Tag Archives: Romans


The Beginning of the Dark Ages in Britain


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The ‘Dark Ages’ were ‘dark’ only because we lack extensive (or in some instances, any) historical material about the period between 407 AD, when the Romans marched away from Britain, and 1066, when William of Normandy conquered England.

TLP blog“Initially, this era took on the term “dark” . . . due to the backward ways and practices that seemed to prevail during this time. Future historians used the term “dark” simply to denote the fact that little was known about this period; there was a paucity of written history. Recent discoveries have apparently altered this perception as many new facts about this time have been uncovered.

The Italian Scholar, Francesco Petrarca called Petrarch, was the first to coin the phrase. He used it to denounce Latin literature of that time; others expanded on this idea to express frustration with the lack of Latin literature during this time or other cultural achievements. While the term dark ages is no longer widely used, it may best be described as Early Middle Ages — the period following the decline of Romein the Western World. The Middle Ages is loosely considered to extend from 400 to 1000 AD.”  http://www.allabouthistory.org/the-dark-ages.htm

For Wales, the time was no more or less bright than any other.  The relative peace the Romans brought was predicated on the brutal subjugation of the British people.  When the Romans left, the Britons faced the Irish from the west, the Scots from the northwest, the Picts from the northeast and ‘Saxons’ (who were Angles and Jutes too, not just ‘Saxons’) from the east.  To a certain degree, it was just more of the same.  The Britons had their lands back—the whole expanse of what is nowWales andEngland—for about five minutes.

From Gildas:

As the Romans went back home, there emerged from the coracles that had carried them across the sea-valleys the foul hordes of Scots and Picts. … They were more confident than usual now that they had learnt of the departure ofthe Romans and the denial of any prospect of their return. So they seized the whole north of the island from its inhabitants, right up to (i.e. as far south as) the wall (presumably Hadrian’s). A force was stationed on the high towers to oppose them, but it was too lazy to fight, and too unwieldy to flee. Meanwhile there was no respite from the barbed spears flung by their naked opponents, which tore our wretched countrymen from the walls and dashed them to the ground.

From contemporary accounts in 411:


They (the barbarians) reduced the inhabitants of Britainand some parts of Gaul to such straits that they revolted from the Roman Empire, no longer submitted to Roman law, but reverted to their native customs. The Britons, therefore, armed themselves and ran many risks to ensure their own safety and free their cities from the attacking barbarians. The whole of Armorica, [Emap (7)] and other Gallic provinces, in imitation of the Britons, freed themselves in the same way, by expelling the Roman magistrates and establishing the government they wanted. The revolt of the provinces ofBritain and Gaul occurred during Constantine’s tyranny because the barbarians took advantage of his careless government. …

Fastidius — letter to a widow in Britain

We see before us many instances of wicked men, the sum of their sins complete, who are being judged at the present moment, and denied this present life no less than the life to come. This is not hard to understand, for in changing times we expect the deaths of magistrates who have lived criminally, for the greater their power, the bolder their sins. … Those who have freely shed the blood of others are now forced to shed their own. … Some lie unburied, food for the beasts and birds of the air. Others have been individually torn limb from limb. Their judgements killed many husbands, widowed many women, orphaned many children, leaving them bare and beggared … for they plundered the property of the men they killed. But now it is their wives who are widowed, their sons who are orphaned, begging their daily bread from strangers.


It does seem that a ruler named Vortigern invited some Germanic ‘Saxon’ tribes to settle in eastern England, in hopes of creating a buffer zone between the Britons and the relentless invasions fromEurope.  This plan backfired, however, and resulted in the pushing westward of successive waves of ‘Saxon’ groups.  Ultimately, the Britons retreated into Wales, the only portion of land the Saxons were unable to conquer.

From the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

445:  In the fourth year of Vortigern’s reign, the English came to Britain.


449:  The British consulted what was to be done and where they should seek assistance to prevent or repel the cruel and frequent incursions of the northern nations. They all agreed with their king Vortigern to call over to their aid, from the parts beyond the sea, the Saxon nation. … The two first commanders are said to have been Hengist and Horsa.

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

449:  Martian and Valentinian assumed the Roman empire(actually in 450) and reigned seven winters. In their days Hengest and Horsa, invited by Vortigern, king of the Britons to his assistance, landed inBritainin a place that is called Ipwinesfleet; at first to help the Britons, but later they fought against them.


453:  But Hengest was an experienced man, shrewd and skilful. Sizing up the king’s incompetence, and the military weakness of his people, he held a council, and said to the British king “We are a few; if you wish, we can send home and invite warriors from the fighting men of our country, that the number that fight for you and your people may be larger.” The king ordered it be done, and envoys were sent across the sea, and came back with sixteen keels, with picked warriors in them. In one of the keels came Hengest’s daughter, a beautiful and very handsome girl. When the keels had arrived, Hengest held a banquet for Vortigern, and his men and his interpreter, whose name was Ceretic, and told the girl to serve their wine and spirits. They all got exceedingly drunk. When they were drinking Satan entered Vortigern’s heart and made him love the girl. Through his interpreter he asked her father for her hand, saying “Ask of me what you will, even to the half of my kingdom”.


