The first inhabitants of Britain were the Iberians, they had settled in the country between 3000 and 2000 B.C. About 2000 B.C. a new race of Alpine stock, coming from the Low Countries reached Britain. They blended with the Iberians and achieved a good standard of civilization, they are known as the Beaker Folk.
Among the first waves of Celtic tribes that invaded Britain there were the Gaels, who were followed by the Brythons in 500 B.C. and by the Belgae in 100 B.C. They blended peacefully with the Iberians and imposed them their tribal organization.
Julius Caesar’s expeditions to Britain in 55 and 54 B.C. were not due to a definite plan of conquest but to the exigency of preventing the Celtics interference in Gaul, as they used to help and encourage the Gaulish rebels. Once obtained the formal promise of no further intervention in Gaul, Julius Caesar considered his mission ended and left the country.
During the Roman rule, the outward aspect of Britain changed remarkably: forests were opened up, new towns and networks of roads were built. In spite of this, Britain was never completely romanized, only the upper classes followed Roman patterns, the rest of the population was slightly influenced and their tribal organization was never seriously interfered with.
The conquest of the country was brought to a conclusion in 613, from this time onwards the Anglo-Saxons tried to impose the so called “Heptarchy”. Britain was divided into seven kingdoms: Essex, Wessex, Sussex, Kent, East Anglia, Mercia and Northumbria. Every kingdom was ruled by a king elected by the Witan, a council composed of the dignitaries of the State and the Church. The national unity was preserved by the institution of a “bretwalda” that acted as overlord over the kingdoms and its kings.
King Alfred of Wessex, the greatest king of the period, succeeded in checking the Danish advance (878) and to confine them to the Danelow. But in the tenth century, during the reign of Ethelred, new bands, of Danes began to raid the country, king Ethelred paid them the “Danegeld” to keep them off, but this did not save the country from Sweyn’s invasion in 994.
The “scopas” as the Anglo-Saxon poets were called, composed their verses exalting heroic deeds and recited them as entertainment. Their poems were handed down orally, and no written original has reached us.
Anglo-Saxon poetry together with the celebration of bravery and heroism expressed more intimate moods such as meditations on human life, pervaded with the sense of melancholy caused by the northern gloomy landscape and the struggle against a primitive and dangerous existence. This gave their poetry a touch of sadness and pessimism.
The change invested the aims and the contents of poetry, while the poetical metre and the vocabulary remained the same. The touch of melancholy and pessimism persisted, the most warlike themes and pagan elements were replaced by religious subjects and the new aim of poetry was to instruct people by offering them edifying examples.
Prose developed during the reign of king Alfred (849-899), who did much to improve the education of his people. From Alfred’s time also dates the start of the “Anglo-Saxon Chronicle” (890), the most representative prose-work of the time, consisting in a chronological report of the events in England from the Christian era, to the middle of the twelth century.
The Normans came originally from Scandinavia. Like the Danish, they belonged to the stock of Scandinavian people. A part of this people had settled in France, in the region which after them was called Normandy, and had rapidly assimilated French language and civilization.
William of Normandy landed in Britain, with his army, to claim his righ to the throne, for King Edward the Confessor, his distant cousin had promised him to recognize him as his lawful successor. But the Witan, ignoring Edward’s promise had proclaimend king Harold of Wessex.
The Norman conquest put an end to a long series of invasions and laid the bases for a new and stable national unity. The Normans also introduced new laws and gave England the political asset which favoured the growth df Feudalism.
The main aim of William’s successors was to create a steady central power to prevent every kind of opposition from the Barons and the Church. It led to the improvement of the State machinery to assure order and efficiency all over the country. Henry II, the most capable of William’s successor established the “Curia Regis” and the Council and carried on financial and judicial reforms.
Richard’s need of money to equip his army induced him to extend the selling of Charter to towns. This favoured the process of “commutation” already in act, which consisted in replacing the old duties in kind and services with the payment in money. The towns, through the payment of a sum of money freed themselves from their feudal obligations.
John Lackland, who in 1199 had succeeded his brother Richard, committed every sort of abuses in the first years of his reign with the result of the complete isolation of the Crown. Involved in a dispute with Pop Innocent III he was excommunicated and the kings of France and Scotland, persuaded by the Pope made war on him. When he was defeated at Bouvines (1214), the Barons seized the opportunity to reduce the king’s powers and compelled him to accept the principles embodied in the “Magna Charta Libertatum” (1215).
Henry III did not observe the provisions of the “Magna Charta” and the barons revolted against him. Simone de Montfort, the leader of the barons defeated the king at Lewes in 1264. In the next year, Simon de Montfort summoned the first Parliament. Besides the normal members of the Council it included representatives of the shires cities and boroughs.
The Norman invasion caused a split in the linguistic unity of the country. The Norman ruling class imposed French as the official language, while Anglo-Saxon remained confined to the illiterate people. Latin kept its role as the language of the Church and the scholars. “Old English”, influenced by French, underwent a slow and gradual change.
The Norman invasion caused a series of changes an upheavals which did not favour literary activity. Moreover the split in the linguistic unity deprived literature of an adeguate means of expression. For a while no valuable and significative work was produced, but a new literature emerged from this period of transition, in which Anglo-Saxon themes were graduallv replaced by French models.
It was Layamon’s “Brut” to introduce the Arthurian legend in Engligh literature. The Celtic legends had been spread in Europe by Geoffrey of Monmouth in 1137 in his “Historia Regum Britanniae”. The work was later translated into French by the Norman poet Wace and entitled “Le Roman de Brut”. This poem inspired Layamon who wrote his “Brut” in alliterative lines.
The Hundred Years’ War, unlike the previous wars in Wales and Scotland , did not aim at the conquest of new territories. It was caused by a complex conflict of interests which reflected the new trends of the time. The commercial expansion had made Flanders and Gascony increasingly important in the national trade. The claim of Edward III to the throne of France was only a pretext to conceal the real object of keeping Flanders and Gascony under a unified control.