The Online Library of Knowledge

British history

Celtic Britain

Celtic dressCeltic dressThe people who lived in Britain before the Roman conquest are often described as Celts. They had similar languages, religions and lifestyles, but formed themselves into different tribes in different parts of the country, and waged war against one another. The tribes included the Trinovantes, Silures, Cornovii, Selgovae and the Iceni. The description of them as “Celts” was not introduced until the 18th century, when it was discovered that the languages they spoke were similar to those of the Gauls in France, who were named as Celts by the Greeks and Romans. Around 700 BC, the Celtic peoples of the British Isles introduced the metal iron to their homeland, along with the knowledge of how to use it and fashion it into weapons and tools. And so began the Iron Age in Britain.

Map of Celtic peoples, 3rd century BCMap of Celtic peoples, 3rd century BC

Who were the Celts?

The name “Celts” was first used around 500 BC by the ancient Greeks to describe peoples living in Europe north of the Alps, along with France, the Iberian Peninsula, Central Europe and the Balkans. To the Greeks, these “outsiders” or Keltoi, were uncivilized barbarians (although their art is nowadays considered the equal to that of the finest Greek and Roman artists). They were also skilled metalworkers and active traders.

Despite the fact their languages and culture were related, the Celts were actually many different peoples, among them the Gauls (Galli) who lived in what is now France and Belgium, and whom the Roman leader Julius Caesar fought and conquered during the Gallic Wars (58–50 BC).

The six modern Celtic nations are, with their Celtic names following in brackets: Brittany (Breizh), Cornwall (Kernow), Wales (Cymru), Scotland (Alba), Ireland (Éire), and the Isle of Man (Mannin). They each have a Celtic language that is either still spoken or was spoken quite recently.

© 2020 Q-files Ltd. All rights reserved. Switch to Mobile