It’s important to point out that Welsh literature, language, and culture flourished during the Dark Ages.  Much of the material in the Red Book of Hergest, the White Book of Rhydderch, and the Black Book of Camarthen date to this time.


The Saxon Invasions


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It is a matter of record that the ‘Saxons’ invaded Britain in the last years of the Roman occupation, and then in full force after the Romans left the island in 410 AD.  They marched away, seemingly without a backward glance, leaving the Britons–after 400 years of occupation–to fend for themselves.

From Gildas:

    From Britain envoys set out with their complaints, their clothes (it is said) torn, their heads covered in dust, to beg help from the Romans. … The Romans … informed our country that they could not go on being bothered with such troublesome expeditions; that Roman standards, that great and splendid army, could not be worn out by land and sea for the sake of wandering thieves who had no taste for war. Rather, the Britons should stand alone, get used to arms, fight bravely, and defend with all their powers their land, property, wives, children, and, more importantly, their life and liberty. Their enemies were no stronger than they, unless Britain chose to relax in laziness and torpor; they should not hold out to them for the chaining hands that held no arms, but hands equipped with shields, swords and lances, ready for the kill. This was the Romans’ advice.


These invaders, as the map to right shows, were not in fact all ‘Saxon’, but a combination of Jutes, Angles, Saxons, Franks, and Frisians, each hailing from a different region of the western coast of Europe.

The Angles, Saxons, and Jutes were Germanic peoples.  From Wikipedia:   They were “originally a small tribe living on the North Sea between the Elbe and Eider Rivers in the present Holstein. Their name, derived from their weapon called Seax, a knife, is first mentioned by the Roman author Ptolemy (about 130).

In 3rd and 4th century Germany, great tribal confederations of the Alamanni, Bavarians, Thuringians, Franks, Frisians, and Saxons arose. These took the place of the numerous petty tribes with their popular tribal form of government. With the exceptions of the Saxons all these confederations were ruled by kings; the Saxons were divided into a number of independent bodies under different chiefs, and in time of war these chieftains drew lots. This leader the other chiefs followed until the war ended.

In the third and fourth centuries the Saxons fought their way victoriously towards the west, and their name was given to the great tribal confederation that stretched towards the west exactly to the former boundary of the Roman Empire, consequently almost to the Rhine. Only a small strip of land on the right bank of the Rhine remained to the Frankish tribe. Towards the south the Saxons pushed as far as the Harz Mountains and the Eichsfeld, and in the succeeding centuries absorbed the greater part of Thuringia. In the east their power extended at first as far as the Elbe and Saale Rivers; in the later centuries it certainly extended much farther. All the coast of the German Ocean belonged to the Saxons except that west of the Weser, which the Frisians retained.”  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Saxony

From then on, there are differing views about how rampant the Saxon spread was.  Certainly, it happened (language alone tells us that), but the exact timeline for the spread is not clear.  The Battle of Mt. Badon (whether or not fought by Arthur) is said to have occurred around 500 AD, which held back the Saxon tide for a generation.

After that, however, it was unstoppable.



Caer Fawr (Iron Age Hill Fort)

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tpq cover blogCaer Fawr, or ‘The Great Fort’, is the scene of the final battle in The Pendragon’s Quest.  It is an iron age hill fort with extensive fortifications, most of which are hidden now by vegetation.  The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales did a study of Caer Fawr and if you’re interested in the topic, it’s worth downloading:  http://www.rcahmw.gov.uk/LO/ENG/Publications/Electronic+Publications/Gaer+Fawr/

It “occupies a prominent hill 1.4 kilometres to the north of Guilsfield (Cegidfa) and 5.4 kilometres north of Welshpool in the old county of Montgomeryshire, now Powys. The topography of this area is dominated by the River Severn, 4.7 kilometres to the east (Fig. 2). The hills flanking its wide river plain rise gently to the west and more steeply to the east and are cut by the tributary rivers which feed the Severn. A series of prominent hills rises above the general topography, most distinctively the Breidden, at 403 metres above sea level . . .

The site lies in the northern half of a dense band of large?and medium?sized hillforts extending along the border between England and Wales: from the Wye Valley and tributaries of the Severn into the central Marches, and on by way of the Clwydian Range to the North Wales coast . . .

“‘The construction covered at least two main phases. The original hillfort, enclosing about 3 acres, was probably univallate with entrances at the NW and SW ends. The second phase consisted of enlarging the original fort by enclosing a further 3½ acres to the NW side at a lower level. The new outer defences were bivallate and included very complicated entrances on the NE and SW, probably on the sites of the original entrances’ (NMRW: OS 495 Card SJ 21 SW 1). . . .

“The most likely date for this phase of construction is the early Iron Age, between the sixth and fifth centuries BC, the period in which hillfort building took off in the Marches . . . The ‘developed’ form of Gaer Fawr is likely to belong to the middle Iron Age, 400-150  BC. . . .

“One of the most noticeable features of Gaer Fawr is its defences; the scale is huge in contrast to the size of the area enclosed. Useable space totals just over 2 hectares, whereas the hillfort as a whole encompasses just over 6 hectares. As defensive features these would certainly have been imposing and would have been visible for miles, with entrance arrangements clearly designed to control the movement of people, managing both how and who approached.”  In short, Caer Fawr provided the perfect place for Cade, Rhiann, andn their friends to defend Wales against a Saxon advance!

