Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Menai Massacre & the Last Outpost of the Druids

by Gillian Hamer

Three of my biggest loves. Place – the isle of Anglesey, North Wales. Period – the Roman occupation of the British Isles. Past – the Druidic religion. So, it was inevitable that these three opposing forces would clash one day. Conclusion – my third novel, Complicit.

The back of the book blurb takes some of the words of the great Roman writer, Tacitus, who was deemed to have witnessed the first (unsuccessful) invasion in 60 AD. Was Tacitus witness to the event? Or was he simply another arm in the strong propaganda that raged around every Roman battle? Later named the Menai Massacre by an 18th Century Welsh bard, the first battle for Roman occupation of Anglesey was certainly one of the most famous and alleged defeats of the Roman army.

Defeat? Could it be true that a wild band of Celts, aided by a scattering of ancient Druids, managed to defeat the immense power of the Roman army, under the direct lead of one of its most powerful leaders, Suetonius Paulinus? Well, yes. It is true. It took three attempts, eighteen years and the building of a huge fort on the Welsh coast, called Segontium (modern day Caernarvon) before the Roman’s finally managed to defeat this tiny little outpost.

Snowdonia from Anglesey across Menai Straits
(a view perhaps seen and loved by the Druids)

It’s important to ask one critical question. Why bother? Anglesey is hardly the centre of the universe in today’s society. Unless you’ve passed through to catch a ferry from Holyhead to Dublin, it’s quite likely you’ve never been there. If you’re not living in the UK, there’s a chance you may never have even heard of the island. So why did the Roman army battle so hard, and for so long, just to cross the narrow stretch of water (today called the Menai Straits) to control a little-inhabited island?

The official version of events, according to Roman propaganda, is that Rome had decried that all Druids must be wiped from the face of the earth. It is known that Roman children grew up with a great fear of the Druids, likely born by a fear of elder Romans against this band of wise and learned men who could become strong and powerful opposition. And there is evidence that back in the first century BC, the island named Mona Insulis by Rome (now Anglesey) was known as the seat of learning for the Druidic religion. Think of an Oxford or Cambridge university today as equivalent. It took up to ten years of learning to reach the top most rank, Chief Druid, and beginners were sent to Mona to mix with the elders. The deep natural pools and plentiful oak forests made the perfect environment for the Druids to practise and teach their beliefs. The Romans would have you believe that these rituals consisted of blood-curdling actions such as human sacrifice, but for a religion based on the love and power of Mother Nature, that seems yet another burst of propaganda, and no evidence has ever been found.

There are other, more likely, reasons Rome was set to crush Mona. One was that it was positioned directly on the trade route from Ireland, trade that centred on the worldwide shipment of gold. Rome had a constant need for the precious metal, and it was easiest transported from the mines in modern day County Wicklow, across to Holyhead, and from there across country to its required source.

Second, there’s some proof that the Roman army, once it had conquered the island, made use of the natural resources found there. A copper mine at Amlwch on the north- east coast (once the biggest in Europe) has workings right back to the Neolithic. It’s inconceivable that an advancing army would miss the mounds and discoloured earth and not known of its significance.

In terms of ritual and Roman distrust and fear of Druids, same decades earlier the first ever mention of Mona came from Roman historian, Pliny. He describes a ceremony involving an oak tree, considered sacred even today to modern day Druids. Mistletoe (which within Druidic lore symbolises life through death) was ritually cut from the oak, and accompanied by the sacrifice of a bull. There are arguments as to whether the ritual was a farm blessing or whether it had a deeper cultural significance.

Pliny wrote …

“Mistletoe was gathered with due religious ceremony, if possible on the sixth day of the Moon when the influence of the orb was said to be at its height.”

Pliny also records …

“Mistletoe when taken in drink imparts fecundity to barren animals and that it is an antidote to all known poisons.”

The position of the Druids was closely interwoven within Celtic life and their influence was very powerful. Whilst Britain had a reputation across Europe as home to the Druidic movement, Mona played a significant part in British and tribal cohesion and was labelled the centre for Druidism in Britain.

Interpretation of 60AD Roman Invasion

So, what happened in 60AD? Why was the first attempted invasion unsuccessful? It’s believed Suetonius’s first attack was somewhere around the Penmon Peninsular, one of the beaches near the town of modern-day Beaumaris, across the relatively flat expanse of Lavan Sands.

