Monday, 1 February 2016

Talking of torcs...

Last week, I just managed to get to the Celts exhibition at the British Museum - it finished at the weekend, though I believe it's moving to Scotland and will be there for several months. When I was writing Warrior King, about Alfred the Great, I became very interested in the make-up of the people of the British Isles; one of the completely fictional characters, Cerys, is a 'British' woman (ie one of the Celtish peoples who had been driven to the fringes by the Romans and successive invaders). In my book, she helps to teach Alfred that a good ruler should be concerned for the well-being of all his people - so not just the Saxons. And at one point his daughter, Aethelflaed, is puzzled when he explains to her that the Saxons were invaders once too, just as the Vikings were at the time of the story.

A golden torc from the exhibition - I can't imagine wearing it for long, but my goodness, it's beautiful!

Whether or not Alfred was really as enlightened as this I'm not sure - but there certainly seems to be considerable evidence to the effect that he had a much greater breadth of vision than your average Dark Age leader. And there was that choice he made: when, after years of exhausting battles, he finally captured his enemy, Guthrum, he didn't have him killed; he made peace with him. And the peace lasted, between the two men if not between the two nations. I found that fascinating. Contrast this piece of behaviour with that of William and Harold, two hundred years later, who both chopped the hands and other body parts off garrisons they captured for a pastime. I think it would be fascinating to have a lengthy chat with Alfred: I wouldn't give either of those two the time of day.

But back to the Celts. The more I read about them, the more puzzled I became. Where did they actually come from? There seemed to have been Celtic settlements all over Europe. Was the old model true, that they were one of a number of races who swept in from the east? If so, who were the original Britons?

This exhibition doesn't actually answer those questions, but it does make clear what is known, and how much is unknown about the Celts. In Britain, they only became known as the Celts relatively recently, when linguists noted that there were similarities between the languages spoken in Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Cornwall. I think we all assume that these peoples came from the same roots. But at the beginning of the exhibition, a small map suggests that this is not the case. I wish there had been a key to the map, and a bit more explanation - but it showed the results of genetic research into modern inhabitants of the fringes of Britain: and it showed, for instance, that the Cornish share little of the ancestry of the Scots or the Welsh. The only close correlation seemed to be between the northern Irish and the western Scots, and the reasons for that are obvious and of relatively recent origins. Celtic mythology became romanticised and mythologised in the 19th century: it's interesting that the Victorians were great fans of Alfred, too. They were obviously looking for heroes; perhaps for a mythology for the British Empire which would match up to the mythologies of the Greek and Roman Empires?

The exhibition, apart from all this very interesting stuff, showcases the extraordinary craftsmanship of the Celts - see above for some examples. For more about this, see Mary Hoffman's excellent blog over on the History Girls.


  1. Ooh, pretty! Lucky you, getting to that exhibition!

  2. Yes indeed - thought I was going to miss it: so glad I didn't!