For more about the fort, see the report (again):  http://www.rcahmw.gov.uk/LO/ENG/Publications/Electronic+Publications/Gaer+Fawr/

For a cool video from the BBC:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/wales/history/sites/localhistory/hidden_histories/episode_2_hillfort.shtml


Did Cancer Exist in the Middle Ages?

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My dad was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2001, a few months after my mom had a hysterectomy for uterine cancer.  In 2007, my dad was diagnosed with a second (unrelated) cancer–something horrible called lyposarcoma with a 15 pound tumor in his abdomen. A month after my father died in 2011, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, her second (unrelated) cancer.

How common was cancer in the past?  If cancer is more common now than before it could be because:

1)  we’ve polluted our environment

2)  we live longer than in the past, so we die from things we wouldn’t have had the chance to die from in the Middle Ages

3)  we’ve circumvented natural selection with our advances in medicine so we are frailer than in the past (my entire family might have died from appendicitis before reproducing, for example)

I can’t answer whether or not cancer is more common, but it was common enough in the past to be remarked upon and studied:

“Since the earliest medical records were kept, cancer as a disease has been described in the history of medicine. The earliest known descriptions of cancer appear in seven papyri, discovered and deciphered late in the 19th century. They provided the first direct knowledge of Egyptian medical practice. Two of them, known as the “Edwin Smith” and “George Ebers” papyri, contain descriptions of cancer written around 1600 B.C., and are believed to date from sources as early as 2500 B.C. The Smith papyrus describes surgery, while the Ebers’ papyrus outlines pharmacological, mechanical, and magical treatments.

Based on the information recorded on papyri and hieroglyphic inscriptions, ancient Egyptians were able to distinguish benign tumors from malignant tumors. They were also able to use different treatments, including surgery, and other various modes of medicine.”  http://training.seer.cancer.gov/disease/history/

A recent article reports on the discovery of a 2250 year old mummy who had prostate cancer: “It is the oldest known case of prostate cancer in ancient Egypt and the second-oldest case in history … The earliest diagnosis of metastasizing prostate carcinoma came in 2007, when researchers investigated the skeleton of a 2,700-year-old Scythian king who died, aged 40-50, in the steppe of Southern Siberia, Russia.”  http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/45126192/ns/technology_and_science-science/

No matter how slow and painful a cancer death might be, surgery didn’t sound like a great option:  “The Edwin Smith Papyrus, describes 8 cases of tumors or ulcers of the breast. The document acknowledged that there is no treatment for this condition and recommended cauterization (the fire drill) as a palliative measure. ”  http://medicineworld.org/cancer/history.html

“Hippocrates believed that the body had 4 humors (body fluids): blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. When the humors were balanced, a person was healthy. Too much or too little of any of the humors caused disease. An excess of black bile in various body sites was thought to cause cancer. This theory of cancer was passed on by the Romans and was embraced by the influential doctor Galen’s medical teaching, which remained the unchallenged standard through the Middle Ages for over 1,300 years. During this period, the study of the body, including autopsies, was prohibited for religious reasons, which limited progress of medical knowledge.”

Hippocrates was also the person to coin the term ‘cancer’ from “the Greek words, carcinos and carcinoma  . . . thus calling cancer “karkinos.” The Greek terms actually were words to describe a crab, which Hippocrates thought a tumor resembled.”  http://cancer.about.com/od/historyofcancer/a/cancerhistory.htm

“The oldest available specimen of a human cancer is found in the remains of skull of a female who lived during the Bronze Age (1900-1600 BC) The tumor in the womens skull was suggestive of head and neck cancer. The mummified skeletal remains of Peruvian Incas, dating back 2400 years ago, contained abnormalities suggestive of involvement with malignant melanoma. Cancer was also found in fossilized bones recovered from ancient Egypt. Louis Leakey found the oldest possible hominid malignant tumor in 1932 from the remains of a body, which could be either that of Homo erectus or an Australopithecus. This tumor had features suggestive of a Burkitts lymphoma.”  http://medicineworld.org/cancer/history.html

Throughout, doctors have tried to get a handle on it:

“Zacutus Lusitani (1575-1642) and Nicholas Tulp (1593-1674), 2 doctors in Holland, concluded at almost the same time that cancer was contagious. They made this conclusion based on their experiences with breast cancer in members of the same household. Lusitani and Tulp publicized the contagion theory in 1649 and 1652, respectively. They proposed that cancer patients should be isolated, preferably outside of cities and towns, in order to prevent the spread of cancer.”   http://www.cancer.org/Cancer/CancerBasics/TheHistoryofCancer/the-history-of-cancer-cancer-causes-theories-throughout-history

There were treatments too, not that they necessarily worked:

“Paul of Aegina (~625 – 690 AD)
Paul of Aegina was a most prominent Byzantine physician who believed cancer of the breast and uterus were most common, and he wrote that surgery of uterine cancer was useless. He recommended removal of breast cancer instead of cauterization.

