The People of Britain

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Architect: H. T. Cadbury Brown ◦ Theme Convener: Jacquetta Hawkes
Display Design: James Gardner, O.B.E.

The story that has been told so far shows that, in achievement, the British are a nation of many different parts. In appearance, too, they are just as mixed – certainly one of the most-mixed people in the world. But who are these British people ? What different breeds of ancestors have contributed to the shaping of such a rare miscellany of faces as confronts the visitor in any London bus? Where did those various ancestors come from? And how did they reach this land?

These are some of the questions that the first Pavilion of the Downstream Circuit answers, so that, before the visitor passes on to the series of Pavilions which tell the story of the activities of the British people on their home ground, he may be acquainted with the origins from which these mixed and versatile folk have sprung.

The first islanders

In the beginning, Britain had been part and parcel of the Continent. Only when, eight thousand years ago, the North Sea and the Channel met and merged, was Britain carved out as an island. After a pause of several thousand years, during which primitive hunting and fishing men, equipped with flint and bone, were the only people here, the first of the series of invasions began. The first newcomers were farming folk, long-headed and lightly built. They knew how to grow corn and breed livestock, and they worked with implements of stone. It was they who initiated the marriage between the people of Britain and the land.

After Stone, Bronze. Bronze was the speciality of a tough and warlike people who invaded England and Scotland nearly four thousand years ago. They were the first to draw upon the mineral wealth of Britain. For them the people of the Western Highlands rooted tin and copper out of the earth, as materials for their implements and ornaments of bronze.

Agriculture takes root

It was the incoming Celts who gave a fresh impulse to agriculture. They were people from Northern France looking for new land. They started coming, sometimes peacefully, sometimes not, at the end of the Bronze Age; and they continued to settle throughout the Iron Age. Iron axes were now brought to bear against the forests which had overlaid the most fertile of the country’s farmland; and iron ploughs, drawn by oxen, were used to etch out a permanent pattern of cultivation, of a kind that produced at last a settled peasantry in farms and villages.

But the Celts were not only enthusiastic farmers. They were enthusiastic warriors as well; and they had an artists eye for the dramatic effect of decorative military gear. The style of their war chariot throws as revealing a light on the British people’s Celtic ancestors as does the Sutton Hoo ship on their Anglo-Saxon ones.

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Roman-Britain

The Celts could not resist a war; and their intertribal feuds made things easy for the Romans when, in A.D. 43, they came, and conquered. But this was conquest of a new kind, a prelude to 400 years of occupation. This, for the Britons, was the first taste of a civilisation.

But after the Roman troops were at last withdrawn, bands of Anglo-Saxon pirates rushed in to rub out all traces of the Roman touch. When these barbarians could find no more cities to sack, they settled, turning their axes usefully against the forests which still covered the midlands and the more fertile valleys of England. Down into those cleared acres the hill-farming population now began to seep, giving a new design to the old landscape.

Christianity

Less than two hundred years after the Anglo-Saxons had settled in, St. Augustine’s mission brought a new infusion of Christianity to Britain. Their Anglo-Saxon converts mingled with those of the Celtic peoples who, from Roman times, had preserved their Christianity beyond the mountain barriers of Wales and Scotland, and, together, Celt and Anglo-Saxon saints and scholars, painters, draughtsmen and sculptors put Britain on the map of European culture.

The last invaders

When Norse and Danish Viking sea-raiders started to force footholds on the British coastline, it looked as if these seeds of civilisation were going to be grubbed up once more. But the land and the people accommodated the Vikings and absorbed them, as it had absorbed so many invaders in the past, and as it was destined to absorb the conquerors of the future – the Normans. Theirs was the last successful invasion of these islands.

The living past

Relics of all this past are now part of our island – tools, weapons, ornaments, the dead still buried in the soil, Stonehenge, great tombs of the New Stone Age, the hill forts of the iron Age Celts, the churches of the Saxons and the Normans – they are part of Britain.

But though the ancient dead are buried, it is the very blood they brought here that runs in us – yet, whether they came as conquerors or men of peace, all of them suffered a sea change on the way. They were absorbed into the life that was here before them, and themselves became islanders of a land that moulded the thoughts, the feelings, the behaviour of them all into a whole which is our British way of life and our tradition.

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