Britons (historical)

Britons (historical)

Historically, the Britons (sometimes Brythons or British) were the P-Celtic speaking indigenous peoples inhabiting the island of Great Britain south of the river Forth. They were speakers of the Brythonic languages (also called P-Celtic) and shared common cultural traditions. In terms of language and culture, much of north-western Europe was mainly Celtic during this period. The inhabitants of Ireland, the Isle of Man and Dál Riata were Gaels or "Gaelic Celts" who spoke Goidelic languages.

A number of scholars argue that the unknown Pictish language was Brythonic, but in Sub-Roman Britain the Picts were distinguished as a separate group, as were the Gaels of Dál Riata. Therefore, the term "Briton" traditionally refers to the inhabitants of ancient Britain "excluding" the Picts, because many Pictish cultural traits (for example their sculpture, pottery and monuments) differ from those of the Britons and because ancient writers clearly distinguish the two peoples.


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 Britons the "Pritani" or "Pretani",cite book
last = Snyder
first = Christopher A.
title = The Britons
publisher = Blackwell Publishing
date = 2003
id = ISBN 0-631-22260-X
] cite book
last = Foster (editor)
first = R F
authorlink =
coauthors = Donnchadh O Corrain, Professor of Irish History at University College Cork: Prehistoric and Early Christian Ireland
title = The Oxford History of Ireland
publisher = Oxford University Press
date = 1 November 2001
location =
url =
doi =
id = ISBN 0-19-280202-X
] and referred to the islands as the "Pritanic" or "Pretanic" islands. The term may have reached Pytheas from the Gauls, who may have used it as "their" term for the inhabitants of the islands. [ [ Encyclopedia of the Celts] : Pretani]

The Latin name in the early Roman Empire period was "Britanni" or "Brittanni", following the Roman conquest in 43 BC. The single "-t-" in modern "Briton" is from an erroneous Latin form "Brito", "Britones" in medieval manuscript tradition; French "Breton" derives from the more correct Latin form with double "-tt-". [OED s.v. "Briton". See also [ Online Etymology Dictionary: Briton] ]

In current usage, "Briton" also refers to the modern - mainly English-speaking - inhabitants of the United Kingdom, the British people, that is, as a collective term for the English, Scottish, Welsh and 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. [ [ Online Etymology Dictionary: Brythonic] ] "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 Brythonical (or Brittonic) languages. Brythonical 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 and Gaels. According to early medievael historical tradition, the post-Roman Celtic-speakers of Armorica were migrants from Britain, supposedly resulting in the similar Breton language, a language similar to Welsh which survives there to this day. Thus the area to day is called Brittania.

The Brythonical languages developed from Proto-Celtic, after it was introduced to the British Isles from the continent. The first form of the Brythonical 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 linguistics have invented the terms Eastern, 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 Breteon survive today, Cumbric became extinct in the 12th Century.


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.

In 43 AD the Roman Empire invaded Britain. The Brythonic tribes continually opposed the Roman legions, but by 84 CE 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 governers. The Roman Empire retained control of "Britannia" until its departure about 400 AD.

Around the time of the Roman departure, the Germanic Anglo-Saxons began migrations to the eastern coast of Britain, where they set up kingdoms. Eventually, Brythonic language and culture in these areas was largely replaced by those of the Anglo-Saxons. At the same time, some Brythonic tribes migrated across the channel to what is now called Brittany, and to moorland areas like Cornwall and Northwest England, where Kingdoms such as Rheged and Dumnonia were established. There they set up their own small kingdoms and the Brythonic Breton language developed. By the end of the 1st millennium AD, the Anglo-Saxons had conquered most of the Brythonic territory in Britain, and the language and culture of the native Britons had largely been extinguished, remaining only in the Southwestern Peninsula and Pennine areas of England, and Wales.

Famous Britons

* Arthur – Romano-British war leader of debatable historicity.
* Boudica – Queen of the Iceni, who led the rebellion against Roman occupation in 60 CE.
* Caratacus – a leader of the defence against the Roman conquest of Britain.
* Cartimandua – Queen of the Brigantes during and after the Roman invasion.
* Cassivellaunus – led the defence against Julius Caesar's second expedition to Britain in 54 BCE.
*Mailoc - Bishop of Britonia (Galicia) in the 6th century AD
* Commius – historical King of the Belgic nation of the Atrebates, initially in Gaul, then in Britannia, during the 1st century BCE.
* Cunedda – post-Roman King and progenitor of the Kingdom of Gwynedd.
* Cunobelinus – historical King of southern Britain between the first and second Roman invasions. The basis for Shakespeare's Cymbeline.
* Cogidubnus - a British client-king, later made a citizen of Rome and awarded Fishbourne Roman Palace.
* Pelagius – an influential Christian monk and theologian, branded a heretic later in life.
* Prasutagus – husband of Boudica.
* Togodumnus – a leader of the defence against the Roman conquest of Britain.
* Urien – King of Rheged (modern Lancashire and Cumbria).
* Vortigern – warlord and King in the 5th century CE. Best known for inviting the Jutes to Kent.


ee also

*Alternative words for British
*British Isles
*British Isles (terminology)
*Celtic nations
*Cornish people
*English people
*History of the British Isles
*Irish people
*King of the Britons
*List of Celtic tribes
*List of legendary kings of Britain
*Roman Britain
*Scottish people
*Welsh people

External links

* The History Files: [ The Island of Britain AD 450-600] (Map of British territories)
* The History Files: [ Main Index]
* [ BBC - History - Native Tribes of Britain]
* [ DNA from ethnic Britons found in Ireland]

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