Vortigern: Regional Warlord, Not Britannia-Wide

Vortigern is typically thought of as ruler of all of (sub) Roman Britain through the middle half the fifth century. In reality, this is most implausible. When the Roman Legions left in 409, Britain has been divided into four Provinces for over a century; there is no evidence behind the unification assumption.

As Roman power weakened, prevalent conditions in western Europe pulled towards small kingdoms. Only from the seventh century onwards did Britain’s small kingdoms start to habitually become overrun by bigger ones.

It is surely significant that historical evidence linked to Vortigern and his son Vortimer identifies several battles against Saxons in Kent, one of which resulted in a retreat to London, concessions to Saxon control (at different times) of Thanet, all of Kent, and Sussex and Essex, and a victory over Britonnic rival Ambrosius at Wallop in Hampshire; but that the only other recorded location of either political or military activity for Vortigern or Vortimer is Belgium, where, having driven the Saxons out of Britain completely, Vortimer arrived with 10,000 men and was disastrously defeated. (This expedition in c468 makes Vortimer, I suggest, the prime candidate for the mysterious Riothamus, “Thames king”.)

This geographical pattern is indicative of the area controlled by Vortigern having been the Province of Maxima Caesariensis. There is room for argument about that Province’s exact boundaries – I argue that the northern boundary was close to that of present-day Oxfordshire and Northamptonshire and thence to the Wash, see my post of 31st March 2013 on “Gildas’s 28 Cities”, [1] – but certainly the major part of the Province was all the parts of Britain just mentioned.

Another sign pointing in the same direction is that although Vortigern won the Battle of Wallop in 428, the record says he remained afraid of Ambrosius. This only makes coherent sense if Ambrosius had a power base elsewhere in Britain than Vortigern’s and substantial enough for him to be a threat to Vortigern.

Nothing is directly known about this Ambrosius. What is known is that according to Gildas, half a century later another Ambrosius, Ambrosius Aurelianus, became a powerful leader somewhere in Britain; and that at the time of Gildas’s writing, c530, his grandson Cynan was a king in western Britain. Combining the works of Gildas and Taliesin enables Cynan’s kingdom to be identified as Powys, which was the successor state to the Roman civitas (city-district) centred on Wroxeter. It approximately corresponded to Staffordshire, Shropshire, Cheshire, Montgomeryshire, and Radnorshire. Another scion of this family prominent in the historical record is the sixth century Christian leader Pol Aurelian, who studied at St. Illtyd’s seminary at Llan Illtyd Fawr (now Glamorgan; then in the Kingdom of Gwent), strengthened the structure of the Old Church at Glastonbury Abbey, and founded the monastery at Leon, Brittany, where he became known as St. Pol de Leon. Considering this geographical provenance in his lineage, it is a reasonable possibility that the Ambrosius who was a forbear of these Aurelians and a potential threat to Vortigern was a, perhaps the primary, ruler in western Britannia, i.e. of the Province of Britannia Prima. Roman Britannia Prima included everything from the civitas of Wroxeter and those of Cirencester, Ilchester, and Dorchester, westwards.

Place names derived from Ambrosius[2] are suggestive of Ambrosius Aurelianus’s spheres of governance and of combat. Several are in Britannia Prima: one in SE Wales; others in the southeast of the province – Worcestershire, and Amberley near Stroud. One, Amesbury, is just on the Maxima side of the provincial boundary which ran across Salisbury Plain. These scattered ‘Ambros’ place names are consistent with the supposition that Ambrosius’s powerbase was the Aurelian heartland of Britannia Prima.

Several other Ambros- names form a line running more-or-less SW to NE from Amersham. By the time Ambrosius Aurelianus came to power (in 479 according to one of the Irish annals), most of the former Province of Maxima Caesariensis had passed into Saxon control. The exceptions were the Silchester civitas (approximately north Hampshire and pre-1974 Berkshire), which emerges into post-Roman history as the ambiguously Saxo-Britonnic kingdom of the Gewissae – cf my identifying the true location of Netley and Cerdic’s earliest conquests on the north bank of the Thames near Oxford in my post of 7th June 2014 ; and the civitas-becoming-kingdom of the tribe known to the Romans as the Catuvellauni[3].

This kingdom is known later on as Calchfynydd in Welsh, and as Cilternsaetna in Anglian English, its name recorded in the Mercian Tribal Hidage of c672; both words denote ‘the people of the chalk hills’, i.e. the Chilterns. It was a substantial kingdom ruled by Britonnic kings until it was defeated at the Battle of Bedford in 571; it will have been reduced to at most a rump by the further defeat in 580 at Bannaventa (the Roman walled town near Weedon Bec in Northamptonshire) when King Cadog was slain.

