In this essay, though the term is problematic, I’m going to be using the term “Celtic” to identify those early inhabitants of England. The use of the word “Celtic” as a valid umbrella term for the pre-Roman peoples of Britain has been challenged by many writers, arguing that despite the obvious linguistic connections archaeology does not suggest a united Celtic culture. Thus archeologists, while conceding that the concepts of a broad Celtic linguistic area and recognizably Celtic art have their uses, nonetheless argue that the term implies a greater unity than existed.
Archaeologists find “a certain homogeneity” in the traditions in the area of Celtic habitation including Britain and Ireland, concluding that the inhabitants of ancient Britain and Ireland became thoroughly Celticized by the time of the Roman arrival, mainly through spread of culture rather than a movement of people. Other writers tend to agree, and have pointed our that “...there is no evidence in the British Isles to suggest that a population group of any size migrated from the continent in the first millennium BC.” In other words, as opposed to the conventional theories of Celtic expansion through war, Celtic culture in the Atlantic Archipelago and continental Europe could have emerged through the peaceful convergence of local tribal cultures bound together by networks of trade and kinship —not by war and conquest. This type of peaceful convergence and cooperation is actually relatively common among tribal peoples. Thus the ancient Celts are thus best depicted as a loose and highly diverse collection of indigenous tribal societies bound together by trade, a common druidic religion, related languages, and similar political institutions —but each having its own local traditions.
One thing is certain: the Celts are Indo-European. The term “Celt” refers to a member of any of a number of peoples in Europe using the Celtic languages, which form a branch of Indo-European languages, as well as others whose language is unknown but where associated cultural traits, such as Celtic art, are found in archaeological evidence. Historical theories were first developed that these factors were indicative of a common origin, but later theories of culture spreading to differing indigenous peoples have recently been supported by some genetic studies. Today, “Celtic” is often used to describe the languages and respective cultures of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, the Isle of Man, and Brittany, but corresponds more accurately to the Celtic language family, of which six languages are spoken today.
While standard textbooks stress the descent of Europe from classical culture, the face of Europe throughout most of the historical period was dominated by a single cultural group, a powerful, culturally diverse group of peoples, the Celts. By the start of the Middle Ages, the Celts had been struck on two fronts by two very powerful cultures, Rome in the south, and the Germans, who were derived from Celtic culture, from the north. Through the period of classical Greece to first centuries CE, most of Europe was under the shadow of this culture that, in its diverse forms, still represented a fairly unified culture. This relatively monolithic culture spread from Ireland to Asia Minor (the Galatians of the New Testament). The Celts even sacked Rome in 390 BCE and successfully invaded and sacked several Greek cities in 280 BCE. Though the Celts were preliterate during most of the classical period, the Greeks and Romans discuss them quite a bit, usually unfavorably. Yet so pervasive was their influence that not only did medieval Europe look back to the Celtic world as a golden age of Europe, they also lived with social structures and world views that ultimately owe their origin to the Celts as well as to the Romans and Greeks.
The period of Celtic dominance in Europe began to unravel in the first centuries CE, with the expansion of Rome, the migrations of the Germans, and later the influx of an Asian immigrant population, the Huns. By the time Rome fell to Gothic invaders, the Celts had migrated west and north, to England, Wales, and Ireland and later to Scotland and the northern coast of France.
Most of what we know about Celtic life comes from Ireland—the largest and most extensive of the Celtic populations. Of the other Celts, the Gauls, in central and Western Europe, we only know about through Roman sources—and these sources are decidedly biased and unfriendly towards the Gauls. The earliest Celts who were major players in the classical world were the Gauls, who controlled an area extending from France to Switzerland. It was the Gauls who sacked Rome and later invaded Greece; it was also the Gauls that migrated to Asia Minor to found their own, independent culture there (the Galatians of the Bible). Through invasion and migration, they spread into Spain and later crossed the Alps into Italy and permanently settled the area south of the Alps, which the Romans then named Cisalpine Gaul. On the whole, the Gauls throughout Europe were largely an ethnic continuity rather than a single nation. The Gauls were a tribal and agricultural society. The earliest account of the Gauls comes from Julius Caesar. In his history of his military expedition first into Gaul and then as far north as Britain, Caesar described the tribal and regional divisions among the Gauls, of which some seem to have been original European populations and not Celtic at all.
Ethnic identity among the early Gauls was very fluid. Ethnic identity was first and foremost based on small kinship groups, or clans—this fundamental ethnic identity often got collapsed into a larger identity, that of tribes. The main political structures (that of kingship) organized themselves around this tribal ethnic identity. For the most part, the Gauls did not seem to have a larger ethnic identity that united the Gaulish world into a single cultural group. In other words, the “Gauls” as an ethnic group was largely invented by the Romans and the Greeks and applied to all the diverse tribes spread across the face of northern Europe. However, the Gauls did have a sense of territorial ethnicity; the Romans and Greeks tell us that there were sixteen separate territorial nations of Gauls.
