From the city of Calais, on the northern coast of France, one may look over the water on a clear day and see the white cliffs of Dover, in England. At this point the English Channel is only twenty-one miles wide. But this narrow water has dangerous currents, and often fierce winds sweep over it, so that small ships find it hard to cross. This rough Channel has more than once spoiled the plans of England's enemies, and the English people have many times thanked God for their protecting seas.
Indeed, the British Isles belong more to the sea than to the land. They once formed a peninsula, jutting out from Europe, far into the Atlantic Ocean; and thus they remained for countless ages. But a long struggle for mastery went on between sea and land. It ended at last, ages before our story begins, by the sinking of the land between England and France, and between Scotland and Norway. The rolling, tireless sea poured over these low places, to form the North Sea and the English channel. The Irish Sea and St. George's Channel were formed in the same manner. The result is that we now have the two islands of Great Britain and Ireland, with a number of smaller ones belonging to the same group, instead of that long-ago peninsula of the Continent of Europe.
The sea took the people of these islands for its own. It shut them off from their enemies in the early days of their weakness. It gave them plenty of warm rains, which makes grass and grain grow green and tall. It gave them abundance of fish for food; and when they became stronger as a people, it furnished them broad highways by which they might trade with other nations. So the people of Great Britain have put their trust in the sea, looking to it for their wealth and their strength. The great poet Shakespeare speaks of their land as—
"This fortress built by Nature for herself,
Against infection and the hand of war;
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happy lands."
But Great Britain has many advantages besides the sea, else it would be no better off than many other islands.
First, its climate is excellent, neither very cold in winter nor very warm in summer. The British Isles are as far north as the bleak peninsula of Labrador in North America, yet the summers in England are about as warm as in Northern Minnesota, and their winters are only as cold as in Virginia. The reason is that along the western coasts of Ireland and Scotland runs the warm Gulf Stream.
There are many rivers, some of them broad and deep, up which ships may go for a considerable distance into the land. The chief of these are the Thames, the Severn, the Mersey, and the Clyde. Besides the river mouths, the country has an irregular coast on all sides, forming many sheltered harbors for ships.
Again, there is a goodly amount of very fertile soil, capable of raising nearly every crop that can be grown in any part of the temperate zone. Then, too, there is great wealth of minerals in the depths of the earth—tin in the southwest of England, and coal and iron in the north and west.
Where there are mines there are usually mountains. So it is in Great Britain. Along the western side of the island the country is mountainous, especially in the extreme west, which is called Wales. The loftiest mountain here is Mount Snowdon, which is about 3500 feet high. In the northern part is Scotland, where the mountains are quite rugged. Wales and northern Scotland are the wilder parts of the island, and were the parts which the English were longest in getting into their possession.
Mt. Snowdon in Wales
Great Britain is a goodly country—good for man, and beast. It was good for savage men; it was good for men who were beginning to advance beyond savages; and it is good now for a great and powerful nation.
The earliest people of Great Britain, like those of other parts of the world, were savages, who lived in caves or flimsy huts, and had only the rudest weapons. They are called "stone men," because they clipped stones into shape so as to make rough axes and knives. The later stone men made smooth and polished weapons, similar to the Indian knives and axes which you may see in museums. They had tamed the dog to serve them, and also had oxen, pigs, sheep, and goats.
Stone Implements Found in Britain
But, after all, we know very little of these stone men. They disappeared long before civilized men visited these islands, and their place was taken by a people who used "bronze" weapons, made from a mixture of tin and copper.
Pottery Found in Britain
These men of the "bronze age" were the Britons, and from them the island is still called Britain. Like most Europeans, the Britons were men of "Aryan" speech. The European languages have so many likenesses to one another that scholars think they must all have come from some one original tongue. It is supposed that this language was spoken—long before men began to make records of their deeds—by some one original nation, living somewhere in western Asia or Eastern Europe; and from it the present European nations are all descended. This supposed original people is called Aryan, and those peoples who speak any language descended from theirs are said to be peoples of Aryan speech. The Celts—that is, the Irish, Welsh, Scots, and ancient Gauls—are one branch of the Aryan peoples. Other branches are: the ancient Greeks and Romans; the Teutons (including the Germans and the Dutch); and the Slavs (Russians, Poles, and Servians). In Asia, the Persians and the ancient Hindus also spoke Aryan tongues.
Moving forward, step by step, the Celts settled in western Europe, at some time before history began. The Gauls remained in the country we call France. Others of the Celts, chief among whom were the Britons, moved across the Channel and gave their name to the British Isles.
The Britons were tall and slender, with light complexions and blue eyes. Many of them had red hair. When they went to war they stained their faces and bodies with a bluish dye taken from one of their native herbs. They fought mostly on foot, using swords and spears. They were fierce and bold and ready to resist any invader; but they were not systematic in their fighting, and when steadily attacked would give way. Their bronze weapons and tools were harder and sharper than the stone implements of the earlier peoples. They made small round boats, of basket-work covered with skins. They plowed the land and raised wheat. They could spin and weave; they knew something of mining and metal-working; they could quarry great stones from the hills; and they exchanged their tin for the goods of Gaul and other countries.
Bronze Swords from Britain
Yet the Britons had no cities or towns, but lived in rude villages. Their huts were round, somewhat like Indian wigwams; they were built of sticks and reeds, though sometimes they had stone foundations.
The Britons believed in many gods. These included one who was supreme over all, besides a sun god, a god of thunder, and others. The worship of the Britons included bloody sacrifices of both animals and men. The human sacrifices were usually of criminals, or of captives taken in war; but sometimes innocent persons were sacrificed to their gods. The priests were called Druids, and they were the most learned men among the Britons. They were respected almost as much as the chiefs and kings, and were consulted on all questions of law and religion.
At several places in England there are still standing some peculiar stone structures, erected in these early days. The most famous of these is Stonehenge, near Salisbury. It is a circle of huge stones set on end, with great stones laid crosswise upon them. Smaller circles and ovals are arranged within the great circle. One of the stones at Stonehenge weighs nearly seventy tons. The whole circle stands in the midst of burial places, and it probably had something to do with the worship of these early peoples.
No one knows how long the Britons were the ruling race in these islands. But whether it was many centuries, or only a few, they did not learn to unite under a single government. They had many chiefs, but none who was recognized throughout the country as supreme.
So, when the Romans made an invasion into their land, no united resistance was possible. The stricter discipline and firmer organization of the Romans won the victory, and Britain was added to the great Empire of Rome.