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Celtic Britain

Chronology of Britain & Ireland

by Peter Kessler, 1 April 1999




c.10,000 BC

In Gough's Cave, Cheddar Gorge, in the Medip Hills, Stone Age dwellers turn to cannibalism.


The Neolithic (New Stone Age) Period begins. The first evidence of farming appears; stone axes, antler combs, pottery in common use.


Construction of the "Sweet Track" (named after its discoverer, Ray Sweet) begun; many similar raised, wooden walkways are constructed at this time providing a way to traverse the low, boggy, swampy areas in the Somerset Levels, near Glastonbury; earliest-known camps or communities appear (ie. Hembury in Devon).

c.3500 - 3000

First appearance of long barrows and chambered tombs. At Hambledon Hill (Dorset), the primitive burial rite known as "corpse exposure" is practised, wherein bodies are left in the open air to decompose or be consumed by animals and birds.

c.3000 - 2500

Castlerigg Stone Circle (Cumbria), one of Britain's earliest and most beautiful, begun. Pentre Ifan (Dyfed), a classic example of a chambered tomb, constructed. Bryn Celli Ddu (Anglesey), known as the "mound in the dark grove," begun, one of the finest examples of a "passage grave."


The Bronze Age begins with multi-chambered tombs coming into use (as at West Kennet Long Barrow). First appearance of henge "monuments". Construction begun on Silbury Hill, Europe's largest prehistoric, man-made hill (132 ft). Early Celtic "Beaker Folk", identified by the pottery beakers (along with other objects) found in their single burial sites.

c.2500 - c.1500

Most stone circles in the British Isles are erected during this period, although the purpose of the circles is uncertain. Most experts speculate that they had either astronomical or ritual uses.


Construction begins on Britain's largest stone circle at Avebury.


Metal objects are widely manufactured in England about this time, first from copper, then with arsenic and tin added. Woven cloth appears in Britain, evidenced by findings of pins and cloth fasteners in graves. Construction begins on Stonehenge's inner ring of bluestones.

c.1800 - c.1200

Control of society passes from the priests to those who control the manufacture of metal objects.


Farms (houses and separate, walled fields) are in use on Dartmoor (Devon) and in uplands of Wales. Stone circles seem to fall into disuse and decay around this time, perhaps due to a re-orientation of the society's religious attitudes and practices. Burial mounds cease to be constructed. Burials are made near stone circles or in flat cemeteries.

c.1200 - c.1000

A warrior class emerges which now begins to take a central role in society.


Brutus arrives in the British Isles about this time (Geoffrey of Monmouth). Possibly an early Celtic influx from Europe [1]?

[1] Brutus' arrival marks the beginnings of legendary Britain.


Earliest hill-top earthworks ("hill forts") begin to appear, as do fortified farmsteads. There is an increasing sophistication of arts and crafts, particularly in decorative personal and animal ornamentation.


Iron replaces bronze, and the Iron Age begins. The construction of Old Sarum begins.


Evidence of the spread of Celtic customs and artefacts across Britain. More and varied types of pottery are in use, and there is more characteristic decoration of jewellery. There was no known invasion of Britain by the Celts; they probably gradually infiltrated into British society through trade and other contact over a period of several hundred years (hence the possibility that Brutus' c.1100 arrival marks an early influx). Druids, the intellectual class of the Celts (their own word for themselves, meaning "the hidden people"), begin a thousand year floruit.


Metal coinage comes into use. There is now widespread contact with Continent through the southern Celtic tribes.


Flourishing of Carn Euny (Cornwall), an iron age village with interlocking stone court-yard houses. The community features a "fogou," an underground chamber used, possibly, for storage or defence.


Julius Caesar's first, unsuccessful invasion of Britain.

54 BC

Julius Caesar's second invasion of Britain. British forces led, this time, by Cassivellaunus, a capable commander. Despite early Roman advances, the British continued to harass the invaders, with some effectiveness. A "deal" with the Trinovantes (tribal enemies of Cassivellaunus), and the subsequent desertion of other British tribes, finally guaranteed the Roman victory. While Caesar's first expedition to Britain was only exploratory in nature, it seems highly likely that the second was an attempt to extend the empire.

54 BC - AD 43

Roman influence manages to increase in Britain during this time, as a direct result of trade and other interaction with the Continent.

AD 5

Rome acknowledges Cunobelinus (Cymbeline), King of the Catuvellauni, as King of Britain.


Romans, under Aulus Plautius, land at Richborough (Kent) for a full-scale invasion of the island. In the south-east of Britain, Togodumnus and Caratacus have been whipping up anti-Roman feeling and have cut off tribute payments to Rome. Caratacus leads main British resistance to the invasion, but is finally defeated in 51 [2].

[2] AD 43 marks the beginning of Roman Britain.


Caratacus, British resistance leader (and possible High King), is captured and taken to Rome.


Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni, leads the uprising against the Roman occupiers, but after coming close to clearing the island of Romans, she is defeated by the Roman governor, Suetonius Paulinus.


According to legend, Joseph of Arimathea comes to Glastonbury on the first Christian mission to Britain.

c.75 - 77

The Roman conquest of Britain is complete, as Wales is finally subdued. Julius Agricola is imperial governor (to 84).


A large scale Basilica is built in London as a symbol of Roman superiority.

122 - 127

Construction of Hadrian's Wall ordered along the northern frontier, for the purpose of hindering incursions of the aggressive tribes there into Britannia.


Julius Severus, governor of Britain, is sent to Palestine to crush the revolt.


At the request of King Lucius, the missionaries, Phagan and Deruvian,were said to have been sent by Pope Eleutherius to convert the Britons to Christianity. This is, perhaps, the most widely believed of the legends of the founding of Christianity in Britain.


