The Last Druids

In the summer of AD 60, a vast Roman army commanded by the Governor of Britain, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, descended on the coast of north Wales. This well disciplined fighting force was directed at eradicating all resistance on the island of Anglesey (Mona Insulis), which lay just off the coast.

There were several motives behind Rome’s assault against Anglesey. For Tacitus, the reasons for Paulinus choosing to attack the island were twofold: “Mona Insulis contained a large population, while it also acted as a haven for refugees.” Paulinus therefore appears to have been intending to remove this independent refuge to which opponents of Roman rule had been fleeing.

The large population of Anglesey also offered the prospect of vast financial rewards for the Romans; with military victory, many of the island’s inhabitants would be enslaved, generating considerable profits when sold on the slave markets.Evidence of the trade in humanity practiced in Celtic as well as Roman society came to light in 1943 when slave chains were discovered in Llyn Cerrig Bach in south-west Anglesey.

Anglesey was also agriculturally rich, often referred to as the breadbasket of north Wales, and the island also possessed desirable mineral deposits, especially copper. However, there is a little doubting that the principal reason for Roman attack was that the island was the focal point of Druidism in Britain.

Modern public perception of Druidic ritual tends to be blurred by the activities of today’s neo-pagans or are portrayed as mystic apothecaries in the popular Asterix comic books. 2000 years ago, the Druids were of very different character, and they played a hugely important and multifaceted role in Celtic society. They wielded considerable judicial power and have had immense political influence. They performed priestly duties and acted as intermediaries between humans and the gods, while Greek writers also regarded them as spiritual philosophers who taught the doctrine of reincarnation.

Most of all, Druids were the repositories of Celtic knowledge and tradition, committing their wisdom to memory rather than trusting to any system of writing. It is, however, in their role of overseers of human sacrifice that the Druids are perhaps most often remembered. Diodorus would note that a Druid had to be present when a human sacrifice was carried out: “They devote to death a human being and stab him with dagger… and when he was fallen they foretell the future from his fall and from the convulsions of his limbs and from the spurting of the blood”.

It should, of course, be remembered that ancient writers were often intent on portraying the Celts and their religious leaders as barbarians in need of civilising influence of Graeco-Roman society. After all, Romans also accused both the Jews and the Christians of engaging in human sacrificial practices.

In order to destroy the heartland of Druidism, Paulinus would first need to cross the Menai Strait which separated Anglesey from mainland Britain.Tacitus makes it clear that careful preparation was made for this challenging crossing: “in view of shallow and variable channel, [Paulinus] 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.”

The Roman landing would go unopposed – thousands of Celtic warriors were already prepared to repulse the invaders. And it was not only warriors who readied themselves to prevent the Romans establishing a beachhead on the shore of Anglesey. Women were also present, whipping the fighting men into a battle rage, while Druids attempted to summon supernatural forces to protect their island sanctuary. Tacitus wrote on this: “… 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.”

Despite their love of battle, personal bravery, and desire to keep the Romans from their religious centre, it was the lack of discipline and training of Celtic armies that time and again proved to be their downfall when fighting against highly organised legions of Rome.

These characteristics seem to have applied to the defenders of Anglesey in AD 60, and despite of initial hesitance of the legionnaires, disconcerted by the activities of the witch-women and Druids amidst the ranks of enemy wariors, the training and discipline of the Roman Army swiftly reasserted itself.

Where on the shore of the island this momentous battle took place remain unknown, with no fragments of weaponry or human remains yet unearthed on the shoreline of the Menai Strait to provide a clue as to where the Romans landed and began their slaughter of the Celtic defenders. However, the small village of Llanidan, that lying just 1 km from the coast, offers placename clues that possibly indicate the battle took place nearby.

While the battle site has yet to be identified, there is no doubting the completeness of the Roman victory. The calvary that had swum alongside the troop transports during the crossing was probably deployed on mopping-up operations, riding down Celtic warriors and Druids fleeing the battle, and providing a protective screen while the beachhead was reinforced. The legionnaires demolished the groves consecrated to the druidic cults. The Druids believed that is a pious duty to slake their altars with the blood of captives and, by careful examination of human entrails, understand the wishes of their gods. Gods were worshipped there with savage rites, the altars were heaped with hideous offerings, and every tree was sprinkled with human gore.

In addition to destroying the Druids woodland groves and altars, Paulinus tasked his army with installing a garrison among the island’s conquered population with the intention of keeping a close eye on the latest addition to the Empire.

Once the Druids realised their island sanctuary was about to be invaded they may have sent out calls for assistance and set about whipping up anti-Roman sentiment across Britain.The revolt of Boudica led Paulinus to immediately terminate his campaign on Anglesey and march his legions south-eastwards.

Despite the hasty and premature withdrawal of the legions from Anglesey island,  there is no indication that Druids who might have survived the Roman invasion of their island were ever again able to re-establish their religious or political influence within British society. In AD 73, a new governor, Gnaeus Agricola, led the Romans back to Anglesey and succeeded in finally annexing the island. However, durin the second invasion there is not a single mention of Druids. The eradication of the Druids of Anglesey brought with it the destruction of the philosophy, history and mythology of Celtic society that had been preserved within  the oral traditions of the enigmatic priesthood for countless generations.