A History of Britain - At the Edge of the World?

| 10 November 2000

A History of Britain is the hit BBC History series by Simon Schama. Follow this 24 Hour Museum trail to find out more about British history in museums and galleries throughout the UK.

The first programme covered a great swathe of history from prehistoric Britain covering the Celts, Romans, Anglo Saxons, Vikings, the Arthur legend and ending with King Alfred.

Evidence of prehistoric Britain is all around us but not always easy to see, except of course for Stonehenge and Avebury. The great hill forts of Iron Age Britain are best viewed from the air. On the ground have a look at Danebury in Hampshire or Maiden Castle in Dorset. At your local museum you are likely to be able to see some of the metalwork from this period. Both Salisbury Museum and Devizes Museum are essential stops when exploring Stonehenge and Avebury.

Here is a hand coloured engraving of Stonehenge 7 miles N.W. of Salisbury (sic) by Ibbetson, 1791 from Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum.

While the UK's most extensive collection of pre-historic artefacts is at the British Museum; here is just one of the many wonderful objects, a Celtic Brooch.

Britain was at the edge of the world as far as the Romans were concerned and their first attempt at an invasion in 55BC was a disaster because of the weather! But they didn't give up and 90 years later another Roman emperor Claudius decided to have a go where Caesar had failed. So in AD43 40,000 Roman troops embarked on their journey to conquer Britain. It proved relatively simple for the Romans to gain the support of a series of local chiefs up and down the country.

There was some insurgence of course, most famously Boudicca's army which marched through Eastern England in AD 60. But it didn't last and every man and woman were brutally cut down by Roman legionaries. Boudicca took her own life. You can see a statue of her at Westminster Bridge in London. Roman Britain can be explored at many museums around the country. Here is a small selection:

Londinium became the pre-eminent capital of Roman Britain and thrived for four hundred years. At the Museum of London you can explore the way people lived and how the country was run. Here is a reconstructed head of Spitalfields Woman.

Here is a recreation of the home of a carpenter in the High Street Londinium exhibition at the Museum of London until January.

Centres outside London of great importance included Colchester, sacked by Boudicca, and of St. Albans, then known as Verulamium. In the new exhibition here you can see some wonderful surviving artefacts as well as recreations of Roman Britain. This mosaic is of the Sea God Oceanus with lobster claws projecting from his head.

When the Romans invaded in AD 43 there was already a British settlement where Canterbury is today. The Romans changed into a Roman city with new building materials and styles, and laid out a grid of streets with impressive public buildings.

Hadrian's Wall was often imagined as a frontier, according to Simon Schama, to keep the "unruly" Scots at bay. But while it was initially a way of controlling rebellion, it was also a way of pushing Roman Britain further north through border controls. Another turf wall was built further north as a second line of defence against the Picts. Recent discoveries have revealed a great deal about life at Vindolanda fort including letters about social activities and family life. These can be seen at the British Museum and also at Segedunum.

collection of First Century artifacts includes these Roman facemasks which were found in the Borders Region.

The civilised ways of Roman Britain was epitomised in the Roman Baths at Bath and central heating systems in palaces such as the great Fishbourne Palace outside Chichester, the home of the great Romano-British commander Togidubnus, both of which can be visited.

However, the decline of the Roman empire, finally led to the departure of Roman legions in 410. As the Saxon invasion got underway it led inevitably to a gradual destruction of Romano British culture and Roman city centres such as London and Exeter were abandoned. The great Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf written at some point between the seventh and tenth century finds echoes in the body-jewellery and armour taken from the Sutton Hoo Anglo-Saxon treasures, now in the British Museum.

This was also the period of the arrival of Christianity. The most famous of the early missionaries was St Patrick, a Romano British aristocrat who landed back in Ireland in 460. Others followed and their work is chronicled in what Simon Schama described as the extraordinary work of the Jarrow monk, Bede, "A clear-eyed observer of the earthiness of the Anglo-Saxon world" in the 7th and 8th Century.

At Jarrow and at Lindisfarne monks spent their time copying sacred texts and histories of the early church, and illustrating them. The Lindisfarne Gospels (698) is the most outstanding of these examples, "the fusion between pagan and Christian motifs", as Simon Schama describes it.

Bede feared the Viking invasion and his fears were justified as they destroyed the monasteries of Jarrow, Lindisfarne, York and other centres. However, the coming of the Vikings accomplished what the Saxons and others had not achieved - an alliance against a common foe.

Find out more about the wars of the Vikings and the way many settled into various parts of Britain at Jorvik Viking Centre, York, at the Museum of London and Ulster Museum.

The saviour of the Anglo-Saxons was Alfred, son of Aethelwulf, and the fourth son to become King of Wessex, much against his will. He rose to the occasion, defeating the Vikings and removing from them the South West, and making peace with those to the North of London. From his Winchester base his troops entered London and re-established it on the old Roman site, and there Alfred was acclaimed sovereign lord of 'all the English people not under subjection to the Danes'. You can see the wonderful Alfred Jewel, possibly showing his face, at The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, and find out more about the life Alfred at Winchester Museum. His statue commissioned by the Victorians stands in the centre of Winchester.

Trail 2 - takes another leap forward as Britain is invaded - again!

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