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Celtic Kingdoms of the British Isles

Celts of Britain

 

 

 

MapDumnonii

The Dumnonii were a people with strong traditions reaching back unusually unmixed into the Bronze Age, predating the general Celtic arrival. In the eastern half of their territory, the part of Devon which lay to the west of the Exe, they appear to have used hill forts of the common British type, but across the Tamar (into modern Cornwall) these virtually disappear and their place is taken by fortifications which are very similar to those in Brittany and Spain. Around the first centuries BC and AD, they were neighboured to the east by the Durotriges, to the south across the English Channel by the Osismii, and to the north across the Bristol Channel by the Silures.

Although under nominal Roman control until the late fourth century, the Dumnonii probably exercised a certain amount of self-government in their own lands (and may have been almost entirely self-governed during the period - see the Ancient Dumnonia page on the Dewnans Celtic Devon web site for an intriguing viewpoint on this). Their nobles would have retained their lands and position, and the hereditary kingship may well have remained within the same family, given that there may have been little conflict on offer to dislodge them. The Romans clearly found the Dumnonians to be fierce in their resistance to invasion, and it is thought that the two sides reached an understanding whereby the Dumnonians would be cooperative clients if the Romans left them alone.

The Dumnonii name probably means 'the masters', or 'the dominators', or even 'the lords'. It appears to derive from a more militarily and socially dominant (unrecorded) Gaulish word which is cognate with the Latin 'dominus' ('master' or 'owner'). It is a militaristic name for a tribe that dominated the south-western peninsula of Britain. However, sub-groups within the tribal collective may have named themselves after the god they followed. This is an especial possibility with the Cornovii (in modern Cornwall).

FeatureAccording to tradition that was first written down by Nennius and Geoffrey of Monmouth, the Dumnonians were descended from Corineus and his people, the descendants of Trojan refugees and fellow arrivals with Brutus, the first high king of Britain. Corineus was the eponymous founder of Cornubia (Cornwall) and wore one of the 'Three Coronets of Britain'.

(Additional information by Edward Dawson, from The Oxford History of England: Roman Britain, Peter Salway, from Roman Britain: A New History, Guy de la Bédoyère, and from External Links: Dewnans Celtic Devon, and England's western-most Roman town uncovered.)

c.55

During the Governorship of Aulus Didius Gallus, the invading Romans build and occupy a legionary fort on a spur overlooking the River Exe, named Isca. Elements of the Dumnonii may flee to Ireland where a similarly-named tribe is later known to exist. The Romans also inhabit a settlement near St Austell in the neighbouring territory of the Cornovii, which may be an ironworks. It is one of the very few instances of Romans venturing deep into the Cornish peninsula. They are known to provide guards for a few tin mines, but little else is generally found by archaeologists.

Roman Exeter
An artist's impression of the Roman settlement of Isca Dumnoniorum (Exeter)

A brand new discovery in 2010 in a green field site in Devon has suddenly offered the chance of virtually doubling the amount of land known to have been Roman-occupied in Dumnonia. A previously unknown Roman town appears to have existed several kilometres to the west of Isca, making it the most westerly of all major Roman sites outside of Wales. Almost a hundred Roman coins have been discovered, leading to further investigation which has revealed a huge landscape, including at least thirteen round-houses, quarry pits and trackways covering at least thirteen fields, the first of its kind for the region, along with a possible cemetery. Much more work on the site will be required.

c.75 - 80

The Roman legion based at Isca is withdrawn so that it can help in the conquest of the Deceangli, Ordovices and Silures tribes in the west of Britain (modern Wales). Isca is quickly converted into a bustling Romano-British civilian settlement known as Isca Dumnoniorum, complete with all the usual monumental Roman public buildings, baths and forum (construction of the latter is begun straight away, in AD 75). Some evidence of Roman military occupation remains in the territory of the Cornovii (Cornwall) and on Dartmoor, thought to be protecting supply routes for important resources such as tin.

c.250

Roman occupation of the Cornovii site of St Austell site is finally ended, for reasons unknown, making it possibly one of the last sites in the peninsula to experience Roman settlement of any kind. It is interesting to note that traditional claims of a re-emerging Dumnonii tribal aristocracy can be dated to not long after this point, raising the possibility that it gains power to fill a vacuum or is set up in power in much the same way as princes in Wales would be by Magnus Maximus (according to tradition) in the late fourth century. Tribal Dumnonia is reborn.

