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Celtic Kingdoms of the British Isles

Celts of Britain

 

 

 

MapAtrebates (Britons)

MapThis was a British Celtic tribe occupying modern Berkshire and Hampshire, along with areas of West Sussex, western Surrey, and north-east Wiltshire. They were centred on a site close to modern Silchester. To the south-west of them were the Belgae, a tribe which they seem to have subjugated or which was part of the same people as them, while the Dobunni bordered them to the west, the Catuvellauni lay to the north, the Trinovantes to the far north-east, and the Cantii to the east.

Closely related to the north-western Gaulish tribe of Atrebates, they were at their most powerful in the first and second centuries BC. The name Atrebates means 'settlers' or 'inhabitants', and given that Belgic elements seem to have settled the region and intermixed with earlier Celtic populations, perhaps both are equally valid. In fact the Atrebates name (pronounced at-ray-bart-ees) is a rather odd one overall. The singular form should be 'Atrebus' which, in late Gaulish and late Latin would be 'Atrebo'. Its first part, 'ad', means 'to'. 'Trebo' is a house, extended in this case. In reality, this is a verb extended to be a noun, which makes it exceedingly odd. While this could indeed be taken to mean 'settlers' or 'inhabitants' this is not quite right. A more accurate interpretation should be the '(people who are) in houses', in other words, the 'homesteaders'. (See the map of most of Europe's tribes around the first centuries BC and AD to view the tribe's location in relation to all other Celts.)

Due to their location in Britain, the Atrebates were one of the more successful and civilised Celtic tribes. They traded with the tribes in Europe right up until the Romans conquered Gaul, and saw the conquest as an opportunity to increase their regular trade in fine cloth, hunting dogs and military items. The process worked both ways, enabling them to absorb new ideas, giving them advantages in culture and technology which some of their neighbours did not possess. Their capital was Calleva Atrebatum (the 'place in the woods of the Atrebates', now near Silchester in Hampshire), showing that the area was heavily wooded at the time. A secondary, and earlier, capital could be claimed at Noviomagus, which belonged to a division of the tribe known as the Regninses. These people were thinly scattered north and south of the Weald and seem to have escaped true conquest or even much influence from the Atrebates. Another tribal centre was at Cunetio (Mildenhall in Wiltshire), probably a pagus.

(Additional information by Edward Dawson, and from The Oxford History of England: Roman Britain, Peter Salway, and The La Tene Celtic Belgae Tribes in England: Y-Chromosome Haplogroup R-U152 - Hypothesis C, David K Faux, and from External Links: The Works of Julius Caesar: Gallic Wars and Proto-Celtic Word List (PDF).)

c.100 - 80 BC ?

The date at which the Belgic Atrebates arrive in Britain is unknown, but it may not be too long before the arrival of Commius, perhaps no more than a generation or two. They possibly migrate into the country from the south coast (most likely via Selsey in West Sussex, precisely the same point at which the later South Saxons also land). They found an early tribal capital at Noviomagus (modern Chichester in West Sussex). Over time they would migrate north-westwards, integrating with earlier Celtic populations in the region and founding a new settlement at Calleva, although this remains relatively minor until the late first century BC. However, coin distribution contradicts this picture, suggesting that the Atrebates arrive via the Thames, settling in the Upper Thames Valley and migrating southwards.

c.56 - 54 BC

Commius is a member of the Gaulish Atrebates. Around 56 BC he becomes an aide to Julius Caesar, and helps the Romans during both expeditions to Britain, perhaps with a retinue formed from the British Atrebates. In 54 BC he persuades High King Cassivellaunus, king of the Catuvellauni, to succumb to the Romans.

51 BC

Commius flees the Continental Atrebates. Frontinus writes: 'Commius, the Atrebatian, when defeated by the deified Julius, fled from Gaul to Britain, and happened to reach the Channel at a time when the wind was fair, but the tide was out. Although the vessels were stranded on the flats, he nevertheless ordered the sails to be spread. Caesar, who was following from a distance, seeing the sails swelling with the full breeze, and imagining Commius to be escaping from his hands and to be proceeding on a prosperous voyage, abandoned the pursuit.'

Commius brings with him just his own retainers, survivors of a heavy defeat in Gaul. The size and strength of the Atrebates tribe he joins in Britain is unknown. They certainly occupy their own territory in this period, and govern the Belgae and Regninses (and possibly even the Dobunni), who may all be constituent parts of the same tribe, but how much significance they hold is unclear. They may not even be formed into a single tribal kingdom until Commius becomes their king.

