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The battle for southern Britain after Rome

No question about this one: this is a long blog post. I have been working on it on and off for a few months – during which I have incorporated ideas from several different books and two in particular. To see my other posts go to the index:

Click the image to go to my index page
The image is the Battersea Shield, perhaps c. 100 BC but usually given a much wider dating from 350 BCE to 50 BCE.

Southeastern Britain before Rome’s arrival

Part of the development of the way history has been told has landed us (at least for early times – and I have already struggled not to use the word there!) with ‘eras’. These have been presented as phases for an essentially uniform Britain with no internal diversity. It is as though Austro-Hungary suddenly attempted a complete rewrite of its own lands’ histories, transforming them into one bloc moving from one ‘era’ to the next. Retrospective insight permits us to reject this as complete nonsense, whilst, at the same time, we seem to have swallowed the era ‘narrative’ for Ancient Britain.

The post-Roman situation may be very reliant on understanding the pre-Roman map. Rome acted as a lid on ethnic tensions. And the civitates were only Rome’s ordered world; the reality may have been ever-changing and overlapping. Furthermore, we know little of what differences they may have had to stomach between one region and the next.

And what was this land or these lands? Well, if you were the average Roman roped-in soldier, it was a distressing, unknown and untrusted island full of uncultivated warring tribes and a fearful religion. Or is this propaganda? It was certainly not seen as an island with regional cultures. But that does not mean that it was not!

The image at the top of this blog is a shield, probably ceremonial, dredged from the bed of the River Thames in 1857 during the construction of Chelsea Bridge’s predecessor. With its circles and spirals, it looks to be in a late La Tène style and it was very probably intended as a votive offering to the great river.

Battersea Shield – Own photo

Who left it should not be the immediate concern of this blog. But if the post-Roman was in any fashion determined by the pre-Roman, we should care.

Quite beyond that, of course, it opens our eyes to a society very different to the standard Roman characterisation of pre-Roman Britannia. This is an island with craftsmen, skills, hierarchies, order, beliefs… and diversity.

The Snettisham Torc – British Museum number
1951,0402.2 [Own photo]

Above is the great torc from Snettisham in Norfolk c. 100 BCE. Constructed from a gold winding process, it involves 64 strands linking the two huge terminals. It is extraordinary because it so unlike the Scottish and Mediterranean variants of the same item of wear, which are similar to one another. 74 others were found complete at the same site as well as fragments of a hundred others. We might well ask where these influences came from. Further impressive torc finds have emerged elsewhere in Norfolk.

Some of the other torcs from Snettisham – Own photo
The broken Sedgeford torc in the British Museum – Own photo

And here is another shield now in the British Museum (all these objects are in the same room). You need to click the external link to run the video but it is well worth it – the video owner won’t let me embed it – which is a shame. Less obviously appealing visually than the Battersea Shield, the Witham Shield from Lincolnshire has many secrets to reveal…


The Witham Shield – British Museum number
1872,1213.1. Probably c. 350 BCE – Own photo

Generally, the tribal groupings are gleaned from the civitates and from Ptolemy. He, like us, might have liked formal boundaries – where, perhaps, none actually existed. We will limit ourselves to a relatively small number of these groupings – in fact, just those who were producing coins:

(1) Corieltauvi – broadly approximating to Lincolnshire but extending down into the East Midlands, especially Leicestershire where Ratae was capital (Leicester)

(2) Iceni – Norfolk and, at least sometimes, Suffolk

(3) Cantiaci (a.k.a. Cantii) – Kent but it means ‘rim’ and I think this might limit it to areas beyond the Weald – to the west is an area which may long have been disputed crossing the Thames near Heathrow

(4) Durotriges – Dorset but also parts of southern Wiltshire

(5) Dobunni / Bodunni – the Cotswolds and Worcestershire; part of this area eventually came under Catuvellaunian control, at least according to Cassius Dio

(6) Atrebates / Belgae / Regni – the core ‘Belgic’ group with the Atrebates centred on Berkshire, Belgae on Winchester (but, under Roman influence, also on Bath) and the Regni in the area around Chichester

(7) Trinovantes – based in Suffolk and Essex, but who came under the control of the next grouping

(8) Catuvellauni – the gap in the centre around Bedfordshire / Hertfordshire / Buckinghamshire, but also massively expansionist. It may have come back into play as a polity during the expansion of emerging Wessex.

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The coin producing tribal areas of southern Britain. Whether they intended it or not, they had made themselves more easily integrated into Rome’s power structures.

The linguistic and ethnic nature of the tribes

We know that the tribes of Britannia before the arrival of the Romans were essentially ‘Celtic’ and spoke ‘Brythonic’, a proto-Cornish / Welsh, don’t we? …Or do we?

That is clearly at least partly right. And, even though the Celtic substrate is relatively rare in English place names, Dover, a place on the water, looks remarkably like the Welsh word for water, dŵr.

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We see the same element elsewhere as well: Andover, Wendover etc.

And yet there is a lost part of the story. I do not think that this was a universal situation. Caesar was hardly ignorant about the languages of Gaul. Famously, he said that Gaul was divided into three parts in Gallic Wars.

According to Caesar, Gaul’s three parts were: Gallia Celtica – essentially the area under the influence of the La Tène culture, Aquitania (still sort of known as ‘Aquitaine’) and Gallia Belgica. The Aquitanians adopted the Latin language and, in large part, it started to replace their ‘proto-Basque’, non Indo-European language. Evidently, they stood out a mile to Caesar. He knew they were very separate from Gallia Celtica. You will also note in the area of the Cevennes and Languedoc there was Gallia Narbonensis – that was already a colony.

But, at the other end of the country, he identified Gallia Belgica. Now, if you look closely at the map, just above the E of BELGICA, you will see the name, Atrebates.

Caesar described them as “the nearest to the Germans, who dwell beyond the Rhine, with whom they are continually waging war” (proximique sunt Germanis, qui trans Rhenum incolunt, quibuscum continenter bellum gerunt).

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Artois and Arras both derive from the name Atrebates. Being near to the Germans was not especially helpful in the twentieth century either.

But, when Caesar started involving himself in Britannia, the tribes with which he interfaced were those in the ‘Atrebatic-Belgic’ area. Furthermore, he was absolutely clear: they spoke the same languages as their counterparts in Gaul. Now, if we assume Gaul is ‘Celtic’, then that means one thing (and even that means putting aside the considerable differences between Gaulish and whatever emerging Insular Celtic looked like!). But their counterparts are in Gallia Belgica – and so, it means another.

One of the few indications of what Gaulish looked like: the Coligny Calendar. It tels us the names of the months and these might help us to understand how early British society saw the seasons.
Public Domain,

Unfortunately, we don’t know quite what we are speaking of – or, to be more precise, quite what they were speaking. But it is probably a Germanic language and most likely either a Western Germanic branch or a ‘fourth branch’ now lost. That is not universally accepted though; other possibilities have been proposed including whole lost branches of Indo-European and even non Indo-European languages and the whole Nordwestblock problem.

Later we will come back to the additional awkwardness that is only now beginning to emerge: that of Irish dialect possibilities.

Atrebatic coin from Southern England

It almost feels awkward that I do not think I have ever seen that term, ‘Belgic Britannia’ before. Nevertheless, I think that if Julius Caesar were to be around today, then he would ‘get it’ immediately!

The main Belgic kingdoms in southern Britannia

REGNI (West Sussex)

The most dubious of these is the Regni or Regini simply because we know so little about them and their name is almost certainly wrong. It may be that prior to the Roman invasion they were simply a part of Atrebatic territory.

The capital and only major urban area was Noviomagus Reginorum (a.k.a. proto-Chichester). We will be coming back to the general ‘awkwardness’ and genuine ‘Dark Agedness’ of Sussex (especially its eastern section) in the sub-Roman period.

BELGAE (Hampshire ‘plus’)

My guess is that so many centuries ago, this name did not quite spell out the ethnic identity that it does today in a post-Romani world.

Capital: Venta Belgarum, now called Winchester. It was another grouping which Rome seemed to favour.

The Belgae and the Atrebates (who follow) seem to have almost been treated as one and the same. Nevertheless, the Belgae not only had a civitas, it seems to have been extended well into what seems likely to have formerly been Dobunnic / Bodunnic (Cassius Dio’s name for it) territory. But Ptolemy never actually says that Bath / Aquae Sulis was in Dobunnic territory. The place he names is actually ‘Aquae Calidae’. The question is, how hot would it have to be? Could Droitwich have qualified as that was certainly in Dobunnic territory? After some consideration, I think I have definitively ruled out a confusion of Bath and Droitwich.

ATREBATES (Berkshire & North Hampshire)

Although their civitas was relatively small basically just covering the Berkshire area – although their capital, Calleva Atrebatum (Silchester) is technically in Hampshire – they may have been critical in the logic of the Roman invasion. Commius established his mint here after his migration from Gallia Belgica.

However, when we speak of the Atrebates, it is not always clear that we just mean this tribe or the Atrebates, Regni and Belgae together. They clearly had strong commonalities.

The leaders of the Atrebates

We know of five leaders but they are dominated by Commius, who seems to have been the founder of a dynasty – with the three next kings all claiming to have been his sons – or ‘sons’ as it may not have been literal. We can’t start in Southern Britain though as the story simply does not start here…

We have to start in Gallia Belgica, where the Atrebates teamed up with the Viromandui and the Nervii – both Belgic tribes – to confront Caesar at the Battle of the Sabis. This already looks like a little offshoot as when Caesar heard about the Belgic alliance, there was no doubt who was leading it: Galba of the Suessiones.

The Ambiani reported to Caesar that the Nervii was the most hostile of the Belgic tribes to Roman rule. The Nervii did not allow luxury imports as they believed these had a corrupting effect.

Caesar had eight legions at the battle – 7th, 8th, 9th Triumphalis, 10th Equestris, 11th, 12th Victrix, 13th and 14th. The Belgae attacked with the Atrebates forming the right wing, the Viromandui in the centre, and the Nervii on the left. Although, almost inevitably, the Belgic alliance was reduced to almost nothing, their initial ambushing of the Roman army brought the situation to a point of crisis.

Having defeated the Belgic alliance, Caesar put the Atrebatan leader in charge of the whole wider area. Now operating on Rome’s behalf, he was involved in both of Caesar’s expeditions into Britannia. Purportedly, he also negotiated the surrender of Cassivellaunus. Caesar did not mention Cassivellaunus’ tribe, but his territory, north of the River Thames, corresponds with that inhabited by the Catuvellauni at the time of the later invasion under Claudius.

In return for his loyalty to Rome, Caesar gave him authority over the Morini. The Mor- bit is obviously ‘sea’, which makes sense as this is the tribe which controlled the area around Boulogne.

