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Celtic Kingdoms of the British Isles

Celts of Britain


Durotriges (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.

MapBeyond the growing influence of the Catuvellauni during the first century BC were the Durotriges of Dorset. The tribe's territory extended into southern Wiltshire and southern Somerset, both to the north, where it met the borders of Dobunni territory, and also edged into eastern Devon. To the east of the Durotriges were the Belgae, to the west were the Dumnonii along a line which was probably represented by the River Exe (Isca Fluvius), while across the English Channel were the Osismii, Venelli, and Lexovii in Armorica (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).

The Durotriges had no recognisable tribal centre, unless the mint at Hengistbury Head qualifies (on the border with the Atrebates/Belgae, near modern Christchurch). This may also be the settlement which was referred to as Dunium by the Roman empire-era geographer, Ptolemy. Despite the lack of a recognisable centre, the Durotriges displayed an unusually dense volume of powerful hill forts. These were to be the scene of a stubborn resistance to the Romans in AD 43. Maiden Castle is a finely preserved example of one of these hill forts. Following conquest, Durnovaria (Dorchester) and Lindinis (Ilchester) emerged as civitates.

The general impression of the tribe is of a number of fiercely independent groups or baronies rather than a closely unified state. This lack of unity was relatively unusual amongst the British tribes, although it could be argued that the Cornovii and Cantii both displayed similarities. Possibly this was the main factor in the failure of the Durotriges to rebuild an independent state of their own in the fifth century (similarly for the Cornovii, while the Cantii possessed an unusually solid, and seemingly unchanging territorial domain). The Durotriges were probably second wave Celts in origin, and may have been pushed further westwards by the arrival of third wave, Belgic groups of Celts from the third or fourth century BC onwards.

The tribe's name can probably be broken down into two parts. 'Duro' may come from 'dubro', which derives from the British word for water ('dour' or 'dwr'), although it is much more likely to be 'duro', which means 'hard', while 'trig' means 'inhabitant'. That would produce something along the lines of 'the inhabitants of the hard [ground]' or the 'hill-top dwellers'.

Both meanings would seem to be very appropriate for the chalky soil of the Dorset Downs and the region's many hill forts, but that raises the question of what the tribe called itself before it arrived there. Was the tribe even formed of one people, or had it coalesced out of multiple groups which had been forced into Dorset by the Belgic arrival in the south-east? That would certainly explain their lack of internal unity as a tribe. They were probably still in the process of discovering which group was going to be dominant, and therefore lead the tribe. Going further, this suggests that they had not been there for long, perhaps a century or two, which helps to support the Belgic-induced migration idea.

Richard Reeves contests that the tribe's name actually relates to the River Test in the Southampton region. This link suggests that they once occupied lands on either side of the Test and that they later migrated westwards, probably due to incoming Gaulish tribes such as the Atrebates who became their eastern neighbours. This would explain the abandonment of hill forts in eastern Hampshire a century or so before the Roman imperial conquest of south-eastern England.

Ancient Britons

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Edward Dawson and Richard Reeves, from The Oxford History of England: Roman Britain, Peter Salway, from Atlas of British History, G S P Freeman-Grenville (Rex Collins, London, 1979), from Martock Local History Club, from Roman Britain: A New History, Guy de la Bédoyère, from Geography, Ptolemy, and from External Link: Durotriges Big Dig (Bournemouth University).)

c.400 BC

The inhabitants of southern Somerset, whether they be Durotriges or an earlier people (almost certainly to be identified with the Dumnonii, if that is the case), first construct the hill fort of Cadbury Castle. They erect large earthen ramparts, fronted by deep ditches, and these are rebuilt and strengthened a number of times over subsequent centuries. Archaeology shows that dwellings are erected within the banks, both round houses and rectangular constructions, along with a series of what may be small shrines.

Durotriges body
The Durotriges Big Dig 2011 uncovered native British remains, as well as plenty of pottery, and the project continues to this day for budding archaeology students

295 BC

Archaeologists in 1964 unearth the remains of a longboat in Poole Harbour, within the later territory of the Durotriges. The boat is ten metres long and would have carried a maximum of eighteen people, probably on trading trips to Armorica, which lies on the opposite shore of the Channel.

Given that the later influx of Belgic peoples probably pushes many earlier, second wave Celts westwards, Poole Harbour may not at this time be under the control of the Durotriges. Instead, it is plausible to assume that Belgic groups now control the region, and perhaps only recently.

