Overview: British History before 1500

The very earliest Britons were hunters and gatherers who left no written records. We know them only from the artifacts they left behind. Gradually primitive agriculture developed, providing the kind of wealth and manpower needed to create that wonder of the prehistoric world, the circle of Stonehenge, constructed sometime between 3000 and 2000 BC.

Stonehenge Stonehenge

Britain’s early historical record is murky. We know of the earliest Celtic inhabitants primarily through archaeology and the written records of the first literate people to settle in Britain – the Romans. For several hundred years “Britannia” was a Roman province. Ireland and Scotland remained outside Roman control, but well within its sphere of influence. The Romans introduced central government, laws, good roads, Christianity – as well as a wall across northern England to keep out the Gaelic Scots and Picts. But in 401 AD their legions were withdrawn to protect the central empire. Left on their own, the Roman-Celtic Britons were gradually replaced by Germanic tribes from the continent – the Angles and Saxons – during the 4th and 5th centuries.

Did the Anglo-Saxons push the Celts west into Wales and north into Scotland? Or did the groups mix and meld, exchanging languages and traditions? It is not clear. What we do know is that by the 6th century England’s present territory was divided into a patchwork of small kingdoms with a Celtic rim to the west and north.

Gradually larger powers grew, but before England could be consolidated under one leader, yet another Germanic group of invaders hit the coast – the Vikings. For almost two hundred years the two sides fought and traded while the Vikings established themselves in north and east of England. The turning point came in 866 when the Anglo-Saxon King Alfred of Wessex defeated a great Viking army. Although the Vikings continued to be a threat in the northeast, gradually a line of powerful Anglo-Saxon kings was established that united all of England by about 950.


Anglo-Saxons and the Norman invasion

In 1066 Anglo-Saxon King Harold II had just succeeded his father, King Edward, when another Harald – Harald Hardrada (Hardråde), King of Norway – landed an army in north eastern England and claimed the English throne. King Harold II rushed north to meet him in battle. On 25 September, King Harold II defeated and killed Hardrada at the hard-fought Battle of Stamford Bridge.

But no sooner had this victory been won than news of a second invasion reached King Harold. This threat was from William, Duke of Normandy, who also claimed the throne. Many years before, the French had given Normandy to the Vikings in an effort to contain their further invasions. It was the descendants of those colonists that William led into battle against the tired troops of King Harold, who had force-marched his troops south to fight. On 14 October, 1066, King Harold was defeated and killed at the bloody, day long Battle of Hastings. The Norman Invasion ushered in a new era in British history. It was also to prove to be the last successful military invasion of the British Isles.

William the Conqueror greeting English leaders William the Conqueror greeting English leaders

The Magna Carta

William the Conqueror and his Norman descendants created a more modern, centralized and efficient monarchy. They supplanted most of the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy. French replaced Anglo-Saxon* as the language at court and in the government. Educated officials were imported from Normandy to rule the countryside. Naturally this led to greater friction between the conquerors and the conquered – between the government and the peasants, and between the Normans and Anglo-Saxons.

However they are organized and whatever language they use, governments need money. To raise funds for armies and campaigns, King John was forced to turn to the strongest barons in the land. These powerful aristocrats were willing to finance the King’s activities, but only if the monarchy was willing to accept limitations on its power. The Magna Carta (Great Charter) of 1215 made this relationship formal. Gradually an institution developed which eventually became the House of Lords. A similar institution developed for the towns and cities. They met in what would come to be called the “Commons,” granting taxes to the crown and offering advice on policy. This is the origin of Parliament.

As the centuries of the Middle Ages passed, the influence of French language and customs was gradually reduced and, along with it, the distance between the aristocracy and the general population. The English language as we know it today emerged with its particular grammar and its mixture of both Anglo-Saxon (Germanic) and French (Latin) vocabulary. That is why more than a third of all English words today are derived directly or indirectly from French.


*Anglo-Saxon is the foundation of modern English. The Old Norse spoken by the Vikings was very closely related to it. In fact, it is said that the two sides taunted one another with insults at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. Over the several hundred years they co-existed in Britain, Norse had a strong impact on modern English giving it words such as flat, gain, harsh, kill, scream, bark, egg, leg, sky and many, many more.


Spot check

  1. Why do we know so little about the first inhabitants of the British Isles?
  2. What impact did the Romans have on Britain?
  3. Describe how King Harold II lost his throne.
  4. What new impulses did William the Conqueror bring to England?
  5. Why did King John agree to the Magna Carta?



vikings SNAPSHOT
The Vikings in the British Isles

The Anglo-Saxon king Alfred the Great called them “the Danish men”. At the end of the eighth century they started sailing across the North Sea to Britain in long ships. They burned churches and monasteries, stole gold, murdered men and carried off women. Not a promising beginning to Anglo-Scandinavian relations, to be sure. But things changed. The Vikings started to settle in the British Isles. They married local women, cultivated the land, and became assimilated into the population.

The Vikings were especially powerful in Scotland and Ireland. The capitals of the Shetlands and Orkneys are Lerwick and Kirkwall respectively. Do these names ring a bell? The Nordic invaders also founded Dublin, the capital of Ireland. Today Dublin welcomes thousands of Scandinavian visitors every year – provided they leave their swords and helmets at home.