A History of Great Britain by Robert Balmain Mowat - CHAPTER I - Ancient Britain

June 15 2018

I found** A History of Great Britain (B.C. 55 - A.D. 1603)** in a small book exchange, in a rather tattered state. My copy is from 1929 (the book was first printed in 1920) and is Part I in a series of, perhaps, three books (Mowat died in 1941, the books end in 1918). A retelling of a history book might seem a bit strange, but isn’t it always exciting to see someone talk about the past who is now himself an artifact of history?

CHAPTER I - Ancient Britain

Mowat starts out with taking us on a walk through Ancient Britain.

First, he describes the two types of people that inhabited Britain: The small, dark haired Iberians, which with their darker complexion were the more ancient people of the region and can still be found, unchanged, in the Basque region of Europe; and the tall, fair haired Celts, with their white and reddish skins, from Central Asia.

While the former thrived in cities due to their resistance to stress, the latter needed the calm of the countryside to prosper.

Ancient British villages were comprised of huts made of wood, with thatched roofs and surrounded by palisades or prickly hedges. These villages were situated by forests or on islands. Each tribe was governed by a chief.

The people survived by hunting, keeping sheep and growing some (weak) wheat.

Ancient Briton was initially a pre-Christian society headed by Druids. Those Druids committed stories to memory and passed them on, giving early Britons some knowledge into their own history.

Mowat points out that druidic Britons employed human sacrifice and tortured their victims, often prisoners of war, in places such as Stonehenge and Anglesey. He also mentions the belief that forest groves were the homes of spirits, and sacred mistletoe.

All of this, Mowat explains, is known primarily through Julius Ceasar’s Commentaries and Tacitus Agricola.

It should be noted that Ceasar was heavily influenced by Posidonius, a stoic philosopher and historian.

It is Ceasar too, who influenced Ancient Britain next.

In 55 and 54 B.C., he invaded Britain.

It was just after midnight on the 26 of August, 55 B.C. when Ceasar’s ships started sailing. 9 am the next morning, the fleet passed by the shores of Dover and landed between Walmer and Deal. The Britons were driven back and Cesar stayed for three weeks, in which he was under continuous attack.

In the spring of the next year, he sailed towards Britain once again. Instead of the 7000-8000 men he had brought on his first expedition, he is now coming with a much larger army, compromised of 15 to 20 thousand men.

He advanced inland and at Kent, fought against Cassivellanus, chief of the Catuvellauni tribe. Ceasar was successful and crossed the river Thames, but was quickly attacked again by Cassivellanus. He once more defeated the Celtic chief but wearies of fighting and withdraws back to Gaul.

A proper attempt at conquest is made in 43 B.C.

Ruler at the time was Cassivellanus’ grandson Caractacus. Like his elder, Caractacus was defeated and Britain will go on to be under Roman rule for the next 350 years.

During the Roman occupation, Britain saw the building of roads, bridges, towns, schools and the advent of Christianity.

Today, Roman towns can still be identified by their names. Town names ending in -chester (from “castrum” = camp) are the easiest to ID.

Scotland and Ireland and other smaller isles remained largely untouched.

Britons continued to live in tribal communities, governed by Roman authority but overseen by their own chiefs.

To achieve control over the Britons, the Roman empire sent three (initially four) legions to keep the peace. Legion XXth at Chester, legion XIVth at Wroxeter, legion IInd, named “Augusta” at Caerbon and, the later defunct legion IX at London.

In 61 A.D. Boudicca (or Boadicea), chieftess of the Iceni tribe, rallies her people to attack the Romans. While she ultimately fails, her attack results in the dismantling of the IX legion.

A second campaign in 84 A.D. (to the knowledge of 1929 - today the date is assumed to be 83 A.D.) in Scotland, also ends with a Romans victory at the Battle of Mons Graupius.

Despite these military engagements, Roman soldiers spent most of their time making roads.

Also busy building was Hadrian, Roman emperor, who famously built Hadrian’s Wall, spanning from Tyne to Solway Firth. (Mistakenly assumed to mark the border between Scotland and England, it is in fact the boundary of the Roman Empire in England alone.)

After the Roman take-over, Druidism slowly disappeared and was, for the first two centuries A.D., replaced by the worship of Roman deities. Christianity would not be officially recognized in Ancient Britain until 323 A.D.

Christian ideology however, had already spread since 304 A.D. through the martyrdom of St. Albans.

It is important to note however, that when the succession to the Roman throne became disputed in the 3rd century, the Picts from Scotland and the Saxons from the Elbe and Oder region attacked Hardrian’s Wall and brought on a modest revival of paganism.

By 410 A.D., Rome stopped sending any more soldier to Britain.