This rather Romantic name Albion or Alban in Welsh or Cornish was so called when the mystic white cliffs of our island was viewed from the Gallic shores of the old Roman Empire.
Brutus – there lies beyond the Gallic bounds
An island which the western sea surrounds,
By giants once possessed, now few remain
To bar thy entrance, or obstruct thy reign.
To reach that happy shore thy sails employ
There fate decrees to raise a second Troy
And found an empire in thy royal line,
Which time shall ne’er destroy,
nor bounds confine.
(Geoffrey of Monmouth)
Here is a very simplified view of the pre-history before the Romans came to this place, they would name Britain. In much earlier times the land was not an island but an extension of the European Continent. The Thames was a tributary of the Rhine system, and the North Sea was a mass of fens and islets. During this period of pre-history, people wandered into Britain, sometimes in small family groups and other times in tribal migration.
Neolithic man appears to have come from several quarters, a northern element of Baltic origin. Some came from southern France and a third, the dominant stock, by way of the Atlantic and Irish Sea, which passing along the Cotswolds, left long burial barrows and clustered thickly over the west, as they did also in Ireland. These were of a ‘Mediterranean’ type, working and trading with flint and bone. They had domestic animals, horses and dogs, wide horned cattle, sheep, and pigs. They sowed a little wheat and worked some course finger-moulded pottery. Some village compounds were protected by palisades. Others erected camps and cattle kraals, defended by rampart and gate.
From around 1900 to 1000 BC, there followed the Early and Middle Bronze Ages. The so-called ‘Beaker folk’, thought to originate with the Mediterranean stock had apparently absorbed some Nordic strain and were of a sturdier build than their predecessors. The larger mass of these came from the Rhineland, settling in numbers over the whole of the east, from the Yorkshire Wolds down to the Thames estuary. These people inhumed their dead and may have practiced human sacrifice.
Flint was used for common purposes, along with bronze, produced from Irish copper and Cornish tin. There was a flourishing commerce in Irish gold and with items of Yorkshire jet. By this period, Britain was quite well organized with skills of a high calibre. The construction of Stonehenge and the circles of Avebury illustrate an architectural and religious civilization. From around 1000 BC, we enter into the Late Bronze Age and by gradual stages into around 500BC, into the early Iron Age. The population was increasing, and it appears to be a period of amalgamation between conquerors and conquered, especially in the north where the conquerors had been few in number, there were spreading pit-dwellings and wattled huts over every upland and in sheltered ravines. These people were weaving cloth and smelting charcoal. Metal working spread at a rapid rate with hollow-cast axes, swords, cutting edge tools, sickles wheeled carts and cauldrons. Agriculture was greatly enhanced by iron ploughs that could cultivate hitherto difficult heavy clay and stony ground. Field patterns of small rectangles in some places can still be seen of that period, even today.
Arts and crafts of this period seem to denote new immigrations of an Alpine element. Also there appears an influence of a western link with Spain. However, it is generally accepted that the trend of immigration came predominantly from the North, from the Rhineland and the Ardennes. It is this period when the epoch of the Celts, and the folk-wanderings which for a thousand years would convulse Europe. Coming from the hive of eastern Europe, the Celts had struck west and south and were ever pushed by the German and Illyrian races behind them. They penetrated Spain, attacked Rome, and moved over the Danube and into Asia Minor.
In the British Isles, there were two different tribal families one with the Goidel tongue and the other, the Brythonic. Erse and Gaelic in the first and Welsh, Breton, and Cornish in the second. It seems to indicate a perpetual arrival of many groups from about 800 to 450 BC; from Champagne, Brittany northern France and the lower Rhine regions where Celt and Teuton had mixed. They made their way to the Scarborough headland, into the Fens and the Thames, and then into the Hampshire harbours. Another wave, sailed in from Atlantic ports, reached the tin workings, which were exported through St Michael’s Mount and by way of the Severn passed into the Midlands.
These were said to be tall fair-haired people who called the natives whom they defeated, the ‘Pretanni’ or ‘painted folk’. They were experienced warriors who brought with them the power of iron for which later on they used ores of the Sussex Weald and the Forest of Dean, making spears, chariots, and horse harnesses. They were great builders of fortified camps on the southern downs and of which Maiden Castle in Dorset is a famous type. Between 250 BC and AD 100 there is evidence of two further widely separated settlements, well advanced in culture. One in Yorkshire came from the Paris region and spreading from the Fens into East Anglia, the other far away at Glastonbury.
About 75 BC began a final sequence of invasions, which were to bind Britain in a permanent relation with Europe. The Belgae, centred on the Marne and Aisne, and part-German in culture, had already won some footing over these waters, and now, headed by the tribe of Catuvellauni, appeared in force in Kent, thence spread over the Thames into Essex and Hertfordshire, where at Wheathampstead they began making a fortified capital, and so on to the Midland streams lying between Oxford and Cambridge. Some thirty years later, when Caesar had come and failed and departed, another Belgic tribe the Atrebates, refugees from Roman power, crossed from Normandy, fixed a capital at Silchester in Berkshire, and ruthlessly attacked the peoples of West Sussex and Somerset.
The Belgae brought with them a rude vigour, and some positive improvements. Their power was considerable, enough to make sizeable States. They struck coins, like the Gauls, copying old Macedonian models, from the horse of whose chariots perhaps descends the white horse cut on the Berkshire downs. They made pottery on the wheel. It is likely they introduced a heavier build of plough to clear forest lands for clearance and settlement. While there was no ‘united’ Britain nor uniform culture outside the two substantial Belgic States mentioned, there survived strong Celtic communities. The Dobuni territory extended from the Cotswolds to the Welsh foothills and one wing stretching into Dorset. Trinovantes in Essex, Iceni in East Anglia and the Brigantes in the north. Alike in the north and the Cornish west and Wales, a Bronze Age civilization, or even ruder life was perpetuated, ranging from chiefs in hillforts down to villages, pit-dwellings, or stone huts. In the Belgic areas there was growing wealth, much wheat growing and ironmaking, but a finer artistic sense lived in the Celtic middle west, where pottery retained the bold curves and spirals of an earlier age and whence derived some magnificent ornament in bronze.
Tattooed Britons still offered human sacrifice; Glastonbury and Chichester, seem to have fallen in massacre before the new towns were made by the Belgae. Like the Gauls, the Britons deferred to the Druid caste, with whom lay the secret of their sacred songs, the taking of auspices , the award of punishment, and the dread power of ‘taboo’, which made a class of untouchables. Their gods were many and of all sorts, gods of war and thunder, or local deities of some holy well or haunted wood. They feared the unseen by burning victims in wicker cages.
However, they were now to receive the two destined agents of mediaeval power, the Roman legion, and the religion of Christ.