Celts: AS Context

Celts:       The Anglo-Saxon Context Celt


Hlafdige Arastorm

aka Tchipakkan

mka Virginia Fair Richards-Taylor



To understand the Anglo-Saxons we need to understand the people with whom they interacted, what came before and after. This series of workshops looks at the surrounding cultures through the lens of their interaction with the Anglo-Saxons. This workshop focuses on the Celtic kingdoms of Wales, Ireland and Scotland: how they interacted with the English – changed and were changed by them.


The term “Celtic” is a description of a culture that was developed by 17th century scholars. They had similar culture, religion (Druids), and language. The Greeks first referred to the Keltoi as the Barbarians to the West, although the Romans use the term Celt and Gaul interchangeably. Modern people use the name to describe the European cultures that used certain decorative motifs that differentiated them in the archeological record. These include the Hallstatt and La Tène cultures (both well before common SCA period). The Hallstatt culture lasted from c 1200 to 475 bce, and the La Tène culture developed and flourished during the late Iron Age (from about 500 to 15 bce). Hallstatt spread over most of Europe above the alps, and La Tene pushed down into Spain, northern Italy, Greece and Anatolia.

The Greek view of the Keltoi was that they were heavy drinkers, good warriors, they wore bright colors and lots of gold. The “lots of gold” and heavy drinkers” probably reflects the elite with whom they traded. Certainly grave finds give pride of place to drinking vessels, as well as weapons. It is not certain precisely when the Celts got to Britain, sometime during the early Hallstatt period. They were the dominant culture when Caesar invaded the island.

Caesar wrote about the Celts, but we must remember that he had a bias, he wanted to make himself look good- and justify his enriching himself by enslaving those he conquered (as well as taking over the Gaulish gold mines.) Celts were famous horsemen, but they fought in chariots, although after causing havoc with spears, got down for hand-to-hand combat. They created fortified hilltops, although they probably didn’t live with them. They worshiped in groves, not temples. They were known for fighting naked (although burials have armor) and they collected heads and displayed them. Celts lived in round houses with thatched roofs, and families were associated in clans. Women had more rights than many other ancient women: the right to choose mates and own property. Some even fought; children were often fostered with the mother’s brother.

Druids were the upper class priests, healers, teachers, bards, and political advisors. Religious rites seem to have taken place at oak groves, springs, and standing stones. (Stonehenge pre-dates Celtic occupation.) Although known for memorizing phenomenal amounts of information, Patrick is said to have destroyed at least one Druid library. Christianity is said to have come to Britain in the first century, by the third there were British bishops at church councils.

That’s the basic on Celts from Pre-history, what about in the British Isles?

When Rome invaded, some tribes were willing to become client kingdoms, and assimilated fairly well, but others showed great resistance to Roman rule, and there were frequent rebellions, necessitating a large legionary presence. After Rome withdrew in 410, Britain reverted to tribalism noticeably more thoroughly and quickly than other provinces did when the legions withdrew.

But just as Rome never conquered Ireland, they didn’t conquer anything “north of the wall”. Sometimes we forget that the kingdoms of Straithclyde, Rheged, Dal Riata, and the Pictish lands were not Romanised, nor were they conquered by the Anglo-Saxons. The Picts are not well known, but were often mentioned as opponents. Their area was the North and east, Dal Riata was in the west, settled by the Scotti (gave their name to Scotland), and included Ulster (north Ireland).(~500-785) Cináed mac Ailpín was a famous king in the 9th century. In it merged with Pictland to become the Kingdom of Alba. They seem to have been Christian since they first came. The Viking Ketil Flatnose created the Kingdom of the Sudrys in 847 .

Ireland was originally divided into five: Ulaid, Connachta, the Laigin, Mumu and Mide. There was much fighting and the Ui Neills claimed High Kinship in Tara. After this it was partitioned in two, north and south. The Vikings founded settlements in the 9th c, and the Normans took over in the 11th. High kings were made through tanistry. A Tanist was elected from the bloodline, who became the kings deputy, when the king or chief died, the tanist succeeded. Law was passed orally until the 7th c. Brehon law gave women some position, but land ownership was patrilinial.

Early Irish tribes grew grain, but put far more importance on Cattle, especially cattle raiding.Kings lived in Ringforts, and surviving luxury goods show that they had wealth. Kings In the 9th century, Vikings made permanent bases in Dublin and other coastal cities. Christianity came to Ireland in the 5th c, and Celtic Christianity spread from there to England and Scotland, although the High Kings practiced paganism until the end of the sixth century.

As there was little contact between Britain and Rome, the Celtic Church developed different customs- a different way of computing holidays, different tonsure, and celtic priests had a fondness for solitary asceticism- going to northern islands and even Iceland. When the Roman Priests came at the end of the 6th century there was some conflict between the systems, which was finally arbitrated at the council of Whitby in 664 (in favor of Rome.)

While they became Christian, they held onto their mythology, which included the Mythological Cycle (legends of demigods like the Tuatha Dé Danann), the Ulster Cycle (of heroes like Cuchulainn), and the Fenian Cycle (Fionn mac Cumhaill). These legends also contributed to the Arthurian Mythos, which glorifies the Celtic resistance to the incoming Saxons.

In the 6th century, Gildas wrote about the chaos into which the many kingdoms had fallen after the passing of Rome, and with the hiring of Saxon mercenaries. Part of this was to fight off the Scotti (Irish Celts) who had never been conquered by Rome, and the Picts in Scotland. During this century there was also a major exodus of Celts to Brittany (Amorica), and Britonia (Suebic Kingdom of Gallaecia) although we are unsure of the reason. It may have been at least partially in response to the Justinian Plague. At first exposure, it was sometime 90% fatal, and wiped out whole communities on the west coast. This may have made the various Celtic kingdoms more fragile, and made it easier for the Anglo-Saxons to invade from the east.

To the Anglo-Saxons the indigenous population, the Celts or British, were seen as first enemies, then conquered people. The word Welsh “wealh” was the Old English word for Stranger or Foreigner, and in use became the word for Servant/ not free. This gives us a pretty sour idea of how the Anglo-Saxons and Celtic peoples integrated. And yet they did integrate. Recent DNA evidence indicates that the vast majority of women buried in Anglo-Saxon cemeteries, with Anglo-Saxon brooches and equipment had Welsh DNA. So clearly, integration occurred.

Scotland was made up of the kingdoms Pictland (not Celts), Dal Riata, Alt Clut (Strathclyde), and Anglian Bernicia.

Mountainous Wales was made up of Gwynnedd, Powys, Dyfed, and other smaller kingdoms Glywysing, Gwent and Ergyng, that were gradually absorbed. The Matter of Britain developed into Arthurian legends.

Ireland was made of as “the fives” but then divided in two- but still there were around 30 kings at Clontarf.

British Kingdom of Dumnonia held out against the Saxons. It was 927 before Athelstan finally annexed Cornwall.




Cunliffe, Barry, The Celts: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2003

Cunliffe, Barry, The Ancient Celts, Oxford University Press1997

Lowe, Chris, Angels, Fools and Tyrants: Britons and Anglo-Saxons in Southern, Scotland (Making of Scotland)






Picture of Caractacus in I, Claudius symbol of British defiance, and cool limed hair- I’d like to have seen it in three colors though. They say with lime the tips were white, the middle red and the roots black, and I think that would look really cool. On the other hand, I daresay it burned the scalp a bit.

Map from http://shissem.com/Hissem_Origin_&_Evolution_of_a_Name.html

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