Post-Roman Britain: The People


Britons before Roman contact did not live under a strong centralized authority. The native population was divided into tribes and ruled by prominent families. From Roman sources we have the names of some 42 tribes at the time of the conquest, but little or nothing is known about some of them. Four centuries of Roman rule changed British culture in many ways. The Britons came to understand and value the benefits of a government capable of providing many public services and security. The conquest created a much larger single political unit—the diocese of Britain divided into four or five provinces depending on the century—than had ever existed in Britain before. The administrative, economic, military, and other structures were far more complex and intertwined than anything the Britons had lived under in the past. The impact on native culture was profound.


Britons spoke a Celtic language that later evolved into the Brythonic group of languages represented today by Cornish, Welsh, and Breton. The emergence of Welsh, Cornish, and Breton as separate languages probably took place during the fifth and sixth centuries AD. When the Romans were in charge, the language of government and official documents had been Latin. Roman army recruits, merchants, and other visitors brought other languages from all over the Empire. Latin remained the language of administration and learning for a while after the Romans left. Well-to-do British sons were schooled to read and write in Latin. Churchmen used Latin. Only in the eighth century did written texts begin to appear in Brythonic dialects adapted to the Latin alphabet. Unlike the people of Gaul, across the Channel, the Britons never entirely forgot their native tongue.

The Roman military brought many foreign soldiers to Britain, and during their long term of service, many of these men found marriage partners and began families. Upon their release from long years of service, the army compensated them with land in Britain on which to farm and settle down. In this cosmopolitan society, Latin naturally became the common language of trade, administration, and learning. Brythonic language was not suppressed, but it became associated with the lower classes and dwindled in importance. Many Britons were likely to be bilingual, knowing at least enough Latin to get by.

During Roman times, Britons often served in high places, especially those Britons who had belonged to the ruling class before the conquest. Roman policy at its most effective incorporated existing power structures into Roman provincial administration. Ruling families who submitted to and cooperated with Roman authority were rewarded with responsible administrative positions. Roman power solidified first in southeast Britain and then spread north and west. Early resistance was strong, but as the Roman front advanced, many tribes, seeing the consequence of resistance, appear to have preferred a settlement over slaughter. Only when the Romans had stretched to the limits of their effective reach were the tribes able to demand increasingly greater autonomy. The Dumnonians of modern Cornwall and the Ordovicians and Cornovians of the Welsh borderlands never dissolved under Roman rule, but in many ways coexisted, laying the foundation for the modern Celtic subcultures of these territories. To the north, the Romans chose to build Hadrian’s Wall to keep the warlike northern tribes at bay.

More to follow on the Irish, Picts, Scots, and Saxons



Dark, Ken, Civitas to Kingdom, British Political Continuity 300-800. London: Leicester University Press, 1994

James, Edward, Britain in the First Millennium. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Thomas, Charles, Celtic Britain. London: Thames and Hudson, Ltd., 1986.

posted November 11, 2014

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