Holy Island

‘He therefore prepared to attack the Island of Mona.’

– Tacitus, Annals, XIV: 29

Understanding the struggle of Britons
Against their Roman occupiers
From the annals of Ancient writers,
Is like reading of the resistance
Of Londoners to their eviction
In the pages of the British Press:

Beyond the justice of the rulers,
And the rights of foreign investors,
And the heroism of the soldiers,
And the barbarism of the rebels,
You can still find, between the lines,
A people trying to survive.

                           I
When they captured Caratacus
From the fall of Caer Caradoc,
Betrayed by the Brigantes’ Queen,
We fell back into the mountains,
Where ten years of the long defeat
Awaited us in their passes.

Then Suetonius Paulinus
Came for us with all his forces:
The Fourteenth Legio Gemina,
Vexillations from the Twentieth,
Hardened men out of Germany,
Foreigners from a foreign land.

                           II
On the shoreline of Ynys Môn
We turned and made our final stand
In the heart of Ancient Briton,
Mother of Modern-day Wales,
Protected by her swift waters,
The white-horsed waves of Afon Menai.

Then through the pass of Llanberis
The Roman legions descended
Like rain from banks of storm clouds
To the shore of Llanfair Wood,
And looked out from between its trees
Like thieves at the home they will rob.

                           III
We clung to our vanishing land
Like the roots of a cliff-grown oak,
Deceangli and Ordovice,
And the warrior Silures,
Refugees to the Druid home,
The sacred groves of Ynys Môn.

Then the Romans built a fort there
With stockade, rampart and ditch,
High above a shallow passage
Across from the Moel-y-don beach,
And at the turning of the tide
Made to cross the silenced reach.

                           IV
In dense array we waited for them
On the first rise beyond the shore,
With slings and stones and javelins,
With wooden shields and heavy swords,
And we clashed our arms together,
To drown our numbers in the roar.

Then the Romans built shallow boats,
And the cavalry swam beside them,
In chainmail and metal helmets,
With gladius, shield and pilum,
And behind them the ballistae
And the catapults lined the fort.

                           V
And our women walked among us,
And in their hands were burning brands,
And the Druids sang their curses,
And held aloft their wailing hands,
At the sound of which the Romans
Stood unmoving on the sands.

Then Suetonius Paulinus
Recalled the legions to their pride,
And the hail of burning missiles
That sailed across the smoking sky,
And the Romans raised their standards
And crossed to the other side.

                           VI
Our warriors waited for them
Like trees on a spring-swollen stream,
And the heads of our long spears swayed
Like barley in a summer field,
And the Druids stood beside us
Like leaves in a stiff autumn breeze.

Then the Romans rose from the strait
Like boulders from a falling tide,
And the sound of their feet was the sound
Of waves on the pebble-grey shore
As mud turned to sand turns to rock,
So they crossed to the other side.

                           VII
And our anger rose within us
Like the wind through the leaves of trees,
And our eyes as we watched were as dark
As the shadows in which we stood,
And our future lay before us
Like a fork in the path through a wood.

Then the marching of the Romans
Was like winter in the valley,
And the sun glittered on their helms
As off the ripples of the sea,
And the sound of the coming battle
Was like fire in a distant wood.

                           VIII
And together we charged down the hill
Like the wind through a field of grass,
And the Druids ran beside us
Like holly runs through a hedgerow,
And death fell across our faces
Like shadows across a dead crow.

Then the Romans drove us backward
As a storm bends a sapling tree,
And the Druids cried to the skies
Like the branches of ancient trees,
And we clung to the land we stood on
Like ivy around a dead tree.

                           IX
And the face of the battle turned
Like sunlight on a clouded field,
And the cries of our many fallen
Were the cries of birds in the trees,
And the taste of defeat was bitter
As nettles in a ditch of weeds.

Then the Romans ran among us
Like dogs into a flock of sheep,
And our warriors were scattered
Like air on a bubbling stream,
But our destiny ran before us
Like a lane between high-hedged fields.

                           X
And our defiance broke beneath us
Like a keel on a bank of mud,
And our wooden shields lay cloven
Like broken shells in black seaweed,
And our weapons fell from our hands
Like crabs washed away with the tide.

And the hair on our heads hung heavy
Like seaweed in salt-water sand,
And our blood soaked into the earth
As a stream flows back to the sea,
And the Romans fed on the spoils
Like flies on a dead rabbit’s hide.

                           XI
And the bodies of our wounded
Lay like sheep in a summer field,
And those that could limped away
Like sheep lain too long in the sun,
And our blood stained the green grass red
Like a pool drunk up by the sun.

And our dying lay on the rocks
Like jellyfish left by the sea,
And the life dried up in our wounds
Like jellyfish left in the sun,
Like jellyfish after a storm
We lay on the blood-tide shore.

