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Celtic Kingdoms of the British Isles

Celts of Britain

 

Caer Went / Venta Icenorum (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.

FeatureThe pre-Roman masters of this part of Britain, the Iceni, do not appear to have re-emerged with a kingdom of their own in the fifth century AD. As with much of the south-east of the country, this region apparently remained under British central control for much of the century (see feature link), until the invading Angles took over. Unlike Caer Colun, for example, which has some good archaeology, very little is known about this corner of Britain during this period (although since 2009 steps have been taken to address that). It also did not get the same level of written coverage as cities in the west which are featured in the early Welsh Triads or other material, probably due to the fact that the east coast fell pretty quickly.

A possible territory or kingdom may have started to emerge in the form of a postulated Caer Went before it was snuffed out. This city's location is today known as Caistor-by-Norwich, more often known as Caistor St Edmunds. Its name is the Romano-British Brythonic version of the Roman 'Venta Icenorum', meaning 'market [chief town] of the Iceni'. The shift from 'venta' to 'went' is an easy one, while the tribal suffix was abandoned and 'caer', meaning 'fortified', was added (Gwent has the same naming origins).

Unfortunately, there is no firm information for any conclusion to be reached about potential independence for the city or its surrounding territory, or its survival in increasing isolation. Caer Went was overrun relatively early in the overall story of Romano-British decline.

In terms of that name, it should be remembered 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 Welsh period, the word 'caer' was actually 'cair', from the Brythonic 'cajr', meaning 'fort, fortified place'.

Neglect of the Roman engineering works and land subsidence after AD 450 reduced drained fenland to marsh, isolating Ely and other islands in the west of the territory. Within these areas lived an independent people with dark-hair, called the Gywre (or Gyrwas), who were possibly Celtic in origin. One theory is that they were refugees from Caer Went. They survived on a semi-independent basis until at least the middle of the seventh century, and as late as the early twentieth century some Cambridgeshire folk referred to themselves as kin to the Welsh.

Roman Canterbury

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Geoffrey Tobin and Trish Wilson, 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 History of the Kings of Britain, Geoffrey of Monmouth, 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 Roman Britain: A New History, Guy de la Bédoyère, from The Cambridge Historical Encyclopaedia of Great Britain and Ireland, Christopher Haigh (Ed), from The Oxford History of England: Roman Britain, Peter Salway, 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 Link: Caistor Roman Project.)

c.240 - 275

Never the success of other cantonal capitals within Roman Britain, Venta of the Iceni has become increasingly vulnerable to Germanic raids from the start of the third century onwards. Well-made protective ramparts have to be constructed between these years of increased vulnerability.

Venta Icenorum
The Roman town of Venta Icenorum shown at its height, which was probably short-lived and perhaps not as prosperous as shown here. The unusual diagonal road leading to the north-east can clearly be seen

c.350

Here, as elsewhere along the eastern shore, Angle and Saxon settlers are to be found in small communities from at least this date (if not earlier), doubtlessly hired as laeti to aid the British defence of the area. The failed-but-still-used city of Caer Went (Venta Icenorum) remains important but weak in a landscape which is prone to flooding.

c.450

During the country's troubled first half of the fifth century, Roman engineering works and land subsidence in the region from this point onwards reduces drained fenland to marsh in the region. Increased flooding isolates Ely and other islands in the west of the territory, and possibly much of East Anglia as a whole. The islands provide a potential refuge for Britons in times of trouble.

c.475 - 495

Fresh bands of Angles begin to arrive in large numbers. They gradually come to dominate the region, settling first in the north. They intermingle with the Saxon descendants of Roman foederati.

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)

In likely response to the increased threat level, it is possible that the defenders of Venta Icenorum carry out some ditch-digging to construct an enclosure in the north-west of the town. Elements of this ditch have been found to cut through the Roman road there. Marks in the ground are visible here, possibly made by built structures.

c.495 - 560s

The Angle settlers secure their hold on the region, forming into two main groups in the north and south. There is the possibility that the Iclingas may be the first of the new arrivals to gain any form of power in the region, as they appear to take their name from the Iceni themselves.

If this is correct then it shows that the Iceni name does in fact survive this late (the Cantware are another example of the new arrivals taking an existing British name for themselves).

Subsequently the Romano-British administration collapses in the region and Venta Icenorum is abandoned (possibly following a massacre of its people, although the evidence is disputed). A little-know people called the Gywre (or Gyrwas) can later be found in the marshes around Ely. Potentially they are refugees from Caer Went or surrounding areas.

East Anglian fens
Many of the East Anglian fens were produced by more than a thousand years of peat build-up and trapped river water, providing excellent refuge for Britons who were fleeing the advance of the East Angles

The Anglian tribes form their own settlements, ignoring the Roman city and most British place names too. Only a half-dozen Romano-British place names remain today in the region, such as Girton, Comberton, and Chatteris. During this period the newcomers gradually coalesce into the East Angles.

 
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