even invade England, Germans did succeed, albeit fifteen hundred years before the dictator was even born. As you might expect, with the withdrawal of Roman troops and the end of Roman rule, Britain descended into a kind of anarchy, with kings elected who had no interest in anything other than keeping power, ignoring the suffering of their people as famine gripped the land. According to the British monk Gildas: “Britain has kings but they are tyrants; she has judges but they are wicked; they plunder and terrorise the innocent, they defend and protect the guilty and thieving, they have many wives, whores and adulteresses, swear false oaths, tell lies, reward thieves, sit with murderous men, despise the humble, their commanders are ‘enemies of God’”; the list is long. Oath breaking and the absence of just judgements for ordinary people were mentioned a number of times. British leadership, everywhere, was immoral and the cause of the “ruin of Britain.”

Into this chaos came the Saxons, and they were determined to put their stamp on the country, and as the English were to prove, to a degree, centuries later in Ireland, one way to do that was to destroy the culture and traditions of the people you are trying to supplant. A very effective way of doing that, in turn, is by abolishing their native tongue and substituting your own.

You’re Speaking my Language! The Decline of the Celtic Tongue in Britain

Up until about 400, most people in what was then Britain spoke the Celtic language, their own version which was called Brittonic. When the Saxons arrived they spoke German, which in time would metamorphose into Old English, and become the dominant language in the country. A form of British Latin had also been spoken, which is not surprising, as if nothing else, constant hassle by Roman soldiers and governors and functionaries would have meant that the Britons would have picked up at least some sense of the language of the occupiers, and that in some places, perhaps even merely as an expedient so that one could understand the other and avoid unfortunate incidents (what is the Latin for “Your mother hangs around with sailors” anyway?) it may have been adopted as the dominant language. It’s also possible that it may have been forced upon the populace, as it’s hard to give orders if the people you’re talking to don’t understand what you’re saying.

However, with the decline of the Roman Empire and the withdrawal of Roman troops, and the end of Roman rule in Britain this became less and less popular and eventually faded out altogether. The later establishment of the Christian Church in England would have prompted a revival, or resurgence of Latin, and hastened the death of the Celtic language, its final death-throes occurring when the Saxons arrived. I’ve always wondered why Old English bears little or no resemblance to modern English, and now I know: it’s essentially German. The other three countries in, as it were, the British Isles continued to retain the Celtic languages, and even today Wales and Scotland speak their own tongue (the latter a sort of bastardisation of the English one) and of course Ireland was eventually driven so far under the English boot that all but the most rural and western areas now speak English.

What’s it worth to ya mate? Buying national identity

Might seem strange indeed, but it appears that one theory advanced for the success of the Anglo-Saxon takeover of Britain points to the possibility of people being technically bribed, or if you prefer, incentivised to change their allegiance. The question has often been asked, down through the ages, what price a man’s life? Hell, Jesus is even reputed to have said “what shall it proft a man if he gain the whole world but lose his soul?” Well, according to the ancient system of personal value practiced by the Saxons, it could profit a man quite nicely thank you, depending on how rich or important you were.

The weregild was not, as you might at first think, an exclusive club for those of a lycanthropic bent, but was in fact the established “man price”, which was levied on every man in the kingdom. This meant that, should someone be killed and his family seek restitution, there was a ready-made scale by which to award compensation. Another story goes - I can’t remember from where - that a man is asked to tell a king, to a penny, what is he worth? Obviously not using the weregild system, he replies that Jesus was sold for thirty pieces of gold, so a king - who could not, and should not, put himself on the same level as our Saviour - would be worth twenty-nine. All very well reasoned, but in reality, the Saxon system had a king valued at thirty thousand pieces of gold, or thrymsa, as they were called in sixth century Saxony, with an archbishop half that, and a bishop slightly more than half that (8,000) all the way down to the common men, where a “prospering” peasant was only worth 2,000 and a non-prospering Welshman a snip at only 80 shillings.

This system, then, the theory goes, may have been used to attract Britons to foreswear their Britishness and become instead Anglo-Saxons, by which they increased their weregild by one hundred percent, an Anglo-Saxon man being worth twice as much as a Briton. This naturally increased their social status; if you’re worth more, then you must be better, so why are you clinging to those old ties to Britain when you could be like us, living it up as an Anglo-Saxon? Not to mention that I’m sure those who did not “climb up” were then looked down upon by those who had. Kind of reminds me of the Protestant Ascendancy, though without the cash incentive. Or, indeed, any chance to rise in the ranks.

