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Celtic Kingdoms of the British Isles

Celts of Britain

 

Venicones (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.

This tribe was located in Fife (now in Scotland) and on both banks of the Tay. The tribe's existence there was recorded between the first and second centuries before perhaps merging into other, later tribal groupings. They were bordered by the Taexali to the north, the Caledonii to the west (perhaps the original tribe of that name into which was lumped all the other western tribes by Roman writers), the Epidii to the south-west, and the Damnonii and Votadini to the south.

The Venicones would seem to have been very successful until the Romans showed up. They dominated a swathe of territory between Fife and the western coast, probably conquering the Epidii either fully, or weakening them and making them subject - this seems to be an easy assertion because the Dal Riada Scots later gained their foothold on the island of Britain by taking the (weakened) Epidii lands.

MapUnfortunately for the Venicones, they occupied the very region which the Romans needed to invade several times in order to quell attacks by Britons in the east of the Highlands, including attacks by the 'Pictish navy'. A legionary fortress was built at Inchtuthill, Tayside (Pinnata Castra), which remained occupied during the late first century by the Twentieth Legion Valeria (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 precise breadth of Venicones territory has been under scrutiny for some time, as pointed out by Adrian Grant in 2023. Ptolemy says that Orrea Classis was in Venicones territory, and modern scholars generally seem to agree that Orrea Classis was at Monifeith. Ptolemy's 'Taus' on his map which twisted Scotland onto its side is generally taken to refer to the Tay.

However, Christian Marx has carried out the reverse geometric transformations which are needed to straighten the map. In doing this he has relocated the map's Tay estuary location to the Montrose Basin, a natural point of occupation for a maritime and naval-orientated tribe. Even though this looks like a mismatch by a later copyist (Ptolemy's own work in this regard has not survived) it is surely not insignificant. It shows that the Venicones must at least have occupied the coastal strip between Monifeith and Montrose. Almost certainly not coincidental was a temporary Roman naval camp which was located for a time in the Flavian period (late first century AD), on the northern side of Montrose Basin.

FeatureThe Venicones name was pronounced 'wen-ichones', most likely due to a shift in the language (see feature link). In the case of this tribe, the original name was 'venet' (the 't' becoming a 'ch') plus '-on' (definitive article - as in 'the') plus the later addition of '-es' - another (possibly unnecessary) plural suffix. The Romans would probably have mispronounced it. They apparently added their plural suffix to the already-present plural definitive article, giving us Venicones. The origin of the name suggests (but does not prove) a link to the Veneti tribe of Armorica. Elements may have fled Roman advances, arriving in northern Britain and also, according to the geographer Ptolemy, settling in County Donegal in Ireland as the Venicnii.

FeatureVenedotia is said to have been founded by Britons from Manau Gododdin which was located on both sides of the Firth of Forth and the River Forth (see feature link). These Britons had a fort believed to be at what is now Clackmannan ('Stone of Manau'), north of the Forth. A second possible candidate for their fort could be above Tillicoultry (Castle Craig, five kilometres to the north, but unfortunately destroyed by a quarry). Another natural area for a citadel can be found at Stirling (a few kilometres to the west).

Bede mentions Stirling as urbs Guidi, and this was adapted to provide the Firth of Forth with its early Welsh name of merin Iodeo, 'the sea of Iudeu'. Unlike later British writers, Roman writers did not describe this area as Gododdin territory. To them it was the land of a Pictish (British) tribe called the Venicones, and it was these people, perhaps tributary to the Gododdin Britons, who founded Gwynedd, coming from a fort in Fife called Manau, which was nominally under Gododdin overlordship, hence 'Manau Gododdin'.

The region's most famous son is, of course, Cunedda Wledig, the chieftain who, according to Welsh tradition, was invited to found Gwynedd on the condition that he freed the region from Irish raiders. As he hailed from Venicones territory, his traditional ancestry is shown in this list.

Much of the list dates from anything up to the tenth century, so its believability beyond Tacitus ap Cein is highly doubtful and preceding names are backed in lilac to reflect their legendary status. However, given the possibility that elements of the tribe may have been Veneti who fled the first century BC arrival of the Romans in Armorica, the assumed dating for the first name in the list (apart from the dubious addition of a British high king before him), that of Afallach, does lend it something of an air of authenticity. It may be highly speculative to suggest, but perhaps it was this chieftain who led the migration to Britain.

