Twenty years ago I bought a book called Celt and Saxon by the historian and writer Peter Berresford Ellis. I have reread it with much pleasure and benefit several times since. As a corrective to the all too usual Anglo-centric tellings of British history Beresford Ellis’s book is well worth reading, as is his other work. Yet my most recent rereading prompts me to some thoughts on the history of Britain as well a couple of issues regarding national identity.
The full title of Berresford Ellis’s book is ‘Celt and Saxon. The Struggle for Britain AD 410 – 937’. This gives you some indication of the story he tells: How the ‘Saxons’ first arrived in post-Roman ‘Celtic’ Britain; how over the next centuries these Saxons slowly but surely extended their dominance over much of the southern part of the island of Britain – the region now called England; how the Celtic-speaking native Britons fought back; how even in the tenth century the Celts still dreamt of throwing out the accursed Saxon and Viking invaders and sang ‘The Monarchy of Britain’ (Vnbeinyaeth Prydein) before going into battle. But ultimately how, after the Saxon king Athelstan’s victory over a coalition of Norse-Irish, Scots, Welsh (possibly) and Cumbrian warlords at the Battle of Brunanburh in 937, the Celts had to accept that the Saxons and Danes could not be dislodged and how thereafter instead of calling themselves Britons they (or at least the Welsh) started to refer to themselves as Cymry, i.e. Compatriots, hence the present Welsh name for Wales, Cymru, and indeed Cumbria.
This is a story that has been told many times. But more than most Berresford Ellis’s telling does deserve credit for giving us an overview of the struggle for the whole of the island of Britain and not just a narrative on the creation of England, Scotland or Wales.
We well know that the victors of this half-millennium-long struggle were the ‘Saxons’ and the losers the ‘Celts’. And we all know that the victors write the history. So far so good. The first problem is that by wanting to sympathise and empathise with the British and Irish Celts in their travails and their oppression at the hands of the Saxons and their Danish and Norwegian Viking kin (who from a certain point he invariably calls ‘English’), Berresford Ellis presents the Saxons/English as a particularly aggressive and brutal people, interested always and only in the further expansion of their English empire. Even in the last paragraph of Celt and Saxon, while speaking of today, Berresford Ellis can still ask:
Where, then, can such aggressive Saxon drives and energies be channelled in the future? Or has that aggressive urge finally been satiated?
Yet when discussing the native British Celts he almost invariably concentrates on their flourishing culture, their language, their literature and their valour in opposing the invasion and take-over of their country. His is a story of goodies and baddies. We know which ones the ‘English’ were.
This is a perfectly valid way to tell a story of Britain during those centuries. After all for the general reader more histories of individual Anglo-Saxon kings without any longer-term context don’t add much to anyone’s understanding of our shared past. I for one do believe that historians ought to side with the losers, or I would prefer to say the oppressed, rather than with the thuggish elites. The problem with Celt and Saxon is that the Saxon and Scandinavian tribes, the ‘English’, were no more and no less aggressive and brutal than all the other tribes and emerging nationalities of the time. The British Celts were led and dominated by brutal warlords too. Like the ‘Saxons’ these elites too were constantly fighting each other, seeking to take their neighbours’ lands, glorifying in the slaughter of their enemies and taking slaves wherever they could. So did the German tribes and the Franks and Goths in Gaul.
The Celts would have happily wiped the English (Anglo-Saxons) from the face of the earth if they could have. It was just that they were never united enough for long enough to do so.
Berresford Ellis has expressed his views on culture and language forcefully both in Celt and Saxon as well as elsewhere. For him you are a ‘Celt’ if you speak a Celtic language; it has nothing to do with race or genealogical or genetic ancestry.
Celtic is a linguistic term; a Celt is one who speaks or was known to have spoken within modern historical times a Celtic language. That is central. The definition is certainly not a racial term.
To reject the language and culture of the people is, as Thomas Davis declared, to set their history adrift, create a gulf that separates people from knowledge of their history and thousands of years of cultural and historic development.
So I suppose he’d have to concede that the same must be true of the English. If you speak English (as your native tongue?) and were brought up in an English culture then you are English. And the English it is said are a particularly aggressive and expansionist people.
This all seems very hard to square with the results of many genetic studies on the ‘Origins’ of the English and British. Oxford geneticist Stephen Oppenheimer wrote in The Origins of the British:
To summarize, the phylogeographic approach establishes three broad aspects of West European and British colonization in the past 16,000 years which have a bearing on the Anglo-Saxon question. First, all but a few per cent of male and female gene lines appear to have arrived in the British Isles before the historical period (i.e. before the Anglo-Saxons). Second, most British colonizers, including about two-thirds of English ancestors, came from the Iberian refuge soon after deglaciation, or at least during the Mesolithic. And third, the subsequent colonization of the British Isles during the Neolithic and the Bronze Age was complex in time and space, but mainly came from the other side of the North Sea.
Oppenheimer estimates that the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ account for “only 5.5%” of the ancestors of modern English people. That means that about 19 out of 20 English people are not Anglo-Saxon at all! What is more, the ancestors of fully two-thirds of English people came from the “Iberian” refuge – that is, an area of southern France and northern Spain centred on the present day Basque Country.
