Settlement of Great Britain and Ireland

Settlement of Great Britain and Ireland

The British Isles have a long history of migration from across Europe, starting in the Palaeolithic period. Over the millennia successive waves of immigrants have come to the Isles, a process that is continuing today. The ancient migrations have mainly come via two routes: along the Atlantic coast and from Germany/Scandinavia. The main settlement came in the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic periods, with only some 20% afterwards. More recent immigration has come from all over the world.

Modern humans first arrived in what would become the British Isles during the Palaeolithic before the Last Glacial Maximum, when the isles all formed part of the European landmass. Traditionally they were thought to have been followed by Neolithic farmers (5th millennium BC), Beaker people (3rd millennium BC), Celts (2nd/1st millennium BC), Belgae (1st millennium BC). Parts of the Islands became part of the Roman Empire (1st century BC), and Anglo-Saxons (c. 5th century AD) then Norsemen and Danes, that is Vikings, (8-10th century AD) also settled in the Islands. In 1066, the Normans in the Norman conquest of England successfully conquered what had become England and, in subsequent years, there was some migration from France. The Normans gradually expanded their conquest into other regions of the Islands. Subsequently other groups of people have come to the islands while, particularly in the 19th century, there has been a diaspora of British and Irish to many parts of the world.

Research into the prehistoric and historic settlement of Great Britain and Ireland is controversial, with differences of opinion from many academic disciplines. There have been disputes over the sizes of the various immigrations, as well as to whether they were peaceful. Theories of the settlement of the isles have also varied with time. In the first millennium AD origin myths were created based on descent from Gods, while in the latter part of the second millennium the finds of archaeology allowed a view of the settlement pattern to be inferred from changes in artefacts. Since the 1990s the use of DNA has allowed this view to be refined.

Origin myths


The origin myth of Britain culminated in 'The History of the Kings of Britain' by Geoffrey of Monmouth, which was written in 1138. It claims to have been written from earlier material. According to this, the first inhabitants of Britain were a race of giants under Albion. The next inhabitants were Greeks under Brutus who landed at Totnes and defeated the giants. After the death of Brutus the island was divided into three parts (England, Scotland and Wales) ruled over by his three sons. When the two younger sons died the whole island was ruled by the eldest, Locrinus, and his 98 successors. They continued until the arrival of the Romans. After the latter's departure the crown passed to Vortigern who seeks help from the Saxons in fighting against Constans. At a meeting with the Saxons, most of the British leaders are killed. Arthur afterwards leads the fight against the Saxons but the latter prevail.

This account remained the standard view of the settlement of Britain until Polydore Vergil wrote Anglica Historica, completed in 1513. However, Geoffrey of Monmouth's work has continued to provide inspiration to later writers of fiction.


The Irish equivalent of Geoffrey's History was the Book of Invasions, Lebor Gabála Érenn, compiled from earlier material in the late 11th century. It chronicles four mythical phases of immigration, with six invasions. The last of these was the invasion by the Gaels who were the sons of Mil (also known as Milesius or the Soldier of Hispania). The Gaels defeated the Tutha De Dannan, who inhabited Ireland and had themselves ousted control from the Fir Bholg (banished to the Aran Islands) and the Fororians (banished to Tory Island). According to the legend, the ultimate ancestor of the Gaels was a Scythian king from what is now eastern Ukraine, whose descendants settled in Hispania. The two other races were said to be divine. The Fir Bholgs are supposed to have replaced the Tuathha De Danaan around around 1900 BC and controlled Ireland until 1700 BC.

