The Britons are the inhabitants of the island of Britain. As such, they make up the primary characters involved in the legends of King Arthur. This makes them very interesting to us, so in this article we will examine their origins, their history, and their culture.
At least as early as the ninth century, the Britons had a very interesting foundation story. According to the Historia Brittonum, the island of Britain was named after a Roman consul named Brutus. Later parts of the HB go on to explain that Brutus was a descendant of Aeneas, a prince of Troy from earlier Roman legends.
In line with said Roman legends (such as the Aeneid by Vergil), Trojan refugees after the fall of Troy were said to have arrived in Italy under the command of Aeneas. That Trojan prince’s descendants ruled the area for a few generations, but then Brutus left Italy and led many Trojans across Europe, until they finally reached Britain. The island was then divided into distinct territories, named after Brutus’s sons and one of his commanders.
This foundation legend is generally what appears in subsequent histories of the island, like Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, with slight variations. And this was genuinely believed for many centuries thereafter.
In reality, there were many different tribes in Britain, and they came from many different areas.
Many of the tribes of Britain came from Gaul, quite unsurprisingly. This is evidenced by the fact that there are a number of tribes in Gaul and Britain that share the same name, such as the Parisii. In Britain, this tribe is located in Yorkshire; in Gaul, the tribe was located near the modern city of Paris.
As well as the identical names, the archaeological evidence for La Tène culture among the Parisii in Britain, as in Gaul, is further evidence for the connection between these two tribes. In addition, the fact that there are many tribes in Britain that share a name with tribes in Gaul, not just the Parisii, strongly argue against it being just coincidence. These migrations, closely associated with the ‘arrival of the Celts’ into Britain, are believed to have occurred in about the middle of the first millennium B.C.E.
Other tribes had more recent origins. For example, the south east corner of Britain was extensively occupied by the Belgae, a tribe that was centred in what is now Belgium (but according to Julius Caesar, they ultimately came from Germany). This migration into Kent and the surrounding area by the Belgae is believed to have begun in the second century B.C.E., not too long before the Romans first invaded.
The origin of other tribes was much further afield. For example, the Silures in south east Wales were noted by Roman historian Tacitus for their swarthy appearance. Partly because of this, he speculated that this tribe came from Spain. Modern research has confirmed that this was the case, pinpointing the Basque region in particular as the origin of the Silures.
So we can see that the various tribes of Britain had different origins, some of them coming from Spain and others from Germany. However, it appears that the core tribes of Britain migrated from Gaul to Britain around the middle of the first millennium B.C.E. And, of course, there were already countless inhabitants of the island long before that period, dating right back to the Stone Age, who became integrated with the new arrivals.
Although there is a common idea that the island of Britain was sparsely populated before the Romans conquered it, this is not how Caesar described it. According to his eyewitness account, the population of Britain was countless, and there were cities everywhere.
But what sort of cities did the Britons have? They were not cities like the Romans had, with grand stone walls forming the border of the city and stone-built buildings populating the inside. Rather, the Britons generally lived in oppida (singular: ‘oppidum’). These were large hillfort-type structures. They were surrounded by large, concentric mounds of earth, with ditches between each one. The mounds were generally topped with wooden palisades for extra fortification.
Within the oppida, the Britons lived in relatively small, circular houses with thatched roofs. The walls were not generally made of stone, but wood, straw and mud.
Despite appearing rather uncivilised in comparison to the Romans based on this, the Britons did produce impressive feats of art, often with gold. Many ceremonial shields and swords have been found from the pre-Roman Era. One example is the Battersea Shield, a bronze decorative covering of a now non-existent wooden shield.
It is also evident that the Britons were considered by the Gauls to be a source of great wisdom, for those being educated as druids were sent to Britain for their training.
The warfare of the Britons was very different to that of the Romans. While the Romans had a clearly-organised structure to their fighting, the Britons were a lot more chaotic.
One notable difference between the Britons and the Romans was that the Britons used chariots in their warfare. In his account of his invasion of Britain, Julius Caesar gives a vivid description of the Britons’ mode of battle.
He described how they would ride around in their chariots in attempts to break up the ranks of the Romans, which generally worked quite effectively. One warrior would ride the chariot, while the other would balance on the chariot-pole and attempt to slaughter the enemy from that position. Often, the second warrior would jump from the pole and engage in battle on foot as best he could, while the first warrior would ride the chariot out of the area of danger and watch from a little distance. When it seemed that the warrior on foot was being overwhelmed, the first one would ride back into the midst of the fighting and allow the second warrior to jump back into the chariot.
Thus, while the fighting methods used by the Britons seemed chaotic to the Romans, there was a definite method involved. It was so overwhelming to the Romans that Caesar reports that his men were ‘altogether untrained in this mode of battle’.
Nonetheless, as formidable as their warfare was, the Britons could not stand forever against the military machine that was the Roman army. We shall go on to see how the Britons were eventually subdued by the Romans, although it was by no means an easy feat.
Inter-tribal fighting characterised pre-Roman Britain. Whenever the Romans had interactions with the Britons before it became part of their empire (such as in Julius Caesar’s time), it appears that at least some tribes were always at war with each other. The minting of coins in different areas attests to this too – at times, the coins of the king of a particular tribe are discovered in the territory of a different tribe, indicating that the king had conquered that territory.
Yet, at times, the Britons were able to demonstrate remarkable unity. For example, the earliest Briton known to history is a man named Divitiacus. He was recorded by Julius Caesar and was described as the most powerful king in Gaul within living memory. He allegedly ruled over a large portion of Belgica as well as Britain. Evidently, the British kings were, at times, able to consolidate their power and keep a firm grip over a very large area.