MapDumnonia

FeatureThis large and well-founded kingdom took in all of Cornwall (Cornubia), Devon (Dyfneint), and much of Somerset (the 'Summer Land' of the Mabinogion). It apparently emerged much earlier than many of its peers, perhaps up to two hundred years earlier than equivalents in England, while in Wales the picture is more confused. However, much of this claim to early independent or semi-independent kingship may be later tradition alone, perhaps based on an oral tradition that expanded the standing of a line of prominent native administrators. One of the curiosities of later Roman Britain is the appearance of stones recording building or repair work on Hadrian's Wall. The stones are undated, but are placed in the mid-fourth century and two record work by the civitas Dumnoniorum and the civitas Durotrigum. They seem to represent either an enforced labour party under military supervision (which would not discount the possible presence of a semi-independent Dumnonia), or the provision of civilian labour to maintain the country's defences (which would mitigate against semi-independence, but not wholly).

Dumnonia's original capital would have been Isca (late British Caer Penhuelgoit according to Geoffrey of Monmouth, modern Exeter). Archaeology confirms that this site was abandoned in the fifth century, and, given the advances of the West Seaxe, the capital would continually have been relocated to the west. The main portion of Dumnonia was formed by modern Devon (the Defnas Britons, thought to mean 'deep valley dweller' Britons, was more likely to be the result of a consonant shift whereby 'dumnon' became 'defnon' became 'devon'). Defnas fell to the West Seaxe between 652-685, while the Cornish remnant was still fully independent until 875.

FeatureAlthough under nominal Roman control until the late fourth century, the Dumnonii probably exercised a certain amount of self-government in their own lands. The Romans clearly found the Dumnonians to be fierce in their resistance to invasion, and it is thought that the two sides reached an understanding whereby the Dumnonians would be cooperative clients if the Romans left them alone. They most probably re-established their kingdom as a power in its own right by the time of Magnus Maximus, as the latter prepared Britain's defences prior to establishing his own claim for control of the Roman empire in AD 383, and Dumnonia was fully independent by 410, now also incorporating the former territory of the Durotriges.

(Additional information by Edward Dawson, from The Landscape of King Arthur, Geoffrey Ashe, and from Roman Britain: A New History, Guy de la Bédoyère.)

c.290 - c. 305

Caradoc / Caratacus / Caradocus

Trusted advisor of Eudaf Hen of Gwent. 'Duke of Cornwall'.

3rd century

The hill fort of Cadbury-Congresbury, close to Yatton in North Somerset, is occupied. It is the only major fortification in the peninsula (and in Wales) to produce reasonable evidence for continuous occupation between this period and the sixth century.

c.300

Mauric / Meurig

First son. Heir, but predeceased Caradoc.

c.305

Donaut / Dionotus / Dynod

Brother. 'Duke of Cornwall'. Left kingdom to his son-in-law, Conan.

c.340 - c.387

Conan Meriadoc / Conanus

King of Brittany. Left Dumnonia to his eldest son by Ursula.

337 - 343

The death of Roman Emperor Constantine, and then his eldest son, Constantine II in battle in 340, proves serious for Britain. Its early fourth century age of peace and prosperity begins to vanish. Constans makes a sudden and very unusual visit in early 343 and it is also suggested that the widespread refortification of cities which occurs in this century happens as a result of this visit. Units of Germanic laeti begin to appear in some cities, notably Venta Belgarum in the Belgae civitas, and migration begins from south-western Britain (notably the former territories of the Cornovii and Dumnonii) into Armorica.

c.350s

Around this time, stones recording building or repair work appear along Hadrian's Wall. The stones are undated, but are placed in the mid-fourth century and two of them record work by the civitas Dumnoniorum and the civitas Durotrigum. They seem to represent either an enforced labour party under military supervision (which would not discount the possible presence of a semi-independent Dumnonia), or the provision of civilian labour to maintain the country's defences (which would mitigate against semi-independence, but not wholly).

