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Post-Roman Britain

Ancient Dumnonia

The Celtic Devon Dewnans website, 10 June 2004. Updated 17 May 2018

Before the Romans came to Britain the indigenous Celtic people formed a number of independent nations. The Dumnonii (not Damnonii, a northern tribe) occupied Devon, Cornwall, and the western parts of Somerset and Dorset. To the east lay the Durotiges and beyond the Belgae peoples.

These native Britons may have been ethnically related to the Iceni, the Celtic tribe which commanded the modern East Anglian area of eastern England who were led to heroic defeat by Boudicca, but they did not suffer the same fate. A number of factors helped in this.

The Dumnonii were Iron Age Celts, but hardly savages. They mined tin and other minerals from Dartmoor, the Tamar Valley, and Cornwall, and they traded tin with the Phoenicians and other Mediterranean civilisations long before the Roman invasion. Conflict between the nations of pre-Roman Britain had led to the establishment of numerous hill forts on the boundary and, with the Somerset Levels then being still largely tidally-affected marshland, Dumnonia's only boundary to the east was relatively narrow and easy to defend.

Once the Romans had invaded Britain they extended their domain north and west, but before they could reach the land of the Dumnonii they had to conquer other tribes. The Durotiges also had hill forts, and the Romans apparently had considerable trouble overcoming these. A major and bloody battle seems to have taken place at Maiden Castle (a major Celtic hill fort) and also at Hod Hill, and on occasion the Romans had to lay siege to the hill forts and starve out the inhabitants (it is reported that the Romans then killed the inhabitants - man, woman, and child).

Having accomplished the conquest of Dorset, the Romans would have been faced with the defended hill forts of the Dumnonii, who would have had some time to enhance their defences. They would no doubt also have had their resolve hardened by the fate of their neighbours, and may also have had their numbers boosted by refugees.

The Romans themselves do not record any victories over the Dumnonii (and as victors they normally did), and only one battle is recorded (without the Romans noting the outcome). It seems that the Romans must have come to some arrangement with the Dumnonii, for a small garrison was established at Exeter the size of which is not in keeping with a occupying force, and a relatively small number of other garrisons or forts were established.

Roman Exeter

An artist's impression of Roman Exeter (click or tap on image to read more on a separate page)

Remains of Roman settlement in Devon and Cornwall are remarkably few, but the fact that some Roman buildings existed, even down into Cornwall (such as at Nanstallon) points to some sort of truce between the Romans and Dumnonii, and the latter probably continued to have a degree of self-government throughout the Roman occupation.

It is recorded that iron was mined on Exmoor during the Roman period.

The Dumnonii capital was believed to be at Exeter, which the Britons called Keresk ('Caer Uisc'), and which the Romans named Isca Dumnonioram [1]. In Devon another settlement was Tamaris (according to Ptolemy) which is believed to be in the Plymouth region.

When Roman administration was rejected almost four hundred years later, the Dumnonii soon regained their independence (by AD 410) - if it even needed to be regained. Shortly afterwards there is evidence that trade with the Mediterranean had recommenced.

[1] All three names - 'esk', 'uisc', and 'isca' - are variants of the same name for the River Exe which flows through Exeter.

However, Romano-British groups in eastern Britain felt vulnerable following the cessation of the Roman administration of the country, and the nation's ruling council looked across the North Sea for support.

Bands of Angles, Saxons, and Jutes were subsequently invited to Britain to help defend it in typical late Roman fashion, and they ended up settling in Britain and setting up their own nations. [2]

The newcomers gradually extended their influence and control and, by the end of the sixth century, they had occupied about half of what became known as England. However, this advance received a sharp check at the end of the fifth century - at Badon - an event which is forever tied into the legends surrounding Arthur.

Whether there ever was an Arthur (and there is certainly evidence of an 'Artorus'), what is evident is that the Romano-Britons did unite to halt the westward expansion of the Angles and Saxons, and in fact that expansion was stopped for at least fifty years. Dumnonia has many strong claims to Arthur, but it is difficult to match legend with fact. One thing is certain though, if Arthur existed then he led the Britons against the English.

The victory for Arthur and the delay in Anglo-Saxon encroachment is important, as it is during this time that the Saxons started to adopt Christianity (Britons were already largely Christian although they observed Christianity in different ways), and subsequent Germanic expansion afterwards was probably more tolerant of the indigenous Britons.

