History Files


Post-Roman Britain

Ancient Dumnonia

The Celtic Devon Dewnans web site, 10 June 2004



Before the Romans came to Britain the indigenous Celtic people formed a number of independent nations. The Dumnonii (or Damnonii) occupied Devon, Cornwall, and the western parts of Somerset and Dorset. To the east lay the Durotiges and beyond the Belgae peoples.

These native Britons may have been ethnically related to the Iceni, Celtic tribe of the modern East Anglian area of Eastern England who were led to heroic defeat by Boudicea (Boudicca), but they did not suffer the same fate. A number of factors helped in this.

The Dumnonii (to use the Roman name) were Iron Age Celts, but hardly savages. They mined tin and other minerals from Dartmoor, the Tamar Valley, and Cornwall, and they traded tin with the Phoenicians and other Mediterranean civilisations long before the Roman invasion. Conflict between the nations of pre-Roman Britain had led to the establishment of numerous hill forts on the boundary - and with the Somerset levels then being still largely tidally effected marshland - Dumnonia's only boundary to the east was relatively narrow and easy to defend.

Once the Romans had invaded Britain they extended their domain north and west, but before they could reach the land of the Dumnonii they had to conquer other tribes. The Durotiges also had hill forts, and the Romans had considerable trouble overcoming these. A major and bloody battle seems to have taken place at Maiden Castle (a major Celtic hill fort) and also at Hod Hill, and on occasion the Romans had to lay siege to the hill forts and starve the inhabitants out (it is reported that the Romans then killed the inhabitants - man, woman and child).

Having accomplished the conquest of Dorset the Romans would have been faced with the defended hill forts of the Dumnonii, who would have had some time to enhance their defences. They would no doubt also have had their resolve hardened by the fate of their neighbours, and therefore may have had their numbers boosted by refugees.

Roman Exeter

Roman Exeter

Image © Exeter City Council

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The Romans themselves do not record any victories over the Dumnonii (and as victors they normally did), and there is only one battle recorded (without the Romans noting the outcome). It seems that the Romans must have come to some arrangement with the Dumnonii, for a small garrison was established at Exeter the size of which is not in keeping with a occupying force, and a relatively small number of other garrisons or forts were established. Remains of Roman settlement in Devon and Cornwall are remarkably few, but the fact that some Roman buildings existed, even down into Cornwall (ie at Nanstallon) points to some sort of truce between the Romans and Dumnonii, and the latter probably continued to have a degree of self-government throughout the Roman occupation.

It is recorded that iron was mined on Exmoor during the Roman period.

The Dumnonii capital was believed to be at Exeter, which the Britons called Keresk ('Caer Uisc'), and which the Romans named Isca Dumnonioram. In Devon another settlement was Tamaris (according to Ptolemy) which is believed to be in the Plymouth region.

When the Romans left almost 400 years later, the Dumnonii soon regained their independence (by AD 410). Shortly thereafter there is evidence that trade with the Mediterranean recommenced.

However, Celtic tribes in eastern Britain felt vulnerable following the Roman withdrawal, and looked across the North Sea for support. Angles, Saxons and Jutes were therefore invited to Britain to help defend it, and ended up settling in Britain and setting up their own nations [although there were already substantial Saxon and Anglian settlements along the Saxon Shore, where they had been settled for the previous two centuries as laeti, recruited by Rome to help defend the shoreline - Ed].

The newcomers gradually extended their territory, and in the sixth century they occupied about half of England. However this advance was then stopped, and it is about this that the legend of Arthur speaks. Whether there ever was an Arthur (and there is evidence of an 'Artorus') what is evident that the Celtic tribes did unite to halt the westward expansion of the Angles and Saxons and that expansion was stopped [for at least fifty years]. Dumnonia has many strong claims to Arthur, but it is difficult to match legend with fact. One thing is certain, if Arthur existed he led the Britons (the word Briton coming from the Brythonic Celts) against the English (the words English and 'Anglo' coming from the Germanic tribes of the Angles).

