Public School History of England and Canada/England/Chapter 1




1. Early Britain.—The land we call England is that part of the Island of Great Britain south of the River Tweed, with the exception of a small area on the western side, known as Wales. England covers about 50,000 square miles, and Wales a little over 7,000. Yet a great many people live in this little space, and a great many more have left its shores and settled all over the globe. The inhabitants are called English: but this was not always the case, for long before there were any English in England, the land was inhabited by at least three different races of men.

A great many years ago, when the surface of the country was very different from what it is now, and lions, tigers, elephants, and elks roamed over its plains and through its forests, a rude people, with little knowledge of tools and weapons, occupied the country. Then came another race with better weapons and some knowledge of cooking, and the care of domestic animals. Both races, however, made their weapons of stone, and for this reason are called the men of the "Old and New Stone Age." These things we know by the remains found in mounds or barrows of earth, and in caves and river-beds. Then came another race, evidently from the East, near Persia, that had some skill in working metals, such as bronze and iron. These people we call “Celts,” and they were the inhabitants found in Britain when written history first tells anything about the island.

About 600 B.C. the Phœnicians, a trading people from the Mediterranean Sea, visited the country in quest of tin; then, a hundred years later, came the Greeks from Massilia or Marseilles, in France. It was about this time that the name “Britannia” was given to the island of Great Britain.

2. Roman Conquest.—At last, in the year 55 B.C., a great Roman general, Julius Caesar, came across the Channel from France (then called Gaul), with an army, and defeated the Britons who had gathered on the coast to keep him from landing. He soon returned to Gaul, but came back the next year, and once more defeated the Britons. Again he left the island—this time to return no more.

When Caesar visited Britain he found the people on the southern coast fairly civilized. They had war-chariots, and fought with spears, axes and pikes. They wore ornaments of gold and silver, and clad themselves in mantles and tunics of cloth such as were worn by the people on the opposite coast of Gaul. In fact, these Britons along the southern coast kept up a trade with their neighbors, the Gauls, who were at this time much more civilized than the people of Britain living inland. The latter were a very savage and rude people, dwelling in wretched huts, or in caves in the earth. They dressed in skins of beasts, their food being milk and meat, and further north, roots, leaves, and nuts. The more savage wore no clothing, but stained their bodies and limbs somewhat in the same fashion as the North American Indians do. Their religion was Druidism, and the oak was their sacred tree, under which they worshipped and offered up sacrifices. These sacrifices were often human beings, who were burnt in large cages of wicker work at the command of the Druids, or priests, who had great influence over the people and made their laws.

The Romans, who were to play an important part in the history of Britain, came from Italy and had for their chief city, Rome. They were a very stern and hard people, and at the time when Caesar visited Britain, had conquered nearly all the known world. But they made good laws and forced the people they subdued to obey them.

After Caesar left Britain, the Romans made no further efforts to conquer it until 43, A.D., when their Emperor Claudius came with an army, and after much fighting took possession of the south of the island. The British chief, Caractacus, fought bravely against the well-disciplined Romans, but was taken prisoner and sent to Rome. Then Boadicea, queen of one of the tribes, strove to free the country from the invaders; but she, after winning a great battle, was also defeated by the Roman generals, and, it is said, killed herself to escape ill-treatment at their hands. Thus nearly all Britain, from the southern coast to the Firths of Clyde and Forth, was made part of the great Roman Empire. But it took many years to do this, for the Britons were a brave people, and as the land was covered with forests and bogs, it was difficult for the Roman soldiers to pursue and attack the natives.

The Romans did not ill-treat the Britons, but they did not allow them to carry weapons or to fight in their own defence. They built good, straight, solid roads for their soldiers to pass from point to point, and the remains of their roads and camps are yet to be found in many parts of England and Scotland. Cities, too, were built, such as York; forests were cleared and grain grown in abundance, so much so that large quantities of wheat were sent from Britain to Rome to feed the people of that city. The Roman language, Latin, became the speech of the better educated and wealthier Britons, although most of the people continued to speak their native tongue. Not the least of the good results of Roman Rule was the spread of Christianity in the island. One thing, however, the Romans did, which was not for the good of the people they conquered. They made them depend upon their masters for defence against attacks from their enemies, the Picts, who lived in Scotland, and the Scots, who came from Ireland. The once brave Britons, after a few hundred years of Roman rule, lost the power to defend themselves, and so when the Romans had to leave Britain, about 400 A.D., to protect the empire from enemies nearer home, the Britons were not able to beat back the fierce Picts and Scots who came pouring down from the wilds of Scotland to rob and murder them. In the next chapter we shall see how this led to the coming of the English.