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Post-Roman Britain

Southern Britain's Lost Kingdoms

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



Part 5: 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 Gwinntguic

Centred on Caer Gwinntguic (Roman Venta Belgarum in the tribal lands of the Belgae, modern Winchester in Hampshire), a pocket of British resistance fought a hard war against the West Saxons here, aided by and perhaps politically linked to Caer Celemion.

Both held out, semi-isolated in an increasingly Saxon-dominated landscape, forcing West Saxon advances to head for the north and west. Their eastern border would have been largely protected by the huge swathe of forest which reached into Kent.

That Winchester had some sort of paramilitary administrative status in this period is also suggested by the presence of some unusual burials in the Lankhills cemetery, which shows funerary practices with a military context and accompanying equipment which was standard late-Roman army issue.

At Winchester itself, the main south gate of the Roman city, pointing towards the West Saxons, was so effectively blocked in two stages during the fifth and sixth centuries by walling and a ditch dug across the road, that all traffic from the south was forced to use the minor Kingsgate further to the east.

To emphasise the degree of change which had been forced upon the city by this, even after it was conquered the main extramural suburb developed outwards from the Kingsgate rather than the original south gate.

Before it was put out of use in this drastic way the south gate road would have been the direct route between Caer Gwinntguic and the late Roman fortress at Clausentum (modern Bitterne) 1.5 kilometres away near the mouth of the Itchen, close to the Solent.

It seems as if there came a moment in time at which the rulers of Caer Gwinntguic and Clausentum were on opposite sides of an unrecorded conflict.

Not far to the west of Winchester are strong suggestions that Ambrosius Aurelianus possessed 'the stronghold of Ambrosius' which is remembered in modern 'Amesbury' (Saxon Ambresbyrig, to the north of Salisbury and west of Andover). This could have formed the easternmost part of Ambrosius' theorised Gloucester power base near Caer Celemion's western border.

The sub-Roman ruler in Caer Gwinntguic in the 440s may have been Elafius, but the names of no other leaders were recorded. It seems likely that the region fell to the West Saxons in 552, when they conquered Searoburh (Old Sarum), taking the whole of Wiltshire in the process.

Winchester was a major centre of West Saxon authority from the moment it was taken, a usage which could have begun in late Roman times as part of the administrative structure of the Saxon Shore.

Frescoe in Venta Belgarum
A wall painting in the Roman palace of Venta Belgarum as reconstructed by Sean A MacKenna (1932-2012), an expert in excavation, conservation, structure, and restoration


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

Caer Lerion

This region was probably governed from the modern city of Leicester, the first major stop south on the Roman Foss Way from Caer Lind Colun. Its Roman name was Ratae Coritanorum, and it served as the tribal capital of the Coritani, but little is known of this area.

It must have fallen very early in the Angle advance eastwards out of Caer Went (in East Anglia), far earlier than some of the territories around it (especially when compared to the longer-lived Cynwidion to the south). It is possible that it did not outlive the existence of the so-called 'Middle Britain' region, and so never had its own local rulers.

By AD 500 the Middil Engle were heavily infiltrating this region in the form of the Elge, Spaldingas, Herstingas, Undalum, and Iclingas. The later traditional region of Middle Britain had ceased to exist and whatever local rule may have operated here had been swept away.

One proposal is that Caer Lerion was administered by Linnuis (Lincoln), to its immediate north. As this territory apparently passed peacefully into Anglian hands at some point between 460 and 480, it seems likely that Caer Lerion would have followed.

Leicestershire countryside
Modern Leicestershire formed the heartland of the territory of the Middle Angles, which was populated by a mixture of Britons, Angles, and Saxons, the latter probably a relic of Roman settled mercenary groups



Caer Lundein

Two possibilities for minor British territories present themselves in the area around Caer Lundein (Roman Londinium). These were Caer Mincip (Roman Verulamium, replaced during the Saxon period by the nearby settlement of St Albans in Hertfordshire which was named after the circa AD 301 martyr), and Caer Lundein (Londinium or London, founded by the Romans on the north bank of the Thames, and apparently based on an earlier Celtic settlement which can be dated to circa 500 BC).

The former is not mentioned by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, but the latter is certainly an important base of operations in the fight to re-take Ceint during the mid-fifth century. As with Calchwynedd (former Cynwidion) and Caer Colun, there are very few Anglo-Saxon remains here, which suggests that a sub-Roman influence was managing to hold them off until the late sixth century or early seventh.

Certainly, Saxons had taken the region to the south of Londinium, named the Suther-ge by the new occupiers. Towards the end of its British possession, Caer Lundein may well have been absorbed by Calchwynedd. If this was so, then it was not for long.

Evidence points to it being very run down and perhaps totally abandoned for more than a generation, and it was not in British hands by AD 600, when the Augustinian mission was refused permission by the East Saxon royal family to establish a bishop's seat there.

The capture of four towns along the Icknield Way in 571 suggest this as a likely date for the fall of the whole Londinium region.

Verulamium (St Albans)
With the south gate of Verulamium (Caer Mincip, just outside modern St Albans) probably remaining in use until about AD 600, the town was part of a working Romano-British settlement which was set up to defend itself from increasing Saxon encroachment, although it is unlikely that the Roman baths at nearby Welwyn would have lasted quite so long (click or tap on image to view full sized)


Caer Went

This Caer Went is not to be confused with the western city of Caer Went, which evolved into Gwent. This eastern territory of the Iceni has the name of its capital, Roman Venta Icenorum (Caistor-by-Norwich, more often known as Caistor St Edmunds), which has tentatively been adopted here as that of the Romano-British territory or administrative region which followed the termination of Roman administration.

Never the success of other cantonal capitals, Venta became increasingly vulnerable to Teutonic raids from the third century, and well-made protective ramparts were built around it from 240 - 275.

Archaeological digs have proved that here, as elsewhere along the eastern shore, Anglian and Saxon settlers are to be found in small communities which date at least a century before 450, so they were doubtless hired as laeti to aid the British defence of the area.

The evidence also proves that Caer Went's capital ended its life as a deserted ruin, and remains of a possible massacre have been found nearby (although it cannot be confirmed as such, and may be the result of the clearance of an earlier cemetery).

The Anglian North Folk and South Folk were becoming established by the end of the fifth century, and any British power at Caer Went seems to have terminated around the same time, perhaps as early as AD 500, with formalised Anglian rule under the East Angles taking place around 575.

Venta Icenorum
The Roman town of Venta Icenorum shown at its height, which was probably short-lived and perhaps not as prosperous as shown here. The unusual diagonal road leading to the north-east can clearly be seen



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