British and Celtic History:  The Beginnings to the Norman Conquest, a Brief Timeline

Dr. Susan Oldrieve ©

1300 BCE.    Beginnings of Celtic civilization around the source of the Danube in Germany.

1100 BCE.    Archaelogical evidence of early Celtic culture down to the Middle Danube--Hungary and Western Romania--and in Middle Europe--eastern France, Switzerland, Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Poland.

720-600 BCE.    Celts have spread to cover Middle Europe from Burgundy to Bohemia and have settled also in Ireland and Britain.

530-470 BCE.    Celtic contact with Mediterranean (Greek) culture.  Greek luxury items found in Celtic graves.  Emergence of Celtic La Tene warrior aristocracies using two wheeled war chariots.

400 BCE.    Celts begin to migrate south into the Mediterranean areas, France, and Spain.

60-57 BCE.    Julius Caesar conquers the Celts in Gaul (France and Spain)and turns to Britain.

55 BCE. to 400 CE.    Britain Romanized and Christianized.  Ireland is left untouched by the Romans and remains primarily Celtic in culture.  Scotland North of Hadrian’s Wall (built in 117 CE.) remains in indigenous Pictish hands. The turf built Antonine Wall is erected further north in 137 CE. but fails to hold.  Land between Hadrian’s wall and the Antonine wall is left to British Celts to defend against the Picts.

200    Tertullian, a Roman theologian,  mentions the preaching of Christianity in Britain, in sections not yet conquered by Rome.

312-313     Constantine, Emperor of Rome, is converted to Christianity and makes Christianity a legal religion in the Roman Empire.  Three British bishops are present at the Council of Arles in 314.  Christianity may have been practiced mostly by the aristocracy influenced by Rome until the 500s.

371    Martin of Tours, considered to be the true missionary to the continental Celts, elected Bishop of Tours and effects spread of Christianity throughout the continental Celtic nations (Gaul).  Conversion of populace takes place between 350 and 380.  St. Martin established hermetic monasteries as the major form of Christianity

372    The Goths, a continental Germanic tribe, are converted to Christianity by Ulfias, a Roman missionary.

383    Magnus Maximus, British governor, using British Celtic troops, is acclaimed Emperor in Rome and, living in Gaul, holds the position for 3 years.

400    Vortigern commanding British troops against Picts calls in Saxons for help.

410    The Goths sack Rome

432    Death of St. Ninian, who converted the Southern Pictish tribes to Christianity.

Ca. 431, in the reign of Leary of Tara    St. Patrick brings Christianity (and with it, writing) to Northern Ireland, probably from Britain.  Christianity may have been introduced earlier in the south by saints Declan of Ardmore; Ailbe of Emly; Ciaran of Sighir; Abban of Moyarney and Killabban (in Leinster); Ibar of Beg-Eire.  Patrick tried to establish a diocesan organization, but the Irish church quickly became focused on hermetic monasteries and on the peregrinatio or spiritual journey, effected both physically and mentally, resulting in anchoritism, defined by Chadwick as  “a form of permanent peregrination from one’s home to pass one’s life in solitude” (210).

450    Angles, Saxons, and Jutes begin to settle in Britain. They gradually impinge upon Celtic culture and overwhelm it except in the West (current day Wales) and north (current day Scotland).  Celtic culture and Christianity begin to wane.

455    Visigoths overrun Rome

493    Theodoric, King of the Ostragoths, becomes king in Rome

early 500's    The British Arthur resists Anglo-Saxon invasions in Roman fashion.  The

Battle of Mons Badonicus succeeds in stopping Germanic invasions for about 50 years.

Welsh resistance persists successfully until Oswald of Northumbria’s defeat of Cadwallon

of Wales at a battle in Hexham, north of Wales in 623.

The ministries of Ninian, Patrick, Columba, and Augustine speeded up the process of conversion to Christianity among the Celtic and Anglo-Saxon peoples. Monasteries were established to help educate lay people and to establish a native priesthood.  They were also given the task of creating manuscripts for educational and ecclesiastical use.  In this way, writing was introduced to the previously oral cultures of the Celts and Anglo-Saxons (not without some cultural resistance, we are now beginning to think). Non-religious texts began to be written down along with the religious ones.  This is how the small body of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon poetry which we now have was preserved.

Ireland remained independent of both Rome and the Anglo-Saxons throughout this period. Irish Christianity maintained traditions derived from the church before its split into Eastern and Western orthodoxy, and the Byzantine flavor of medieval Irish art can be traced to the influence of Eastern Christianity.

563    St. Columba travels to the island of Iona off the coast of Scotland from Ireland and establishes influential hermetic groups and monasteries in southern Scotland, northern England, and Wales (which already had Christianity) with their center the great abbey at Iona itself.

575    Aedan mac Gabrain, descendent of the Ui Neill of Northern Ireland, establishes the kingdom of Scottish Dalraida.  He and St. Columba were good friends.

