A (not-very-yet-too-very) brief history of “Wales” and “England”

It’s just not possible to condense a millennium of history into a single post without generalising massively and becoming irritatingly long. Sorry for both, but in the interests of brevity I’m starting at the non-existant year zero (between 1BC and 1AD). Or near to it.

In 55BC, Julius Caesar (looking to boost his military conquests and running out of lands to conquer in the name of Rome) made a flying visit to the south coast of Britannia with a small force, hammered a bunch of Britons living there, was fought off but still managed to take the town he renamed Colchester and high-tailed it back to Rome crying ‘conquest’ of Britannia. Presumably, the fired-up Britons spat in the water after him and sat down to a heavy drinking session believing that they, in fact, had the victory.

Sixty-five years later (in 10AD) Rome tried again, with a much bigger force this time, and the occupation of Briton was formally ‘on’. Parts of Briton (well used to changing of the occupationary guard, I imagine) simply yielded to the might and the phenomenal resources of Rome. They may well have seen very much what was in it for them as Roman citizens. But not everyone was happy at the occupation and so ‘Britain’ fought back on multiple fronts as Rome elbowed their way ever North.

When they got to the most Northern reaches of the land they encountered a ferocious band of warriors they named the Picts (because of the heavy tattoos on their bodies), and repeated efforts by a range of military strategists failed to break the Pict ranks and so Rome just drew a line across the country at a convenient, skinny neck, built a mighty wall there, said ‘yours/ours’ and left the Picts to their North.

About 40 years of creeping occupancy on, they then turned their gaze more seriously in the direction of the ore rich west of the island which appeared to be full of a people of Celtic and Iberian roots and which, up until now, had been more trouble than it was worth. Parts of what we now know as ‘Wales’ capitulated fairly quickly (again, deciding that life as a well-resourced Roman citizen wasn’t the worst outcome for them particularly since, by now, Rome was letting them carry on with their fundamental elements of faith and just…aligning the Roman ones to them). Those in the Northern mountains dug in deep and fought in a way the Romans were incapable of managing – ‘guerrilla warfare’. They drew the Empire up into the mountains where large forces did poorly, they used the terrain to trap Roman forces and gain advantage, and they fought in small, strategic bands that did lots of damage. Thus, Rome more or less said ‘oh well, all the riches are in the south anyway’ and left them to their mountains, though occasionally they put some effort in to battling them just to keep them occupied and stop them from rallying bigger forces.

What they did do was recognise quickly that the power in the Celtic-based society hung on the mysterious Druid class who seemed to have all withdrawn to the isle of Mon (modern day Anglesea) buffered from Rome and the South by a wall of warriors, mountains and a natural moat! The Druids bothered Rome enough that they took forces away from Queen Boudicea’s uprising in the east to try and sort them once and for all.

And they did. And it was horrendous. The Druids, their homes, their holy forests — all razed to dust to try and break the spirits of the remaining Celts.

A large number of remaining ‘native’ Britons saw the writing on the wall and set sail for the Celtic stronghold of Brittany (literally ‘little Briton’) to start over.

Following that, the last lingering Britons did pretty much withdraw into the mountains and eked out an existence separate to the population to the south which was now thriving in its Roman-ness. Cities and towns were built, infrastructure was revolutionised, much of the dispersed population now centralised to those centres which had Roman forts to defend them and shared resources. Rome gave them freedom, structure, resources, education and aspiration. Rome easily beat off any incursions by the Irish (Scoti), the Picts, or Germanic tribes who tried to sneak in. They were funded, protected and empowered. And in very short order things settled down to ‘normal’.

Things could definitely have been worse for some Britons.

For four centuries (three for the west who were occupied much later), Roman Briton ticked over very nicely. But then, way south in Rome itself, a massive organised force (the Goths) sacked some Roman strongholds including Roma. Much like your body does with its blood when under attack, Rome had no choice but to withdraw all its military might from the least-essential lands (the peripheral) to focus on this major threat to its capital lands. Perhaps they assumed they could head back up north and re-take Briton once they were done. So around 400AD (ish) they took their soldiers, and their leaders, and a good chunk of what were (by then) ‘Roman citizens’ and they headed to Rome to defend the Empire.

They TOTALLY abandoned the Romano-Britons they left behind. As break ups went, it was unexpected and brutally clean. The remaining gentry and administrative classes bailed very soon after, following the Roman defence forces back into safer territory and taking their wealth with them. Within a few years, the infrastructure started to fail without experienced people or money to upkeep it. Most trade networks collapsed. People abandoned the failing cities and fled back out to the now-fallow land, dispersing back into the kinds of feudal communities and lifestyles that Rome had found on arriving. They abandoned all their ‘civility’ and national identity and focussed very much on just surviving in their own little patches. Some abandoned the One God (they’d just been getting used to) and fell back on the “Old Gods” out of desperation, trying hard to make amends for having abandoned them so faithlessly.

The ‘re-Celitcisation’ of Briton had begun.

A great analogy: I’ve seen the United States used as an analogy here and it’s a pretty good one because the timelines are roughly the same. In the case of North America, a superpower (Britain, for simplicity’s sake) swarmed in, subsumed all the first owners of the land, set up shop their way, ran that shop reasonably well for a couple of centuries, developed, grew, specialised into the country and power that the US is today (for the purposes of this analogy, ignore the US’s subsequent Independence). The measure of growth experienced in Britain between 10AD and 410AD during Roman occupation was much like the kind of growth the US experienced between 1607 and 2007 — massive! Imagine, then, that in 2008, all of the US’s military, financial and administrative services were simply…withdrawn. Imagine they all got on boats and went back to Britain or France or wherever to fight for someone else. Imagine, then, that anyone who had money invested in the US also upped-stakes with whatever of that fortune they could liquidate and just…left. Think what would be left of that America and what an utter shambles it would be after 400 years of doing things a particular way under the might of an Empirical occupier. Canada would immediately subsume resource-rich Alaska (if they could beat Russia to it), and swarm down from the north and take the border states at a minimum. Mexico and others would swarm up from the South. Every man and his dog would have a crack at getting those abandoned lands for themselves. And all the remaining Americans struggling to survive on what the land could give them without the trappings of their ‘civilisation’ would be completely ripe for the taking.  So…yeah… that was post Roman Briton.