But Caesar had overplayed his hand. Commius seemed reliable, but access to the Straits of Dover might simply have been too tempting. In the context of Gaul, in 52 BCE he switched sides and threw his considerable political weight behind Vercingetorix, who had, from his roots in the Auvergne, built a massive alliance of Gallic tribes – now potentially aided by Gallia Belgica as well. It all ended with Vercingetorix’s surrender, an image which has haunted the French nation.

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I doubt that there were any massive towers in any area controlled by Vercingetorix. But that should not cause us to underestimate him – and Rome probably did not either.
Lionel Royer – Musée CROZATIER du Puy-en-Velay. Public Domain,

After the Battle of Alesia (a major centre of the Mandubii) in 52 BCE, Commius the Atrebatan had further confrontations with the Romans of his own, eventually negotiating a truce with Mark Antony and then fleeing for Britannia, whilst somehow holding on to enough influence in northern Gaul to maintain coin issuance there?

Other Gallia Belgica tribes with associations or trade links to southern Britannia

Setting the Atrebates to one side for the moment, a number of other tribes in the area evidently had (at the very least) extremely strong trade links with ‘South East England’.

(1) The Ambiani

The Ambiani inhabited the department now known as Somme. Their capital was Samarobruia (‘Bridge on the Somme‘), now known as Amiens. The Romans named the town Ambianum, meaning settlement of the Ambiani people.

The Ambiani name was never used in Britannia but the tribe had extensive trading links both with the ‘Belgic’ areas of Britannia and also with parts of the South West.

(2) The Suessiones

The Suessiones inhabited the areas around Aisne and Oise. One particular king, Diviciacus, who was reigning broadly c. 90 – 60 BCE, was claimed by the Romans also to be king of a part of Britannia. Coins with his name have been found radiating out from Kent – into Sussex and across the Thames right up to the Wash.

If Caesar is to be believed, then ‘within living memory’ he had been king of a large part of Gaul and Britain. Does this mean that we have to ditch our ‘static’ thinking about tribal boundaries in SE Britain? Later we are going to see that Kent might also have been controlled from across the same stretch of water in the post-Roman period – indeed, in the formative period of Roman Christianity in Britain.

The other major issue here is the tribe to the north of the Thames: the Catuvellauni.

Cunobelin Gold Stater Linear Type

The Catuvellauni

Catuvellauni is a Gaulish name, by the way, although they were part of the Belgic sphere of influence and part of the Aylesford-Swarling wheel thrown pottery group, identified by Arthur Evans in 1886. So, their distant origins might have been as close to being Atrebatic as to most of their other neighbours.

Their capital was Verlamion (Latin Verulamium, English St Albans) but they evidently expanded into the far broader area covering the Fens to the Thames Estuary and west towards Oxford. Cassius Dio claims that part of the Dobunni / Bodunni were tributary to them and the site of Caractacus’ final battle suggests that the sphere of influence may have extended into Shropshire and the Welsh borderlands. The tribe’s original capital may be indicated by the Devil’s Dyke earthworks around Wheathampstead.

Caesar never mentioned them but it is often assumed that Cassivellaunus was their leader. Although that poses some etymological difficulties, the area is the right one: north of the Thames and to the west of the Trinovantes, who they appear to have brought under their control more than once.

That push eastwards under Tasciovanus can be seen in the shift to Camulodunum (Colchester – later Iceni target alongside Roman London and the Catuvellaunian capital of St Albans). Under his son, Cunobelinus, we see increased trading links with Rome. And his brother, Epaticcus, seems to have taken control of the territory of the Atrebates. Furthermore, one of Cunobelinus’ sons evidently had his powerbase in Kent, whilst it was the exile of the Atrebatic king, Verica, which prompted Claudius’ invasion. Does the name feel familiar? It ought to. In English, he would become known as Beruc and yielded his name to Beruca’s-shire, Berkshire.

Dio tells us that Cunobelinus was dead by this point and Togodumnos and Caractacus led the initial opposition to the invasion in Kent. He also indicated that the Bodunni / Dobunni switched sides.

Caractacus survived and continued to fight the Romans with the Ordovices (and, possibly, the Silures) until the Battle of Caer Caradoc, somewhere in the Welsh borderlands, adjacent to the River Severn. Losing here, he fled into Brigantian territory but their queen, Cartimandua, handed him over to Rome.

You will note that the Cantiaci are obscurely missing from this narrative.

Fishbourne Roman Palace, West Sussex

The Roman ‘Interlude’

I guess that it does not get called an ‘interlude’ much – but that is exactly how I am going to view it.

Whilst we know very little about how British regional territories might have changed between 400 BCE and 55 BC, we can make a reasonable guess that not much changed between AD 43 and AD 400 – despite reorganisations.

That is because from AD 43 Southern Britain was effectively frozen by the Roman Empire. Sure, there were exceptions: Rome might have allocated disputed bits of lands to its allied tribes and we can see that much changed in modern Wales, but – by and large – Rome acted as a lock on tribes and their boundaries.

So, Rome’s presence and impact on Southern Britannia needs at least a brief mention.

Roman territory in Britain by AD 47

Quite how the ‘minting correlation’ worked we do not really know. But the match is very striking – between those tribes who issued coins and the areas which came under Rome’s control in the first four years of occupation.

Roman territory in Britannia by year – from Roman Britain, A New History by Guy De La Bédoyère.

The Fosse Way did not exist at this point – at least not in a formalised, Roman fashion. Parts of it may well have been in place. Akeman Street running from St Albans to Cirencester makes little sense as a Roman road (and it has a rather uncharacteristic curve to it) and yet it is normally construed as a Roman road. But as a means of Catuvellauni control over the parts of the Dobunni / Bodunni which Dio mentioned fell under its authority, it makes perfect sense. The curve, by the way, might also tell us something about territorial risks to the south of it.

So, which territories did Rome either take by force after the invasion or come to terms with?

Fortunately, we can be reasonably certain. Under either Claudius or Aulus Plautius (who became the first governor of the new province, serving from 43 to 46), the following tribal areas were probably the extent of Rome’s control:

  • Cantiaci (modern Kent including all the disputed areas in the west of the county)
  • The Atrebatic 3 (Atrebates, Belgae and Regni) – effectively covering the South of England from Sussex through Hampshire and Berkshire to parts of Wiltshire and onto Bath)
  • Parts – but, interestingly, almost certainly not all – of Dobunnic territory. The southern parts held might very well in some way relate to Catuvellaunian control.
  • ‘Greater Catuvellaunia’ – obviously including the Trinovantan territories. So, we are talking about a wide range of counties from Essex, through Hertfordshire & Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire and parts of Oxfordshire.
  • Corieltauvian territory across Lindsey and the East Midlands.
  • Durotrigan territory – Although the Durotriges seem to have surrendered, the hillfort system in Dorset was certainly put to use.

There is one major omission from the minting area here. And, if Rome made a mistake at this point, it is very probably not making a greater effort to bring it under its control. But stuck out in Norfolk, the Iceni were not at this point under Roman control.

However, they were also completely isolated on all sides from any tribe with whom they might form an alliance. But their isolation could also have played to their advantage. Points of access had to be through Trinovantan territory (i.e. Suffolk); you would have needed to be an experienced trader to have crossed the Fens area to the west of Iceni territory at the time. But the Iceni themselves and the Corieltauvi were perhaps used to it?

To the immediate west, the Fens, then undrained, extended 25 miles inland from the modern coastline. For Rome, imposing the monolithic culture of the Empire on a land of small island communities floating somewhere between water and sky, devoid of obvious landmarks, was more than a challenge. Nevertheless, some later Roman Governors were to see the economic potential of opening up this area, exemplified by Rome’s obvious attempt to impress at Stonea (on the Cambridgeshire Fens between Manea station and Chatteris). But even this was not to last.

It is not the place to go into it here but cue: Boudicca, Rome’s most unexpected Britannic nightmare.

Legio II Augusta and the war in Dorset

We know through Vespasian’s own words that he took the Isle of Wight and then went on to fight in Dorset, the territory of the Durotriges. But we have to be careful how we interpret history. There is a very clear line of hillforts which seem to protect Durotrigian territory from forces to the east: Hambledon Hill, Hod Hill, Spetisbury / Crawford Castle, Buzbury Rings, Badbury Rings / Vindocladia through to Hengistbury Head.

Adams’ take on the division of Roman Britannia

Max Adams is not fundamentally different in his perspective on this front.

The First Kingdom
Adams’ new book, released Feb 2021. I have been waiting for this book to be released and – despite some of the reviews – it does not disappoint. In particular, Adams’ ability to write about other things – such as trees – really benefits the landscape descriptions.

But Adams prefers a different division of Britannia into four quarters with a firm basis in climate and topography. As a general rule, the further north and west you go in Britain, the older the rocks beneath you, the hillier the landscape, the poorer the soils. The drainage basins may have established themselves as petty fiefdoms in a time of which we have no record. Adams likes to talk about the North, so he mentions the Tay, the Clyde, the Tyne and the Tees alongside the Thames, Severn and Avon – perhaps even the Nene, Ouse, Cam, Lea and upper Trent. These all became targets for those wanting to establish control over wider areas.

In Rome’s case, it established links between the highest navigable point of rivers and built forts at strategic junctions on the routes between these. Thus it transformed Britannia into what he calls a ‘densely connected, high-speed landscape’, promoting trade, wealth and – not least – mineral extraction.

To the north and west of a broad line drawn between the Yorkshire Ouse and the River Parrett in Somerset, Rome still could not be ignored but it was at least ‘peripheral’ to everyday life.

What did Roman withdrawal mean for Britannia?

“Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth”, is a law of propaganda frequently attributed to Joseph Goebbels. One does not have to go quite this far to see how Gildas’ narrative, complete with some Biblically-borrowed language, could be recycled by the Northumbrian Bede and thus become the only point of reference for Mediaeval (and later) scholars as far away as Constantinople.

The narrative essentially can be summed up as follows: when Rome left Britannia, everything that was good crumbled. This was the accepted narrative until well into the second half of the twentieth century. Until the end of the ninth century, Southern Britain (not to mention the rest of it – largely deemed to have been a basket case!) had no functioning urban areas. Furthermore, we actually managed to deepen this narrative. Bede saw London as a great trading centre but archaeology seemed to indicate that Lundenwic, half a mile west of the great Roman city with its muddy shore, ‘the strand’, was little more than a makeshift shanty-town.

From the late 1970s onwards, these attitudes started to come under challenge and critical in this was Philip Barker’s excavations at Viroconium Cornoviorum (Wroxeter, Shropshire). Viroconium, named after the British name for The Wrekin, Viroconion, was probably planned out after 59 AD and, at its peak, was probably the fourth largest settlement in Britannia.

Wroxeter: Urban continuity in the post-Roman period?

