THE DESTRUCTION OF THE DRUIDS.
ON the South coast of
Britain the people were thronging by hundreds to the sea-shore. It was to
see a vessel which was sailing past, and which had come from some strange
country across the seas. Its prow was adorned with a swan's head and neck
made of bronze. Below the prow and projecting a little above the keel was
a brazen beak, which was called the rostrum and which had been invented by
the Tyrrhenian Pisus for breaking the sides of the enemy's ships.
The stern was elevated and
adorned with the figure of a God. There seated, they could distinguish the
prominent figure of a man who paddled a huge broad-bladed oar backwards
and forwards in the water, and with which he appeared to guide the vessel.
There were two masts made
of fire-wood from the forests of Scandinavia, and a triangular sail
suspended from each, inflated by the wind. The sides of this vessel
presented an extraordinary sight. Three banks of rowers, raised above each
other, were plying their oars which swung in leather thongs, and which
surrounded the ship with creamy foam, and which dashed the transparent
spray high in the air.
The Britons perched upon
the rocks, or in their little wicker boats, continued to watch this ship
till it had disappeared, and then returned to their homes to relate this
incident to their wives with Celtic garrulity. It remained to them an
enigma, till they received intelligence from the merchants of the main
that the ship was a Roman trireme, or war galley; that its commander was
Caius Volusenus, and that he had been sent by Julius Cæsar the Divine, to
explore the coasts of that country upon which he meditated an invasion.
In fact, it was this great
general who, aspiring to outvie the conquests of Pompey, had determined to
subdue this island of Britain, which was then only known to the world. by
some vague and exaggerated reports of the ferocity of its inhabitants, the
perils of its seas, the darkness of its sky, and the marvelous
beauty of its pearls.
However, the remoteness of
the country with the difficulty and danger of the enterprise were those
obstacles which form the stepping-stones to greatness; while the precious
stones and metals with which it was said to abound, served to excite the
cupidity of his soldiers whose souls were less open to those glorious
passions which elevated that of their commander.
The brigands and pirates
(that is to say the invaders) of those days even, considered it necessary
to invent a paltry excuse for some act of lawless oppression; and Cæsar
before he attacked the freedom and properties of a nation, affirmed that
it was in revenge for the assistance which a small tribe of Britons had
rendered to his enemies the Gauls.
The Britons terrified by
this report, sent ambassadors to Rome. Cæsar received them kindly, and
sent Commius, a Roman to whom he had given land in Gaul, as his ambassador
The Britains violated the
law of nations and put Commius in prison. Cæsar invaded Britain.
Then the groves of the
Druids resounded with the cries of victims, and blood flowed from the
knife of the sacrificer. Then the huge image of a bull made of wicker-work
was erected, and filled with animals and men, was set on fire, while the
drums and cymbals of the priests drowned those piteous cries which strange
to say was thought ill-omened to bear.
Then the Bards who before
had sung the blessings of peace, and who had parted armies in their fierce
strife, sang the war-hymns of their ancestors, and fired every heart with
fortitude and emulation.
On the 26th of August, in
the year 55 B.C., at about ten o'clock in the forenoon, Cæsar reached the
British coasts, where he found the hills covered with armed men.
He sailed along the coast
till he came to that low sandy plain on which the town of Deal Dow stands.
It was there that he intended to land, and there that the Britons,
perceiving the prows of his vessels turned towards the shore, crowded with
horse, foot and chariots to repel him.
The water was too shallow
to admit of the galleys approaching close to land. The Romans had
therefore to wade through the sea under a cloud of arrows, and fighting
with waves as well as with men. Thus they were thrown into disorder, and
the waters were reddened with their blood. But Cæsar had commanded the
rowing-boats to approach, in which were erected slings with divers
instruments of war, and which darted over the water like sharks springing
to their prey. The Britons had begun to yield, but were rallying their
courage as they saw that the Romans were fearing those waves which bore
past on their dark bosoms the corpses of their comrades. When the
standard-bearer of the tenth legion invoked the gods and cried:--"Follow
me, if you do not wish me to lose my standard among the foe; but if I lose
my life, I shall have done my duty to Rome, and to my general."