Thomas O'Rahilly re-interpreted the text, dating the Gaelic invasion to 100 BC.



thumb|275px|right|Europe about 20,000 years ago, showing coastline, extent of Ice caps and regions where refugia are thought to have been situated. Coloured areas are the furthest extent of known human activity between 15 kya and 20 kya.There is archaeological evidence, thirty-two balck worked flints found in April 2003 at Pakefield on the Suffolk coast, of settlement of hominini in Britain from about 700,000 BC. A shinbone found belonging to "Boxgrove Man", a member of species homo heidelbergensis was found at Boxgrove Quarry, West Sussex is the oldest human remains found in Britain and has been dated at circa 480,000 BC. Neanderthal man is thought to have appeared in Britain around circa 130,000 BC and become the dominant species until their disappearance from archaeological record circa 30,000 BC. A skull found in Swanscombe in Kent and teeth found at Pontnewydd Cave in Denbighshire are examples of remains found with distinct Neanderthal features [A History of Britain, Richard Dargie (2007), p. 8-9] .

Cro-Magnons (the first anatomically modern humans) are believed to have arrived in Europe about 40,000 years ago. [Stringer (2006), p. 185] They are known to have had a presence in the geographical region that was to become Great Britain by 27,000 years ago due to the discovery of the skeletal remains of the "Red Lady of Paviland". [Stringer (2006), p. 182] This is actually the skeleton (lacking the skull) of a young man of the Aurignacian culture, and may be the oldest modern human remains yet discovered in Great Britain and Ireland. [though there are other contenders. [ Ancient jaw bone raises questions over early man] from ArchaeoNews. 24 April 2005. Retrieved 20 February 2007.]

During the following Ice Age (known as the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM)) around 20,000 years ago Northern Europe may have been completely depopulated of humans. Humans probably returned to the region of the British and Irish peninsula about 14,700 years ago as the Ice Age started to end, after an absence of about 5,000 years. [Mithen (2003), p.120]


Around 9500 BC rising sea levels due to ice melting caused Ireland to be separated from Britain, while around 6500 BC the latter became separated from continental Europe. There was a lesser cold period from about 12,000 to 10,000 years ago but settlement seems to have continued in this period. During the Mesolithic period there was a miniaturisation of the flint artefacts, which has been attributed to differences in the prey of the hunters. This change in artefacts was at one time attributed to the arrival of a new people. About 4000 BC the "Neolithic Revolution" reached Britain and Ireland, with domestication of animals, arable farming and pottery. Again a new invasion was postulated. A population "wave of advance" was proposed [ see Renfrew, 1987] but this now seems to have had only a minor effect on the isles. Christopher Smith has estimated the population of Britain (excluding Ireland) around 9000 BC to be 1100-1200 people, in 8000 BC to be 1200-2400, in 7000 BC to be 2500-5000, and in 5000 BC to be 2750-5500. Francis Pryor estimates that by 4000 BC the population of Britain was around 100,000 while that of Ireland was some 40,000. For 2000 BC his estimates are 250,000 and 50,000.

The Beaker people

Defined by a style of pottery from the 3rd millennium BC, found across most of Europe in archæological digs, the Beaker people have been considered to represent early immigration to the United Kingdom during the Bronze Age.

It was originally thought that there were settlers that came with these beakers who also had other defining features that showed that they were distinct from earlier dwellers of the British Isles, such as the development of metalworking and the mode of burial of the dead that came into use at about this time. Analyses of the uptake of isotopes of the element strontium in teeth (younger) and bones (older) in individuals have found evidence of a great deal of mobility, particularly of females, within central and western Europe.cite book|last=Pollard|first=A. M.|coauthors="et al"|title=Analytical Chemistry in Archaeology|publisher=Cambridge University Press|location=Cambridge, England|date=2007|pages=p 190|isbn=0521655722|url=|accessdate=2008-09-21] However, it is generally accepted by archaeologists today that the beakers and other artefacts found across Europe that are attributed to the Beaker people may also be indicative of the development of particular manufacturing skills that spread independently of any population movement, possibly by the influence of neighbouring peoples, rather than as a result of mass migrations.