I won’t dwell on the importance of Barker’s excavations. However, I think the most important aspect is that people became aware of the possibility that Britannia post-410 should in no way be treated as uniform. There was urban continuity in some places and an utter break in others. Furthermore, the case for this ‘regionally diverse paradigm’ is strengthened if state control weakened long before Rome’s departure and local influences – pagi (septs) rather than civitates – were stronger at the end of the fourth century.

A regionally diverse Britannia and Anglo-Saxon ‘arrival’

If we are to understand war (and, as I will indicate later, Adams does not think there is much of it about!), we need first to understand settlement and integration.

Adams shows us a few examples and I will concentrate on the ones firmly in the South. We need to ask ourselves: How much of the Germanic warrior culture was either simply familiar or else openly attractive to indigenous Britannia? It is extremely unlikely that peoples on the east Coast did not have well-established trading relations with, say, Frisia and Jutland, long before the Romans arrived in Britannia. In short, they might already have been quite used to one another. But that again could have been different from one locality to the next.

1.) Uley, near Dursley, Gloucestershire

Edward Burrow (1869-1935) – “The Ancient Entrenchments and Camps of Gloucestershire”

One of the first examples Adams uses really only shows continuity between the prehistoric and Romano-British British – but it does so over a hugely long time. It was a major shrine complex at West Hill near Uley.

There are signs here of the site’s original function. It may once have been linked to an animistic world view in which birds, animals, springs and rivers infused the landscape with more than physical meaning. There are also signs that the site might have been involved in excarnation – that is the stripping of bodies. It is possible that it was a centre associated with ceremonial religious activity of the Dobunni. By the time of the Roman invasion it had formal, timber structures in place.

Not that that implies that Christianity in Britain was not awkward. The Pelagian Controversy suggests that it may well have been.

Oolitic limestone altar with relief of Mercury. The god stands in a niche with a curving top set in the front of the altar. He holds a caduceus in his left hand and carries his chlamys over his left arm. He extends his right arm and holds a purse in his right hand. British Museum number

Whatever the original religious function of Uley Hill, in the first and second centuries it acquired a solid timber shrine. It went from being a centre for some now lost local deity to the worship of Mercury.

In the fourth century the shrine was replaced with an L-shaped building and by the fifth century with what appears to be a Christian basilica. This was the evolution of an indigenous, adaptive culture, capable of making very marked shifts ion its religious practices.

Not that that implies that Christianity in Britain was not awkward. The Pelagian Controversy and the argument over ‘Original Sin’ suggests that it may well have been.

2.) Wasperton, Warwickshire

55 miles almost directly north east from Uley and, in reality, only just beyond the northeastern borders of Dobunnic territories… is Wasperton.

Situated at the heart of the homelands of my Makepeace ancestors, Wasperton, perhaps something like ‘pear settlement in the floodlands’, was a long-lived community which not only survived the Roman period but had its roots way back in the prehistoric past. It had a broad range of burial practices even including evidence of ritual decapitation.

At the end of the eighth century these were joined by a new set of burial practices which seem to have been unsegregated from the rest. Initially this was taken as evidence for the arrival of an Anglo-Saxon presence in the South Midlands. But it was nothing of the sort. Strontium dental isotope analysis suggests that there were incomers – but that they were from Western Britain and the Mediterranean. It is just a bit too late to be of central interest to this post.

3.) Loveden, Lincolnshire

Now we are going back to the same part of the country in which the Witham Shield was found, 20 miles to the south to be fair, in that area between Grantham and Lincoln. Bear in mind that this flat country might have been very different in the period.

British Museum – This cremation urn — one of over 1800 found in an early medieval cemetery at Loveden Hill, Lincolnshire — bears an inscription cut in runes. About 20 objects with runic inscriptions dating before c. 650 are known from England, making this urn one of the very earliest pieces of evidence for the English language. Comparison with similarly shaped cremation urns from other cemeteries suggests that the Loveden Hill urn dates from the second half of the 5th century.

It makes some sense that the further east we go, the more we start seeing evidence for Germanic culture – although sometimes it just does not work like that! This urn here is perhaps the earliest Runic inscription from England. It bears the name of Siþæbærd.

But who was Sithabard? And was she in the pot or did she simply make it? What we are finding is that cremation urns were often recycled and had previous useful lives themselves. Does this perhaps begin to explain the ALU problem?

Whatever, the Loveden site gives us firm evidence of Anglo-Saxon settlement – perhaps even some of the earliest in the whole country. What it doesn’t tell us is to what extent and how the interacted with existing populations.

And it would be fair to say that even hugely well-informed innovators can make mistakes. And I talking about ET Leeds.

Sutton Courtenay – own photo

4.) ET Leeds at Sutton Courtenay near Abingdon, Berks / Oxon

Edward Thurlow (ET) Leeds (1877–1955) was an English archaeologist and museum curator, Keeper of the Ashmolean from 1928 to 1945.

Map of Oxfordshire
Sites in Oxfordshire excavated by ET Leeds (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford)

In 1921 Leeds was alerted to some possible archaeological features visible in a gravel quarry near Sutton Courtenay, the village which would accidentally become the burial site of Eric Blair, rather better known today by the pseudonym, Orwell.

Intrigued by parallels to artefacts already in the Ashmolean collection which “had been assigned to the late-Celtic periods on what seemed to be quite insufficient grounds”, Leeds decided to make a thorough investigation before the features were destroyed.

His investigations and his conclusions from them would colour interpretation for decades. I think we are only now beginning to break from it. The word of the moment is Grubenhäuser! And, if that means nothing to you, ‘sunken feature buildings’ or, more literally, ‘pit houses’.

I do not want to overdo it but the interpretation was essentially this: post-Roman society was so basic that people lived quasi-underground in pits! And this framework formed the constraints in which Mucking near Tilbury (where there was a mass of these pits over an area sprawling several hundred yards) was initially interpreted.

In reality, some of this was probably storage – storage pits, not houses! And then there is the strange word, spinster in English.

By William-Adolphe Bouguereau – Art Renewal Center Museum, image 68., Public Domain,

It is someone who spins wool – obviously. Language is always changing. So, if I say, ‘she is a spinster’, what does it mean?

This image, although it is centuries later – obviously – sums it up for Anglo-Saxon women. They are not like their British counterparts;’ the spindle was always with them – literally, the two were tied together.

And they worked in a semi-underground environment. Leeds’ measurements at Sutton C are 13 ft by 10ft and 3 ft deep. Adams is careful to distance himself from any suggestion that the majority of Grubenhäuser might fall into this category, but Pliny the Elder associated Germanic women (admittedly, some four centuries earlier) with the weaving of yarn in pits dug underground.

But we are slowly beginning to understand that the Grubenhäuser had complex histories, potentially rather like the Loveden cremation urn, being used for one purpose initially and then recycled. When you think about it, it is actually a sustainability issue.

So, if we have a regionally diverse Britannia at this point, who are its leaders?

5.) Great Chesterford, Essex / Cambridgeshire border (M11 junction 9)

I am guessing that, unless you have worked for a council in either Cambridgeshire or Essex, you may not have heard of Great Chesterford. There is a clue in the name – chester = fort.

It was indeed planned as a fort but later seems to have been remodelled as an urban centre. A ‘break of bulk’ location, GC is on the Cam just above its highest navigable point. It is still a critical transport junction south of Cambridge between the M11 and the Roman A11, gateway into the Breckland and East Anglia. The Roman road is, by the way, blocked by a series of fifth or sixth century linear earthworks such as Brent Ditch and Fleam Dyke.

Fleam Dyke approaching Mutlow Hill - - 182255.jpg
Fleam Dyke.
By David Gruar, CC BY-SA 2.0,

It is possible, as Adams suggests, that at certain points, this area represented the collision of Trinovantan – Catuvellaunian territories and between them and the Iceni to the north.

By the time GC gained its stone walls, it was very probably the second largest settlement in the East Anglian peninsula. Grubenhäuser and ‘Anglo-Saxon’ pottery have fed the Germanic settlement narrative, even that of the latest study by Medlycott (2011, Essex County Council Historic Environment) – which Adams gives as little acknowledgement to as possible. So, Medlycott suggests that this is a frontier town, very possibly with a surviving British kingdom in the Chilterns.

Roman Settlement at Great Chesterford
© Peter Froste. All rights reserved, DACS 2021. Photo credit: Essex County Council. The Medlycott interpretation of Great Chesterford.

But Stephen Bassett saw things differently, identifying a radial pattern of surrounding townships. These townships helped to define a territorium of peaceful co-existence of some thirty square miles, a more centripetal version of the need to demarcate lands.

Wiltshire – Between Avebury and the Vale of Pewsey – Own photo

Lordship & kingship

At some point warband warlords must have transformed to being kings. But when? Obviously, this was a gradual shift, eventually mixed up with complex interactions with the Christian faith. But let us not venture away from the early period at present.

In this early period, some of the pagi (septs) very probably had no lords – but that does not mean that they were not controlled from somewhere else. Adams raises the likelihood that Kent (and possibly parts of Sussex as well) was subject to Frankia. That might go a long way towards explaining why Kentish adornment would seem to be so heavily ‘Frankish’ rather than ‘Jutish’. At another point in the book, he makes the equally interesting (and, as far as I am aware, less accepted) claim that East Anglia may also have been under external subordination. One might wonder whether this was, perhaps, from Eastern Sweden?

Cores & peripheries?

Another consideration is adapted from Brian Roberts, who claimed that early kingdoms had ‘corelands’ based around rivers. At some point between this time and, say, the Tribal Hidage, the function of rivers seem to have shifted to being borders and, therefore, peripheries.

In particular, a change of (especially, the scale of) power structures, will change the geographies of what we are examining.

15th-century manuscript of Historia Regum Britanniae – Lambeth Palace MS 6.
And yes, it is Vortigern in this case understanding the meanings of the white and red dragons.

Nevertheless, let’s make a start…

And the first of these leaders is very probably the most important of all (assuming that there was never an Arthur!) – he is VORTIGERN.

Who was Vortigern and where was he from?

Much of the next section relies quite heavily on Laycock’s ‘Warlords: the struggle for power in post-Roman Britain’. I am going to present his arguments – whether I always agree with them or not (and I have to say, I feel a lot less alignment with this book than his last one!).

There is actually – at least on one level – a connection between Laycock and Adams. Both see the importance of regional difference and accept that the Roman colonial period did not iron it out – and might even have added to it.

But there are fundamental differences as well. Laycock’s Britannia is one of defensive structures – hill forts and dykes – a land is a tangle of civil wars. Adams’ Britannia is a largely peaceable one with so-called ‘defensive’ structures being essentially mere ostentation. With the marked exception of Ambrosius, most of the characters we are about to discuss from Laycock’s book are for Adams as likely to be mythical. For him, Vortigern is about as likely to have existed in the flesh as Arthur (who only gets a mention on Adams’ cover as that tends to sell more books!).