Lucius Artorius Castus, commander of a detachment of Sarmatian conscripts stationed in Britain, leads his troops to Gaul to quell a rebellion. This is the first appearance of the name, Artorius, in history and some believe that this Roman military man is the original, or basis, for the Arthurian legend. The theory says that Castus' exploits in Gaul, at the head of a contingent of mounted troops, are the basis for later, similar traditions about "King Arthur," and, further, that the name "Artorius" became a title, or honorific, which was ascribed to a famous warrior in the fifth century.


Clodius Albinus, governor of Britain, another claimant to the Imperial throne, is killed by Severus at the battle of Lyon.


Severus goes to defend Britain, and repairs Hadrian's Wall.

209 (or 301)

St Alban, first British martyr, is killed for his faith in one of the few persecutions of Christians ever to take place on the island, during the governorship of Gaius Junius Faustinus Postumianus (there is controversy about the date of Alban's martyrdom. Some believe it occurred during the persecutions of Diocletian, in AD 301).


Beginning (highly uncertain dating) of the "Saxon Shore" fort system, a chain of coastal forts in the south and east of Britain, listed in a document known as the "Notitia Dignitatum."


Revolt by Carausius, commander of the Roman British fleet, who rules Britain as emperor until murdered by Allectus, a fellow rebel, in 293.

301 (or 209)

Second possible date for the martyrdom of St Alban (this is the date put forward by the usually reliable Bede). Considering the apparently slow and patchy spread of Christianity in Britain, this date seems more likely.


Diocletian orders a general persecution of the Christians.


Constantine (later to be known as "the Great") is proclaimed Emperor at York.


Persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire ends.


Constantine defeats and kills Maxentius at the battle of Milvian Bridge; after seeing a vision of the Cross of Christ in the sky, Constantine realises that the Christian God may be a powerful ally and decides to attempt to co-opt him for his own purposes.


Edict of Toleration proclaimed at Milan, in which Christianity is made legal throughout the empire.


Three British bishops, for the first time, attend a Continental church gathering, the Council of Arles.


Constantine finally achieves full control over an undivided empire. He is a skilful politician who is popularly believed to have made Christianity the official religion of the empire because of his personal convictions. More realistically, that act was merely an expedient intended to harness the power of its "God" for the benefit of the state. He re-located the imperial headquarters to Byzantium, whose name he then changed to Constantinople. Despite his outward enthusiasm for Christianity and its powerful God, he didn't close many pagan temples during his reign. He did, however, strip them of their former wealth, which was then shifted to various Christian churches. This produced the result that many of the fledgling churches were put on a very firm financial footing and many of their members enjoyed great prosperity (not for the last time, either). The persecution of Christianity had stopped, perhaps, but its manipulation by exterior and interior forces had just begun.

Early Christianity had no official hierarchies and functioned best as a series of small church groups worshipping with and caring for their own members while spreading Christ's Gospel in their local areas. Constantine's move created a top-heavy structure that would quickly depart from its original purity; a church beholden to the state, out of touch with the needs of its adherents and concerned only with its own comfort. Eusebius, the early Christian historian, has given us some additional insights into the motivations of the Emperor Constantine in his Ecclesiastical History.


Constantine received "Christian" baptism on his deathbed. Joint rule of Constantine's three sons: Constantine II (to 340), Constans (to 350), Constantius (to 361).


Series of attacks on Britain from the north by the Picts, the Attacotti and the Irish (Scots), requiring the intervention of Roman generals leading special legions.


Roman general Theodosius drives the Picts and Scots out of Roman Britain.

375 - 385

Birth of Aurelius Ambrosius (Ambrosius the Elder).


Magnus Maximus (Macsen Wledig), a Spaniard, is proclaimed Emperor in Britain by the island's Roman garrison. After organising Britain's internal defences by settling up regional power bases in Northern Britain, North Wales, and South Wales, he leaves the island with an army of British volunteers, quickly conquering Gaul, Spain and Italy [3].

[3] The revolt of Magnus Maximus marks the very beginnings of the Arthurian Period.


Maximus occupies Rome itself. Theodosius, the eastern Emperor, defeats him in battle and beheads him in July 388, with many of the remnant of Maximus' troops settling in Armorica. The net result to Britain is the loss of many valuable troops needed for the island's defence (the "first migration").

c.390 - 397

Association with "Circle of Ambrose".


Theodosius, the last emperor to rule an undivided empire, dies, leaving one son, Arcadius, emperor in the East and his other son, the young Honorius, emperor in the West. At this point the office of Roman Emperor changes from a position of absolute power to one of being merely a head of state.

395 (or 397)

The Roman commander, Stilicho, comes to Britain and repels an attack by Picts, Irish and Saxons.


Stilicho, acts as regent in the western empire during Honorius' minority, reorganising British defences decimated by the Magnus Maximus debacle. Continues transfer of military authority from Roman commanders to local British chieftains, begun by Maximus.


Events on the Continent force Stilicho to recall one of the two British legions to assist with the defence of Italy against Alaric and the Visigoths. The recalled legion, known as the Sixth Victrix, was said by Claudian (in De Bello Gallico, 416) to be "that legion which is stretched before the remoter Britons, which curbs the Scot, and gazes on the tattoo-marks on the pale face of the dying Pict." The barbarians are defeated, this time, at battle of Pollentia.


Victricius, Bishop of Rouen, visits Britain for the purpose of bringing peace to the island's clergy, who are in the middle of a dispute, possibly over the Pelagian heresy.



Text copyright © P L Kessler, adapted from various notes and sources. An original feature for the History Files.