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Celtic Kingdoms of the British Isles

Celts of Britain

 

Belgae (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 Belgae tribe was centred on Venta Belgarum (modern Winchester) in the county of Hampshire, and perhaps extending into Somerset and Avon. They were neighboured to the north-east by the Atrebates, to the south-east by the Regninses, and to the west by the Durotriges and Dobunni. Like their Atrebatean neighbours, they were probably a Belgic tribe from the North Sea or Baltic coastline, part of the third wave of Celtic settlers in Britain. The name Venta Belgarum came from 'venta', meaning main market or market town, which was used to denote a tribal capital, and 'belgarum', meaning 'of the Belgae' (see the map of most of Europe's tribes around the first centuries BC and AD to view the tribe's location in relation to all other Celts).

It is likely that the Belgae formed part of the tribal domains of the Atrebates from at least 20 BC, and may have done so from the latter's probable founding as a kingdom by Commius over two decades before that. It also seems possible that the Belgae were not a tribe at all, and may not even have been Belgic prior to the Roman conquest. There is the possibility that they were the leftovers of previous Celtic settlers who had not migrated farther west or north when the Atrebates and their kin arrived. Given the very scant evidence, it is hard to draw any definite conclusion either way.

If they were indeed Belgic then they may have been formed of odds and ends of various Belgic tribes which had migrated from Gaul to escape Roman occupation. A large amount of middle second century BC coinage (Gallo-Belgic A) which has been attributed to the Ambiani tribe has been discovered in parts of southern Britain. While this may be due only to trading connections, it may also be due to Ambiani settlers in the territory. If there was an Ambiani presence amongst the Belgae, however, it certainly was not strong enough to influence tribal 'branding' here.

When it comes to determining the meaning of the name 'Belgae' (pronounced bel-jay), Pokorny gives these roots in Gaulish from a proto-Indo-European base, with the latter's 'bhelg̑h-' and 'bhelg̑h-' descending into Gaulish as 'bolg-' and 'bulga'. 'Bhelg̑h-' means to swell up. But the crucial word from this root does not seem to come from Gaulish. Instead it seems to stem from the Anglo-Saxon verb, 'belgan', meaning 'to swell up, be angry'. This supports the contention that the Belgae were a Celtic-Germanic mix. The Irish description of Cucullaine comes to mind, when his madness is on him, swelling him with rage and transforming him from a normal man to a monster... apparently borrowed from the Irish for use in the Incredible Hulk!

Ancient Britons

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Edward Dawson, from Geography, Ptolemy, from The Oxford History of England: Roman Britain, Peter Salway, from Atlas of British History, G S P Freeman-Grenville (Rex Collins, London, 1979), and from External Links: Indo-European Etymological Dictionary, J Pokorny, and Proto-Celtic Word List (PDF).)

mid-200s BC

A large number of Gallo-Belgic A coins are to be found in southern Britain at this time or soon afterwards. This suggests heavy trade with the Ambiani tribe in northern Gaul, but also the probability that Ambiani have settled in Hampshire, possible as the earliest representatives of the Belgae group as a whole.

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)

c.90 - 60 BC

Gallo-Belgic C coins, less than previously, can be found which are tentatively identified with Diviciacus of the Suessiones. Finds are concentrated amongst the Cantii, but can be found as far west as the Sussex coast, on the borders with the Belgae lands.

51 BC

Commius of the Gaulish Atrebates arrives in Britain, bringing with him just his own retainers, survivors of a heavy defeat in Gaul. The size and strength of the Atrebates tribe he joins in Britain is unknown. They certainly occupy their own territory in this period, and govern the Belgae and Regninses, who may all be constituent parts of the same tribe, but how much significance they hold is unclear.

They may not even be formed into a single tribal kingdom until Commius becomes their ruler, although it does seem likely that many Belgic refugees find their way here during this period.

AD 43

Still a subsidiary part of the domains of the Atrebates, the Belgae appear not to possess a single form of tribal cohesion. This probably makes them an easy conquest for the Romans during their imperial invasion of the country under the command of soon-to-be Roman Governor Aulus Plautius.