Laycock argues the following – I have added my own bits where explanation is required:

  • Vortigern seems to have been connected with a Cornovii / Dobunnic alliance;
  • He may genuinely have been son-in-law to Magnus Maximus (Macsen if you are Welsh) and the marriage to Sevira was probably arranged to help finance Magnus’ coup;
  • The aim to reclaim the Belgic area of Dobunnic territory (Avon) brought the alliance into conflict with the Atrebatic peoples;
  • The Dobunnic alliance attacked Silchester (which was never reoccupied – in Laycock’s analysis) and from there there were routes into Kent;
  • The above all supports the possibility that Vortigern really was in a position to invite Jutes and Angles to Thanet, known in British as Ruoihm. The English name is, BTW, of hugely disputed etymology, even having been given Phoenician roots, although it is more likely to be associated with either fire or holm oaks – but both of these connections would be derived from a Celtic root whilst the Celts called it something else!

Who was Ambrosius Aurelianus and where was he from?

We will go through the same process now for Ambrosius. Laycock’s position can be summarised as follows:

  • He is an Atrebatic leader of some kind, possibly from the Atrebatic half of Belgae territory and quite Romanised in nature;
  • He fought at the Discordia of Wallop against Vitalinus;
  • We don’t know if he was physically present at the Siege of Badon Hill (Badon might actually be after the British military fightback against the Germanics, possibly around 500 AD or slightly earlier – a lot earlier we are going to adopt the Adams chronology);
  • Roger of Wendover’s claim that Ambrosius killed Vortigern might have some truth in it;
  • He fights some group of ‘Saxons’ – either Hengest’s forces (which might now be backed by the Cantii) or Aelle of the South Saxons;
  • We do not know on what authority but Bede places Ambrosius in the reign of Zeno – so in the 470s or 480s.
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is slid2e2.jpg

From the sparse remnants of history we now hold, Ambrosius comes over as almost the sole survivor of Roman culture. His parents are supposed to have been victims of the Saxon rampage – although it is not easy to see how. In contrast to Vortigern’s excesses, Gildas presents Ambrosius as a paragon of Christianity.

Laycock suggests that Ambrosius might be some sort of local leader of the Belgic part of the Cotswolds. It is this which will initially bring him into contact – and conflict – with Vortigern.

Ambrosius does at least have a Welsh form, Emrys, in the Historia Britonnum. But, if he was an Atrebatic leader, then why would Welsh poetry choose to eulogise him?

Chysauster, Penwith. Did anything make any difference to the west of Cornwall? Chysauster is different to neighbouring Carn Euny, about 8 miles south west, where the social spaces of houses interlock. [Own photo]

Devon and its relationship with… Constantinople?

I have to say that I lunged at the book, getting nearly all the way through it in a couple of evenings and one Saturday. But thus far, I was a little disappointed. Not that I would not have bought it – it just was not quite shaping up to its Britannia – Failed State predecessor (and I would still hold to this). Vortigern as Cornovian-Dobunnic; Ambrosius the Atrebatic? Yes, well maybe …but then, maybe not. But then the warlord of Devon emerged and, for me, this was a more interesting (if still highly controversial) section.

Let’s start in the same fashion as above.

Who is Ri(g)othamus and where was he from?

It is possible that the name means something like GREAT KING, hence the potential reintroduction of the ‘G’.

We will start with two images. One is Bantham in South Devon …and the other is not, it is Constantinople:

By Mark.murphy at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, and By – digital file from intermediary roll film copy, Digital ID: pan 6a23442, USA memory collection, Public Domain, Note that ancient Bantham was not centred on the modern village’s location.

When Rome had started to nose about in Britannic affairs, Devon and Cornwall had probably been amongst the most affluent regions of the island – at least according to Laycock, although it makes some sense given mineral deposit distribution. But they had resisted Romanisation and become marginalised. Sure, Rome had plenty of presence at Isca (it is a corruption of the local word for ‘water’; it is not that far from ‘whiskey’) / Exeter (so is Exe!), west of that life went back into the Iron Age.

During the Roman period, cross-Channel traffic had centred on the Straits of Dover and on Dorset / Hampshire. These were suddenly no longer stable areas in the Laycock analysis.

Therefore, traffic shifted back to a more traditional Atlantic Coastal route (which had connected Wales and the South West with Brittany, the Loire, Aquitaine, northern Spain and Galicia for centuries – possibly, far longer!). DNA suggests one might want to start adding on random zeros to dates at this point. This route was clearly in use for a very long time, possibly even being determined by the retreat of the last ice sheet.

Riothamus (King of Devon?) and Emperor Anthemius

Around 470 AD Euric the Visigoth attempted a power grab of Gaul in the context of a declining Western Empire. Unless Emperor Anthemius’ prefect in Gaul was stitched up, he was probably a traitor and in alliance with Euric. Although Anthemius was nominally Western Emperor, there was nothing ‘Western’ about him, having been born and bred in the East – in Constantinople, no less.

Anthemius’ response was to appeal for help from the lesser peoples. Dragging in auxiliaries from Germanic tribes was a tried, tested – and, in the light of recent events, utterly failed – method. So Anthemius appealed for help to ‘a king of the Britons’.

So, where was he from? Was it Brittany on the opposite shore from Devon & Cornwall? Well, Adams seems to imply that it probably was. I suppose that the critical consideration at this point is just how large were polities? And, as matters stand, we just do not know.

An image of the Breton coastline. Copyright – France Today

British Armorica, c. 460 – 500 AD

The territory of the Osismi in the far north-west of Brittany (perhaps centred on modern Carbaix) seems likely to have been the core of British Armorica. But, in reality, we know exceptionally little about the area until the end of the sixth century.

However, we do have independent attestation of a British presence in the area. In 461 the Council of Tours mentioned Mansuetus, the Bishop of the Britons. And Gregory of Tours tells us that the British had had their own kings in Armorica up until the reign of Clovis.

As Laycock points out, there is a problem: Riothamus appears to have travelled by sea!

What was Greater Devon like at the time?

Well, if we start with Adams, it could be tiny; a couple of river valleys that could be anywhere within the Peninsula.

Greater Devon basically had one ‘Romanised-civilised’ settlement: Exeter – known to the local population at the time as Caer Uisc.

It has been suggested that Dumnonian rulers were essentially itinerant in their courts and such itineraries probably included places that we would now consider to be in North West France.

The critical moment in Laycock’s thinking

The question is this: What might link Vortigern to Kent?

Initially, the answer has to be: not that much. It looks as though his ancestry is very centred on Roman Gloucester – which seems to have had a pretty limited history before its establishment in around 48. Or are we just being distracted by some fake dynastics?

But slowly things start to fall into a possible place. We hear that Vortigern was in fear of Ambrosius – a character who will be analysed later. But why? Were they at war? There is the big ‘Discordia’ at Wallop (Danebury, near Andover – which is a Celtic name) and Wallop has no obvious derivation in English.

Danebury’s history is a long one. It seems to have been occupied from the mid-sixth century BCE to around 100 BCE. The defences were remodelled numerous times, which suggests to me that whatever this frontier was, it remained important almost throughout the entire length of the Iron Age period.

However, we might well want to ask ourselves what is going on with the names in this part of North Hampshire? Wallop is evidently a corruption of a Celtic name, as in the Battle of Wallop, Catuguoloph, whilst you will note that Andover also has that Celtic ‘water’ element. Although nothing that I have mooted so far helps at all, in the existing framework, we really should not be finding heaps of names that look like the Welsh Marches!

According to both William of Malmesbury and the ASC, two big battles took place with the emergent Wessex, led by Cenwalh (a suspiciously ‘British’ name with its -walh ending or was this alread shifting to function as an indicator of class origins?) on the southern fringe of the Dobunnic area in the mid-seventh century. We have to piece together their names a bit but the look like Peonnum (?) and ‘Vortigern’s Fort’ which seems to be Bradford on Avon. Is this far later mention of Vortigern in a local toponym a reliable citation?

Welsh history also gives both Powys and Gwrtheyrnion associations with Vortigern, not least via the Pillar of Eliseg. Gwrtheyrnion – which actually derives its name from Vortigern is a small part of what was once Radnorshire.

So, what power might connect Powys, Gloucester, Wallop and Bradford on Avon? Well, probably not Britannia Prima since the Romans changed their structures several times over the course of their occupation of the island.

Instead, Laycock draws attention to the area of Dobunnic territory south of the River Avon, which the Romans seem to have reallocated to the Belgae and which seems in some ways, different from the remainder of the territory. There are signs that the Dobunni were taking back control of some areas which had clearly become tributary to the Catuvellauni.

But this is not all. Dobunnic influence seems to have been spreading in other directions. Wroxeter, the chief urban settlement in the Cornovian territories (basically Shropshire) displays strong Dobunnic characteristics. The Silurian area of Monmouthshire / Newport seems to have some divisions too with the eastern area around Caerwent also coming under Dobunnic influences.

One of two Wansdyke sections – which may or may not be part of the same structure. It is quite possible that this is the frontier between Dobunnic and Atrebatic territories – although along this section the Durotriges may have been involved as well.
[Own photo near Tan Hill / Rybury – a brilliant walk from Avebury if you ever get the chance!]

Let us just imagine that Laycock is right and that Vortigern was the leader of a powerful Dobunnic / Cornovian alliance. Obviously, there is no real sense of a ‘boundary’ between the Cornovii and the ‘Welsh’ side – they were the same people. We will also take the Pillar of Eliseg at face value and accept that Vortigern’s first (lawful) wife was Sevira, daughter of Magnus Maximus / Macsen. Adams might be laughing: is all this retrospective propaganda? I am not completely sure: Yes, the narrative might have changed but smoke without fire?

A war with the Atrebatic peoples could have started over the Avon / West Wiltshire zone. Let us imagine that it did. Initially, it is a border dispute. But engagement is hostile and it begins to spill over into a wider conflict between an emergent Dobunnic Empire and ‘Greater Atrebatia’. Old hatreds, stifled under Roman control, re-emerge. Warlord Vortigern launches a full-on attack on Atrebatic territories to which he knows he has zero historic claim.

The settlement of Mildenhall (not the Suffolk air base) on the edge of Marlborough – Late Latin Cunetio, has exceptionally strong defences from the fourth century looking towards Dobunnic territory. Cunetio gets some attention from Adams as well. Why is it the exception if Britannia is a land torn apart by civil wars?

Then we have the curious abandonment of the formerly thriving Atrebatan capital of Silchester (Calleva Atrebatum).

Unusually, not only was it suddenly abandoned, it was never reoccupied despite having been an important centre both during Roman and pre-Roman times. Wallop is not far away either despite being well inside the Atrebates’ territory. If Wallop represents some Atrebatic success, Silchester would seem to indicate catastrophic failure.

