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Britons - the Celtic people of England

Great Britain in the second half of the 5th century AD, between Roman withdrawl and founding of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.  Green area - mainly Goidelic areas, blue area - mainly Pictish areas, red area - mainly Brittonic areas

Great Britain in the second half of the 5th century AD, between Roman withdrawl and founding of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Green area - mainly Goidelic areas, blue area - mainly Pictish areas, red area - mainly Brittonic areas

Millions of people since Roman times have thought of themselves as "British", but this identity was only created with the Union of England, Wales and Scotland in 1707. Britain was just a geographical entity until the 17th century when James I of England and VI of Scotland sought to establish a pan-British monarchy.

Throughout recorded history the British Isles have consisted of multiple cultural groups and identities.

Britons or Brythons or British people were not the original inhabitants of what we call England today, but they were certainly one of the earlier peoples to inhabit what we call England today.

They spoke the Insular Celtic language known as Common Brittonic and lived in Great Britain (England) during the Iron Age, the Roman Era and the post-Roman Era. It is believed that the majority of Briton population respresented a continuity with the preceding Bronze Age.

Celt comes from the Greek word, Keltoi and means barbarians. It is properly pronounced Kelt. No one called these people living in Britain during the Iron Age Celts until the 18th century. They were simply known as Britons.

Many years ago during ancient Greek times, Pytheas called these northern islands collectively, ai Bpettaviai (hai Brittaniai) which has been translated to the Brittanic Isles. He had made an explorer's voyage around the British Isles between 330-320 BC and had seen them with his own eyes.

He named the peoples of the Brittanic Isles, Prettanoi, Priteni, Pritani or Pretani, which has been translated to Britons.

These Britons, renamed Celts in the 18th century by historians and archaeologists, became a Romano-British population in 43 AD when the Romans invaded Britain (England) and conquered the Britons living there.

During the early Roman Era the Romans named the island Britanni or Brittanni, following their conquest in 43 AD and this is where the name Britannia for what is present day England comes from.

Northwest Europe was dominated by three main Celtic groups:

  • the Gauls ( in France)
  • the Britons (in England
  • the Gaels (in Ireland)

So, for the purposes of this article, the Britons (in England) refer to the different Celtic tribes that lived throughout what we know as present day England.

A typical Celt hill-fort that they built for protection.  Ruins in England.

A typical Celt hill-fort that they built for protection. Ruins in England.

Typical Briton / Celtic woman's clothing.  Dying spinning wool.

Typical Briton / Celtic woman's clothing. Dying spinning wool.

Celtic tribal coin.

Celtic tribal coin.

Reconstructed round thatched houses of the Britons (Celts).

Reconstructed round thatched houses of the Britons (Celts).

The Celts excelled at metal and iron works during their time in Britain.

The Celts excelled at metal and iron works during their time in Britain.

Druid priests

Druid priests

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Original Druid altar in England.

Original Druid altar in England.

Blue ink from the woad plant that Celtic warriors used to paint themselves with for battle.

Blue ink from the woad plant that Celtic warriors used to paint themselves with for battle.

Celtic life and culture

Celtic Britain consisted of the Iron Age from approximately 600 BC - 50 AD and this was the age of the Celt in Britain (England) as the Celtic culture established itself throughout the British Isles. They arrived in Britain as separate tribes that migrated there and were loosely tied by a similar language, religion, and cultural expression.

First, their language, as mentioned before, was called Common Brittonic and is believed to have developed from proto-Celtic after it was introduced to the British Isles from the European continent.

Linguists tell us today that the Celt language then developed into western and southwestern dialects. The western dialects became the Welsh language in Wales and the Cumbric language in the 'old north' of Britain. The southwestern area's dialect became Cornish in Cornwall and Breton on Gaul (France)

The Welsh and Breton languages survive today, but the Cumbric language became extinct in the 12th century. Cornish became nearly extinct much later in history but has been subject to a language revitalization since the 20th century.

The Celts lived within tribes without a central government and brought iron working to the British Isles. The use of iron changed trade and brought local independence to the tribes. Trade was essential during the Bronze Age, but iron was relatively cheap and available almost everywhere so each tribe was less inclined to have to trade with other tribes.

Each tribe lived in hill forts throughout the region and protected their forts with small ditches and bank combinations encircling defensible hilltops. The forts did not have running water though and the Celts could not stay there indefinitely.

The clan was the basic unit of Celtic life and was a sort of extended family. The Celts had a different form of child rearing in those days. Their parents did not rear them as the children were farmed out and raised by foster parents. The foster father many times was the brother of the birth mother.

Clans then bound very loosely with other clans into tribes. Each tribe had its own social structure and customs and possibly its own gods. The tribe leader could be elected or the title passed on by heredity. And, each tribe had its own coinage system.