It may be that Ambrosius Aurelianus and these two Britonnic kingdoms worked together in the 480s to contain Anglo-Saxon expansion. The Ambros place-names are along what could well have been the western edge of the English kingdoms of Essex (which included London and can be presumed to have also included what later became Middlesex) and East Anglia, which is suggestive of a line of defence and boundary between those English-controlled territories and Calchfynydd, a boundary which Ambrosius Aurelianus successfully held militarily; a boundary in due course agreed by treaty and respected for the first 70 years of the sixth century.[4]

Besides western Britannia being Aurelian territory and not Vortigern’s, there is also a good indication that another of the four Provinces was not under Vortigern’s suzerainty. There are king-list genealogies in the text Bonedd y Gwyr Gogledd (the Descent of the Men of the North) for various successor kingdoms in what in the fourth century had been Britannia Secunda, the northern Province which included everywhere between Hadrian’s Wall and the Trent except East Yorkshire and (probably) Nottinghamshire. They are all headed by Coel Hen (the king immortalised in nursery rhyme as Old King Cole) and Keneu. The inference is that for a few decades after 409 those two kings held some degree of sovereignty over the whole Province, before kingdoms such as Rheged (based at Carlisle) and Elmet (based at York) became fully separated and de-facto autonomous. None of these genealogies mention Vortigern.

The remaining Province was the relatively small Flavia Caesariensis, which I argue [28 Cities] approximated to East Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, easternmost parts of Staffordshire and Warwickshire, Leicestershire, and Lincolnshire. There is brooch evidence of early Anglian warrior presence within this area, but no battles recorded by either Britonnic or Anglo-Saxon sources. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, the hypothesis that the Province passed peacefully into Angle control, maybe indeed as early as before 440[5], has to be considered credible. The lack of disruption to agricultural practises shown by archaeological exploration at Hessle in East Yorkshire supports the peaceful transition hypothesis.

As has often been said, an absence of evidence is not convincing evidence of absence, least of all in a period as thin on evidence of anything as the fifth century. Nevertheless, three important patterns – the record of Vortigern’s battles and political actions across one Province, Maxima Caesariensis; the absence of evidence of any activities by him in Britannia’s other three civilian Provinces; and the presence of evidence in two of those Provinces of other men in control, and the hint, at least, of Saxon control in the third – point in one direction only. The rational inference is that Vortigern was supreme ruler – in the Roman structure the de-facto Provincial Governor – of Maxima Caesariensis, and only of Maxima Caesariensis.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] My analysis puts East Anglia and the Fens in Maxima. I know of no reason to suppose that Vortigern’s rule extended to those two civitates; it may be that they became effectively Anglo-Saxon ruled within a generation of thedeparture of the Legions.

[2] See Morris, The Age of Arthur, map p101.

[3] Or at any rate, most of it. The Roman civitas capital St. Albans and the nearby town of Hertford may have become Anglicised long before the rest of the civitas’s territory including Northamptonshire, Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire and part of Oxfordshire fell under Anglian rule.

[4] Morris’s map also shows three Ambros place-names in Sussex and one in Kent. These do not fit tidily into any theory. Perhaps Ambrosius Aurelianus won battles in those areas.

[5] The Gallic Chronicle of c441 said that Britannia had ‘passed into the hands of the Saxons’. This date is thorny for historians because of Vortigern’s granting rule over Thanet to the Saxon Hengist, after Aetius’s failure to send troops to his aid in 446. That event was presented both by Gildas and by Bede, drawing on Kentish sources, as momentous, not because Saxon warriors like Hengist helping a ruler of Britons was new – they’d been doing so for a century or two – but because the concession of Thanet was seen as the first bit of Anglo-Saxon rule over part of what was to become England, and the thin end of a wedge: thirty years later, all of SE England was under Saxon rule.

Maybe, though, 446 was the watershed “Coming of the Saxons” ONLY in the south-eastern districts ruled by Vortigern. Beyond doubt the Chronicle’s statement was an exaggeration: neither the documentary nor the archaeological evidence suggests any areas of Anglo-Saxon control in two of Britain’s four Provinces at that time, Britannia Prima and Britannia Secunda.

Equally though, I know of no reason to suspect the highly-respected Chronicler of writing nonsense. The region most likely to have been already under Anglo-Saxon control by 440 is the eastern coastal counties from East Yorkshire through Lincolnshire to the Peterborough area and East Anglia, plus lands on either side of the lower Trent, which was the Angles’ original ‘Mierce’ (meaning: borderland, c.f. modern German maerchenland), so named long before ‘Mercia’ came to mean a large Midland kingdom. This region includes West Stow (near Bury St Edmunds), the site of a reconstructed Anglo-Saxon village which is indicated to have been in that location in 440; it also includes Hessle. Two-thirds of it had been in Flavia Province.

How Roman Britain Became England

How Britannia Became English

Educated British people are generally aware that for centuries up until about 400CE, England and Wales south of Hadrian’s Wall was Roman Britain, or Britannia, and that in the following centuries it fell into the hands of the Anglo-Saxons. What is much less well grasped is how that transition took place, or when.

