The Complete Works of



Charles Dickens > A Child's History of England > Chapter I

A Child's History of England

Chapter I


IF you look at a Map of the World, you will see, in the left-hand
upper corner of the Eastern Hemisphere, two Islands lying in the
sea. They are England and Scotland, and Ireland. England and
Scotland form the greater part of these Islands. Ireland is the
next in size. The little neighbouring islands, which are so small
upon the Map as to be mere dots, are chiefly little bits of
Scotland, - broken off, I dare say, in the course of a great length
of time, by the power of the restless water.

In the old days, a long, long while ago, before Our Saviour was
born on earth and lay asleep in a manger, these Islands were in the
same place, and the stormy sea roared round them, just as it roars
now. But the sea was not alive, then, with great ships and brave
sailors, sailing to and from all parts of the world. It was very
lonely. The Islands lay solitary, in the great expanse of water.
The foaming waves dashed against their cliffs, and the bleak winds
blew over their forests; but the winds and waves brought no
adventurers to land upon the Islands, and the savage Islanders knew
nothing of the rest of the world, and the rest of the world knew
nothing of them.

It is supposed that the Phoenicians, who were an ancient people,
famous for carrying on trade, came in ships to these Islands, and
found that they produced tin and lead; both very useful things, as
you know, and both produced to this very hour upon the sea-coast.
The most celebrated tin mines in Cornwall are, still, close to the
sea. One of them, which I have seen, is so close to it that it is
hollowed out underneath the ocean; and the miners say, that in
stormy weather, when they are at work down in that deep place, they
can hear the noise of the waves thundering above their heads. So,
the Phoenicians, coasting about the Islands, would come, without
much difficulty, to where the tin and lead were.

The Phoenicians traded with the Islanders for these metals, and
gave the Islanders some other useful things in exchange. The
Islanders were, at first, poor savages, going almost naked, or only
dressed in the rough skins of beasts, and staining their bodies, as
other savages do, with coloured earths and the juices of plants.
But the Phoenicians, sailing over to the opposite coasts of France
and Belgium, and saying to the people there, 'We have been to those
white cliffs across the water, which you can see in fine weather,
and from that country, which is called BRITAIN, we bring this tin
and lead,' tempted some of the French and Belgians to come over
also. These people settled themselves on the south coast of
England, which is now called Kent; and, although they were a rough
people too, they taught the savage Britons some useful arts, and
improved that part of the Islands. It is probable that other
people came over from Spain to Ireland, and settled there.

Thus, by little and little, strangers became mixed with the
Islanders, and the savage Britons grew into a wild, bold people;
almost savage, still, especially in the interior of the country
away from the sea where the foreign settlers seldom went; but
hardy, brave, and strong.

The whole country was covered with forests, and swamps. The
greater part of it was very misty and cold. There were no roads,
no bridges, no streets, no houses that you would think deserving of
the name. A town was nothing but a collection of straw-covered
huts, hidden in a thick wood, with a ditch all round, and a low
wall, made of mud, or the trunks of trees placed one upon another.
The people planted little or no corn, but lived upon the flesh of
their flocks and cattle. They made no coins, but used metal rings
for money. They were clever in basket-work, as savage people often
are; and they could make a coarse kind of cloth, and some very bad
earthenware. But in building fortresses they were much more

They made boats of basket-work, covered with the skins of animals,
but seldom, if ever, ventured far from the shore. They made
swords, of copper mixed with tin; but, these swords were of an
awkward shape, and so soft that a heavy blow would bend one. They
made light shields, short pointed daggers, and spears - which they
jerked back after they had thrown them at an enemy, by a long strip
of leather fastened to the stem. The butt-end was a rattle, to
frighten an enemy's horse. The ancient Britons, being divided into
as many as thirty or forty tribes, each commanded by its own little
king, were constantly fighting with one another, as savage people
usually do; and they always fought with these weapons.

They were very fond of horses. The standard of Kent was the
picture of a white horse. They could break them in and manage them
wonderfully well. Indeed, the horses (of which they had an
abundance, though they were rather small) were so well taught in
those days, that they can scarcely be said to have improved since;
though the men are so much wiser. They understood, and obeyed,
every word of command; and would stand still by themselves, in all
the din and noise of battle, while their masters went to fight on
foot. The Britons could not have succeeded in their most
remarkable art, without the aid of these sensible and trusty
animals. The art I mean, is the construction and management of
war-chariots or cars, for which they have ever been celebrated in
history. Each of the best sort of these chariots, not quite breast
high in front, and open at the back, contained one man to drive,
and two or three others to fight - all standing up. The horses who
drew them were so well trained, that they would tear, at full
gallop, over the most stony ways, and even through the woods;
dashing down their masters' enemies beneath their hoofs, and
cutting them to pieces with the blades of swords, or scythes, which
were fastened to the wheels, and stretched out beyond the car on
each side, for that cruel purpose. In a moment, while at full
speed, the horses would stop, at the driver's command. The men
within would leap out, deal blows about them with their swords like
hail, leap on the horses, on the pole, spring back into the
chariots anyhow; and, as soon as they were safe, the horses tore
away again.

