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Great Britain in the mid-late 400s CE
     Mainly Brythonic areas
     Mainly Gaelic areas
     Mainly Pictish areas

The Britons (sometimes Brythons or British) were the Celtic people living in Great Britain from the Iron Age through the Early Middle Ages.[1] They spoke the Insular Celtic language known as British or Brythonic. They lived throughout Britain south of about the Firth of Forth; after the 5th century Britons also migrated to continental Europe, where they established the settlements of Brittany in France and the obscure Britonia in what is now Galicia, Spain.[1] Their relationship to the Picts north of the Forth has been the subject of much discussion, though most scholars accept that the Pictish language during this time was a Brythonic language related to, but perhaps distinct from, British.[2]

The earliest evidence for the Britons and their language in historical sources dates to the Iron Age.[1] After the Roman conquest of 43 AD, a Romano-British culture began to emerge. With the advent of the Anglo-Saxon invasion in the 5th century, however, the culture and language of the Britons began to fragment. By the 11th century their descendants had split into distinct groups, and are generally discussed separately as the Welsh, Cornish, Bretons, and the people of the Hen Ogledd ("Old North"). The British language developed into the distinct branches of Welsh, Cornish, Breton, and Cumbric.[1]



The earliest known reference to the inhabitants of Britain seems to come from records of the voyage of Pytheas, a Greek geographer who made a voyage of exploration around the British Isles between 330 and 320 BC. Although none of his own writings remain, writers during the time of the Roman Empire made much reference to them. Pytheas called the islands collectively as αι Βρεττανιαι, which has been translated as the Brittanic Isles, and the peoples of these islands of Prettanike were called the Πρεττανοι, Priteni, Pritani or Pretani. The group included Ireland which was referred to as Ierne (Insula sacra, the sacred island, as the Greeks interpreted it) "inhabited by the race of Hiberni" (gens hiernorum), and Britain as insula Albionum, "island of the Albions".[3][4] The term Pritani may have reached Pytheas from the Gauls, who possibly used it as their term for the inhabitants of the islands.[4][5]

The Latin name in the early Roman Empire period was Britanni or Brittanni, following the Roman conquest in AD 43.[6]

In current usage, Briton also refers to the modern, mainly English-speaking, inhabitants of the United Kingdom – the British people. As such it is a collective term for the English, Scottish, Welsh, and Cornish, as well as the Irish people from Northern Ireland. Welsh Brython was introduced into English usage by John Rhys in 1884 as a term unambiguously referring to the P-Celtic speakers of Great Britain, as complementing Goidel; hence the adjective Brythonic referring to the group of languages.[7] Brittonic is a more recent coinage (first attested 1923 according to OED) intended to refer to the ancient Britons specifically.


The Britons were speakers of the Brythonic (or Brittonic) languages. Brythonic languages are believed to have been spoken on the entire island of Britain as far north as the Clyde-Forth. Beyond this was the territory of the Picts, whose language remains unknown. According to early mediaeval historical tradition, the post-Roman Celtic-speakers of Armorica were migrants from Britain, resulting in the Breton language, a language similar to Welsh which survives there to this day. Thus the area today is called Brittany (Fr. Bretagne, derived from Britannia).

The Brythonic languages developed from Proto-Celtic, after it was introduced to the British Isles from the continent. The first form of the Brythonic languages is believed to be British. After the Roman conquest of Britain, the British language adopted some words from Latin; hence it is sometimes termed Romano-British in this period.

Some linguists have invented the terms Western and Southwestern Brythonic to classify how the British language subsequently developed. The Eastern dialect was largely replaced by the invading Anglo-Saxons and their language. The Western and Southwestern developed into Cumbric, Welsh, Cornish and Breton. While Welsh, Cornish and Breton survive today, Cumbric became extinct in the 12th century.


Britons migrated westwards during the Anglo-Saxon invasion

Throughout their existence, the territory inhabited by the Britons was composed of numerous ever-changing areas controlled by tribes. The extent of their territory before and during the Roman period is unclear, but is generally believed to include the whole of the island of Great Britain, as far north as the Clyde-Forth isthmus. The territory north of this was largely inhabited by the Picts, although a portion of it was eventually absorbed into the Gaelic kingdom of Dál Riata. The Isle of Man was originally inhabited by Britons also, but eventually it became Gaelic territory. Meanwhile, Ireland is generally believed to have been entirely Gaelic throughout this period.[citation needed]

In AD 43 the Roman Empire invaded Britain. The British tribes initially opposed the Roman legions, but by AD 84 the Romans had conquered as far north as the Clyde-Forth isthmus, where they built the Antonine Wall. However, after just twenty years they retreated south to Hadrian's Wall. Although the native Britons mostly kept their land, they were subject to the Roman governors. The Roman Empire retained control of "Britannia" until its departure about AD 400.

Around the time of the Roman departure, the Germanic-speaking Anglo-Saxons began an invasion of the Eastern coast of Britain, where they established their own kingdoms. Eventually, the Brythonic language in these areas was replaced by that of the Anglo-Saxons. At the same time, some Britons established themselves in what is now called Brittany. There they set up their own small kingdoms and the Breton language developed there from Insular Celtic rather than Gaulish. They also retained control of Cornwall and Northwest England, where Kingdoms such as Dumnonia and Rheged survived. By the end of the 1st millennium, the Anglo-Saxons and Gaels had conquered most of the British territory in Britain, and the language and culture of the native Britons had largely been extinguished, remaining only in Wales, Cornwall, parts of Cumbria and Eastern Galloway.

Mythology and religion

Famous Britons

See also


  1. ^ a b c d Koch, pp. 291–292.
  2. ^ Forsyth, p. 9.
  3. ^ Snyder, Christopher A. (2003). The Britons. Blackwell Publishing. ISBN 0-631-22260-X. 
  4. ^ a b Foster (editor), R F; Donnchadh O Corrain, Professor of Irish History at University College Cork: Prehistoric and Early Christian Ireland (1 November 2001). The Oxford History of Ireland. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-280202-X. 
  5. ^ Encyclopedia of the Celts: Pretani
  6. ^ OED s.v. "Briton". See also Online Etymology Dictionary: Briton
  7. ^ Online Etymology Dictionary: Brythonic


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