The first key to a clearer understanding of that process is the political structure of Roman Britain in 400. Britain was divided into four distinct Provinces, and history took fundamentally different course in each of them over the quarter-millennium after the Roman legions evacuated in 409.

Each Province in turn was comprised of a number of civitates, districts for local governance, about the size of two counties. The seminal event of 409 was that the leaders of the civitates rebelled, demanding freedom from the burden of Roman taxation. The Roman Emperor Honorius could not spare troops to put down the rebellion, because the Empire was hard-pressed by Germanic invaders from across the Rhine frontier into Gaul (France and the Rhineland). So he withdrew his legions from Britain and told the civitates to defend themselves.

Twice afterwards, in 418 and in 429, Rome sent forces to Britain to aid Roman Britons fighting against raiders from beyond its borders, with some successful effect; but when aid was asked for again in 446, the Roman General Aetius ignored the request, again essentially because his forces were already stretched beyond capacity trying to defend Gaul.

 

Britannia Secunda

In two of the Provinces, Britannia Prima (Wales and the West), and Britannia Secunda (the North), the civitates did see to their own defences thoroughly and effectively, and with little or no contribution from foreigners. Military logistics of the fifth century were favourable for autonomous governance units the size of a civitas.

The four civitates of Britannia Secunda, plus tribal lands that had been divided from them by Hadrian’s Wall with military but not sociological logic,morphed over the following century into three kingdoms, all of which feature strongly in later history: Rheged (approximately Ayrshire, Dumfries-and-Galloway, Cumbria, and maybe Lancashire); Gododdin (Lothian, the Borders, Northumberland and Durham); and Elmet (North, West, and South Yorkshire, the Derwent valley of Derbyshire, and probably northern Nottinghamshire north of Sherwood). Elmet appears to have combined the small civitas of York with the much larger one surrounding it whose Roman city was Aldborough. All three kingdoms were ruled by successions of Roman British, i.e. Celtic, kings. Britain’s most famous bard Taliesin wrote poems in praise of two of these kings, Urien of Rheged and Gwallawg of Elmet, in the third quarter of the sixth century. Urien temporarily extended Rheged’s boundaries eastwards across north Yorkshire at that time.

Undoubtedly, for well over a century after the departure of the Roman legions, the territory that had been Britannia Secunda remained in the control of kings who were Celtic British by tribe and culture, influenced by a slowly fading Romanised past. But in approximately 547, the English warrior-king Ida disturbed the far north by occupying and fortifying Bamburgh and conquering a coastal part of the Gododdin kingdom as his Kingdom of Bernicia. This initiated a half-century of skirmish warfare, highlighted by the British defenders calling their English enemy leader in the 570s “Fflamdwyn”, “Fire-Setter”. As of 580, the English had been driven out of all except their coastal fortress.

The tide turned, though, and over the next fifteen years or so a new kingdom of Northumbria, formed by a union of Deira (East Yorkshire, see below) and Bernicia, conquered most of Britannia Secunda east of the Pennines. York fell in 581; Catraeth (Maiden Castle near Catterick), famously, probably in the 590s. Rheged remained independent until 633, and culturally, especially religiously, influenced its English-speaking neighbour either side of 620, when Rum was king of Rheged and Edwin of Northumbria. In 633, however, the male line of Rheged’s dynasty failed and the kingdom merged with Northumbria by royal marriage of Rheged’s daughter.

 

Britannia Prima

Looking next at Britannia Prima, the Roman Province south of the Mersey and west of a line from the Staffordshire Moorlands to the Hampshire Avon and Bournemouth, as in Secunda, the civitates morphed into kingdoms, and their considerable sense of British cultural unity did not translate into any political unity. On the contrary, small-scale inter-kingdom fighting became normal. It would be misleading to call western Britain “Roman Britain” any more by the mid-sixth century, these former civitates that were fully independent and squabbling kingdoms with no governance links beyond their borders and no Roman empire to link to anyway, but the term “sub-Roman” can be used with fair justification, for their elite were Romanised in cultural style, wrote (when they did) in Latin, and kept up strong trade links to Byzantium.

There is evidence of several areas near the western coast becoming conquered or heavily influenced by Irish intruders. There is none of any area that had been part of Britannia Prima coming under English control prior to 577. The Great Raid of 473 broke into the Cirencester civitas; in 490 King Arthur of Lindinis (mostly Somerset) won a famous victory over English invaders at the Battle of the Badonic Hill, i.e. the hill in the small Spa civitas of Bath; for the next eighty years, the kings of western Britain were at peace with their English neighbours.