But the Gauls were not the original Europeans. Beginning in an area around Switzerland, the Celts spread westward and eastward displacing native Europeans in the process. These migrations begin around 500 BCE. The Gaulish (i.e., the Senones tribe) invasion of Italy around 400 BCE was part of this larger emigration. The Romans, however, pushed them back by the third century BCE. However, native Europeans in the north were unable to drive them back. Two Celtic tribes, the Cimbri and the Teuton (an ethnic for Germans, is derived from the Celtic root for “people”), emigrated east and settled in territory in Germany. The center of Celtic expansion, however, was Gaul, which lay north of the Alps in the region now within the borders of France and Belgium and part of Spain.
We know that the early Celtic societies were organized around warfare—this structure would commonly characterize cultures in the process of migration: the Celts, the Huns, and later the Germans. Although classical Greek and Roman writers considered the Celts to be violent barbarians, warfare was not an organized process of territorial conquest. Among the Celts, warfare seems to have mainly been a sport, focusing on raids and hunting. Celtic society was hierarchical and class-based. Tribes were led by kings, but political organizations were remarkably plastic. According to both Roman and Irish sources, Celtic society was divided into three groups: a warrior aristocracy, an intellectual class that included druids, poets, and jurists, and everyone else. Society was tribal and kinship-based; one's ethnic identity was largely derived from the larger tribal group, called the tuath in Irish (meaning “people”), but ultimately based on the smallest kinship organizational unit, the clan, or “kindred,” in Irish. Even though Celtic society centered around a warrior aristocracy, the position of women was fairly high in Celtic society. In the earliest periods, women participated both in warfare and in kingship. While the later Celts would adopt a strict patriarchal model, they still have a memory of women leaders and warriors.
Celtic society was based almost entirely on pastoralism and the raising of cattle or sheep; there was some agriculture in the Celtic world, but not much. There was no urbanization of any kind among the Celts until the advent of Roman rule. In Ireland, urbanization did not occur until the Danish and Norwegian invasions. Society was not based on trade or commerce; what trade took place was largely in the form of barter. Celtic economy was probably based on the economic principle of most tribal economies: reciprocity. In a reciprocal economy, goods and other services are not exchanged for other goods, but they are given by individuals to individuals based on mutual kinship relationships and obligations.
From the nineteenth century onwards, Celtic religion has enjoyed a fascination among modern Europeans and European-derived cultures. In particular, the last few decades have seen a phenomenal growth not only interest in Celtic religion, but in religious practices in part derived from Celtic sources. For all this interest, however, we know next to nothing about Celtic religion and practices. The only sources for Celtic religious practices were written by Romans and Greeks, who considered the Celts little more than animals, and by later Celtic writers in Ireland and Wales who, during the so-called Celtic Revival, were writing from a Christian perspective. Tragically then, although the Celts had a rich and pervasive religious culture, it has been permanently lost to human memory.
Nevertheless, some general comments about Celtic religion can be made even though they are based on the often-hostile accounts of classical writers. The Celts were polytheistic; these gods were ultimately derived from more primitive, Indo-European sources that gave rise to the polytheistic religions of Greece, Persia, and India. The Romans in trying to explain these gods, however, linked them with Roman gods as did the Romanized Gauls, so we really have no idea as to the Celtic character of these gods and their functions. We do know that Celtic gods tended to come in threes; the Celtic logic of divinity almost always centered on triads. This triadic logic no doubt had tremendous significance in the translation of Christianity into northern European cultural models. It is almost certain that the material world of the Celts was suffused with divinity that was both advantageous and dangerous. Certain areas were considered more charged with divinity than others, especially pools, lakes and small groves, which were the sites of the central ritual activities of Celtic life. The Celts were non-urbanized, and according to Roman sources Celtic ritual involved no temples or building structures. Celtic ritual life was centered mainly on the natural environment.
Celtic ritual life centered on a special class, called the “druids” by the Romans, presumably from a Gaulish word, which means it originated in what is now France. Although much has been written about druids and Celtic ritual practice, we know next to nothing about either. What little we do know is this: As a special group, the druids performed many of the functions that we would consider “priestly” functions, including ritual and sacrifice, but they also included functions that we would place under “education” and “law.” These rituals and practices were probably kept secret—a tradition common among early Indo-European peoples—, which helps to explain why the classical world knows nothing about them. The only thing that the classical sources (i.e., the Greeks and Romans) attest to is that the druids performed “barbaric” or “horrid” rituals at lakes and groves, meaning that these rituals involved human sacrifice, which may or may not be true. According to Julius Caesar, who gives the longest account of druids, the center of Celtic belief was the passing of souls from one body to another. From archaeological evidence, it is clear that the Celts believed in an after-life, for material goods are buried with their dead.
