Part 4: Uncertain Kingdoms
There are a series of regions, or territories, in the British south-east that get
the most fleeting of mentions in various sources, with tantalising glimpses given of some
of the possible kingdoms that existed there in the short gap between post-Roman
administration and Anglo-Saxon domination.
Brief mentions in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles give a vague picture of how the
war was going, and centres of British resistance can often be deduced from the location
of these battles, and from archaeological evidence.
Roman Calleva Atrebatum, the walled capital of one of the major southern Romano-British
tribal cantons, could have survived as a possible Caer Celemion (modern Silchester) along
with its southern neighbour,
Caer Gwinntguic (Winchester).
Evidence shows that Britons continued to command the territorium
(formed roughly of Berkshire, and northern Hampshire and Wiltshire) into the
seventh century, probably as a post-Roman continuation of the Celtic Atrebates. Local place
names such as Andover, Micheldover and Candover are British-origin names.
This, together with an absence of early Saxon relics near Caer Celemion and a considerable
number of male burials intrusive in prehistoric round barrows all along the nearby chalk country
suggest casualties incurred in military operations and an unexpectedly vigorous persistence of
sub-Roman authority in the region. There are also legends of a King
Einion based around here.
Findings along the south of the
Valley (Caer Celemion's northern border) show that there were Saxons there
from the early fifth century, in settlements at Reading, and further
upriver at Abingdon, Dorchester and Long Wittenham. Saxon cemeteries and
artefacts mix in with Roman material, suggesting these areas may initially
have been settled by laeti to defend Caer Celemion's borders.
The Saxon settlements at Cassington and Brighthampton on the north side of the
Thames above Oxford could well have started in a similar fashion (perhaps
Cynwidion). However, when the
encroaching Thames Valley Saxons reached them by around the 470s, the
settlements became hostile territory for the British.
These laeti could have been supplied
with sub-Roman metalwork from Calleva itself. It appears that in its final
phase the basilica in the town centre was turned into a substantial
metal-working area (Guide to the Silchester Excavations, M Fulford, 1982).
Another site which has produced very late Roman material is Lowbury Hill
on the Berkshire Ridgeway overlooking the upper Thames basin (Caer
Celemion's northeastern border). This apparently started as a pagan
temple in late Roman times, but its final purpose was probably to serve as
a look-out point related to the territory's outer boundary defences.
Further west, the fifth or perhaps sixth century
construction of the Wansdyke was a massive undertaking which reached from
west of Caer Baddan's capital (Roman Aquae
Sulis, modern Bath) to the proposed northwestern corner of Caer Celemion's
The continuing vitality of sub-Roman Calleva during the fifth, and
perhaps far into the sixth, century can be illustrated, not only by its
substantial output of paramilitary metalwork and its probable maintenance
of a defensible river frontier in the Thames Valley, where in the fifth
century the main threat was from the Thames Valley Saxons.
It was also apparently protected by stretches of earthworks related to the Roman roads
that led to it from the north and west. The existence of those in the
north is unsurprising due to the obviously hostile relations between the
sub-Roman Atrebates and the Thames Valley Saxons. Those to the west of Silchester
may have been built in conjunction with the main section of the
Wansdyke itself, leading west from Calleva along the Roman road which
intersects, and was destroyed by, the Wansdyke.
Although Calleva's defences would have remained relevant throughout its survival,
after the victory of Mons
Badonicus and the peace which followed it, a new threat emerged from
the south in the form of the West Seaxe,
and the north-facing Wansdyke was no defence against it.
By 577, with the fall of three British kingdoms based around Gloucester (led
by Caer Gloui), and the fall of Caer Gwinntguic to the south and southwest (probably in
552), Caer Celemion was totally isolated. It had the Thames Valley Saxons
pressing it from the north and the much more powerful West Seaxe attacking
from the south, and between about 600-610 it was destroyed, probably by
Ceawlin of Wessex.
Unfortunately, there is no written record
of the event. Despite almost certainly being the seat of a bishop in the
fourth century in a conspicuously placed Christian church, by 634
Calleva's historic past had clearly been forgotten when Birinus chose the
much smaller, and less significant, walled town of Dorchester-on-Thames as
the centre of his mission to the West Saxons.
A probable post-Roman British name for the important Roman town of Camulodunum (Colchester
in Essex) and a potential kingdom or territorium based around it. There is no
established British history for this region after internal British rule began, but
although the Kingdom of the East Saxons
(Essex) was founded circa 540, mercenaries are likely to have been settled along the coast for
at least a century and a half before that date.
As with Caer Lundein, there is
a marked lack of Anglo-Saxon relics in the area before the sixth century, which strongly suggests
that Caer Colun could have held a surviving pocket of British power well
into the mid-500s. That would also explain the comparatively late date for
the founding of an East Coast Saxon kingdom.
Evidence from two Roman villa sites, at
Little Oakley and Rivenhall, does demonstrate some early Saxon
settlement in the territory. Distinctive early pottery from the filling of
pits at Little Oakley provides evidence of occupation on the site of the
villa, although it can tell us little about the nature of the settlement.
Evidence from Rivenhall is more extensive and includes a post-built hall and
a well, plus pottery and a glass vessel dating from the fifth century (AD
This evidence of early Saxon settlers reusing
Roman sites, and possibly even existing buildings and structures, is not
unique to Essex, and parallels have been found, for example, at Darenth
Roman villa site in Kent. What is unsure, however, is whether the evidence
represents settlers using sites which were vacant, available, and easily
converted for their use, or whether they were actually involved in the
maintenance of the Roman estates, with the express permission of the
The mechanism and nature of the Saxon
settlement of England, even on the level of how many foreign settlers
arrived on these shores, remains unclear. What does seem certain, however,
is that in Essex they did not encounter large-scale resistance from the
natives. Also, the period from which these findings originate strongly
suggests that they were from the settled Saxon laeti, and not the new
wave of Saxons who began to infiltrate the region from the start of the
After whatever Sub-Roman authority still
existed in the region in the mid-500s presumably capitulated, Colchester
seems to have become abandoned (which it certainly was by the seventh
century) by the East Saxons.