Those who just did not want to, as it were, take the king’s shilling (see my History of Ireland journal under Oliver Cromwell) may have emigrated, most of them moving to Brittany in France, originally called, believe it or not, Armorica (but not the united states of) and changed to reflect the influx of Britons. No doubt there were plenty of wars, skirmishes, forced resettlements and good old fashioned plague (always a reliable source for cutting down populations) too, but one way or another by about the sixth to eighth century the Anglo-Saxons were well in control of Britain, or at least the part that would become England.

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Emergence of a Kingdom: From Britannia to England

It was under the Anglo-Saxons that England was born, as various chieftains claimed areas of the country and renamed them, giving rise to the first English kingdoms, the names of many of which survive today in English counties.

The Kingdom of Kent

It might be hard for English people to contemplate a small, market county like the so-called “Garden of England” forming the first proper post-Roman settlement in the country, but it is said to have been the first real English kingdom. Settled by two of the very first Saxon chieftains, Hengist and Horsa, two brothers who, finding their native Germany a little overrun with warlords and would-be kings, answered the call in 449 or 450 from Britain for assistance against the marauding Picts and Scots. Warriors born, the Saxons were easily able to defeat the northern invaders, bringing 1,600 men with them. This however turned out to be a two-edged sword, and the Britons soon had reason to regret having sought help from abroad.

The Picts and Scots had been so easy to defeat, and yet the Britons so unable to fight them before the arrival of the Saxons, that Hengist and Horsa looked at each other, looked at England, nodded and said “We’ll have some of that” and proceeded to relay details of how puny and ripe for conquest these Britons were. So in the event, Britain swapped one occupying force for another, and the Saxons came over in their droves. They were clever though, careful not to reveal their true intentions at once; coming as saviours, defenders, paid mercenaries to protect the Britons from the wild Scots, they quickly found a way to quarrel with their erstwhile allies, claiming they had not been paid, and made alliances with the far more warlike Picts and Scots, joining them in oppression of the Britons.


The man who had inadvertently opened the door to invaders was the so-called King of Britain, Vortigern. He does not seem to have been overly popular, accused of incest - he is said to have had a son by his own daughter - faithlessness (though that might be due to his being essentially tricked by Hengist and Horsa) and, well, unlucky, which would be for the same reason I assume. He is linked to the myth of Dinas Emrys, recounted in another of my journals, which states that when a great lord (presumably meant to be him) wished to build his castle at this rocky hillock but it kept collapsing, Merlin (yeah, that’s how much we can rely on this tale - a fictional wizard. But it gets better…) advised him to have the foundations excavated, and they found two dragons asleep there, one red, one white. When the dragons were disturbed from their sleep they fought, the white triumphing, showing that England, the white dragon, would prevail against the red one of Wales.

Vortigern is supposed to have married Hengest’s daughter, Rowena, giving him most of Kent in exchange (hope she was worth it!) and is said to have perished in “fire from heaven” brought down by the prayers of the monk Germanus (later Saint Germanus) of Auxerre, because sure why not? I imagine incest doesn’t go down too well with holy men, but as usual there’s no real way to verify these things, and he could have been hit by lightning, or died by the sword, or who knows? Nobody seems to have a good word for the guy though. Here’s what the foremost English historian of the twelfth century, William of Malmesbury, had to say about the first King of the Britons:

At this time Vortigern was King of Britain; a man calculated neither for the field nor the council, but wholly given up to the lusts of the flesh, the slave of every vice: a character of insatiable avarice, ungovernable pride, and polluted by his lusts. To complete the picture, he had defiled his own daughter, who was lured to the participation of such a crime by the hope of sharing his kingdom, and she had borne him a son. Regardless of his treasures at this dreadful juncture, and wasting the resources of the kingdom in riotous living, he was awake only to the blandishments of abandoned women.

I guess the Britons were still getting the hang of this king lark, but it seems odd that Vortigern was king, then succeeded by his son Vortimer (sounds like something out of Harry Potter, doesn’t it?) and when he was killed, dad snatched back the throne. I’ve never heard before of a line of royal re-succession, but that seems to be how they did it back then. Not that it mattered much, as Vortigern was defeated and replaced by Hengist, the throne (I guess basically of Kent) passing from father to son to father to father-in-law. Hey, there are even historians who think the name Vortigern doesn’t even refer to an actual individual, but stands as a sort of honorific or title. If he was real, I bet he’s rolling in his grave now. Well, rattling. Well, probably gone to dust by now. But I bet those dust particles are agitated.

Horsa didn’t last too long in merry old England, going down at the Battle of Aylesford (455), as related in the ninth-century Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: This year Hengest and Horsa fought with Wurtgern the king on the spot that is called Aylesford. His brother Horsa being there slain, Hengest afterwards took to the kingdom with his son Esc.

