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Post-Roman Britain

Introduction to Celtic Devon

The Celtic Devon Dewnans website, 10 June 2004

Devon was the cornerstone of one of Britain's most significant Celtic kingdoms (Dumnonia), and it retains a significant heritage from those days. Devon's people are predominantly of Celtic stock, with the Celtic language (which also resulted in Cornish) being spoken well into the medieval period, and is retained today in place names, dialect, and customs and culture.

This is not to say that the Saxons, who 'conquered' Devon in the eighth and ninth centuries (and who militarily conquered Cornwall in the ninth and tenth centuries), or the Normans who did the same to the whole of England in the eleventh century, are without merit or contribution. However the point of this introduction is to promote that part of Devon's history which for some strange reason appears to have been repressed - that of Celtic Devon.

The Cornish Celtic name for Devon is Dewnans, and this is becoming more acceptable to modern ears. A possible older name for Devon is Dyfneint (meaning 'deep valley dwellers'). This survives from Dumnonia's few surviving early records, and probably supplies the root form of Dewnans.

Devon was one of the last areas of what is now known as England to be conquered by the Anglo-Saxon invaders, and was not formally claimed by the Saxon kingdom of Wessex until the early ninth century (AD 805 - only a couple of decades before Cornwall was allegedly 'conquered', although Cornwall retained some degree of independence after that). After this period (as noted in Alfred the Great's will in AD 900), Devon's Celtic people were called Wealcynn (wealas being the Anglo-Saxon word for Celts). [1]

Perhaps it is surprising that this history of Celtic identity is not better known. How can this be so? A number of factors probably came into play. The Victorian era prized all things Teutonic because (for some reason) they equated it with civilised society. Even in the mid/late twentieth century schools teach a 'unified' English history with little focus on regional history. Devon's own Celtic history has been overlooked and neglected. This story is not unique to Devon. History, language and culture have been suppressed in many parts of the Celtic world (Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and Brittany - to name a few). In Devon's case its proximity to Cornwall, with its own rich Celtic ancestry, has probably also hindered any recognition of Devon's own history.

The question of Devon's Celtic identity is not new. In 1870 Professor Thomas Huxley, president of both the Royal Society and of the Ethnological Society, and friend of Charles Darwin, stated that '(Devonians) are as little Anglo-Saxon as Northumbrians are Welsh', by which he meant that Devonians are genetically descended from the Brythonic Celts, rather than the Germanic tribes of the Angles or Saxons who give the term 'Anglo-Saxon' (and the term England) its name.

The 'pro-Teutonic' prejudices of the Victorian era were Huxley's target, and sadly his views were not universally accepted. The ramifications of this 'Victorian prejudice' continued well into the twentieth century, and distorted the real history. However the issue is now being revisited, and the truth is slowly emerging.

Ipplepen Romano-British cemetery site
The Romano-British cemetery site at Ipplepen - which remained in use for up to three hundred and fifty years after the end of direct Roman administration of Britain - has revealed fifteen burials (so far) and a surprising level of continuity of use for a site in the south-west, which is normally more reluctant to reveal details of settlement occupation

[1] The Saxons called the Celtic Britons 'wealas' (generally being taken to mean foreigners, but with a much deeper and older meaning than that). See the fourth paragraph of the introduction for Wales for a more in-depth examination.


Recent genetic evidence (from the BBC Blood of the Vikings series) has indicated that the Celtic peoples in south-western Britain not only survived, but that their gene pool is predominant in the current population.

Norwegian-based research indicates that Devon (and Cornwall) has a far greater proportion of black hair colour than other English counties, a tendency also seen in Ireland and Scotland. Perhaps this also provides evidence of a common Celtic background, and certainly supports the theory that the Tamar is no 'racial' boundary.

This introduction isn't intended to be the full story, nor to be a formal academic document, but it may open a few eyes and encourage you to search further.

 

 

     
Text copyright Dewnans website. Reproduced with permission.