Moses Maimonides (1135 – 1204 AD)
The treatment of large tumors suggested by Moses Maimonides involves ‘excis[ing] the tumor and uproots the entire tumor and its surroundings up to the point of healthy tissue, except if the tumor contains large vessels…[or] the tumor happens to be situated in close proximity to any major organ, excision is dangerous.'”  http://knol.google.com/k/history-of-cancer-treatment#



Ynys Mon (Anglesey) in the Dark and Middle Ages

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Of all the places in north Wales/Gwynedd, the name for Ynys Mon was deliberately changed by the English/Norman invaders, but it belies the fact that Ynys Mon remains resolutely Welsh, with 7 out of 10 residents speaking Welsh.  Because of its location, the populace suffered greatly over the millenia from foreign invaders, culminating with the wars of 1277 and 1282, when it was conquered as a stepping stone to Eryri, the stronghold of the Welsh princes.  After this last war, Edward deliberately razed much that was Welsh to the ground, including Llanfaes Abbey, the gravesite of Princesses Joanna and Elinor and built Beaumaris over the top of it.  In the process, hundreds of Welsh were ‘resettled’ elsewhere and English people brought in.

“Ethnic cleansing is not a new concept. When Edward I reached Llanfaes, he forced all the Welsh people to move to a new village called Newborough. However, the worst effects were felt in the towns of Conwy, Caernarfon and Beaumaris. No Welsh people were permitted in the towns and they were mostly inhabited by the English with a few people from Ireland, Gascony and Savoy. 1,500 hectares around those towns was also cleared of Welsh people in order that the colonists had fields for crops and livestock. The villages of Aberystwyth and Lleweni were similarly cleared of Welsh people.”  http://www.princesofgwynedd.com/drivingtour.asp?pid=3

The name ‘Anglesey’ is in fact a Viking word from the 10th century, indicating that the Vikings were successful enough in their sacking of the island for a place-name to stick, and be adopted later by the English/Normans.


Anglesey has some of the best farmland in Wales, is one of the flatter areas, and is also the driest region of Wales.  Thus, settlement has existed on Anglesey as long as people have lived in Wales.  Prehistoric megaliths scatter the island:  http://www.megalithia.com/overview/anglesey.html

Knowing a good thing when they saw it, the Romans conquered Anglesey in 61 AD but only after defeating Boudica elsewhere:  “The Romans vehemently opposed the Celtic druids, whom they did not see as pious priests, but as ferocious freedom fighters – terrorists. The druids continuously tried to rally the local population to take up the arms against the Romans. The Roman invasion of Britain had set these men on the run, with the centre of the druid cult becoming, or possibly always being Anglesey, which thus, in the first century AD, was the centre of the Celtic religion in Britain.

This situation is confirmed by the Roman historian Tacitus and Emperor Nero, who specifically identified Anglesey as an island that needed to be conquered. Many troops were relocated from other British locations towards Wales in an effort to do so. However, this power vacuum elsewhere resulted in certain insurrections, such as that of Queen Boudica.

Realising the Roman troops could not maintain order and attack Anglesey at the same time, the Empire forsook a final attack on Anglesey – the conquest of Anglesey was insignificant against the loss of London and the rest of Britain. Hence, it is claimed that the Roman general Paulinus tore up Nero’s orders, returned to London via the newly constructed Watling Street, to meet the army that had been scrambled by Queen Boudica, which had left London, in search of a Roman army they could fight. In the end, the battle occurred in Atherstone, Warwickshire, where the Romans attained an easy victory. Enthusiasm lost against well-oiled organisation.

The fact that “druid terrorists” lived in Anglesey meant that in 61 AD, Suetonius Paulinus managed to get his army across the Menai Strait and massacred the druids and burnt their sacred groves. The Romans remained aware, however, that the druids might continue to pose a problem and hence they constructed the fortress of Segontium, present Caernarfon, on the edge of the Menai Strait, to make sure that what little remained of an intact Celtic culture remained on Anglesey – and did not try to seed dissent in “Roman Britain”.

Tacitus wrote how the battle occurred on the coastline of the Menai Strait: “On the coastline, a line of warriors of the opposition was stationed, mainly made up of armed men, amongst them women, with their hair blowing in the wind, while they were carrying torches. Druids were amongst them, shouting terrifying spells, their hands raised towards the heavens, which scared our soldiers so much that their limbs became paralysed. As a result, they remained stationary and were injured. At the end of the battle, the Romans were victorious, and the holy oaks of the druids were destroyed.””


After the Romans, came the Irish, the Vikings, the Scots, and the Danes (briefly), but it was strong enough defensibly for the Kings of Gwynedd to seat their court on the west coast at Aberffraw from c.860 AD until c.1170 AD.  No trace remains of that court as the llys was dismantled for the building and maintenance of Edward I’s castle at Beaumaris.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aberffraw


The Celts in Wales


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The Irish, Welsh, and Scots all have a Celtic ancestry, but they settled their respective regions before the Roman conquest of Britain.  There is an amazing amount of debate as to the origin of the Celts:  were they Phoenician?  stocky and dark?  tall and blonde?  as culturally cohesive as the label suggests?   The standard theory is that the Celts were an Indo-European group that gradually migrated across Europe and Asia, with an identifiable, distinct culture by 750 BC.  As a group, they were well-known to the Greeks and Romans.  The map to the right shows the migrations of the celtic (or proto-celtic) groups around 1000 BC.   Note the expansion of the Celts in particular between 500 and 200 BC into the British Isles.  The Welsh tribes in particular consisted of the Ordovices, the Deceangli, the Gangani, the Demetae, and the Silures. http://archaeology.suite101.com/article.cfm/archaeology_and_the_celts

