We know from Greek and Roman sources that Anglesey, the island separated from north Wales by the narrow, tidal, Menai Strait, was the centre of European Druidry: the place where noble youth from across the Celtic world went to study the lore and mysteries of the Druids.
This lasted until AD 60, when Roman troops under Gaius Suetonius Paulinus assaulted the island, destroying the sacred shrines, and cutting down the sacred groves. However, Paulinus was called away before he could complete his task, and Druids remained on the island for another 17 years, when the Romans returned, incorporating it into the Roman province of Britannia.
Many people today might ask: “Why Anglesey?”. Why this seemingly remote, insignificant island? In this post, I want to answer this question, as well as giving a somewhat different perspective to the popular conception of what happened when Paulinus arrived with his army.
I myself come from Glamorgan, pretty much as far away from Anglesey as it’s possible to be while still being in Wales. I later lived for years in Aberystwyth, on the shore of Ceredigion Bay, and I often travelled up to north Wales. I would go hill-walking on Cadair Idris, Yr Eifl, and Snowdon; I would go surfing at Porth Neigwl at the end of the Llŷn Peninsula. I knew Machynlleth and Dolgellau, Caernarfon and Llanberis, Abersoch and Porthmadog… but I never went to Anglesey (Ynys Môn). I didn’t imagine it would be anything special.
I was wrong. The time came when I went to stay at a friend’s home on the island. Môn has something very special about it indeed.
What I had never understood from looking at maps is the way the great massif of Snowdonia swells up from sea level, rising seemingly vertically in a great black wall to the south. There’s only a thin strip of habitable land, and then this vast shield wall, like something from Dune or Game of Thrones, but bigger. Once you’re on Môn, you feel like you’re in a self-enclosed world; the rest of the planet seems far, far away.
Much of Môn is low-lying. The mountains of Snowdonia loom over it to the south, but when the air is clear one can see the mountains of Cumbria to the north-east, lying between Morecambe Bay and the Solway Firth. To the west, the Wicklow mountains rise high, just south of Dublin. There is a very clear sense of being at the bottom of a great bowl – a cauldron – with the sea around you, the great bowl of the sky and stars above you, and walls of rock on all sides. And, on Holy Island, just off the west of Môn herself, there rises Holy Mountain, a great natural pulpit from the summit of which the Druids could observe the skies above and the land and sea spreading out below. Small wonder that this small island is littered with standing stones, burial chambers, and other religious markers dating back to the furthest reaches of the past.
See for yourselves:
Around the shores, sea and land merge and blend; inland there are lakes and rivers that give the same impression. There are oak forests and flowers, and farmland so fertile that over the centuries the Welsh spoke of Môn, Mam Cymru: “Môn, the mother of Wales”, for its ability to produce grain.
Within the cauldron of the Irish Sea floats Môn, self-enclosed, where the elements unite to produce fertility, where the stars are clear and close, where the world is far away. No wonder the Druids decided that this was the ideal place for contemplation, for study, for learning and for education. This was the ideal location for the Druid ‘university’, where students came from all over the Celtic world to be educated – for up to twenty years in some cases, if Caesar is to be believed.
Because not only did Môn have the tranquillity needed for sustained thought, it had the natural richness and variety to stimulate and feed those minds-in-training. It also had the rich lands needed to feed and sustain the Druid Academy, and all of the staff and students, and the community that would develop around it.
There’s one more thing: Môn feels remote from the world – but to the Celtic world, it was actually astonishingly accessible, because the Celts travelled by sea, and Holy Island has a deep-water harbour. Even today, the port of Holyhead, on Holy Island, is the main port for sea traffic between Britain and Dún Laoghaire, the port serving Dublin. The Druids, their students, their warriors and servants would generally not have bothered with the difficult and dangerous struggle through the Welsh mountains unless they were heading inland. For most journeys around Britain, and to the European mainland, they would have gone by sea. It was faster, and safer.
How did they travel?
The insular Celts used vessels made from wooden frames, over which ox-skins, or similar materials were stretched, and then waterproofed with pitch or oils. These are still used even today.