Celtic settlement

The Celts are now considered to be a number of interrelated peoples in Europe, sharing a branch of the Indo-European languages indicative of a common origin in a Proto-Celtic language [ However in "Blood of the Isles" Sykes uses the term Celtic to mean the people who were in the isles before the Romans and who spoke a Celtic language. The use of the term Celtic for peoples of Britain and Ireland did not start until the 18th century. ] . Linguists have been arguing for many years whether a Celtic language came to Britain and Ireland and then split or whether there were two separate "invasions". The older view of prehistorians was that the Celtic influence in the British Isles was the result of successive invasions from the European continent by diverse Celtic-speaking peoples over the course of several centuries [ Francis Pryor: Up to the 1960s archaeologists such as Christopher Hawkes related artefact changes to invasions but, because no evidence of invasion had been found and there was evidence of continuity, Roy Hudson demolished the invasion theory.] . This view is now generally discredited in favour of an Insular Celtic dialect group. Celtic arrival in Britain is usually taken to correspond to Hallstatt influence and the appearance of chariot burials in what is now England from about the 6th century BC. Some Iron Age migration does seem to have occurred but the nature of the interactions with the indigenous populations of the isles is unknown. However, it may be that the Celts became the elite. In the late Iron Age Pryor estimates that the population of Britain and Ireland was between 1 and 1.5 million.

By the Roman period most of the inhabitants of the Isles were speaking Celtic languages of either the Goidelic or the Brythonic branch. After Caesar's conquest of Gaul in the 50s BC, some Belgic people seem to have come to central southern Britain. Though there was a tribe called Parisi in eastern Yorkshire, these were probably a British people with cultural links to the continent. It has been claimed that there were a tribe of Iverni in Ireland who spoke a Brythonic language.

In Ireland as in Great Britain, beginning Celtic influence is taken to correspond to the beginning Iron Age. The adoption of Celtic culture and language likely a gradual transformation, brought on by cultural exchange with Celtic groups in the mainland or otherwise southwest continental Europe.

The Celtic scholar T. F. O'Rahilly proposed a model of Irish prehistory, based on his study of the influences on the Irish language and a critical analysis of Irish mythology and pseudohistory. He distinguishes four separate waves of Celtic immigration to Ireland:
*The Cruithne or Priteni ("c." 700 - 500 BC)
*The Builg or Érainn ("c." 500 BC)
*The Lagin, the Domnainn and the Gálioin ("c." 300 BC)
*The Goidels or Gael ("c." 100 BC)

Roman Britain

The first Roman expedition to the British Isles was led by Julius Caesar in 55 BC; the second, a year later in 54 BC. The Celtic tribal leaders agreed to pay tributes to Rome in return for Roman protection. Trade with the Roman Empire continued and influenced the culture of south east England. The Romans returned in AD 43, nominally led by Claudius, this time establishing control and establishing the province of Britannia. Initially an oppressive rule, gradually the new leaders gained a firmer hold on their new territory which at one point stretched from the south coast of England to Wales and as far away as southern Scotland (though they did not hold the latter for long).Fact|date=August 2007

Over the approximately 350 years of Roman occupation of parts of Britain, the majority of settlers were soldiers and administrators. These came from all over the Empire, perhaps totalling around 50,000 people.Fact|date=August 2008 It was with constant contact with Rome and the rest of Romanised Europe through trade and industry that the elite native Britons themselves adopted Roman culture and customs. However, it is probable that the majority of Britons in the countryside were little affected. During the Roman period the population of Britain is estimated to have risen to around 3 million.

The Roman Empire never extended to Ireland, though Roman coins and a trading post have been found. The tribes of Scotland were known to the Romans as Picts.

ub-Roman Britain

cots, Picts, Attacotti and Déisi

Extensive raids and settlement of the west coast of Britain by a number of peoples from Ireland took place during much of the 4th and 5th centuries, leading to serious warfare between the Romano-British and the Irish,Fact|date=August 2007 called "Scotti" by the Romans. One of the most notable of these raids was the Great Conspiracy of 367 which also involved the Picts and Saxons. [cite journal | last = Rance | first = Philip | title = Attacotti, Déisi and Magnus Maximus: The Case for Irish Federates in Late Roman Britain | journal = Britannia | volume = 32 | pages = 243–270 | date= 2001 | url = | doi = 10.2307/526958 | accessdate = 2007-04-15 ] While the Attacotti had entered Roman military service by the 370s, the Déisi and Laigin founded kingdoms in what is now the north, west and south of Wales.Fact|date=August 2007 There is strong evidence that the Ulaid occupied the Isle of Man over much of this era,Fact|date=August 2007 while the Dál Riata, began settlement in Argyll leading to what would become Scotland.