But in 577 the agriculturally rich kingdom of the people known to the Romans as the Dobunni was lost at the Battle of Dyrham. Its area, covering all of Gloucestershire and Worcestershire east of the Severn, West Midlands County, and western parts of Oxfordshire and Warwickshire, plus the petty kingdom that had been the Spa civitas for Bath, became the English kingdom of the Hwicce (whose name is remembered by place-names such as Wychavon, Wychwood, and Bromwich). Very slowly, more territory came under English rule in the next one and a half centuries or so, with notable English battle victories at Chester in 611, Pengwern (?Shrewsbury; in ?634), Bradford-on-Avon in 652, Penselwood in south-east Somerset (?South Cadbury, a.k.a. Camelot) in 658, and Somerton in 733. However, the Westcountry west of the Parrett, western Herefordshire and Wales remained under the rule of British kings into at least the ninth century.

 

Flavia Caesariensis

By contrast, in the Province of Flavia Caesariensis, which comprised approximately East Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, Leicestershire, a little of eastern Warwickshire, and parts of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, such little evidence as there is is consistent with a wholly peaceful transition from Roman to English rule. There are not even signs of a short period of Celtic British independent kingships in-between, except in western Derbyshire where the recording in 676 of a semi-independent Mercian territory of Pecsaetna[i] attests to a territory around the Peak – a Peak district, the successor state to the small Roman Spa civitas of Buxton – that was not settled by English people.

Documentary evidence is only that of absence. Both British and English sources enthusiastically recorded battles – the English, only ones they won. Yet none are recorded in this Province. It is apparent from Bede, however, that these areas were all under English rule from long before the eighth century. East Yorkshire was the English kingdom of Deira since well before 547. Lindsey was an English kingdom since the fifth century. Leicestershire and English settlements close to the Trent were known as the Mierce (meaning Borderland, cognate with modern German maerchenland and English ‘marches’), later Mercia. Bede referred to North and South Mercia, divided by the Trent. Archaeological evidence from excavations near Hessle in East Yorkshire supports the view that the transition in Flavia was peaceful. The Roman city of Lincoln seems to have ceased to function within a few decades of 409.

 

Maxima Caesariensis

The story of the remaining Province, Maxima Caesariensis, the south and east of the island, is very different. Here, there was warfare from the mid-fifth century onwards. Here, there was destruction of Roman cities and slaughter in the streets, imprecisely and sorrowfully recorded on the British side by Gildas and occasionally gleefully and with variable reliability in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Here, the course of history was affected by diplomatic marriages and savage treachery. English warriors were employed as mercenaries under Roman command, and they remained after 409, soon becoming dominant forces in some civitates – Winchester’s, probably, on the archaeological record; Kent, famously by treaty between the British ruler Vortigern and the English warrior-commander Hengist, in about 450; Essex and Sussex (which included most of Middlesex and of Surrey respectively), reported to have been as ransom for Vortigern after his capture, possibly in or soon after 470.

Nennius records that Vortigern came to power in 430.[ii] Power to what extent? The battles and political dealings attributed to him involve Essex, Kent, Sussex and Hampshire. De-facto Governor (hence Gildas’s title for him ‘tyrannus’, i.e. ‘non-legitimate ruler’) of MaximaCaesariensis Province would be the answer that best fits the geographical record. Whether he could exercise any influence in Britannia Prima can only be speculated.

Vortigern’s son Vortimer won a battle against Hengist at a location called by the British Set Thirbagail, and by the English Aylesford, which is on the Medway near Maidstone, recorded by both sides: in Nennius, chapter 44; and in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, for 455CE. The battle next recorded in chapter 44 of Nennius, at which the Saxons were defeated and “fled to their ships”, may likewise be the same as the one recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 465.

Alas for Britain, Vortimer then took his army across the channel to help the struggling Roman Empire in Gaul, where in 470 they were wiped out in Burgundy (c.f. comparable events in 1940), or anyway disappeared from the record. Vortigern regained power, but was displaced by Ambrosius in or before 479 following the disastrous Saxon raid across southern Britain in 479.

During the fifth century, the civitas of the Iceni, in Norfolk and Suffolk, and the one whose Roman city was Water Newton near Peterborough, which later became the kingdoms of the Gyrwas covering approximately Cambridgeshire and Holland, and perhaps Kesteven, also came within the arc of English rule from Christchurch to Beverley which Gildas refers to as “our enemies in the east”. One Roman source says Britain “had passed into the hands of the Saxons” by the early 440s. He may have meant these eastern civitates plus the Flavia Province.

Historians do not believe that the battles which the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says were fought by the Gewissae (later known as the West Saxons and then Wessex) ever occurred. But the date for the founding of their kingdom, 495, may be genuine. It is consistent with archaeological evidence of late-fifth century English settlements at Abingdon and at Dorchester-on-Thames. It is well known that the first kings of the Gewissae, Cedric and Cynric, had British and part-Irish names, and it is possible that these men were British rulers of the Silchester civitas which chose from that time to rely on English warriors for its defence.