Let’s turn again to the words of Tacitus to tell us …

“Suetonius Paulinus prepared accordingly to attack the island of Mona, which had a considerable population of its own, while serving as a haven for refuges; and, in view of the shallow and variable channel, constructed a flotilla of boats with flat bottoms. By this method the infantry crossed; the cavalry, who followed, did so by fording or, in deeper water, by swimming at the side of their horses … On the beach stood the adverse array, a serried mass of arms and men, with women flitting between the ranks. In the style of Furies, in robes of deathly black and with dishevelled hair, they brandished their torches; while a circle of Druids, lifting their hands to heaven and showering imprecations, struck the troops with such an awe at the extraordinary spectacle, that, as though their limbs were paralysed, they exposed their bodies to wounds without an attempt at movement. Then, reassured by their general, and inciting each other never to flinch before a band of females and fanatics, they charged behind the standards, cut down all who met them, and enveloped the enemy in his own flames … The next step was to install a garrison among the conquered population, and to demolish the groves consecrated to their savage cults: for they considered it a pious duty to slake the altars with captive blood and to consult their deities by means of human entrails …”

Roman statue of Suetonius Paulinus
It was later reported to be the bloodiest battle undertaken by the Roman army in all of Britain. However, before Suetonius could quell the fanatics and females and establish a garrison, news reached him of a severe uprising in the south. A warrior queen of the Iceni tribe, name of Boudicca, who, knowing the army in the south to be without its leader, was causing havoc - setting fire to town after town as she marched across country. Torn, Suetonius had no option but to withdraw from the endless, grinding, daily battles against the Celts. It is likely he sailed from Mona to Deva (Chester) and from there marched down into the Midlands, via the main Roman road, the Watling Street, to meet Boudicca for her final battle, rumoured to be around the Roman settlement of Manduessedum (Mancetter). It is believed Boudicca committed suicide rather than be taken prisoner.

Suetonius Paulinus was a hailed a hero, the brightest general of his time, and was recalled to Rome by the Emperor Nero. And the little island off the North Wales coast forgotten. For the time being.

Another five generals followed, each had their own battles to win. It was not until AD78, and a young legionnaire, who’d been part of the original invasion in AD60, was crowned Governor Gnaeus Julius Agricola of Britain. A son of a wealthy Roman senator, his memory burned with the opposition his legion had faced as a young soldier – and it was now time to get even.

After news reached him that an Auxiliary cavalry squadron had been crushed in the wilds of Snowdonia by the Ordovices tribe, his response was fast and crushing. He was so enraged, he headed to North Wales to lead his men from the front, and with as much man power, weaponry and back-up he could source, he set to crush the Celts and Druids once and for all.

Tacitus writes …

“He almost exterminated the whole tribe; then recognising the necessity of confirming first impressions, knowing that he depended on the issue of his first campaign to terrorise the enemy of the future, he determined to reduce the island of Mona, from the capture of which, as I have before recorded, Paulinus had been recalled by the general rebellion in Britain … His (Agricola) plans had been hastily formed and so, as was natural, he had no ships on the spot; yet the resourcefulness and determination of the general bridged the straits. For after unloading all the baggage he picked a body of native auxiliaries who knew the fords, and had that facility in swimming which belongs to their nation, and by means of which they can control simultaneously their own movements, their weapons, and their horses; he then launched them upon the enemy so suddenly that the astonished islanders, who looked for fleets of ships upon the sea, promptly came to the conclusion that nothing was hard and nothing invincible to men who fought in this fashion … Accordingly they petitioned for peace and surrendered the island …”

Roman town Din Lligwy
I would doubt that the invasion was quite as peaceful as Tacitus’s propaganda would have us believe. Agricola spent the next two years erecting a huge fort and garrison at Segontium on the Welsh side of the Menai Straits. But it would seem that all sides remained content with the arrangement achieved during this campaign, as no further mention of any other disturbances arising from the island are known, and in the following campaign season Agricola is found fighting against the Brigantes and Carvetii in the north of England, and would hardly have done so had Mona not been secure.