Angles, Saxons and Jutes

Germanic Anglo-Saxon settlers arrived to Great Britain from the early 5th century.

The traditional division of the Post-Roman immigrants into Angles, Saxons and Jutes is first seen in the "Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum" by Bede, however historical and archaeological research has shown that a wider range of Germanic peoples from the coast of Frisia, Lower Saxony, Jutland and Southern Sweden also moved to Britain in this era. [cite book|last=Collingwood|first=R. G.|authorlink=R. G. Collingwood|coauthors=et al|title=Roman Britain and English Settlements|publisher=Clarendon|location=Oxford, England|date=1936|pages=p 325 et sec|chapter=The English Settlements. The Sources for the period: Angles, Saxons, and Jutes on the Continent] Mass migration from the continent was assumed to have taken place, particularly in the 6th century, with a consequent elimination of the British. More recent studies, however, accept that an equally valid interpretation is that there took place a cultural assimilation of the language and customs of a relatively small, but influential, number of incomers. [cite book|last=Osborne|first=Roger|title=Civilization: A New History of the Western World|publisher=Jonathan Cape|location=London|date=2006|pages=p 41|isbn=1933648198|url=,M1|accessdate=2008-09-22] [cite book|last=Morgan|first=Kenneth O.|authorlink=Kenneth O. Morgan|title=The Oxford Illustrated History of Britain|publisher=Oxford University Press|location=Oxford, England|date=2002|pages=pp 57-59|chapter=The age of settlements|isbn=0192893262|url=,M1|accessdate=2008-09-22]

After the withdrawal of the last legions from Britain in the early 5th century, a number of separate British kingdoms appear to have been set up. Pryor says that the population of England may have fallen to around 1.5 million at this time. Civil wars took place and Germanic mercenaries were recruited. The number of newcomers increased, and it is said by Gildas that relations with the ruling Romanised Britons became strained. By about 449, open conflict had broken out, and the immigrants began to establish their own kingdoms in what would eventually become the Heptarchy (see Bede). British emigration to Brittany to place at this time, and probably also to Spain.

Middle Ages

Viking Age

In the 8th century Vikings were trading with Britain. According to the "Anglo-Saxon Chronicle", a local official was killed by Vikings at Portland in 789. A later entry, from June 8, 793, says that the monastery at Lindisfarne on the east coast of England was pillaged by foreign seafarers. These raiders, whose expeditions extended well into the 9th century, were gradually followed by armies and settlers who brought a new culture and tradition markedly different from that of the prevalent Anglo-Saxon society. These enclaves on the east coast rapidly expanded, and soon the Viking warriors were establishing areas of control to such an extent that they could reasonably be described as kingdoms.Fact|date=August 2007

The Danelaw, resulting from the Viking conquest of large parts of England, was formally established, as a result of the Treaty of Wedmore in the late 9th century, after Alfred the Great had defeated the Viking Guthrum at the Battle of Edington. The Danelaw represented a consolidation of power for Alfred; the subsequent conversion of Guthrum to Christianity underlines the ideological significance of this shift in the balance of power. The Danelaw was gradually eroded by Anglo-Saxon conquests in later years, and they gain complete control of England until it was taken by Danish kings in 1016. In 1042 Saxons regained control of England. In parts of England today, the influence of the Vikings can still be seen, particularly in place names in the East Midlands and the North.

Vikings began to arrive in Orkney and Shetland at the beginning of the 8th century. They established settlements in the Hebrides and down the western side of Scotland, as well as in the Isle of Man. The Vikings established trading posts in Ireland at Dublin, Waterford, Wexford and Limerick. After 1000 AD they were gradually pushed back to Shetland and Orkney, which were only annexed by Scotland in 1468.