Thus it appears that by the start of the sixth century all of Maxima Caesariensis was under English rule, except for the large civitas whose Roman capital was St. Albans, which included Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire, Northamptonshire, Buckinghamshire and eastern Oxfordshire. This civitas, though ceasing to be governed from and maybe not controlling St. Albans, became the British kingdom of Calchfynydd. This name means ‘chalk hills’ and appears in English translation in the Mercian Tribal Hidage of 672 as the tributary kingdom of the ‘Ciltern-saetna’, the people who live in the Chilterns (the chalk hills). Calchfynydd remained British until it lost the Battle of Bedford in 571 and forfeited the fortresses of Aylesbury, Benson (a military site also today, the RAF base on the left bank of the Thames in mid-Oxfordshire), and Eynsham (NW of Oxford and close to the Calchfynydd-Dobunnic border). The remnant of Calchfynydd, basically Northamptonshire, may have come effectively under English conquest when they killed King Cadog at Bannaventa (the Roman town near Weedon Bec) in 580.

 

The Non-Uniform Process of Anglicisation

This brief survey shows that the Anglicisation of Britannia was neither a uniform process of conquest, nor a uniform peaceful transition. Rather, there were four distinct stories, substantially but not precisely coterminous with the four prior Roman provinces, each story radically different in time and in process from the others. It is these contrasts that are the primary cause of confusion about how and when Britannia became English and the running disputation as to whether the change was essentially a conquest or a peaceful transition.

In the centre-east of Britannia, one Roman Province and a couple of adjacent civitates became English-ruled within the first generation after the Roman legions departed in 409, without any recorded warfare – quite possibly by the voluntary choice of their first sub-Roman rulers. Most of another Province, in the south-east, became English through force of arms in the thrust and counter-thrust of warfare during the second half of the fifth century. A third Province, in the north, became English through political and military power over the years 581-633. Parts of the fourth, the western, Province plus an adjacent civitas from the south-east (Calchfynydd) were conquered piecemeal over nearly three centuries (from 571 to 838), but other parts (Wales and Cornwall) never became incorporated into Anglo-Saxon England.

Thus by 500 a considerable chunk of eastern and south-eastern Britain was under English rule, the area behind the coast from Bournemouth to Beverley, divided among a dozen young kingdoms; but the bulk of the country – all of the north, all of the west, and the centre as far east as Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire – was comprised of sub-Roman Celtic-British kingdoms. This was still the geographical reality in 570.

During the next eleven years English kings conquered British territories equivalent to about nine counties, mostly in the Midlands. But in 582, even after these losses, all the regions west of the Pennines, the Severn and Selwood Forest remained under British control, and there was little further change in the following half-century. Only after the early 630s, with Powys’s loss of Pengwern, the defeat of Cadwallon of Gwynedd after his brief conquest of Northumbria, and the merger of Rheged into Northumbria, can it be said that English kings ruled over most of what was to become England.

The exceptions, lands outwith English control beyond the 630s, were Ergyng (the part of modern England south and west of the Severn), ruled by a British king known to the Mercians as Merewalh (which means ‘illustrious Welshman’), Lindinis (Somerset, western Wiltshire, northern Dorset and northern Devon), and most of Kernow (Cornwall and south Devon). Some of these areas remained under Celtic British rule for centuries; Cornwall into the tenth century.

 

Plenty of people publish on the internet, or in a few cases in books, their discoveries of aspects of the process by which Roman Britannia became a patchwork of English kingdoms, including me in earlier posts on this blog about King Arthur, Somerset, and Lindinis in the fifth and sixth centuries, and indeed through to the eighth century. But I trust and believe some readers will find it useful to have this summary of the process, of the overall picture of the change across three centuries, gathered here in one relatively brief narrative.

 

 

[i] In the Mercian Tribal Hidage. In that document, the ending –saetna was used for some petty kingdoms that were not part of Mercia but were scheduled for paying land taxes to Mercia, including Pecsaetna and Cilternsaetna. These areas were under English political influence but not areas of English immigrant settlement.

[ii] He transmits a record that from “Rufus and Rubelius” – obviously meaning the consuldom of Fufius and Rubellius in the first half of 29CE – to Stilicho was 373 years and from Stilicho to the start of Vortigern’s reign was 28 years, which in combination take the date to 430CE. He also names Valentinian and Theodosius as consuls that year, which is true of 430 (and also of 426 and 435).

Gildas’s 28 Cities: Indirect Evidence for the Kingdom of Lindinis

Gildas’s 28 Cities: Indirect Evidence for the Kingdom of Lindinis

Gildas said early in his famous book De Excidio “Britain has 28 cities”. His so saying is evidence that there was a proto-medieval Kingdom of Lindinis in and around Somerset.

Just as the absence of incontrovertible contemporary evidence leaves a gap in the fence of intelligent perception of history through which the ultra-sceptics can justify their belief that King Arthur did not exist, so a similar absence of direct evidence could enable sceptics to doubt the existence of his Kingdom of Lindinis.