In Wales, they are quite small, used for river fishing etc; these are known as coracles, which generally only carry one person. On the west of Ireland can be found the currach, which is larger and is used to carry bigger crews out to sea. Though small, the Welsh coracle has successfully been used to travel across the English Channel, from England to France, while a currach was used by Tim Severin to travel from Ireland to Newfoundland, recreating the legendary voyage of St. Brendan.
In Gaul, we know that the Veneti, who lived in Armorica in the north-west (later to become Brittany), used wooden sailing vessels; these were also probably used to transport people and goods to and from Môn.
This chart shows that from their port on Holy Island, Druid vessels could very easily reach the entire western coast of Britain, as far as the Pictish kingdom of the Orkneys (it’s now accepted that the Picts also spoke British, and were a part of the broader Brythonic, Druidic, culture). They could reach their colleagues in Gaul, who spoke a similar language, and the Gaelic Celts of Ireland and north-west Spain (the Gallaeci).
Let’s look again at what that meant. Look again at the map further up the page, the green one showing the lands around the Irish Sea, At the time of the Roman invasion, every single part of the island of Britain that appears on that map was home to British tribes, who acknowledged the rule of the Druids.
North of the Solway Firth were the Selgovae; south of them, the Brigantes and the Carvetii. North of them, not all on that map, were the Damnonii, and the Novantae. From their ports, Druids could travel to all of the tribes of the North.
Most important for the tale we’re going to be hearing soon, we must understand that during the age of the Druids, the Isle of Man was a British territory, speaking the same language and sharing the culture of mainland Britain. Today, we are used to thinking of the Manx as being part of the Gaelic world, connected to Ireland rather than Britain – but that didn’t come about until the post-Roman period. During the days of the Druids, the Manx spoke British.
As a side note, this means that the two smaller islands of the Irish Sea are Manaw (the Isle of Man, masculine form) and Môn (Mona, feminine form). Is there a sibling myth here that is now lost? Some other relationship? But that’s off-topic for the current story.
The Roman conquest of Britain began in AD 43. It took them a generation to reach Môn, so the Druids had had plenty of time to evaluate the situation, and to make plans. As the Romans advanced, Môn became a place of refuge for Druids and warriors whose own tribal lands had been over-run. These battle-hardened veterans had plenty of knowledge of the Roman intentions and methods. They had hopes that the Britons might yet unite, and drive the Romans back into the sea. Many would have known Caratacus– and they would have learned from his example that guerrilla tactics worked, while set-piece battles did not.
They had time to plan. Lists would have been drawn up of key personnel: the most important Druids, the experienced administrators, diplomats, bards… everyone who would be needed to establish a ‘government in exile’. A system would have been in place to summon a makeshift fleet, ready to transport those who had been selected to staging camps, probably on Manaw, from where they could move on to the tribes who would give them shelter.
Remember also that the Druids were literate. We tend to forget that, because of course they never wrote down their doctrines and beliefs. However, all of their mundane activities were recorded using Greek letters. This means that there would have been large amounts of records, of contacts, trade receipts, administration records – all the documentation of an ancient, Europe-wide, organisation. Like any bureaucracy about to to fall to the enemy, they would have made sure the records were destroyed, leaving nothing that might endanger allies or be of benefit to the enemy.
The Druids were an ancient order. Seeing Rome’s legions slowly advancing towards them across Britain, it’s highly unlikely that they would have decided to make a grand, suicidal final stand along the lines of the 1906 Balinese badung puputan in Denpasar. The Balinese aristocracy had nowhere else to go; the Druids had lines of escape to the northern tribes, and a not-unreasonable hope that the Romans might yet be defeated and driven out of Britain, back to Gaul.
So, let’s imagine what the scene was like, once the Romans finally arrived and the evacuation plans were set in motion. Clips from two very well-known films give us a sense of the atmosphere as the escape begins, and the destruction of records begins amongst the chaos of impending conflict:
After endless days of waiting, days of rumour and tension, messengers arrived with news. Men and horses alike were near death, exhausted from a hard ride through the mountains, pursued by the Romans’ cavalry advance guard. They were quickly escorted through our overcrowded island, the villages packed by refugees, to the hall of the Druids. There, they delivered the news: Paulinus and his army would reach Môn within two days at most.
