The Layers of British History Up to 1066

British history is not taught in U.S. public school, unless one counts the founding of the 13 colonies as such.  You may think that makes sense since this is the United States and Britain (England, U.K., whatever you call it) is thousands of miles away across the vast Atlantic Ocean.

This is wrong.  The history of the United States relies greatly on the history of Britain, and not just the history of the 1600’s and 1700’s.  I believe that understanding British history is vital to understanding U.S. History and when I say this I mean ancient British history.  The following is a quick overview of the history of the place known as Britain.  Later blogs may deal with the name “Britain” -it came from Brittany, which is in northwest France, but I do not need to confuse you – or the name “England” which came from “An-gel-land” – as in land of the Angles. Another post may deal with the Union Jack flag, which is a combination of three flags.  Another post will….you get the idea.

GEOGRAPHY

The British Isles are an archipelago.  This simply means “a group of islands.” There are many tiny islands in this archipelago, the largest being the island consisting of England, Wales, and Scotland in the east, and the island consisting of Ireland, which today is divided into the Republic of Ireland in the south and Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, in the north (obviously).  This post will concern itself mainly with the people of the large island.  Ireland has its own distinct history, for the most part. You should probably break out a map if you are unfamiliar with the geography of the British Isles and their location in relation to mainland Europe.

ERAS

The British isles can be divided into several distinct eras of occupation from B.C. (B.C.E.) all the way through to the year 1066.

Celtic Britain –  Celtic = “K”eltic, hard “C” not like the “Boston Celtics.”  The Celtic people populated all of Europe and much of the British Isles.  It is possible that the Celts migrated by foot from mainland Europe when the ocean level was lower and the island was connected to modern-day France.  It is also possible that the Celts built boats and traveled the 23 or so miles across what we call the “English Channel.”

Either way, there were people in the British Isles for a very long time.  These people built the famous Stonehenge which is west of London.  Not a lot is known about these Celtic people. It is simply important to know OF them.

Roman Britain – The same people who built the Roman Republic and Roman Empire brought parts of the British Isles under their sway. The British Isles were on the outside of the Roman’s known world.  The first Romans to make their way into this area were lead by the famous Julius Caesar in 55-54 B.C. Caesar was a general at this time and not yet dictator. He was conquering Gaul, roughly modern-day France.  Britain was really “Romanized” after Roman Emperor Claudius launched his conquest in 43 A.D.

It is right to say that the Romans “civilized” Britain. It is also a knock on the culture that we do not know a lot about as they had a civilization too.  It can’t be argued that the Romans modernized Britain. Writing became more widespread as did larger buildings. The southern part of the British Isles became a Roman province through 440 A.D.

Anglo-Saxon Britain – The Romans had a lot of problems in the 5th Century A.D.  People such as Attila the Hun were attempting to sack Rome.  Rome had to defend its interior and the British Isles became less important.  When the Romans left other people moved in.  People called Picts from modern-day Scotland in the north and Scots from Ireland in the west invaded the south (yes, I know that is confusing – we have established that this is a confusing subject.)  Germanic tribes called, in general, the Jutes, the Angles, and the Saxons invaded from the east. These people invaded from the area roughly of modern-day Denmark and northern Germany.

The Angles and Saxons eventually controlled most of eastern and central Britain. Anglo-Saxon was a term that eventually encompassed all of the English people. The famous King Alfred the Great ruled this land at the turn of the 9th century.

Norman England – The final era covered is that of the Normans.  Their name comes from “north men” meaning what we would consider Vikings.  Long story short, Vikings invaded lots of places, including modern-day France.  The king of France was relatively weak militarily so he let these Viking north men stay in the northern part of France that today is called Normandy. (Normandy is most famous today as the site of the D-Day invasion of WWII, June 6 1944)

After a couple of hundred years these Vikings were French-ified (no, not a real word).  They were still a distinct people but they spoke French and had a similar culture to the French.  This is where the famous date of 1066 comes in to play.

In January 1066 Anglo-Saxon King Edward the Confessor dies. Harold Godwinson claims his crown but so does a man named William, Duke of Normandy (leader of the French-ified Vikings). William claimed that Edward promised him the crown upon his death.  The only way to solve this would be through battle so a war ensued. Between Harold and William….

But there is another Harold.  Harold Hardrata, King of Norway and brother-in-law of Harold Godwinson, invades northern England.  Hardrata is defeated by Godwinson at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in late September.  Godwinson then had to rush down south to meet in invading Normans led by William.  Godwinson left a large part of his army in the north. The armies met at the Battle of Hastings on the 14th of October.  William and the Normans were victorious.  This is the last time that the British Isles have been successfully invaded.

William became King on Christmas day 1066.  He is called William I, William the Conqueror, William the Bastard (yes).  The Norman conquest of Britain totally changed the culture of the British Isles and the history of the world.

DO FURTHER RESEARCH

There are so many cool stories in this history.  I covered over 1000 years in a few paragraphs.  I may have skipped a few names….  I would suggest picking up a copy of The Oxford Illustrated History of Britain.  It is a wonderful book and, at just under 600 pages it is not a huge volume for the subject matter that it covers.  I would also suggest listening to the podcast “The What-Ifs of 1066” on Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History Podcast.  It makes you really feel for the last Anglo-Saxon King, Harold Godwinson.  KingHarold