“History tells us that there were two main Celtic groups, one of which is referred to as the ‘lowland Celts’ who hailed from the region of the Danube. These people left their native pastures around 1200 BC and slowly made their way across Europe, founding the lake dwellings in Switzerland, the Danube valley and Ireland. They were skilled in the use of metals and worked in gold, tin and bronze. Unlike the more familiar Celtic strain these people were an agriculturally oriented race, being herdsmen, tillers and artificers who burned rather than buried their dead. They blended peacefully with the megalithic people among whom they settled, contributing powerfully to the religion, art, and customs they encountered as they slowly spread westwards. Their religious beliefs also differed from the next group, being predominately matriarchal.

The second group, often referred to as the ‘true’ Celts, followed closely behind their lowland cousins, making their first appearance on the left bank of the Rhine at the commencement of the sixth century BC. These people, who came from the mountainous regions of the Balkans and Carpathians, were a military aristocracy. Reputed to love fighting for the sake of it they were frequently to be found among the mercenaries of the great armies of those early times. They had a distinct class system, the observance of which constituted one of their major racial features. These were the warlike Celts of ancient history who sacked Rome and Delphi, eventually marching victoriously across much of Europe and the British Isles.”  http://www.joellessacredgrove.com/Celtic/history.html

The Celts had arrived in Britain and Ireland by 400 BC, super-imposing upon whatever native peoples were already there.  The Celts in these regions, then, were on the fringes of Celtic culture, not their heart, which was centered in Northern Europe, particularly in what is now Germany, Austria, and Switzerland.

“Archaeological investigation of settlements shows that many people in the Iron Age lived in hilltop enclosures  or hillforts defended by one or more banks and ditches. The inner bank would have been topped by a wooden palisade or occasionally a stone wall.

Within the enclosure people lived in round houses often with porches over the single doorway. The houses were made usually with wattle and daub walls, wooden roofs thatched with straw or reeds and with clay or earth floors. In some areas where stone was plentiful the house walls were built of stone. This is true of north Wales at such hillforts as Moel-y-Gaer. Often the houses had a central fireplace and sometimes a clay oven for baking bread. The grain for the bread was ground on rotary querns. The smoke would have escaped through the thatch. A wooden loom might be found in some houses where people wove cloth from wool or flax.”  http://www.cpat.org.uk/educate/leaflets/celts/celts.htm

A ‘new’ theory, which isn’t necessarily knew and might make equal or more sense, is that the Celts actually originated on the fringes of Europe–in Ireland–migrated east around 2000 BC, and then swept back again 1500 years later. A recent find supports this idea:

“The DNA evidence based on those bones completely upends the traditional view,” said Barry Cunliffe, an emeritus professor of archaeology at Oxford who has written books on the origins of the people of Ireland.

DNA research indicates that the three skeletons found behind McCuaig’s are the ancestors of the modern Irish and they predate the Celts and their purported arrival by 1,000 years or more. The genetic roots of today’s Irish, in other words, existed in Ireland before the Celts arrived.

“The most striking feature” of the bones, according to the research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science journal, is how much their DNA resembles that of contemporary Irish, Welsh and Scots. (By contrast, older bones found in Ireland were more like Mediterranean people, not the modern Irish.)

Radiocarbon dating shows that the bones discovered at McCuaig’s go back to about 2000 B.C. That makes them hundreds of years older than the oldest artifacts generally considered to be Celtic — relics unearthed from Celt homelands of continental Europe, most notably around Switzerland, Austria and Germany.

For a group of scholars who in recent years have alleged that the Celts, beginning from the middle of Europe, may never have reached Ireland, the arrival of the DNA evidence provides the biological certitude that the science has sometimes brought to criminal trials.

“With the genetic evidence, the old model is completely shot,” John Koch, a linguist at the Center for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies at the University of Wales.

The senior author of the DNA research paper, Dan Bradley of Trinity College Dublin, was reluctant to weigh in on the cultural implications, but he offered that the findings do challenge popular beliefs about Irish origins.

“The genomes of the contemporary people in Ireland are older — much older — than we previously thought,” he said.

over the last decade, a growing number of scholars have argued that the first Celtic languages were spoken not by the Celts in the middle of Europe but by ancient people on Europe’s westernmost extremities, possibly in Portugal, Spain, Ireland or the other locales on the western edges of the British Isles.

Koch, the linguist at the University of Wales, for example, proposed in 2008 that “Celtic” languages were not imports to the region but instead were developed somewhere in the British Isles or the Iberian Peninsula — and then spread eastward into continental Europe.

His doubts about the traditional view arose as he was studying inscriptions on artifacts from southern Portugal. The inscriptions on those artifacts strongly resembled the languages known as Celtic, yet they dated as far back as 700 B.C. This placed Celtic languages far from the Celt homelands in the middle of Europe at a very, very early date.

“What it shows is that the language that became Irish was already out there — before 700 B.C. and before the Iron Age,” Koch said. “It just didn’t fit with the traditional theory of Celtic spreading west to Britain and Iberia.”


The second line of argument arises from archaeology and related sources.

