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The Blood of the British

Part 2 (The first part appears in issue 2 of Vanguard)

ANDREW BRONS CONCLUDES HIS REVIEW OF THE CHANNEL 4 TELEVISION SERIES ON THE HISTORY OF THE BRITISH PEOPLE

THE VERY USE of the phrase 'The Dark Ages' in respectable academic circles tells us far more about our perception of the past than it does of its reality. It produces a picture of a cultural desert and intellectual vacuum aggravated ― if that were possible ― by moral depravity.

The period encompassed is uncertain but it certainly stretches from the fall of the Roman Empire in the West in AD 476 (or in the case of Britain the end of official Roman military presence in AD 410) to the Norman Conquest, and perhaps to the Renaissance.

It must be stated at the outset that the phrase was not used by Catherine Hills. Indeed her principle thesis was that the history of these islands and its attendant civilisation did not start with the arrival of the Romans in AD 43, end with their leaving in AD 410, and spring back to life only in 1066.

Dr. Hills' coverage of the Iron Age Celts in Britain was less extensive than that devoted to their neolithic and Copper/Bronze Age predecessors. Indeed she clearly doubted the extent to which they were entirely, or even essentially, different peoples. Nevertheless she did pay attention to the Celtic wagon burials at Hallstatt in Austria, and the later Celtic, highly decorative artefacts associated with the La Tene culture in Switzerland.

SOPHISTICATED

Dr. Hills certainly demonstrated that Celtic Iron Age culture was anything but unsophisticated. For example the harbour at Hengistbury Head, at the mouths of the Stour and Avon, produced evidence of long distance trade ― not only wheel-made pottery from Britanny but wine amphorae from Rome.

The principle question asked by Dr. Hills was "How far were Britons Romanised? To what extent were they changed into clean-shaven toga-wearing Romans?"

Whilst the Claudian invasion of AD 43 resulted in the military subjugation of England and Wales for nearly four centuries, and the southern part of Scotland for about a century, "outside the towns and cities life went on as usual". Nor was the civil jurisdiction exercised completely by the Roman authorities.

There is evidence that the Chief of the Celtic tribe, the Votadini, maintained a fort at Traprain Law, south of Edinburgh, although he was almost certainly a client ruler.

Dr. Hills also demonstrated that the Celtic, and pre-Celtic, population reasserted itself over the instruments and institutions of Roman administration. At Silchester the Roman Basilica (local administrative, judicial and administrative centre) became a collection of individual workshops (Romano-British distributive economy perhaps?) in the third century AD, and continued to be so used at least until the end of the official Roman military presence, at the beginning of the fifth century.

There is every evidence that Roman London stagnated and that "the countryside reasserted itself". On the other hand it would appear that Celts ― Romanised perhaps ― continued an urban presence after 410 AD. Buildings continued to be built in Wroxeter long after the end of the Roman military occupation.

However to heap confusion upon confusion there is no certainty about the extent to which 'Romans' were Roman, or even non-British. There are sound reasons to believe that much of the 'Roman' military presence was recruited from this country and the remainder from elsewhere in Northern Europe.

It is certain that after the end of the occupation Iron Age Celtic society reasserted itself ― the reoccupation of the hill forts at South Cadbury are but one example of this. Catherine Hills explained graphically ― "Three and a half centuries of Roman rule washed over these islands leaving little more than a taste for Mediterranean wine and, of course, the buildings that littered over the landscape".

We all 'know' that on the dot of midnight 410 AD the Angles, Saxons and Jutes replaced the Celts ― Romanised or not ― over the whole of England and Southern Scotland. We 'know' that the English (as distinct from the Welsh, Scots and Irish) are descendants of the Anglo-Saxons.

CELTS REPLACED?

Dr. Hills, like many before her, disputed the reliability of that 'knowledge'. She, like Dr. John Baker (author of Race) and others, disputed the proposition that the Anglo-Saxons displaced entirely, or even outnumbered, the Celts and their predecessors in England.

Dr. Hills drew a parallel with the Merovingian invasion of France, equivalent to the Anglo-Saxon invasion of England. There is a change in Saxon invasion of England. There a change of dynasty produced no perceptible change in the physical character of the people. However as she acknowledged, in England, in contrast with France, Anglo-Saxon replaced Celtic as the spoken language so "the presumption of change must be stronger". According to Dr. Hills some of the skulls found in Anglo-Saxon graves in England were "more akin to Romano-British skulls".