Atrebates coin
Shown here are both sides of a coin that was issued by the Atrebates between 50-20 BC, either under the authority of Commius or his son, Commius the Younger

51 - 35 BC

Commius (the Gaul)

Left the Gaulish Atrebates and founded a dynasty in Britain.

c.50s - 30s BC

Unearthed by archaeologists in 2011 is what appears to be the first Iron Age planned town in Britain. The layer is found beneath the Roman remains of Calleva Atrebatum, the principle town of the Atrebates, and shows evidence of being built on a grid. The inhabitants also import wine and olive oil. This remarkably urbanised way of living seems almost certainly to be a product of the arrival and settlement of Commius and his followers, as they would have seen similar towns on the Continent, and would certainly want to bring the levels of sophistication they are used to with them.

c.35 - 20 BC

Commius (the Younger)

Son.

c.30 BC

The very first Atrebatean coins are tentatively dated to this period. The name 'COMMIUS' appears on the obverse while a triple-tailed horse is shown on the reverse. Commius rules the tribe from Calleva.

c.30 - 20 BC

Tincomaros / Tincommius

Son. Ruled jointly before becoming sole ruler.

It is possible that during the period of joint rule which lasts between five and ten years, Tincommius governs the southern half of the territory from the secondary capital of Noviomagus, which is within the territory of the Regninses. His brother, Eppillus, remains with their father to command the northern territory around Calleva, during which time the oppidum at Calleva develops into the main centre of Atrebatean power. When Tincommius becomes sole king, he apparently prefers to remain at Noviomagus while Eppillus governs the north from Calleva, issuing his own coins there.

20 BC - c.AD 7

Tincomaros / Tincommius

Gained sole kingship following the death of his father.

c.5 BC

Formal diplomatic ties are initiated between Tincommius and Rome when a treaty is agreed. Coinage issued at this time shows a more Romanised style, and carries almost exactly the same alloy content as contemporary Roman coins, suggesting that the metal comes from Rome, perhaps along with a moneylender. Atrebatean nobles, angered by the pro-Roman stance of Tincommius in direct opposition to the policy of his father and grandfather, possibly found or liberate the westernmost Atrebateans as the tribe of the Dobunni. However, coinage produced by the Dobunni would suggest that they have already made a claim for independence around 30 BC.

c.AD 7

Tincommius is overthrow in a coup launched by his ambitious younger brother, Eppillus. He travels to Rome to plead before Emperor Augustus for reinstatement. This request is refused as Augustus is in no position to mount a military campaign in Britain at this time. Not only is Tincommius exiled from Britain, but Eppillus is officially recognised as king by Rome.

c.7 - c.15

Eppillus

Brother. King of the Belgae & Regninses. Deposed by Verica.

c.15

Eppillus is in turn overthrown by his younger brother after the latter builds up a following of nobles disaffected by Eppillus' grab for power. He flees to the land of the Cantii, probably passing through Regninses territory along the way. Once in Cantii territory he overthrows the ruler and takes command.

c.15 - c.25

Verica / Bericus / Berikos

Brother. Recognised by Rome.

c.25

The Catuvellauni expand their interests into the territory of the Atrebates. Verica is forced out of Calleva as a Catuvellauni prince takes the Atrebatean throne. However, it seems that Verica continues to fight his rival for some time, gradually being forced further south by his stronger opponent.

c.25 - c.35

Epaticcus

Brother of Cunobelinus of the Catuvellauni. Forced Verica out.

c.25 - 41

Verica / Bericus / Berikos

Continued to oppose the Catuvellauni invaders.

c.35 - 41

In around AD 35 Epaticcus dies, not necessarily due to warfare, and Verica makes some progress toward retaking his lost lands. It is probably he who is referenced by Dio as Berikos, which suggests that Verica is finally defeated by Caratacus of the Catuvellauni around AD 41 and flees to Rome. Arriving there around a year later, he gives the new Emperor Claudius the pretext for the Roman conquest of Britain.

c.41 - 43

Caratacus / Caradog

King of the Cantii & Catuvellauni.

43

FeatureWhile Governor Aulus Plautius and Emperor Claudius are overseeing the conquest of the south-east of Britain, the Roman second invasion wing lands at a point along the south coast, probably close to the pro-Roman section of the Atrebates, who welcome them as an antidote to Catuvellauni domination. Part of the territory of the Atrebates is reorganised into the Roman client kingdom of the Regninses under the rule of Tiberius Claudius Cogidubnus, who may be Verica's son.

Shortly after the Roman conquest, the construction of a wooden town begins, with the wood in plentiful supply from the surrounding area. The town is named Calleva Atrebatum (modern Silchester) and is designated a civitas, or tribal capital. Its initial construction is irregular, with a regular street grid only being laid out towards the middle of the century.

c.65?

Direct rule under the Romans follows the death of Tiberius Claudius Cogidubnus, client ruler of the Regninses, and perhaps the Atrebates too. The tribal territory is later organised into the civitates (administrative districts within a Roman province) of the Atrebates, Regninses, and possibly the Belgae.

