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Chapter I, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 1

The First Inhabitants of Britain - The several Nations and Tribes who settled there - Variety of States - The Druids: their System - Social and Moral Condition of the Britons.
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The First Inhabitants of Britain - The several Nations and Tribes who settled there - Variety of States - The Druids: their System - Social and Moral Condition of the Britons.

Separated from the continent of Europe by the sea, Britain, seems to have been but imperfectly known to the historians of antiquity. Herodotus, who wrote 450 years before Christ, is supposed to have included it among the Cassiterides, a group of islands lying off the coast of Cornwall, better known as the Scilly Isles. Aristotle, a century later, speaks of Albion and Ierne. Strabo, the cotemporary of Caesar, informs us that the Phoenicians carried on a considerable commerce with the Cassiterides, where they obtained lead, tin, and skins; and that, so jealous were they lest any other nation should participate in the advantages of the trade, the captain of one of their ships, finding himself pursued by several Roman galleys sent to discover the island, purposely led them on a shoal of rocks, rather than betray the route, and suffered shipwreck with them. His countrymen compensated him for his loss.

Pliny has recorded the name of the navigator who first brought lead from the Cassiterides: -

"Plumbum ex Cassiteride insula primus apportavit Midacritns."

Hist. Nat.

Most writers have agreed that Britain was first peopled by the Gauls, or, more properly speaking, the Celtae, who came over from the neighbouring continent; and adduce the identity of language, government, and religion of the two nations in support of their opinion. As population increased, the inhabitants of the island gradually became divided into a variety of tribes or states, each having a separate chief, who was far, however, from exercising a despotic power, unless in time of war; in peace, the supreme authority, as is frequently found among barbarian nations, was vested in their Druids or priests, who combined with the sacerdotal office those of legislator and judge.

The historians of antiquity commonly give the name of Celts to the greater part of the inhabitants of Central and Western Europe. Two distinct peoples have been confounded under it, both in Gaul and Britain - the race of Gael, and that of the Cimbri.

The irruption of the Scythians, which occurred seven centuries before the Christian era, dispersed the Cimbri. Vast hordes of the latter nation settled in the countries between the Lower Danube and the mouth of the Elbe, and, in course of time, invaded a great part of Gaul. According to tradition, the first of the race who settled in Britain was named Hu the Cadarn, or Hugh the Powerful. Another chief, named Prydain, son of Aed the Great, came over at a later period, and being a great legislator, as well as a warrior, gave his name to the entire island, since corrupted into Britain.

Whitaker, in his "History of Manchester," contends that the island derives its name from the Celtic root, Brit, which signifies broken or separated, in allusion to the large number of islands composing the group to which the name was originally applied. Many fierce contests, doubtless, ensued before the Cimbri succeeded in establishing their authority; but that they did succeed in doing so, there can be no reasonable doubt. The Gaels gradually submitted to their yoke, although they still continued to form the most important part of the population.

Many other bands of emigrants succeeded: amongst others, the Belgae (a people of Gaul, but of German origin), who landed on the southern coast, and gradually extended themselves over the country comprised between the Thames, the Severn, and the sea.

Thus we see that the inhabitants of the island were composed of different tribes and nations. The most ancient at the time of Caesar's expedition were -

The Silures, established on the borders of the Severn. They had extended their authority over the Ordovices and Dimetae. The country inhabited by these three races comprises the Principality of Wales.

The western part of the island, as far south as the Bristol Channel, was inhabited by the Damnonii, a colony of whom afterwards settled in Gaul, and gave the name of the country they quitted to La Basse Bretagne. The western coast was occupied by the Belgae.

On the left bank of the Thames were the Trinobantes, a comparatively weak race, but celebrated for having laid the foundation of London; which was so insignificant a place in the time of Caesar, that he does not condescend to mention it in his "Commentaries."

Between the Trinobantes and the Silures were the Atrebates, originally from Artois; the Dobuni; and the Catti, whose renowned chief, Cassibelan, was the leader of the confederated tribes and nations against Caesar and his legions.

From the country of the Trinobantes to the Wash, the eastern coast was occupied by the Iceni; the Coritavi were settled between the Wash and the Humber.

The Cornavii inhabited the west; and from the Humber to the Tyne existed the Brigantes, the most powerful of the nations which inhabited Britain; they were divided into several confederate states, and renowned for their fierceness in war.

Between the Coritavi and the Brigantes were the Parisii.

From the north of the Tyne to the plains which form the Lowlands of Scotland, were five nations known as the Maaetse. The fierce and savage tribes, inhabitants of the highlands, were comprised under the general name of Caledonians.

Such were the various people and tribes designated in the time of Cae-ar as Britons; a motley population, preying on each other, savage as the wilds in which they dwelt; depending for existence on their flocks and herds, or the spoils of war and the chase. The country was little better than a wilderness, having neither roads nor canals, and so thickly covered with wood that but little space was left for cultivation.

The form of government in the island was as divided as the races which inhabited it. In the south the monarchical form generally prevailed; whilst the patriarchal system predominated in the north amongst the Gaels, where the chief of each tribe, and the heads of families on their own domains, exercised sovereign authority, always subjected, however, to the influence of the Druids, who were regarded with the most profound veneration by all classes of the people.

The religion of the Druids was dark and mysterious as the gloomy forests in which it first drew birth, and in whose deepest recesses they celebrated their cruel rites. From time immemorial it had existed amongst the Gaels, who introduced it into Britain when they first settled in the island. Its ministers built no covered temples, deeming it an insult to their gods to attempt to enclose their emblems in an edifice surrounded by walls, and erected by mortal hands; the forest was their temple, and a rough, unhewn stone their altar. They worshipped Tecanus, another name for Jupiter, the god of thunder; Mercury and Mars, under the appellation of Teutates and Hesus; Apollo, whom they designated Belenus; Diana, as Arduine; and Andate, the goddess of victory.