The Archdruid took the news calmly. It had been anticipated for long enough, after all. “Light the beacon”, he instructed. Men ran through the growing darkness to the peak of Holy Mountain, to summon the evacuation flotilla.
We knew our duties. Across the island, an archipelago of flames slowly spread, as our archivists began to destroy that which they spent their lives preserving: the names of our agents in Gaul, records of diplomatic missions and meetings, even who had supplied our tools and cloth – best to leave nothing that would allow the Romans to identify our people, or which might be useful to them in any way!
Backlit by those burning papyri and scrolls, long columns of men, women and children shuffled to the port. There, teams of Ovates would check their names against lists, grouping them for evacuation in order of priority. There was no protest, no fear, no seeking to jump the queue: most had not wished to leave, but the Archdruid, days before, had explained the need. Their knowledge and their experience must be preserved, so that Druidry could survive, and wait out the Romans in the northern strongholds.
Already, the first groups were leaving. These were not evacuees. Small groups of horsemen were crossing the Strait while it was still open, and into the hills; others were leaving in their coracles to go down the west coast, to the territory of the Ordovices and the Demetae. Some were going to stiffen the resistance of the tribes, and to strengthen the courage of the warriors. Some would be heading behind enemy lines, to set up camps deep in the forests and the marshes, from where they would conduct guerrilla campaigns. And a few, the bravest, were our ‘werewolf’ units: they would pretend to be farmers and villagers, waging war by night, spreading terror and confusion in the Romans’ rear, assassinating collaborators and key officers. It was a suicide mission, and they knew it.
Up until the last moment, we hoped the Romans would turn around. For weeks, we had been receiving messages that the Iceni, on the other side of Britain, were on the brink of rebellion. If they went to war, Paulinus would be forced to return to fight them; his legionaries would be needed to defend London. But the news never arrived; there were delays, always delays; perhaps the courage of the Iceni had failed…
Finally, the moment came. The Romans marched into view, forming up into ranks on the other side of the Strait. On our side, the evacuations continued until the last possible moment, the small boats arriving empty, and leaving for Manaw with their precious burdens. And those of us not on the lists? We knew there was no way out for us. We knew what our fate would be if, when, the Romans overran us. All that was left for us to do was to delay them for as long as possible, and to make them pay with much blood for each step they took on Môn’s sacred soil.
Finally, they came. We put up a fight: all of our Druids, male and female; our warriors; the ordinary tribespeople… We made their soldiers cringe in fear… but eventually, inevitably, their officers restored order… they advanced across the waters… and the killing began.
Killing.., and worse. You know what the Romans do with women. They did it. They immediately began cutting down our sacred groves, and destroying our shrines. We kept fighting, desperately; retreating further and further back into the marshes and forests as our numbers shrank and dwindled.
But they took too long with their sacrilege and their desecration and their rapine. Before they had completed their work, more riders came through the mountains, more near-dead men on near-dead horses – not ours, this time, but theirs. The Iceni had risen, and were slaughtering the Romans. Paulinus and his men were ordered to leave immediately.
And so they did… and so we, we who who survived, emerged back into daylight, back into life to bury our dead, and put out the fires, and to restore the damage to such extent as we could.
Môn was no longer safe. Our exiles could not return now. They stayed in their camps on Manaw, until our fleet of small ships could transport them onwards. Some few who could speak Irish went on to the Island of the Blessed. Most went to the tribes of the North; dispersed, a few at each royal court. Our knowledge, the lore and wisdom and honour of the Druids was secure for the future – but we all knew that an age had come to an end. No longer could our teachers form a college in one place; no longer could they welcome the best minds of Europe to educate them and send them home to their tribes. Our Druids would do their best, but they were diminished.
And we, we, left amongst the ruins and graves of Môn, with hate in our hearts, began to plan and build our revenge…
NB: This page previously used a image showing a map of the Irish Sea released under a Creative Commons licence on Wikimedia Commons by the user Emoscopes. Since this user appears to have deleted their account and removed all their content, I have deleted the image.