The brave man sprang into
the sea, with the brazen eagle held aloft, and his bright sword flashing
in his hand. The whole legion followed him, and after a long contest
obtained a victory which had the Romans possessed cavalry to pursue their
routed enemy, would have been as sanguinary as it was glorious and
From that epoch indeed,
Britain may be considered as a Roman state, and its after history as
merely the history of its insurrections.
Under Julius Cæsar, the
rebellion of Cassebilanus compelled him to make a second expedition
Augustus threatened to
invade their island if the Britons continued to refuse to pay taxes.
Intimidated by his menaces, they sent ambassadors to Rome who implored the
pardon of the Emperor, and brought him large gifts, and swore fealty to
him in the temple of Mars.
The Britons broke their
oath under the reign of Caligula, who made grand preparations for an
invasion of the island, but who preferred leading his army against the
ocean which he had conquered in this manner.
Having drawn up all his men
in battle array upon the seashore, he caused the balistas, or slings, and
other instruments of war to be ranged before them; he then sailed in a
war-galley some little distance into the sea, returned, ordered his
trumpeters to sound the charge, and the soldiers to fill their helmets
with the shells from the beach, which he stored as the trophies of a
conquered enemy in the Capitol. Having commended the courage of his
soldiers and rewarded them profusely, he erected a tower upon the spot as
if to prevent the nation from forgetting that Cæsar was a madman.
This display of imbecility
naturally strengthened the Britons in their resolution to pay no taxes,
and to re-assert their freedom.
When Claudius Cæsar came to
the throne, he determined (partly on the advice of Bericus, a British
outlaw) to invade this rebellious state.
Aulus Plautius, was placed
at the head of a large army, and after several fierce engagements returned
to Rome where he was rewarded with an ovation. Ostorius was sent to
Britain in the same reign to quell an insurrection, and also returned
successful, bringing with him Caractacus, its leader, as prisoner. In the
reign of the blood-thirsty Nero, Suetonius was appointed Governor of
Britain. For two whole years he made war upon the refractory Britons with
great success, subduing fresh tribes and establishing garrisons.
But he had long perceived
that there was an influence working against him, which was all the more
powerful because it was concealed. It was that of the Druids, who still
possessed an extraordinary sway over the minds of British warriors, and
who animated them with promises of paradise to the defence of their
country and their homes.
He discovered that the
chief stronghold of the craft was the island of Mona, now Anglesea. It was
to Mona that the British chieftains resorted as an oracle, to learn their
destinies and to receive the encouragements of those whom they revered. It
was to Mona that the wounded were borne, and were placed under the gentle
care of those physicians who knew the secret properties of all herbs and
flowers. It was to Mona that the Derwydd, weary with warfare had
withdrawn, and for which they had deserted their magnificent seat at
Abury, and their circular temple in Salisbury plain.
This island is reported to
have been one of the fortunate islands sung of by the Grecian poets, as
the Elysian fields. It was watered by clear streams it was clothed with
fair meadows like a soft green mantle; it was full of oaken groves sacred
to the Gods, from which it was called Ynys Dewyll the dark and shadowy
It was in the year A.D. 61,
that Suetonius resolved to invade this delicious retreat, and to carry the
sword into the palace of the Arch-Druid, into the seminary of the Bardic
He forded the narrow
channel which divides the isle from the main-land with his cavalry, while
his infantry crossed over in flat-bottomed boats, called scaphæ, and by
which we learn that they landed near Llamdan where there is a place called
Pant yr yscraphie to this day.
As the Romans landed, they
were petrified by the horrible sight which awaited them.
It was night, and the
British army dusky and grim, stood arrayed against them. Women clad in
dark and mournful garments, and carrying torches in their hands like the
furies of hell, were running up and down the ranks uttering loud wailing
cries, while the Druids kneeling before them with hands raised to heaven,
made the air resound with frightful imprecations. At some distance behind
them, in the obscurity of a neighboring grove, twinkled innumerable fires.