378

This is the minting date for the last Roman coins to be found in Dumnonian territory, showing that the region is still integrated into the established Romano-British society at this time. This is also the approximate date at which the forum and basilica at Isca are given a new floor, showing that rebuilding and repair work is still taking place in Roman Britain. Unfortunately, the buildings are demolished within a generation.

c.387 - c.390

Gadeon / Cadfan

Son. Half brother Erbin ruled Brittany.

c.390 - c.400

Guoremor / Gwrfawr / Vorimorus

Son. Probably first independent king of Dumnonia.

c.400?

By this time, Dumnonia has probably extended the territory under its control to include the former territory of the Durotriges in neighbouring Dorset to the south-east. The apparent lack of centralised tribal control in Dorset prior to the Roman invasion may be to blame for this, with no Durotrigan state able to re-emerge now that central control is slackening.

c.400 - c.410

Tutwal / Tudwal

Son. Probably m Gratianna, youngest of Maximus' daughters.

c.410 - c. 435

Marcus Conomari / Conomor / Cynfawr

Son.

c.410

Marcus Conomari (or Cunomorus) is likely to be the name inscribed on stone and later found between Castledore and Fowey in Cornwall. The likeliest translation of the Latin inscription is 'Here lies Drustan, son of Cunomori'. Speculation ties Drustan with Tristan, of Lyonesse and of the Arthurian story, Tristan & Iseult, which relates events during the reign of Cyn-March ap Meirchion of Cornubia. In the Life of St Pol de Leon, completed in 883, the king is referred to as 'King Marc whose other name is Quonomorus', or Cunomorus, meaning 'hound of the sea'.

c.430

FeatureA theory by Dr John Morris, not fully accepted by modern scholars, is that there are two periods in this century in which elements of the Cornovii of the Midlands are moved into the south-west of Britain. According to the theory, around this time, the leading nobles of Viroconium move to Dumnonia, transplanting their Cornovian name to the western peninsula (Cornubia) and ruling over the Dumnonians (King Constantine of c.530 is unflatteringly described by Gildas as a 'tyrant whelp of the filthy lioness of Dumnonia', suggesting, however obliquely, that he may not himself be a Dumnonian).

While this theory has many detractors, there does seem to be a tradition of the Cornovii nobility joining that of the Dumnonians, and there is not nearly enough evidence to prove that this nobility is from Cornubia. Perhaps instead it represents a unification of two major and fairly powerful tribes in a location in Britain that offers more safety and better protection than the vulnerable West Midlands.

c.435 - 443

Constantine Corneu

Son. Split the kingdom between his two sons.

440s/450s

FeatureThere is a probably Irish presence at Dunster Castle (Dindraithov or Dindraethou to the Welsh) in the early post-Roman period. This is a fort which overlooks the approaches to Exmoor, four and-a-half kilometres (three miles) south-east of Minehead in Somerset (roughly on the edges of Dumnonian territory). The modern castle may not be the same site as the post-Roman fort, which could be located a little way inland. Irish settlers are frequenting Somerset at this time, which suggests that they are people who have already been accepted into Britain, such as the Deisi of Dyfed. They are not large in number but they do remain for a long time. Nearby Glastonbury is spoken of as 'Glastonbury of the Gaels' thanks to its shrines of St Patrick and St Brigit. The fort features in the list of twenty-eight cities of Britain in Nennius' Historia Brittonum, appearing as Caer Draithou, and is mentioned in the Life of St Carannog (of Ceredigion).

443 - c.480

Urban / Erbin ab Custennyn

Abdicated in favour of Gerren before 480.

443 - c.510

MapCornubia is governed as a sub-kingdom by Erbin's younger brother, Merchion. Upon his death, the region is sub-divided to create an independent Lyonesse.

c.480 - 508

Gerren / Gereint Llyngesog ab Erbin

First son. Served with Arthur? Died at Portsmouth in 501?

c.480s

Gereint ab Erbin (otherwise known as Gerren or Gerontius) features in the Arthurian story of Culhwch and Olwen. He is an important character in Arthurian literature, and is probably the brother of Veneva (the Romano-British form of Guinevere), who marries Arthur. Arthur himself is dux Britanniarum, and possibly even an emperor of Britain in the style of several Romans before him. It seems reasonable that he would find a home in the land of his wife, at Cadbury Castle (especially given his own, traditional, origins in distant Armorica).

