Early Arthurian Britain – Who Were the Britons in the Age of Arthur?


To more fully comprehend the era in which King Arthur would have risen to power, it is necessary to understand the dynamics at work prior to the fifth century. This lesson gathers the history of the different peoples and cultural elements in early Britain, their legacies, how they came together, and how they effected the early Arthurian period.

The Celts

The Britons of Arthurian Britain were the inheritors of three cultures: the Celts, the Romans and the Christians. In addition, the Celts of Britain were the inheritors of the Neolithic culture that thrived in the island between c.4000 BC and c.2000 BC.

Of the Neolithic people, we know little else except that they practiced farming and left behind massive megalithic monuments: cromlechi and dolmens (chambered tombs, e.g. West Kennet Long Barrow), menhirs (single standing stones), and henge monuments (e.g. Stonehenge and Avebury).

Sometime near the end of the Neolithic period or the beginning of the Early Bronze Age, waves of incoming Indo-European groups appear to have begun to absorb the Neolithic population. The new groups arrived either through migration or invasion. It was not until the sixteenth century that it was realized the new people were Celts. Pottery, jewelry and metalwork discoveries confirm this.

It is unknown exactly when and where the Celts originated, but the earliest indication of their existence comes from the central European locations, Hallstatt, in Austria and La Tene in Switzerland. They emerged as a recognizable culture from around 500 BC, spreading across most of Europe north of the Alps, all the way into the British Isles. The Celts were not homogenous, but had enough commonality in language, religion, political and military organization, art and music, iron-working capabilities and farming techniques, to allow them a nearly nation-like status.

In Britain, the earlier Neolithics and the Celts may have co-existed for a long period, the length of which is unknown. However, it appears that in the centuries following the Iron Age’s beginning, the Celts may have become culturally dominant even though their numbers were not enough to actually shift society’s racial composition.

The Celts probably adopted some of the Neolithics’ building traits out of necessity. Over a period of a thousand years, hilltop settlements, called hillforts, were being constructed. Some were fortified for military purposes, others appear to be merely pastoral enclosures or for rituals. Tribal chieftains emerged. Trade remained in long established patterns. It may even be possible that traits often attributed to Celtic culture, such as respect for women, patterns of language and rituals performed by druids, actually originated with the Celts’ predecessors.

The Romans

In 55 BC, Julius Caesar made his first landing on Britain’s shores. From that moment on, he and Rome intended to have Britain. In AD 43, the emperor Claudius completed the initial conquest. Some native chieftains submitted with little resistance. Over a number of years, others fought bitterly to throw off Roman occupation. The most well known of these revolts is that of the Iceni Queen Boudicca, in AD 61.

In time, things settled down in the south. However, the north remained hostile and Rome continued its aggression all the way into the highlands of Scotland. By AD 82-90, they reached the Forth-Clyde line along which a series of forts was built. In AD 84, Agricola won a decisive battle at Mons Graupius. Hadrian’s Wall was built AD 120-123, and the Antonine Wall in AD 142. The walls and the forts were built upon the realization that the northern tribes were too difficult to subdue.

Though the conquest initially spilled much Celtic blood, the legions and organized government deterred invasions from other outsiders. When raids did occur, they were repelled. It is estimated that up to 55,000 Roman troops were needed to maintain control. With the advent of relative peace that continued for four hundred years, many Britons found an incentive to keep their Roman governors.

As the Neolithics co-existed with the Celts, the Celts co-existed with the Romans. The degree to which Britain became Romanized continues to be debated. Different areas became more Roman than others, the southern region taking on the most characteristics because of its thicker Roman population.

Towns developed around Roman fortresses, organized after Roman standards. Governmental city-states, called civitates, were established and roughly based on early tribal regions. In AD 214, the emperor Caracalla granted Roman citizenship to all free people in the Empire. A series of forts along the southeastern shore (the Saxon Shore) were built to guard against Saxon pirates.

Agriculture remained the fundamental industry throughout Roman Britain, and coinage became the medium of trade instead of barter. Mining was gradually developed, though not in great quantity. Villas, bathhouses, temples, theatres, amphitheatres and roads were built. Latin was imported with the conquerors, but only those in the highest levels of British society who could afford an education, learned the language.

In the early days of the occupation, temples and shrines devoted to Celtic gods and goddesses were kept and even combined with Roman deities. This remained in practice throughout the occupation. When Christianity was adopted as Rome’s official religion in 313, it only entered Britain slowly and modestly. Churches were generally built in urban centers.

In spite of the many Roman impositions of political, military, and economic rule, native Britons kept their languages, culture and basic way of life. In the countryside and remote areas to the north and west, life remained Celtic.