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  1. #1
    Administrator Prime Time's Avatar
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    A Prime Time History of Britain #1 - From Prehistory to the Romans

    Here in the UK we are almost used to thinking of history as beginning in 1066. If you only know any single date from the past, the odds are it is that one. It’s probably because of the central place it has in our national mythology. It’s called the last successful invasion of Britain. We are used to thinking ourselves as conquerors, as the centre of the British Empire. It is the vehicle that saw us transport parliamentary democracy and the English language around the world, at the same time as we carried the wealth of a quarter of the world back to London. But the truth is there had been people in Britain for at least four thousand years before 1066, and that during that time, Britain was not a conquering land. For most of it, this was an island that people outside its boundaries saw as an opportunity.

    The division between Ireland and England occurred much earlier, but Britain was a peninsula at the edge of the European continent until around 6000 BCE. Eventually, rising sea levels caused an area that joined the East of England with the modern-day Netherlands to flood, turning Britain into an island and giving the Netherlands it’s long coastline. This would eventually be crucial in both countries’ development into maritime superpowers during the Enlightenment. Still, we are getting ahead of ourselves.




    The archaeological record implies that early humans had lived in Britain for hundreds of thousands of years. Sites such as Skara Brae in the Orkney isles suggest that there were modern humans capable of building stone villages living in the islands during the Neolithic period, around 3000 BCE. These early humans occupied Skara Brae and its stone houses for roughly the same length of time that Europeans have lived on the American continent. Around the same time, Stonehenge was built in Wiltshire. We do not really know why or how, but it’s believed that the huge stones were transported, using only prehistoric tools, a distance of around 150 miles, from Pembrokeshire on the Welsh coast.

    We do not know much about this period beyond what the archaeology can tell us. Literacy does not appear to have been a part of these people’s lives, or at least if it was, they kept no records that have survived to the present day. What we do know is that by the Iron Age, languages that had their origin in Central Europe had made their way to the British Isles. The speakers of these languages are known, broadly at least, as Celts. The speakers of these languages are the ones that most think of when they think of the indigenous Britons.

    At this point, Britain and Ireland were occupied by around 50 different tribes. Some of them would go on – especially in Ireland – to be secure enough that they would call themselves Kingdoms by the time of Julius Caesar. Caesar had reached Britain in around 55 BCE. Still, it was under Emperor Claudius that a genuinely successful invasion of Britain began, that would plant Roman culture across Southern England in particular.

    Though the Romans were the most impressive military force on the planet at the time, they would fail to subdue the entire British Isles. They never made it to Ireland, for one thing. Wales, too, proved stubborn, as the mountainous terrain allowed the locals to perpetuate a kind of guerrilla warfare so that only those in South Wales would fall under the Roman spell. To this day, there is a cultural divide between those born in relatively accessible Southern counties and those in the more rugged mountains. Those people from Cardiff and gentle Glamorgan are often viewed as collaborators, or only half-Welsh, by more militant natives of the provinces of Gwynedd and Powys.

    The Romans would have similar troubles in what would go on to be called Scotland. In a climate of unrest and with raids from tribes to the North known as the Picts, Emperor Hadrian would order the construction of a wall across the island of Great Britain – not too far away from the current border between England and Scotland. Some twenty years later, a second wall – the Antonine Wall, named after Emperor Antoninus Pius – was built across the country further north. These two walls were defensive, but this second wall also created a region within a region. Those within the boundary of the Antonine Wall were more likely to look South to Roman Britannia for the purposes of trade. Those on the other side would remain – to the Roman perspective – barbarian. This would perpetuate yet another cultural divide with a legacy in contemporary Scotland. To this day, the two biggest cities in the country, Glasgow and Edinburgh are situated in the area between the two Roman walls.



    The region that would go on to be called England, though conquered, was not as passive as this might suggest. Rebellions occurred, even if they were successfully put down and the lack of adequate cover meant that Roman control would be mostly unchallenged. Probably the most famous revolt came in the region of East Anglia, by the tribe called the Iceni. They were led by a woman who has reached an almost mythic status in Britain: Queen Boudicca. The picture below is of a statue of Boudicca and her daughters that still stands on Westminster Bridge.

    Boudicca’s husband had been the King of the Iceni, and he had been, in truth, a collaborator during the Roman invasion. As King, he had made gestures that designed to appease Rome and to put his kingdom beyond the risk of attack. His gestures at pacification did the opposite as on his death soldiers sacked a region that they considered weak and unlikely to offer resistance. The land of leading Iceni notables was confiscated, and the members of the former King’s household were particularly ill-treated. Boudicca was whipped, and her daughters were raped.



    While the governor of Britannia was away fighting in Wales, Boudicca emerged as the leader of a syndicate of Anglian tribes and her indigenous army began to move. They started with an attack on Camulodunum (modern-day Colchester). This town happened to be reasonably nearby, but more importantly, had strategic importance as the capital in the early days of the Roman occupation. When the city fell, it was destroyed, along with a statue of Emperor Nero, it’s head taken as a trophy of war. From there, the rebels advanced on the new city of Londinium, which was also burned down. Verulamium (St. Albans) was also put to the torch, as three of the most significant Roman settlements on the island fell. In the end, the Romans rallied. In the decisive battle Roman tactics were able to overcome a much larger army. Historical records do not agree, but in some accounts, the defeated Boudicca takes her own life. The alternative was being brought to Rome to die in a Triumph, as Vercingetorix of Gaul had before her. The Romans would never really be as threatened again, although Boudicca and her army had pushed them close. According to one Roman historian, Nero was almost inclined to abandon Britain as a result of her efforts.

