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Celtic Kingdoms of the British Isles

Celts of Britain


Ancalites & Bibroci (Britons)

FeatureIt was the Romans who coined the name 'Gaul' to describe the Celtic tribes of what is now France and Belgium, quite possibly based on an original form of the word 'Celt' itself (see feature link). When it came to the Celts of Britain, the name of the islands itself was used: Prydein (Latinised as Prettania or Britannia). Its collective people were Britons, although not all of them were Celts, let alone the same 'type' of Celts. Successive waves of immigration had left a vague mix of Bell Beaker folk, Urnfield proto-Celts, Hallstatt and La Tène waves, and Belgae, the latest arrivals. By the first century BC these latter people dominated the south and east of the isles.

MapThe Ancalites and Bibroci tribes were two of the more obscure to be noted by Julius Caesar in his Commentaries. But for his two expeditions of 55 BC and 54 BC, the existence of either of them may have been completely lost to Britain's prehistory. Their locations are hard to pin down with any precision, but it may be possible that they were located close to the River Thames, and probably on the north and south banks respectively. That would have placed the early Catuvellauni to their north, the Trinovantes to their distant east, and the Atrebates to their south (see the map of Europe's tribes around the first centuries BC and AD to view these locations in relation to all other Celts).

Caesar was not planning to document all the tribes of Britain during his expeditions. He just noted those with whom he came into contact, while he was subduing the south-east's dominant tribe and putting down a marker for future relations with Rome. Three of the lesser tribes were the Ancalites, Bibroci, and Segontiaci, probably minor groups which lived on the border areas between their much larger neighbours. It is only conjecture, but the Ancalites seem to have been settled around Henley-on-Thames, while just across the river and a few kilometres east were the Bibroci in Bray.

The sixteenth century author of Britannia, William Camden, wrote that Henley (in Oxfordshire) was that 'which some doe thinke the Ascalites... did inhabite'. More recently, the Wiltshire tourist board (later rebadged as Visit Wiltshire) claimed the Ancalites as being part of that county's own ethnic ancestry. If true, this would extend the tribe's territory considerably to the west, but there is no proof for the assertion.

FeaturePronounced an-kal-eye-tees, the Ancalites name is relatively complicated to break down. In proto-Celtic, *ang-e/o- means 'fear', with it appearing that the first part of the Anglo-Saxon words, 'angrisla' and 'angrislic', may have been borrowed directly from Gaulish, cognate with the Latin word 'angere', meaning 'to strangle'. This is also noted in the Angrivarii tribal name on the European mainland. While it is uncertain, it would seem to form the first half of the Ancalites name (anca-lites), with the 'c' pronounced as a 'k' and therefore easily shifted there from 'anga' or 'ange'. This root is also a likely candidate for the root of the names Angle and Anglyn. Does it mean fearsome? Were they describing themselves as terrors to others? Further muddying the issue is the fact that both the Angrivarii and the Angles were Ingaevones, a sort of early supertribal collective (see feature link). Is the real root for this 'ing' or 'ang'?

The meaning of the Bibroci name (pronounced bib-roke-ee) is even more difficult to determine. A popular view seems to suggest it is related to the word for beaver, from proto-Celtic 'bebro'. Latin has the word 'bibo', which means 'to drink', a word which would also have had a Celtic root and which would provide an amusing possibility. More seriously, Bibroci is very close in pronunciation to Bibracte, a major fortress in Gaul, raising the possibility of a connection there.

Ancient Britons

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Edward Dawson, from Britannia: A Chorographical Description of Great Britain and Ireland... William Camden, Edmund Gibson, Robert White, Mary Matthews, & Awnsham Churchill (Printed by Mary Matthews for Awnsham Churchill, 1723, online editions are available), from Atlas of British History, G S P Freeman-Grenville (Rex Collins, London, 1979), and from External Links: River Thames (dead link), and Visit Wiltshire.)

54 BC

Cassivellaunus kills Imanuentius, king of the Trinovantes, but the dead king's son, Mandubracius, flees to the Romans in Gaul. He wins the support of Julius Caesar and the Roman general makes the second of his exploratory forays into Britain. Cassivellaunus organises and leads a coalition army against him but is defeated by Caesar's expeditionary force south of Thamesis, near modern Brentford.

Map of Britain AD 10
By the end of the first century BC and the start of the first century AD, British politics often came to the attention of Rome, and the borders of the tribal states of the south-east were pretty well known (click or tap on map to view full sized)

The Catuvellauni and their allies fall back to the tribal capital at Wheathampstead in Hertfordshire (a little way north of St Albans). Emissaries from five British tribes, including the Ancalites and the Bibroci, arrive at the Roman camp to treat for peace. They also reveal the location of Cassivellaunus' stronghold to Caesar, which is where the final battle is probably fought on 5 August. Cassivellaunus subsequently sues for peace and Mandubracius is reinstated as king of the Trinovantes.

54 - c.30 BC

Following his defeat by Julius Caesar and the subsequent withdrawal of the Roman expeditionary force, Cassivellaunus begins to expand his tribe's territory from its core heartland north of the Thames in all directions, building up the larger kingdom which will dominate south-eastern Britain for the next century, and the one which adopts the Catuvellauni name.

Territory is subjugated in the modern counties of Cambridgeshire, Northamptonshire, Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire east of the Cherwell, Middlesex and north-east Surrey. Just who occupies these newly conquered territories beforehand is largely unknown, whether they are lesser tribes whose names have been lost or neighbouring tribes such as the Corieltavi.

Henley Bridge
Cooke in his work Thames in 1811 tried to assert that the Romans in AD 43 used a bridge at Henley to cross the river and surprise the Britons, but there is no evidence of a bridge until 1225, even though it would have been a useful connection between Ancalites and Bibroci

However, given the presumed locations of the Ancalites and the Bibroci on the banks of the Thames, this makes them ideal candidates for tribes which are subsumed within the Catuvellauni in this period. Additionally, there may have been an element of revenge in subsuming them, given their role in revealing the Catuvellauni capital to the Romans. Neither are recorded again, and they are certainly not recognised as existing by the time of the Roman imperial invasion of AD 43 create a Roman Britain.

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