Where were we? Back to the year 410AD, the specialisation and development that happened in Briton between since 10AD had created a strong, healthy civilisation full of Romano-Britons. But then Rome just packs up one day and sails off taking all of its everything with it.

Out of the North of ‘Wales’ rode all those warrior classes and warlords who had denied Rome and who had been ruling the mountains and occasionally battling the Picts and Scoti too who immediately set sail or swarmed in on foot into the north of what would later become ‘England’. Out of the south of ‘Wales’ emerged some of the strongest remaining Romano-British families on a fast-track Warlord program. And a couple of Germanic and Danish tribes came up from the Continent into the south of ‘England’ for good measure.

The struggling Romano-Britons begged Rome for help–like a child to a parent. But Rome was too busy saving its more favoured children (futiley, as it would turn out quite a bit later) and so no help arrived. The britons were pushed by fierce Northerners straight into the waiting swords of Germanic tribes coming ashore from the south. It was a horrible time of slaughter for a people who had lived in relative peace for four centuries.

As history tells it, a warlord called Vortigern–perhaps the King of all Briton, perhaps not–decided ‘better the devil you know’. Legend says he hired some Anglo Saxon mercenaries to come and fight off the Irish, Picts, Germans and Danes in return for some lands.  The regrouping Britons weren’t yet mobilised enough to be an effective defence force and because they were basically bankrupt following Rome’s departure. Land (and what was under it) was all they had. But jeez they had a lot of it.

So, the Angles came as promised and they were awesome. The Picts, Danes and Irish fled back from whence they came (loosely speaking). But the Angles recognised immediately that Briton was so defenceless they had to ask for help in the first place, and they took their time checking out Briton’s mineral riches and, naturally, came to question why they should limit themselves only to the lands they’d been promised?

Gleeful Angle messengers went back to the Germanic lands they’d come from and hundreds of ships were made and sailed to the whimpering shores of Britain. The ‘Anglo-Saxon’ wave began.

Poor old Vortigern has been much pilloried for his stupidity (or greed) in inviting the Angles into Britain but, really, it was only a matter of time. Briton was basically on its back, flailing. Someone was going to take advantage sooner rather than later. But he was certainly naive for imagining that he’d be able to ‘play’ the Angles as though he still had the might of Rome at his back. If he was going to surrender his country to someone perhaps it would have been better the Irish or the Picts? But, by then, Briton was basically Roman in ethos–the Celtic Irish were just too ‘foreign’ and the Picts were just too primitive to tolerate. The Angles, at least, had vaguely comprehensible gods and laws.

So, perhaps they were the lesser of several evils.

Anyway, within two generations of warring (ie: the end of the 5th century), the Island of Britain was split a couple of ways. The Picts still held the north (although they were battling it out with the Scoti/irish who pushed them way back into the north-north and took the south of the North for themselves) and the old Roman wall was still a frontier border that no-one seemed willing to cross. The Angles and Saxons (and to a lesser degree Danes and Jutes) swarmed in with insane numbers and subsumed the entire east of the island right up to that wall forming ‘Angle-land’ or ‘England’ as it eventually became known.

In the West (‘Wealas’, as the Angles called it), all the Romano-Briton-Celt types already there (or pushed there by the Anglo-Saxon invasion) sorted themselves into a defence force and pushed back against the Anglo-Saxons fairly successfully for about a century courtesy of some damned fine War-lording. The ‘Welsh’ were a thorn in the Anglo Saxon’s side for some time but, by the 8th century, the sheer volume of AngloSaxons meant that they had spread into Wales, too, and insinuated themselves throughout in pockets (though, again, not really in the mountainous, difficult north). Those who weren’t willing to stay and fight for a Celtic Wales sailed off for the still Celtic-rich lands of Brittany.

There was a brief flurry of Danish (Viking) incursion in Britain in the 9th and 10th C, but then in the 11th (1066 to be precise) in sailed the Normans. There’s a bunch of politics that goes with this but suffice to say that the Norman leader, ‘William’, was welcomed by large parts of the ‘Welsh’ population either because of the old adage the enemy of my enemy is my friend (and they still very much held a grudge against the Angles/Saxons) or (more obscurely but much more intriguingly) because William and the Normans came from Normandy which, while by now identifying as ‘French’ and being partly populated by Danes, was also fairly recently a rich Celtic land and part of the old Brittany. So the still Celticised Welsh may well have seen William’s arrival as the return of a traditional bloodline. More ‘them’ than the Angles, certainly.

William triumphed, England was Normanised, Wales kind of was too (but not totally because they were still holding onto their own identity), everything north of the wall just minded its own business for a while yet.

And so… the Celts of Briton had become the Romano-Britons and then they became Anglo-Saxon and by the 11th century they were known as the Anglo-Normans as the two cultures assimilated and their language grew to be a mix of (predominantly) French and Germanic based words, with some Danish and old Celt thrown in.

So there you have it. The incredibly tumultuous millennium that was the 1st AD. A revolutionary and revolutionising time for the people’s of Briton. In a nutshell.