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Celtic Kingdoms of the British Isles

Celts of Britain


Cornovii (Midlands) (Britons)

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 Cornovii had no obvious tribal centre, inhabiting Shropshire in the West Midlands and extending into Staffordshire, Herefordshire, Cheshire, Clwyd, and the eastern part of Powys. They were bordered to the east by the Corieltavi and Catuvellauni, to the south by the Dobunni, to the west by the Ordovices and Deceangli, and to the north by the Brigantes across the wide barrier of the River Mersey under its Latin name: Seteia Aestuarium (see the map of most of Europe's tribes around the first centuries BC and AD to view this tribe's location in relation to all other Celts).

FeatureThe root of the tribe's name generally means 'of the horn', signifying a peninsula, something which was relatively common with Celtic tribes which occupied peninsulas. The Cornovii clearly were not peninsula dwellers though. The root of their name is more obscure, perhaps referring to a god. An educated guess would be that they were worshippers of the 'Horned One', Cernunnos (note that this is the Gaulish pronunciation; the British one may have been different). The root is 'corn', meaning 'horn', just as it does for the peninsula-dwelling Cornovii. Despite the Anglo-Saxon conquest, the deity survived in legend as Herne the Hunter. Possibly this survival happened in the Midlands itself, as the later kingdom of Mercia seems to have been very British in many of its core elements (see feature link, right).

The tribe's territory contained a great many hill forts, one of the highest number in the country. The people also appear to have possessed very little in the way of showy jewellery (or pottery), lending the idea that this was a tribe of poor, in-fighting warriors. Their wealth may have been based on other resources, however, such as their salt exports, along with some probable trade in agricultural goods. Any wealth which was generated by this would have made it possible to build additional hill forts, an idea which is supported by at least one expert, so perhaps these were the tribe's true symbol of prosperity.

Their distance from the Belgic south-east of Britain makes it unlikely that the Cornovii were amongst the more recent, third wave of Celtic settlers. More likely they were largely Hallstatt Celts, and had been in the country since as early as the sixth century BC. The tribe may have a connection with the Cornavii of second century Caledonia, although this has largely been discounted by modern scholars. They may also have a connection to the identically-named Cornovii of Cornwall, but this is harder to prove or discount either way (although it seems unlikely as the Cornish tribe built no hill forts, while the Midlands tribe were apparently mad about them).

By the time of the imperial Roman invasion, a centre of sorts could be found adjacent to the hill fort of the Wrekin. It also seems to have derived its name from the fort, although whether it was a recently-formed tribal capital is still uncertain. One suggestion is that it was a seasonal animal enclosure. Another important site was Old Oswesty (Caer Ogyrfan), which seems to be a more likely candidate for a tribal centre, with the other significant sites being Breiddin (Powys), Bury Walls (near Weston-under-Redcastle), Chesterton Walls (near Romsley), and Titterstone Clee (near Bitterley, with all three of the latter being in Shropshire).

Ancient Britons

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

? - AD 47?

Viroco / Virico?

Possible Cornovian noble.

The only means by which Viroco can be identified at all is through the grave of his daughter. Her tombstone at the Roman settlement of Verbeia (modern Ilkley in Yorkshire) states that she is thirty years old and is the daughter of Viroco of the Cornovii.

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)

Although the stone does not specifically state that her father is (or had been) a chieftain, he is probably someone of importance. If the chieftain supposition is correct, he may be a leader at the time of the imperial Roman invasion.

The name Viroco could be taken as the root of Viroconium, the Latinisation of the Brythonic name for the tribal centre overlooked by the Wrekin hill fort. However, 'Viroconium' contains the common Gaulish word for a man, 'wiros' (its combining form is 'wiro-'). The second part could perhaps be the word for 'together' ('com', the same as in Latin) pushed together along with the plural '-on'. The result would mean 'the (place of) men together', in the sense of 'the comrades', or combrogi, a word which leads to the native name for the Welsh: Cymru.

AD 47

The invading Romans under soon-to-be Roman Governor Aulus Plautius reach the Cornovii in this year, and one battle is fought, at the Wrekin, in which the tribe is defeated. This is the only major conflict between the tribe and the invaders, suggesting either that the Cornovii are not a very warlike people after all, or that they lack the tribal cohesiveness to put up an organised resistance.

