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Bill Thayer

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Celtic Britain

by Nora K. Chadwick

published by Frederick A. Praeger
New York

The text and engravings are in the public domain.


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O, memorable bards, of unmixt blood, which still

Posterity shall praise for your so wondrous skill,

That in your noble songs, the long descents have kept

Of your great heroes, else in Lethe that had slept,

With theirs whose ignorant pride your labours have disdained;

How much from time, and them, how bravely have you gained!

Musician, herald, bard, thrice maist thou be renown'd,

And with three several wreaths immortally be crown'd;

Who, when to Pembroke call'd before the English king

And to thy powerful harp commanded there to sing,

Of famous Arthur told'st, and where he was interr'd;

In which those retchless times had long and blindly err'd,

And ignorance had brought the world to such a pass

As now, which scarce believes that Arthur ever was.

But when King Henry sent th'reported place to view,

He found that man of men: and what thou said'st was true.

Michael Drayton, Polyolbion

 p13  Preface

This is the first book which has attempted to give an introduction to the history and culture of Celtic Britain between the departure of the Romans and the establishment of the Saxon kingdoms. A beginning was made when W. F. Skene published the first of his three volumes on the history of Celtic Scotland in 1886, and Sir John Rhys his Celtic Britain in 1884. We have travelled far since then, and it is our privilege today to carry forward the work which their genius did so much to inspire.

The proud Romans of the early centuries of our era habitually spoke of Britain as 'on the edge of the habitable globe,' by which they meant outside the civilisation of the Mediterranean world. They were right. The peoples of Britain had no cursive writing and therefore no means of either acquiring Classical culture or transmitting to the late Classical world exact knowledge of their own culture. When the use of writing became familiar in the British Isles with the introduction of the Christian Church from south-eastern Europe it became possible to record the ancient traditional culture which had developed relatively independently from that of Greece and Rome — a culture which had preserved its own laws and institutions, its own forms of tradition and literature and its own moral and spiritual outlook. Thus it came about that this new art or technique of writing came to Britain from Mediterranean lands just in time to record an ancient Atlantic civilisation on the eve of our new era, and to add a final illuminated page to the manuscript of the Ancient World. It is for this reason that I have placed the chapter on the Church at the close of my book, for the Church is the link between the old and the new. Without the Church almost all our knowledge of the ancient Celtic  p14 world would have passed away; and without the Church the Celtic world would have remained for all time in alio orbe.

In this book I have sought to introduce the reader to some of the pleasant places of ancient Celtic Britain at the time when the Romans had left and the Anglo-Saxons had not yet penetrated in force, or established a Teutonic order widely in these Islands. It is the brief period when the Celtic peoples of Britain ruled the country, when the Celtic languages, and the Celtic customs and institutions were universal here. In spite of the fact that the Saxon ruling families and their royal dynasties, and the Saxon Laws and institutions, soon became permanently established in England and the Scottish Lowlands, it is still a fact today that in more than two-thirds of Britain the people are Celtic. The Celtic parts of Britain are by far the poorer but they are also the most beautiful, and their poverty has enabled them to retain wider vision, the timeless sense of romance and the spiritual outlook denied to the busier and more prosperous communities.

Those who knew my husband, the late Professor H. M. Chadwick, will not need to be told how much his love of Celtic Britain, and our joint exploration of the country have inspired my own researches. My debt to my former students, both Scottish and Welsh, in recent years is no less. To the fine scholar­ship and helpful criticism of Mrs Isobel Murray Henderson and Mr John Bannerman I am especially indebted; indeed my contacts from the Isle of Lewis to the Cornish Peninsula have been illuminating.

The need for a general book on Celtic Britain has been brought home to me forcibly by the readiness to help in every possible way which I have met from those to whom I have applied for photographs and information, especially busy officials, such as those in the Ministries of Public Works, and the curators of our national Museums. To all of these and to many others I am grateful for both help and encouragement.

 p15  Finally, in addition to the acknowledgments of photographs, etc. on p188 I would like to express my grateful thanks for much help generously given on a number of matters in connection with the photographs: to Mr Stewart Cruden, Inspector of Ancient Monuments for Scotland; to Mr A. H. A. Hogg of the Royal Commission on Ancient Monuments in Wales and Monmouthshire; to Mr R. B. K. Stevenson, Keeper of the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland; and to Mr Alexander Fenton on the staff of the same museum; to Mr A. M. Cubbon, Director of the Manx Museum and National Trust; to Mr Leslie Alcock and Miss Morfydd Owen, both of the University of Wales; to Mr Charles Thomas of the University of Edinburgh; to Mr David Wilson of the British Museum; and to Mr C. A. R. Radford. My special thanks are due to Sir Ifor Williams and Professor T. J. Morgan for permission to quote their translations of Welsh poetry, and to Dr Melville Richards and Mr John Bannerman who read the proofs of my book (and made a number of corrections and suggestions); also to Professor J. M. C. Toynbee and Miss Joan Liversidge for helpful suggestions. It would be ungenerous of me were I to fail to express how much I am indebted to Mrs Rachel Bromwich's recently published book on the Welsh Triads, Trioedd Ynys Prydein, and to the stimulus of her friendship over many years. I am grateful to Dr Glyn Daniel and to Thames & Hudson Limited for inviting me to write this book and to Mr Eric Peters and Dr and Mrs Daniel for their constant and unsparing help without which it could never have been completed.

N. K. C.

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Page updated: 13 Dec 20