Numerous digs, most notably in Austria and Switzerland, have traced the outlines of the Celts. The artifacts offer evidence going back as far as about 800 B.C. The ancient Greeks and Romans also left written accounts of the Celts, and probably knew them well — the Celts sacked Rome around 390 B.C. and attacked Delphi in Greece in 279 B.C.

It seemed plausible that this group that had invaded Rome had invaded Ireland as well, and in the standard view, it was this people that eventually made it to Ireland.

For decades, however, archaeologists and other scholars have noted just how flimsy the evidence is for that standard account and how broad, nonetheless, is the application of the word.

In 1955, an Oxford professor, J.R.R. Tolkien, better known as the author of “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” novels, described the popular understanding of “Celtic” in a celebrated lecture: “‘Celtic’ of any sort is … a magic bag into which anything may be put, and out of which almost anything may come…. Anything is possible in the fabulous Celtic twilight, which is not so much a twilight of the gods as of the reason.”

Moreover, in recent years, some archaeologists have proposed that the traditional story of the Celts’ invasion was, in a sense, exactly wrong — the culture was not imported but exported — originating on the western edge of Europe much earlier than previously thought and spreading into the continent.

In a 2001 book, Cunliffe, the Oxford scholar, argued on the basis of archaeological evidence that the flow of Celtic culture was opposite that of the traditional view — it flowed from the western edge of Europe, what he calls “the Atlantic zone” — into the rest of the continent. In many places of the Atlantic zone, he notes, people were buried in passages aligned with the solstices, a sign that they shared a unified belief system.

“From about 5,000 B.C. onwards, complicated ideas of status, art, cosmology were being disseminated along the Atlantic seaways,” Cunliffe said, and that culture then spread eastward.

“If we’re right, the roots of what is known as ‘Celtic’ culture go way way back in time,” Cunliffe said. “And the genetic evidence is going to be an absolute game-changer.”



Other Hillforts to visit:

Caer Drewyn (near Corwen)
Moel Fenlli on the Clwydian Hills
Gaer Fawr (near Welshpool), Powys
Ffrydd Faldwyn (Montgomery), Powys
Roundton Hill (near Churchstoke), Powys
Castell Tinboeth, Radnor (also the site of a medieval castle)
Castell Dinas Bran (near Llangollen–also the site of a medieval castle)


European Invasions

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Throughout Europe in the Middle Ages, different groups moved from one location to another.  Sometimes, the purpose was conquest, sometimes raiding, and sometimes it involved a quest for a better life and the intent was to settle, rather than conquer, new lands.

But usually somebody was already there.  The map at right show the paths of various groups from Roman times to through the Middle Ages. After the sack of Rome in 410 (see my post here: http://www.sarahwoodbury.com/the-fall-of-rome/) tribes were on the move all through Europe:

Angles/Saxons/Jutes:  These three groups derived from Denmark and Germany.  “Following the departure of the Romans in A.D.410 and after the sacking of Rome, Britain was left unprotected. The distant dominions frantic call to Rome went unheard. Mutiny spread through the ranks of the British defenders remaining who were now descendants of Roman stock. Britain in desperation declared independence from Rome and defended itself the best way it could. Despite this sudden change in fortune for Britain, the Roman lifestyle continued, if on a downward path for the next fifty years. The departure of the Romans did not go un-noticed by the Picts, Scots and especially the Saxons, who saw Britain as a prosperous and plunderable asset.”  http://www.battle1066.com/saxons.shtml  The Saxons waves continued until the 800s, when they’d conquered all of England, pushing the Welsh and Scots to the edges of the map.

Franks:  The Franks originated in what is now Belgium, but spread post-Rome south to France.  “Clovis extends his power from the Somme down to the Loire by using an unscrupulous blend of warfare, intrigue and murder to assert his authority over other Frankish tribes in the region. He then sucessfuly demands tribute from the Burgundians in the southeast and, more significantly, drives the Visigoths from the southwest. By 507 the whole of France, except a narrow strip along the Mediterranean, is his acknowledged realm.”
Read more: http://www.historyworld.net/wrldhis/PlainTextHistories.asp?historyid=ab74#ixzz1ABfvBH4X

Goths/Visigoths/Ostragoths:  The Goths overall are a German people, with the Visigoths coming from Western Germany and the Ostrogoths from Eastern Germany.  “They originated in Scandinavia, but by the 2nd century of the Christian Era had moved into what is now Southern Russia. The Goths had adopted the habit of fighting on horseback. This arose from the fact that the first area the Goths invaded in the 2nd century AD were the vast plains of Eastern Europe and southern Russia.  . . .  The Goths first burst upon the scene of history in the 3rd Century, when they swarmed out of Southern Russia by both land and sea to beset the Roman Empire. After an heroic struggle, the Romans managed to drive them back to work on their military techniques a little more. In the mid-4th century the Goths were attacked by even wilder peoples, like the Huns. The Visigoths sought security within the boundries of the Roman Empire, offering to help defend the Balkans in return for land, but the Emperor Valens spurned their offer. So they invaded, and in 378 overwhelmed a Roman army at Adrianople, using cavalry in combination with a fortified camp. The victory seems to have surprised the Visigoths almost as much as it did the Romans, for they agreed to settle in the Balkans and help defend them against other tribes. Within a century, the Visigoths had drifted westwards, to settle in southern Gaul (modern France) and Spain, where they set up a kingdom of their own.”  http://www.hyw.com/books/history/goths.htm

Huns:   “Arriving on the fringes of the Roman Empire in the late fourth century, riding their war horses out of the great steppes of Asia, they struck fear into Germanic barbarians and Romans alike. Some scholars believe that they had earlier moved against the Chinese Empire but were turned away and swept to wards Rome instead. As they approached the Black Sea and conquered the Ostrogoths, they also drove the Visigoths across the Danube into the Roman Empire and caused the crisis that led to the astounding defeat of the Roman army under the Emperor Valens at Adrianople in 378 AD.