However, she did not grapple with the problem that, whereas there was a clear distinction between Merovingian invaders and the previous population in France, where the 'Celtic' population was Alpine, there was no such clear distinction between the British Celts (as distinct from the pre-Celts) and the Anglo-Saxons. (See Baker's Race, Chapter 15, p. 257).

CHANGE

The "presumption of change" must be rebutted in respect of some areas at least. Catherine Hills and her interviewees pointed to the near absence of the grass-tempered Anglo-Saxon pottery from some sites. She might equally have pointed to the survival of Celtic kingdoms like Elmet, centred on Leeds, until the seventh century, when it was swallowed up by King Edwin of Northumbria.

Nevertheless by the end of that century Anglo-Saxon kingdoms had been established over the whole of England, and by the eighth century "Anglo-Saxon England was creating great art, literature and churches" ― aristocratic literacy being encouraged by the didactic King Alfred, who distributed missals and pointers to his client rulers, with instructions to read them without delay!

It is the defining characteristic of the Whig interpretation of history that all change is for the good. The implicit converse of this must be that the further back one goes the more primitive our society becomes. To such ancestor-deriders the idea that the Anglo-Saxons lived in holes in the ground must have been seized on with glee.

However that belief was undermined by Dr. Stanley West who has reconstructed an Anglo-Saxon village in West Stowe in Suffolk. He demonstrated to Catherine Hills that the pits in Anglo-Saxon 'pit houses' were not basement accommodation for Old English earth burrowers, but simply the space between the floorboards and the ground. We must arrive at the conclusion that their houses were quite as sophisticated as their ships!

We all know the Vikings ― Danes and Norsemen ― from contemporary accounts by churchmen like Alcuin of York who inveighed against the invaders in words like, "Never before have we seen such terror". However Catherine Hills wondered whether they were really "savagers and despoilers of culture" and "whether the Vikings were really so much worse than anybody else at that time".

She interviewed Dr. Martin Addy of the York Archeological Trust who testified to the positive influence of the Vikings who established the street plan in York that survives to the present day, and produced items of evocative jewellery of stunning beauty.

Nevertheless Dr. Hills did not shy from providing a less favourable view. She interviewed Professor Martin Biddle who had excavated a mass grave found in the grounds of Repton Vicarage in Derbyshire.

He and his team found over a hundred skeletons in a mass grave. They were, according to Professor Biddie, the remains of a Mercian army offered as a pagan burial offering after their defeat at the hands of the Vikings, during the winter of 873/4. It put the Vikings, according to Professor Biddle "back where they should be".

CONFUSION

The confusion which the reader of this review must suffer is a confusion of incomplete knowledge. We shall, in all probability, never know even the approximate contributions of the pre-Celts, Celts, Anglo-Saxons, Danes and Normans to our ancestry. However honest confusion is preferable to ignorant and self-assured myth.

Nationalism owes as much to faith as it does to factual propositions, at least through the eyes of 'participants' as distinct from 'spectators'. Nevertheless we must either be certain about our factual propositions or aware of the limitations of our knowledge.

Of one thing we can be certain: our ancestors were not the mongrelised stock that they are often depicted as; they were all European, and most were of Northern European, descent. What is more all of the British people can take a pride in the achievements of all the peoples who have inhabited these islands.

In Catherine Hills' words, spoken while standing outside the church in Avebury so near to the Neolithic stone circle:

"The people who built this church were at least partly descended from the people who built the colossal stone circle, beside which it stands."

Glastonbury (Somerset)

According to legend, St Joseph of Arimathea came to Glastonbury with the Holy Grail. In medieval times it was hoped that the bones of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere would be found in the Abbey but, when opened, the grave rumoured to be the burial site was found to be empty. In fact, Glastonbury was an important trading site from the 2nd century BC to the Roman conquest, built on an artificial island made from brushwood or timber. Archaeological finds from this time are housed in one of the remaining buildings of a mighty Benedictine abbey, now almost totally ruined except for a Lady Chapel and a unique Abbot's Kitchen.

Maiden Castle (Dorset)

This huge hill fort covers 18 hectares and is 2½ kilometres around the inner circumference. It was first occupied about 3000 BC although much of the construction of the defences did not take place until over 2500 years later. It was assaulted by the Romans under Vespasian and the skeletons of the defenders, one with an arrow wound, have been found. Maiden Castle has been extensively excavated and many Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age artefacts have been found. Most of these can be seen in the Dorset County Museum, Dorchester.