Cadbury Castle
Even today, Cadbury Castle presents the image of a powerful and defensible location, with views across the whole of Somerset giving it a level of strategic importance

501

A newly arrived Saxon chieftain and his two ships of followers kill a Briton of very high rank at Portesmutha (British Portus Adurni, modern Portsmouth). This is possibly the last surviving part of the proposed British kingdom of Rhegin, but the Briton could also be Gereint of Dumnonia despite the apparent incongruity in dates (all dates for this period are flexible, being handed down by tradition, or being estimated based on existing records and knowledge).

Dywel ab Erbin

Served with Arthur? Died c.520? Son may have been St Pirran.

c.508 - c.530

Cado / Cato / Cadwy ab Gerren

King of Dumnonia & duke of Cornubia.

c.510

The line of sub-kings in Cornubia appears to die out, so the region seemingly passes back into Dumnonian hands, with a 'duke' of Cornubia nominally governing the land. The first of these, Cado, may be the Duke Cador of Cornwall of Geoffrey of Monmouth. It is probably this Cado who is mentioned in connection with Arthur in the Life of St Crannog (of Ceredigion).

Iestyn / St Justin

Brother. Entered the Celtic Church.

Selyfan / Solomanus / St Selevan

Brother. Entered the Celtic Church.

St Breage

Sister. Entered the Celtic Church.

c.530 - c.560

Custennin ab Cado / St Constantine

High King until c.540. Entered a monastery. Killed 589.

c.540

FeatureConstantine is one of the kings attacked by Gildas in the monk's work, On the Ruin of Britain, probably indicating his fame as one of the more powerful of his peers at this time. The king is referred to as a 'tyrant whelp of the filthy lioness of Dumnonia'.

c.560 - 598

Gerren rac Dehau ('for the South')

Son. Fought the Bernician Angles at Catreath.

577

FeatureOnce the West Seaxe make the breakthrough of capturing Caer Baddan, Caer Ceri, and Caer Gloui, Glastenning and the heartland of eastern Dumnonia are under direct threat. However, it seems likely that the three cities had been receiving military support from Glastenning or Dumnonia, and one of these two kingdoms hold onto the West Wansdyke territory after their fall. Both are now cut off from any overland contact with any other British territory. Cadbury Castle is also abandoned around this time, perhaps suggesting an evacuation of its occupants.

598 - 613

Blederic / Bledric ap Custennin

Brother. Killed at Battle of Bangor-is-Coed by Aethelfrith.

597 - 611

The West Seaxe under Ceolwulf force the Dumnonians out of the West Wansdyke region of Caer Baddan (Somerset).

It is around this time (in the early years of the seventh century) that the Britons of Glastenning found Glastonbury Abbey.

613

Bledric ap Custennin dies at the Battle of Bangor-is-Coed, which follows very soon after the British defeat at Caer Legion (Chester). In fact, a great many British leaders have been killed over the course of the two momentous battles, and a power vacuum appears to allow the Dogfeilion kings to secure the Powysian throne. The monks of Bangor-is-Coed are present at the battle to pray for divine support, but they too are slaughtered (the act is seen as divine retribution for their refusal to help evangelise the English in 603).

613 - ?

Clement ap Bledric

Son.

614

Cynegils of the West Seaxe takes advantage of Bledric's death and the accession of his son by invading Dumnonia. Badly defeated at the Battle of Beandun (Bindon, Devon), Bledric's son, Clemen, is forced to retreat back to Caer Uisc (Exeter), where archaeology suggests that a major Roman building was still being occupied into the seventh century.

c.630

Petroc Baladrddellt ap Clemen

Son.

652

Cenwalh makes a breakthrough against the Dumnonian defensive lines at the battle of Bradford-upon-Avon. Some areas of Dorset and Somerset fall.

bef 658 - af 661

Culmin / Cwlfyn ap Petroc

Defeated at the Battle of Peonna.

