Prehistoric England

    For hundreds of thousands of years, during the last Ice Age, all the land now forming the island of Britain lay far below the vast polar ice cap. At the end of the ice age, as the ice melted, the resulting huge floods cut deep ravines through the land bridge linking Britain with the continent and as the sea levels rose the Channel was formed. During the Ice Age, the ice withdrew occasionally, humans entered at those times but then withdrew as the ice returned. After 50,000 BC the island of Britain was inhabited for many thousands of years by nomadic hunter-gatherers. Around 3,000 BC the first Neolithic (New Stone Age) people arrived, coming from Spain or Northern Africa. They brought an advanced culture, living in settlements with domestic animals, growing crops, using pottery and refined stone tools.

    The first remaining monuments from this period are the great barrows in which whole families were buried, and the henges, circles of wood or stone that served as gathering points for the inhabitants, presumably for relgious ceremonies. The most famous is Stonehenge, which began as a wooden henge before 3,000 BC, then in 2,500 BC it was rebuilt using blue stones brought from a place in Wales 380 kms away; no one knows what special meaning was attached to them. The labor involved was unimaginable, each stone weighing about 5 tons. But work stopped, and in 2,300 BC the blue stones were relocated in a circle dominated by far larger stones, weighing up to 45 tons, brought from 30 kms away, with stones laid on top of them to form linked lintels.

    After 2,400 BC people came bringing a new culture, the "Beaker" people, Indo-Europeans who introduced barley. They buried their dead in individual graves. Their technology was more advanced and they produced the first bronze tools, marking the beginning of the Bronze Age.  It was they who constructed the outer circle of stones at Stonehenge. From 1,300 BC, the population shifted off the chalk uplands to the Thames valley and the south-east. Life seems to have become more violent; villages arose, offering mutual protection, and hill-forts were constructed on hill-tops, which were then expanded until the Roman period. Some of them remained as important centers long after the Roman period. The largest is Maiden Castle, in Dorset.

    Around 700 BC, Celts began to enter Britain from Europe, where their culture and language covered a large area. They had mastered the technology of iron-smelting, marking the arrival of the Iron Age. The links with Europe encouraged continuing trade across the Channel but after 500 BC this declined, allowing the British and Irish Celts to develop their own culture and specific dialects. Celtic society was essentially tribal, the generations of a single family forming a clan with a single chief. Shortly before the Roman period, new Belgic tribes of Celts arrived from just across the Channel, from what is now called Belgium after them, and settled in south eastern Britain and along the coast, keeping the names of their original tribes. Among the Celts, religious ceremonies and the memory of tribal history  were entrusted to Druids, but they had no writing system.

The Roman occupation

    Gaul had been the source of tribal groups that invaded Italy; at the same time, east of Gaul across the Rhine river, the Germanic tribes were slowly preparing to move westward and southward, an even greater threat to Rome. Therefore from 58 - 51 BC the Roman army led by Julius Caesar fought the Gallic War across what is now France. As a result of their victory over the Gallic rebel leader Vercingetorix at Alesia in 52, the whole of Gaul came under Roman control and was turned into a Province of the Roman Empire. The Roman presence was so dominant that the entire population lost their Celtic language and by the end of the empire (around AD 460) spoke only Latin. This then evolved into the Provencal and French languages. In 55 BC and then again a few years later, Julius Caesar crossed to Britain (the Greeks and Romans called the British Pretani, so the Romans gave the name Britannia to the whole island). He was interested in its fertility, its mineral wealth, and its leather but also he was preoccupied by the support being given to the Gauls. It was only later, however, that Britain was made a province of Rome.
From AD 43 until about 404, the central region of Britain was a province of the Roman Empire, with a strong military presence ensuring Roman domination over the native population. 

    The Romans established their control by means of over 100 military camps (castra) that soon turned into small towns, and also by the creation of some 20 larger town with 5,000 inhabitants. The city they built at the lowest point where the River Thames could be crossed on foot, Londinium (London), grew into the largest Roman city north of the Alps. London Bridge was first built by the Romans. English town names have often kept the Roman -castra ending (Chester, Lancaster, Winchester, Manchester). Southern Wales was also part of the Roman-controlled area, but the Picts living in the northern area they called Caledonia (Scotland) was too wild for them. The emperor Hadrian built a wall from sea to sea to mark the limit of Roman control, between what are now the cities of Carlisle and Newcastle. Hadrian's Wall is still a popular tourist attraction.

    Roman culture included a money economy, literacy (reading and writing), a standardized legal system, buildings of stone or brick bound by mortar, and such amenities as public baths and hypocausts to heat the floors of the rooms. A hot spring gave rise to the city still called Bath. Most important, since the Romans always feared uprisings, they constructed well-paved roads running almost straight across the country; those roads underlie the modern major roads of England. Six of the roads met at London, which had some 20,000 inhabitants. In the rural areas, intensive farming was organized through "villas," compounds containing elaborate housing for the rich owner-manager as well as accommodation for many slaves and storage rooms for the produce destined to be exported. Yet most of the British people continued to speak Celtic, and to live in traditional ways.