The Britons had a strange and terrible religion, called the
Religion of the Druids. It seems to have been brought over, in
very early times indeed, from the opposite country of France,
anciently called Gaul, and to have mixed up the worship of the
Serpent, and of the Sun and Moon, with the worship of some of the
Heathen Gods and Goddesses. Most of its ceremonies were kept
secret by the priests, the Druids, who pretended to be enchanters,
and who carried magicians' wands, and wore, each of them, about his
neck, what he told the ignorant people was a Serpent's egg in a
golden case. But it is certain that the Druidical ceremonies
included the sacrifice of human victims, the torture of some
suspected criminals, and, on particular occasions, even the burning
alive, in immense wicker cages, of a number of men and animals
together. The Druid Priests had some kind of veneration for the
Oak, and for the mistletoe - the same plant that we hang up in
houses at Christmas Time now - when its white berries grew upon the
Oak. They met together in dark woods, which they called Sacred
Groves; and there they instructed, in their mysterious arts, young
men who came to them as pupils, and who sometimes stayed with them
as long as twenty years.

These Druids built great Temples and altars, open to the sky,
fragments of some of which are yet remaining. Stonehenge, on
Salisbury Plain, in Wiltshire, is the most extraordinary of these.
Three curious stones, called Kits Coty House, on Bluebell Hill,
near Maidstone, in Kent, form another. We know, from examination
of the great blocks of which such buildings are made, that they
could not have been raised without the aid of some ingenious
machines, which are common now, but which the ancient Britons
certainly did not use in making their own uncomfortable houses. I
should not wonder if the Druids, and their pupils who stayed with
them twenty years, knowing more than the rest of the Britons, kept
the people out of sight while they made these buildings, and then
pretended that they built them by magic. Perhaps they had a hand
in the fortresses too; at all events, as they were very powerful,
and very much believed in, and as they made and executed the laws,
and paid no taxes, I don't wonder that they liked their trade.
And, as they persuaded the people the more Druids there were, the
better off the people would be, I don't wonder that there were a
good many of them. But it is pleasant to think that there are no
Druids, NOW, who go on in that way, and pretend to carry
Enchanters' Wands and Serpents' Eggs - and of course there is
nothing of the kind, anywhere.

Such was the improved condition of the ancient Britons, fifty-five
years before the birth of Our Saviour, when the Romans, under their
great General, Julius Caesar, were masters of all the rest of the
known world. Julius Caesar had then just conquered Gaul; and
hearing, in Gaul, a good deal about the opposite Island with the
white cliffs, and about the bravery of the Britons who inhabited it
- some of whom had been fetched over to help the Gauls in the war
against him - he resolved, as he was so near, to come and conquer
Britain next.

So, Julius Caesar came sailing over to this Island of ours, with
eighty vessels and twelve thousand men. And he came from the
French coast between Calais and Boulogne, 'because thence was the
shortest passage into Britain;' just for the same reason as our
steam-boats now take the same track, every day. He expected to
conquer Britain easily: but it was not such easy work as he
supposed - for the bold Britons fought most bravely; and, what with
not having his horse-soldiers with him (for they had been driven
back by a storm), and what with having some of his vessels dashed
to pieces by a high tide after they were drawn ashore, he ran great
risk of being totally defeated. However, for once that the bold
Britons beat him, he beat them twice; though not so soundly but
that he was very glad to accept their proposals of peace, and go

