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Anglo-Saxon England and Britain

Alan MacColl explores exactly what the word Britain meant, after the Romans had gone.

What did medieval writers mean when they referred to ‘Britain’? They seem to have had a fairly clear idea of the geographical location and dimensions of the whole island, and were fond of repeating the description by Gildas in the early sixth century: ‘The island of Britain, situated on almost the utmost border of the earth, towards the south and west … stretches out from the southwest towards the North Pole, and is eight hundred miles long and two hundred broad, except where the headlands of sundry promontories stretch farther into the sea.’

But Britain was always more than an area of land, and from earliest times, the term ‘Britain’ has had two distinct meanings: the whole island, and the southern part which formed the Roman province of Britannia. Gildas himself referred to its twenty-eight cities, and his book, entitled On the Ruin of Britain, is about the downfall of a realm and its people. It is here, when we come to consider the various real and imagined political domains called ‘Britain’ in ancient and medieval times, that things become complicated. Though the Roman general Agricola got as far north as the Tay, and possibly Aberdeenshire, in the first century ad, most of what is now Scotland was never included in Britannia, whose northern limit was marked for most of its history by Hadrian’s Wall, between the Tyne and the Solway. The farthest north that Roman rule ever extended was the Antonine Wall, between the Forth and the Clyde, and Gildas himself seems to have thought of this as the northern limit of British territory.

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