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Celtic Britain

Chronology of Britain & Ireland

by Peter Kessler, 1 April 1999

Chronology

c.10,000 BC

In Gough's Cave, Cheddar Gorge, in the Mendip Hills, Stone Age dwellers turn to cannibalism.
 

c.5000

The Neolithic (New Stone Age) period begins. The first evidence of farming appears; stone axes, antler combs, pottery in common use.
 

c.4000

Construction of the 'Sweet Track' (named after its modern discoverer, Ray Sweet) begins; many similar raised, wooden walkways are constructed at this time providing a way of traversing the low, boggy, swampy areas in the Somerset Levels, near Glastonbury; earliest-known camps or communities appear (ie. Hembury in Devon).
 

Inside Cheddar Gorge caves
One of the best-known views inside the caves of Cheddar Gorge
  • Britain's largest gorge
  • Britain's oldest complete skeleton discovered here in 1903, having been buried for 9,500 years
  • The caves were carved out by ice during the last Ice Age

c.3500 - 3000

First appearance of long barrows and chambered tombs. At Hambledon Hill (Dorset), the primitive burial rite known as 'corpse exposure' is practised, wherein bodies are left in the open air to decompose or be consumed by animals and birds.
 

c.3000 - 2500

Castlerigg Stone Circle (Cumbria), one of Britain's earliest and most beautiful, begun. Pentre Ifan (Dyfed), a classic example of a chambered tomb, constructed. Work begins on Bryn Celli Ddu (Anglesey), known as the 'mound in the dark grove', one of the finest examples of a passage grave.
 

c.2500

The Bronze Age begins with multi-chambered tombs coming into use (as at West Kennet Long Barrow). First appearance of henge 'monuments'. Construction begins on Silbury Hill, Europe's largest prehistoric, man-made hill (at forty metres in height). Early Celtic 'Beaker Folk', identified by the pottery beakers (along with other objects) that are found in their single burial sites.
 

c.2500 - 1500

Most stone circles in the British Isles are erected during this period, although the purpose of the circles is uncertain. Most experts speculate that they have either astronomical or ritual uses (or both).

Stonehenge
The most impressive stages in the construction of Stonehenge took place between 2600-2500 BC, but work continued for another millennium


c.2300


Construction begins on Britain's largest stone circle at Avebury.
 

c.2000

Metal objects are widely manufactured in England about this time, first from copper, then with arsenic and tin added. Woven cloth appears in Britain, evidenced by findings of pins and cloth fasteners in graves. Construction begins on Stonehenge's inner ring of bluestones.
 

c.1800 - c.1200

Control of society passes from the priests to those who control the manufacture of metal objects.
 

c.1500

Farms (houses and separate, walled fields) are in use on Dartmoor (Devon) and in the uplands of Wales. Stone circles seem to fall into disuse and decay around this time, perhaps due to a re-orientation of the society's religious attitudes and practices. Burial mounds cease to be constructed. Burials are made near stone circles or in flat cemeteries.

Map of Late Bronze Age Cultures c.1200-750 BC
Emerging out of the Urnfield culture, the Celts of the succeeding Hallstatt culture reached Britain perhaps as early as around 1200 BC, with the 'second wave' of La Tène Celts arriving some eight hundred years later, and the 'third wave' Belgae following on very soon afterwards (click or tap on map to view full sized)


c.1200 - c.1000


A warrior class emerges which now begins to take a central role in society.
 

c.1100

Brutus arrives in the British Isles about this time (Geoffrey of Monmouth). Possibly an early Celtic influx from Europe [1]?
 

[1] Brutus' arrival marks the beginnings of legendary Britain, but it also ties in nicely with the emergence of a warrior class that can be seen in archaeology.

c.1000

Earliest hill-top earthworks ('hill forts') begin to appear, as do fortified farmsteads. There is an increasing sophistication of arts and crafts, particularly in decorative personal and animal ornamentation.
 

c.600

Iron replaces bronze, and the Iron Age begins. The construction of Old Sarum begins.
 

c.500

Evidence of the spread of Celtic customs and artefacts across Britain. More and varied types of pottery are in use, and there is more characteristic decoration of jewellery. There is no known invasion of Britain by Celts; they probably infiltrate more gradually into British society through trade and other contact over a period of several hundred years (hence the possibility that Brutus' arrival around 1100 arrival marks an early and possibly limited influx). Druids, the intellectual class of the Celts (their own word for themselves, meaning 'the hidden people'), begin a thousand year floruit.
 

c.150

Metal coinage comes into use. There is now widespread contact with the Continent through the Celtic tribes in southern Britain.
 

c.100

Flourishing of Carn Euny (Cornwall), an iron age village with interlocking stone courtyard houses. The community features a 'fogou', an underground chamber used, possibly, for storage or defence.
 