It was in Ireland that Celtic culture and institutions lasted the longest. Although Christianity was introduced at an early date, Ireland did not suffer any major invasions or cultural changes until the invasions of the Norwegians and the Danish in the eighth century. The Irish also represent the last great migration of Celtic peoples. In the fourth and fifth centuries, the Irish crossed over into Scotland and systematically invaded that territory until they politically dominated the Picts who lived there. The settling of Scotland in the fifth century was the very last wave of Celtic migration. For Celtic culture, Ireland is much like Iceland was to the Norse. It was sufficiently removed from mainstream Europe to protect it from invasions and to isolate it from many of the cultural changes that wracked the face of early Europe. It allowed a singular perpetuation of pagan Celtic culture to fuse with Christian and the emerging European culture. This unique synthesis would provide the single most productive line of cultural transmission between Celtic culture and the European culture, which grew out of classical and German sources.
The most important legacy that the Irish bequeathed to Europe was Irish or “Celtic” Christianity. When Patrick came to Ireland in the fifth century, Christianity had spread across the face of Celtic culture but hadn't really penetrated the various Celtic cultures. It was spread very thin and practiced by a very small minority in Gaul and Britain. It was also assuming a new, distinct character among the Celts, who combined Christianity not only with native Celtic institutions and religions, but also with a plethora of eastern mystery religions. (It has been recently argued that much of what we call modern “paganism,” which points to Celtic sources, actually originates in eastern mystery religions that had been imported into Celtic culture.) It was this Celticized version of Christianity that Patrick brought with him to Ireland. The Saxon invasions, however, wiped out Christianity in England, but not in Wales or Ireland or Scotland, where the religion had been introduced by Columba, an Irish saint. It wasn't until the late sixth century that Christianity was reintroduced into Britain. This brand of Christianity, more aligned with the practices of the Roman church, came into conflict with Celtic Christianity and its unique practices. By the tenth century, the unique Celtic Christianity of Britain had largely been subordinated to Saxon Christianity. It was in Ireland that Celtic Christianity thrived during the Germanic invasions and then the later subordination of Celtic Christian practices to Saxon practices. The monastic centers became the areas where Irish Christian culture thrived and they also introduced some political stability and agriculture into Irish society. While they were nominally under the authority of Rome, because they were so removed they operated with relative independence. This would eventually bring them in severe conflict with the Roman church. Before that, however, Irish missionaries would spread Celtic culture and Christianity all over the face of Europe. Even though the Irish Christians eventually submitted to Roman pressures, Irish Christianity had diffused across the face of Europe. As the middle ages progressed, however, the uniquely Celtic character of the Irish church, with its profoundly brilliant fusion of Celtic art with Christian art, its fusion of Celtic social organization and laws with monastic life, and its unique character disappeared into the homogenizing trend of the higher middle ages.
The designation, “Britons,” identifies the Celtic peoples who settled in Great Britain. The ethnic history of England is a mixed one, prominently a mix of Celt and Anglo-Saxon. The British did not appear in history until Julius Caesar crosses the English Channel from northern Gaul and began his failed conquest of Britain. The Romans returned in 43 CE and began a systematic conquest of the island until they reached the Pictish tribes in the Scottish highlands. However, Rome would abandon northern England in 117 CE. The Romans found a disunified group of tribal kingdoms organized around the same logic of warfare as the Gauls. Most of the tribes were new arrivals—the bulk of southern Britain had been conquered by the Belgae from northern Gaul. In the process of immigrating to the island, the Celts pushed the native populations north—these refugee tribal groups would become the cultural ancestors of the Picts, a mysterious culture that dominated Scotland until the Irish invasions. Many of the tribes, particularly those in Wales, however, were restive. The Romans were beset by rebellions by some Celtic tribes and depredations by the northern Picts throughout the fourth century. As the Roman Empire was strained in every quarter, the Romans slowly lost control of Britain. The official break came in 446 CE when the Romans, in response to a British plea for help against the Picts and the Scots, declared Britain independent. As in Gaul, the Romans brought Roman urban and military culture. However, other than southern England Roman institutions and culture were not enormously influential on the British Celts. The Celts in the north and in Wales fiercely resisted Roman culture, and the Romans never even set foot in Ireland. On the whole, the Romans more greatly respected and tolerated Celtic institutions and religions in Britain, so there was considerably less assimilation than in Gaul.
