Read an Excerpt
THE ROMAN INVASION
The Romans were empire builders on a mission to spread their civilization to barbarian lands. One such was Britain, which consisted of various unruly Celtic tribes in conflict with each other (a situation the Romans exploited). Julius Caesar's attempts, in 55 and 54 b.c., to occupy Britain were defeated by bad weather. Augustus threatened, but never carried out, invasions in 34, 27 and 25 b.c. In a.d. 43, the unpopular Emperor Claudius needed to improve his image in Rome, an invasion of Britain would bring favorable publicity.
The Romans landed on the south coast—possibly Kent—and swept through the south, with fierce fighting that drove the British northwest. By a.d. 50, eleven tribes had surrendered and southern Britain was Romanized. Camulodunum (modern Colchester) was the first capital, but the Romans soon saw the potential of the Thames and established Londinium as a commercial and administrative center at the hub of a road network. London soon became capital of the new province, Britannia.
Partial domination of the west came with a Welsh campaign in a.d. 54-60, though Boudicca's rebellion in East Anglia delayed occupation. Northward expansion was more problematic, and despite several efforts Scotland was never wholly conquered.
The influence of occupation on British culture was enormous. Roman customs, laws and religions were adopted, while the Romans introduced such facilities as public baths and exercise areas, underfloor central heating and a road system on which today's network is loosely based.
THE FOUNDING OF LONDINIUM
c. a.d. 50
Before the Roman invasion of a.d. 43, the site of London was a marshy patch of wasteland through which the River Thames flowed. As the Romans advanced northward, they came to a point where they could ford the river. A fort was built on the north side, and work began on a network of roads.
With the river's usefulness as means of transport and its wide estuary facing the European mainland, the region's potential was not lost on the Romans. A bridge was built, and settlers, mainly traders, began to arrive. Slowly a town, Londinium, grew up around them.
It was not safe, however, and when Boudicca's Iceni tribe rose up against the Romans, the governor of Britannia, Suetonius Paulinus, displayed cool leadership, urging the citizens of Londinium to flee. Those who could not were slaughtered, and the town was razed by the angry Britons.
Apart from a quay, little was built on the site for some twenty years, but then began a period of spectacular growth, and by about a.d. 120, Londinium had established itself as the administrative, commercial and financial center of Roman Britain. A major fire in the following decade marked the start of a setback, but it still remained a wealthy and important Roman stronghold, as revealed by the remains of large and fine Roman villas found in the city area and the great defensive wall built around the city between a.d. 190 and 225.
d. a.d. 60/61
"A Briton woman of the royal family…In stature she was very tall, in appearance most terrifying, in the glance of her eye most fierce, and her voice was harsh; a great mass of the tawniest hair fell to her hips; around her neck was a large golden necklace…(The Roman historian Cassius Dio on Boudicca, some 150 years after her death).
When the Romans invaded Britain in a.d. 43, they allowed some tribal rulers to remain as "client kings" under the Roman emperor. One such was Prasutagus, who ruled the Iceni (in the East Anglia region) with his queen, Boudicca. When he died in a.d. 60, the Romans ignored his will, which left the kingdom to his daughters jointly with the Roman emperor, and instead took control themselves. For good measure they publicly flogged Boudicca and raped her daughters.
In response, Boudicca mustered the support of other English tribes and rose up against the Romans. From her chariot, her daughters at her side, she led an army of some 100,000 men, which destroyed the Roman capital at Camulodunum (Colchester), went on to devastate Londinium and Verulamium (St. Albans), and slaughtered the 9th Roman Legion, despite being vastly outnumbered.
The Romans rallied, however, and eventually defeated Boudicca, perhaps in the West Midlands. Boudicca herself died, having reputedly taken poison. Nothing is known of the fate of her daughters.
Hadrian's Wall was a seventy-three-mile fifteen-foot-high wall built by the Romans under the Emperor Hadrian to separate the barbarians in Scotland (Britannia Inferior, as the Romans called it) from the newly civilized Britons to the south (Britannia Superior), and to prevent raids from the north. Its height made it useful for surveillance as well as defense. Stretching from Wallsend-on-Tyne to the Solway Firth, it marked the northern boundary of the Empire and influenced the position of the current Scottish border.
The wall consisted of a stone wall with a ditch or vallum to the south, interspersed with a number of forts. It was built by skilled members of the Roman army, who took pride in being part of the greatest civilizing force of all time, as well as local people who would benefit from the increased security and economic stability the wall would bring. Settlements soon sprang up nearby.
Under Antoninus Pius, further attempts to conquer Scotland led to the construction of the heavily fortified Antonine Wall one hundred miles north in 138-142. Antoninus could never completely conquer the Scottish tribes, however, and the border returned to Hadrian's Wall from 164 until the end of Roman occupation.
