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Celtic Kingdoms of the British Isles

Celts of Britain

 

Caer Colun / Camulodunum (Romano-Britons)

FeatureWith the expulsion of Roman officials in AD 409 (see feature link), Britain again became independent of Rome and was not re-occupied. The fragmentation which had begun to emerge towards the end of the fourth century now appears to have accelerated, with minor princes, newly declared kings, and Roman-style magistrates all vying for power and influence while also facing the threat of extinction at the hands of the various barbarian tribes which were encroaching from all sides.

The post-Roman Trinovantes appear to have retained their identity to some extent, although their former territory had become fractured. Their tribal name does not seem to have survived, but in the few written records available this seems to have been typical of the south of Britain. Most post-Roman states appear to revolve around former Roman cities, and often bear their names except in the more lightly Romanised far west.

FeatureA possible successor state to the eastern section of Trinovantes tribal territory seems to have formed around the important sub-Roman town of Caer Colun (British Camulodunum, modern Colchester - see feature link). The town's walls had been erected in the first century, following Boudicca's revolt, a very early date for a walled Roman town in Britain. Various gates and external forts had been erected in the time since then. Following the boom time of the second century, shrinkage had occurred during the difficult years of the late third century and part of the town had been cleared for agriculture, so it was a well-defended and self-reliant location.

The city apparently held out against the Saxon tide until the mid-sixth century - quite an achievement on Britain's east coast. Whether it also controlled Londinium is unknown, but that city appears to have been largely abandoned from around AD 457, following the final defeat of British forces in Ceint. To the north of Londinium Caer Mincip may also have been connected to Caer Colun.

The city's British name of Camulodun would be older that the Roman period, with a slightly Romanised format when the '-um' suffix was added. The indication of age is in the name itself. Camulos (made up of 'camul-' plus '-os', masculine singular nominative suffix) is the name of a Celtic deity. Since deity names were conferred on infants, then the 'dun' (meaning 'fortified place') is either named after a man who was given the deity's name (at birth), or it is named directly after the deity. Romans would not have given a fresh name to a fort which had already been named in Celtic. Therefore the name existed before they arrived and planted their Colonia Castra ('defended colony') within (or next to) Camulodun.

In the past it has been traditional to link the name to the River Colne, but which name came first is still the subject of debate (typically it would be the river name or the deity name which is linked to the river). As for the Roman name of Colonia Castra, which became Caer Colun (still meaning 'defended colony' but in Brythonic format instead of Latin), given the fact that there were multiple Roman 'colonia' towns (Cologne, for example), there may well have been a second Caer Colun in Britain (or a variation of the name which depended upon its location and the local dialect). The Saxons took 'colun' and replaced the 'caer' prefix with a 'chester' suffix. Over time it became contracted to 'Colchester'.

One odd thing about the name Camulodun is the fact that the modifier precedes the noun. This is the Germanic, and proto-Indo-European, word order, and not the Latin and Celtic word order where the noun comes first, before the modifiers. The reason for this is unclear, but the German-infused elements of Belgic culture may provide an explanation. The Trinovantes are themselves likely to have been Belgae.

Also, intriguingly, 'Camulodun' is a perfect match for 'Camelot', and yet this treats the normal 'm' to 'v' shift as not occurring. The reasonable conclusion which could be drawn here is that, if Camelot is named after Camulodun, then it was called Camelot at a location in which the shift failed to occur, such as in Gaul. Even Irish Gaelic had a similar shift - of 'm' to 'w' - around the same time, at the end of the Roman era, so was there anywhere in the British Isles which refused to accept this shift until after the name Camelot was formed?

Or did it change and, perhaps entirely reasonably, there was a pedantic chronicler (or an entire class of them) who still insisted on using 'Camelot' (and 'Camulodon')? The local Britons would have changed the 'm' to a 'v' regardless, then the 'v' became reduced to nothing, so 'camul' became 'col' as in 'Colchester'.

Another point to remember is that the Brythonic language has gone through five stages to reach modern Welsh: 'Primitive' (in the 500s-700s), Old Welsh (in the 800s-1000s), Middle Welsh (in the 1100s-1400s), 'Early Modern' (in the 1400s-1700s), and 'Late Modern' thereafter. Until the 'Middle', the word 'caer' was actually 'cair', from the Brythonic 'cajr', meaning 'fort, fortified place'.

