History Files
 

Celtic Kingdoms of the British Isles

Celts of Britain

 

MapCaer Colun / Camulodunum (Romano-Britons)

FeatureFollowing the expulsion of Roman administration from Britain, the Trinovantes appear to have retained their identity to some extent, although their former territory was 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.

A possible successor kingdom to the eastern section of the Trinovantes tribal territory seems to have formed around the important sub-Roman town of Caer Colun (Roman Camulodunum, modern Colchester - shown below in emboldened red in order to highlight it where necessary: Caer Colun). 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. It 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 the city appears to have been largely abandoned from around AD 457, following the final defeat of British forces in Kent.

The name Caer Colun probably originated as Colonia Castra, indicating its status as a former Roman colony. 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. Given the fact there there were multiple 'colonia' towns (Cologne, for example), there may well have been a second Caer Colun in Britain (or a variation, one which depended upon its location and the local dialect). If, as seems less likely, Caer Colun originated in Camulodunum then the route is more complicated. The Brythonic name would be Camulodun (the -um suffix is Roman), meaning 'fort of [the deity] Camulos'. Over the course of time the 'm' transitioned to a 'v', and 'dun' was replaced by the Latin 'castra', forming a probable Roman-era intermediate name of Castra Cavelo (perhaps pronounced Kastra Kavelo by local Britons). The 'castra' was soon replaced with the Brythonic 'caer', and this was replaced by the Saxons with 'chester' (only at the end of the name instead of the beginning), hence modern Colchester.

One odd thing about the name Camelodun is 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. Why this is so is unclear. Also, intriguingly, Camelodun is a perfect match for 'Camelot', and yet this treats the 'm' to 'v' shift as not occurring. The only conclusion that can be drawn here is that, if Camelot is named after Camelodun, then it was called Camelot at a location in which the shift failed to occur, such as 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 that refused to accept this shift until after the name Camelot was formed?

A little way to the north of Londinium is Verulamium, which later writers named Caer Mincip or Mincipit (modern St Albans is located alongside the ruins of the Roman city - the text below shows Caer Mincip in emboldened green). This appears to have formed a British enclave which survived against the odds until around the start of the seventh century, possibly allied with nearby Cynwidion. The name Caer Mincip was derived from the word for fort or citadel, 'caer', and 'mincip' from municipium, derived from the Latin verb 'munio', meaning to fortify, defend, protect. Modern English has derivatives such as municipal, municipality, etc. So while later Britons remembered Verulamium as Caer Mincip in their writings, the sub-Roman Britons who actually inhabited it under increasing threat of conquest by the invaders probably called it Caer Minicipium, the 'defended fort'.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Edward Dawson, from Roman Britain: A New History, Guy de la Bédoyère, from Colchester Archaeology Report Nos 1, 3 & 4, 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 and kills 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). Coel dies after a short 'reign'.

400s

The drains around the forum in Verulamium (Caer Mincip) have been well-maintained even during the years of decline in the later fourth century, but in the fifth century they become clogged. Either the forum has fallen out of use or the manpower or will for such maintenance work has died out. Around the same time (at the end of the 300s) the mid-second century theatre in the city, which had been substantially enlarged around 300, is now in ruins, made redundant by the collapse of paganism in Christian Britain and the abandonment of the temple precinct with which it had been associated. Instead it is a rubbish dump.

Verulamium (St Albans)
With the south gate of Verulamium (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)

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 that 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. Records from this point become extremely sparse and British control on a national level appears to break down for a time.

A small hoard of clipped silver coins from Caer Colun provides evidence of this, 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 has until now been controlled by the imposition of severe penalties on offenders, but with the break from Rome the practice becomes commonplace.

500s

FeatureBy AD 500, 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. 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 East Hill House 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 of remaining 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 the later defensive efforts.

c.540 - c.550

The Cantware appear to be the invaders to 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.

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

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 have been subjected to violent action on two occasions - both taking place after the gate had been 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 second burning of the gates is part of an assault that 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.

c.575 - 600

Farther west than the isolated Caer Colun, the town of Caer Mincip (Roman Verulamium, modern St Albans) shows plenty of evidence for the survival of a British enclave. The town is located between the territory of the Middel Seaxe (immediately north and west of Londinium) and the Icknield Way. Its survival may be the last gasp of Trinovantes independence, although it had actually been founded as the capital of the Catuvellauni. A late Roman building has been converted into a barn or granary by the application of huge buttressed foundations. Corn dryers have been inserted inside the building so that such agricultural work can take place within the safety of the town walls. A wooden water pipe is later constructed across the site and is maintained, quite possibly until the collapse of the enclave at the end of the sixth century.

FeatureThis date of Caer Mincip's collapse is very close to that of Cynwidion's collapse, and that territory lies to the immediate north of Caer Mincip. It seems likely that, in its final days, Caer Mincip is an outpost or appendage of Cynwidion, and perhaps a final survivor of the postulated Caer Lundein territory before that. That it has survived at all is probably due to the weakened state of all the southern Saxon kingdoms after their Mons Badonicus defeat around 496. Lundein (Londinium, modern London) is taken by the East Seaxe.