Those early Huns, using the traditional tactics of mounted archers, seemed like monsters from the darkness to their more civilized contemporaries. The Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus, writing at the end of the fourth century, described their savage customs and elaborated on their military tactics:

“The nation of the Huns…surpasses all other barbarians in wildness of life….And though [the Huns] do just bear the likeness of men (of a very ugly pattern), they are so little advanced in civilization that they make no use of fire, nor any kind of relish, in the preparation of their food, but feed upon the roots which they find in the fields, and the half-raw flesh of any sort of animal. I say half-raw, because they give it a kind of cooking by placing it between their own thighs and the backs of their horses….”  http://members.gcronline.com/attila/history.htm  He was probably biased.

Vandals:  “The Vandals first entered collapsing Roman Empire in the winter of 409 AD, when they crossed the frozen Rhine river with a group of Alans and Sueves. They were taking advantage of a rebellion within the Empire which kept the Romans from defending themselves well. The Vandals (with the Alans and Sueves) slowly travelled south through Gaul (France), looting and fighting as they went. When they reached the Pyrenees mountains that separate France from Spain, they were actually invited into Spain by one of the rebel leaders, in exchange for helping him with his rebellion.
After this rebellion failed, the Vandals were left on their own in Spain. They took over the southern part of Spain in about 411 AD. A Visigothic attack in 415 AD weakened them but did not destroy them.

By 429 AD the Vandals decided to move to Africa instead of Spain, and ferried all 80,000 of their people across the Straits of Gibraltar in boats. Under their king Gaiseric, the Vandals established a kingdom in Africa, which they used as a base for piracy around the Mediterranean for a hundred years. They set up an Arian church, minted their own coins, and had diplomatic relations with other Mediterranean kingdoms.
In 533, however, the Roman Emperor Justinian sent his general Belisarius to reconquer Africa for Rome. When Belisarius succeeded, that was the end of the Vandals.”  http://www.historyforkids.org/learn/medieval/history/earlymiddle/vandals.htm


Welsh Faeries

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The Welsh had a pantheon of gods and goddesses before the coming of the Romans.  With the defeat of the druids and the extermination of their sites on Anglesey, the druid religion in Wales went into decline–and perhaps that is the reason there are relatively few Welsh gods and goddesses compared to the Irish, whose religion flourished during the Dark Ages and also developed a unique form of Christianity alongside it.

Within the belief system, faeries, or Tylwyth Teg, the modern designation, had a role, divisible into five classes:  the Ellyllon, or elves, the Coblynau, or mine fairies, the Bwbachod, or household fairies, the Gwragedd Annwn, or fairies of the lakes and streams; and the Gwyllion, or mountain fairies.  http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/wfl/wfl02.htm

Ellyllon:  “The Ellyllon are the pigmy elves who haunt the groves and valleys, and correspond pretty closely with the English elves. The English name was probably derived from the Welsh el, a spirit, elf, an element; there is a whole brood of words of this class in the Welsh language, expressing every variety of flowing, gliding, spirituality, devilry, angelhood, and goblinism. Ellyllon (the plural of ellyll), is also doubtless allied with the Hebrew Elilim, having with it an identity both of origin and meaning. [Pughe’s ‘Welsh Dictionary.’ (Denbigh, 1866)]  http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/wfl/wfl02.htm

Coblynau:  “The Welsh version of the Cornish Knockers, these mine spirits were relatively good humoured, and helped the miners by knocking in places with rich lodes of mineral, or metal. The Coblynau dressed in miners’ attire, and stood at around 18 inches in height.  Belief in these mine spirits was once widespread especially in Celtic areas which were heavily mined, for example Wales and Cornwall.”  http://www.mysteriousbritain.co.uk/wales/folklore/the-coblynau.html

Bwbachod:  “The Bwbachod or otherwise known as the Bwca or Bwbach is a Welsh household spirit. The Bwbachod performs tasks when appreciated but becomes mischievous and destructive when offended. The Bwbachod detest people that don’t drink alcohol . . .”  The modern update is that this creatures also hates church and ministers.  http://www.mythcreatures.co.uk/celtic/bwbachod.asp

Gwragedd Annwn:  “The Gwragedd Annwn are Welsh water faeries who live in towns and villages beneath lakes. Often using glamour to disguise these dwellings, the most famous example of which was the Lady of the Lake, whose palace was disguised with a magical lake. Gwragedd Annwn as kithain do not live in underwater communities like those of their faerie cousins; the relative lack of glamour makes this impractical, and the encroachment of humanity, and the pollution it brings with it, on lakes and bodies of water makes the construction of underwater cities impossible. Now the Gwragedd Annwn have to cling to what sparing freshwater they can safely haunt.