In these the Roman
prisoners were to be burnt alive.
At first, horror-struck,
they remained motionless: it was only when their generals exhorted them
not to fear a crowd of women and priests, and when a flight of arrows from
the Britons assured them that they had really flesh and blood foes to
contend with, that they could be brought to advance to the charge with
their usual valor and precision.
That night the Druids were
burnt in the flames which they themselves had lighted. But there were many
who escaped into the recesses of the sacred groves, or by boat to the
neighboring isles. These only waited for an opportunity to excite the
Britons to fresh struggles for their freedom, and such an opportunity was
Prasutagus, King of the
Iceni, having died, left the half of his property to Cæsar and half to his
daughters. This which had been done to obtain the favor of the Romans had
an opposite effect. His kingdom and palace were plundered and destroyed,
his daughters ravished, his queen beaten like a slave.
The Britons driven to
despair by these outrages took arms under Boadicea, the widow of
Then the image of victory
which the Romans had erected, fell down without any apparent cause and
backwards as if it would give place to its enemies. And certain women,
distempered with fury, went singing by way of prophecy that destruction
was at hand. And strange sounds were heard in the council house of the
Romans, and their theatre echoed with hideous howlings, and a bleeding
sword was seen in the sky, and a spectre in the arm of the sea, and the
ocean was reddened as if with blood, and the shape of men's bodies were
left in the sand at the ebb of the tide.
The Britons won several
battles, and cruelly massacred all the Romans that they took captive
without distinction either of age or sex.
It was already sung by the
Bards who accompanied the army with their three-stringed harps that
Britain was free.
But Suetonius with his
formidable fourteenth legion was as yet unconquered. With ten
thousand men he occupied a strong possession in a pass at the head of an
open plain, with a thick wood behind for purposes of retreat and ambush.
Here were drawn up the Roman cavalry, armed after the Greek fashion with
spears and bucklers, and the infantry in due order of battle--the velites
with javelin and target-the hastali with their shields and Spanish swords,
and coats of mail--and the triarii with their pikes.
The British army numbered
230,000 men, which was divided into their infantry, their cavalry, and
their war-chariots. The infantry also was divided into three nations,
which were subdivided into family tribes resembling the Highland clans.
Those of the South were habited like the Belgic Gauls in woolen tunics
thickly woven with coarse harsh wool; their legs and thighs covered with
close garments, called Brachæ. They wore also helmets of brass, adorned
with figures of birds or beasts rudely carved; iron breastplates,
protruding with hooks; a long sword hanging obliquely across their thighs;
a shield ornamented with figures; and a huge dart whose shaft was of iron,
a cubit in length and as broad as two hands put together.
The inland nations were
clothed in the skins of beasts and armed with spears and bucklers.
The Caledonians went naked,
armed only with long broad pointless swords, and short spears with round
balls of brass at the end, with which they used to make a noise before
battle to frighten the horses of the enemy.
These Northern nations were
of all the most resolute and troublesome enemies of Rome; for they could
sleep on bogs covered with water, and live upon the barks and roots of
trees, and possessed a peculiar kind of meat, a morsel of which no larger
than a bean could protect them for days from hunger and thirst. The
cavalry were mounted upon small but hardy and mettlesome horses, which
they managed with great dexterity. Their arms were the same as those of
the infantry, for they would often dismount from their horses and fight on
Their war-chariots were
adorned with beautiful carvings, and were guided by the flower of the
nobility. They were furnished with enormous hooks and scythes, which
spread death around as they were driven at terrific speed through the
ranks of the foe.
The plain was surrounded by
carts and wagons in which, according to the Celtic custom, were placed the
wives and daughters of the warriors who animated them with their cries,
and who tended the wounded that were brought to them from the field of
In the midst of this army
there was a woman standing in a chariot, clothed in a mantle, with a gold
chain round her neck, her face grave and stern, her yellow hair falling to
It was Queen Boadicea, who
with her two daughters by her side, had come to die or to be revenged.