Now, it needs to be said here that Adams sees the complete opposite story. And he is quite categoric – no Roman town was abandoned in a hurry to use his exact words. Not Wroxeter, not Caistor, not Silchester. And for him the ‘dark earth’ deposits – which are usually seen as signs of destruction – really demonstrate phases of new construction. It is almost as though we are treating HS2 as a period of massive destruction – which, to any sensible mind, it will be, but not in that way. Anyway, let us put that to one side and go back to the Laycock thesis…

File:Silchester mosaic.jpg
Courtesy of User: Udimu. Silchester had an established way of life – why was it abandoned? Or was it never abandoned?

In the Laycock vision, having captured Silchester, the way was open for the ‘Dobunnic alliance’ to access Kent. There are a number of routes Laycock does not mention. For example, Silchester lay just off one of the most obvious routes in the South across Swinley Forest adjacent to modern Bracknell: the Devil’s Highway / Nine Mile Ride (the section known as this is about 7.5) which led to Pontes (Staines – the stones over the Thames). Or they could have used the River Thames the whole of the route from Central Berkshire to the Thames Estuary. Another possibility is that, once they reached the North Downs, they accessed a network of down roads – still surviving in part today (especially above Sevenoaks where the Pilgrim’s Way is far, far older than the Mediaeval period) – that were already thousands of years old.

Some of the routes across the North Downs have probably been in use since the Neolithic. Map of Pilgrims Way near Titsey, Surrey. The upper route, on the brow of the North Downs, is the ancient trackway (note the archaeological finds at the top left); the lower, almost in the valley, is the route surmised by the Ordnance Survey in the 19th century. The original uploader was Old Moonraker at English Wikipedia. – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by Oxyman using CommonsHelper.
Detail from Six-inch sheet XXVII NW, 1914 edition (reprinted 1941). Colour addition by uploader.

But is there any evidence of Dobunnic artistic evidence in Kent? Well, this depends on how you interpret the ‘Quoit Brooch’ style. Once this used to be seen as a primary indicator of Anglo-Saxon (i.e. Jutish – Anglian) settlement but it has slowly become accepted as ‘British’ and it has strongly Dobunnic overtones.

Quoit brooch from Sarre, Kent – British Museum. Sarre may be critical to a truer understanding as it stands at the crossing of the Wantsum Channel which once separated mainland Kent from Thanet.

Why I think Laycock has to be wrong!

I had not read Adams at this stage and my thinking was thoroughly moulded by the arguments in Laycock. I don’t want to sound as though I have been losing sleep over it. But, yes, I probably have lost a little sleep. There are worse things to lose sleep over.

I woke up in the middle of a night and decided to do a bit of reading. Suddenly, I was hit by a couple of letters in the Latin for the Siege of Badon Hill. As it was the middle of the night I did my best to try to ignore it but I was increasingly thinking of Cassius Dio as well.

See the source image
Bodvoc or Boduoc is only known from coins and these seem to be limited to the northern part of the kingdom. His successor seems to have a name Catti-. This style of depiction of a horse is so semi-abstract that I could have mistaken it for Emu! But, just randomly, I have decided to insert a couple of pictures of the Uffington White Horse before it was roped off (see below).

You will recall that, whilst everyone else calls the Dobunni just that – Cassius Dio ‘mis-names’ them the Bodunni. I think he is right. I think Bod- is a repetitive element in both place names and even personal names in the kingdom. Here is Boduoc, one of their kings in the first century BC and, yes, his name does look a bit like Boudicca / Victoria. I see the element hidden in a lot of place names as well.

Obsessio Badonici montis does not imply to me ‘the siege of Badon Hill’; it implies ‘the siege of the hillfort of the Bodunni’.

White Horse Chalk Cut, Uffington
White Horse, Uffington – Own photo. Long assumed to date from this period, some new theories suggest that it might be much older and quite possibly dates from the Bronze Age rather than the Iron Age, perhaps as far back as 1300 BCE. That does not imply that it was not subsequently modified although excavations in the 1990s indicated that it had not simply been scratched into the surface but actually involved very deep cuts, sometimes a metre deep, then filled in with chalk.
Gerllaw tref Abinton y mae mynydd ac eilun march arno a gwyn ydiw. Ni thyf dim arno.” [Red Book of Hergest]
(Near to the town of Abinton (sic) there is a mountain with a figure of a stallion upon it, and it is white. Nothing grows upon it.)
Are the detached legs accidents? By William Plenderleath – Original publication: The white horses of the west of England Immediate source: [1], Public Domain,

So, I am going to guess that the recently assumed association of Badon and the Swindon area – as much as I love the hillforts in this vicinity – is mistaken.

We know that the Bodunni had a civitas capital at Cirencester. Before that there was a hillfort at Bagendon but there are other possibilities, although Bagendon does not even sound dissimilar to Badon + mons. My guess is that Badon was more likely to have been here and that probably means that Ambrosius was Bodunnic. So, why did Vortigern live in fear of him?

What if Laycock is not just wrong but has all this the wrong way around? By that I mean, what if he has the roles of Vortigern and Ambrosius completely the wrong way around? Is that possible?

Gildas’ Five Tyrants

Gildas speaks (highly critically) of five warlords who seem to be alive at the time of his writing – whenever we take that to be (and this will prove absolutely critical):

  • Constantine
  • Vortipor
  • Cuneglasus
  • Maglocunus
  • Aurelius Caninus

It is at least possible that Cuneglasus and Maglocunus were related and ruled neighbouring Rhos and Gwynedd respectively. Maglocunus has traditionally been considered useful as he provides a date anchor as we know he died around 547. Or do we? In 547 a major plague broke out – the yellow pest a branch of the tail end of the 541 Justinian plague – and Maglocunus seems to have died from it. Alt Clud (see below with reference to Constantine) seems to have taken the opportunity to invade the kingdom. Maglocunus was alive whilst Gildas was writing De Exidio, but there is no telling what level of military threat was building up. And, of course, if dates are going to start slipping…

Aurelius Caninus (is this the third of these names to do with dogs? – Adams has another theory, suggesting that the Aurelius bit is no accident) remains an unknown but is almost certainly in the west somewhere. I might take an initial stab at South East Wales – somewhere in the area now Gwent and Morgannwg.

That leaves Vortipor and Constantine. Let us start with Vortipor. He probably ruled Demetae / Dyfed. Laycock suggests possibly from Castell Dwyran – although that is a not so widely held belief these days.

Traeth Llyfn beach viewed from the coastal path
ALAMY / The Times

Dyfed seems to have followed Dumnonia in both its former rejection of Romanisation and its sudden inflow of goods from the Mediterranean. We have to be a little bit careful here because such goods also seem to have been making their way up both sides of the Bristol Channel. Dumnonia possibly extended as far as the River Parrett (and as far as Cadbury Castle and the River Axe). If Aurelius Caninus was in the Gwent area, this might have aided safe passage.

So, what did Vortipor’s territory look like at the beginning of the sixth century? If we take an Adams stance, then it could have been very tiny. Of course, it is perfectly possible that, in certain periods, territories were vastly reduced in territorial scope. Indeed, by attempting to define boundaries we may be putting a modern gloss on matters. Furthermore, it is difficult to be clear where the original might have been.

Even at a maximum extent, it was much smaller than the 1974 county. The area of rule was probably limited to seven cantrefi: essentially the modern Pembrokeshire plus bits of Ceredigion as far as Cardigan and bits of Carmarthenshire as far as Carmarthen town itself.

By LinguisticDemographer at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., Public Domain,

When Gildas was writing (let us say around the year 540 AD – for the time being we will date it as that), Vortipor was grey with age and his wife had died. A text called The expulsion of the Deisi indicates that the ruling clan here was of Irish origin and, if taken literally, it would suggest that Irish settlement in the area took place around 270 AD. However, there may well have been multiple waves of settlement. We are bordering on legendary sources now but Trffyn Talog born around 385, was supposed the son of Ad Brosc, the Deisi invader who married Gwledyr, the heiress of Dyfed. There are ogham texts in the area – including from Castell Dwyran – and a lot of Irish place names. Bear with me for one example.

This is Laugharne – one might even think of it as a defining site of Welsh identity, thanks to its association with Dylan Thomas. But that is not a Welsh name; indeed, in Welsh it is Talacharn. It was inside Cantref Gwarthaf, the largest of the seven cantrefi of Dyfed.

Gildas, as mentioned previously, is hardly an ardent fan of Vortipor, although ‘tyrant of the Demetians‘ does not necessarily have negative connotations.

Dumbarton Rock, Scotland

Constantine of Devon or of Alt Clud?

There is a real problem here around potential confusion here between the Dumnonii and the Damnonii. Undoubtedly, it will be a dialect variation of the same name – but one is in what will eventually become Stratchclyde. Adams does not even consider the possibility of a mix-up between Constantine of Devon and Constantine of Alt Clud on the grounds that Gildas specifically names Constantine, ‘the whelp of Dumnonia’. Or was it the ‘whelp of Damnonia’? Or does it even help at all?

Which of these two does Gildas mention? Bear in mind that Scotland, England, Wales – they are all non-concepts at this point!

But the idea of a Constantine in the South West does fit in with Welsh records and legends – Custennin ap Cado who was probably around between around 520 and 560 AD. Constantine may have inspired the tradition of Saint Constantine, a king turned monk. One might not have thought so according to Gildas, who accuses him of dressing up as an abbot to murder two royal youths. Constantine’s son, Geraint of the South, appears at the Battle of Catraeth (probably Catterick on the River Swale – the battle between the Gododdin and their wide array of British allies and Anglian Northumbria), traditionally set around 600 in Welsh tales, although this seems like a later attempt at pan-Welsh legitimisation?

Now, wait a second, because Adams has written about Catraeth before now. Constantine’s son might well have been around in 600 if Gildas were writing in the 540s and Constantine was in power then. It still seems a push, by the way. If we are going to push Gildas’ De Exidio back to say 490, that rules out any possibility that this is correct. It is critical too. Catraeth may have been of limited importance in itself, central place of a small polity Swalwe in British (hence Swaledale) / Cataractona in Latin – possibly both connected with rushing water at Richmond – but Gododdin’s defeat was so heavy that Northumbria simply expanded northwards all the way to the capital, Edinburgh.

The relevance of the Alt Clud area to Gildas cannot be ruled out either, especially in the light of the invasion of Maglocunus’ kingdom in 547 or whenever we are going to re-date it to!

Image by University of Dundee / Wales Online

Venedotia / Gwynedd in the immediate post-Roman period

Gwynedd sounds as though it could hardly be more Welsh, doesn’t it? Isn’t Gwyn, ‘white’?