Importantly, what Gildas said is not exactly that Britain has 28 cities but that she has “two groups of ten and two groups of four” cities (civitates)[1]. Commentators have casually dismissed this wording as “verbose”, when in fact it is precise. Roman Britain in the fourth century was governed as four Provinces; and it is probable that Gildas was copying a fourth century document – geography was altogether marginal to his writing, and besides, he was not a geographer. It is possible to identify Britain’s 28 Roman cities by identifying ten cities each in two of her four Provinces, and four each in the other two Provinces.

The word civitas had a legal meaning. It meant both a civilian local capital and the surrounding territory governed therefrom. It did not mean an urban settlement without that governmental function, which no matter how populous was an urbs or vicus. Nor did it mean a legionary fortress or a native town or any other place in areas under military rule. Neither Chester (a large Legionary Fortress) nor Caernarfon (a military base) was a civitas, though both were quite thriving towns 200 years after the Roman legions had departed. A civitas was a territory – a governance unit with a designated civilian urban settlement as its administrative capital.

Within each civitas, mileposts gave the distance to its capital – except on major highways. Mileposts in the east Midlands reveal two data of Britain-wide relevance. Smallish areas centred on Buxton Spa and Lincoln were both civitates. It follows that the category of place to which these two towns belonged was included in the list of civitates. Buxton had special status as a Spa (Aquae…); the only other one in Britain was Bath. Lincoln was a colonia, a higher status than a normal civitas. There were five coloniae in Britain: the others were Colchester, London, York, and Gloucester. Deducting five coloniae and two spas from the required total of 28 civitates, it is therefore necessary to identify 21 ordinary civitates to make the total numbers up – ordinary, meaning a territory at least as large as a modern county and governed by civilian Roman citizens from a Roman city legally designated as its capital.

Britain’s northernmost civilian Province was Britannia Secunda, whose provincial capital was York. Historians of Roman Britain have identified three places in the Province that apparently had the governance functions and civilian authority of a civitas capital in the fourth century: Corbridge (near Hexham, Northumberland); Aldborough (near Ripon, Yorkshire); and Carlisle.[2] Together with York, these constitute one of Gildas’s two groups of four.

The group that can next most readily be identified is the ten civitates in the Province of Maxima Caesariensis, the south-east of the island. Along with London and Colchester, six are known with certainty: Silchester (between Reading and Basingstoke); Winchester; Chichester; Canterbury; St. Albans; and Caistor St. Edmund (near Norwich). Another can be identified on circumstantial evidence: Widford (near Chelmsford). The areas of ordinary civitates, as distinct from coloniae and spas, were usually based on areas controlled by tribal kings before the Roman conquest. The tribe in Essex and east Hertfordshire were well known to the pre-conquest Romans, who called them Trinovantes. It is inconceivable that they would not have had their own civitas, separate both from that of their rivals the Catuvellauni based in St. Albans and from that of the Iceni to the north, based in Caistor St. Edmund. Widford, Caesaromagus in Roman times, is the only candidate for its capital.[3]

Nine civitates in Maxima Caesariensis are thus determined. Wacher indicates (in The Towns of Roman Britain, 1997) that the probable location of the tenth is Water Newton, near Peterborough. There was not a separate civitas in the area during the early part of the Roman occupation, but Wacher and others show that a civitas of the Fens is likely to have been carved out following works of fenland drainage. It is indeed quite possible that this was one of a few new civitates created by dividing older ones as part of Diocletian’s local government reforms of 296CE, whose most prominent effect in Britain was to create the division of Britannia for civilian governance into four Provinces.[4]

With clarity on the two Provinces of Secunda and Maxima, we can go on to also identify with a large measure of confidence the civitates of the Province that was between them, Flavia Caesariensis. Buxton Spa and Lincoln Colonia were both in this Province, and undoubtedly Leicester was the capital of an ordinary civitas in the interior. One more civitas must be identified to bring the Provincial total up to the four that Gildas’s words require. The remaining civitas was almost certainly one based at Brough-on-Humber, 11 miles up the Humber estuary from Hull. When the Romans took control of the area that is now East Yorkshire, the British tribe that lived there were the distinctive Parisi. It is highly probable, in view of the patterns in the rest of lowland Britain, that they governed themselves in their own civitas and that, as Wacher suggests, the civitas capital was Brough.[5]

The remaining Province was Britannia Prima, western Britannia south of the Mersey. Gildas’s count requires it to have had ten civitates. Two have been mentioned above as places with special status, the small civitas territories for Bath Spa and Gloucester Colonia. Half a dozen more are definitely known: Exeter, the civitas for the people of the far south-west whom the Romans called Dumnonii; Dorchester, for the Durotriges; Cirencester, for the Dobunni; Wroxeter; Caerwent, for the Silures; and Lampeter, for the Demetae. Lindinis, it is clear to most commentators, became a civitas with its capital at Ilchester (Roman Lindinis City) in Diocletian’s reforms, formally in 296 though in reality not till several years later. Like Water Newton, Lindinis was carved out of a pre-existing larger civitas, in its case that of the Durotriges. Its status is most convincingly evidenced by two inscriptions on Hadrian’s Wall.

