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Celtic Kingdoms of the British Isles

Celts of Britain

 

Iceni / Cenimagni? (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.

MapMade famous by their uprising against the Romans, the Iceni (or Eceni) were based in what is now Norfolk, north-western Suffolk and eastern Cambridgeshire. They may also be identified with the tribe of the Cenimagni (broken down into 'ceni' or 'iceni', and 'magni', meaning 'great'). It was the Cenimagni who sided with Caesar during his invasion of 54 BC, perhaps signalling the beginnings of the Iceni's pro-Roman policy. Like their neighbours, they were probably a Belgic tribe from the North Sea or Baltic coastline, part of the third wave of Celtic settlers in Britain (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).

However, the Iceni are also linked to the La Tène period in Europe, thanks to the work of Hawkes (1931) and Childe (1940), both of whom are cited by Jones (1997). He noted that Childe interpreted the burials and stray objects regarded as characteristic of the La Tène tradition in East Anglia as the culture of 'Marnian Chieftains' (Celts from the River Marne region) who established control of the 'Halstatt peasantry' and later founded the Iceni tribe. This would be typical of a late-arriving and more advanced Celtic group who established a new ruling elite over an existing body of earlier Celts.

In the first century BC, the Wash, on the tribe's western border, may have had its coast much further south than has previously been thought. It was only in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries AD that a stretch of the Wash of around five kilometres or so in length was finally drained, starting at Kings Lynn and working north-eastwards. This was simply the more efficient application of a process which had been going on for centuries. Until this process really took hold, much of the land to the south-west of Kings Lynn would have been marshy wetland, with water levels which rose and fell depending upon many factors. If the fens were much greater in size than has previously been thought, then Catuvellauni territory may have extended to that virtually-uninhabited Fenland coast, dividing the Iceni from their westerly Corieltavi neighbours. To the south of the Iceni were the Trinovantes.

The Iceni tribal name breakdown is a straightforward one, with the first part, 'ic' being added to an '-en' Brythonic plural, plus an '-i' Latin plural. So the British tribal name root would be 'ic' ('ik' or 'yk'). But what on earth does 'ic' mean in Brythonic? Worse, the Iceni were probably Belgae, so what was it in the Belgic dialect? A possibility is a mangled form of proto-Celtic 'ekwo', meaning 'horse'. The 'e' becoming an 'i' is an easy enough shift, giving us 'ikwo'. This may also have been extended to 'eg' in Old Welsh (which is descended from Brythonic, not Belgic), in the word 'egid', with the '-id' suffix being added on.

The Etymological Dictionary of Old Welsh quotes the following: '[giving us] egid v pres. 2 sg (3 sg - ?) "to move, travel". According to I Williams, followed by GMW, this is a 3 sg present form. Alternatively, T A Watkins suggests that this is a 2 sg present, due to the facts that the independent form could not be expected in "w" after a negative particle, other forms with "-id" suggest a relativising suffix, and there is no need to consider in all the cases the omission of loyr".' After all that, we have a meaning of 'the travellers' for 'Iceni', with 'ic' being proposed as the Belgic word for travel.

Edward Dawson goes further to point out that while the Britons used the 'k' pronunciation of the letter 'c', the Romans used a 'ch' sound, as did the later Angles, Saxons, and Franks. However, this 'k' sound would have been lost in East Anglia due to Roman dominance there, affecting the later pronunciation of the names of towns or forts which contained the letter 'c'. Under later Germanic rule the Latin 'castra' became 'chester' everywhere, but in areas in which the less docile British tribes survived (to the west) the 'k' sound survived and the spelling became 'caster' in many places.

The Iceni would have used a 'ch' rather than a 'k' sound simply because the inhabitants would have been far more Romanised than western Britons. Indeed, it is even possible that during the Roman period most people in the south-east of what is now England spoke mostly Latin instead of Brythonic, due to far a far greater level of colonisation by Roman citizens. This would have impinged on local pronunciations, making some letter sounds more accessible for the invading Angles.

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), from The La Tene Celtic Belgae Tribes in England: Y-Chromosome Haplogroup R-U152 - Hypothesis C, David K Faux, and from the Etymological Dictionary of Old Welsh.)

75 BC

An Iron Age road is constructed in timber, possibly part of a route across the River Waveney and surrounding wetland at Geldeston in Norfolk. It is investigated by archaeologists in June 2011 after being discovered the year before, and is thought to have been built by the Iceni tribe.

Iceni wooden road remains
The remains of the Iceni road and its intact timber structures were still being excavated in 2011 for the new series of the BBC's Digging for Britain

Tree-ring samples date the find fairly confidently to this period. Thanks to its wetland environment, the timber posts are preserved in remarkable detail, still showing the signs of tool marks. The surviving section forms a four metre-wide route, running for five hundred metres across wetland right up to the river.

54 BC

The second expedition by Julius Caesar from Roman-occupied Gaul sees him achieve more success than previously. In his battles against the Catuvellauni he is supported (or at least, not opposed) by a tribe known as the Cenimagni, thought to be the Iceni.

The name can be translated as 'Great Iceni', suggesting that the tribe at this time is much more powerful or has far greater prestige than perhaps it does a century later. The reason for it potentially enjoying greater prestige has been lost to prehistory. By this stage the tribe may be minting its first gold and silver coins, although some sources claim a later date of about 10 BC.

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)

fl c.AD 20s

Can-

Abbreviated name found on coins.

Can- is the first king of the Iceni to issue coins bearing his own name. These are early-model productions, largely being based on those which are being issued by the Cantii.

fl c.25 - 47?

Antedios / Anted-

The abbreviated form of the name is found on coins.

