Britain before the Romans

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In 750 BC, the population of British Isles was only about 150,000. Ironworking techniques from southern Europe reached Britain. Smiths learned to extract iron from its ore, and to transform it into weapons and tools. Britain moved into what is known as the Iron Age.

The Celts

Celtic manThe Ancient Celts

From around 750 BC to 12 BC, the Celts were the most powerful people in central and northern Europe. There were many groups (tribes) of Celts. Their civilization flourished across a wide area, from the British Isles to the borders of the Ukraine.

Northwest Europe was dominated by three main Celtic groups. Gauls lived in what is now France. Britons lived in Great Britain and Gaels lived in Ireland.

Celts in Britain

The Celts arrived in Britain about the year 500 BC. They were farmers and lived in small village groups in the centre of their arable fields. These groups slowly collected together into larger tribes, living in their own special regions. Each tribe was ruled by a king or queen.

Celts were also warlike people. The tribes often quarrelled with each other and fought savage battles.

At the time when the Roman invasion of 55 and 54 BCBritain was still in the late Iron Age.

boudiceaA famous Celtic Queen

Warrior Queen Boudicca was the wife of the ruler of the Iceni, a Celtic tribe who lived in eastern England. After her husbands death, the Romans claimed the Iceni lands. When Boudicca protested she was beaten and her daughters attacked. In revenge, Boudicca led an army to attack London in AD 60. Boudicca's army caused vast amounts of damage before being defeated.

Find out more

 

Celtic Houses

The Celts lived in round houses with thatched roofs of straw or heather. The walls of their houses were made from local material. Houses in the south tended to be made from wattle (woven wood) and daub (straw and mud) as there was an ample supply of wood from the forests. The houses in the north were made with large stones held together with clay. The photographs below show both types of houses.

The Celts would light a fire in the middle of the roundhouse for cooking and heating. It must have been very smoky inside.

Most Celts lived in scattered farming communities surrounded by a banks with wattle fencing and a ditch to keep out intruders and wild animals. Sometimes groups of houses were built on the top of hills. These are called hill-forts.

As well as small communities, there were also large settlements and heavily defended forts. Colchester was one such large Celtic settlement.

Make you own Celtic Round house

Visit the BBC Celtic online activity

Celtic Religion

The Celts were very superstitious people. Celtic priests were called Druids. They were the link between the supernatural world and the ordinary human one. They were able to predict what would happen in the future by interpreting nature.

The Celts believed in many gods and goddesses, as well as spirits and sacred animals and birds. These magical creatures controlled every part of a person's life. Among them were Sucellos, the sky god, with a hammer that caused lightning, and Nodens, who made clouds and rain. Others had no names, but lived in springs, woods and other places.

The Celts believed that the human soul had an after life and lived in the head, which is why they collected the heads of their enemies killed in battles.

Romans Invade Britain

In August 55 BC the Roman general Julius Caesar landed near Deal, in Kent, with 10,000 troops. He met with furious resistance and left. He returned the following year with at least 30,000 foot soldiers and 2,000 calvary. This time they crossed the River Thames and invaded the tribal lands around St Albans. The Britons of southeast England were forced to pay tribute to Rome and Caesar withdrew.

In AD 43 the Romans invaded Britain again. This time 40,000 Roman troops fought their way through Kent, crossed the Thames and captured Colchester. There were savage battles. It took four years for the Romans to take control over southern Britain, and over 30 more to conquer Wales and the West.

Back to the Romans

Find out more about the Celts on the BBC website

500 BC
AD 43
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