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
These native Britons may have been ethnically related to the
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
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
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
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].
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.
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.