Norman Conquest

Following the Battle of Hastings in 1066, there was an influx of Norman-French lords and their followers. The population of England at the time of Domesday Book has been estimated at 1.5 million, rising to some 4 million by the start of the Black Death in 1348. Many nationalities have come to Britain in modern times as a result of external wars and for economic reasons. These waves are discussed in Historical immigration to Great Britain.

In 1166 an Anglo-Norman lord was invited to assist in an Irish civil war, then in 1171 Henry II of England landed in Ireland having been granted control of the land by the Pope. Under Elizabeth I lands in Ireland were granted to various adventurers, while under her successor James I there was large scale settlement of Ulster by lowland Scots.

Genetic research

Population research using DNA became possible in the 1990s. (Prior to this various other research methods were used but these did not prove satisfactory.) The first published studies used mitochondrial DNA to study the female line of descent and then it became possible to use Y chromosome DNA to study male descent lines. Whole genome studies (autosomal DNA) have been made recently. Studies have been carried out on the populations of Britain and Ireland, as well as of Europe in general that allow comparisons to be made. However, such studies are as yet fairly limited in scope and further work is needed.

A study was made of 100 English people by Piercy "et al" and published in 1993, the data from which has been incorporated into later studies. In 2001 a team led by Jim Wilson published a paper on the different male and female roles during cultural transmission in the British Isles. A paper published in 2002 by Michael Weale of University College London focussed on the Anglo-Saxon invasion. They studied 7 small towns across central England and North Wales in comparison with samples from Friesland and Norway, to look for evidence of immigration from the continent. They examined three population processes: simple splitting with subsequent divergence, single mass migration, and continuous background migration. They produced a genetic distance map that showed significant differences between the English and Welsh samples, with the Friesland sample clustering with the former. They concluded that mass Anglo-Saxon migration was the most likely event, by default. However, they did not consider that Friesland and England may have had similar immigration histories prior to this, while there were special circumstances relating to one of their sites. A later paper by Weale and others considered how this situation could have arisen by a process of apartheid. A later larger study of 25 small towns in England was made by a team led by Cristian Capelli and the results published in 2003. A genetic distance map was included in their paper, which contained data from Wales, Scotland and Ireland as well as Norway and North Germany/Denmark. In contrast to the Weale study, this paper showed a gradual change between western and eastern England. They concluded that there had not been complete population replacement anywhere in the British Isles. They said that the most surprising conclusion was the limited continental input in southern England.

Bryan Sykes published in 2001 a study of European mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) called The Seven Daughters of Eve in which he identified the 7 principal haplogroups in Europe (he has since found that an eighth is also common). He subsequently set up the Oxford Genetic Atlas Project, which has collected over 50,000 DNA samples in total, 10,000 of which were obtained in Britain and Ireland. He produced an analysis of some 6000 of these and has published it in his book Blood of the Isles using 12 mitochondrial haplogroups and 5 Y-DNA haplogroups for various regions of the Isles. He has given his conclusions separately for Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England. Sykes gives useful paternal and maternal clan distribution maps as well as a web site where the detailed data is given. His principal conclusion is that the paternal and maternal settlement patterns are different for the British Isles.

Stephen Oppenheimer used the Weale and Cappelli study data, with that of Rosser "et al" for Europe, in new analyses of the data published in The Origins of the British. He uses phylogeographic mapping to produce many distribution diagrams, covering Europe as well as Britain and Ireland. His principal conclusion is that there are both east and west coast entry routes to Britain and Ireland. Walter Bodner is currently undertaking a further survey of the DNA of the Isles but only a preliminary TV programme has so far been produced. In Ireland population genetic studies have been undertaken by a team under Dan Bradley, including surname studies. Databases on Britain and Ireland, as well as on various surnames, are also being built up from personal DNA tests, for example at FTDNA.

ee also

* Demic diffusion
* Founder effect
* Genetic diversity
* Genotype-phenotype distinction
* Genetic history of Europe
* Atlantic Europe
* Hallstatt culture