They have an innate aptitiude for all things medicinal. There are reports of secret gardens hidden on islands in the middle of lakes, which are impossible to find except by a special entrance which is only opened on New Year’s Day. Everything in these gardens is sacred and removal of even the most trivial of items, such as a flower, leads to the permanent closure of the garden, except to the Gwragedd Annwn. Now, these precious few secret gardens serve as moderately powerful freeholds, but those which still exist are difficult in the extreme to enter, having long been left by their faerie denizens.

It is said of Gwragedd Annwn who take mortals for partners that if they should be struck three times causelessly, they must leave their partner, never to be seen by them again, and to Gwragedd Annwn, this is as strong as the most powerful oath. Gwragedd Annwn have contrary reactions to most collective emotions; they might cry and lament at a wedding, or laugh and sing at a funeral. These unusual feelings must be learned to be dealt with if the kithain is to get along in ordinary society.”  http://www.angelfire.com/ca4/dataweaver/play/changeling/gwargeddannwn.html

Gwyllion:  “The Gwyllion is a mythological creature from Wales. Even though these elfish creatures are mostly harmless you should always invite them into your house and treat them well, because if you don’t, it may result in destruction. The female faerie is very hideous and its only job is to cause travelers to become lost. Many times they just bother you or possibly frighten you by sitting on either side of a mountain path and following the traveler with their eyes. These ladies usually like on mountain trails, but if the weather becomes bad they resort to going to the valley. If you do happen to be threatened by a Gwyllion just take out a knife and point it directly at her. It is strongly recommend to have a knife handy if one plans on hiking in the night time, for this is there prime time for terror. Just beware next time you plan on going on any trails.”  http://www.pantheon.org/articles/g/gwyllion.html


Vortigern? Who was he again?

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Vortigern was a King of the Britons who is remembered for welcoming the Saxons into Britain during the dark ages and then being unable to get them to leave.

This site:  http://www.vortigernstudies.org.uk/artwho/who.htm would very much like to rehabilitate Vortigern.  He has extensive information on this site.

Our knowledge of Vortigern comes from some early sources.  Gildas, who wrote a moral history of Britain, states, around 540 BC:  “At this meeting, the council invited the Saxons in three keels from Germany, as a counter to the threat from the Picts in the north. This is followed after some time by a conflict over the annona (payment in kind), after which the Saxon federates devastate the country. Vortigern, who may have been named by Gildas, is not portrayed by Gildas as a sole ruler, or a High King if you will. He rules together with a Council, which Gildas blames equally for the disastrous policy concerning the invitation of the Saxons. Maybe looking at him as a ‘first among equals’ would be more fitting his actual position at that time. In all, Gildas’ view of the Superbus Tyrannus is almost positive; though he is judged careless and lacking foresight, he is called infaustus (unlucky), which is very mild considering Gildas’ views on the Saxons and the hindsight he had on the disaster that resulted from the Tyrannus’ policies.”    http://www.vortigernstudies.org.uk/artwho/who.htm

From Nennius, writing in the 10th century:  “The Historia Brittonum recounts many details about Vortigern and his sons. Chapters 31–49 tell how Vortigern (Guorthigirn) deals with the Saxons and Saint Germanus of Auxerre. Chapters 50–55 deal with St. Patrick ; Chapters 56 tells us about King Arthur and his battles; Chapters 57–65 mention English genealogies, mingled with English and Welsh history; Chapter 66 give important chronological calculations, mostly on Vortigern and the Adventus Saxonum.”  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vortigern

“To the old monastics, Vortigern and his Saxons were viewed as yet another scourge inflicted upon Britain.  Worse than Arianism, Pelagianism, and persecuting pagan emperors, his reign was the crowning point of the ultimate evil let loose upon the Britons, i.e. the Saxons.  These Saxons persecuted the people and devastated the church, far more thoroughly than any previous Roman Emperor!  Ironically enough, it was the veryoffensiveness of his crimes that caused the old chronologers to record and preserve records of his rise to power and the coming of his Saxon mercenaries!”  http://www.earlybritishkingdoms.com/articles/clerical.html

It’s hard to get a handle of the man beyond this.  From the other side, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle mentions Vortigern.  It “provides dates and locations of four battles Hengest and his brother Horsa fought against the British in southeast Britain, in the historic county of Kent. Vortigern is said to have been the leader of the British in only the first battle, the opponents in the next three battles variously called ‘British’ and ‘Welsh’—which is not unusual for this part of the Chronicle. No Saxon defeat is acknowledged, but the geographical sequence of the battles suggests a Saxon retreat and the Chronicle locates the last battle, dated to 465 in Wippedsfleot, the place where the Saxons first landed, thought to be Ebbsfleet near Ramsgate. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle presents the year 455 as the last date when Vortigern is mentioned.”  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vortigern

There is some thought that Vortigern might be mentioned on the Pillar of Eliseg, found near Dinas Bran in Wales:  “. . . the monarchy . . . Maximus . . . of Britain . . . Concenn, Pascent, Maun, Annan.† Britu son of Vortigern, whom Germanus blessed, and whom Sevira bore to him, daughter of Maximus the king, who killed the king of the Romans.”  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pillar_of_Eliseg