It is also at this time that a wave of migration was taking place (and had been for at least a century), this time by Dumnonian Celts and anyone else who cared to join them - into Brittany.

The reasons for this migration are uncertain as the Saxon encroachment was still a distant threat to Devon and Cornwall, but it may have been triggered by refugees from farther east. Nevertheless many people from Dumnonia settled in Armorica, later known as Brittany, naming regions after their homeland - Cornouaille (Cornwall) in the south-west of Brittany, and Domnonee (Devon) in the north-east of Brittany - and taking with them the Celtic language into an already-Celtic-speaking region.

Strong links between Dumnonia and Brittany were established, and these remain in place to the present day.

[2] Often overlooked is the fact that there were already substantial Saxon and Anglian settlements along the Saxon Shore, where they had been settled for the previous two centuries as laeti, recruited by Rome to help defend the shoreline.

Eventually the West Saxon advance westwards recommenced and, in the sixth century (AD 577), the Britons of the West Country were separated from those of Wales. The Saxons called the Celtic Britons 'wealas' (generally being taken to mean foreigners, but with a much deeper and older meaning than that [3]). The Dumnonians became the 'West Wealas', and this is reflected on a number of ancient maps.

Map of the 'West Wealas' c.710
A map showing the situation around AD 710 regarding the 'West Wealas' of Devon and Cornwall (click or tap on image to view entire sequence of Dumnonia maps)

[3] See the introduction for Wales.

By AD 710 the Saxons are believed to have taken control of Exeter (as shown in the map above), and over the next sixty years the Saxons (under Ina and Adelred) attempted to subjugate the Dumnonian nation.

Despite setbacks (such as in AD 722 when the Britons mounted a successful fight-back which regained much of Devon), the Saxons were largely successful and progressively extended their influence westwards. In 814 the Saxons (now under Ecgberht) reconquered the Dumnonian 'rump' of Devon, after the Cornish had allied themselves with the Danes.

Insurrections continued, but in 838 the Saxons defeated a Cornish/Danish force near Callington, and this was the last battle fought by Celts against West Saxons.

However, to see the Saxon invasion as a continuous battle is incorrect. Although the period is littered with numerous military confrontations, for the majority of this time the native Celts and invading Saxons appear to have tolerated each other. This can be evidenced by the relationship between Dumnonian King Geraint and Saxon Bishop Adhelm.

Following the 'conquest' of Devon the Saxons had four laws. Not only did they practise different laws for rich and poor, but had rules for Saxon rich, Saxon poor, Celtic rich, and Celtic poor. This demonstrates not only that the Celts 'survived' the conquest, but that some managed to retain some wealth at the transition, although the law for Celtic rich was later dispensed with.

Evidence of continued Celtic settlement in Devon at this time can also be found in Exeter which retained a 'British quarter' and which bore this name for centuries, and also by reference to 'Wealcynn', which is what the Saxons called those Celts who did not live in Cornwall (essentially 'British folk'). Branscombe is one such place mentioned in King Alfred's will in AD 900.

In 927 Saxon King Athelstan expelled Celts from Exeter (possibly due to concerns that they had allegiances with the Danes), although they relocated only as far as what is now Exeter St David's railway station.

In 936 Athelstan set the boundary between Devon and Cornwall at the Tamar, where (largely) it has remained ever since.

However, this was not a boundary between Celt and Saxon, but rather a simple ecumenical boundary. It can be claimed that this is obvious because Cornwall was 'conquered' by the Saxons a hundred years beforehand (in the early ninth century), but no Saxon advance before 875 seems to have crossed the Tamar.

Much more supportive are surveys of current genealogy (as in the BBC's Blood of the Vikings series) which indicate that the majority of the people of the West Country (and not just those of Devon) share a common gene pool which dates back to pre-Saxon times. In essence, the Saxons supplied a new ruling elite in this region but just about everyone else was a Briton.

In Michael Wood's book, In Search of England (in which he searched for pre-Conquest England, and the ghost of the imaginary Ulric the Saxon), he visited a Devon farm and found not only pre-Conquest England, but pre-Saxon Devon. He noted that the Celtic language in Devon 'survived for centuries', and that when King Edgar granted the land charter in 974 he described the location as 'in the place called in the common speech by the name Nymed'. Nymed is a Celtic word (meaning 'sacred wood'), and it provides tantalising evidence that the Celtic language was still the de facto common language of the day.

Britons may have learned some new languages, but they have survived.



Text copyright © Dewnans website. Reproduced with permission.