But, in the spring of the next year, he came back; this time, with
eight hundred vessels and thirty thousand men. The British tribes
chose, as their general-in-chief, a Briton, whom the Romans in
their Latin language called CASSIVELLAUNUS, but whose British name
is supposed to have been CASWALLON. A brave general he was, and
well he and his soldiers fought the Roman army! So well, that
whenever in that war the Roman soldiers saw a great cloud of dust,
and heard the rattle of the rapid British chariots, they trembled
in their hearts. Besides a number of smaller battles, there was a
battle fought near Canterbury, in Kent; there was a battle fought
near Chertsey, in Surrey; there was a battle fought near a marshy
little town in a wood, the capital of that part of Britain which
belonged to CASSIVELLAUNUS, and which was probably near what is now
Saint Albans, in Hertfordshire. However, brave CASSIVELLAUNUS had
the worst of it, on the whole; though he and his men always fought
like lions. As the other British chiefs were jealous of him, and
were always quarrelling with him, and with one another, he gave up,
and proposed peace. Julius Caesar was very glad to grant peace
easily, and to go away again with all his remaining ships and men.
He had expected to find pearls in Britain, and he may have found a
few for anything I know; but, at all events, he found delicious
oysters, and I am sure he found tough Britons - of whom, I dare
say, he made the same complaint as Napoleon Bonaparte the great
French General did, eighteen hundred years afterwards, when he said
they were such unreasonable fellows that they never knew when they
were beaten. They never DID know, I believe, and never will.

Nearly a hundred years passed on, and all that time, there was
peace in Britain. The Britons improved their towns and mode of
life: became more civilised, travelled, and learnt a great deal
from the Gauls and Romans. At last, the Roman Emperor, Claudius,
sent AULUS PLAUTIUS, a skilful general, with a mighty force, to
subdue the Island, and shortly afterwards arrived himself. They
did little; and OSTORIUS SCAPULA, another general, came. Some of
the British Chiefs of Tribes submitted. Others resolved to fight
to the death. Of these brave men, the bravest was CARACTACUS, or
CARADOC, who gave battle to the Romans, with his army, among the
mountains of North Wales. 'This day,' said he to his soldiers,
'decides the fate of Britain! Your liberty, or your eternal
slavery, dates from this hour. Remember your brave ancestors, who
drove the great Caesar himself across the sea!' On hearing these
words, his men, with a great shout, rushed upon the Romans. But
the strong Roman swords and armour were too much for the weaker
British weapons in close conflict. The Britons lost the day. The
wife and daughter of the brave CARACTACUS were taken prisoners; his
brothers delivered themselves up; he himself was betrayed into the
hands of the Romans by his false and base stepmother: and they
carried him, and all his family, in triumph to Rome.

But a great man will be great in misfortune, great in prison, great
in chains. His noble air, and dignified endurance of distress, so
touched the Roman people who thronged the streets to see him, that
he and his family were restored to freedom. No one knows whether
his great heart broke, and he died in Rome, or whether he ever
returned to his own dear country. English oaks have grown up from
acorns, and withered away, when they were hundreds of years old -
and other oaks have sprung up in their places, and died too, very
aged - since the rest of the history of the brave CARACTACUS was

Still, the Britons WOULD NOT yield. They rose again and again, and
died by thousands, sword in hand. They rose, on every possible
occasion. SUETONIUS, another Roman general, came, and stormed the
Island of Anglesey (then called MONA), which was supposed to be
sacred, and he burnt the Druids in their own wicker cages, by their
own fires. But, even while he was in Britain, with his victorious
troops, the BRITONS rose. Because BOADICEA, a British queen, the
widow of the King of the Norfolk and Suffolk people, resisted the
plundering of her property by the Romans who were settled in
England, she was scourged, by order of CATUS a Roman officer; and
her two daughters were shamefully insulted in her presence, and her
husband's relations were made slaves. To avenge this injury, the
Britons rose, with all their might and rage. They drove CATUS into
Gaul; they laid the Roman possessions waste; they forced the Romans
out of London, then a poor little town, but a trading place; they
hanged, burnt, crucified, and slew by the sword, seventy thousand
Romans in a few days. SUETONIUS strengthened his army, and
advanced to give them battle. They strengthened their army, and
desperately attacked his, on the field where it was strongly
posted. Before the first charge of the Britons was made, BOADICEA,
in a war-chariot, with her fair hair streaming in the wind, and her
injured daughters lying at her feet, drove among the troops, and
cried to them for vengeance on their oppressors, the licentious
Romans. The Britons fought to the last; but they were vanquished
with great slaughter, and the unhappy queen took poison.