Well, Gwynedd is not really that Welsh. The first part of the Latin is cognate with the Feni, a group from central Ireland. Initially, ‘Venedotia’ was probably only ascribed to Anglesey or the Mona area but came to cover over Irish-settled area in the North of Wales: the Gargani and the people of Leinster (Laighin) of Lleyn / Llŷn (the same name, in effect). So, actually, multiple peoples – but all the dominating classes from Ireland, perhaps married into the pre-existing substrate.

Maglocunus (Maelgwyn in Welsh) was probably the great grandson of Cunedda (and not his son) if we believe that the connection is not simply a cynical attempt to seize power. It does seem that the previous tribe in the area, the Ordovices, made serious attempts to rid themselves of the Irish.

Credit: Press Association

And Powys…?

Has Powys just been forgotten about by Bede’s time? Subsumed by its northern neighbours, it did not even merit a mention? Almost a Welsh version of Lindsey?

Or was its earlier importance obscured in his narrative because his sources from Wales were essentially maritime traders? So, he knew about Gwynedd and Dyfed but not really about the interior – which, is essence, defined Powys?

By Geni – Photo by user:geni, CC BY-SA 4.0, The Spong Man lid at Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery.

Earlier Germanic settlement than in the traditional narrative?

We can go a bit beyond the usual narrative from Bede and use some archaeological evidence to look at the earliest patterns of Germanic settlement. For example, the earliest Anglian settlement on Iceni territory looks to have been at Spong Hill, close to Launditch and Panworth Ditch, which may mark a frontline looking towards the Fens. The Fens were probably controlled in the immediate post-Roman period by either the Corieltauvi or the Catuvellauni. British inhumation material appears to be mixed in at Spong Hill. All this suggests that the Iceni recruited Germanic settlers in their need to defend themselves from their neighbours.

Similarly, amongst the Corieltauvi, there seem to have been early Germanic settlements along the frontiers with the Brigantes and the Parisii. This could, of course, be the initial foundation of the kingdom of Lindsey.

A reconsideration of dating?

“A mug’s game if ever there was one!”

That is how Adams describes exactly what I am trying to do here. But it is also somewhat auto-ironic. At least I haven’t bothered writing a 500 page book about this stuff!

But there is a serious side to this. It is about dating. There is one thing which would almost universally unite Stuart Laycock and most of his [predominantly, more scholarly-accepted] academic enemies: it’s that dating.

Let’s not get this wrong! Lots of people are going to miss this. We are not talking about whether the advent of the Saxons took place in 449 or 452 or mild frictions between sources written in Northumberland or Pembrokeshire.

We are talking about a potential complete rewriting of post-Roman and early English history.

What if we have got everything out of synch?

Perhaps it is time to throw Adams’ strangely-hammered spanner into the works? Because, if this is more than an ill-conceived mid-book moment of doubt, it is going to throw everything. If I were a reviewer and not especially interested in the period, I might not even get it!

But we really need to do …

What does the Adams re-dating look like?

Let us start with scuppering the work of Tolkien on Hengest’s identity – although there is no reason to stop at redating things only in Britannia. Hengest’s adventus is sifted more than 20 years further into the past to around the year 428. [Something in Gildas is nagging at me here: he clearly says that some of the Germanic invaders later left the island again – could Hengest have done?]

Under any other author, this would be the central tenet of the book. And it is not. It almost seems quietly slipped in as though he does not want that much press review coverage of it. But the implications are enormous. Let us not cast any decision upon it as yet!

The Altercation of Wallop: shifted to around 432. The critical thing here is that, whereas before this was a British-on-British battle in the midst of Germanic v British battles. It did actually sit very awkwardly. Now it might be more logically sequenced. But it is still not set apart.

The Battle of Badon Hill: now given an earliest possible date of 450. Let us just take that in: Badon – the westward holding battle – is fought at the point in time we have traditionally considered the Adventus. It is a mere 40 years after Rome officially ‘called it a day’ on Britannia – and that was very probably only meant to be temporary!

And, of course, the De Exidio is shifting with the landslide of dates as well. Adams suggests a front-stop date of 480.

So, the general vagueness aside, why would Adams doubt the traditional chronology? And I have started to as well – why?

Let us recall two twentieth century scenes in one European city: Berlin.

1945: Russian soldiers capture Berlin in the final play-out of WW2

An iconic photograph which I need to credit. Raising a Flag over the Reichstag, by Yevgeny Khaldei. By Source, Fair use, The photograph was reprinted in thousands of publications and came to be regarded around the world as one of the most significant and recognizable images of World War II. Owing to the secrecy of Soviet media, the identities of the men in the picture were often disputed, as was that of the photographer, Yevgeny Khaldei. It became a symbol of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany.

1989: The Berlin wall, symbol of the Cold War division of Europe, is breached

West and East German border guards find each other face to face after demonstrators pulled down one segment at the Brandenburg Gate on November 11, 1989. Associated Press/Lionel Cironneau

A four decade gap is a long time. It is especially a long time to forget. I get the feeling that Gildas has conveniently forgotten a few things. The Romans leave in 410 and nothing happens then until 450? It is a stretch, isn’t it? East Germany would almost have come and gone!

But let us return to Gildas. If Ambrosius Aurelianus’ parents had ‘worn the purple’, then they had clearly held high office in the very first years of the 400s at the latest. Let us just do the 25 years per generation thing – which is more dangerous over a short period than over a longer one in which matters tend to iron themselves out!

Historia Brittonum Section 66 has a weird entry. It places Ambrosius in conflict with Vitalinus in about the year 437! And there are all sorts of problems being raised about the relationship between Vitalinus and Vortigern. Is he his grandfather, predecessor, a bishop, simply his alternative name? Vitalinus is not mentioned by anyone else, anywhere else.

Table 1: Traditional and Adams new dating of the fifth century – key events

Traditional dateEventAdams’ chronologyEvent
410Honorius recalls last legions410Honorius recalls last legions
446Groan of the Britons to Aetius (3rd consulship)432Groan of the Britons to Aetius (1st consulship)
450Earliest possible date for Mount Badon
455 – 460sHengest v Vortigern across Kent
477Aelle lands in Sussex
480-500Gildas: De Exidio written
495Cerdic’s landing in Hampshire
c.500Central date for Mount Badon
c. 550Gildas: De Exidio written

Mount Badon is effectively shifted shifted from being after Hengest’s skirmishes with Vortigern in Kent, after the arrival of Aelle in Sussex and after the arrival of Cerdic in Wessex to being: before Aelle and Cerdic and, quite possibly, before the Hengest skirmishes as well.

OK, so Germanic characters get a blue colour to distinguish them.

Hengest – truly Vortigern’s mercenary?

Traditionally seen to have been fl. 440s – 470s but it is not clear whether we should shift these dates. Interestingly, Vortigern (if he existed, of course) in Nennius’ Historia invites the Saxon around 428.

For Laycock, Hengest fits into the mercenary mould very well. The Roman Army had become increasingly Germanicised so the British already knew about them from exactly this perspective. If Vortigern decided that he needed additional military muscle, then he probably would have naturally looked towards the Germanic lands.

Victorian image of ‘bothers’, Hengest & Horsa! Maybe it is worth noting that in parts of Northern Germany in the 19th Century, crossed gables were called, ‘Hengst und Hors’, almost exactly like the Ašvieniai of Lithuania. A little problem here is that the latter are almost certainly linked to the Dioscuri mythical brothers. Are Hengest and Horsa the same?

But was he real? Laycock seems to come down on the ‘Yes’ side, although whether he really had a brother called Horsa seems a bit less likely. Not only does he slip out the narrative rather rapidly, the name could also be some sort of poetic duplication, even an accidental one. Nevertheless, family did sometimes have to work together to aggregate power and in Germanic societies alliterative names were the norm.

Adams is unconvinced, of course. In the end, he does not even afford him an entry in the index! People do end up with animal names though, don’t they?

But perhaps the most obvious reason why Hengest seems unlikely to be a complete myth is that his actions do not seem especially mythical; they are what every warrior leader would have done. The confusion over the precise connection between Hengest and (the later) Oisc (Kentish for Aesc in standardised AS) may be telling as there is archaeological evidence for at least two waves of immigration into Kent in the fifth century. And the story about the latter having been posted up by the Wall? Well, who knows? It may sound far-fetched but it is possible. However, it cannot be the case that British control in Kent and in Northumberland was the same. That may not matter. Later misinterpretation may have coloured the narrative here.

Furthermore, it is actually unlikely that Hengest and his followers were the first recruited Germanic fighters in Kent – they are just remembered as the ones that went wrong for Vortigern! Archaeological evidence in the form of buckles found in Kent suggests that the style predates the Hengest period.

Therefore, did Vortigern have an earlier source of Germanic troops? Very probably – according to Laycock. So, why would he switch to Angles? Did he just copy the Catuvellauni to the north? Or was it more related to the fact that the whole of Belgium and Northern France was over-run by the Huns in 451? With a bit of playing around with data sources, that might almost fit the logic exactly.

… As long as you have still got the traditional chronology! Once you have not, all sorts of new questions arise and Tolkien’s association with Finnsburg looks a bit more suspect.

The Battle of Crayford – historically misunderstood?

Date in traditional chronology: 457

Crayford – Bing Maps

We are slightly concentrating on Crayford because Laycock insists that Wippedesfleote (Ebbsfleet?) is unlocatable and Adams has further different ideas. We cannot be clear as to which specific enemy Vortigern had in mind when he started doling out rations to Hengest’s men. Gildas implies that it was the Picts, which is possible but seems a bit odd. But, then again, we do know that tribes from the north were active. But Laycock floats some alternatives: the Catuvellauni or, perhaps, ‘to the west’ Ambrosius. Have we discounted the Picts as a possible enemy prematurely?

We have to ask ourselves how much weight we are willing to put on the Historia Brittonum’s four battles fought against Vortigern’s son, Vortimer. Are these the same four battles mentioned in the ASC? If so, then the fourth of them has a different outcome in the two sources. That is nothing new, of course! But it is also possible that the whole focus on Vortimer is an historical misunderstanding.

There is perhaps something telling here. When Crayford is over, the ‘unspecified British’ flee to London. Now, when the great geography pioneer, Ptolemy, was writing is the second century, London seems to have been a Cantiacian town. In that context the flight to London would have made some sense – an established town on the other side of the Thames.

But it was not the second century and Ptolemy was almost certainly out of date by this point. Unless, the Cantiaci had managed a considerable northern push-back, London was well and truly under Catuvellaunian control. So, did the Cantiaci really take refuge amongst their traditional enemies?

Or is there a lost truth, as Laycock argues, that Hengest’s battle at Crayford was not with Vortimer or the local ‘Kent’ population at all – but with the Catuvellauni? I get all the vagueness but the conclusion still feels a bit stretched – actually, more than that, like being tied to a rack!

Of course, this does not mean that Laycock is completely barking up the wrong tree; there is certainly a really weird situation in Kent at the time. However, he only has to have ONE thing wrong and all this is wrong!