1st century BC

During this century the Durotriges trade with fellow Celtic tribes across the Channel, probably with the Osismii and Lexovii who can be found directly opposite the Durotriges. The potter's wheel is introduced amongst them at the same time, while Hengistbury Head serves as the main trading centre.

Towards the end of the century, this trade begins to fade, drying up completely in the early decades of the first century AD. This is most likely due to the Roman conquest of Gaul. The people at this time are generally settled farmers, tending land around powerful hill forts to which they can retreat in times of trouble. It is quite possible that these hill forts represent the powerbase of local chieftains, each of whom vies for power and influence with neighbouring hill fort owners.

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)

1st century AD

The Durotriges, on the periphery of the Belgic culture of south-eastern Britain, issue their own, fairly basic coins from their mint at Hengistbury Head (possibly Ptolemy's town of Dunium). These coins carry no inscriptions, so it is impossible to ascribe them to specific mints or regional chieftains.

During this first decades of this century the coins are progressively debased, suggesting a culture which is suffering from a period of economic depression, brought on no doubt by the decline in cross-channel trade. The tribe's economic retrenchment coincides with increased cultural isolation, judging by the lack of rich archaeological finds which occur further east. Finds at Poole Harbour suggest (according to Barry Cunliffe) that the production of ceramics becomes increasingly centralised here at the same time.

AD 40s

By this time, it appears that the territory of the Durotriges extends as far as the River Test in the Southampton region (and perhaps farther). This includes territory which is either taken from them around this period by the newly-established Atrebates, or which is assigned to the Belgae once the Romans have subdued the region.


Having conquered the Atrebates and Belgae, the Roman second wing under Vespasian builds a military supply base at Noviomagus, the tribal capital of the Regninses, from which to provision the legions as they push further west. Then Vespasian heads in that direction with II Augusta, almost certainly into the territory of the Durotriges (although they are not named at this time), while soon-to-be Roman Governor Aulus Plautius is conquering the Catuvellauni.

Atrebates coin
Shown here are both sides of a coin which was issued by the Atrebates between 50-20 BC, either under the authority of Commius or his son, Commius 'the Younger'

Although the details available are very brief and contain no chronology, Vespasian invades Dorset, and manages to secure Poole. He uses this as a supply base, constructing a settlement at Hamworthy (now the western section of Poole).

From here he probably sets out northwards to attack Hod Hill and Spettisbury Rings (both close to Blandford Forum), before heading west to take Maiden Castle (immediately south-west of Dorchester) and north to take South Cadbury. The Durotriges fight hard to retain their independence, and there are signs of violent attack at many hill forts, including those named above. The Durotriges at Maiden Castle take the time to bury eight of their dead following the Roman attack.

The presence of forts occupied from this period at Hod Hill, Waddon Hill, and probably Ham Hill, suggests that the area remains restive for some years to come, despite the constant Roman military presence. However, to a large extent it appears that the Durotriges' ruling class is largely wiped out or otherwise removed from the area. This is reflected in the region's failure to reform as a post-Roman kingdom.


A timber walled fort is established at Lindinis (modern Ilchester), which is located on the Fosse Way where it crosses the River Yeo, and which lies almost due north of a similar legionary fort at Durnovaria (modern Dorchester). The fort at Lindinis is close to Ham Hill and Cadbury Castle hill forts. It soon finds itself surrounded by a settlement of British round houses which are themselves replaced by a vicus (an unplanned civil area) before the end of the century.

Sequential Maps of Roman Britain AD 43-425
The Roman invasion of Britain began late in the season, using three divisions which swiftly conquered the south-east before more slowly penetrating the west and north to bring all of England and Wales under their control, as shown in this series of sequential maps (click or tap on map to view full sized)


During the Iceni-led revolt in the east, the Silures, Ordovices, Dobunni, and perhaps the Durotriges are probably pinned down by the Roman Second Legion and are unable to join Boudicca. The presence of the legion, under Poenius Postumus, is perhaps due more to fortune than planning.

When Roman Governor Suetonius marches back from western Britain (modern Wales) to reassemble the scattered Roman forces at a location in the Midlands, Postumus refuses to move. Possibly he is influenced by memories of the death of the praefectus castrorum at the hands of the Silures during the governorship of Ostorius. When he hears of Suetonius' victory against Boudicca, Postumus kills himself and his legion joins the governor in the field.