Hadrian's Wall was one of the most sophisticated border posts in the Roman world; an icon of security to Britannia Superior. Despite having been plundered for building materials over the centuries, parts of the wall remain today and it is a popular walking area.
Saint Alban was England's first Christian martyr. A pagan living in Verulamium (now St. Albans) during a period of vicious Roman persecution against Christians, Alban offered refuge to
Amphibolus, a Christian cleric on the run, and was so impressed by Amphibolus's belief that he converted and was baptized. Alban then made the ultimate sacrifice and, disguising himself in his guest's cloak, gave himself up in his stead (though this hardly helped Amphibolus, who was caught and stoned to death days later).
The story has various associated legends—most famously, his executioner's eyes are said to have fallen out in an act of divine retribution. As he was about to be beheaded Alban declared, "I worship and adore the true and living God who created all things." These words are still used in prayer at St. Albans Abbey, which stands on the site of his death.
The accession in 306 of Emperor Constantine I, who converted to Christianity in 312, brought greater religious tolerance. In 313, the Edict of Milan proclaimed protection for Christians throughout the Empire.
Saint Alban is the patron saint of converts, refugees and torture victims. In 2006, a group of Church of England clergy campaigned to replace Saint George with Saint Alban as England's patron saint.
CONSTANTINE THE GREAT
Constantine was the son of the military commander Constantius, who became emperor in 305, and Helena, a woman of humble origins (discarded in favor of a noblewoman when Constantius became emperor). Constantius died while fighting in Britain in 306, and Constantine was declared emperor—but for many years he had to fight off rivals and was not secure in his position until 324. In 312, on the eve of a battle against a rival, Christ appeared to him in a dream and told him to inscribe a sign resembling a cross on his soldiers' shields; a vision followed of a cross against the sun, with the words In hoc signo vinces ("In this sign you will conquer"). He did conquer—and converted to Christianity.
Constantine had already been promoting religious tolerance throughout the empire since 306; in 313, he and his co-emperor issued the Edict of Milan ordering that no action should be taken against any religions. The Christian Church, moreover, was granted special benefits.
In 324 Constantine took command of the whole empire, uniting it through Christianity, which he proclaimed the official religion. He built a new capital city, Constantinople, on the site of the ancient Greek city of Byzantium. As the first Christian emperor of Rome, he played a major part in establishing Christianity in Europe, paving the way for it becoming the predominant religion in Britain. (His mother, also Christian and of English extraction, was later remembered as Saint Helena.)
THE DECLINE OF THE ROMANS
Tribal skirmishes against the Romans were commonplace throughout the four-hundred-year Roman occupation. But until the fourth century a.d., the "barbarians" were kept at bay. Even the Picts of Caledonia were held back north of Hadrian's Wall.
But then came increasing attacks from Germanic invaders in the east, and in 367 Picts and Scotti took advantage of a rebellious garrison on Hadrian's Wall to pour through into Britain. Simultaneously, there came hordes of Saxons from the east, and from the west attacks by the Irish and the Attacotti tribe.
Cities were sacked and civilians raped, murdered or enslaved, as bands of marauders fought and looted their way across Britain. Confusion reigned for many months, but by the end of 368 the barbarians had been driven back. However, the attacks continued, and Angles and Jutes as well as Saxons came over from Germany and Denmark. Some Saxons were even believed to have been invited over by the British warlord Vortigern to act as mercenaries against the Picts, only for them to revolt and establish their own power bases in the southeast. With the Celts driven westward as the Anglo-Saxons settled in the east, a division between what we now know as "England" and "Wales" became apparent for the first time.
Faced with these constant threats in Britain as well as other troublesome parts of Europe, the overstretched Romans pulled out of Britain at the beginning of the fifth century. The remaining Britons rejected the Roman way of life, and Britain rapidly descended into the so-called "Dark Ages."
THE DARK AGES
THE ADVENT OF THE SAXONS
By the early 400s, the Western Roman Empire was in decline and had effectively withdrawn from Britain. In its place came a new wave of migration: Angles, Saxons and Jutes, belonging to pagan German and Danish tribes. The new invaders, arriving in small boats, found most of the Roman towns abandoned and in ruins. They gradually conquered much of England, spreading from the southeast, and ruled in various forms for about six hundred years. The Roman language, culture and economy declined and most people lived a hand-to-mouth existence. Violence and disease were rife, and slavery was a common fate for anyone hungry or hard up in the Dark Ages.
At first, Christianity withered as the Anglo-Saxons worshipped multiple pagan gods such as Tiw, Wodin, Thunor (later Thor) and Friya, who gave their names to four days of the week. (Sunday and Monday are paganistically named after the sun and moon, but Saturday, after Saturn, retains Roman influence.) The Christian festival of Easter was named after their old pagan goddess Eostre.