    Once safe and secure, the Romans would have a massive impact on Britain – and especially on England. Several cities today, such as Colchester and St Albans, have Roman origins. Others include Bath (Aquae Sulis), Chester (Deva), York, Exeter and Winchester. The new Roman town of Londinium was of such growing commercial importance that it would be rebuilt. One day it would – under the name of London – become the capital of a new nation.

    The Romans connected Britain to a global empire. They bought stone buildings to the country for the first time and overhauled the road network. Some of their roads can still be seen on the map – such as the A10 which has strong affinities with the Roman Ermine Street. They bought literacy to the country, and with it the learning of the classical world. Their garrisons brought a sense of stability and security, enhancing trade and extending agriculture in the flatlands of England. Their aqueducts and bathhouses improved public hygiene.

    Still, Roman influence in Britain came to an end, and when it came, it happened rather quickly. Early in the 4th century, prominent military figures were still travelling to Britain with the idea of conquering the Northernmost tribes to secure the whole island of Great Britain for the glory of Rome. Early in the following century, just a hundred years later, the Romans had not only abandoned colonising Scotland but were leaving Britain altogether. In part, this was due to an economic slowdown, but equally important was the difficulty in defending so vast an empire that was, in itself, in decline.

    There is no exact date for the withdrawal of Romans from Britain. It is not as if this happened immediately. A pivotal moment is when the legions serving in Britain declared a General as Emperor. They left the country to fight the Emperor in Rome but lost. Following this defeat most of the military power in Britain was gone, leaving the southern portions of the island vulnerable to attack. The Britons in those areas, who had presented the Romans with such difficulties, no longer really knew how to fight. They appealed to Rome for help, but none was forthcoming. There were formidable enemies in the North and parts of Wales. Still, the wealthiest, most appealing parts of Britain were effectively up for grabs. Those that the now-romanised Britons thought of as ‘Barbarians’ were circling.

    Those Britons did not know it yet, but they were on a collision course with fundamental elements of modern Britain.

    "The worst moron is the one too stupid to realise they're a moron."

  2. #2
    Lamb of LOP anonymous's Avatar
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    Those people from Cardiff and gentle Glamorgan are often viewed as collaborators, or only half-Welsh,
    Never heard Glamorgan called “gentle” before.

    Really enjoyed this, Pete. You could write about most things and make it engaging.

  3. #3
    Administrator Prime Time's Avatar
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    Ha, no indeed! All relative though isn't it, and compared with the mountains of North and Mid Wales the landscape of Glamorgan is relatively gentle.

    Thanks mate, appreciate the kind words.

    "The worst moron is the one too stupid to realise they're a moron."

  4. #4
    The Brain
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    I can tell I'm going to learn loads in this series, though not all of it pleasant. That's history for you though! This rocks, Pete!

  5. #5
    Author of 101 WWE Matches To See Before You Die Samuel 'Plan's Avatar
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    "This would eventually be crucial in both countries’ development into maritime superpowers during the Enlightenment. Still, we are getting ahead of ourselves."

    I don't think any line you've ever written has better defined your approach to wrestling as that which implies the Enlightenment is getting ahead of ourselves!!!

    I joke, of course. I liked this a lot! Lightweight, accessible and informative. I too learned something new - to my shame I never knew there was a second wall in Scotland. Look forward to more. Modern history was always more my thing than Ancient or Early Modern so I imagine I've some way to go before we reach my wheelhouse, but it's still intriguing nonetheless. Even if you did miss an opportunity to ask what the Romans ever did for us.

  6. #6
    Administrator Prime Time's Avatar
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    Thanks gents. Glad to hear people are enjoying it. Could be a long old series this, so if people are enjoying it and want me to keep going - something to read while we're all locked indoors - then dropping by and just saying 'looking forward to the next one' would be great!

    Mizfan - You'll find huge swathes of our history isn't pleasant - I'd say it's the problem with being such an old country but in truth the ratio doesn't get a lot better when you get to the modern period! Hopefully it's interesting though - I hope to try and show where some of this stuff is still relevant where possible, which should help with that.

    'Plan - Haha, yeah I see what you mean! I'm going to assume lightweight is meant as a compliment! I suspect there could well be a while before we get to modern history and if interest is low we may never actually get there, but hopefully I'll be able to keep you interested in the meantime. As I said to Mizfan, one of the goals is to try and bring out the modern connections to this older material so it isn't quite so dusty and vague which will hopefully help with that. I am, however, gutted to have missed the chance of a Python reference. Now you've flagged it up you can be sure that many more will follow.

    Thanks again, everyone.

    "The worst moron is the one too stupid to realise they're a moron."

  7. #7
    Do I shit in the woods? BEAR's Avatar
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    Ahh. Lovely. I grew up in Deva, living where I live now I took for granted so much history being on my doorstep

  8. #8
    Senior Member Gooner's Avatar
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    Great piece Prime, really enjoyed this. I have a weird fascination with history as when it's presented to me I'm always fascinated by it, and yet it never pulls me in when I go searching for it myself (such as going to historical sites, museums and so on).



  9. #9
    Administrator Prime Time's Avatar
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    Bear - A lot of history in Chester! I'll make a point of throwing it in whenever it comes up as a little memento of home.

    Gooner - Thanks, Gooner. I'll be presenting quite a lot of it over the next few weeks I imagine, so hopefully you'll continue to find it fascinating.

    The next 'edition' is already up, so anyone who enjoyed this one feel free to move on over to number 2....

    "The worst moron is the one too stupid to realise they're a moron."

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