However, there is some resistance by the Durotriges. Cadbury Castle is stormed and captured by the Romans. Its late occupation approximately two decades after the Durotriges have been conquered is a bit of a puzzle, but not if it figures as part of a last gesture of defiance at the time of the Boudiccan rebellion. The possibility exists that a chief of the Durotriges, chaffing at the loss of his domains to these invaders, jumps at the chance to oppose them again in the true spirit of a British warrior. After the final battle, the inhabitants are resettled at the base of the hill fort.

Boudicca coin
Two sides of a coin issued about AD 61 are shown here, featuring the face of Boudicca on the obverse and a horse on the reverse - horses were valuable commodities amongst the Britons


The Romans establish what is probably a civitas at Durnovaria, although there is no written evidence to confirm that this town is in fact the tribal civitas. It is located close to the hill fort of Maiden Castle and replaces the now-abandoned legionary fort. An organised street plan is laid out and timber structures are built along those streets. A water supply is established, and the regionally important pottery, and the stone and shale industries are concentrated on the marketplace. The initial size of the town is small, but it extends northwards in the following century.

c.90 - 100

Towards the end of the century, Rome establishes a second civitas in the territory at Lindinis. Replacing the Roman fort, it probably serves the northern Durotriges, although it may instead be the administrative centre for a pagus. Other settlements are also established at Vindoclavia (modern Badbury), to house the former residents of the nearby hill fort of Badbury Rings, and Wareham (Roman name unknown), a town of unknown extent which perhaps serves as administrative headquarters for the nearby stone and shale quarries.


Defences are added to the town of Durnovaria, and the Neolithic henge of Maunbury Rings is converted into an amphitheatre. The henge had been constructed by Bell Beaker folk around 2500 BC, although apparently without standing stones. It consists of a large, circular earthwork with a single bank and internal ditch (the site remains in use today, as a public space for open-air musical events and re-enactments). By now, a cemetery appears to have been established to the west of the town (in modern Poundbury).

Cadbury Castle
Cadbury Castle was the scene of some hard fighting in the seventh decade of the first century AD, probably as part of the Boudiccan rebellion

3rd century

A certain amount of the numerous timber buildings of Durnovaria are replaced by stone ones, a process which has occurred much earlier in many towns to the east. This is despite a prosperous stone trade existing in the immediate area. Large and expensively decorated villas are also established in the surrounding countryside, some with accomplished mosaic floors.

4th century

By this century, the town of Lindinis appears to have become dominated by luxury private homes decorated with complex and expensive mosaic floors. Stone walls are erected around the town to protect it during the weakening political and military situation in Britain in the second half of the century.

The town remains occupied by Romano-British inhabitants into the fifth century, as evidenced by pottery finds, and later finds suggest unbroken habitation after that, even during its conquest by the invading West Seaxe.


Around this time, stones recording building or repair work appear along Hadrian's Wall. The stones are undated, but are placed in the mid-fourth century and two of them record work by the civitas Dumnoniorum and the civitas Durotrigum. They seem to represent either an enforced labour party under military supervision, or the provision of civilian labour to maintain the country's defences.

Durngate Street mosaic
The complex Durngate Street Roman mosaic pavement was unearthed in Dorchester in 1995 and is on display at Dorset County Museum


The far west has seemingly never been tightly administered by the Roman central administration in Britain. The Dumnonii in Cornwall have apparently exercised a level of self-control for some time, and it seems that during this century they extend their own semi-independent state to encompass the former territory of the Durotriges.

MapThis creates a greater Dumnonian kingdom which seems to emerge into full independence by the start of the fifth century (see map link). The apparent lack of centralised tribal control in Dorset prior to the Roman invasion may be to blame for this, with no Durotrigan state able to re-emerge now that central control is slackening and there being no surviving Durotrigan nobility left to assume control.

By this time the Durotriges name itself has undergone some degree of change. Extrapolating from the modern county name, 'Dorset', and the fact that Saxon settlers in the area call themselves the Dornsaete, the name Dorotric, or Dortrig, is not impossible for the fifth century.

Romano-Britons burying treasure
With discord building in the country (and reaching a peak between about 420-450), many Romano-Britons began leaving in a hurry, burying their wealth in the hope that they could return in better times to collect it

Eventually, by the mid-to-late seventh century, Dorset is conquered by the West Seaxe, pushing the Dumnonians westwards into Devon and Cornwall. The Saxons interpret the name of Durnovaria as Dornwaraceaster (roughly 'the fort of the Durno-people'), and by 937 it is Dornacaester (modern Dorchester).

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