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Story of the Celts: The Celts in Britain

Author: John Patrick Parle

Copyright © 1999

The Celts in Britain [27]

What is obvious when studying the Celts, as when studying anything, is that different experts say different things--there are always men of knowledge who have conflicting views about specifics.

The dates of when the Celts came to Great Britain is an example of this. There are differences of opinion. To ease things a bit, here we could use the World Book Encyclopedia's information, and report that the Celts first landed in England in the 700s B.C. These early Celtic invaders were called the Gaels, [28] as are their counterparts in Ireland and Scotland.

The early geographers called Britain--Albion, whereas the Romans called it--Britannia. It is believed that the ancient Celts called Britain "Prydain", an island they dominated for over 400 years. Megalithic monuments like Stonehenge are now thought to have been constructed by indigenous peoples before the Celts, though the Celts may have used them for pagan religious purposes.

We might take some charm that Shakespeare, the Bard [29] of his day, went to some effort to portray Celtic Britons in plays like "King Lear" and "Cymbeline." Some experts argue that Celtic myths are well-represented in the fairy world characters of the "Midsummer's Night Dream." Surely, there are plenty of celticisms in the portrayal of early Scotland in "Macbeth." Both Cymbeline and Macbeth were historical characters, and King Lear was a mythic Celtic monarch. [30]

(To avoid confusion, the word Briton refers to ancient Celtic peoples who lived in what is now England, Wales, and Scotland. After the Anglo-Saxon invasions, Briton referred only to Celtic people in England, the Celtic peoples of Scotland and Wales having formed their own national group. The word Breton refers to Celtic peoples living in Brittany, France, as well as their language.)

Whereas the demise of the continental Celts came with the conquests of Rome and the early Germanic tribes, the insular Celts, those on Ireland and Great Britain exist to this day. These insular Celts came in successive invasions, some say in response to the tough time the Celts were having on the European mainland.

Coming of the Roman Legions

But Rome could not ignore Celtic Britain for long. Julius Caesar landed there in the 50s B.C., and by the time Roman Emperor Claudius (c. 43 A.D.) was done, the Roman legions had turned Britannia into a province of Rome. The Romans controlled the island for 400 years.

The Celts there did not fall easily. The flash-point came with a woman the Romans called Boadicea, and whose Celtic name was actually Boudicca. [31] In 60 A.D., the Romans tried to take autonomy away from the Celtic Iceni tribe in what is now Norfolk in eastern England. Boudicca, the wife of the deceased Iceni chieftain, rose up and organized a rebellion against the Romans. She became the chieftain of the Celtic Britons in her region, and proceeded to obliterate the Roman 9th Legion in battle. She marched on London and burned it.

The Romans eventually defeated Boudicca's warriors, but not before (according to Tacitus) 70,000 Romans and allies had been killed. It is said that the Romans did take a milder policy towards the Britons after Boudicca, in order to avoid further disturbances. (Another consolation: in London the British have erected a large statue of Boudicca triumphantly riding on a chariot.)

And the Britons did quiet down. Many of the ethnic Celts became quite Romanized, learning Latin--which meant that they now could write. One such Romanized Celt from Britain was St. Patrick, and he used the skill of writing to promote his efforts in Ireland. Which is another point--after 325 A.D. the Romans brought Christianity to the Celts in Britain, and many converted.

There were still pockets of pagan Celts in Roman Britain who maintained their old Celtic ways. This is particularly true in Scotland where the Romans never quite got a hold on things, because the Picts and various Celts just would not be conquered. Hadrian's Wall separated these rebellious Celts from the rest of civilized Britain.

Anglo-Saxon Invasions

Around 410 A.D. it became clear in Rome that the Germanic tribes were becoming a real threat. The emperor ordered the Roman legions out of Britain in order to protect things closer to home. A power vacuum emerged.

By the mid-400s A.D. the Germanic barbarian tribes invaded and began to take hold of Britain. These are the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes. The Celtic peoples in Britain went westward to Wales (and became the Welsh); to Cornwall (becoming the Cornish); northward to Scotland; and across to Brittany, France (becoming the Bretons). Neither the Romans nor the Anglo-Saxons ever conquered Ireland. So, it is possible to see from history how these traditionally Celtic areas of today got their beginning.

Celtic Myths of Britain

Because the Romans brought Christianity to Britain, the Celtic myths of Wales and other Briton areas have more Christian content than their counterparts in Ireland. This is not always true, as in the case of the pagan Welsh myths of the Rhiannon or the Children of Llyr. The Scottish mythical poetry of Ossian are a matter of question.