As with the Trinovantes and the Parisi, the best indication for Prima’s remaining one civitas, for whose existence the historical record is less sure than for the other nine, is to locate an area with a tribal identity. It has to be in the civilian zone of Roman administration; places in militarily controlled upland Wales cannot be considered as possible locations for the missing civil government-status civitas.[6]

Milestone evidence points to Caerhun, on the Conwy estuary in north Wales, as a possibility. Archaeological evidence, however, demolishes that hypothesis. Caerhun might conceivably have been a civitas capital when milestones with distances to Caerhun were erected in c129CE and c204CE – though it might not, for there is no clarity that it was a civil district even then. But Caerhun was burnt and left derelict soon after 204, and only sporadically occupied thereafter, even by the army.[7] It cannot have been a civitas capital in the fourth century, not even on an official document of legal rather than practical meaning.

The tribal area that does have credibility for having been made into a civitas by Diocletian is in and around Herefordshire. The evidence that this was indeed done is thin, yet favourable. One piece is a Roman milestone that was found at Kenchester. The vital letter carved on it, revealing the initial letter of the name of the civitas Kenchester was in, could be a D; if so, Kenchester was in the civitas of the Dobunni. But Professor Collingwood, and others, reads the letter as a B. Could Kenchester have been in a civitas whose name began with B? Bring in ‘Exhibit B’, the Ravenna Cosmography. As indicated in the discussion of Corbridge above, places in Britain listed in the Ravenna Cosmography in the form of a place name (noun) followed by that of a tribe in the genitive plural, as for example Isca Dumnoniorum (Exeter), were civitas capitals – unless they were in a military district. The one place in Prima named there in this format, in addition to its definitely known civitas capitals, is Brano Genium – Leintwardine (near Ludlow, but over the county boundary into Herefordshire).

If ‘genium’ here is the common noun, it translates as ‘of the tribes’. Brano Genium is first recorded by Ptolemy. The apparent meaning is ‘city of the tribes [devoted] to Bran’. It also implies that, for Ptolemy, ‘to Bran’ specified the tribe(s) to which it belonged. In truth, perhaps many British tribal warrior-kings could have identified themselves as ‘devoted to Bran’[8]: Bran was a major Celtic war god. But only the Herefordshire tribes did so to the adventurous visiting foreign geographer Ptolemy; and the name stuck.

Such a description indicates a nodal place, as a place chosen for a civitas capital would be likely to be. Certainly the site of the hillfort above Brano Genium still bears his name: Brandon (i.e. Bran’s dun, Bran’s Castle). It could be, then, that the name of the putative civitas based at Brano Genium was a Latinization of ‘Bran’s civitas’: beginning with a B.

The full list of Gildas’s 28 civitates, in his two groups of ten and two groups of four, can be completed with Leintwardine, and tabulated:-

Latin Name                      Nearest modern place       Nearest modern town

(as given on the                                                                  (where different)

Ordnance Survey map)

 

Britannia Secunda

Coriosopitum                              Corbridge                             Hexham

Eburacum                                     York

Isurium Brigantum                   Aldborough                         Ripon

Luguvalium                                  Carlisle

 

Maxima Caesariensis

Caesaromagus                             Widford                                Chelmsford

Calleva Atrebatum                    Silchester                            Basingstoke

Camulodunum                            Colchester

Durobrivae                                   Water Newton                   Peterborough

Durovernum Cantiacorum    Canterbury

Londinium Augusta                  London

Noviomagus Regnorum          Chichester

Venta Belgarum                         Winchester

Venta Icenorum                        Caistor St. Edmund         Norwich

Verulamium                                St. Albans

 

Flavia Caesariensis

Aquae Arnemetiae                    Buxton

Lindum                                          Lincoln

Petuaria                                         Brough-on-Humber       Hull

Ratae Corieltavorum               Leicester

 

Britannia Prima

Aquae Sulis                                 Bath

Bravonium[9]                           Leintwardine                      Ludlow

Corinium Dobunnorum        Cirencester

Durnovaria                                Dorchester

Glevum                                        Gloucester

Isca Dumnoniorum                Exeter

Lindinis                                       Ilchester

Moridunum                               Carmarthen

Venta Silurum                          Caerwent                            Chepstow

Viroconium Cornoviorum  Wroxeter                           Shrewsbury

 

So what happened to all these civitates during the fifth and sixth centuries, after Roman Emperor Honorius had memorably pulled his occupying troops out and told them in 409 to take care of their own defences?