597    Augustine (a different St. Augustine from the more famous St. Augustine of Hippo) is sent by Pope Gregory the Great from Rome to Southern England.  He re-introduces the Western version of Christianity to Britain, and converts King Aethelbert (reigned 563-616).

603    Augustine meets with the Welsh bishops to try to convince them to conform to the newer Roman version of Christianity, especially the new dating for Easter.  They refuse.

636    Southern Ireland accepts Roman order of Christianity.

664    Council of Whitby.  Oswald of Northumbria agrees to accept Roman order of Christianity, including the change of the dating for Easter.

685    Ecfrith, King of Northumbria, killed at Dunnichen trying to defeat the Picts.  Last Anglo-Saxon attempt to move north into the Highlands of Scotland.

696    Synod of Burr.  Adamnan of Iona convinces northern Irish church to accept Roman order of Christianity.

716    King Nechtan IV of the Southern Picts evicts monks of Iona for refusing to accept Roman order of Christianity; the English monk Ecgberct goes to Iona and the Roman Easter is celebrated there for the first time in 718.  Supremacy of Irish church begins to shift from Iona to Armagh.

768    Bishop Elbodug of Bangor begins introduction of Roman Easter into Wales.

789 and 793    First Viking raids on Northumbria--Danish vikings.

Ca. 790    Merfyn Vrych, descendent of rulers of the Isle of Man, succeeds to the kingdom of North Wales.  Marries the sister of the king of Powys.  Cultural flowering of Welsh court--lore from North Wales written down during the reign of his son Rhodri Mawr.

Wales continues its resistance to the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, but Wales declares submission to the West Saxons in 828 and then to the Mercians ca. 860.

795    First Viking raid on Ireland, at Lambey--Norwegian vikings.

820-845    Turgeis comes from Norway, conquers Armagh and sets up Viking settlements in Anagassin, Dublin, Wexford, Waterford, Cork, and Limerick.  Finally taken prisoner by Mael Saechlainn, King of Meath who executed him by drowning.  Irish resistance to Norwegian settlements.

836-842    Danish fleets explore and test strength of English coastlines with a series of raids.  Danish vikings are also attacking France and the Low Countries in Europe at the same time. 

24 June, 842    During a celebration of St. John’s Day (John the Baptist, that is), a Norwegian viking fleet attacks Aquitaine in France.

After plundering all the way to Nantes, the Norwegians winter for the first time in western Europe.  First Norwegian wintering in England is in 850. 

851-2    Danish fleets attack and conquer Norwegian settlement at Dublin.

843    Final union of Picts and Scottish kingdom of Dalraida completed by the marriage of the Scots/Irish king Kenneth mac Alpin to a Pictish princess.

865-70    Harald Harfagar born in Norway.

867    Danish vikings conquer York and defeat the Northumbrian effort to retake it.

869    Danish vikings attack East Anglia and kill King Edmund

871    Alfred elected to the kingship of Wessex.

876    Halfdan distributes the lands of Northumbria among the Danish Vikings.

After unifying the Welsh kingdoms, Rhodri Mawr is defeated by the Danes at the “Sunday Battle” in Angelsey.  Retreats to Ireland where he dies a year later.  His sons continue resistance to Anglo-Saxons.

877    Danes divide up Mercia for settlement (modern Yorkshire, Nottingham, Lincoln, Derby, and Leicester.)

878    The Danish Guthrum attacks Wessex and drives King Alfred to refuge on the island of Athelney, where he directs a determined resistance until he succeeds in getting Guthrum to accept baptism and to withdraw from Wessex.

879    Danes partition East Anglia for settlement (Northampton, Huntingdon, Cambridge, Bedford, Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex and even London for a short time.)

885-900    Harald Harfagar succeeds in conquering all of Norway.

886    Alfred recovers London from the Danes and is considered to be king of all the English—he has united the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms against their common enemy. 

871-899    Reign of King Alfred, who temporarily brought many of the southern Anglo-Saxon tribes into alliance.  A major revival of learning takes place during these years. In addition, with his daughter Ethelflaed and her husband Ethelred, he conducted a series of campaigns in Mercia to keep the Danes in check.  Ethelflaed was responsible for much of their military strategy and even led troops to battle.  She suceeded Ethelred to the Mercian throne when he died in 911 and continued the campaigns against the Danes.  Upon Alfred’s death, his son Edward succeeded to the throne of Wessex.  In addition, during the 900's, missionaries like St. Dunstan were moving into the Danelaw and establishing Christianity among the Danish Viking settlers.

900    Norsemen begin invading Northumbria from the north, coming from Ireland.

902    King Cearbhall of Leinster takes Dublin back from the Viking “foreigners”

912    ­The Viking Rollo (Ganga-Hrolf of the Heimskringla and Roland of Le Chanson de Roland) establishes himself as Duke in Normandy.  Normandy secedes from France and becomes a kingdom in its own right.

