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Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms

Saxons & Jutes of Southern England

 

 

 

MapDornsaete & Somersaete (Dorset & Somerset)

In the post-Roman period of fifth and sixth century Britain, the Celtic Dumnonii tribe governed a large kingdom in the south-west of the country. It apparently encompassed the whole of modern England's West Country region, stretching from Somerset westwards, and probably began to emerge as a distinct region by the beginning of the fourth century. The general picture suggests that it had become fully independent by the fifth century.

In this area, which had scarcely been touched by Roman occupation, the Dumnonian leaders controlled part of the former territory of the Dobunni tribe (the area of northern Somerset), along with all of that of the Durotriges and Cornovii tribes (largely Dorset and southern Somerset for the former and Cornwall for the latter), plus their own ancestral Dumnonii lands which largely centred on modern Devon. However, from the start of the sixth century, their territory would come under near-constant attack by the newly-created West Seaxe of Hampshire, a mixture of Saxons, Jutes, and Britons.

Major victories were claimed by them in 577, 652 and 658, at which time Saxon groups pushed westwards, creating new settlements, taking over some old ones, and anglicising the local names. These new groups were not initially under the authority of the West Seaxe kings, occupying as they did border territory that the Dumnonians may still have viewed as being theirs. Settle they did though, and they formed new identities within two broad groups. The first, the Dornsaete, settled in the former British tribal canton of the Durotriges, while the other, the Somersaete, became their northern neighbours, secure in their territory of woods, marshes and hills once the British kingdom of Glastenning had fallen.

FeatureThe Dornsaete were the 'dorn settlers'. They seemingly adopted the local Romano-British name of Caer Durnac or Roman Durnovaria (modern Dorchester, or 'fort of the Durotriges'). By the post-Roman period, Roman Durnovaria may have become Dorotric or Dortrig, while Caer Durnac is probably a Welsh-inspired ninth century corruption. The Somersaete were the 'sumer settlers'. This was the 'Summer Land' of the Mabinogion in which dwelt the King Melwas (Meleagant) who kidnapped Guinevere (possibly a king of Caer Baddan). Certainly by the time of Alfred the Great, large stretches of these lands could only be used during the summer (the modern, since-drained Somerset Levels), which provided the meaning behind its Germanic name - the land of the summer pastures, primarily because they would have been boggy and wet during the winters. One has to wonder whether there was an element of sales pitch in the name - an attempt to persuade 'new buyers' to come to this frontier land and tame the 'soft' Britons whilst farming one's own land that had been taken from them.

The use of 'saete' to describe 'settlers' in Old English apparently originates in the summer pastures of Norway which are called 'saeters' or 'seters', implying a degree of interconnection between the early Germans there and the Angles and Saxons of ancient Denmark and northern Germany. The Saxon settlers were initially centred around Somerton, the 'settlement of the Somer [people]', and the name suggests that it was a new settlement (the name came before the settlement, despite claims elsewhere on the internet to the contrary).

There is some disagreement over the precise spelling of the 'saete' ending though. G S P Freeman-Grenville supports Dornsaete and Somersaete, but Anglo-Saxon language usually suggests that the names should be shown as Dornsaetne and Somersaetne. This is because some Anglo-Saxons reversed the plural suffix from '-en' to '-ne' or '-na'. Missing the 'n' is a rather surprising variant. In the form used mainly here, the Ciltern Saetan don't even reverse the suffix, while the Magonset and Wrocenset omit it entirely (although alternative (and possibly older) versions include the more complete Magonsæte and Wreocensæte/Wreocensaetan), and others show it complete in all references, such as the Pecsætna (Pecsaetan), Pencersæte, and Tomsæte (Tomsaetan), all of whom were absorbed into Mercia. The answer may be that they were indeed the Dornsaeten and Somersaeten (supported by Sir Frank Stenton, to which he adds Wilsaetan), but that the final 'n' was dropped, possibly due to a dialect shift in the West Country. Germanic is well known for dropping the final 'n'.

The Dornsaete remained largely independent until circa 650-670. If they acknowledged the local authority of any British chieftains, then such information has not survived and any such arrangements were probably on a temporary ad hoc basis. The West Seaxe conquest of the Somersaete and their lands was a slower process which only ended in 687 when the Saxons reached Exeter.

(Additional information by Geoffrey Tobin and Edward Dawson, from The Oxford History of England: The English Settlements, J N L Meyers, from The Oxford History of England: Anglo-Saxon England, Sir Frank Stenton, from Roman Britain: A New History, Guy de la Bédoyère, from The Cambridge Historical Encyclopaedia of Great Britain and Ireland, Christopher Haigh (Ed), from Wessex, Barbara Yorke, from the Atlas of British History by G S P Freeman-Grenville (1979), and from External Links: Encyclopaedia of Earth, and The Global Warming Policy Forum.)

577

The West Seaxe king, Ceawlin, thrusts south-westwards from the Upper Thames towards the Bristol Channel. A major blow is delivered against the western Britons and is a complete success. The Brito-Welsh are defeated at the Battle of Deorham (Dyrham, or Hinton Hill, eight miles north of Caer Baddan), and all three of their kings are killed. Their cities fall to the Saxons.