658

The West Seaxe are victorious at the battle of Peonna (Penselwood - the densely forested area on the eastern boundary of Somerset). The eastern half of Dumnonia is permanently captured by Wessex. The Brito-Welsh territory of Glastenning (in modern Somerset) is probably taken at the same time. Glastonbury Abbey also falls into Saxon hands, but the British abbot is permitted to remain in place.

c.682

Dungarth ap Culmin

681 - 685

The West Seaxe conquer the remainder of Somerset as Centwine clears the western coastal area of Somerset as far as the Devon border. In a two pronged attacked the territory of the Defnas (Dumnonia / Devon) Britons is also taken by an army army pressing along the English Channel coast from Dorset to Exeter. This also serves to confirm that Dorset has fallen to the Saxons.

bef 700 - 710

Gerontius / Gerren ap Dungarth

Defeated by Ine of Wessex and killed.

c.710 - c.715

Ithel ap Dungarth ('the Rock')

Brother. Probably ruled.

715

MapFrom this point onwards, the descent of the kings of Dumnonia becomes highly unreliable, as the kingdom is slowly crushed by Wessex. Ithel's immediate successor is not known, unless it his son who is thought to be active in the 730s. Even this son, Dyfnwal, cannot be confirmed as king. His name, and that of his successors, is mentioned only in the Book of Baglan, a collection of Welsh manuscripts compiled in 1600-1607, and is shown here in green to differentiate them from kings who are known from other sources.

722

FeatureThe Annales Cambriae refers to three notable 'Cornish' victories in this year. The opponent is not named but as the 'Britons were the victors in those three battles', the opponent is clearly the West Saxons. The battles take place at Hehil, Garth Maelog, and Pencon. The first has been the subject of much speculation as to its location, with many scholars taking the mention of 'Cornish' too literally and placing it west of the River Tamar. Instead, all three battles are likely to be in what is now Devon, close to Dumnonia's eastern border. The victories are hugely important, as they appear to win the Dumnonians and Cornish a century of peace in which to cement their compressed but surviving kingdom, and possibly ensure the survival of their culture and language much longer than might otherwise be the case.

fl c.730s

Dyfnwal Boifunall ap Ithel

Son. Dyfnwal of Boifunall.

fl c.750s

Cawrdolli ap Dyfnwal

Son.

fl c.770s

Oswallt ap Cawrdolli

Son.

778

Again recorded by the Annales Cambriae, the 'South Britons' of Dumnonia suffer devastation at the hands of Offa of Mercia. The Bretwalda rules all of southern Britain with a level of aggression typical of the hard-fighting Mercian kings. This appears to be the final mention of the South Britons in Welsh records.

fl c.790s

Hernam ap Oswallt

Son.

c.800 - 875

The kingdom of Dumnonia, so compressed by the inroads made by Wessex, effectively ceases to exist during the ninth century. The remaining British territory is known as the kingdom of Corniu (or variously, Cerniu, Cernyw or Kernow). The English know it as Cornwall, meaning 'the Welsh of Corniu'.

fl c.810s

Hopkin ap Hernam

Son.

814

Ecgberht of Wessex invades and subdues parts of Dumnonian Devon.

825

The men of Cornish Dumnonia clash with the Wessex Saxons of Devon at the Battle of Galford. This is the first written record of the county of Devon in the Saxon form of the name.

fl c.830s

Mordaf ap Hopkin

Son.

833 - 870

At some point between these dates, during the incumbency of Ceolnoth as archbishop of Canterbury, the independent Cornish bishops submit to the English church. Corniu is included within the diocese of Sherborne. The first bishop of Cornwall is Kenstec.

fl c.850s

Fferferdyn ap Mordaf

Son.

c.865 - 875

Dunyarth / Doniert / Dungarth / Duncan

Possibly a descendent of Gerren. Drowned.

875

Dunyarth is traditionally said to be the 'last king', and is mentioned in Annales Cambriae as having drowned in 875. By this tragic event Dumnonia can certainly be said to be extinguished. Wessex already controls most, if not all, of Devon up to the River Tamar. The remaining free Britons of the south-west maintain their independence on the western side of the river, in Corniu.