Britons (Celtic people)

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"Ancient Britons" redirects here. For the prehistoric inhabitants of Britain, see Prehistoric Britain. For other uses, see Briton (disambiguation).
Great Britain in the early–mid 1st millennium, before the founding of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.
  Mainly Brittonic areas
  Mainly Pictish areas
  Mainly Goidelic areas

Britons were the people who spoke the Insular Celtic language known as Common Brittonic. They lived in Great Britain during the Iron Age, the Roman era and the post-Roman era. After the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons the Britons were either subsumed into Anglo-Saxon culture, becoming "English"; retreated; or persisted in the Celtic fringe areas of Wales, Cornwall and southern Scotland, with some emigrating to Brittany. The relationship of the Britons to the Picts north of the Forth has been the subject of much discussion, though most scholars accept that the Pictish language was related to Common Brittonic.[1]

The Romano-British population apparently mostly continued to speak Brittonic languages throughout the occupation, although the great majority of surviving inscriptions use Latin, and there is little evidence as to how local and international languages co-existed in Romano-British society. At the end of Roman Britain, the Britons lived throughout Britain south of the Firth of Forth. After the 5th century, under the pressure of the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain, Britons migrated to mainland Europe and established significant settlements in Brittany (today part of France), with a smaller migration to Britonia in modern Galicia, Spain.[2]

The earliest evidence for the Britons and their language in historical sources dates to the Iron Age,[2] however it seems increasingly likely that the majority of the population represented a continuity with the preceding British Bronze Age; "Briton" is also a term used for the earlier inhabitants. After the Roman conquest of Britain in the 1st century, a Romano-British culture began to emerge. With the beginning of Anglo-Saxon settlement in the 5th century, however, the culture and language of the Britons began to fragment and much of their territory was taken over by the Anglo-Saxons. The extent to which this cultural and linguistic change was accompanied by wholesale changes in the population is still a matter of discussion. By the 11th century remaining Celtic-speaking populations had split into distinct groups: the Welsh, Cornish, Bretons, and the people of the Hen Ogledd ("Old North"). Common Brittonic developed into two main groups: the Western Brittonic languages, including Welsh and Cumbric, and the Southwestern Brittonic languages, comprising Cornish and Breton.[2]


Gritstone bas-relief of Romano-British woman
Main article: Britain (placename)
Further information: Brittia

The earliest known reference to the inhabitants of Britain seems to come from records of the voyage of Pytheas, a Greek geographer who made a voyage of exploration around the British Isles between 330 and 320 BC. Although none of his own writings remain, writers during the time of the Roman Empire made much reference to them. Pytheas called the islands collectively αι Βρεττανιαι (hai Brettaniai), which has been translated as the Brittanic Isles, and the peoples of these islands of Prettanike were called the Πρεττανοί (Prettanoi), Priteni, Pritani or Pretani. The group included Ireland, which was referred to as Ierne (Insula sacra "sacred island" as the Greeks interpreted it) "inhabited by the race of Hiberni" (gens hiernorum), and Britain as insula Albionum, "island of the Albions".[3][4] The term Pritani may have reached Pytheas from the Gauls, who possibly used it as their term for the inhabitants of the islands.[4]

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which was originally compiled on the orders of King Alfred the Great in approximately 890, and subsequently maintained and added to by generations of anonymous scribes until the middle of the 12th century, starts with this sentence: “The island Britain is 800 miles long, and 200 miles broad, and there are in the island five nations; English, Welsh (or British), Scottish, Pictish, and Latin. The first inhabitants were the Britons, who came from Armorica, and first peopled Britain southward”.[5]

The Latin name in the early Roman Empire period was Britanni or Brittanni, following the Roman conquest in AD 43.[6]

Welsh Brython was introduced into English usage by John Rhys in 1884 as a term unambiguously referring to the P-Celtic speakers of Great Britain to complement Goidel; hence the adjective Brythonic referring to the group of languages.[7] Brittonic languages is a more recent coinage (first attested 1923 according to the Oxford English Dictionary) intended to refer to the ancient Britons specifically.


A flying rowan tree, considered magical by the ancient Britons
Britons migrated westwards during the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain

The Britons spoke an Insular Celtic language known as Common Brittonic. Brittonic was spoken throughout the island of Britain.[2][8] According to early mediaeval historical tradition, such as The Dream of Macsen Wledig, the post-Roman Celtic-speakers of Armorica were colonists from Britain, resulting in the Breton language, a language related to Welsh and identical to Cornish in the early period and still used today. Thus the area today is called Brittany (Br. Breizh, Fr. Bretagne, derived from Britannia).

Common Brittonic developed from the Insular branch of the Proto-Celtic language that developed in the British Isles after arriving from the continent. The language eventually began to diverge; some linguists[who?] have grouped subsequent developments as Western and Southwestern Brittonic languages. Western Brittonic developed into Welsh in Wales and the Cumbric language in the Hen Ogledd or "Old North" of Britain, while the Southwestern dialect became Cornish in Cornwall and South West England and Breton in Armorica. Welsh and Breton survive today; Cumbric became extinct in the 12th century. Cornish went extinct by the 19th century but has been the subject of language revitalization since the 20th century.