Press escape, huh? Sorry. Hengist is said then to have enlisted help from Saxony from his son, Octa (no, as far as I know he only had the two arms) who settled in Northumberland while Hengist ravaged the southeast, sparing “neither age nor condition nor sex”, which I think we can take to mean men, women and children, old and young, sick and well. He established the Kingdom of Kent, comprising Middlesex, Essex and parts of Surrey, and fixed his royal seat at Canterbury, from where he ruled for forty years until his death in 488 or thereabouts.

News of his success soon spread back home, and the Saxons, Angles and Jutes - all more or less the same and going under the one title of either Saxons or Angles - began arriving in numbers. The next kingdom to be set up was that of South Saxony. The Angles were so eager to come to Britain that they all did, leaving their country all but deserted and settling in (anyone?) Anglia, as well as Northumbria and Mercia.

Esc seems not to have been the greatest of kings, nothing like his father anyhow, and under his son Octa part of Kent was lost, taken or acceded to the East Saxons, who took Middlesex and Essex and formed the kingdom of East Saxon, or Essex. To some degree, under successive kings it seems that Kent could indeed have been called “the sleeping kingdom”. Esc’s son reigned for twenty-two years but seems to have done nothing of note, while his son reigned for ten years less but did as much, or as little, all leading up to AEthelbert, who appears to have been the first king of Kent to actually get his arse off the throne and do something for his kingdom.

What this was initially was to make war upon Ceawlin, king of Wessex, in 568, but his army was defeated and he retreated home to Kent. He then had to acknowledge Ceawlin’s authority over not only his but all the Saxon kingdoms, affording him the title of bretwalda, or Britain-ruler. Later (it isn’t clear when) he led the armies of other Saxon states (again, no information but we can assume East Anglia and Sussex were part of his “association”, as it is described) and this time Ceawilin was defeated, Aethelbert taking the title and also helping himself to the throne of Mercia. Aware that his allies might turn against him though, he cleverly returned the Mercian throne to Webba, son of its founder, Crida, but more or less as a puppet king.

More to the point, he almost single-handed converted his people to Christianity. This was due to several factors. The Saxons were a warrior people, loyal to their god Woden, god of war, and Thor, god of thunder, hoping to win valour in battle and enter Valhalla. But as their enemies diminished (despite still regional skirmishes, battles and even small wars among the kingdoms) and the Saxons began to settle down, like the Vikings who would follow them in three or four centuries’ time, and consider more the benefits of farming and commerce than war and plunder, the idea of paying homage to a god of blood and violence began to appeal less. Also, their people back home had mostly already been converted by missionaries sent out from Ireland and Rome, and they might have felt sort of like the poor relations or the backwards brothers in clinging to old, outmoded beliefs. Maybe it was time to change.

There is also the story told of a kind of epiphany had by the Pope: “Gregory, named the Great, then Roman pontiff, began to entertain hopes of effecting a project which he himself, before he mounted the papal throne, had once embraced, of converting the British Saxons.

It happened, that this prelate, at that time in a private station, had observed in the market-place of Rome some Saxon youth exposed to sale, whom the Roman merchants, in their trading voyages to Britain, had bought of their mercenary parents. Struck with the beauty of their fair complexions and blooming countenances, Gregory asked to what country they belonged; and being told they were Angles, he replied, that they ought more properly to be denominated angels: It were a pity that the Prince of Darkness should enjoy so fair a prey, and that so beautiful a frontispiece should cover a mind destitute of internal grace and righteousness. Enquiring farther concerning the name of their province, he was informed, that it was Deïri, a district of Northumberland: Deïri! replied he, that is good! They are called to the mercy of God from his anger, De ira. But what is the name of the king of that province? He was told it was Aella or Alla". Alleluiah!" cried he: “We must endeavour, that the praises of God be sung in their country.”

Moved by these allusions, which appeared to him so happy, he determined to undertake, himself, a mission into Britain; and having obtained the Pope’s approbation, he prepared for that perilous journey: But his popularity at home was so great, that the Romans, unwilling to expose him to such dangers, opposed his design; and he was obliged for the present to lay aside all farther thoughts of executing that pious purpose.

Well, you have to admire the old guy’s cheek, making so much out of so little. Had it not been for those pesky Romans though (what did they ever do for us?) he probably would have been on the next galley or trireme or whatever, on his way to England, accompanied by a heavenly host, or at least a whole shitload of monks, bishops, priests and clerics. Not sure what kind of reception he would have got in then-Pagan Northumberland though!