Antedios issues coins bearing his name, but these are later retracted, perhaps due to pressure being applied by other Iceni nobles. Subsequently, Antedios issues coins marked 'ECEN', referring to the tribe's name.

43/44

The Iceni welcome the Romans under soon-to-be Roman Governor Aulus Plautius, probably being quite happy to see the fall of their over-powerful neighbours, the Catuvellauni. However, judging by the coins issued around this period, some factions within the Iceni may be unhappy with Rome's confirmation or acceptance of Antedios as the sole ruler of the Iceni. Two nobles or rival kings issue their own coins briefly.

fl c. 45

Aesu- / Aesunos?

The abbreviated form of the name is found on coins.

fl c. 45

Saemu- / Saenu- / Saenuvax?

The abbreviated form of the name is found on coins.

47

While handling an attack by hostile northern tribes immediately following his appointment, the second Roman Governor of Britannia, Publius Ostorius Scapula, tries to disarm the Iceni, but his heavy-handed tactics cause a serious uprising.

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)

This uprising is put down with brutal efficiency by Rome following a battle, possibly at Stonea Camp in Cambridgeshire. The Iceni officially become a client kingdom and it is at this stage that the pro-Roman Prasutagus is apparently installed, perhaps following the execution of all three previous contenders for supremacy within the Iceni.

47 - 59

Prasutagus

Pro-Roman client king.

59

The name Prasutagus appears to be made up of two components: 'pras-', meaning 'body', and 'tag', meaning 'god'. MacBain's dictionary mentions it in an Irish form of 'cras' as 'crasgach', meaning 'corpulent' from the obsolete 'cras', meaning 'body'. The 'c' ('kh') of Old Celtic had become modified into the 'p' of Brythonic to produce 'pras'. He embodies - or is the embodiment of - a god.

More subtly, the chief god in the west among Celts and Germanics is a word which is descended from the proto-Indo-European 'dei-', spawning 'theos, deus, tui', and even 'tog, tag'. The root seems to be a solar deity, with the common Celtic word for 'god' and the Germanic term to describe the moment at which the sun rises not only being cognates but the same word. So the High German 'tag', Old English 'dag', and Celtic 'tog, tag, dag' are essentially the same (and all are used to refer to 'day'). With that in mind, the full (and subtle) meaning of the name Prasutagus becomes 'the embodiment of the glory of the shining sun god'!

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

Once Prasutagus dies, the Romans begin to ignore the terms of the Iceni's client-statehood. Their late ruler had stipulated in his will that half his property be given to Rome, but Roman administrators interpret this as a submission to the Roman state, and move to appropriate all of the Iceni lands and disarm the tribe.

59 - 61

Boudicca / Boadicea

Wife & queen. Led uprising. Later died by her own hand.

59 - 61

Stirred up by imperial heavy-handedness, Boudicca (or Boudica) leads a powerful Celtic uprising in AD 60 involving the Iceni, the Trinovantes and other tribes. It results in the loss to the Romans of lower eastern Britain.

After sacking and burning Camulodunum (Colchester), Londinium, and Verulamium (St Albans in former Catuvellauni territory), the Celts are confronted by a fresh Roman army under Governor Gaius Suetonius Paulinus somewhere along Watling Street. Coming directly from warfare against the Deceangli, Roman military discipline and might proves unbeatable, the Celts are massacred, and the rebellion is defeated. Boudicca's fate is unknown, but it is presumed that she commits suicide rather than allow herself to fall into Roman hands.

Roman troops attack Mona
The Romans attacked the Deceangli with a level of brutality and ferocity rarely seen elsewhere in their conquest of Britain, such was their determination to wipe out the druids

To pacify the Iceni (or to reward a pro-Roman faction which did not join the uprising), the Roman city of Venta Icenorum is built (possibly over an Iceni town, although nothing has been found to prove this). It is located at modern Caistor St Edmund (otherwise known as Caistor-by-Norwich), immediately south of Norwich itself.

Although perhaps meant to be an impressive town, it seems to be little more than a run-down outpost, with shoddy building quality away from the centre and plenty of empty plots (possibly for grazing or cultivation). Celtic roundhouses are even built near the walls, some in the second century AD, and a diagonal road leads out of the town (very unusual in Roman towns) to a Celtic temple to the north-east.

It seems that the Iceni resign themselves to their fate and move into the new town, but they appear to be unprepared for urban life. The town apparently fails to a large extent, becoming a backwater. The once-important (and perhaps even great) Iceni tribe are relegated to complete unimportance, living a very unremarkable (and unremarked) existence on the edge of Roman Britain.

c.170 - 175

Coastal raids by barbarians have developed into a serious problem. Archaeological finds for this period show a layer of destruction along a great deal of the North Sea and Atlantic coast of Europe, between Belgica and southern Gaul, and in eastern Britain, well inside the territory of the Iceni.

Wolf coins of the Iceni
Two sides of the more unusual 'Norfolk wolf coins' hoard of forty-four examples, an unusual find in 2013 which was dated to the late first century AD, seemingly after the Roman invasion and showing a wolf motif on the reverse (left) which may have influenced later Angles to take on the name as the Wuffingas of the East Angles

The Chauci are prime suspects for the raids, and Rome responds with improved defensive measures over the following thirty years or so. Fortifications are put in place at sites which include the Iceni civitas of Venta Icenorum (modern Caistor-by-Norwich), the Trinovantes town of Caesaromagus (modern Chelmsford), and the civitas of the Canninefates, Forum Hadriani (modern Voorburg). This is the start of the system which will develop in Britain into the Saxon Shore.

c.240 - 275

Never the success of other cantonal capitals, Venta 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.

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.

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

 
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