55

Julius Caesar's first, unsuccessful invasion of Britain.
 

54 BC

Julius Caesar's second invasion of Britain. British forces are this time led by Cassivellaunus, a capable commander.

Despite early Roman advances, the British continue to harass the invaders, with some effectiveness. A 'deal' with the Trinovantes (tribal enemies of Cassivellaunus), and the subsequent desertion of other British tribes, finally guarantees the Roman victory. While Caesar's first expedition to Britain had been only exploratory in nature, it seems highly likely that the second is an attempt to extend Roman dominions.
 

54 BC - AD 43

Roman influence manages to increase in Britain during this time, as a direct result of trade and other interaction with the Continent.
 

AD 5

Rome acknowledges Cunobelinus (Cymbeline), king of the Catuvellauni, as high king of Britain.
 

43

Romans, under Aulus Plautius, land at Richborough (Kent) for a full-scale invasion of the island. In the south-east of Britain, Togodumnus and Caratacus have been whipping up anti-Roman feeling and have cut off tribute payments to Rome. Caratacus leads the main British resistance to the invasion, but is finally defeated in AD 51 [2].
 

[2] AD 43 marks the beginning of Roman Britain.

51

Caratacus, British resistance leader (and possible high king), is captured and taken to Rome.
 

61

Boudicca, queen of the Iceni, leads the uprising against the Roman occupiers, but after coming close to clearing the island of Romans, she is defeated by the Roman governor, Suetonius Paulinus.

Boudicca coin
Two sides of a coin issued about AD 61 are shown here, featuring the face of Boudicca on the obverse and a horse on the reverse - horses were valuable commodities amongst the Britons


63


According to legend, Joseph of Arimathea comes to Glastonbury on the first Christian mission to Britain.
 

c.75 - 77

The Roman conquest of Britain south of Carlisle is complete, as Wales is finally subdued. Julius Agricola is imperial governor (to AD 84).
 

c.100

A large scale Roman basilica is built in London as a symbol of Roman superiority.
 

Second Great Forum

This model of the Second Great Forum and Basilica in Roman London is part of the Museum of London display on the city's Roman remains, which includes areas of surviving wall, both overground and (now) underground

122 - 127

Construction of Hadrian's Wall ordered along the northern frontier, for the purpose of hindering incursions of the aggressive tribes there into Britannia.
 

133

Julius Severus, governor of Britain, is sent to Judea to crush the revolt there.
 

167

At the request of 'King' Lucius of Britain, the missionaries Phagan and Deruvian are said to be sent by Pope Eleutherius to convert the Britons to Christianity. This is, perhaps, the most widely believed of the legends regarding the founding of Christianity in Britain.
 

184

Lucius Artorius Castus, commander of a detachment of Sarmatian conscripts stationed in Britain, leads his troops into Gaul to quell a rebellion. This is the first appearance of the name Artorius in history and some believe that this Roman military man is the original Arthur, or at least the basis for the Arthurian legend.

The theory says that Castus' exploits in Gaul, at the head of a contingent of mounted troops, are the basis for later, similar traditions about 'King Arthur', and, further, that the name 'Artorius' becomes a title, or honorific, which is ascribed to a famous warrior in the fifth century.
 

197

Clodius Albinus, governor of Britain, another claimant to the imperial throne, is killed by Severus at the Battle of Lyon.
 

208

Severus goes to defend Britain, and repairs Hadrian's Wall.

Multangular Tower
The third century Multangular Tower in York lies at the western corner of the legionary fortress, which probably later served as the military HQ of fifth century Northern Britain. The tower's remains are now part of York's Museum Gardens


209 (or 301)


St Alban, first British martyr, is killed for his faith in one of the few persecutions of Christians ever to take place on the island, during the governorship of Gaius Junius Faustinus Postumianus (there is controversy about the date of Alban's martyrdom, with a degree of opinion preferring a date during the persecutions of Diocletian, in AD 301).
 

c.270

Beginning (albeit with highly uncertain dating) of the 'Saxon Shore' fort system, a chain of coastal forts in the south and east of Britain, listed in a document known as the Notitia Dignitatum.
 

286

Revolt by Carausius, commander of the Roman British fleet, who rules Britain as emperor until murdered by Allectus, a fellow rebel, in 293.
 

301 (or 209)

Second possible date for the martyrdom of St Alban (this is the date put forward by the usually reliable Bede). Considering the apparently slow and patchy spread of Christianity in Britain, this date seems more likely.
 

303

Diocletian orders a general persecution of Christians.
 

306

Constantine (later to be known as 'the Great') is proclaimed emperor at York.
 

311

The persecution ends of Christians in the Roman empire.
 

