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Celtic Kingdoms of the British Isles

Celts of Britain


Ordovices (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 territory occupied by the Ordovices tribe in western Britain (modern Wales), where tribal boundaries are more uncertain than in England, is subject to some debate. They are generally agreed to have been situated in the southern part of the modern county of Gwynedd and in central Wales throughout much of Powys. They were neighboured to the north by the Deceangli and Gangani, to the east by the Cornovii, to the south by the Silures, and to the south-west by the Demetae (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 tribe's name breaks down into two parts. The first is 'ordo-', which appears to be a variant of the Common Celtic word for 'high', namely 'ard'. This is related to the very familiar Greek 'ortho' in an extended meaning of 'straight, true, correct, regular,' from the proto-Indo-European *eredh-, meaning 'high' (this also occurs in Sanskrit as 'urdhvah', meaning 'high, lofty, steep', in Latin as 'arduus', again meaning 'high, steep', and in Old Irish as 'ard', meaning 'high').

The second part is Brythonic, found today in the Welsh 'gwych', meaning 'brave, energetic'. Together these constitute a Welsh (Brythonic) name. The meaning could be 'high' in a metaphorical sense, or in a literal sense of elevated geography, and brave. The tribe may have been the 'highly brave' or the 'fighting braves' or, in geographical sense rather than a personal one, the 'brave highlanders'. It's hard to be certain because there were probably different dialects of Brythonic as far back as Caesar's conquest of Gaul (just as there are different dialects of English today, with subtly different meanings for some words). The Ordovices were located in the mountains, isolated, and probably developed their own quirks of pronunciation.

They were a hard-fighting bunch who were almost wiped out by the Romans before they were subdued. They seemed not to have had a central tribal capital but instead lived in small independent farmsteads which were fortified against attack. Their lands were littered with hill forts which were also strongly defended, but one of their largest centres was Brannogenium, modern Leintwardine in the county of Hereford & Worcester. The site was made up of several camps and forts and may have served in part as a tribal capital of sorts or as a defendable market place.

Of the tribe's many hill forts, those in the west, close to the mountain summit of Cadair Berwyn (and to Lake Bala) included Craig Rhiwarth in the Tanat Valley, while Dinas Emrys close to Mount Snowdon was also theirs. In the east, closer to the Cornovii (and probably situated specifically for that reason) were Caer Drwyn, Caer Euni, Castell Dinas Bran, and Moel y Gaer (modern Llantisilio). All were located in the valley of the Deva, close enough to strike out against the Cornovii at Old Oswesty (Caer Ogyrfan).

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 Roman Britain: A New History, Guy de la Bédoyère, from The La Tene Celtic Belgae Tribes in England: Y-Chromosome Haplogroup R-U152 - Hypothesis C, David K Faux, from Geography, Ptolemy, and from Life of Agricola, Tacitus.)

c.350 BC

It is estimated that the second wave of Celtic migrants settles in western Britain (modern Wales and surrounding territories) around this time, replacing or absorbing the previous Celto-Ligurian peoples of the Bronze Age. These second wave settlers include the ancestors of the Ordovices, as well as the settlers of the Lleyn peninsula and North Wales, an unknown and unnamed neighbouring people who may bear some relation to the Ordovices.

Lleyn peninsula
The Lleyn peninsula in modern Wales is a long promontory of land which extends 48 kilometres (thirty miles) into the Irish Sea - home to an unknown group of people during the early Iron Age in Britain

1st century BC

The Concani (in the region which later forms part of Leinster) probably arrive in the Lleyn peninsula from Ireland around this time. They force out the original inhabitants, who may be related to the Ordovices, and settle both the peninsula and a wide sweep of modern North Wales itself as the Gangani and Deceangli.

AD 49

Caratacus, former ruler of the Catuvellauni and still apparently recognised as the battle leader of the Britons, moves his base of operations from the territory of the Silures to lead a general coalition against Roman Governor Ostorius from the territory of the Ordovices. He is joined by elements of every tribe which wants to be rid of the Romans, and the mountainous terrains largely protects him while his forces are assembling.

49 - 51


Former ruler of the Catuvellauni & Cantii. British battle leader.

51 - 52

Roman Governor Ostorius marches two legions, XIV Gemina and XX, into western Britain, intent on a final face-off against Caratacus and his Ordovices allies. The site of the large-scale battle between the Britons and the Romans is unknown, other than that it lies somewhere on the Severn.

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)

Roman tactics and equipment produce an overwhelming superiority against the Britons, so that Caratacus' wife and daughter are captured, and his brother surrenders. Caratacus flees northwards via the territory of the Deceangli, seeking safety with the Brigantes while the Ordovices probably suffer heavy casualties and remain subdued for a generation.

58 - 60

New Roman Governor Gaius Suetonius Paulinus campaigns into western Britain, ending his march north-westwards with an attack on Mona (Anglesey), which he describes as having 'a considerable population of its own, while serving as a haven for refugees'.

The main incentive for the campaign seems to be the desire to destroy the druids. They have Mona as the centre of their remaining power in Britain (and certainly their last major outpost), and this may be within Ordovices territory. Even if it is not, the likely route to Mona is through the Ordovices lands.

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


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 the west of Britain to reassemble his scattered 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.

74 -75

The new Roman Governor, Julius Frontinus, establishes auxiliary forts which stretch from the territory of the subdued Silures right into that of the Ordovices, but the tribe now makes it clear that they have not been subdued by the Romans and have fully regained their fighting spirit. To demonstrate this they destroy a Roman cavalry squadron, wiping it out almost to the last man.

Britons attack the Romans
The invasion of AD 43 was no repeat of the expeditions of Julius Caesar - this time the Romans came in strength and from at least two directions of attack


With central Wales almost a no-go area for Romans, newly-appointed Roman Governor Julius Agricola strikes as soon as he assumes his post. Troops are withdrawn from the territory of the Dumnonii to support the campaign he launches here.

According to Tacitus, when the Ordovices refuse to come down from the hills in Snowdonia to meet him, he personally leads his forces to them, and his determination to break the tribe results in its near annihilation. Settlements in the area do not recover until the third century, although the tribe is granted civitas status fairly soon after it has been conquered. Agricola continues his campaign into Deceangli territory.


Ptolemy notes in his description of the Ordovices that they possess the towns of Mediolanum (Whitchurch in Shropshire) and Brannogenium (Leintwardine in Hereford & Worcester). However, Mediolanum is more likely to be a possession of the Cornovii, probably being located too far east for the Ordovices. Despite these two towns, the territory of the Ordovices never yields very much evidence at all of Romano-British activity, such is the level of devastation left by Agricola.

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)


The Ordovices tribe, if anything of it still exists, does not have a chance to re-emerge while Roman central authority in the west of Britain is fading earlier and faster than elsewhere. Under threat by waves of Irish raiders, much of their former territory is incorporated along with that of the Deceangli into a new territory when Cunedda Wledig and his branch of Romanised Venicones are transferred from the Manau dependency of the Guotodin to secure North Wales from the raiders.

They are extremely successful at expelling Irish raiders and settlers alike, and the kingdom of Venedotia is formed by them, with areas of Ordovices land being incorporated into the sub-kingdom of Meirionnydd. The more southern areas of Ordovices territory are just as quickly incorporated into the land of the pagenses: Paganes.

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