With a royal dignity
sublime in its shamelessness she showed them her body covered with sore
and ignoble stripes; with a trembling hand she pointed to her two
daughters disgraced and defiled; with a loud and fierce voice she reminded
them of their victories, and prayed to God to complete their work of
vengeance. "Ye Britons, she cried, are wont to fight under the conduct of
a woman, but now I ask ye not to follow me because I am descended from
illustrious ancestors, nor because my kingdom has been stolen from me. I
ask ye to avenge me as a simple woman who has been whipped with rods, and
whose daughters have been ravished before her eyes. These Romans are
insatiable, they respect neither the age of our fathers, nor the virginity
of our daughters. They tax our bodies; they tax our very corpses. And what
are they? They are not men. They bathe in tepid water, live on dressed
meats, drink undiluted wine, anoint themselves with spikenard and repose
luxuriously. They are far inferior to us. Dread them not. They must have
shade and shelter, pounded corn, wine and oil, or they perish. While to us
every herb and root is food, every juice is oil, every stream wine, every
tree a house. Come then, remember your past victories, remember the causes
of this war, and you will understand that the day is come when you must
either conquer or die. Such at least shall be a woman's lot; let those
live who desire to remain slaves." So saying, she loosed a hare as an omen
of victory from her bosom, and the Britons with wild shouts advanced upon
Suetonius cheered his
veterans with a few emphatic words, and showed them with contempt the wild
and disorderly multitude which poured confusedly towards them. He bid the
trumpets sound and the troops advance. Then arose a terrible struggle--a
nation fighting for its freedom--an army fighting for its fame.
Alas! that sea of blood,
that dreadful apparition, those figures in the sand were omens of
Britain's downfall. Four-score thousand of its proudest warriors were
slain; their wives and daughters were butchered, and Boadicea overcome
with sorrow and disgrace, destroyed herself with poison.
Thus ends the reign of the
Druids; the priest-kings of the North. Thus they were stripped of their
crowns, and their sceptres, and their regal robes, and compelled to fly to
the islands of the Irish channel and the German Sea, where they dwelt in
hollow oaks and in little round stone houses, many of which still remain
and are held in reverence by the simple islanders.
In Gaul the work of
destruction had been completed even prior to the time of Suetonius. This
beautiful religion had been proscribed by Tiberius ostensibly because it
permitted human sacrifices, really because it possessed a dangerous power.
This prohibition had been afterwards enforced by Claudius, and the Druids
were massacred by the Romans wherever they were to be found. The
priestesses of Sena were burnt by one of the ancient Dukes of Brittany.
Yet it is difficult to
subroot an ancient religion by imperial edicts. The minds of men though
prone to novelty will frequently return fondly to their first faiths, as
the hearts of maidens creep back to former and almost forgotten loves.
In the fifth century,
Druidism sprang back to life under the mighty Merlin, whose prophecies
became so famous throughout Gaul and Britain, and who forms so conspicuous
a character in the Arthurian romances. But these wee drops of the elixir
vitæ, which could only animate the corpse for a brief space--which but
gave vigor to the frame, and light to the eyes, as a lamp apparently
extinguished will burst into flame ere it dies out for ever.
We find many decrees of
Roman emperors, and canons of Christian councils in the sixth, seventh and
eighth centuries against Druidism, and in the day of King Canute, the
Dane, a law was made against the worship of the sun and moon, mountains,
lakes, trees and rivers. It is possible to discover many vestiges of the
Druids and their religion in our times, and many peculiar analogies
between their superstitions and those of other nations and of other
Having related how this
order of Priests emanated from the Patriarchs; how they received their
idolatrous and ceremonial usuages from the Phnicians; how they obtained a
supreme power in those two countries which ere now have struggled for the
possession of the world; how they were attacked and annihilated by the
Roman soldiers, I shall leap over a chasm of centuries, and trace their
faint footsteps in our homes, in our churches and in our household words.