The most notable Celtic myths in Britain at this time were the Arthurian legends. It is thought that King Arthur was actually a true historical figure, in reality a gallant Celtic chieftain from Cornwall or Wales who tried to fight off the Anglo-Saxon invaders. In fact, some early written legends do have King Arthur in battle against the Saxons. [32] It's interesting that the Arthurian legends had a prominent role for Christianity, as in the holy grail stories, but also made room for Merlin, the Celtic wizard.

Part III: The Celts in Galicia, Spain

Part V: The Celts of Ireland

Sources for the information about Britain are from Encyclopedia Britannica articles "Britain" and "Ireland"; World Book Encyclopedia article on "England"; and other sources listed below.

As a matter of note, "insular Celts" is a term used to describe the island Celts of Ireland, Britain, and associated islands.

28. Most Celtic experts would object to the use of the word "Gael" in reference to the Celts of Britain. The word Gaelic is usually strictly used for only the Gaelic Celtic peoples of Ireland and Scotland--in connection to the Goidelic Celtic language type.

The usage here may be a rebellion against spurious precision. Also, some believe that the first wave of Celts in Britain were Goidelic Celts, and later came the Brythonic types who eventually dominated.

29. "Bard" is in fact a Celtic word. As is mutton, the Celtic word for sheep. "Brash" is thought to be of Celtic origin, and "brill" is Cornish for a flatfish. Also there are plenty of Celtic place-names as in Thames and Avon.

What is sad though is how comparatively few Celtic words have made it into the modern English language. There are actually more Old Norse words in English, a throwback to the period when Vikings controlled areas like Yorkshire, during the Anglo-Saxon age.

There are some familiar Celtic Irish words in English: shamrock, shenanigan, banshee, colleen (a young girl), smithereens, blarney, shillelagh, leprechaun, shebang, and some argue that shanty, buddy, and biddy are of Celtic Irish origin. Paddy-wagon and donnybrook (a general break-out of fist-fighting) are of Irish origin, but not Celtic.

There are many words of Scottish dialect that are familiar, but not of Celtic origin: laddie, lassie, bonnie, wee, beastie, and tamo-shanter. Readers of Robert Burns may be disappointed that there are fewer celticisms than expected.

As described in text, the main Celtic influence on the English language is the unique way that the people of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales speak English.

--from Robert MacNeil et al, The Story of English, (op. cit.); and etymology checks in Webster's New World Dictionary--College Edition.

Cymbeline was a Celtic Briton chieftain at the time when Rome was beginning to conquer Britain, in the 1st century A.D.; his real Celtic name was Cunobelin. Some called him a king, and he did apply the word "rex" on his coins. His sons were left the sad task of being defeated by the Romans. As can be expected, Shakespeare took many liberties on facts in his story, to enhance literature.

Macbeth was the king of the Scots from 1040 to 1057. He defeated his predecessor King Duncan in battle, didn't murder him in bed. In 1050 King Macbeth took a pilgrimage to Rome. As in the play, he was defeated by Malcolm in battle, who then became king. But, Macbeth was actually buried in honor, not as a usurper. Again Shakespeare took liberties with history. (Great play, especially the Orson Welles film version.)

--Encyclopedia Britannica articles on "Britain," "Macbeth," and "Cunobelinus"

31. The material on Boudicca is from articles entitled "Boadicea" found in the Encyclopedia Britannica and the World Book Encyclopedia; also from the BBC series The Celts.

The material on British mythology taken from World Book Encyclopedia article on "Mythology--Celtic Myths"; Charles Squire, Celtic Myths and Legends (op. cit.); and Courtney Davis, Celtic Mandalas (London: Blandford, 1994)

Regarding the King Arthur legends, in the 9th century Nennius claimed that Arthur and his knights defeated the Saxons in twelve battles (recorded in Nennius's Historia Britonum). In the Historia regum Britanniae (12th century), Geoffrey of Monmouth had King Arthur defeating the Saxons, and then the Scots, and other European areas. The names of characters in the Arthurian legends have Celtic origins that have been modified over the centuries; e.g., Sir Bedivere was really named Bedwyre in his Celtic original. Avalon is a Celtic word, and the sword Excalibur has counterparts in other Celtic legends.

--from Encyclopedia Britannica articles "Arthur" and "Arthurian Legends," and Squire's Celtic Myths and Legends

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