916    Edward and Ethelflaed complete a line of fortresses to protect their kingdoms against Danes on one side, and the Welsh on the other.

918    Ethelflaed dies; Edward becomes king of both Mercia and Wessex and brings the Danelaw in Mercia under his control.

919    The Norwegian Rognvald captures York from the Danes.  In 920 he recognizes Edward as overlord.  All of Scotland, Northumbria, and the northern Welsh/Pictish kingdom of Strathclyde come under Edward’s control.

924   Edward dies and is succeeded by his son Aethelstan.  Aethelstan marries his sister to the Norse successor to Rognvald, Siggtrygg.  Upon Siggtrygg’s death, his infant son Olaf succeeds to the kingdom with his Norse uncle Guthfrith, king of Dublin as regent.  Aethelstan drives them both out.

926    Athelstan establishes a Roman Christian diocese in Cornwall, marking final conversion of Welsh and Cornish church to Roman order.

930­­    Iceland first occupied by Norwegian vikings.

934    Norse, Scot, and Strathclyde Welsh armies battle Aethelstan and his brother Edmund for Northumbria at the Battle of Brunanburg.  The armies of Mercia and Wessex win.  The battle is celebrated in the poem “The Battle of Brunanburg” of which only a fragment remains.

939    Aethelstan dies and is succeeded by his 18 yr old brother Edmund.  Leicester, Derby, Nottingham, and Lincoln regained by Norwegian Olaf of Dublin in 940.  The Danes are not happy and battles for control of the Danelaw ensue for 10 years.

945    Harald Harfagar dies.  His son Hakon, fostered by Aethestan, succeeds to the kingship of Norway.

948    Eirik Bloodaxe, wild and exiled son of King Harald Harfargar of Norway, comes to Northumbria and takes the kingship.  Olaf Siggtrygsson and Eadred, brother and successor to Edmund (d. 946), fight to regain control of Northumbria.

928-950    Reign of Hywel Dda, grandson of Rhodri Mawr, acting as suzerain king of Wales under the West Saxon High Kings Athelstan and Edmund. Wales no longer an isolated kingdom.

954     Death of Erik Bloodaxe, ending struggle for kingship of Northumbria and leaving it under the control of Eadred, King of England

973    Edgar succeeds Eadred; first ruler to be crowned King of England with an elaborate coronation ceremony.

978    Aethelred “The Unready” (meaning "badly counseled) succeeds to the English throne when his supporters murder Edgar.

980    Danish raids on English coastlines resume 

991    Serious Danish attacks begin. Defeat of Byrthnoth  at the Battle of Maldon in Essex.  See the famous poem, “The Battle of Maldon,” in Anglo-Saxon Poetry.

982    Eric the Red explores Greenland.  Greenland settled in 986.

986    Greenland settled.  Bjarni Herjolfsson, following his father’s emigration to Greenland, is blown off course and sights Newfoundland and Labrador

1000    Lawspeaker Thorgeir decides at the Althing that all Icelanders will be baptized as Christians.

1001    Leif Eriksson of Greenland explores Newfoundland and winters in Vinland there.  Beginning of attempt to settle North America.

1003-6    Major attack on England by King Swein of Denmark.

1013-14    Aethelred driven out of England to Normandy by Swein and his son Cnut.

1016    England divided between Cnut and Aethelred’s son Edmund Ironside.  When Edmund dies, Cnut becomes king of all England.

1019    Cnut inherits Denmark; becomes King of Denmark and England.

1020    Efforts to settle Vinland end.  Karlsefni returns home, having concluded that “there would always be fear and strife dogging them there on account of those who already inhabited it."

1040    Harald Harefoot replaces Harthacnut, Cnut’s son, as king of England, leaving Denmark to Harthacnut.  Dies childless in 1042.

1042    Edward the Confessor, last son of Aethelred, becomes King of England after having grown up in Normandy.  His Norman influence is challenged by Earl Godwin of Wessex and then by Godwin’s son Harold.

5 January 1066    Edward dies.  Harold Godwinsson elected to the throne.  But Duke William of Normandy challenges his claim, saying that Edward had promised the throne to him.

Harold Godwinsson goes north to fight his exiled brother Tostig and Harald Hardrada , invading from Norway. Defeats the Norwegians at Stamford bridge on 25 September.

28 September    William of Normandy lands at Pevensy in the south of England.  Harold marches down to meet him. 

14 October, 1066    English are defeated at the Battle of Hastings

25 December, 1066--Christmas Day    William of Normandy acclaimed King of England in Westminster Abbey.

With William’s accession to the throne, the Anglo-Saxon language is officially replaced by the Anglo-Norman dialect of French, and Anglo-Saxon cultural institutions rather quickly replaced by European feudal culture.  Nevertheless, Anglo-Saxon influence remained strong in the development of the Middle English language and in the English law codes upon which our current American law is also based.