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Celtic Kingdoms of the British Isles

Celts of Britain

 

Catuvellauni (Britons)
Incorporating the Cassi & Segontiaci

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 Catuvellauni tribe emerged in the late first century BC to become one of the most powerful tribes in southern Britain. They were bordered to the north by the Corieltavi, to the east by the Iceni and Trinovantes, to the south by the Atrebates, and to the west by the Dobunni and Cornovii. Like many of their neighbours in what is now south-east England, they were probably a Belgic tribe from Europe's North Sea or Baltic coastline, part of the third wave of Celtic settlers in Britain. They may have been related to the Catalauni, a Belgic tribe of north-eastern Gaul (see the map of Europe's tribes around the first centuries BC and AD to view that tribe's location in relation to all other Celts.)

The main territory of the Catuvellauni lay on the northern bank of the Thamesis (River Thames), and northwards from there (in modern Hertfordshire). This area formed their original powerbase, while also being where Julius Caesar in 54 BC placed a tribe he named as the Cassi. The tribe's early capital was at Wheathampstead, but under Cassivellaunus it expanded outwards to dominate the modern counties of Cambridgeshire, Northamptonshire, Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire east of the Cherwell, Middlesex, and north-eastern Surrey. The Segontiaci which were mentioned by Caesar may have been a neighbouring tribe which was quickly swallowed up by this expansion.

FeatureThe Catuvellauni were one of the most prominent Celtic tribes of their time, and also one of the richest. They were good agriculturalists and had some of the best soil in the country on which to farm. Nevertheless, as with all the pre-Roman Celts, they left no written records. Their rulers are only noted after they began issuing coinage or came into contact with the Romans. Providing a name-breakdown has not been a straightforward process. In fact, over the course of several years of study no less than four possible variations have evolved, with a fifth option providing an earlier meaning behind the name which could link into most of the later variations (see feature link for the full story).

It is also possible that the tribe's famous king, Cassivellaunus, was in fact named Catuvellos or Catuvellus, and his people were therefore the Catuvellion or Catuvellon (the -ion or -on is the plural suffix). This would produce a typical Roman misunderstanding where they would take the '-on' plural suffix to be part of the name itself, instead of correctly using the suffix to indicate a tribe rather than an individual. They would change this to '-aun', and then add on their own plural suffix '-i', producing 'catu-vell-aun-i'. The Cassi recorded by Caesar may be nothing more than a nickname, something which was not unknown as the Chatti or Hatti tribal region on the Rhine is now called Hesse - the 't' to 's' alteration is an easy one for people who tend to use slang.

Pronunciation of the tribe's name (and that of its most famous king) is a pretty simple matter of breaking it down into its constituent parts, exactly as shown above, and including every letter - katoo-vell-awnee - with a mild emphasis on the bold letters in the final syllable. The last section, 'awnee', is said with 'a' as in 'arson' rather than 'apple'. One thing to remember is that if a Roman recorded a name, their 'v' is actually pronounced as a 'w'. This is often ignored with many tribal names of this sort, but they should actually be the katoo-well-awnee.

Ancient Britons

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Edward Dawson and Rhys Saunders, from Geography, Ptolemy, from The Oxford History of England: Roman Britain, Peter Salway, from Roman Britain: A New History, Guy de la Bédoyère, from History of the Kings of Britain, Geoffrey of Monmouth, from Atlas of British History, G S P Freeman-Grenville (Rex Collins, London, 1979), and 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)).)

c.60 - c.30 BC

Cassivellaunus (Vellaunus?)

High King of the Britons. Fought Julius Caesar.

55 BC

FeatureCassivellaunus is the leader of the resistance against the first expedition by Julius Caesar to Britain, showing that he already holds a position of seniority amongst other tribal kings. This time, the resistance amounts to little more than regular skirmishes and a few minor battles in the territory of the Cantii (see feature link for more information).

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)

54 BC

Cassivellaunus kills Imanuentius, king of the Trinovantes, but the dead king's son, Mandubracius, flees to the Romans in Gaul. He wins the support of Julius Caesar and the Roman general makes the second of his exploratory forays into Britain. Cassivellaunus organises and leads a coalition army against him but is defeated by Caesar's expeditionary force south of Thamesis, near modern Brentford.

The Catuvellauni and their allies fall back to the tribal capital at Wheathampstead in Hertfordshire (a little way north of St Albans) where the final battle is probably fought on 5 August. One Lugotorix, a Briton of noble birth, is captured by Caesar and Cassivellaunus subsequently sues for peace. Mandubracius is reinstated as king of the Trinovantes.

Intriguingly, Caesar fails to mention the Catuvellauni by name in his memoirs, but his description of them and their territories clearly tallies with later information. The fact that their king is the person who takes charge of the defence of the country clearly shows that he already holds precedence over the other tribal kings.