While there are the remains and ruins of Roman towns (such as the Din Lligwy walled town near Moelfre) and hamlets across Anglesey, no evidence remains of the Druid strongholds. There are proliferations of burial chambers, chambered cairns, standing stones and sacred wells, dating as far back as Mesolithic times through to the late Iron Age all across the island. The most famous of the Roman finds is a significant collection of Celtic metalwork recovered during the expansion of RAF Valley on the north of the island. While draining a lake, Llyn Cerrig Bach, a later Iron-Age hoard was discovered, including what has been identified as human slave chains. As Druids were known to sacrifice metal objects to their Gods in these sacred lakes, could this be evidence of a Druidic settlement or place of worship?

Mona stone head
Also of interest is the large number of late Iron-Age and Romano-British carved stone heads, which have been recovered over time from many locations throughout the island. Many of these carvings have ‘cigarette holes’ around the mouth which may serve a ritual Druidic purpose. Even today, these stone heads are sometimes removed from their resting places to take part in traditional local folk ceremonies. Could these be the last remaining trace of Druid life on Anglesey?

My novel, Complicit, takes a purely fiction look at the people and lives on both sides of the Roman versus Druidic divide back in 60AD. And also, investigates the idea that some of these traditional folk festivals still survive today on the island … because some of the Druid descendants still survive too, waiting for their time to rise to power again. I’d love to believe this is the truth; only the future may prove me right or wrong.


Gillian Hamer's other two novels, The Charter and Closure, which also feature historical facts about the island of Anglesey can be found on her website.
You can follow her on Twitter @gillyhamer

Details of other books from Triskele, visit their website.


  1. I've just followed the link on Historical Fiction Daily and found the above really interesting. I'm working on AD43 in southern Britain and am very aware of the happenings of AD60. Although it is unlikely I'll get that far in my story, I'm booking a stay in Anglesey this summer, so I'm delighted to have come across your books to provide good reading. Very good luck with Complicit.

    1. Thank you so much, hope you enjoy the book and it gives you a taste of Anglesey!

  2. Interesting article...and Anglesey is a beautiful island with many stunning monuments, especially from the neolithic.
    However, I am not sure about the peaceful 'Mother nature' loving druids; that strikes me as sounding rather more like modern druidism or paganism (Wicca especially) , with its emphasis on a 'Great Mother' (which in fact is not really seen in ancient Britain, whose tribes worshipped many regional gods and goddesses. There was no one prime overgod or goddess.)
    While the Romans certainly did use propaganda against their enemies, including the Britons, human sacrifice did occur to some degree throughout most of the prehistoric phases of the British isles and certainly in the 'celtic' Iron Age--the recent bog bodies of Ireland appear to be 'King sacrifices' to the Land, and at many hillforts (Danebury and Cadbury being examples) human beings, sometimes bound or thrust into pits head first, have been found at entrances of/under causeways. In Ireland a woman buried in an earlier henge monument may have been buried alive.) Whether druids carried out these killings, we obviously cannot know, but as these appear to be ritualistic acts I would think it likely if they are regarded as 'priests'
    That's not to say in any wise that druids were stupid and savage! They were obviously very learned men, but in their era many ways were used to try and intercede with the fearsome, capricious and sometimes destructive natural and supernatural worlds.

    1. Interesting debate isn't it? Fascinating. Without ANY evidence of Druid rituals at all, I guess we'll never know, other than in text which may be unreliable. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    2. We all bent low in fear, trembling in ignorance thinking to appease! And give everything we have to guarantee we would see the Sun God rise tomorrow, "Oh Mighty One!" We would be willing to give what we valued the most! Our food. animals, and most of all human life!...That is until we began to figure out that the Sun will rise tomorrow, guaranteed! And gee, one of us may be as intelligent as God? In fact, maybe God might just be our father, and replaceable by one of us? Ya, we replace God, that is the answer to our fear!

  3. The Roman propaganda machine was well-oiled, wasn't it? My own research is primarily north of Hadrian's wall, and propaganda was used to "excuse" initial failures to quell the Pictish tribes. Given events in 60 AD, I always thought Boudicca would have succeeded if she hadn't made the fatal error of allowing the Romans to select the battleground and set their lines. Bookmarked for my stuff. Thanks! :)

  4. I never thought about the Tribal Past of my Ancestors, until my early 70's. And now that I am thinking about it, I also recognize the Roman thumb that we are still unknowingly under! And it makes me and others wonder? What would this world be like if Celtic boots, kicked the Romans back across the Channel, all the way to Rome...And kept them there?


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