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Pre-Roman and Roman Britain The long and complex history of the British Isles reflects the interaction of man and a very varied natural environment. The British Isles are both part of Europe and yet separated from it by the sea. They have a very varied topography, climate and natural vegetation. We should be careful about projecting the modern environment on to the past: climate and economic factors, even the coastline and water levels, were different. Yet in simple terms the bulk of the west and north of Britain are higher and wetter, their soils poorer and their agriculture pastoral rather than arable: centred on animals not crops.

In 920 the rulers of Scotland, York, English Northumbria (the area north of the Tees that had resisted the Vikings), and the Strathclyde Britons are said, by West Saxon sources, to have accepted Edward's lordship. His successor Athelstan captured York (927), invaded Scotland (934), defeated a united force of Scots, Strathclyde Britons and Norwegians from Ireland at Brunanburh (937) and formed alliances with leading continental rulers. Athelstan saw himself as a king or overking or even emperor of Britain and this came out in his charters.

The battle was hard-fought, its outcome far from certain, but the shieldwall of the English housecarls was disrupted by advances designed to exploit real or feigned retreats by the Normans and at last the English position was broken, Harold falling with an arrow in his eye, at least in legend; although he may have been hacked down by horsemen. William then moved rapidly to exploit his victory, advancing on London where the demoralised defenders lacked determined leadership: many of the natural leaders had died at Hastings.

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