Archaeology and art[edit]

Main article: Celtic art

Ideas about the development of British Iron Age culture changed greatly in the 20th century, and remain in development. Generally cultural exchange has tended to replace migration from the continent as the explanation for changes, although Aylesford-Swarling Pottery and the Arras culture of Yorkshire are examples of developments still thought to be linked to migration.

Although the La Tène style, which defines what is called Celtic art in the Iron Age, was late in arriving in Britain, after 300 BC the ancient British seem to have had generally similar cultural practices to the Celtic cultures nearest to them on the continent. There are significant differences in artistic styles, and the greatest period of what is known as the "Insular La Tène" style, surviving mostly in metalwork, was in the century or so before the Roman conquest, and perhaps the decades after it. By this time Celtic styles seem to have been in decline in continental Europe, even before Roman invasions.

An undercurrent of British influence is found in some artefacts from the Roman period, such as the Staffordshire Moorlands Pan, and it appears that it was from this, passing to Ireland in the late Roman and post-Roman period, that the "Celtic" element in Early Medieval Insular art derived.


Throughout their existence, the territory inhabited by the Britons was composed of numerous ever-changing areas controlled by tribes. The extent of their territory before and during the Roman period is unclear, but is generally believed to include the whole of the island of Great Britain, as far north as the Clyde-Forth isthmus. The territory north of this was largely inhabited by the Picts; little direct evidence has been left of the Pictish language, but place names and Pictish personal names recorded in the Irish annals suggest it was related to the Common Brittonic language; indeed their Goidelic Irish name, Cruithne, is cognate with Brythonic Priteni. Part of the Pictish territory was eventually absorbed into the Gaelic kingdom of Dál Riata. The Isle of Man was originally inhabited by Britons also, but eventually it became Gaelic territory.

In 43 the Roman Empire invaded Britain. The British tribes initially opposed the Roman legions, but by 84 the Romans had decisively conquered southern Britain and had pushed into what is now southern Scotland. In 122 they fortified the northern border with Hadrian's Wall, which spanned what is now Northern England. In 142 Roman forces pushed north again and began construction of the Antonine Wall, which ran between the Forth-Clyde isthmus, but they retreated back to Hadrian's Wall after only twenty years. Although the native Britons mostly kept their land, they were subject to the Roman governors. The Roman Empire retained control of "Britannia" until its departure about AD 410.

Around the time of the Roman departure, the Germanic-speaking Anglo-Saxons began a migration to the Eastern coast of Britain, where they established their own kingdoms.[9][10] Eventually, the Brythonic language in these areas was replaced by that of the Anglo-Saxons.[citation needed] At the same time, some Britons established themselves in what is now called Brittany. There they set up their own small kingdoms and the Breton language developed there from Insular Celtic rather than Gaulish. They also retained control of Cornwall and Northwest England, where Kingdoms such as Dumnonia and Rheged survived for some time. By the end of the 1st millennium, the Anglo-Saxons and Gaels had conquered most of the Brittonic territory in Britain, and the language and culture of the native Britons had largely been extinguished,[11] remaining only in Wales, Cornwall, parts of Cumbria and Eastern Galloway.


Recent research such as work done by Professor Brian Sykes in 2006 has begun to show that the genetic make up of the British Isles was hardly affected by the immigration of peoples such as the Anglo-Saxons, Vikings and Romans to an extent that the British gene pool is essentially the same as it was during the Neolithic Period, the time of the British Celts who genetically speaking are referred to as Cro-Magnon.[citation needed] This is in contrast to previous belief in that the ancient Britons had been wiped out or dramatically reduced over time on the island. Sykes work however , is not without criticism.

Notable Britons[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Forsyth, p. 9.
  2. ^ a b c d Koch, pp. 291–292.
  3. ^ Snyder, Christopher A. (2003). The Britons. Blackwell Publishing. ISBN 0-631-22260-X. 
  4. ^ a b Foster (editor), R F; Donnchadh O Corrain, Professor of Irish History at University College Cork: Prehistoric and Early Christian Ireland (1 November 2001). The Oxford History of Ireland. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-280202-X. 
  5. ^ "The Avalon Project". Yale Law School. Retrieved 10 August 2011. 
  6. ^ OED s.v. "Briton". See also Online Etymology Dictionary: Briton
  7. ^ Online Etymology Dictionary: Brythonic
  8. ^ While there have been attempts in the past to align the Pictish language with non-Celtic language, the current academic view is that it was Brittonic. See: Forsyth (1997) p37: "[T]he only acceptable conclusion is that, from the time of our earliest historical sources, there was only one language spoken in Pictland, the most northerly reflex of Brittonic."
  9. ^ John E Pattison. Is it necessary to assume an apartheid-like social structure in early Anglo-Saxon England? Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 275(1650), 2423-2429, 2008 doi:10.1098/rspb.2008.0352
  10. ^ Pattison, John E. (2011) "Integration versus Apartheid in post-Roman Britain: a Response to Thomas et al. (2008)," Human Biology: Vol. 83: Iss. 6, Article 9. pp.715-733, 2011. Abstract available at:
  11. ^ Germanic invaders may not have ruled by apartheid New Scientist, 23 April 2008
  12. ^ Crummy, Philip (1997) City of Victory; the story of Colchester - Britain's first Roman town. Published by Colchester Archaeological Trust (ISBN 1 897719 04 3)


External links[edit]