Still, the spirit of the Britons was not broken. When SUETONIUS
left the country, they fell upon his troops, and retook the Island
of Anglesey. AGRICOLA came, fifteen or twenty years afterwards,
and retook it once more, and devoted seven years to subduing the
country, especially that part of it which is now called SCOTLAND;
but, its people, the Caledonians, resisted him at every inch of
ground. They fought the bloodiest battles with him; they killed
their very wives and children, to prevent his making prisoners of
them; they fell, fighting, in such great numbers that certain hills
in Scotland are yet supposed to be vast heaps of stones piled up
above their graves. HADRIAN came, thirty years afterwards, and
still they resisted him. SEVERUS came, nearly a hundred years
afterwards, and they worried his great army like dogs, and rejoiced
to see them die, by thousands, in the bogs and swamps. CARACALLA,
the son and successor of SEVERUS, did the most to conquer them, for
a time; but not by force of arms. He knew how little that would
do. He yielded up a quantity of land to the Caledonians, and gave
the Britons the same privileges as the Romans possessed. There was
peace, after this, for seventy years.

Then new enemies arose. They were the Saxons, a fierce, sea-faring
people from the countries to the North of the Rhine, the great
river of Germany on the banks of which the best grapes grow to make
the German wine. They began to come, in pirate ships, to the sea-
coast of Gaul and Britain, and to plunder them. They were repulsed
by CARAUSIUS, a native either of Belgium or of Britain, who was
appointed by the Romans to the command, and under whom the Britons
first began to fight upon the sea. But, after this time, they
renewed their ravages. A few years more, and the Scots (which was
then the name for the people of Ireland), and the Picts, a northern
people, began to make frequent plundering incursions into the South
of Britain. All these attacks were repeated, at intervals, during
two hundred years, and through a long succession of Roman Emperors
and chiefs; during all which length of time, the Britons rose
against the Romans, over and over again. At last, in the days of
the Roman HONORIUS, when the Roman power all over the world was
fast declining, and when Rome wanted all her soldiers at home, the
Romans abandoned all hope of conquering Britain, and went away.
And still, at last, as at first, the Britons rose against them, in
their old brave manner; for, a very little while before, they had
turned away the Roman magistrates, and declared themselves an
independent people.

Five hundred years had passed, since Julius Caesar's first invasion
of the Island, when the Romans departed from it for ever. In the
course of that time, although they had been the cause of terrible
fighting and bloodshed, they had done much to improve the condition
of the Britons. They had made great military roads; they had built
forts; they had taught them how to dress, and arm themselves, much
better than they had ever known how to do before; they had refined
the whole British way of living. AGRICOLA had built a great wall
of earth, more than seventy miles long, extending from Newcastle to
beyond Carlisle, for the purpose of keeping out the Picts and
Scots; HADRIAN had strengthened it; SEVERUS, finding it much in
want of repair, had built it afresh of stone.

Above all, it was in the Roman time, and by means of Roman ships,
that the Christian Religion was first brought into Britain, and its
people first taught the great lesson that, to be good in the sight
of GOD, they must love their neighbours as themselves, and do unto
others as they would be done by. The Druids declared that it was
very wicked to believe in any such thing, and cursed all the people
who did believe it, very heartily. But, when the people found that
they were none the better for the blessings of the Druids, and none
the worse for the curses of the Druids, but, that the sun shone and
the rain fell without consulting the Druids at all, they just began
to think that the Druids were mere men, and that it signified very
little whether they cursed or blessed. After which, the pupils of
the Druids fell off greatly in numbers, and the Druids took to
other trades.

Thus I have come to the end of the Roman time in England. It is
but little that is known of those five hundred years; but some
remains of them are still found. Often, when labourers are digging
up the ground, to make foundations for houses or churches, they
light on rusty money that once belonged to the Romans. Fragments
of plates from which they ate, of goblets from which they drank,
and of pavement on which they trod, are discovered among the earth
that is broken by the plough, or the dust that is crumbled by the
gardener's spade. Wells that the Romans sunk, still yield water;
roads that the Romans made, form part of our highways. In some old
battle-fields, British spear-heads and Roman armour have been
found, mingled together in decay, as they fell in the thick
pressure of the fight. Traces of Roman camps overgrown with grass,
and of mounds that are the burial-places of heaps of Britons, are
to be seen in almost all parts of the country. Across the bleak
moors of Northumberland, the wall of SEVERUS, overrun with moss and
weeds, still stretches, a strong ruin; and the shepherds and their
dogs lie sleeping on it in the summer weather. On Salisbury Plain,
Stonehenge yet stands: a monument of the earlier time when the
Roman name was unknown in Britain, and when the Druids, with their
best magic wands, could not have written it in the sands of the
wild sea-shore.

Forward >

Index Index

Other Authors Other Authors

Charles Dickens. Copyright © 2022,
Contact the webmaster
Disclaimer here. Privacy Policy here.