Caesar, interestingly, provides an alternative name for the Iceni which is either a mishearing or an earlier version of the name. Similarly, he may refer to the Catuvellauni as the Cassi in 54 BC (see the introduction for an examination of the tribe's name).

John Deare's invasion of Julius Caesar
John Deare's late eighteenth century sculpture shows Julius Caesar and his troops on their beachhead in Kent, desperately fighting off the Britons - an event which almost certainly happened before Cunobelinus was born, but tales of the invasion would have been told to him from his youngest years

54 - c.30 BC

Following his defeat by Julius Caesar and the subsequent withdrawal of the Roman expeditionary force, Cassivellaunus begins to expand his tribe's territory in all directions from its core heartland to the north of the Thames. He builds up the larger kingdom which will dominate south-eastern Britain for the next century, and the one which adopts the Catuvellauni name if it has not already done so.

Territory is subjugated in the modern counties of Cambridgeshire, Northamptonshire, Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire to the east of the Cherwell, Middlesex, and north-eastern Surrey. Just who occupies these newly conquered territories beforehand is largely unknown, whether they are lesser tribes whose names have been lost or neighbouring tribes such as the Corieltavi.

Three tribes of the five which are mentioned by Caesar as those who had surrendered to him in 54 BC are the Ancalites, Bibroci, and Segontiaci, the latter of which are otherwise unknown, perhaps making them ideal candidates for tribes which are subsumed within the Catuvellauni host in this period. The tribe's chieftain also founds a new, hopefully more defendable, capital at Verulamium (just outside modern St Albans and later possibly known as Caer Mincip).

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)

c.30 - c.20 BC

?

Name unknown. Possibly a son of Cassivellaunus.

c.20s BC

The unnamed successor to Cassivellaunus probably cements the conquests of the previous two and-a-half decades. He also marries a daughter of Mandubracius of the Trinovantes, no doubt to seal peace between these two major tribes.

c.20 BC - AD 10

Tasciovanus / Tasciovantus

Son? Geoffrey of Monmouth's Tenvantius.

c.20 BC

The Catuvellauni issue their first coins under Tasciovanus with a stamp which reveals that the tribal capital is now firmly set at Verulamium (just outside today's St Albans). Tasciovanus is also the first of the Catuvellauni kings to renew hostilities against the Trinovantes, despite the fact that his mother or aunt (depending on his relationship to his predecessor) comes from that tribe.

c.15 - 10 BC

A series of coins are issued by Tasciovanus with a mint mark which shows they are produced in Camulodunum, the Trinovantes capital. Tasciovanus later claims to be the rightful heir to the kingship of the Trinovantes, perhaps confirming a family connection to the earlier ruler there, Mandubracius. For this period, the Trinovantes would appear to be dominated by the Catuvellauni. Tasciovanus is soon forced to withdraw though, perhaps by pressure from Rome, thereby restoring the Trinovantes to full independence.

Camulodunum (Colchester)
The tribal capital was Camulodunum from about 20 BC, which was adapted by the Romans as a city, and later as Colonia Claudia Victricensis, a settlement for discharged soldiers

c.15 BC - AD 10

Andocomius / Andocos / Andocoveros

Sub-king. Known only from coin inscriptions.

c.15 BC

Andocomius issues coins over the space of about twenty-five years, either with his name inscribed alone or shown with the name of his overlord, Tasciovanus. The distribution of the coins suggests that he is a sub-king of what is perhaps a recently conquered territory on the western flank of Catuvellauni territory. Other possible sub-kings are known only from individual coins, but all belong to the same period (could 'sego-' be a reference to the Segontiaci?).

c.15 BC - AD 10

Dias-

Sub-king. Incomplete name on coin inscriptions.

c.15 BC - AD 10

Rues-

Sub-king? Incomplete name on coin inscription.

c.15 BC - AD 10

Sego-

Sub-king or tribe? Incomplete name on coin inscription.

c.AD 5 - 9

At a point between these dates the Catuvellauni appear to conquer the Trinovantes again, taking their capital at Camulodunum and installing Cunobelinus to rule the territory as a sub-kingdom. When he accedes to the Catuvellauni throne, Cunobelinus retains his capital at Camulodunum. His name means 'dog' ('follower') of the god, Belinus.

c.10 - 41

Cunobelinus / Cunobelin / Cymbeline

Son of Tasciovanus. High King. Ruled the Trinovantes (AD 5).

c.25

The Catuvellauni manage to gain control of the Cantii at some point between now and AD 35, perhaps starting with pressure being brought to bear on the existing king. Cunobelinus' brother, Epaticcus, also seizes the throne of the Atrebates but does not completely conquer the tribe.

Iron Age swords within a burial
Objects placed in the grave of an Iron Age Briton include an iron sword in a scabbard of iron and bronze, and a set of iron rods or skewers (above the sword)

c.35 - 41

Cunobelinus' son, Caratacus, takes over the task of conquering the Atrebates, completing it by about AD 41. The Cantii also seem to be fully subsumed by the Catuvellauni, with Cunobelinus placing one of his sons, Adminius, in command of the tribe.