312

Constantine defeats and kills Maxentius at the battle of Milvian Bridge; after seeing a vision of the Cross of Christ in the sky, Constantine realises that the Christian God may be a powerful ally and decides to attempt to co-opt him for his own purposes.
 

313

Edict of Toleration proclaimed at Milan, in which Christianity is made legal throughout the empire.
 

314

Three British bishops, for the first time, attend a Continental church gathering, the Council of Arles.
 

324

Constantine finally achieves full control over an undivided empire.

He is a skilful politician who is popularly believed to make Christianity the official religion of the empire because of his personal convictions. More realistically, that act is merely an expediency which is intended to harness the power of Christianity's 'God' for the benefit of the state. He re-locates the imperial headquarters to Byzantium, which name he then changes to Constantinople.

Emperor Constantine the Great
Emperor Constantine the Great is perhaps best known for confirming Christianity as the official religion of the Roman empire, but he also did a great deal to stabilise the empire and ensure that it survived into the next century


324


Constantine finally achieves full control over an undivided empire.

Despite his outward enthusiasm for Christianity and its powerful God, he closes only a few pagan temples during his reign. He does, however, strip them of their former wealth, which is then shifted to various Christian churches. This produces the result that many of the fledgling churches are put on a very firm financial footing and many of their members enjoy great prosperity (and not for the last time, either). The persecution of Christianity has stopped, perhaps, but its manipulation by exterior and interior forces has just begun.

Early Christianity has no official hierarchies and functions best as a series of small church groups worshipping with and caring for their own members while spreading Christ's Gospel in their local areas. Constantine's move creates a top-heavy structure that will quickly depart from its original purity; a church beholden to the state, out of touch with the needs of its adherents and concerned only with its own comfort. Eusebius, the early Christian historian, provides some additional insight into the motivations of Emperor Constantine in his Ecclesiastical History.
 

337

Constantine received 'Christian' baptism on his deathbed. Joint rule of Constantine's three sons: Constantine II (to 340), Constans (to 350), Constantius (to 361).
 

360s

Series of attacks on Britain from the north by the Picts, the Attacotti and the Irish (Scots), requiring the intervention of Roman generals leading special legions.
 

369

Rome's General Theodosius drives the Picts and Scots out of Roman Britain.
 

375 - 385

Birth of Aurelius Ambrosius (Ambrosius the Elder).
 

383

Magnus Maximus (Macsen Wledig), a Spaniard, is proclaimed emperor in Britain by the island's Roman garrison. After organising Britain's internal defences by settling up regional power bases in Northern Britain, North Wales, and South Wales, he leaves the island with an army of British volunteers, quickly conquering Gaul, Spain, and Italy [3].
 

[3] The revolt of Magnus Maximus marks the very beginning of the Arthurian period.

388

Maximus occupies Rome itself. Theodosius, the eastern emperor, defeats him in battle and beheads him in July 388, with many of the remnant of Maximus' troops settling in Armorica. The net result to Britain is the loss of many valuable troops that are needed for the island's defence (the 'first migration').

Magnus Maximus coin
The reverse of this coin issued by Magnus Maximus during his reign as co-emperor shows him standing, holding a laburnum and Victory on a globe


c.390 - 397


Association with 'Circle of Ambrose'.
 

395

Theodosius, the last emperor to rule an undivided empire, dies, leaving one son, Arcadius, emperor in the East and his other son, the young Honorius, emperor in the West. At this point the office of Roman emperor changes from a position of absolute power to one of mere head of state.
 

395 (or 397)

The Roman commander, Stilicho, comes to Britain and repels an attack by Picts, Irish and Saxons.
 

General Stilicho

Did Stilicho ever win a victory against Saxons and Scotti off Britain's coast in AD 398, or was it propaganda?

396

Stilicho acts as regent in the western empire during Honorius' minority, reorganising British defences that have been decimated by the Magnus Maximus debacle. Continues transfer of military authority from Roman commanders to local British chieftains, begun by Maximus.
 

402

Events on the Continent force Stilicho to recall one of the two British legions to assist with the defence of Italy against Alaric and the Visigoths. The recalled legion, known as the Sixth Victrix, is said by Claudian (in De Bello Gallico, 416) to be 'that legion which is stretched before the remoter Britons, which curbs the Scot, and gazes on the tattoo-marks on the pale face of the dying Pict'. The barbarians are defeated, this time, at the Battle of Pollentia.
 

403

Victricius, bishop of Rouen, visits Britain for the purpose of bringing peace to the island's clergy, who are in the middle of a dispute, possibly over the Pelagian heresy.

 

 

     
Text copyright © P L Kessler, adapted from various notes and sources. An original feature for the History Files.