Caer Baddan appears to fall first, as the British may hurriedly erect an addition to the West Wansdyke where it seems to block the Fosse Way. Such last ditch efforts prove fruitless and Caer Ceri and Caer Gloui also fall. With this collapse, the territory of Caer Celemion to the east is now totally isolated and Pengwern and Gwent are now on the front line. Cadbury Castle is also abandoned around this time, perhaps suggesting an evacuation of its occupants.

Flooded Somerset Levels
Even by 2013 the Somerset Levels was still prone to excessive flooding, but in the post-Roman and early medieval periods this flooding would have been a regular seasonal feature of the region

However, it appears that the Britons behind the West Wansdyke hold out. It seems possible that the three cities had been receiving military support from Glastenning or Dumnonia, and that these kingdoms hold on to what they can of Caer Baddan's territory after the city's fall. The Hwicce soon migrate into the northern remainder of the territory. The city is inhabited by the Saxons of the Somersaete who retain the name, but pronounce it as Bathanceaster (the city or fort of Bathan). In time it becomes the city of Bath.

c.560 - 598

Gerren rac Dehau ('for the South')

King of Dumnonia. Helped to defend the West Wansdyke?

598 - 613

Blederic / Bledric ap Custennin

King of Dumnonia.

613 - ?

Clement ap Bledric

King of Dumnonia.

614

Cynegils of the West Seaxe takes advantage of a momentary weakness in the British kingdom of Dumnonia and invades the eastern half. Badly defeated at the Battle of Beandun (Bindon in Devon), the Dumnonians are forced to retreat back to Caer Uisc (Exeter), where archaeology suggests that a major Roman building is still being occupied into the seventh century. Possibly, this incursion weakens the Dorset and Somerset regions of the kingdom so that independent groups of Saxons are able to make inroads over the next generation, forming the Dornsaete and Somersaete respectively.

c.630

Petroc Baladrddellt ap Clemen

King of Dumnonia. Nominal overlord of Dornsaete & Somersaete?

652

Cenwalh of the West Saexe makes a breakthrough against the Dumnonian defensive lines at the battle of Bradford-upon-Avon. This means they make use of the gap in the Wansdyke caused by the passage of the River Avon. The Dornsaete (Dorset settlers) who have been slowly pushing against the Dumnonian borders now come under West Seaxe control whilst Dumnonia loses more territory to the invaders.

652 - 672

Cenwalh / Kenwalch

King of the West Saexe, overlord of the Dornsaete.

658

Dumnonia is defeated at the Battle of Peonna (Penselwood - the densely forested area on the eastern boundary of Somerset), and its forces are put to flight to the River Parrett. The eastern half of the kingdom is permanently captured by the West Saexe as they advance through the Polden Hills to the new border of the River Parrett (approximately forty-five kilometres (thirty miles) further west). They may even go farther than this, to the hills which separate Somerset from Devon, as place names suggest settlement well before the end of this century.

FeatureThe Brito-Welsh territory of Glastenning (in modern Somerset) is probably taken at the same time. The Somersaete also now come under West Seaxe control (if they didn't already after 652), as does Glastonbury Abbey, which is allowed to retain its British abbot.

672 - 674

Queen Seaxburh

Ruler of the West Saexe, overlord of the Dornsaete.

674

Cenfus

King of the West Saexe, overlord of the Dornsaete.

674 - 676

Æescwine / Aescwine / Escuin

King of the West Saexe, overlord of the Dornsaete.

681 - 685

The remaining Dumnonian Somerset territory is conquered by Centwine as he clears the western coastal area of Somerset as far as the modern Devon border. In a two-pronged attack, the territory of the Defnas (Dumnonia / Devon) Britons is also taken by a force that presses along the English Channel coast from Dorset to Exeter.

Amusingly, it seems the new masters of Somerset ask the Celtic natives for the name of a range of hills to the far west of this region. Rather than a name, they are given the Brythonic word for hill, 'brendo', to which the Saxons add their own word, 'hill'. The area becomes the Brendon Hills of Somerset, literally the 'hill hills'.

Roman Exeter
The settlement of Exeter as built by the Romans, although how much of it continued to be used under the Dumnonians prior to 685 is debatable

687

Ine establishes West Seaxe forts or palaces at Taunton (the 'settlement on the [River] Tone'), Somerton (the 'settlement of the Somer [settlers]'), and South Petherton to secure the eastern Dumnonian conquests. The way and extent to which the conquered Britons survive under the Saxons is a debatable matter. However, Ine's laws make provision for them, albeit as second-class subjects, and it seems likely that they form a predominant percentage of the populace in the kingdom.

They are slowly amalgamated into the small but dominant Saxon population, copying the ways and language of their new masters. A similar process is happening in other western regions, such as Hwicce, the Magonset, and Mercia, with Britons forming a large percentage of the population of these early English kingdoms.

By the early ninth century, the West Saxons have formed shires out of their territories, with the Somersaete and Dornsaete each forming a shire of their own with a capital at Somerton and Dorchester respectively (Somerton is later superseded by Taunton as the county town). The eastern borders of the shires are formed by Selwood and Bokerley Dike (again respectively), and may have been formed in the fifth or sixth centuries during the earliest stages of the West Saxon advance further west. The region's history is subsequently tied to that of the West Seaxe.