To repeat, only around 5.5% of the present population of England find their genetic ancestry in the Saxon advent starting in the fifth century, and even fewer in the Viking invasions. If this is approximately true, and much evidence suggests it is, then the vast bulk of the English in both pre- and post-Conquest times were actually also originally British; British ‘Celts’ if you must.
How so few Anglo-Saxons managed to make their Germanic language the sole language for the millions of Britons in what is now England has still yet to be satisfactorily explained. But that this happened is beyond dispute.
So suddenly it seems that by adopting the ‘Old’ English language these millions of British ‘Celts’ instantly became English, and what’s more by some mysterious and unexplained process they then became particularly aggressive and expansionist too.
As the great American historian Howard Zinn used to say, No! The confusion in my view comes from the choice of groups historians make and have to make. Much if not all of history is about what some people did to other people, or better said what some groups of people did to other groups of people. Berresford Ellis’s choice of groups is explicit in his title: Celts and Saxons. But linguistic and cultural groups are not the only shapers of history. In fact they are nowhere near the most important or explanatory groups. Much more important, and I would argue relevant, are positional groups. Since the appearance of the first town-based civilisations, societies all over the world have been stratified. Powerful, dominant and usually brutal elites emerged, particularly ‘kings’ and priests, and always at the point of a sword. The concern of these elites has always been the maintenance and extension of their position, power and privileges.
To restrict ourselves here to European history, these heavily armed ‘strongmen’ or warlords saw it as their right to enslave, exploit and use the vast majority of ‘their’ people in whatever way they wished. The armed elites may change but they were and are always there. They were there too, and just as much, in Celtic societies as they were in ‘Saxon’ societies. It is the maintenance and extension of the power of these armed elites that that driven almost all wars, colonisations and empires. To use Berresford Ellis’s terms, the Saxons (or the English) as a people were no more aggressive and brutal than the Celts, the Norse, the Germans or the Franks.
Most people of whatever nationality or language don’t want to fight and conquer; they want to be left alone to grow their crops, to build their houses, to sing a few songs and to raise their children. It is always the powerful elites – the kings, nobles and priests – who haven’t let them do so. English people, just like the Welsh, the Scots and the Irish, have for hundreds of years been dragged from their own homes, by force or because of poverty, to fight the wars of their lords in all parts of Britain and, later, in all parts of the globe. Fights and wars which have nothing to do with them, and which, whether won or lost, have never brought them any benefit; only suffering and death.
One final thought. The last chapter of Celt and Saxon is titled “Do ‘the British’ really exist?”. Berresford Ellis argues that the modern concepts of ‘Britain’ and Britishness are simply constructs hiding the facts of the spread of an ‘English empire’ – first in the islands of Britain and subsequently throughout the world. There is much to be said for this view. But what is rather strange is that having stopped his story in the tenth century, by when he sees the Saxons as already the ‘English’, Berresford Ellis then simply skips the next six or seven hundred years completely. For him the aggressive Saxons/English of pre-Conquest Britain are exactly the same as the expansionist English who started to carve out an overseas empire at the end of the Tudor period. What about the Norman Conquest and the following centuries when the people of England were not only conquered but subjugated, expropriated, repressed and exploited as well? A time when the new French and French-speaking masters tried to eradicate the English language and a time during which generations of English people were dragged off to fight for the power and glory of these Norman French in countless continental wars.
Not only was the Norman Conquest the single most important, and sad, event in the whole of English history, it was also ultimately a disaster for the Celts of Britain as well – be they Welsh, Scots or Irish.
The French-speaking masters were a distinct class or group for hundreds of years. It was only in the fifteenth century as the Hundred Years War ground on that some of them started to think of themselves as English. Whether English or not, it was these descendants of William the Bastard’s Normans who controlled and exploited England and Britain for a whole millennium. It was this powerful, elite and brutal group who pushed for the creation of the English/British Empire. It was they who exploited the English, Welsh, Irish and, later, the Scots, to pay for their wars and to be conscripted into their army and navy. The creation of the British (or English) Empire didn’t come about from some fictitious inherent aggressiveness of the ‘Saxon’ English, as Berresford Ellis seems to suggest.
At the start of Celt and Saxon the author makes the following dedication, ‘… with the hope that Saxon may finally learn to understand Celt and both may come to live alongside each other in mutual respect and amicability’. I hope so too.
I hope too that I’m not some sort of ‘Little Englander’. My own Lewis family were, as you might guess, Welsh. In the mid-sixteenth century my earliest documented Lewis ancestor lived in the village of Alberbury in the English county of Shropshire, right on the modern border with Powys in Wales. His name was John ap Llewellyn: John son of Llewellyn. The Welsh Christian name Llewellyn was anglicised to Lewis and became the family name. Even in the nineteenth century my Shropshire great grandmother still spoke both Welsh and English. Of course this doesn’t make me Welsh; my culture and language, as well as all my other ancestors, are English.
I agree with Peter Berresford Ellis when he says the inhabitants of the island of Britain need to find a way to live more amicably together, but when we’re considering the deep history of Britain we need, I suggest, to cast our net a little wider than ‘Celt and Saxon’. I still commend his book to you.