The Celts lived in huts of arched timber with wicker walls and thatched roofs. Huts were gathered into a loose hamlet. .

Although Celts have been described as warriors, and they were excellent warriors, they lived daily on a farm economy. The Celts were farmers and quite innovative. They brought the iron plow to Britain and this brought about an agricultural revolution. They were able to cultivate rich valley and lowland soils.

The iron plows were heavy and required a team of eight oxen to pull the plow. To avoid having to have so many oxen, the Celtic fields tended to be long and narrow.

Celtic lands were owned communally, therefore, wealth was determined by the size of cattle herd each Celt owned.

Celtic women were treated very well in their culture. Women were equal to men as they owned property themselves and could choose their own husbands. They could be war leaders as exemplified by Queen Boudicca who in 60-61 AD raised a revolt against the Romans.

Their culture and history was passed down verbally from one generation until another. They did have a written Celtic language but not until well into Christian times. Bards and poets were who passed on the verbal transmission of the culture and history and what we know about them today comes from old tales and poems verbally passed down before eventually being written down.

Their religion was in the hands of the Druids, a super class of priests, political advisers, teachers, healers, and arbitrators. Here the verbal tradition was important. They even had their own universities where the traditional knowledge was passed on by rote memory. They also acted as ambassadors in time of war, composed verse and upheld Celtic tribal law.

The Druids were considered the glue holding together the Celtic culture. The word Druid is connected with the Celtic term for oak, trees and sacred groves and loomed large in Celtic religious life. Their religious ceremonies were held in woodland groves, near sacred water such as wells and springs. They also believed in reincarnation of the soul and in keeping a balance in the universe.

The Romans have left written record of human sacrifice as being part of Celtic life. This does need to be taken with a grain of salt, as the Romans viewed the Celts as barbaric compared to themselves which they viewed as civilized.

Not much is known about the Druids or their religious practices as the Druids were steeped in mystery and secrecy and their practices were not made public to the Celtic people or to history.

As mention earlier, the Celts were fierce warriors. They liked to cover themselves in blue paint and tattoos to give a frightening fierce look as they fought war in the naked. They routinely cut off the heads of their enemies in battle and displayed them as trophies.

Since this was the Iron Age, the Celts made great weapons and shields made for battle and they took great pride in the use of light chariots in battle.

They mounted heads on doorposts and hung them from their belts. The Celts believed the seat of spiritual power was in the head and so by taking an enemy's head they were taking this power for themselves. This was how they justified wacking off the heads of their enemies and then keeping them.

It is during the Iron age that we first find cemeteries for ordinary people and the Celts buried their dead in the ground.

The Celtic territory inhabited by Britons was composed of numerous ever changing areas controlled by tribes.

Unfortunately, the Celtic tribes couldn't stop fighting among themselves long enough to put up a unified front (with the exception of Queen Boudicca's army) and were easily conquered by the Romans costing them control of Britain.

Their territory before and during the Roman period is unclear but it is believed to have included the whole island of Great Britain as far north as the Clyde-Forth isthmus.


The English are Celts

Anglo-Saxon Invasion

As time went on, the Romans pushed further north in Britain and fortified the northern border with Hadrian's Wall, which spanned what is now Northern England. The native Britons kept their own land but were subject to the Roman government.

The Roman Empire kept control of "Britannia" until their departure in 410 AD. The Germanic speaking Anglo-Saxons began a migration to the eastern coast of Britain where they established their own kingdoms and drove out the Romans as their empire was collapsing.

By the end of the first millennium the Anglo-Saxons had conquered most of the Brittonic territory in Britain and the language and culture of the native Britons were extinguished.

This newly conquered territory, the old Roman Brittania, became known as England.

The Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms in England drew their cultural inspiration and their dominant language almost entirely from across the North Sea, from Germany and Scandinavia. Therefore, mixed natives and immigrants became the English.

  • The Bretons of Brittany, France
    The Bretons are descendants of the Britons, who emigrated from southwestern Great Britain to the farthest western shores of Brittany, France and brought the Brittonic Celtic languages with them.

Legendary Kings of the Britons

King Arthur - Romano-British war leader, but debatable historically

Queen Boudica - Queen of the Iceni - led a failed rebellion against the Romans in 60-61 AD

Cadwallon op Cadfun - King of Gwynedd - fought against the Anglo-Saxons

Cassivellaunus - lead defense against Julius Caesar in 54 BC

Conan Meriadoc - legendary founder of Brittany

Cael Hen - "Old King Cole" of the popular nursery rhyme

St. Patrick - Romano-Briton missionary - brought Christianity to Ireland

Prasutagus - husband of Boudicca

These are just a few of the kings of the Britons who lived legendary lives and their brave stories have lived on to modern times.