Either option raises the question of why the powerful Catuvellauni had not simply marched in and taken over during their progressive expansion across the south-east of Britain.

Vironconium Cornoviorum
The heart of Viroconium Cornoviorum, in this case the frigidarium (cold bath) and palaestra (exercise hall) of the town baths, survives two thousand years after its construction as the tribal capital of the Cornovii in Roman Britain

However, there is the possibility that not all of the tribe's people are welcoming of the invaders. The existence of the Cornavii tribe is recorded in Caledonia by around AD 140, suggesting a possible migration northwards of Cornovii people to find a new homeland which is free of the invaders. A tribe which lacked overall cohesiveness would certainly be more prone to divisions such as this.

49 - 52

The Cornovii territory is probably used as a supply base for at least some of Rome's subsequent operations against the Silures and limited fighting against the Ordovices to the west, led by new Roman Governor Aulus Didius Gallus.

c.58 - 88

Roman influence is never particularly strong in the region, but a fort is established at Viroconium Cornoviorum, overlooked by the Wrekin hill fort, initially for the Fourteenth Legion for a short period, and then for the Twentieth Legion for an equally short period.

2nd century

With the legions having left Viroconium Cornoviorum the former fort is gradually converted into the fourth largest city in Britiain. The levels of habitation when set against the estimated population size for the city are inconsistently low, suggesting that many live in timber dwellings without stone foundations, making such places harder to find by archaeologists.

Roman-era skull from the Walbrook
Even after the Roman occupation of Britain, a number of British customs seem to have survived, such as using human heads as ritual objects, with this skull being placed in the River Walbrook (which flows through the very centre of Londinium)

A forum, basilica, and baths are probably begun under Emperor Hadrian in the 120s but are not completed until the 150s, after a period of suspension. Some of them survive today as impressive ruins. The city becomes very prosperous and retains that prosperity into the third century.

4th century

Early decline appears to set in at Viroconium Cornoviorum, earlier than with many British cities which retain their prosperity until the time of the great barbarian attack of 367. Late in the same century, the only known British military unit, the First Cohort of Cornovii (Cohors Primae Cornoviorum), can be found serving at the Pons Aelius (Newcastle-upon-Tyne) garrison at the eastern end of Hadrian's Wall. By this time the five hundred-or-so men of the unit are probably under the command of Coel Hen of the 'kingdom' of Northern Britain.

c.409 - 425

By the time Roman authority has been ejected at the start of the fifth century, much of the former Cornovii territory appears to form the heartland of the territory of the Paganes, which is under the control of Vortigern. Viroconium Cornoviorum apparently remains the region's capital, surviving into the sixth century as Caer Guricon. Vortigern quickly becomes the main figure in British politics, forming the head of whatever central authority governs much of the south and east in this century.

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


A theory by Dr John Morris, not fully accepted by modern scholars, is that there are two periods in this century in which elements of the Cornovii are moved into the south-west of Britain. According to the theory, around this time, the leading nobles of Viroconium move to Dumnonia, transplanting their Cornovian name to the western peninsula (Cornubia) and ruling over the Dumnonians.

FeatureWhile this theory has many detractors, there does seem to be a tradition of the Cornovii nobility joining that of the Dumnonians, and there is not nearly enough evidence to prove that this nobility is from Cornubia (see feature link for more on Arthurian connections to the Cornovii).

Perhaps instead it represents a unification of two major and fairly powerful tribes in a location in Britain which offers more safety and better protection than the vulnerable West Midlands (a concern which would be borne out within just sixty years when the Middil Engle migrate into the East Midlands, beginning a wave of advancement in the region).

Leicestershire countryside
Modern Leicestershire formed the heartland of the territory of the Middle Angles by AD 500, but Angles may have been infiltrating the region for up to forty years before that


As a continuation of the theory by Dr John Morris, he suggests that at this time the majority of the Cornovii migrate from the Midlands, now within the territory known as the Paganes, to settle in Cornubia. While in general this seems unlikely, it could take place as part of the general migration of people in southern Britain towards the comparative safety of the south-west and possible migration onwards to Armorica.

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