The Celtic Resistance to Rome

In the first Century, Rome had occupied a large part of the British isles but its hold on the indigenous Celtic peoples was precarious. Some of the Celt tribes remained unsubdued and others maintained an uneasy peace with the Romans. The Romans were in constant conflict with the Celts of Gaul and they suspected that other Celts from the British isles helped and supported the insurrections against Roman rule.

Anglesey Identified as the the Celtic Heart

Julius Caesar, himself identified the Druids as the backbone of Celt resistance and they identified Anglesey as the druidic centre of the Celtic world both spiritually and geographically. It was the Roman belief Anglesey was a 'druidic university' serving the tribal Celts living in Gaul, Ireland and Britain

A new Roman Governor for Britannia

In AD58 Gauis Suetonis Paulinus was appointed Governor of the Roman province of Britannia. He was a seasoned campaigner who determined to quell the Celtic resistance to Rome's rule. He realised that the isle of Anglesey was of supreme importance to the Celts of the British Isles and Gaul (France) and moved to destroy the Druids.

Invasion Planning

Paulinus used two Legions:
XIV Gemina and XX Valeria Victrix…both made up of seasoned troops. Paulinus knew Celtic resistance would be fanatical and realised that crossing the narrow but treacherous Menai Straits would expose his troops to withering arrow and spear attacks.

His plan was to lay down a barrage as his army crossed the water. He bolstered his legions with Ballistae and Onangers – deadly artillery usually used in sieges. The Ballistae were huge catapults capable of throwing flaming missiles up to 2000 feet. Adapted to shoot iron bolts or rocks they would be devastatingly effective against massed ranks and earth fortifications. The Onagers were another type of specialist catapult used to hurl boulders or small bags of stones with deadly accurately.

The Romans had successfully invaded the Isle of Wight with the assistance of the Roman Navy's large troop-carrying boats. As Commander of Britannia, Paullinus had a section of the Roman Navy at his disposal (the Classis Britannia) but he realised the Menai Straits presented an entirely different obstacle. Anglesey is separated from the mainland by a narrow strip of water that is tidal and fast flowing on both the flood and ebb tides: large boats would be difficult to manage. The Romans had faced many river crossing before and the other option was the creation of pontoon based bridges on the Roman Navy boats but this too was deemed impractical: the tides just too strong.

Instead, Paullinus decided on small flat-bottomed boats to ferry his infantry across, whilst his cavalry would be concentrated at the narrowest point of the Straits.
The bulk of the boats would be launched here, crossing at slack water and joined by cavalry swum across. Before and during their launch Paulinus arranged for a terrific bombardment of fire and rocks.

Other infantry would cross at each end of the Straits, crossing the the wide sand flats on foot and carrying their flat-bottomed boats with them.

Paullinus made his camp at what is known today as Llanfairisgaer, near modern Caernarfon and the Celtic forces gathered on the opposing bank to resist them.

The Battle of Anglesey

At the appointed hour Paulinus ordered the troops down to the shore near Ynys y Moch. The lines of ballistae and onangers were loaded and made ready. Crossbows were set and ready. The Roman Legions stood in formation on the banks facing their enemy banners raised, swords beating on their shields. The cavalry lined up ready to for the order to cross.

Roman Troops Paralysed by Fear

On the far bank, the Celts made ready, Druids stood with the Celtic warriors bellowing and shrieking curses and invoking the wrath of their religion on the Roman enemy. The celts were roused to a fury, the warriors screaming and brandishing their weapons, the woman running through their ranks dancing and brandishing flaming torches.The psychological effect was devastating.

The less seasoned Roman troops froze in terror, others recoiled as the horses neighed and whinnied. The Roman historian Tacitus recorded that many of the troops stood 'watching fearfully, their limbs shaking in terror'. Even, the seasoned Legionnaires hesitated.

Paulllinus rallies to troops to a blood frenzy

Paullinus realised he faced disaster. Although the Celts were outnumbered and lightly armed, he had to cross the Straits first. Paulinus spurred his horse and rode amongst them, invoking their honour as Roman soldiers telling them the disgrace they would face for having been intimidated by savages who did not know the honour of full battle, spurring them on to glory.