Bill Berdan on February 09, 2020:

I Enjoyed reading this trying trace family roots, looking for what

national I AM

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on November 24, 2015:

Thanks for reading this Bren and I am glad you enjoyed. That is interesting that you have Norse as your heritage too. I will check out your hubs. Thanks so much for stopping by.

Bren Hall from England on November 23, 2015:

Hi suzettenaples, a very interesting hub. I am English and some of my ancestors come from Hubba the Norse Sea King according to my maiden surname. We spell plow as plough in England. If you would like to read some hubs about post WW2 in Sussex in Southern England, have a look at mine.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on November 23, 2015:

suzzycue: Why that you so much for your kind comments. I have personal reason also for writing it. I am so pleased you enjoyed reading this.

Susan Britton from Ontario, Canada on November 23, 2015:

You did a great job of researching all of this. I had no idea that Brittonic was an actual language. I had a personal reason for reading this Hub and I enjoyed it very much. I also learned a lot. :)

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on November 03, 2014:

Hi Jo: Thank you so much for reading this and for your insightful comments. This was a labor of love to write as I am a bit English from my paternal grandmother. The Britons or English are a wonderful amalgam of peoples. Their history is so interesting to me and I am proud of the English in me. You have a wonderful history and culture in your blood and the one thing I have always liked about the English is that they are so friendly to Americans. I spent a week in London many years ago, and I remember the friendliness of the people. Thanks so much for your visit and its good to know someone from England.

Jo Alexis-Hagues from Lincolnshire, U.K on November 02, 2014:

Suzette, there has been much debates and discussions recently about immigration and Britishness, but who exactly are the Britons? I read somewhere that the very first inhabitants to settle in Britain came from Armenia. The history of Britain is fascinating. When people argues that immigration is causing them to lose their Britishness, I often wonder who they really think they are. The people of Britain are made up of a long line of foreigners. British history is diverse and colourful. If they were to look at the genetic makeup of each and every one of us, I wonder what surprises they'd find. This is educational thought provoking and very well done. Up and sharing.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on August 04, 2014:

ologsinquito: Hello - thank you for your kind words. I began with one hub about Celts and I just became so interested and fascinated by their culture and customs and all the places they have lived and so the series has just grown and grown. I appreciate your interest in these hubs. I am so pleased you have enjoyed them.

ologsinquito from USA on August 04, 2014:

I am really taken by all of the research that goes into these historical articles about people and migrations. They are fascinating to read.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on August 03, 2014:

travel_man: Thank you so much for your comments and input. That was an interesting travel experience I am sure. I have never been to Wales and would love to one day because I am part Welsh. I think the Celts are so interesting as a people. I'll bet you saw a great part of the world being in the navy. Thanks so much for reading and for your input. Most appreciated.

Ireno Alcala from Bicol, Philippines on August 02, 2014:

I visited the downtown of South Wales, as part of our shore leave being a sailor way back 2009.

People are very friendly and we stayed for a week to unload our cargo (alumina from Norway) and enjoyed marketing for fresh provisions and getting to know some locals there.

Thanks for sharing this hub.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on July 01, 2014:

villyvacker: Thank you so much. There was a lot of information to write about that is for sure. But, I certainly enjoyed learning and writing about the Britons. I have a bit of English ancestry in me. Thanks so much for your comments and visit. Most appreciated.

Billy Turnock from Manchester England on June 30, 2014:

this article is a breathtakingly good article

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on June 20, 2014:

Dianna: Thank you so much for your visit and I am pleased you enjoyed this. I have some English background in me so it was interesting for me to write, too. Thanks again for your attention to this article and your comments.

Dianna Mendez on June 19, 2014:

Thank you for the interesting facts and background on Celtic people. I knew some of this, but most is new to me.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on June 10, 2014:

Sanjay: I never knew about the body painting this far back in time. Here I thought tattoos were a modern thing. Who knew body painting went back this far? I am so pleased you enjoyed reading this. I find the Celt tribes to be so interesting and something I didn't know much about until researching them.

