History Files


Post-Roman Britain

Southern Britain's Lost Kingdoms

by Peter Kessler, 1 April 1999. Updated 14 February 2007

Part 4: Uncertain Kingdoms

There are a series of regions, or territories, in the British south-east which get the most fleeting of mentions in various sources, with tantalising glimpses given of some of the possible kingdoms which 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 battle was going, and centres of British resistance can often be deduced from the location of these battles, and from archaeological evidence.


Caer Celemion

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 tribal territory . 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 which are intrusive into prehistoric round barrows all along the nearby chalk country suggest casualties which could have been incurred during 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 Thames 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 northern side of the Thames, above Oxford, could well have been started in a similar fashion (perhaps by neighbouring 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 which overlooks the upper Thames basin (Caer Celemion's north-eastern 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 which was tied into the territory's outer boundary defences.

Farther west, the fifth or perhaps sixth century construction of the Wansdyke was a massive undertaking which reached from a point to the west of Caer Baddan's capital (Roman Aquae Sulis, modern Bath) to the proposed north-western corner of Caer Celemion's border.

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 but also by 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 which were related to those Roman roads which 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 this.

By 577, with the fall of three British kingdoms which were based around Gloucester (led by Caer Gloui), and the fall of Caer Gwinntguic to the south and south-west (probably in 552), Caer Celemion was totally isolated. It had the Thames Valley Saxons pressing upon it from the north and the increasingly 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.

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


Caer Colun

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 400-500).

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 existing landowner.

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 sixth century.

After whatever sub-Roman authority still existed in the region in the mid-500s had presumably capitulated, Colchester seems to have become abandoned (which it certainly was by the seventh century) by the East Saxons.

Caer Colun (Colchester)
The artist's impression of the Roman city of Camulodunum (Romano-British Caer Colun, modern Colchester) shows it in its heyday, before some gates were sealed up but after its walls - the earliest city walls in Britain - were erected in order to safeguard it from any further Boudiccan-style revolts

Part 1: Intro
Part 2: Cynwidion & Pengwern
Part 3: Gloui, Dumnonia, & Ceint
Part 4: Celemion & Colun
Part 5: Venta, Lerion, Lundein, Went
Part 6: Linnius, Rhegin, & Weith
Part 7: Lost Kings


Text copyright © P L Kessler, from various notes and sources. An original feature for the History Files.