39/40

Cunobelinus is suddenly weakened, with a stroke being one suggested cause. Suddenly his sons, Togodumnus and Caratacus mount a series of military expeditions which seem to be aimed at grabbing as much power as possible.

Adminius, their brother, is expelled from his rule over the subject Cantii and flees to continental Europe with a small band of followers, where he surrenders to the Romans. The emperor, Gaius (Caligula) may get his initial idea of mounting an expedition across this channel from this 'famous victory', as he has it proclaimed.

Togodumnus' name is a form of tribute to the British god Tagos (or something very close to this). This deity's name is more familiar in its Irish form of Dagda, or its Romano-British form of Dak or Dag (the 'g' probably being pronounced as a hard 'k'). The Old Welsh names of Ceredig and Carantoc both use it (meaning 'beloved of/dear to Dagda').

Snettisham torcs c.100 BC
Celts in Britain and on continental Europe were well known for their ostentatious jewellery, with chieftains wearing thick gold torques like this example (front of picture)

41 - 43

Togodumnus

Son. High King. Killed in battle or died of his wounds.

by 43

With the stricken Cunobelinus dead by perhaps a year, the Catuvellauni seem already to have exerted some level of control over the north-eastern part of the Dobunni in their continuing and successful policy of expansion.

43

Rome launches a massive attack on Britain, coming at it from at least two directions and with entire legions in an invasion of a scale which has never before been seen in the British Isles. Togodumnus, with his brother Caratacus, is defeated in battle near the River Medway in the territory of the Cantii by soon-to-be Roman Governor Aulus Plautius some time before the end of May.

The subject, pro-Roman, north-eastern Dobunni surrender to the invaders. Following a second defeat, this time to the north of the Thamesis, Togodumnus is killed soon after, or dies of his wounds, with the effect that the Britons become even more united in the face of the enemy.

Dobunni coins
This silver coin, both sides of which are shown, were issued by the Dobunni in the later half of the first century AD - the obverse, left, shows a Celticised head which was typical of many Dobunni silver coins

43

Caratacus

Brother. High King. Formerly king of the Cantii.

43

As the most prominent tribe in the south of Britain and the leaders of the opposition against the Roman invasion, the Catuvellauni have to be defeated by the invaders before the region can be secured. Soon-to-be Roman Governor Aulus Plautius and his forces hold off until the Emperor Claudius can join them before marching on the capital at Camulodunum (the former capital of the Trinovantes).

Despite stiff fighting, the Catuvellauni under Caratacus are conquered and subjugated. Caratacus himself disappears for a time, possibly sheltering with the anti-Roman south-western Dobunni. He re-emerges in AD 47 to lead the tribes of the Silures and Ordovices (in modern Wales) against the Romans.

A descendant of his is to be found ruling the Dumbarton Damnonii in the second century, while the fifth century kings of the Guotodin also traced their lineage back to him, suggesting that his surviving family in Britain flees to the free British north of what is now Lowland Scotland, either in AD 43, or later, following the final defeat and capture of Caratacus.

c.50

Verulamium becomes a Roman municipium, with its inhabitants being granted Roman rights by law. It is possible that this grant explains why the tribal named is not suffixed to the canton, as in Verulamium Catuvellaunum.

Verulamium Roman theatre
This artist's impression of the Roman theatre in Verulamium purports to show it under construction, but there are players on the stage, people accessing the higher seats via the external staircase, and a queue of people heading towards the better seats down below

60 - 61

The revolt of the Iceni under Boudicca sees both Verulamium and Londinium sacked and burned. Both towns are subsequently rebuilt. The forum and basilica of Verulamium are completed between AD 79-81 and are dedicated to Emperor Titus.

140s

In his work, Geographia, Ptolemy ascribes the towns of Salinae and Urolanium to the Catuvellauni, showing at least that they still retain their identity as a recognisable tribe in the second century AD. Around the same time, the first Roman theatre in Britain is built in Verulamium.

209 / 251 / 304

Although the date of his death is disputed between three alternatives, Alban or Albinus is martyred at Verulamium for his conversion to Christianity. He is the first-known Christian martyr in Britain which already has a poorly-recorded British Church administration. By the fifth century a cult already exists in his name in what has probably become Caer Mincip, and the later St Albans Abbey is founded near the site.

Verulamium (St Albans)
With the south gate of Verulamium (Caer Mincip, 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)

In the late fourth century or early fifth century, following the expulsion of Roman administration from Britain and the gradual diminution of any subsequent British central administration, the heartland of former Catuvellauni territory re-emerges as the Romano-British kingdom of Cynwidion, initially opposed by a fortified Caer Mincip.

 
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