The Anglo-Saxon language formed the basis of modern-day English, giving us the word "England" ("Angle-land"), among others. The Anglo-Saxons brought Bible translations, legal works and epic poetry (most famously Beowulf) into the British literary tradition. Under their rule, England's diverse kingdoms were slowly unified into a single country for the first time.
c. 461 or 493
Patrick was born into a wealthy British family, but where and when is uncertain. Although his father was a Christian deacon, Patrick was not initially religious. As a teenager, he was kidnapped by Irish raiders, taken to Ireland and sold into slavery. He worked as a shepherd for six years, finding comfort in religion and eventually seeing his ordeal as divine retribution for his earlier lack of faith. He escaped by stowing away on a boat to Britain, where he became a priest.
But Patrick was inspired by a dream to return to Ireland as a missionary, and he departed after years of study. Despite difficult relations with pagan chiefs, he organized existing Irish Christians and converted many pagans—the snakes he supposedly drove from Ireland probably represented pagan beliefs. Patrick merged Celtic and Christian symbolism, and is traditionally linked with the three-leaved shamrock, which he used to symbolize the Trinity. Patrick was the second Bishop of Ireland, and one of the key figures in spreading Christianity to Western Europe.
By the eighth century, Patrick was the patron saint of Ireland. Saint Patrick's Day is now celebrated on March 17, possibly the day of his death.
SAINT AUGUSTINE OF CANTERBURY
The Roman Pope (later Saint) Gregory I was eager to expand the Church's influence and eliminate paganism, particularly in England where such beliefs were still dominant. He sent forty monks, led by Augustine, as missionaries to England, and they landed in 597 at Thanet in Kent.
The monks brought gifts for King Ethelbert of Kent, who greeted them cordially, though the pagan king is said to have insisted on outdoor negotiations in case they cast spells on him. Despite this initial mistrust, the king granted Augustine land at Canterbury where he built a monastery. Augustine became the first Archbishop of Canterbury, although it would be decades before British bishops recognized the office and even longer before Canterbury's primacy over the English Church was secured.
Ethelbert's wife Bertha was Christian, and she and Augustine together persuaded Ethelbert to convert. He was the first English king to do so, and inspired thousands of his subjects to follow. The king helped to spread Christianity among the Saxons, and was later canonized himself. Augustine and Ethelbert set up bishoprics in Rochester and London (the first St. Paul's Cathedral).
Many British Christians continued to maintain some Celtic traditions and refused to convert fully to the Roman Catholic Church. Eventually, at the Synod of Whitby in 664, they accepted Roman control and abandoned Celtic practices.
THE VENERABLE BEDE
Bede was a pioneering British historian, often known as "the Father of English History." He was born in Northumbria, and grew up in a Benedictine monastery at Jarrow. There he benefited from the monastery's extensive library, and was ordained as a deacon at nineteen and a priest at thirty. Bede was a teacher, scholar and prolific writer who specialized in scripture but also wrote about language, science and poetry.
He is best known for his masterwork, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completed in 731. Amid sparse and unreliable records, it remains a vital source for the study of the Dark Ages. Bede's research into myths and oral traditions resulted in a comprehensive history that spanned nearly eight hundred years—from Caesar's invasion to its publication—and popularized the a.d./b.c. dating system. King Alfred considered it an essential educational tool, and had the book translated from Latin into English.
Bede died in 735 and was buried in Jarrow. He became known as "Venerable" some time in the century after his death, possibly due to a grammatical error in his epitaph. He was made a Doctor of the Church and canonized in 1899.
OFFA, THE FIRST "KING
OF ALL ENGLAND"
d. 796; crowned 757
The balance of power had changed significantly over the seventh century. The kingdom of Mercia, now in the Midlands, had become dominant, overtaking Northumbria. However, Mercia appears to have suffered internal strife, and when King Ethelbald was murdered by his bodyguard in 757, it triggered a short civil war, which allowed his kinsman Offa to take over and rule over an expansion of Mercian power.
Offa continued Ethelbald's work, conquering Kent, Sussex, Anglia and part of Wessex, and styling himself "King of All England." Offa also expanded Mercia by marrying his daughters to the kings of the West Saxons and Northumbria.
Unable to conquer Wales, he built Offa's Dyke, an enormous defensive earthwork that stretched about 160 miles, to protect against Welsh raids. It helped define the current Welsh border, and about half is still standing.
Offa strengthened international relations, and England began to emerge as a European power. The Frankish King Charlemagne admired Offa, and together they made important commercial agreements. Charlemagne's currency reform prompted changes to British coinage, making the silver penny the main monetary unit. Offa developed new laws, which influenced those of King Alfred, and founded numerous abbeys.
Shortly after his death, however, Mercian prosperity was undermined by rival Anglo-Saxon dynasties and Viking raids and invasion.
From the Hardcover edition.