Even he seems to know this as, for luck, he throws in a few other alternatives such as this: Vortigern and Hengest are fighting but the local Cantiaci are on Hengest’s side as they view him as a liberator against the ‘Dobunnic’ Vortigern.

What about the incredibly unlikely-named Rowena? Well, her name is never mentioned until the twelfth century so she sounds like a bit of Mediaeval imagination.

The Battle for Religion

Although it changes the issues only marginally, let us assume that Adams is right at that Gildas was writing in, say, the 490s rather than the mid-sixth century. We know that the Christian Church survived in Western Britain. But in Central and Eastern Britain, there seems to be another story. And it is a story that cannot be wholeheartedly put down to Germanic invaders. There is a ‘reversion’ story lurking…

Both Wales and the South West have plenty of evidence of continuation with copious memorials to presbyters. It may be no coincidence that they strong links with Ireland with the monuments often being both in Latin and Ogham script. It may well have been in the early part of the fifth century that the West and the East became rather separate culturally – but not necessarily because of the degree of Germanic influence. The South West of England seems to have been dominated by personal devotion sponsored saints who are otherwise obscure. Why though? West of Exeter there is virtually no evidence of Roman influence or even really of ‘Roman bothering’ over the previous three centuries. Recall Chysauster?

Further east, in the newly-founded Saxon / Anglian / Jutish kingdoms, even in the following century, the Church from abroad would be treated as a warband – and it seemed to know this.

Assuming that Adams’ chronology is broadly correct, it looks as though the Church did not survive very long at all east of the Central Britain. Gildas has a bit of a go at the British for not converting the ‘Saxons’ but, in reality it looks like they did not keep to the faith themselves. Gildas wants to make this an issue about the ‘tyrants’ but none of this rings true.

Perhaps there were parts of Southern Britain that were very heavily Christianised – but were these confined to areas where a particular social strata had played a major role in colonial times? And were they essentially urban / ‘civilised rural’ areas?

Did Rome – or its British representatives – care what people were worshipping out in places such as Wasperton? They had their little centres in Uley and Bath.

Are these moments just fragmented shards of pre-occupation beliefs, or should we look to isotope analysis and conclude that these ideas were imported from somewhere else – not Greater Germania but, perhaps Spain / Portugal? Excavations immediately adjacent to Dorchester-on-Thames in Oxfordshire have yielded the same Iberian connection.

A religious sub-stratum?

A dozen miles downriver from Wasperton, past the mill at Hampton Lucy and the Charlecote Estate, on through Shakespeare’s Stratford and out the other side, round the great loop around Welford, we find Bidford on Avon. Located in the South West corner of Warwickshire, it can still make some claim to be in the Midlands but the Avon is headed for the Severn at Tewkesbury and the core Hwiccan Territories that would later be a point of dispute between Mercia and emergent Wessex and, indeed, this area of Warwickshire was almost certainly part of Hwicca.

But, at this point in history, it seems to be just far enough east to have ditched Christianity in favour of something more elemental. And, remember, Wasperton shows no Germanic inculcation in its isotope analysis – a few miles south west there is even less reason to come to such a conclusion.

In 1971, during the modifications to a car park for an Indian restaurant, some 100m north of the bridge over the river, archaeologists made a strange discovery. They had known since the 1920s that this was an important cemetery place for early ‘Anglo-Saxons’. Using established dates (i.e. quite possibly wrong) a lady who had died c. 500 – 525 AD was discovered in the car park.

She went through a phase of being identified as ‘Germanic’ – probably because her faith looks a bit ‘un-British’? She was buried with some intriguing objects, which – rightly or wrongly – have given her the label, ‘the cunning woman’. ‘Cunning‘ means that you have a knowledge of things.

In one of the graves excavated at Bidford on Avon an unusual collection of grave goods was discovered. This has led to the theory that the woman may have been a ‘cunning’ or ‘wise woman’. Copyright – Windows on Warwickshire

Between her brooches was a necklace of 39 beads of red, green and yellow glass, amber and gold-in-glass. To this was added what might have been the tools of her trade. Across her back was a kind of leather bib to which was sewn a dozen tiny bronze buckets with curved handles. By her right hip was a big bag and next to it a sharp knife with a stubby blade and a long decorated bone handle.

If this is merely over an 80 year period, one has to ask the obvious question: to what extent were British tribes truly Christian prior to 410? And what replaced Christianity during the fifth century?

Putting aside only for a moment the fact that the name does not look ‘Germanic’ at all! And we are going to bring his son as well.

Cerdic the West ‘Saxon’ who was probably really Caradog

Traditionally supposed to have fl. 520s – supposedly died 534. Who knows for sure?

Note above that we are now looking at a character from decades later, although we perhaps now have carte blanche to start shifting things around by decades? But I think the important thing is that Cerdic and Cynric (who initially sounds a bit more Germanic until you realise that it might just e a rendering of Cunorix), supposedly father and son or, perhaps, father and grandson, are just two vaguely remembered names from an otherwise totally obscure period of West Saxon history.

Make no mistake though – Cerdic is a major figure in the ASC – so major that he actually manages to arrive twice. But he may not have ‘arrived’ at all as Cerdic is essentially the same name as Caradog, Ceredig or Caractacus – i.e. not hugely Saxon! Descent from Cerdic was to become a necessary precondition for later kings of Wessex. And yet we can’t even get his son right? This does still sort of matter: the present monarch claims descent from him (and, indeed, from the god, Woden).

Furthermore, my take from the ‘double arrival’ is that this is a constructed narrative and nothing more, subsequently appended to Anno Domini dates. Adams suggests that it is some sort of messy compromise between two competing narratives.

But there is another name lurking behind all this – and it is the name of a people who lived in the Upper Thames reaches around Dorchester, Wittenham and Abingdon: the Gewisse. By Bede’s time (i.e. the time we start getting written information) being Gewisse and being West Saxon are interchangeable concepts. They probably did not start out as being such.

There was an eponymous hero-ancestor for the Gewisse called… Giwis, who is quietly inserted into the dynastic histories of the House of Wessex. But what on Earth is this name?

The Upper Thames is – surprisingly – one of the highest concentrations of sixth century finds in England. The Gewisse’s origins are now lost and merely the subject of random speculation in many cases. But the Swedish etymologist, Ekwall, took a considerable interest in the name, suggesting that the similarity of the neighbouring territory which emerged after the Battle of Dyrham, the Hwicce might not be a co-incidence. The Hwicce were to emerge as a point of dispute between Wessex and Mercia, being absorbed into the latter but maintaining some degree of semi-autonomous status for a while, almost as though they were some remnant of the former Dobunnic kingdom. But the etymological connections are difficult.

There is a perfectly logical Germanic root making these people, ‘in the know’, skilled etc. Nevertheless, it was clearly a critical identity for Wessex.

Garnet inlaid composite disc brooch found at West Henney, between Wantage and Oxford.
Copyright – Oxfordshire Museums

Other than the initial skirmishes in southern Hampshire, the battles of Chartford (near Salisbury) and Barbury Castle (near Marlborough) broadly mark out the former territories of the Atrebatic peoples. Of course, Laycock is still claiming that Aurelianus is defending Atrebatic territories. Therefore, he makes a significant play of the relatively swift switch to Anglo-Saxon habits in this part of Southern Britain in the first half of the sixth century.

Barbury Castle on the ancient route – even very ancient during the so-called Dark Ages – between White Horse Hill and Avebury. [Own photo]. This may or may not have been the critical battle site between Atrebatia and the Dobunni? It is certainly a great place for a walk on a Sunday morning after sleeping in Swindon the previous night. A few miles takes you centuries back!

Laycock claims that the Atrebatans brought in Germanics to aid them in local disputes – supposedly primarily against the Dobunni / Bodunni. However, he admits that the Battle of Chartford is as likely to have been against the Durotriges. Indeed, he even admits that with the exception of Barbury (and even this could be disputed) most of the battles could have been against Durotrigan forces.

There is almost nothing worse on a walk than encountering a DRONE. But let us put that aside – from above, this location is even more incredible (if that is possible)!

In the context of a potential dispute against the Durotriges, he does mention one of the most amazing monuments in the entire area: Bokerley Dyke.

Bokerley Dyke – now part of an important nature reserve, known especially for its butterfly population – still forms a defensive boundary between the counties of Hampshire & Dorset. [Own photo – there are a couple of barrows there as well, which make good vantage points!]

The Battle of Dyrham (Deorham), 577

If we cannot accept other AD dates, then we will hardly be able to accept without argument the date of a battle which many archaeologists have doubted ever took place. This feels like historical ‘infill’ of a forgotten era as well. That is not going to stop Laycock…

He claims that his thesis that the West Saxons were essentially operating as defenders of Atrebatic territories is confirmed by the next major battle, this time under Ceawlin’s leadership at Dyrham, outside Bath.

Deorham 577AD.jpg
Earthworks around Hinton Hill just north of Dyrham
By Aetheling1125 at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,

As usual, I am trying to keep my mind open. If this was an area of conflict, then he could simply have seized the opportunity to expand from Wessex into the Cotswolds. But I think one of the most interesting aspects is the named ‘three kings’. Laycock suggests that they are not really kings but military leaders. They are supposed to be associated with three specific localities but I cannot help but wonder whether there is not the beginnings of some co-operation going on, given the strategic importance of the site.

By the way, I do not want to overdo the strategic importance of the site. It looks to us as though the Britons of the West Country and those of Wales were separated at this point – and hence, Welsh and Cornish began to go their own linguistic ways. But that might be largely an illusion.

Firstly, the fastest way from Devon (Dyfnaint in Welsh or Dewnens in Modern Cornish) to Dyfed was really not via the Cotswolds, it was over the sea. Land transport speeds have accelerated massively in the intervening period; sea transport speeds somewhat less so! Therefore, losing the land transport route was not a complete disaster.

The other consideration is that, whilst there may have been some links between Dyfnaint and Dyfed – and even to Gwent – people in Devon were no more likely to see the Dobunni as ‘one of us’ than they were to see a people from Northern Germany as that.

And now we are off to Sussex…

The Seven Sisters (or at least some of them) with Belle Tout lighthouse beyond
Own photo – The Seven Sisters, Sussex. This is a string of chalk cliffs and dry valleys where the South Downs fall into the English Channel. Far whiter than the cliffs around Dover (and often is used in films to proxy them), is this where England really starts?

And I think that, before we bring in Saxon warlords, we start with a brief commentary on Roman Sussex, which may have been critical in the (now lost) complete narrative of the initial invasion.

Roman West Sussex

Importantly, Wealden Kent and Sussex are specifically excluded from Adams’ ‘Inner Britannia’, despite being obviously to the south and east of the Ouse-Parrett line. The Weald presented Rome with unexpected challenges with the core lands. The only comparable challenge in the South East was the Fens.

