History Files
 

Celtic Kingdoms of the British Isles

Celts of Britain

 

MapCaer Gwinntguic / Venta Belgarum (Romano-Britons)

FeatureFrom its regional capital at the Roman town of Venta Belgarum (Winchester in Hampshire), the British territory of the Belgae reasserted some form of independence in the early fifth century (if not before). The territory shared a long northern border with Caer Celemion, and also bordered Rhegin to the south-east, Inis Vectis to the south, Dumnonia to the west, and Caer Baddan to the north-west.

The region was tasked with defending the westernmost section of the Saxon Shore in the fifth century, and Saxon laeti were probably hired and settled on the south coast for this very reason, arriving in the first half of the fifth century (archaeology confirms this). Their role may have become important in the territory's later years, either as a key part of its defence or as its later enemy (either way, it seems that they may have played a role in forming the name used here, Caer Gwinntguic). In the mid-fifth century the political situation suddenly changed. The British central authority was locked in civil war, and the country was struck by plague and subjected to a barbarian sacking from coast to coast. Sacking swiftly turned to conquest, and parts of the south coast were settled by Jutes who called themselves the Meonware.

FeatureEdward Dawson breaks down the origins of the Gwinntguic name as follows, pointing out that 'gwinnt' (or more usually 'gwent') is a typical late pronunciation of 'venta'. As for 'guic', there was a strong Celtic habit of transforming a 'w' into a 'gw' (or 'gu'). One very well known example of this is the Votadini tribe. That name underwent a fairly standard alteration from 'v' (or sometimes 'w') to 'gu' and then to 'g'. In the case of '-guic', this starts with 'gu'. Take off the older 'g' sound and it becomes 'wic', which was well known in Anglo-Saxon English as a trading centre (such as Ipswich, Norwich, Lundenwic, and Hamptonwic - now Southampton). Saxons were often settled just outside the walls of the city they were being hired to protect. They would have obtained their food and goods from the city's traders and, in the case of Venta Belgarum, and perhaps only speaking a little Latin, could have pronounced 'Gwent' or 'Gwinnt' as 'Wentawic'.

Extending the hypothesis a little further, the locals could have picked up on the Saxon variation of the city's name and adopted it, perhaps in the later days when virtually all communication from outside had been cut off and the Romano-Britons and Saxons were now brothers-in-arms on an equal footing. The recycled name could have been rendered by the Romano-British as 'wenta wic', or 'gwent gwic'. The Historia Brittonum labels the city Caer Guin Truis.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Edward Dawson, from The Oxford History of England: The English Settlements, J N L Meyers, from The Oxford History of England: Anglo-Saxon England, Sir Frank Stenton, 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)), and from the Life of St Germanus of Auxerre, Constantius of Lyon.)

c.420s - 430s

In the first half of the century there is a second settlement of barbarians in or around the civitas. Again they are probably laeti who are added to the city's defensive forces now that the presence of Roman troops is a thing of the past (although ex-Roman army troops almost certainly remain in places, dedicated to defending their homes and families rather than owing any loyalty to the now-distant empire). This time the new arrivals are from northern Germany, almost certainly Saxons. Their pottery in the city antedates the arrival of the general wave of Saxon invaders by over a century.

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

fl 440s

Elafius / Elaf?

Recorded by St Germanus.

446

FeatureSt Germanus' second visit to Britain sees off the last of the Pelagians and confirms Elafius' subjects in the Catholic faith of the Roman Church. Elafius himself is clearly a Pelagian supporter until the visit, and by inference may be a supporter of Vortigern's pro-Celtic faction in Britain. Germanus goes on to restore Cadell Ddyrnllwg to the throne of the Pagenses in the West Midlands.

c.450 - 455

Jutes from the Cantware group of invaders, or related to them, settle to the west of modern Southampton, while the Meonware (more Jutes) settle to the immediate east of Southampton Water, possibly threatening the territory's southern border. They absorb, or are absorbed by, elements of the Saxon laeti who have been there since the beginning of the century and perhaps because of this integration with settled Saxons and indigenous Britons, they establish peaceful relations with Venta Belgarum.