Gallo-Belgic quarter stater
Shown here is a gold Gallo-Belgic quarter stater of the C-type, which can be dated between 80-60 BC, at least a couple of decades before the first of Julius Caesar's expeditions to Britain

Part of the territory of the Atrebates is reorganised into the Roman client kingdom of the Regninses (which possibly includes the Belgae). This is ruled by Tiberius Claudius Cogidubnus, who may be the son of the last native Atrebatean king, Verica.

43 - 80?

Tiberius Claudius Cogidubnus

Roman client king of Atrebates, Regninses, & Belgae.

44

Vectis Insula (the Isle of Wight) may be a Belgae possession, although this cannot be confirmed. In fact much of the island's pre-English history is highly vague and unknown. Now it is conquered by Roman troops under the command of Vespasian.

c.80?

Direct rule under the Romans follows the death of Tiberius Claudius Cogidubnus, client ruler of the Regninses, and perhaps the Belgae too. The tribal territory is later organised into the civitates (administrative districts within a Roman province) of the Atrebates, Regninses and, again, possibly the Belgae. The latter are governed from Venta Belgarum (Winchester).

It has been suggested (by Vivien Swan and Anthony King) that the Belgae may have strong anti-Roman sentiments (not surprising if they have been chased out of Gaul by Roman conquests), and that their lands may be resettled by Belgic peoples soon after the conquest of Britain. The immediate post-conquest pottery of the Oare/Savernake area is made by Belgic potters who follow the Roman army as it moves westwards. It raises the possibility that the whole of the 'Belgae' population is moved in from somewhere further east, with the indigenous people being resettled.

Belgae
Many Belgic groups showed marked Germanic influences, so were they Celts with German words and warriors, or Germans with Celtic words and warriors? The truth probably lies somewhere in between

c.140s

Ptolemy confirms the location of the Belgae, and ascribes to them the towns of Aquae Calidae ('The Hot Waters' otherwise known as Aquae Sulis, modern Bath in Somerset), Iscalis (location uncertain, but placed by Ptolemy at the mouth of the River Axe, near Bawdrip in Somerset), and Venta Belgarum. The last is the principal tribal centre but is given no special attribution. A bank and ditch is built around it during this century.

Other settlements include Abona (Sea Mills, Avon) a port which serves Aquae Sulis (Caer Baddan) and which is located on the Severn Estuary, and Sorviodunum (Old Sarum in Hampshire), an Iron Age hill fort which has been re-used by the Romans as a posting station.

3rd century

A stone wall is added to the defensive bank and ditch around Venta Belgarum. By this period the city contains many fine Roman buildings, including temples and a forum, and is the fifth largest city by area in Roman Britain. Two cemeteries exist, one outside the northern gate and one to the east.

It is probably in this century that Aquae Sulis (Caer Baddan) gains defensive walls, in common with many cities in Britain. The road junction to the north of the temple complex is left outside the walls, and the area within them is progressively developed, suggesting occupation is concentrated behind the defences. However, there is some development along the roadside to the north, along with a cemetery which continues to be used. The baths begin to decline in the late fourth century, but the springs continue to be used.

Venta Belgarum
The Roman city of Venta Belgarum was apparently prosperous and well-sited - and also extremely well built as parts of it still stand almost two thousand years later

4th century

By this period another settlement can be found at Clavsentum (Bitterne in Hampshire). It is a fortified port which serves Venta Belgarum. By the 340s, development work comes to a halt in Venta, part of a general decline in Roman cities at this time, and bastions are added to the town wall as the defences are beefed up. At the same time there is evidence of alien elements in the population which grave goods and burial rites suggest are of South German origin. These may be laeti, Germanic barbarians settled in the area of the city to aid in its defence.

5th century

By the fifth century the Romano-British Belgae have regained some level of independent control in the form of the postulated territory of Caer Gwinntguic. The territory may only be an administrative one at first, perhaps developing later into an independent entity as central authority in Britain fades. The city of Aquae Sulis emerged as Caer Baddan, but it now falls under the administrative control of Caer Gloui, not Venta Belgarum.