England’s early cultural history, built-up layer by layer, began with a tribal society from Celtic immigrant communities eventually overrun by Anglo-Saxons. There are many influences today that hark back to practices which are retained from those very early times.
On the admission to borough ‘freedom’, a person is required to swear a solemn oath to adhere to the rules of their community. This is normally done under the customary supervision of their elders. Such actions under these circumstances are a continuance of the basic principle of tribal rites in that they relate to ‘kinship’. Kinship is broadly the family community and includes those who are traditionally acceptable into their community. The Highland clan is one such example, and where the word ‘clann’ simply means ‘children of’, therefore a clan is made up of a kindred population.
A tribe is normally led by a noble chief who would usually have inherited through a rather sophisticated agnatic ruling system. Tribes were territorial but do not normally, in themselves, create a ‘nation’. However, tribal people often form alliances and commonly adopt similar ancient historical practices. As is the case within the history of Borough freedom, regulation and customary practices developed independently. There was a common belief in an ‘after-life’, this is explained by the many excavated grave-goods, and apparent indications of various rituals. Similarly, a spiritual line direct to God is even today claimed traditionally, by our modern English monarch.
It is my belief that an early ‘English’ culture had begun even before the Roman Conquest of Britain and developed during the early ‘Iron Age’. The Brittonic tribes generally spoke with a Brythonic tongue, typical of the Celtic tribes of which there were many. It is often pondered why there are so very few place names remaining in that language. My research tells me that such tribes as the Iceni, of Boudica fame, who were present in the Roman times, spoke entirely with a Germanic tongue. Nordic people had long been arriving via the North-eastern Sea coast, in a spasmodic way, merely as opportunistic immigrants. The Romans built a fort at Caister and with various other coastal defences they guarded what was referred to as the ‘Saxon Shore’.
I mention the ‘Iceni’ because they appear to have been related in ways to the inflow of northern Scandinavian people and the Angles in particular. The Brittonic Pre-Iron-Age world comprised many tribes of Celtic origin. In general they spoke a common Brythonic language but with varying dialects. During the Roman occupation Latin words were introduced and as such came into popular use. By the 5th century a Germanic early English language dominated with changes of dialect in the various areas. Eventually, the Anglo-Saxons, Jutes and Friesians pushed the Brythonic speaking Celtic tribes into Wales, Cornwall, up into Scotland and over to Brittany.
Tribal laws and activities were unwritten and relied upon interpretation from the elders or bards. They were centred upon relationships and the rights of families and persons within the tribe. There were traditionally shared values of nature, agriculture, and native practices. Codes of practice were normally dealt with by forms of compensation. People were literally valued, and a person of rank had a higher replacement value than a commoner. There were ‘blood-feuds’ associated with penalties. For example, an injury by a freeman to a bondsman would result in a compensatory fine. However, an injury to a freeman by a bondsman could result in the penalty of a loss of a limb.
These people lived within defensive walls in an enclosed and insular community, and it seems likely to me that these were circumstances similar to the much later ‘Borough system, of Alfred the Great. Communal rules, administration, craftwork, and trading were carried out in much the same way as within a manorial borough of later years.
The Druids of ancient history were foremost the teachers and they formed a priesthood that performed mystic rituals associated with oak groves and spring or running waters. It is not understood how their powers caused considerable alarm to Julius Caesar during his visit to Britain. Although recognised as the wisemen and teachers they were known to practice animal sacrifice and thought to sometimes include humans. Fortunately these influences are not included in our present traditions today.
Generally, the majority of the tribes in Britain during the Roman occupation, were friendly and managed with ease. However, such tribes as the Silures were more insulated and hostile to any interference. Later, when, under an Anglo-Saxon domination, Britain was unable to resist the latter-day Nordic Viking Danish tribes. These Northmen became the ‘Normans’ who combined trading with a warrior instinct. They established themselves from Iceland, through Russia and the Baltics into Spain. They occupied Normandy and eventually conquered England.
Tribal influences have remained in a variety of ways. They are dominant in Highland Scotland and in regions of Wales. There existed a cult of King Arthur and the Grail legend. The mystical cult of the Gael and its artform, extended strongly into the Christian Church including its independent approach to the Christian calendar. The Celtic Christian colonies appear to have remained sceptical about adopting a Roman ‘’Catholic’ view and retained a tribal legendry instinct. It is very interesting to me, that even today, the London Guildhall still retains the large statues of the giants, Ogmios (Gog) the fierce Celtic god of eloquence, and Magog the mother god, deity of fertility. Any suggestion of removing them would lead to a wholesale riot.
There are many examples of ancient pagan rites that still exist in more rural areas such as wassailing, the application of mistletoe and it would seem that ‘well-dressing’ dates back to pagan times. The mystic recognition of water as the ‘life-blood’ was prominent in Celtic beliefs. Of ‘borough’ customs, I believe that the ancient induction method employed at Malmsbury may date from pre-history. Many of the old rites once operated within the early boroughs have all but disappeared all but for the traces remaining in our ongoing association of interested freemen.
In Summary and Conclusion: The Brittonic Celtic Tribes, forerunners of our Anglo-Saxon nation, were primarily an agricultural society living in territorial groups. They had fortified centres or settlements which could defend their population under an attack. The regulation and management of these centres would have developed internal traditions and customs that were probably passed down to the later generations that occupied the manorial borough towns of later years. Within each of the tribal centres there will have existed moneyers who minted local coins and there was trading in crafted wares in metals, leather, and textiles etc.
Celtic tribes were organised around a central noble leader or ‘chieftain’, as is the case with Scottish Clans. Generally, all members took the clan or tribal name. The very word ‘clan’ in Gaelic means the children or ‘stock’ and clearly indicates the paternal nature of the system. A similar system applied to the Welsh, Cornish, and Irish tribal Celts. From these examples, we can regard the customs to have been generally held by Celtic Society before the Anglo-Saxon settlement and acculturation.
The Celtic tribal leadership was in most cases determined by an agnatic rule although in earlier tribes they have been known to allow a cognatic (female) to take leadership. Agnatic rule is a patrilineal principle where the order of succession provides the younger brother of the leader to inherit over the initial leader’s sons. Children only succeed after the males of the elder generation has been exhausted. The agnate is traceable exclusively through the males related on the father’s side. An ‘agnate’ may be the great-grandfather. Generally speaking, the ‘bilateral’ descent doubles the ancestors regardless of gender; With ‘unilineal’ descent there would be only one direct ancestor in each generation.
Noble ‘leading’ family members of the tribal chief in conjunction with the bards governed the tribe’s activities. Political rights, codes of practice and tribal ritual, while unwritten, would have been interpreted as customary by the community elders. Bardo-Druidic systems including the rites handed down were even included into their interpretation of Christianity. The principal criteria of ‘Freedom’ within the tribes had priority among their operations.