Saturday, 3 February 2007

What is British? Part 2

Continued from Part 1 –,-by-James-OFee.html

We left the British Isles in Part 1 with Pretanic P-Celts the dominant population group in the British Isles. Indeed, the Greeks had taken their name for the islands after these people. These Celts are also called ‘Brythonic’ or ‘British’ Celts.

In the centuries following there were naturally many changes. Firstly, Q-Celtic – also called Goidelic, later Gaelic – became the chief language of Ireland. The traditional view, based on the legends of the Gaels themselves, is that this was due to a Goidelic invasion somewhere between the First and Fourth Centuries BC. Recently, however, this view has been disputed by such as Simon James who believes that the Celtic languages ‘diffused’ to the British Isles peacefully. Futhermore genetic research undertaken by Bryan Sykes of Oxford University have led Sykes to the conclusion that the major racial stock of the entire British Isles is pre-Celtic.

Let us leave those controversies to the side. In the First Century AD, the Romans invaded ‘Albion’, the largest island in the archapelago, (which today we call Great Britain) and established a Roman colony in the southern and more fertile half which they named ‘Britannia’. Invading the northern half, the Romans suffered defeat at Mons Graupius, which led them to retreat to the line of Hadrian’s Wall. The Romans may have considered an invasion of ‘Ierne’, the island whose Greek name they corrupted to ‘Hibernia’ (which has nothing to do with winters!), but we do not believe that the Romans ever made a foray into the western island. Quite recently, however, a probable Roman trading outpost has been discovered on Ireland’s east coast.

Under the Romans, the native Britons, as they were called, became Romanised. Many of them became Christians. But in 410 the city of Rome fell to barbarian invaders, and the Emperor wrote a letter to the British to tell them that they must look to their own defence

Britannia was threatened by barbarian seaborne attacks on all sides. From the west and north came Gaelic-speaking raiders called ‘Scots’; from the north came attacks from the people that the Romans called ‘Picts’ (but whom the Goidels called ‘Cruithne’='Briton’); and from the east there were raids from Germanic peoples including Frisians and Saxons. Although the Pictish language remains unknown, it is generally believed today that they spoke a form of P-Celtic.

In this parlous situation, the unlucky British King Vortigern (c.425-459) fatefully sought aid from bands of Germans whom he invited to Britain as mercenaries. Morris believes their role was to guard against the threat from the Picts and so Vortigern settled the Germans along the east coast. The tradition is that the bands included Angles, Saxons and Jutes, a mixture who were later collectively to be called the ‘English’. Hengest and Horsa were the leaders of the first group and they settled on the Isle of Sheppey about 428.

Irish Kings and High Kings, Francis J. Byrne, Dublin, 3rd revised edition, 2001
The Atlantic Celts: Ancient People or Modern Invention?, Simon James, British Museum Press, 1999
The Blood of the Isles, Bryan Sykes, Bantam, 2006
The Age of Arthur: A History of the British Isles from 350 to 650, John Morris, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1983, reprinted 1989.

To be continued

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