The route of Stane Street – still visible in many places both in terms of footpaths and also a substantial section of the A29 between the Roman station near Slinfold through Billingshurst and Pulborough – has two major Roman villas just off it.

The first of these is Bignor, first discovered in 1811. It did not really flourish until the second half of the 200s, reaching its zenith perhaps around 350 – after which it seems to have gone in to gradual decline over a fifty year period.

These links are for the visitor after Covid-19 and would make a brilliant last day in Southern England, especially for a flight from nearly Gatwick:

Bignor Roman Villa Logo

For Fishbourne go to

In contrast, Fishbourne has an unusually early date, probably going back to a couple of decades after the invasion. This is the biggest Roman villa so far discovered north of the Alps, comparable in size to the Villa Romana at Piazza Armerina on Sicily or Nero’s Golden House in the imperial capital.

But Stane Street tells us something … that the links between Sussex and Londinium are very focused on the routes across the west of the county. Strangely that west-east split dominates Sussex through the Mediaeval period and then re-emerges in the 1970s.

But the East…?

Aelle and the Sussex identity

Reference to the leader of the South Saxons, Aelle, in Bede is not only brief, it is also puzzling. Bede’s commentary would appear to cover the period between 477 and 490. It is strange that Bede claims that Aelle was the first Anglo-Saxon king to hold imperium over all territories south of the Humber – which is not quite the claim but we will come back to that at the end. The ASC also calls him Bretwalda.

Very probably at this stage, all this means is that he held greater sway than any other Anglo-Saxon. There is certainly no archaeological evidence that he gained control of large territories – indeed, there is lots of evidence of continued fragmentation. But even that he should outclass Hengest is odd.

Let us take things at face value – the way that they are presented to us.

By Robert Furley – A History of The Weald of Kent with an outline of the Early History of the County, Volume I. by Robert Furley, F.S.A. here, Public Domain,
Andreadswald takes its name from the Latin name for the Saxon Shore fortress at Pevensey. Perhaps nowadays we think of the Weald being further inland but it came all the way up to Pevensey. Note how the far west of Sussex around Chichester and Bignor was largely unaffected by the forest and had access to the London area via the Roman road of Stane Street. In contrast, for centuries, the Weald was known for having a different population from surrounding areas as it was so difficult to access.

Is Aelle a myth? The evidence from the South Downs

Bede may have thought him to be a real person – but then he also thought him to be Bretwalda. Accidentally, he also seems to have the same name as the founder of Bede’s own kingdom.

But if we follow Laycock’s ‘eastern border’ hypothesis then east of the Ouse we should find some evidence of a sharp switch in cultural practices around 480.

East of the Ouse there are a range of Anglo-Saxon early cemeteries: Selmeston, Alfriston, Jevington, Bishopstone, Eastbourne. The last of these was the subject of a Durham University isotope analysis, which – although small scale – suggests that we might have been lied to at some point.

Hughes, Millard et al. find that the people in the Eastbourne burials are probably pre-450. According to history, they should not even be here! There are subsequent waves of settlement because these are a male / female mix and with little sign of weaponry. There is genetic mixing with little sign of segregation, although it should be noted that the immigrant population appears to have been considerably less wealthy than the base population.

So, if Aelle was massacring people in Pevensey, news of it did not seem to spread very far. Furthermore, the women analysed show a mix of people who had barely moved more than a few villages to those who had grown up on the Continent.

Isotopic analysis of burials from the early Anglo-Saxon cemetery at  Eastbourne, Sussex, U.K. - ScienceDirect

Was Aelle some type of Bretwalda after all? Or his son?

It is possible if there is a bit of date mix-up. Unfortunately, we can hardly pretend that we have not heard this before!

Otherwise, it is possible that his son, Cissa, was. Aelle is mentioned to have had three sons with him: Cissa, Cymen and Wlencing. It is conceivable that the latter two are inventions to explain difficult names in the area. But Cissa (after whom Chichester may be named; the first part of the name should sound like ‘cheese’) may well have been a real character.

In the early sixth century there is definitely a change. Anglo-Saxon settlements in the South East cease only to be around civitas border zones and start to encompass far broader zones. This may well be the point at which the former kingdom of the Regni technically becomes Sussex – although perhaps not so much really changed!

It is not clear whether a new wave of immigration was somehow involved. In Sussex, there is a clear shift from East to West. But it may be more significant still; it may be the origin of Bede’s Bretwalda story.

The early sixth century also saw the expansion of Jutish settlement. But, whereas one might have expected this to be in territories immediately adjacent to Kent, it was not; it was in South Hampshire and the Isle of Wight (although the former may never have become independent kingdoms in the Meon Valley and New Forest. Of course, it is possible that the Jutes just sailed from Kent and found a convenient bit of land – the Isle of Wight could indeed have been strategically useful. But the story may have other elements.

The ‘other elements’ revolve around why they specifically avoided settling anywhere in Sussex.

Laycock suggests two possibilities, leaning slightly towards the latter:

1.) Cissa (or Aelle if the dates can possibly be that wrong) was by then dominating Kent as well. He was able to shift Jutish troops to his western frontier. Remember that there is no Anglo-Saxon settlement to the west of Bokerley Dyke at this point.

2.) The Atrebatic / Belgic authorities in Hampshire, concerned about the sudden expansionism of Sussex, brought in Jutish troops to help them.

Why does Laycock lean towards the second explanation? Because of a distinctive type of fullered spearhead, Swanton I1.

Parts of South Hampshire would remain contested for centuries (Wulfhere of Mercia in the late seventh century gives these areas to Sussex – implying that they had been under Wessex). But the writing was on the wall for Sussex – and it was the wall on their western boundary. In 607 Sussex and Wessex appear to have gone to war. Ceolwulf of Wessex, grandson of Cynric, seems to have managed to incorporate Sussex into Wessex for the first time. From then on, Wessex was on the rise and Sussex was already on its way to becoming the couple of provincial authorities it is today.

Fine – but did Aelle or Cissa get any further?

There is an immediate problem. No Anglo-Saxon source ever claimed that Cissa was ever king. That has to wait until Henry of Huntingdon and Roger of Wendover. The latter claims that Cissa died in 590 – which seems a bit of a stretch for someone who was in the initial invasion force of 477.

All this smacks of more compression and the filling of gaps. And, it gets worse because, whether Cissa was ever king or not, we don’t know of any other South Saxon kings for more than a century.

Another language in South East England?

Celtic expansion in Europe.png
By QuartierLatin1968,The Ogre,Dbachmann; derivative work Rob984. – Derived from File:Celts in Europe.png, omission of the early modern stage. Sources for data: See File talk:Celts in Europe.png, CC BY-SA 4.0, Celtic expansion in Europe.

I would have loved to say that there was now evidence for my pet theory that ‘Atrebatic’ may have been spoken in significant parts of Southern England. There is not.

But there is evidence for another language – what Peter Schrijver, a real expert on Celtic languages, has christened ‘Lowland Celtic’. You will note that he has not called it Lowland Brythonic. That is because it appears to be far more similar to proto-Irish.

See: Celtic influence on Old English: phonological and phonetic evidence (2009)

[Account required]

Nobody seems to want to quite face up to this. But the sources are clear that in the last half century of Roman rule in Britannia, the country was under attack from Scotti and Attacotti. And, strange as it may sound, not just the North either! They would probably have spoken dialects of Irish. [The Scotti are the Gaels in Latin whilst the Attacotti are rather more controversial.] Pictish groups also seem to have been part of this and we cannot be quite sure about their language / languages. Fused with existing patterns of speech, was this the lingua franca of South East Britannia at the time of the Adventus?

I was also expecting to see something about the ‘useless DO’ but the period of influence has seemed to be all wrong for some time.

[‘Useless do’ appears in Welsh and Modern English but is unusual…

Parlez-vous français? Non, je ne parle pas français

Sprechen Sie Französisch? Nein, ich spreche kein Französisch

Czy Pan mówi po francusku? Nie, nie mówię po francusku

BUT: DO you speak French? No, I DON’T speak French

YDYCH CHI’N siarad Ffrangeg? Na, nid wyf yn siarad Ffrangeg.]

A conclusion and the unsolved problem of ‘Suðanhymbre’

By Hel-hama – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

We think we have a reasonably good idea of what Bede meant when he speaks of Northumbria. But what of when he speaks of ‘Southumbria’? That is more problematic.

The assumption is generally that it refers to all the regions South of the Humber – that is to say including Mercia, East Anglia, Kent, Sussex, Wessex etc. But, if it does mean that, it probably did not start out meaning that.

The ASC refers to Coenred as having become the King of the Southumbrians in 702, two years before he became King of Mercia. The fact that Coenred was the son of Wulfhere might be seen to imply that Southumbria was a sub-kingdom of Mercia.

But I think it is more of a contested area. Because the period of ‘compression’ in which founders found and live almost as long as Noah, saw the rise, thriving and, seemingly, collapse, of another state. And so we almost return here to the Witham Shield with which we began. As mentioned in part 1 of the Mercian timeline, the early Mercian, Cearl, hangs under the legacy of the unfathomable, Creoda. He is never given the title of king and many scholars doubt his existence. But there is an additional bit of pure speculation. Lindsey had a king called Cretta. Now, the sound created by the name, Creoda, rhymes with ‘feeder’. Are these the same kings with different orthographies?

In 1987 I travelled from Berkshire to see at exhibition in the rather unlikely Scunthorpe. It seems almost forgotten about now, being from a pre-Web era.

By Antbex74 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Phillips (1934) said that, ‘The history of
Lindsey during the Pagan Anglo-Saxon period is very obscure’
. Obscure, maybe – but critical. For the last of the kings of Lindsey (or the Lindisfaras – Lindisfarne was possibly settled from this region orginally) is recorded as Aldfrið, whose ancestry does the usual thing of going back to Woden and then beyond back to Geot (Geat).

Metalwork finds have provided important evidence of links with the West of Britain early in the period. Most important are the hanging bowls, which occur in greater numbers in Lincolnshire than anywhere else in England. Does this make any logical sense?

I think what is going on here is essentially a vacuum in the centre of a political compression – which was especially important to Northumbria. Southumbria officially ceased to exist.

But it had done and would, almost undoubtedly, have had links across the North Sea. I think this area established itself as one in contrast to the opposite side, distinctive in itself and known pre-Conquest as the Parisii – unique in Britain in terms of cart burials.

I think that the critical interactions between Brythonic and Germanic peoples took place in this area – possibly very early, even before Rome had finally given up on Britannia.

And, although Laycock is hardly enthusiastic about the idea of an historical Arthur, one of the obscure possibilities he does set out: is Arthur of Linnuis.

If Bede was confused by different usages of the word, Southumbrian, then it would be fair to say that his misunderstanding has warped comprehension of the immediately post-Roman period ever since.

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