Ancient Britons

(Information by Edward Dawson, with additional information by Adrian Grant (regarding the precise location of the heartland of Venicones territory), from The La Tene Celtic Belgae Tribes in England: Y-Chromosome Haplogroup R-U152 - Hypothesis C, David K. Faux, from A History of the English Church and People, The Venerable Bede (Leo Sherley-Price translation - revised by R E Latham), from Geography, Ptolemy, and from Life of Agricola, Tacitus, from The Oxford History of England: Roman Britain, Peter Salway, from Scotland Before History, Stuart Piggott, from Scotland's Hidden History, Ian Armit, from Atlas of British History, G S P Freeman-Grenville (Rex Collins, London, 1979), from Etymological Glossary of Old Welsh, Alexander Falileyev, from The Borders: A History of the Borders from Earliest Times, Alistair Moffat, from The Llyfr Aneirin and the Place-Names of Y Gododdin, Kelly Kilpatrick (Newsletter of the Scottish Place-Name, No 46, 2019), and from External Links: The Scottish Place-Name Society Brittonic Language in the Old North database, and Caledonians, Picts, and Romans (Education Scotland - dead link).)

fl c.80 BC

Lludd Llaw Ereint 'the Silver-Handed'

Son of Beli Mawr. High King of Britain.

c.56 BC

The fleet of Roman general Julius Caesar defeats the Veneti off the coast of what comes to be known as Armorica. Elements of the tribe may flee to Britain and Ireland where they form two tribes of Venicones, one in what becomes Pictland and the other in County Donegal, where both are attested by Ptolemy by AD 140.

Romans attack a Veneti vessel
Roman auxiliaries in the form of the Aeduii on board a Gaulish-built ship attack a Veneti vessel in Morbihan Bay on the French Atlantic coast during the campaign of 56 BC

fl c.45 BC

Afallach ap Lludd

'Son'. Possibly led the Venicones to Britain?

fl c.10 BC

Owain ap Afallach

Brother of Euddolen ap Afallach, ancestor of kings of Paganes.

fl c.AD 25

Prydein ap Owain

Son. 'Prydein' means 'Britain'.

fl c.60

Dubwn ap Prydein

Son.

AD 80 - 81

The Roman Governor of Britain leads two invading columns into what is now Lowland Scotland, with (probably) the Twentieth Legion (previously based at Glevum in Dobunni territory) and Ninth Legion meeting up at Inveresk (near Edinburgh) in the territory of the Votadini Britons. This Roman force sets up permanent garrisons in its wake. In the following year the Forth-Clyde line is secured, perhaps slightly south of the later Antonine Wall and edging into the territory of the Venicones.

83 - 84

Within the Caledonian heartland, firstly north of the Firth of Forth (in AD 83) and then at Mons Graupius (or Mons Grampius, in AD 84), the Romans under Roman Governor Julius Agricola win victories over what they call the 'Caledonides' led by Calgacus.

The first area of operations, north of the Firth of Forth, is probably against the Venicones and their navy, the 'Pictish navy' which worries the Romans so much. The idea is to pre-empt an intended attack by the Caledonians, but it almost proves disastrous in the first year as the Ninth Legion is surprised by a night assault and is only just rescued by the main force.

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)

The Roman mention of a 'Pictish navy' is an oddity on its own because the Celts of Britain are mostly afraid of the ocean and stay off it... with the exception of the Belgae in general and the Continental Veneti in particular. So the Romans are forced to launch their expedition into Caledonia to take out this potent weapon.

After taking Fife as far as its border at the north bank of the Tay, they settle back into a defensive series of towers which leaves them in control of Fife. This is the territory of the Venicones, which makes it very easy to suggest that the Venicones are the tribe which has been operating the Pictish navy. The naming shift from 'Veneti' to 'Venicones' is an easy one to make (although it is circumstantial, backed up by no written evidence).

So what would the Romans do with the Venicones after conquering them? Some would be killed, others enslaved, but the bulk of the population are turned into yet another Roman client state, with its leadership consisting of Romanised locals. The evidence for their Romanisation can clearly be seen in the names of later descendants of Afallach ap Lludd (below).