Further settlements are established on Inis Vectis, which may have been a possession of the Belgae before the Roman invasion and may still be a possession of their descendants.

477

Newly arrived Saxons under Ælle land at Selsey on the south coast (modern West Sussex) and beat off the Britons of Rhegin who oppose their landing, driving them to take refuge in the great forest called Andredesleag (The Weald). Suddenly, the southern Saxon Shore has been breached in a far more major way than the arrival of the Meonware had threatened and Venta Belgarum is mainly cut off from the southern coast. By this time the economic basis for the city's existence has disappeared. Its population has dwindled and the remaining inhabitants are developing a siege mentality in the face of increasing Saxon encroachment from the east.

480s - 490s

FeatureThis is the probable period in which the traditional twelve victorious battles of Arthur are fought. In reality, although many of the battles seem to reflect actual events, it is likely that they are spaced out over a greater length of time, and are undertaken by multiple British leaders (most especially Ambrosius Aurelianus). One of those battles takes place at the fort of Guinnion (Venta Belgarum). If invading Saxons have managed to penetrate this far inland then it may be a shocking occurrence. Alternatively it could instead be a revolt by Germanic laeti who are already settled in the region... or possibly an early effort by Cerdic.

? - 495?

Cerdic (Caraticos)?

Possible Belgae magistrate before conquering West Seaxe?

c.495 - c.525

The south gate of Venta is blocked in two stages, possibly in response to the settlement of the Meonware or more probably due to the founding of Cerdic's kingdom which eventually becomes that of the West Seaxe. The territory's defences force the West Seaxe to advance instead towards the less well-defended west country, but the settlement at Clavsentum (Bitterne), close to the Solent, has been lost.

In fact, given the reasonable probability that Cerdic himself is of noble British birth and may hold a position of authority in the country, he could well be a magistrate of the Belgae before his rebellion in 495. The possible variation of this name is Caraticos, another form of the Celtic name 'Cara Tog' or 'Cara Tag -os', meaning 'beloved of/dear to the god Togo/Tag/Dagda'.

Winchester King's Gate
The medieval King's Gate in Wincheter (Venta) was built over the site of the Roman south gate in the year 1264, almost eight hundred years after the original was blocked up by its defending Romano-British-Saxon population

By this time the city has become isolated from Dumnonia in the west, and Rhegin to the south-east has already fallen, so Venta's world is narrowing. The Romano-British population is much reduced from a century before, with many probably having migrated west while they still could. The core population that remains could well be balanced equally between Romano-British warriors and their families and the Saxon laeti and their families (given that at least some of the latter have been there for up to six generations). It is probably in this period that the territory's name of Gwinntguic replaces the city's name of Venta, as explained above.

? - 508

Natan / Natanlaod / Nudd?

Killed by the West Seaxe.

508

FeatureCerdic's West Seaxe defeat Natanlaod's Britons in the area of Southampton Water. Could Natanleod be a rival British chieftain or Roman-style official (perhaps of Caer Gwinntguic) who is vying for power with Cerdic or attempting to defend Britain's shores? Having established a beachhead and killed the (possibly) legitimate governor or ruler, Cerdic may be the only hope in the region for strong governance, with the result that Britons, Saxons and Jutes join him. The victory probably completes Gwinntguic's isolation from the very south coast that it had been expected to protect at the start of the century.

552

MapFeatureCaer Gwinntguic falls to the West Seaxe, making its northern neighbour, Caer Celemion, very vulnerable on its less well-defended southern border. The city is not fully abandoned. The Saxons who have lived there since the early fifth century and even before that probably remain, perhaps even with the surviving Romano-Britons, who are virtually kin by now, and certainly closer in relation than the new conquerors. In time the city becomes Wintanceastre (Winchester), capital of the West Seaxe kingdom from 590 and the seat of the bishop of Wessex from 676.