When the ballistae and the onagers where ordered to launch their deadly fusillade, Paullinus had worked his men into a blood frenzy. The rocks, stones and flaming tar ploughed into the Celts and Paullinus gave the order to launch. A second wave of rocks hammered the Celts lines as the Celts threw spears and rocks at the incoming boats. Some floundered and capsized, the air thick with the shouts and screams and the whine of missiles. The cavalry charged into the water, the horse striking out for the far bank, urged on by the riders, flanked by more troop bearing boats. Arrows rained down on the invaders as the Celts rallied, killing legionairres and horses before more rocks and fire rained down on the defenders.

Romans establish beach-head

The first troops to land were the specialist Bativanian amphibious troops, a Germanic tribe allied to the Romans. They were met by the withering fusillade of javelins but they pressed on. Roman Legionaries clambered from their boats, splashing through the water. The Celts were reeling from the fusillade of of rocks, stones and flaming tar that had rained down on their ranks. Desperate to throw the romans back, the Celts threw their mounted warriors at the disembarking Romans, charging headlong into the water, weapons raised, screaming their battlecrys.

Paulinus gave the order for the cross-bows to be fired. A shower of huge wooden staves rained down on the charging Celts, spearing horse and rider alike. Chieftains lay dead and dying in the shallow water.
Secure beachhead

More Roman troops poured ashore, pausing only to allow their numbers grow, they consolidated their beachhead and then launched themselves forwards.

Legionnaires smashed into the Celtic warriors as fierce one to one fighting erupted.

Although, the Celts fought fanatically their weapons were no match for the Romans and with each passing minute more Legionnaires poured across the Straits and joined the fray.

On either side of the main attack point, the Romans were landing near present day Newborough Warren and Beaumaris.

The Celts were in disarray, threatened on each flank and with their middle in collapse, they could retreat or fight. They choose to fight, urged on by their remaining Chieftains threw everything at the advancing Romans. Rallied by the Druids, men and women charged the Romans with spears, swords and staffs in one last desperate bid to stop the Roman advance.

The Roman advance gathered pace, charging along the beach and up the gently sloping land, cutting and slashing as they went.
They showed no mercy, slaughtering anyone in their path. It is documented that the Romans, perhaps goaded on by the shame they had shown before they had started their transit across the waters, fought with ferocity and a fury that became legendary throughout Britain. Slowly they established a beachhead, prepared the ground for those who followed them – and then began to cut and slash their way forward to establish their foothold. The cavalry charged into the thinning Celt ranks pushing them back further inland until organised resistance began to break down.


Druids were singled out for special treatment, hunted down, and if taken alive and burned alive in the Celts sacred groves.

Even in the barbarous practices of the time, the Roman Army's actions were particularly brutal. Men, women and children were butchered by an army in a frenzy, a fact recorded by Roman historians.

Tacitus, the Roman historian said of Paullinus: " He proceeds always against the vanquished, even after they have surrendered, with excessive vigour. Justice under his administration had frequently the air of personal injury. ''

A Queen of the Celts Rises up - Paullinus abandons his conquest

Although the Druids anticipated help from across the water in Ireland, it did not arrive in time but Anglesey's fate was not sealed. Just as Paullinus seemed set to eradicate all the druids and Celts from Anglesey, a Celtic Queen rose up in rebellion against the Romans. Queen Boudicia, leader of the British Iceni Celts in eastern england, outraged by Roman behaviour led the Iceni and another Celtic tribe, the Trinovantes against the Romans.

The Celts marched on Colchester, sacked it and then engaged IX Hispania Legion in battle. The Celts routed the Roman Legion and marched for London. Paullinus received the news in Anglesey and immediately abandoned his campaign and marched for London.

The Second Anglesey Invasion

Fifteen years later the Romans returned to Anglesey and under invaded the island again, crossing the Lavan Sands opposite Beaumaris. The Romans overcame all resistance and garrisoned the entire island. They positioned the XX Legion at Chester ready to suppress any revolt or attempted invasion by Celts from Ireland.