This was shortly before the time of Caesar’s invasion of Britain, and it is evident that Divitiacus’s united rulership had dissolved since his death.
When Caesar invaded Britain in 55 B.C.E., one of the most powerful tribes was the Catuvellauni, based in the region of London. Whether this had been the tribe that Divitiacus had formerly ruled over or not is unknown. In any case, this tribe dominated the others to such an extent that Mandubracius, the ruler of a neighbouring tribe called the Trinovantes, fled to Caesar for aid, which is partially what caused the second invasion of Britain in 54 B.C.E.
Over the following century, the Catuvellauni continued to dominate the south of Britain. It is possible that they had control over the Dobunni, a tribe whose western border reached Wales (however, this is contested). When Claudius invaded Britain in 43 C.E., the king of the Catuvellauni was killed and his brother, Caratacus, apparently fled to south Wales. From there, he led the Silures against the Romans. The fact that they were led by this prince of the Catuvellauni, rather than their own king, might suggest that the Catuvellauni also already had control over the Silures (who neighboured the Dubonni). But this is not established with certainty.
In any case, the Catuvellauni themselves quickly faded into obscurity, with the leading opposition to the Romans passing over through Caratacus to the Silures. The great majority of the other tribes in the south of Britain either ceded to the Romans or were quickly subdued through warfare. In contrast, the Silures managed to maintain their opposition against the Romans until almost the end of the century.
Another British tribe which very effectively opposed the Romans during the first century C.E. was the Brigantes. Though they were quite friendly with the Romans at first (their queen actually betrayed Caratacus and handed him to the Romans in chains), their relationship turned sour in the latter part of the first century. Eventually, the Romans set out to conquer the Brigantes, taking many decades to do so.
Throughout the Roman period, different tribes rose up against their foreign rulers on various occasions. But on the whole, the Britons remained under the power of the Romans from the end of the first century until the beginning of the fifth.
What part do the Britons have to play in the Arthurian legends themselves? A very large part, for the majority of the characters involved in the legends were Britons. Arthur himself is a prime example (though he may have had Roman ancestry as well). As far as the earliest accounts are concerned, virtually all of Arthur’s men were Britons (although the later romances often gave foreign ancestries to many of Arthur’s knights).
According to numerous ancient accounts, in the fourth century, thousands of Britons migrated to the part of Gaul now known as Brittany. This supposedly took place during the reign of Magnus Maximus. The Britons formed their own kingdom there in Gaul, and this kingdom had a large part to play in the unfolding of the events that led to Arthur’s time.
It was to this kingdom of Brittany that the insular Britons appealed when the Roman Agitius rejected their request for help in defending themselves against the Picts and the Scots. Constantine, the brother of the king of Brittany, was sent and became father to Constans, Ambrosius and Uther. Arthur, of course, was then born to Uther.
Whether this account is true or not is impossible to say, but in any case, according to the version of the legend found in the HRB and the subsequent versions based off it, Arthur was descended from the continental Britons (or, in other words, the Bretons) on his father’s side. These Bretons remained close allies of the Britons during Arthur’s reign, with prince Hoel assisting Arthur in many of his battles.
In the time in which Arthur’s rulership supposedly took place, the Britons still maintained control over Cornwall and Devon, Wales, and north-western England (from the Severn to the Humber in the east). This was the territory that Arthur had an influence in.
By his time, the Romans had been gone for about a century, so Roman society was still present in Britain but was becoming weaker as time went on. Many of the Roman towns had been abandoned by this point, although some, such as Caerwent in south east Wales, were still inhabited. In general, the Britons returned to dwelling in hillforts and oppida during this period, creating a real mixture of Roman and essentially ‘pre-Roman’ culture during Arthur’s time.
The Britons as a group were opposed during this period by the Anglo-Saxons as a group. Nonetheless, they were not wiped out by the invaders in the territory in which the invaders conquered. Genetic research proves that extensive intermarriage took place between the Britons and the Anglo-Saxons.
This may well explain how certain Saxon rulers possessed names which appear to be British, such as Cerdic of Wessex. He may well have had a British mother.
However, despite this evidence for intermarriage, it is not clear to what extent this was through peaceful unions after the British tribes had been subdued by the Saxons, or through forced marriages on unwilling British widows whose husbands had been massacred by the invaders.
What is clear is that even if many Britons did willingly submit to the Anglo-Saxon invaders (even as many natives quickly submitted to the Romans in the first century), the Britons living in non-Saxon territory viewed the foreigners as hateful, odious invaders sent by God as a punishment for their sins. We can see this clearly from Gildas’s words and from the very fact that the Britons in the west did wage war against the Saxons.
So, regardless of the attitude and actions of the Britons in the east under Saxon control, the Britons in the west did not have a friendly relationship with the Germanic invaders at all.
From this consideration, we have seen that the Britons were a diverse group of people inhabiting the island of Britain. Some (perhaps the majority) came from nearby areas such as Belgica and Gaul, whereas others came from further afield such as Spain. And many no doubt descended directly from the pre-Iron Age inhabitants of Britain.
We have seen that the Britons had a unique mode of fighting in the time of the Romans, involving extensive use of chariots. While the Britons were not as effective a fighting machine as the Romans were, they were certainly formidable in battle. Their culture was also not as advanced as the Roman civilisation, but they were not barbarians – their material culture was impressive even from long before the Romans arrived.
Finally, we have seen that the Britons as a group fought firmly against the Saxons, although many Britons within Saxon territory may well have willingly joined them. Nonetheless, in the west of Britain, the Britons were vehemently opposed to the invaders. This was the world into which Arthur was born.