Hymns of stone V

Monday, November 17, 2014

By 100 BC, at the very latest, the eyes of Rome were turned towards England as a source of wealth and of trade. What did they see? They saw a land made up of tribal kingdoms, large and small, that had kept to the old tribal boundaries. The Dumnonii inhabited the south-west peninsula, while the Durotriges were the people of Dorset; the Cantii of Kent comprised four separate kingdoms; the Iceni were of Norfolk. The Brigantes controlled the smaller tribes of the entire northern area from the Irish Sea to the North Sea; they occupied the Pennines and their tribal name means ‘the high ones’.

There were altogether fifteen large tribes in England, now coming under the control of leaders who were being described as kings. Suetonius named Cunobelinus, the leader of the Catuvellauni in the years preceding the main Roman invasion of Claudius, as ‘rex Britannorum’. From his capital at St Albans he controlled a great area north of the Thames – including Cambridgeshire and Bedfordshire and Oxfordshire – and has since entered English mythology as the Cymbeline of Shakespeare’s play. His was a fully formed elite culture of warriors and priests, with its traditions going back to the early Bronze Age. One or two more recent tribal migrations have been identified. Members of a tribe from North Gaul, the Parisii, had settled in Yorkshire at some time in the fifth century BC and created an archaeologically distinctive community. More recent visitors arrived in Kent; a tribe known as the Belgae launched a small invasion in the first century BC and eventually settled in Hampshire, Essex and Kent. The Roman name for Winchester is Venta Belgarum, or the market of the Belgae.

The population of England in the late Iron Age has been estimated at approximately 2 million, rising to 3 million by the end of the Roman dominion. It was in every respect a wealthy and flourishing country. That is why the Romans chose to invade it. They wished to exploit the surplus of corn. There was in particular a spread of settlements in the south-east and central southern regions with extensive fields, shrines, cemeteries, industries, markets, towns and villages. In his Commentarii de Bello Gallico Julius Caesar remarked that ‘the population is very large, their homesteads thick on the ground and very much like those in Gaul, and the cattle numerous. As money they use either bronze or gold coins or iron bars with a fixed standard of weight.’ Coins, in particular, facilitated trade between tribes and bore the stamp of a powerful leader. The further north a traveller progressed, however, the fainter was the evidence for these material benefits.

That is because the southern tribes were engaged in extensive trade with Rome and Romanized Gaul long before Caesar’s invasion. They had, in a sense, already become Romanized with their predilection for certain foods and luxury goods. Yet, if you look beneath the surface, you find ancient tribal ways. There seems to have been consistent inter-tribal warfare, for example, with various leaders appealing to Rome for assistance. Large earthworks were created as boundaries. The warriors came to battle in chariots, their naked bodies covered with blue woad and pierced with tattoos. ‘They wear their hair long’, Caesar wrote, ‘and shave all their bodies with the exception of their heads and their upper lips.’ They had not quite left the domain of prehistory.

Nor have we yet. The legacy of prehistory is all around us. The clearances of prehistoric farmers helped to create the English landscape, and there are still places where the division of the land follows its prehistoric boundaries. In southern England the field systems of the Bronze Age and Iron Age inform and maintain the layout of modern farming. Modern roads follow the line of ancient paths and trackways. The boundaries of many parishes follow ancient patterns of settlement, and their irregular outlines enclose land sufficient to maintain a small farming community; ancient burials are often to be found on the boundaries of such a parish, and even the orientation of the church may obey old laws. Churches and monastic communities were placed close beside the sites of megalithic monuments, as well as sacred springs and early Bronze Age ritual spaces. The churchyard of the parish church of Rudston, in East Yorkshire, harbours the tallest Neolithic standing stone in England. The pilgrim routes of medieval Kent trace the same pattern as the prehistoric tracks to holy wells and shrines. We still live deep in the past.

Many villages, and towns, are built upon the sites of prehistoric originals. Leicester and Lincoln, Cambridge and Colchester, Rochester and Canterbury – to name only a few examples – were settled in the Iron Age or earlier. Village communities endure through recorded and unrecorded history. They may begin as simple family units, surrounded by ancestral spirits, before the natural process of extension. But we cannot dig down to the prehistoric origins of most English villages precisely because they are still in thriving occupation. Many Iron Age settlements became the market towns of the twenty-first century, where surplus produce has always been traded.

Certain customs, and festivals, belong to the prehistoric past. The celebrations of the Iron Age were incorporated into the Christian calendar, with the festival of the dead or ‘Samain’ becoming All Souls’ Day, and the midwinter solstice commemorated as Christmas. The Bronze Age practice of scattering white quartz stones upon freshly dug graves was still being observed in early twentieth-century Wales. In nineteenth-century Scotland many inhabitants still lived in stone ‘beehive’ houses from the Neolithic period. The famous public house beside Hampstead Heath, Jack Straw’s Castle, stands on the site of an ancient earthwork. The historic and the prehistoric exist simultaneously. Catterick in North Yorkshire remains a military base, just as it was when the mead-drunk warriors of the Gododdin assailed it at the end of the sixth century AD. There is scarcely one spot in England that does not contain memorials of an ancient past.


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