The victory of Arthur and the delay in Anglo-Saxon encroachment is important for it is during this time that the Saxons start to adopt Christianity (the Britons already were Christian although they observed Christianity in different ways) and subsequent expansion was probably more tolerant of the indigenous Britons.

It is also at this time that a wave of migration happened, this time by the Dumnonian Celts, into Brittany. The reasons for this migration are uncertain, as the Saxon encroachment was still a distant threat to Devon and Cornwall [but it may have been triggered by refugees from further east]. Nevertheless many people from Dumnonia settled in [Armorica, later known as] Brittany, naming regions after their homeland (Cornouaille [Cornwall] in the south west of Brittany, and Domnonee [Devon] in the north east of Brittany) and taking with them the Celtic language.

Strong links between Dumnonia and Brittany were established, and remain to the present day.

Eventually the West Saxon advance westward recommenced and in the sixth century (AD 577) the Britons of the West Country were separated from those of Wales. The Saxons called the Celtic Britons 'Wealas' (meaning foreigners) and the Dumnonians became the 'West Wealas' and this is reflected on a number of ancient maps.


NW Europe Map
North-west Europe circa AD 700 per Euratlas
Copyright © Christos Nüssli, Milieu 30, CH-1400 Yverdon, 2002

By AD 710 the Saxons are believed to have taken control of Exeter, and over the next 60 years the Saxons (under Ina and Adelred) attempted to subjugate the Dumnonian nation. Despite set-backs (ie AD 722), the Saxons were largely successful and progressively extended their influence westward. In 814 the Saxons (now under Ecgberht) conquered the Dumnonian 'rump' of Cornwall, after the Cornish had allied themselves with the Danes.

Insurrections continued, but in 838 the Saxons defeated a Cornish/Danish Force near Callington, and this was the last battle fought by the Celts against the Saxons.

However, to see the Saxon invasion as a continuous battle is incorrect. Although the period is littered with numerous military confrontations, for the majority of this time the native Celts and invading Saxons appear to have tolerated each other. This can be evidenced by the relationship between Dumnonian King Geraint and Saxon Bishop Adhelm.

Following the 'conquest' of Devon the Saxons had four laws. Not only did they practise different laws for rich and poor, but had rules for Saxon rich, Saxon poor, Celtic rich and Celtic poor. This demonstrates not only that the Celts 'survived' the conquest, but that some managed to retain some wealth at the transition, although the law for Celtic rich was later dispensed with.

Evidence of continued Celtic settlement in Devon at this time can also be found in Exeter retaining a 'British quarter' which so so named for centuries, and by reference to 'Wealcynn', which is what the Saxons called those Celts who did not live in Cornwall. Branscombe is one such place mentioned in King Alfred's will in AD 900.

In 927 Saxon King Athelstan expelled the Celts from Exeter (possibly because of concerns that they had allegiances with the Danes), although they relocated only as far as the modern location of Exeter St David's railway station.

In 936 Athelstan set the boundary between Devon and Cornwall at the Tamar, where (largely) it has remained ever since.

However, this was not the boundary between Celt and Saxon, but rather a simple ecumenical boundary. This is obvious for two reasons, firstly because Cornwall was 'conquered' by the Saxons a hundred years before this (in the early 9th Century) but secondly because surveys of current genealogy (as in the BBC "Blood of the Vikings" series) indicates that the majority of the people of South West Britain (not just Devon) share a common gene pool dating back to pre-Saxon times.

In Michael Wood's recent book 'In Search of England' (in which he searches for pre-Conquest England, and the ghost of the imaginary Ulric the Saxon) he visited a Devon farm, and found not only pre-Conquest England, but pre-Saxon Devon. He notes that the Celtic language in Devon 'survived for centuries', and that when King Edgar granted the land charter in 974 he described the location as 'in the place called in the common speech by the name Nymed'. Nymed is a Celtic word (meaning sacred wood), and provides tantalising evidence that the Celtic language was still the de-facto common language of the day.

We may have learnt some new languages, but we have survived.



Text copyright © Dewnans web site. Reproduced with permission.