Between this point and about AD 85, the town of Calleva Atrebatum gains one of the first oval amphitheatres in Britain, built to the north-east, outside the defences. Towards the end of the century, two Romano-Celtic temples are built inside the eastern gate, facing east. The first of them is the largest known temple in all of Britain, covering 495 square metres (yards). The walls are almost a metre thick, suggesting a half-timbered construction.

2nd century

By the end of the century, the early wooden forum and basilica at the heart of Calleva Atrebatum have been rebuilt in stone. Some buildings which had been erected during the earliest phase of building, prior to a street plan being laid down, continue to exist and be developed.

Calleva Atrebatum
An artist's reconstruction of Calleva Atrebatum showing the forum and basilica, along with the cattle market (at the front) and houses and shops

3rd century

By the start of the third century, Calleva Atrebatum has gained defensive stone walls which are over 6.3 metres (yards) high. The town also contains an impressive forum, basilica, three temples, and a baths complex. and about 180 stone buildings. Large areas are still using wooden constructions, especially nearer the walls. Late in the century the town is razed by a catastrophic fire, probably triggered by a stray spark in the wooden suburbs. The town is subsequently rebuilt and continues to flourish.

4th century

Towards the end of the century, the large temple by the eastern gate falls into disuse. The second, smaller temple alongside it falls into disuse about the same time, probably due to the rise of Christianity in Britain. The city contains an early Christian church which is excavated in 1890 and 1961 and which in this period may be the seat of a bishop. A gold ring uncovered by archaeologists in the town bears the inscription 'Senicianus, live in God'.

5th century

By the fifth century the Romano-British Atrebates have probably regained some level of independent power in the form of the postulated territory of Caer Celemion.

MapCaer Celemion (Calleva Atrebatum)

FeatureAfter ties with Rome were formally severed in AD 410, the city of Calleva Atrebatum, the walled capital of the Romano-British tribal canton of the Atrebates, could have survived as a possible Caer Celemion (very close to modern Silchester in Hampshire). The name of the territory itself is unrecorded, so the use of its civitas to name it is a suitable replacement. The town had commanding views to the east and south and the only access from ground level was from the west, making it an ideal position from which to conduct the defence of the territory in the fifth century. It was also well supplied with relatively shallow wells.

The territory would have initially, and roughly, included Berkshire, and northern Hampshire and Wiltshire. Caer Gwinntguic, a similarly obscure Romano-British territory, occupied its southern border, with Rhegin to the south-east, Cynwidion to the north-east, and Caer Gloui to the west. There is no written evidence to bring any light to the territorium's survival but archaeological evidence shows that Britons continued to command it into the seventh century, probably as a post-Roman continuation of the tribal Atrebates. Local place names such as Micheldover (near Winchester) and Candover (in Hampshire) are names of British origin.

Also a name of British origin is Barroc or Barruc. The Brythonic word 'barr' means 'top', with a locative suffix -aco-, the first part normally signifying a hill top. In this case, though, it specified a range of hill tops. The name must have been firmly recognised by the natives because they managed to convince their new masters, the Saxons of the Thames Valley, to use it. They adapted it into their language as 'Barrock', and it remains in use today - with the medieval 'shire' suffix - as Berkshire (or at least western Berkshire, to be more geographically accurate). John Morris provides a similar breakdown of the name but then goes on to suggest that because 'barroc' in this instance is used as a plural then it must be a personal name (in the same way that Cynwyd ap Cynfelyn gave his name to Cynwidion, or Gwerthefyr Fendigaid gave his to Gwerthefyriwg (Gwent)). Morris also concludes that this otherwise unknown regional ruler is probably Irish, which seems highly unlikely for this part of the country.

FeatureThe naming of Calleva Atrebatum as the post-Roman Caer Celemion was part of Nennius' Historia Brittonum, published in the ninth century. He included it in his list of the thirty-three cities of Britain, but it could be an error, perhaps of interpretation. Edward Dawson suggests that, to the city's occupants, the Latin Calleva would have been pronounced something like 'challua', which suggests that it was shortened to Chall or Chill by lazy locals (a habit still very much prevalent today for names). So Caer Chill is the more likely name of the city. The later Saxons would have replaced 'caer' with 'chester' and perhaps pronounced the name as Sill instead of Chill, giving us Silchester. A far more simple explanation of the modern name might be that 'sil-' is a British-to-Latin translation of the word for forest, 'silvanus' (Calleva is assumed to be from a British word for grove or wood, still used in Welsh).