Roman Canterbury

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Edward Dawson and Trish Wilson, from Roman Britain: A New History, Guy de la Bédoyère, from Colchester Archaeology Report Nos 1, 3 & 4, from The Cambridge Historical Encyclopaedia of Great Britain and Ireland, Christopher Haigh (Ed), from The Oxford History of England: Roman Britain, Peter Salway, from Glevum - The Roman Origins of Gloucester, Nigel Spry, from the Historia Brittonum (The History of the Britons), Nennius (J A Giles, Ed & Trans, 1841, published as part of Six Old English Chronicles (Henry G Bohn, London, 1848)), from The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, Anne Savage (translator and collator, Guild Publishing, 1983), from A History of the English Church and People, The Venerable Bede (Leo Sherley-Price translation - revised by R E Latham), and from External Links: Britannia (dead link), and British History Online.)

305

According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, Coel Godhebog is lord of Colchester, or Caer Colim (effectively a dux, and perhaps even a protector of part of the Saxon Shore, given his location). In legendary terms, he begins a rebellion against Asclepiodotus, Roman commander of Britain in AD 296-305, killing him in battle.

Then Coel rules Britain, submitting to Constantius (suggesting that Coel is a mere figurehead high king, just as Lucius may have been before him, in the second century AD). Coel dies after a short 'reign'.

Sequential Maps of Roman Britain AD 43-425
Britannia's two provinces were subdivided into four by Emperor Constantius' reorganisations of the early fourth century (click or tap on map to view full sized)

409

With Constantine III now in serious difficulties in Gaul, further Saxon raids convince the Britons and Armoricans to rebel and expel Roman officials, thereby breaking ties with Rome which are never renewed. Roman presence in Britain has been dwindling anyway for at least the previous three decades, so the split probably produces little change, except that British officials now occupy former imperial posts.

FeatureRecords from this point become extremely sparse, and British control on a national level appears to break down for a time, either immediate or very shortly after this event (see feature link).

A small hoard of clipped silver coins from Caer Colun provides evidence of this breakdown of control, and the local councils, the civitates, have to take steps to provide for their own defence. The hoard belongs to a rash of groups of clipped coins which appear in Britain in this period.

Apparently the clipping of coins (shaving some of the metal from coins for profit) has until now been controlled by the imposition of severe penalties for offenders, but with the break from Rome the practice becomes commonplace.

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

500s

FeatureBy this time the British of Caer Colun seem in some way to be subduing or holding off the new East Saxon settlers, as shown by the lack of Anglo-Saxon relics in the area from this date (see feature link). This surviving pocket of British power may last until the mid-500s. Very little fighting seems to take place in the territory, suggesting some kind of peaceful arrangement is reached, at least initially.

There are signs, however, that Caer Colun's population is declining and traditional customs may be declining too. Two decapitated burials from the grounds of today's East Hill House in Colchester may belong to the period since, contrary to normal practice, they are inside the walls. Signs of a city living in an ever-shrinking world, perhaps?

Some late Roman houses in Stockwell Street show signs that it remains occupied into this period, whilst the find of an elaborate Germanic buckle could be evidence of laeti, mercenaries who help to defend the town.

Such a potential occupation by foreigners at a time in which the city is still in British hands is entirely acceptable. The same situation can be found in Caer Gwinntguic, with Germanic laeti who are settled to defend the town in the fourth or early fifth century becoming part of later defensive efforts.

Map of Britain AD 450-600
This map of Britain concentrates on British territories and kingdoms which were established during the fourth and fifth centuries AD, as the Saxons and Angles began their settlement of the east coast (click or tap on map to view full sized)

c.540 - c.550

The Cantware appear to be the invaders who lead the 'fight' against the British at Caer Colun, perhaps as part of a new wave of more aggressive territorial expansion. The defenders finally capitulate around this time, allowing a kingdom of the East Seaxe to be forged.

In fact, it is quite possible that the kingdom of the invaders is pronounced while they are still fighting the Britons of Caer Colun. By this stage it is almost certain that a large swathe of the coastal area has already been taken out of British control.

The end for Caer Colun may not be a peaceful one, although there is no knowing whether a surrender is accepted without further violence, The town's Duncan Gate appears to be subjected to violent action on two occasions - both taking place after the gate is sealed up around AD 300.

The first is no earlier than AD 367 but whether setting fire to the gates at this time had been intended or is accidental is unknown. The date suggests that the 'Barbarian Conspiracy' in the Diocese of the Britains may be to blame.

Roman silver ingots
Silver ingots from the late fourth or early fifth century which were used to pay soldiers and civil servants in the Late Empire, and which were discovered at the site of the Tower of London, and at Reculver and Richborough in Kent

The second burning of the gates is part of an assault which happens 'substantially later', although the archaeological evidence for it, uncovered in 1927-29, cannot be reassessed. Brushwood is piled up against the outer face of the wooden doors and is set alight, causing the doors to collapse inwards.

The heat is so intense that many gate stones turn red. The debris from the fire is apparently not cleared away, implying that the gate is never repaired. If the interpretation of the excavation is correct, then the gate may provide proof of a violent end to the Romano-British administration here and the beginning of English domination.

 
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