In a nutshell: the British

From ice ages to invasions, the story of the British is as rich and diverse as the people themselves. But when did people first arrive in Britain, and where did these first Britons come from?

In a nutshell: the British © Getty Images

When did people first arrive in Britain?

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For some 900,000 years, humans may have been living in Britain, although these were not Homo sapiens. It wasn’t until 40,000 years ago that the first modern humans made Britain their home. When a major ice age made Britain uninhabitable around 25,000 to 15,000 years ago, many inhabitants were forced to leave. They returned after temperatures improved, only for another ice age to hit at some point around 11,000 BC.

This lasted for one-and-a-half millennia and it is possible a few people managed to cling on during this time, adapting to the cold conditions. Once the climate became more hospitable, migrants began to arrive once again and have done so ever since.

Where did these first Britons come from?

Until about 6,000 BC, there was still a land bridge from Britain to Europe. Even so, it seems that many migrants arrived by sea. The evidence is not conclusive, but it is thought that, after 10,000 BC, a large proportion of the Britons who arrived came from Spain, Portugal and southern France. Genetic research suggests that the majority of modern Britons can trace their ancestry right back to these very early migrants, meaning the population might have been affected less by later invasions than we used to think.

What impact did these invasions have then?

From the first century AD, parts of Britain were colonised by the Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings and Normans in turn. There’s no doubt that they all made their presence felt in terms of culture, society and language, but it is less clear to what extent they replaced the existing population. The tens of thousands of Romans who arrived following the conquest in AD 43, for example, were dwarfed by the millions of native Britons. Meanwhile, the Norman Conquest of 1066 probably took place on an even smaller scale and largely impacted on the elites rather than the wider population.

The Anglo-Saxons who arrived from Germanic lands from the fourth century and the Scandinavian Vikings who began raiding Britain some time in the eighth century seem to have left a greater legacy on the population, as many did come to settle. Even so, it remains unclear to what extent they replaced or merged with the people already there.

Another disputed subject is the Celts, an ancient European people who some believe settled in Britain prior to the Roman invasion, and who many modern Britons identify with today. There undoubtedly were some cultural similarities between ancient Britons and the Celts – notably in language – but there is little evidence for a Celtic invasion, and indeed the whole concept of Celtic Britain may confuse our understanding of this period.

When did the British start to become ‘British’?

Although ‘Britain’ was used by the Romans, most of the inhabitants of the country would not have thought of themselves as British, but would have identified with their individual tribes or kingdoms. Over the centuries, these tribes amalgamated into the nations of the United Kingdom, and they each had distinct identities and languages, which partly reflected their differing experiences of the invasions. Scotland, for example, had largely escaped the Roman, Anglo-Saxon and Norman conquests, whereas England had been at the heart of all three.

The nations of the British Isles gradually came together, beginning in the 12th century when England achieved dominance over Ireland. A hundred years later, Edward I conquered Wales and then in 1707, the kingdoms of England (including Wales) and Scotland agreed to unite as Great Britain, having already shared a monarch since 1603 when Scottish king James VI replaced Elizabeth I on the English throne. Ireland was officially made part of the United Kingdom in 1801, but much of the country – aside from what is now Northern Ireland – became independent from 1922.

Who are the British today?

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Britain’s people are constantly evolving. Some of the most significant population changes have occurred since the mid-20th century, especially with the influx of migrants from the former British empire. At the same time, Britons have made new homes abroad for centuries, meaning British people can now be found all over the world.

This article was first published in the September 2015 issue of History Revealed.