(Additional information by Edward Dawson, and from The Age of Arthur, John Morris, and Wessex, Barbara Yorke.)

c.420 - 496

Saxons begin advancing along the Thames Valley, and into the Chilterns, encroaching on the territory's northern border. Under overall command of first Vortigern and then Ambrosius Aurelianus from Caer Gloui, the region probably gains more and more autonomy as the century progresses, with sub-Roman magistratum becoming princeps. Defensive dykes are erected which face towards the Thames, probably at the same time as the Wansdyke is constructed. There is also an Irish community within the walls of Calleva Atrebatum (Caer Celemion), as evidenced by the discovery of a stone carved with Ogham characters, which had originated in southern Ireland and is unlikely to date before the fifth century.

501

While the territory's main defensive focus has, until now, been to the north and the Thames Valley Saxons, a new threat emerges to the south-west in the form of the West Seaxe. With the initial conquest of their Hampshire heartland now complete, in this year their attention is turned more fully to expansion. None of the established defensive works has been designed to protect Caer Celemion from this direction.

Roman amphitheatre at Silchester
This artistic reconstruction shows the amphitheatre at Caer Celemion (Calleva Atrebatum, modern Silchester), which was built outside the walls, to the north-east of the town itself

Einion?

Remembered by the West Seaxe as the giant, Onion.

Although a dating cannot be applied to a possible ruler called Einion, the appellation of 'giant' could equate a strong or particularly tough warrior, appropriate for a British enclave that holds out against the West Seaxe, even though it is becoming increasingly isolated.

552

Caer Celemion's southern neighbour, Caer Gwinntguic, falls to the West Seaxe, making the territory very vulnerable on its less well-defended southern border. Now in its final phase, in the walled city of Caer Celemion itself the basilica in the town centre is turned into a substantial metal-working area, producing arms and armour. On the territory's north-eastern border there is a former Roman temple at Lowbury Hill, on the Berkshire Ridgeway, overlooking the upper Thames basin. During this period it is apparently converted to serve as a look-out point related to the territory's outer boundary defences.

568

Ceawlin and Cutha of the West Seaxe defeat ∆thelbert of the Cantware at Wibbandun. This is notable as being the first recorded conflict between two groups of invaders, rather than a battle against the native British. The location of 'Wibbandun', which can be translated as 'Wibba's Mount', has not been definitely identified. At one time it was thought to be Wimbledon, but this is now known to be incorrect. Instead it seems likely that the battle takes place near the boundary between Hampshire and Berkshire, probably disputed territory between Kent and the West Seaxe. It seems likely that the aggressive Ceawlin is securing his rear before mounting renewed attacks against the British to the west.

An alternative that seems rarely to be considered is that the disputed territory is actually that of Caer Celemion, which still resists the invaders. They lay to Ceawlin's east, and may present a more urgent threat (or at least nuisance) than the Britons of the west. Their region of western Berkshire is known to them by the apparent origin of the name - Barroc, a range of hill tops that may still form part of their defensive efforts. The West Seaxe use the name themselves as 'Barrock', with the 'shire' being added several centuries later.

577

The sub-divided state of Caer Gloui and its daughter kingdoms, Caer Baddan and Caer Ceri, all fall to the West Seaxe. The defeat is a disaster not only for all Britons of the west of the country, dividing as it does those of Gwent and Pengwern from those in Dumnonia - it also leaves Caer Celemion totally isolated, surrounded on all sides by Saxons.

c.600 - 610

MapThe state or kingdom that governs Caer Celemion is destroyed, probably by Ceawlin of the West Seaxe. It is the last British-held territory south of London and east of Dorset to fall. The city itself is abandoned and its wells are filled in to prevent its citizens from returning, with the Saxons preferring to rule from their existing centres at Winchester and Dorchester. Archaeological discoveries which include the skeleton of a dog and a beef bone suggest that the city is ritually cursed before being abandoned, although this could be due to the fear apparently felt by the Saxons of any Roman ruins in Britain, even though they are impressed by such ruins. The territory is absorbed into the West Seaxe kingdom.

Lowbury Hill in Berkshire
Caer Celemion's re-use of a former Roman temple at the top of Lowbury Hill (near Compton in west Berkshire) in the mid-500s as a look-out point ended with the territory's fall, but it did see further use as an Anglo-Saxon cemetery

About a century later, the twin Saxon towns of Basing and Reading are founded to the south and north respectively, along rivers on either side of Calleva (Celemion), leaving the city to decay in isolation. A Saxon village of Silchester also springs up about 1600 metres (yards) to the west, far enough away to be safe from any demons the ruins might contain. Today all that remains of Caer Celemion are parts of the defensive walls, in some places up to four metres high, within which is a church and a converted farmhouse in green fields, The town plan is still visible in cropmarks and a spring rises near the former baths and flows out to join Silchester Brook.