Instead he chose his shock-troops, led by a Roman monk called Augustine, later to be canonised as Saint Augustine, but they were so fearful of the Pagans that they decided to layover in France for a while, and sent their leader back to the Pope asking if he was sure it was safe. Gregory basically chased them out of France with a broom, telling them to go do their job, and duly admonished they landed in England and met with Aethelbert. Their first impression must have been “damn rainy here” (though being holy men and not wanting to profane the name of the Lord they probably said something like “Has God not in his wisdom blessed this land with an abundance of his bounteous rain, that the crops may grow and the land be fertile?” Possibly adding sotto voce, “but thank Christ he hasn’t seen fit to endow our eternal land with the same gifts, as I like to take the air in the gardens of my Italian monasteries, and there’s nothing as certain to ruin a nice walk as a heavy fucking shower of rain, beg your pardon Lord, pardon my English.” ) That was a long bracket! Get used it it: I do that all the time.

Their second though may have been “this isn’t such a bad place is it?” and when monsters completely failed to rise up out of the ground and swallow them whole, fire did not rain down on them (though rain surely did) and the approaching contingent of Saxons, led by Aethelbert, were only normal size and had the standard number of heads each, they must have breathed a sigh of relief. Aethelbert, for his part, was still suspicious, expecting magic and sorcery (being an ignorant pagan and all) and so had ensured he met the Christian missionaries in the open air, as if that somehow negated any magic they were perceived to have.

Finding, possibly to his own relief, that these unbelievers also possessed only the regulation number of heads and did not try to suck the soul from his living body, Aethelbert may have grumbled “Look, I still don’t know about you guys… Hey!” Turning on one of them fiercely who had begun muttering a prayer. “No trying to convert me when I’m not looking!” And back to Augustine as their leader “I suppose you can have the Isle of Thanet. It’s not very big and we’re not doing anything with it at the moment. Kind of a dumping ground for old weapons and odds and sods. Kick back there and we’ll see how you go. But no,” again turning with a fierce eye, “sneaky trying to steal my soul behind my back, you!” I’m sure Bede himself would back up such a conversation. Oh no wait, he’s dust now. Oh well, you’ll just have to take my word for it I guess.

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But if you want a job done properly, send a woman to do it. Aethelbert married Bertha, the only daughter of the king of Paris, Carlbert, on the condition laid down by her father that she should be free to practice her religion after being married. She brought her priests and bishops with her, and between their zeal (nothing like converting heathen to get a bishop out of bed in the morning!) and her popularity at court, most of Aetehelbert’s people were won over (and those that weren’t were probably given friendly advice that it might be in their best interests not to upset the queen with all those icky blood sacrifices and praying to the thunder like children) and by somewhere in the early seventh century all of his kingdom had converted.

In 602 or 603 Athelbert pronounced a series of laws, known to be the first written examples of Anglo-Saxon, which aimed to set penalties for crimes and create a code of conduct for his subjects. Penalties and fines were set by social status, though I’m not sure whether those on a higher level were fined more or less; the rich usually get the better part of the deal so I would assume the latter. Maybe not, but it’s unclear. At any rate, Aethelbert left his kingdom in a far better state (no pun intended) on his death than it had been in before he rose to the throne.

Rather annoyingly for him, his son promptly undid all his father’s good works, getting jiggy with his mother-in-law, which outraged Christianity and plunged all of Kent back into paganism, and surely made Augustine, if he was still there, throw up his hands in despair and say “That’s it! All my work up in smoke because this kid wants to get into his mother-in-law’s nether garments! I have had it with you Saxons! The Devil take you all - I’m going back to Rome, where they know how to make proper pasta!” Or words to that effect.

However his successor, Laurentius, gave it the old college try, appearing before Eadbald, the son and new king, all marked with bruises and weals and stripes, and when Eadbald asked who would dare to beat a holy man so, Laurentius told him it had been Saint Peter, who had taken him to task in a (surprisingly tactile) vision for failing. In reality, he probably did it himself or had some monks do it, they surely not loath to do so, hating England and its pagans and its rain, and yea verily most eager to take out their frustrations on the boss man. Whatever the truth of it, his ploy worked and Eadbald kicked mum-in-law out of bed and begged Laurentius’s forgiveness, returning his people to Christianity, while the holy man went to anoint his body with some much-needed Savlon.

The return to Christianity did not bring peace to the kingdom. On Eadbald’s death his own son reigned for another twenty-four years, and was famous for establishing the custom of Lent and also for getting rid of all those unsightly pagan idols and altars, but his son, Egbert, was a little too free with the sword and fearing the challenge of two of his uncles for the throne, removed them from the picture, precipitating unrest and eventual virtual civil war across the kingdom until finally Wessex defeated and took Kent in 686, later itself absorbed into the huge and mighty state of Mercia, as King Offa consolidated all the kingdoms together and dissolved the Heptarchy. Of which i will later speak.

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