Because of this, when the Romans left Britain, there was a renaissance of Celtic culture. The British, however, had learned a very important concept from the Romans: political unity. The most famous of the Celtic princes was Vortigern, who ruled over eastern Britain. In order to fight against the Pictish invasions, he sent across the channel to get help from the Saxons, a Germanic tribe that had begun immigrating into Western Europe in the fifth century. The Saxon mercenaries grew in number as more and more Saxons came to Britain. Whether or not the story of Vortigern is true, Britain fell prey to the same Germanic emigrations and invasions that spread across Gaul, Spain, and Italy. The Saxon emigration began in eastern England until they spread entirely across lowland England. The mountainous areas to the west (Wales) and the north (Scotland), however, remained Celtic, as did Ireland. By the end of the fifth century CE, only Wales, Scotland, and Ireland remained of the great Celtic tribal kingdoms that had dominated the face of Europe.
The traditional story about the flight of the Celts from southern England was based largely on the account of Gildas, the sixth-century historian. However, more and more historians have come to doubt the fate of the Celts in England. In recent years, the accepted story that the English are mostly Anglo-Saxon background—due to the Anglo-Saxons driving the Celts out—has become hotly debated. For example, Patrick Sims-Williams, professor of Celtic studies at the University of Wales, has this to say: “There are various schools of thought ranging from near genocide (of the Celts) to almost total survival. There could have been mass flight as well—it’s partly a matter of scholarly fashion, coming and going from generation to generation.” Yet there may be something like a definitive answer to this question on the historical horizon thanks to genetic science. A Sunday Times article in the UK, entitled “Genetic survey Reveals Hidden Celts Of England” (dated Dec. 02, 2001), seems to scientifically validate what some historians have long speculated about the ethnic make-up of England. The study, conducted by geneticists at University College London, found that as many as three-quarters of the men tested in some parts of the south of England have the same Y-chromosome as the ancient Britons or Celts, rather than that of the Anglo-Saxons. This means that the Celts of Scotland and Wales are not as unique as some of them like to think. The new research revealed that the majority of Britons living in the south of England share the same DNA as their Celtic counterparts. The findings, based on the DNA analysis of more than 2,000 people, poses the strongest challenge yet to the conventional historical view that the ancient Britons were forced out of most of England by hordes of Anglo-Saxon invaders. It suggests, in other words, that far from being purged and forced to retreat into Wales, Cornwall and Scotland when the Anglo-Saxons invaded in the fifth century, many ancient Britons remained in England. Overall, the scientists found that between 50% and 75% of those tested in parts of southern England were directly descended from Celts, implying that they had survived the Anglo-Saxon invasion. In Scotland the proportion of those with Celtic ancestry was found to be little different from the population of southern England. “The evidence is quite strong that there is a substantial indigenous component remaining in England,” said Professor David Goldstein, who led the study. The study, commissioned by BBC2 for its current Blood of the Vikings series, was designed to assess the impact of Norwegian and Danish Vikings, as well as Anglo-Saxons, on the British population.
Therefore, from scientific evidence such as this a re-visioning of the history of England and its peoples has begun. Now historians are coming to realize that the settlement of the Saxon invaders was a more gradual and intermittent process than has generally been acknowledged; new scholarly emphasis is upon assimilation rather than conquest. For example, Celtic patterns of farming have been found in medieval surroundings. Thus, some scholars suggest that there may have been some compact between the indigenous population of the island and the invading Anglo-Saxon tribes of the fifth and sixth centuries, because there is evidence, both in place-names and in personal names, of absorption or intermingling.
This theory accounts for many of the terms in Old English, such as the term “wealhstod,” meaning one who can understand and translate native Celtic (i.e., British) speech. The theory of assimilation also accounts for the fact that there are still Celts, distinctive in appearance and even in behavior, among the local population of Northumbria. Furthermore, the archeological evidence suggests deep patterns of inheritance and transmission still to be found etched in the stone and metal of surviving Celtic artifacts, patterns such as the Celtic spirals, whirls, and rings. And in the realm of religion, the paganism of the Anglo-Saxons, which survived for many centuries after Augustine brought Christianity to England in 597, may in turn be traced back to the much earlier beliefs of the Celtic tribes.
The Celtic tribes were established all over England for over a thousand years. These separate British tribes or kingdoms survived from the pre-Roman Iron Age to the sub-Roman period and the Saxon invasions. Their verses of prophecy and legend remain in the Irish, Welsh, and Cornish vernaculars but in no other source. The presence, then, of a thousand years can never wholly die out; it lingers still not only in some of the words of the English language, but also Celtic words lie buried in the landscape. Many of the place names in southern England have Celtic origins. Among them are Avon and Downs, Leatherhead and the Isle of Man—even London itself is a Celtic name.