Hill fort site at Tillicoultry
The former site of the hill fort of Tillicoultry is one candidate for the Venicones capital, although the Roman presence this far north was so transitory (relatively speaking) that firm detail about almost anything in Scotland is hard to come by

fl c.95

Eufwn ap Dubwn

Son. Led the tribe in the defeat of AD 84?

fl c.130

Anwrid ap Eufwn

Son.

140 - 143

The Romans move north to the Forth-Clyde line, roughly the later southern Pictish boundary, reoccupying British Lowland Scotland and beginning construction of the more basic Antonine Wall.

It is around this time that the geographer, Ptolemy, notes the tribes to the north of the wall. Some of them receive their one and only mention in history and it is thought that at least one or two tribes may have been created by refugees fleeing the Roman invasion of the south. The Venicones are mentioned as occupying the peninsula between the Firth of Tay and the Firth of Forth.

fl c.165

(Gwr-)Dufn ap Anwrid

Son.

fl c.200

(Gwr-)Doli ap Dufn

Son.

fl c.235

(Gwr-)Cein ap Doli

Son.

fl c.270

Tacitus ap Cein / Tegid

Son. Possibly the first of a less legendary series of names.

fl c.305

Paternus Pasrut 'of the Red Robe'

Son.

c.305

The Romanised Paternus Pasrut (or Padarn Beisrudd, a possibly more accurate native version of his name) is, according to tradition, a fairly high ranking Romano-British official or a frontier chieftain who is placed in command of Votadini troops in the Clackmannanshire region of Pictland.

Male Romano-British dress
Costume illustration of a Romanised British man (left) and a Romanised British aristocrat, with each wearing leather Gladiator sandals, one pair with a thong fitting and the aristocrat with sandals with many straps (from Hope's Costume of the Ancients).

He is clearly one of the Romanised locals who had been set up in positions of authority by the Romans following their first conquest of the region - a Romanised name and wearing a red robe, official Roman attire. Perhaps this placement of Votadini troops forms the grounds for the later establishment of Votadini overlordship of the Manau Gododdin following the removal of Roman authority. It seems likely that Paternus is succeeded in the position by his son.

fl c.340

Aeternus ap Padeyrn / Edern

Son. Traditional father of Cunedda.

c.390

FeatureAfter fighting off raids by the northern Britons (Picts), Cunedda and his branch of Romanised Venicones are transferred from the Manau dependency of the Guotodin kingdom, traditionally by Magnus Maximus (see feature link). They are moved to the former territory of the Deceangli in western Britain (modern Wales) to secure the region from Irish raiders, and it is here that they found the kingdom of Venedotia.

Some historians dispute the traditional view of Cunedda being moved by a central British authority and instead claim that he sails down the Irish Sea and invades North Wales of his own volition, forming a kingdom at a time at which there is no one left to stop him.

However, the fact that his father had clearly been a Romanised Celt who had held a position of authority is too important a factor to miss (note the red robe of his grandfather, something which was so notable and such a family high point that it had become a nickname). Cunedda is clearly the son of an important figure in Roman Fife.

Gwynedd
The mountains of North Wales provided a powerful refuge for the rulers of Gwynedd in times of trouble and a wonderfully scenic backdrop to Cunedda's victories over the Irish raiders who were plaguing the region in the late fourth century

Cunedda Wledig's first name (perhaps more realistically shown as Cunetha) is a fairly typical Brythonic play on words, taken from 'cuno' meaning dog (ie. servant) and 'dda' meaning the god Da or Dagda, making him the 'servant of Dagda'. The title 'wledig' is later Welsh for 'prince'. His son, Typaun, remains behind to assume whatever role it is that Cunedda is relinquishing.

fl c.390

Cunedda Wledig

In Manau Guotodin. Moved into Wales to found Venedotia.

fl c.420

Typaun ap Cunedda

In Manau Guotodin. Eldest son. Remained behind.

fl c.480s?

Marianus?

Kinsman of Cunedda. Son or grandson of Typaun?

5th century

The otherwise unknown Marianus is possibly a kinsman of Cunedda, a descendant of one of those whose family had remained behind in Manau Guotodin. Whether he really exists or not, this is the last-known mention that the Venicones receive as a distinguishably independent people. From this point forwards they are lumped together with the general Pictish population, as the Britons north of the Antonine Wall come to be known by those to the south.

 
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