Besides these - who may be regarded as their superior deities, they had a great number of inferior ones. Each wood, fountain, lake, and mountain had its tutelary genius, whom they were accustomed to invoke with sacrifice and prayer. The priests of this terrible idolatry were divided into three separate orders, under the command of a chief, who was elected for life, whose power was unlimited, and who alone was suffered to pronounce the fearful sentence of excommunication, which deprived the victim of sacerdotal wrath of all civil rights.

The first of these divisions consisted, properly speaking, of Druids only; they were the interpreters of the laws, which they never permitted to be committed to writing, the instructors of youth, and the judges of the people - a tremendous power to be lodged in the hands of any peculiar class, but doubly dangerous when the ignorance, cruelty, and superstition of the race they tyrannised over are duly considered.

The second class, the Eubates. may be looked upon in the light of the working clergy; they were charged with the sacrifices and divinations. The lust and inferior division was those of the Bards, whose duty it was to preserve in verse the memory of any remarkable event; to celebrate the triumph of their heroes; and, by their exhortation and songs, excite the chiefs and people to deeds of courage and daring on the day of battle.

It is impossible not to be struck by the profound cunning which presided over the organisation of this tremendous priesthood, which concentrated all authority in its hands, Its ministers placed themselves between man and the altar, permitting his approach only in mystery and gloom. They wrought upon his imagination by the sacrifice of human life, and the most terrible denunciations of the anger of their gods on all who opposed them. As the instructors of youth, they moulded the pliant mind, and fashioned it to their purpose; as the judges of the people, there was no appeal against their decisions, for none bat the Druids could pronounce authoritatively what was the law, there being no written code to refer to; they alone possessed the right to recompense or punish: thus the present and future welfare of their followers alike depended upon them.

The severest penalty inflicted by the Druids was the interdiction of the sacrifice to those who had offended them. Woe to the unhappy wretch on whom the awful sentence fell! He ceased to be considered a human being. Like the beast of the forest, his life was at the mercy of any one who chose to take it. He lost all civil rights, and could neither inherit land nor sue for the recovery of debts; every one was at liberty to spoil his property; even his nearest kindred fled from him in horror and aversion, as from the pest.

With such a tremendous weapon at their command, no wonder the Druids were all powerful. We have since seen it used, in comparatively modern times, by the ministers of a purer and more enlightened faith, with a similar effect.

It is now time to give some account of the dogmas of this extinct superstition, once the general faith of Britain, Like the monks of the middle ages, the Druids of the higher orders lived in community in the remote depths of the vast gloomy forests, where they celebrated their rites. In these retreats they initiated the youthful aspirants for the sacerdoce, who frequently passed a novitiate of twenty years before being admitted. Disciples of all ranks flocked to them, despite the severity of the probation, tempted, no doubt, by the honours and great privileges attached to the order, amongst which exemption from every kind of taxation and servitude were not the least.

The Druids taught the immortality of the soul, and its transmigration from one body to another, till, by some extraordinary act of virtue or courage, it merited to be received into the assembly of the gods.

Caesar, in his "Commentaries," informs us that they instructed their pupils in the movements of the heavenly bodies, and the grandeur of the universe. Their knowledge of mathematics must have been considerable, since we find it applied to the measurement of the earth and stars. In mechanics they were equally advanced, judging from the monuments which remain to us.

Of these the most remarkable in England are Stonehenge, consisting of 139 enormous stones, ranged in a circle; and that of Abury, in Wiltshire, which covers a space of twenty-eight acres of land. But the largest of all the Druid temples is situated at Carnac, in the department of Morbihan, in France. It is formed of 400 stones, varying from five to twenty-seven feet in height, and ranged in eleven concentric lines.

It is difficult to say precisely from what source the Druids drew their doctrines, which have a striking affinity with those of Pythagoras and the sages of the East; probably it was from the latter they borrowed them. It was not the least singular of their dogmas, that the earth which we inhabit had passed through - and was still to experience - a variety of changes, but would never be destroyed.

They knew something of botany and medicine, but mingled with the latter certain magical and superstitious practices.

Of the secret tenets of the order, which were communicated only to the initiated, little positive is known.

The following curious inscription, found in the neighbourhood of Metz, proves that the Celts believed in visions, and the phenomena of magnetism: -


Such was the institution of Druidism, on which so many opinions have been expressed. To judge it properly, the reader must not lose - sight of the epoch in which it flourished; that cruelty and superstition were, before the Christian era, the common errors of mankind. Would we could add that they had disappeared from the world under a better dispensation!

The sacrifice of human victims was one of the great sins of antiquity. The Romans, with all their boasted civilisation, offered to the avenging gods the blood of their prisoners. It was the triumph of Christianity to abolish such impious rites.

Thus much may fairly be said in defence of the Druids. Unlike the Brahmins of India, they had not the presumption to give themselves out as the descendants of a race divine; none were excluded from their order, to which merit and long, study alone gave access; and they held, with the sages of antiquity, that the government of nations belonged of right to the wisest amongst them.

Ancient writers have transmitted but little information touching the morals and customs of the Britons. Caesar, Pomponius Mela, and Diodorus Siculus speak of them with undisguised contempt. The first concluded, doubtless, from some isolated facts, that the community of women was a general usage in the island. This is one of his greatest errors, since it is proved that marriage was established amongst the principal nations of Britain, particularly the Celts, who exacted a rigorous chastity in their wives. They treated them with a respect which could only have existed amongst a people where marriage elevated woman to a level with man. They frequently submitted to be governed by the widows of their kings, who in more than one instance conducted them to battle.

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