* Bauchet
* Capelli, Cristian., Nicola Redhead, Julia K. Abernethy, Fiona Gratrix, James F. Wilson, Torolf Moen, Tor Hervig, Martin Richards, Michael P. H. Stumpf, Peter A. Underhill, Paul Bradshaw, Alom Shaha, Mark G. Thomas, Neal Bradman, and David B. Goldstein. (2003) " [ A Y Chromosome Census of the British Isles] Current Biology", Volume 13, Issue 11, Pages 979-984. Retrieved 15 February 2007.
* Cunliffe, Barry, 2001. "Facing the Ocean". Oxford: Oxford.
* Dupanloup
* Gamkrelidze, Thomas V. and Vyacheslav V. Ivanov, 1995. "Indo-European and the Indo-Europeans". Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
* Gibbons, Anne. (2000) "Evolutionary Genetics: Europeans Trace Ancestry to Paleolithic People" [;290/5494/1080 Abstract] , "Science": Vol. 290. no. 5494, pp. 1080 - 1081. Retrieved 15 February 2007.
* Hill, C. "Origins of the English"
* Hill, Emeline, W., Mark A. Jobling, Daniel G. Bradley. (2000) "Y-chromosome variation and Irish origins" PDFlink| [ PDF File] . "Nature," Vol 404,. Retrieved 30 December 2005.
* Miles, David. "The Tribes of Britain",
* Mithen, Steven 2003. "After the Ice: A Global Human History 20,000-5000 BC". Phoenix (Orion Books Ltd.), London. ISBN 978-0-7538-1392-8
* Lehmann, Winfred P., 1997. 'Early Celtic among the Indo-European Dialects'. Zeitschrift für Celtische Philologie 49-50. 440-454.
* McEvoy, Brian., Martin Richards, Peter Forster, and Daniel G. Bradley (2004) " [ The Longue Durée of Genetic Ancestry: Multiple Genetic Marker Systems and Celtic Origins on the Atlantic Facade of Europe] Am. J. Hum. Genet.," 75:693-702, 2004. Retrieved 15 February 2007.
* Oppenheimer, Stephen 2006. "The Origins of the British: A Genetic Detective Story". Constable and Robinson. ISBN-10: 1845291581.
* Rosser, Zoe "et al". 2000. "Y-chromosomal diversity in Europe is clinal and influenced primarily by geography". Americal Journal of Human Genetics 67, 1526-43.
* Seldin
* Stringer, Chris. 2006. "Homo Britanicus". Penguin Books Ltd., London. ISBN 978-0-713-99795-8.
* Sykes, Bryan. 2001. "The Seven Daughters of Eve"
* Sykes, Bryan. 2006. "The Blood of the Isles". Bantam Press. ISBN-10: 0593056523
* Thomas, Mark G., Michael P. H. Stumpf and Heinrich Härke (2006) "PDFlink| [ Evidence for an Apartheid Like Social Structure in Early Anglo-Saxon England] |206 KiB Proceedings of the Royal Society" Published online. doi:10.1098/rspb.2006.3627. Retrieved 15 February 2007.
* Weatherhill, Craig " [ What makes Cornwall unique?] " from Cornwall24; independent Cornish news and comment. Retrieved 15 February 2007.
* Wilson, James F., Deborah A. Weiss, Martin Richards, Mark G. Thomas, Neil Bradman, and David B. Goldstein (2001) "PDFlink| [ Genetic evidence for different male and female roles during cultural transitions in the British Isles] Proceedings of the National Academy of Science." 98: 5078–5083 . Retrieved 15 February 2007.
* Silvia Mascheretti, Margarita B Rogatcheva, Islam Gündüz, Karl Fredga, and Jeremy B Searle. Proc Biol Sci. 2003 August 7. [ "How did pygmy shrews colonize Ireland?"] Clues from a phylogenetic analysis of mitochondrial cytochrome b sequences.
* The study headed by Dr Bradley was published in the American Journal of Human Genetics. [ Geneticists find Celtic links to Spain and Portugal]

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