                           XII
O where were the gods of nature
When they turned our world upside down?
The only answer we received
Was the sound of the wind in the trees,
And the fields lamenting our loss
Like the lapping of waves underground.

They set fire to our sacred groves
Till the grey smoke blackened the sky,
Enslaved our women and children,
Threw the Druids onto the pyres,
Killed every warrior living
By the waters of Afon Menai.

                           XIII
Now the strait is crossed by bridges,
And holiday homes line its banks,
And Ynys Môn is Anglesey
Either side of the A55,
And Holy Island a port for ships
From across the Irish Sea.

There’s a Travelodge at Holyhead,
An airport and seven golf clubs,
The copper ore the Bronze Age mined
Is a stop on the tourist trail,
And nothing here is holy now
And all the oak trees are gone.

                           XIV
And all that remains are the names
Of the fields where we fought and died,
From the flowers of Maes-hir-gad
To the grass of Cae-oer-waedd
From the foundations of Plas Goch,
To the stones of Bryn-y-Beddau.

They grow in the Long Battlefield,
They lie beneath the Red Hall,
In the Field of Cold Lamentation,
Buried deep in the Hill of Graves,
And all you can hear of our voices
Is the murmur of Menai’s waves.

                           XV
And there in the surf I found,
On the shore below Bryn Llwyd,
An ochre stone marbled with grey
Like the contours of the country,
Standing upright in the sand
Where the morning tide had turned.

Now it rests on a map stained with blood
Drawn by a thorn at Llan Idan,
Holding down the folded land
On the desk where I write this poem:
A brown smudge marks the Roman fort,
A red streak the Ancient Britons.

Simon Elmer (September 2015)

Ancient sources

‘Britain was under the rule of Suetonius Paulinus, who in military knowledge and in popular favour, which allows no one to be without a rival, vied with Corbulo, and aspired to equal the glory of the recovery of Armenia by the subjugation of Rome’s enemies. He therefore prepared to attack the island of Mona, which was inhabited by a warlike people and a refuge for fugitives. He built flat-bottomed vessels to cross the shallows and uncertain depths of the dividing sea. In this way the infantry crossed, while the cavalry followed by fording or, where the water was deep, swam by the side of their horses.

‘On the far shore stood the opposing army, with its dense array of armed warriors, while between the ranks ran women, in black attire like the Furies, their hair dishevelled, waving flaming brands. All around them the Druids, lifting up their hands to heaven, and pouring forth dreadful curses, terrified the legionnaires by the unfamiliar sight, so that, as though their limbs were paralysed, they stood motionless and exposed to injury. But urged on by their general’s appeals and their mutual encouragements not to quail before a rabble of frenzied women, they bore their standards forward, smote down all resistance, and wrapped their foes in the flames of their own torches. A force was then set over the conquered Britons, and their woodland groves, devoted to inhuman superstitions, were destroyed. They deemed it indeed a duty to cover their altars with the blood of captives and to consult their deities through human entrails.’

– Tacitus, Annals, Book XIV, chapters 29-30 (117 A.D.)

Well aware that he must follow up the prestige of his arms, and that in proportion to his first success would be the terror of the other tribes, Agricola formed the design of subjugating the island of Mona, from the occupation of which Paulinus had been recalled, as I have already related, by the rebellion of the entire province. But, as his plans were not matured, he had no fleet. The skill and resolution of the general accomplished the passage. With some picked men of the auxiliaries, disencumbered of all baggage, who knew the shallows and had that national experience in swimming which enables the Britons to take care not only of themselves but of their arms and horses, he delivered so unexpected an attack that the astonished enemy, who were looking for a fleet, a naval armament, and an assault by sea, thought that to such assailants nothing could be formidable or invincible. And so, peace having been sued for and the island given up, Agricola became great and famous.

 Tacitus, On the life and character of Julius Agricola (c. 98 A.D.)

‘The whole race, which is now called Celtic, is war-mad, both high spirited and quick for battle, but otherwise straightforward and not of evil character. And so, if aroused, they assemble for battle quite openly and without forethought, so that they are easily defeated by those who wish to outwit them. For at any time or place, and on whatever pretext you stir them up, you will have them ready to risk their lives, even if they have nothing on their side but their own strength and courage. As for their strength, it arises partly from their large physique and partly from their numbers. And on account of their character of simplicity and straightforwardness they easily come together in great numbers, because they always share in the suffering of those of their neighbours whom they think wronged. At the present time they are all at peace, since they have been enslaved and are living in accordance with the commands of the Romans who captured them, but it is from the early times that I am taking this account of them.’

– Strabo, Geographica, Book 4, chapter 4 (1st Century A.D.)

Leave a Reply