Sanjay Sharma from Mandi (HP) India on June 09, 2014:

Body painting by the soldiers is a new information for me. I enjoyed reading the hub. It explains the long history in a nutshell.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on June 09, 2014:

Hi mckbirdbks: Their "tattoos" came from the woad plant - that is what they used to paint themselves, so it really wasn't like our tattoos of today, burned into the skin. I am so pleased your enjoyed this. Thanks so much for your comments. I'm on a Celtic kick right now. Your visit is appreciated.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on June 09, 2014:

Chitrangada: So glad you enjoyed reading this. I find the Celtic Britons so interesting. I am glad it was interesting to you too. Thanks so much for your visit and comments. Most appreciated.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on June 09, 2014:

Hi Faith: I am so glad you enjoyed reading this. I'm on a Celtic kick right now. LOL! I had a grandmother that was English also and so this is very interesting to me. Thanks so much for your visit and I'm glad you enjoyed the music. Thanks for your comments. Most appreciated.

mckbirdbks from Emerald Wells, Just off the crossroads,Texas on June 09, 2014:

Hello suzettenaples you have presented another wonderful, fact filled hub. That blue paint does not look so menacing now. It looks like he got carried away at a face painting booth. Enjoy your week.

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on June 09, 2014:

Wonderful hub with so much information about the Britons!

It increased my curiosity further. A well researched hub with interesting and rare pictures.

Voted up and shared!

Faith Reaper from southern USA on June 08, 2014:

Certainly a fascinating topic to research and write about, suzette! I have learned a lot here. I know one of my grandmothers was English, but I also have Scot-Irish too and who knows what else lol. I need to do a DNA too. I do love the lovely Celtic women music too and, wow, on that elaborate war paint there! A work of art in and of itself.

Up and more and away

Hope you are enjoying a lovely Sunday

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on June 07, 2014:

Genna: Thanks so much for reading and commenting. I find this so interesting too. I learned quite a bit by researching this. Thanks so much for your visit. Most appreciated.

Genna East from Massachusetts, USA on June 07, 2014:

This is a fascinating hub with beautiful photos and images that enhance the subject. I learned quite a bit. Very interesting. Thank you

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on June 06, 2014:

travmaj: Thank you so much for your comments. Coming from someone who grew up in England and now lives in Australia, that makes me happy. I am so pleased you enjoyed reading this and found it interesting. My paternal grandmother was part English, so that is why I have been so interested in the Celts. Thanks so much for you lovely comments.

travmaj from australia on June 04, 2014:

Very informative and fascinating hub - I know some of the Celtic history, but you have given me much more to think about. I grew up in England. I certainly love your work on the Celts, thank you. Great images to accompany the text.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on June 04, 2014:

I know, Bill, you were a history teacher! But, to think I could teach you a little is amazing! LOL! You know so much and are so knowledgeable. I have found this all to be so interesting as I didn't know all this until I researched it. Thanks so much for reading and for your comments. Most appreciated.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on June 04, 2014:

rebecca: I love Celtic music. It is so melodic and has a certain twang that I love. Their music is very creative. The Celtic Woman are from Ireland and sing songs of Irish and Gaelic background. They are beautiful. There is so much of ancient history that is part of the culture that we don't realize it. Thanks so much for your interest and input.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on June 04, 2014:

I actually did know most of this, but you managed to increase my knowledge with a few pearls. Thank you, Suzette.

Rebecca Mealey from Northeastern Georgia, USA on June 03, 2014:

Interesting! This mainly caught my eye because of the beautiful Celtic Women music I like to listen to. I just love it.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on June 03, 2014:

Nell - I also have a drop of Scottish in me - believe or not, from the Italian side. Many, many years ago the Scots came down into Italy and conquered parts of the country and Scots married into my Italian family and that is why on the Italian side I have so many cousins with blue and green eyes. My mom has green eyes also. I just think this whole genealogical thing is so interesting. I am such a mixture of so many cultures I guess I'm a mutt! LOL!

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on June 03, 2014:

Oh, Nell, I certainly will bring a notebook and tape. Yes, my grandmother was English, Welsh and Dutch, but her maiden name was Mons, a name from Belgium. But, she insisted she wasn't Belgique. I kept insisting she had to be by someone from Belgium and she always insisted no. Now, I think she got the name when the Belgium Celts came to England and it was passed on down the line. Someday I want to get a DNA test for genealogical reasons and see just who I am! LOL!

Nell Rose from England on June 03, 2014:

That would be amazing! I could show you around, take your notebook with you and a tape and you would get about 100 hubs out of it! lol! Your grandmother was English? Well there you go, can't get better than that! Haha! have a great day Suzette, nell

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on June 03, 2014:

Nell: You English are awesome. I decided to do some more research on this topic and now I am hooked. In doing this, I also found out my grandmother who is English, but had a Belgique last name, but isn't Belgique, got her name in England when the Belgian Celts migrated to England. That will be in my next hub, I think. Now, I want to do a tour of the British Isles - I never have done that - only been to London and Windsor - have to start saving my pennies. LOL! If I come I will definitely let you know!

Nell Rose from England on June 03, 2014:

Awesome Suzette! When you put it like that, we brits were pretty cool eh? LOL! seriously, this was a fantastic read, and I learned so much from it, wonderful! voted up, shared and tweeted! nell

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