Most became kingdoms. Each of the known early English kingdoms, the ones that Gildas called “our enemies in the east”, can be correlated with a prior Roman civitas. Without any recorded battles, all of the civitates of Flavia became English-ruled kingdoms. Petuaria became Deira; Lindum, Lindsey; the civitas of the Corieltavi developed into (Old) Mercia; and, with English rule not coming until much later, the hillcountry governed by Aquae Arnemetiae became the client kingdom of Mercia identified in the Mercian Tribal Hidage of c672 as Pecsaetna (the People of the Peak District)[10].

Further south, in Maxima, the English kingdom of East Anglia was heir to the civitas of the Iceni. The kingdom of the East Saxons, which came to be called Essex, apparently combined the small territories of London and Colchester with the normal, two county size, civitas of the Trinovantes[11]. The kingdoms of Kent and Sussex inherited the Canterbury and Chichester civitates, respectively, and the kingdom of the Gewissae in the upper Thames valley grew out of the Silchester civitas. The Romano-British, on the other hand, retained control of much of the civitas of the Catuvellauni until 571, though probably not St. Albans itself. Their territory had sufficient autonomy still a century later to be recorded in the Mercian Tribal Hidage as a separate entity, Cilternsaetna.

The Water Newton civitas does not feature in recorded fifth or sixth century history, but it too shows up in a distinctive colour in the Mercian Tribal Hidage of 672. The Hidage registers two small territories in the Fens, apparently, like Cilternsaetna, as client to but not part of Mercia: North and South Gyrwa.

There was no such English intrusion into Secunda or Prima Provinces. In Secunda, the British kingdoms that emerged into the historical record begin as successor states to the Roman civitates – but with the difference that Hadrian’s Wall ceased to be a political barrier. So the kingdom of Rheged included the lands north of the Wall known today as Dumfries-and-Galloway and maybe much of Ayrshire, as well as the Carlisle civitas.[12] Likewise the kingdom of the Gododdin ruled the east coast going north from the Wall as far as Edinburgh, as well as the Corbridge civitas in Durham and south Northumberland. The Aldborough civitas and the York colonia combined into the Kingdom of Elmet.

In Prima, later history attests abundantly to the kingdom of Kernow, heir to the Roman civitas of Dumnonia and continuing to be called Dumnonia in Latin documents. Similarly the Silurian civitas became the Kingdom of Gwent; the Demetian civitas, the Kingdom of Dyfed; the Wroxeter civitas, Powys; the territory of the Cirencester civitas along with Gloucester and Bath re-emerges into the historical record in the late sixth century as the Kingdom of the Hwicce.

In the areas that in the fourth century were the civilian-governed parts of Prima, there is one other kingdom flourishing in the sixth century: Ergyng. Its territory was between the Wye and the Severn, including Herefordshire and the Forest of Dean. Ergyng is the British name for the Roman industrial town near Ross-on-Wye called Ariconium in Latin, nowadays sporting the characterful name Weston-under-Penyard. The kingdom’s territory is that of the suspected Brano Genium civitas. Its name suggests that perhaps its rulers chose a hillfort near Ariconium as their principal kaer (castle) in the fifth century, which became as important as Brandon, the hillfort above Leintwardine, and Magnis (Kenchester) from which the area’s later Saxon name, Magonsaetna, was derived.

In all, 25 of Gildas’s 28 civitates surface as identifiable fifth and sixth century kingdoms. Five of the seven little special-status civitates merge with their principal civilian neighbour, the two exceptions being those in Flavia, the only Province in which no war fighting for kingdoms is recorded. Of the 21 ordinary civitates, 16 re-emerge by the sixth century as early-medieval kingdoms, either British or English; one as divided into two (the Gyrwa); and one – that of the Catuvellauni – as a British kingdom that had almost certainly lost part of its territory to an English neighbour.

The only civitates absent from this consistent pattern are those whose capitals were Dorchester, Winchester, and Ilchester. Of the governance of the Dorchester civitas, nothing is known. According to White (Britannia Prima), archaeology shows that Bokerly Dyke guarded its eastern frontier against Winchester, that the local elite moved from Roman Dorchester to the adjacent hillfort of Poundbury, and that their domestic architecture showed early English influences. The conjecture that this civitas, like at least six others in Prima, became an independent British kingdom ruled primarily from Poundbury, is logical, but not proved.

Archaeology suggests, again according to White, that the Winchester civitas became English-ruled during the fifth century. References in later English sources imply that the area was Jutish-controlled[13]; this is supported by the designation in the Tribal Hidage of a medium-sized area, listed after Wihtgara (the Isle of Wight), named Ohtgaga (i.e., surely, Jute-gaga: Jutes’ Land), and a larger territory in the same general area as the unidentified but perhaps related Noxgaga. So the Winchester civitas perhaps became divided into three kingdoms, Wihtgara, Ohtgaga, and Noxgaga, all under Jutish rule.

So what of Lindinis? Every other ordinary civitas that remained under British governance became a kingdom, as also did most of those that became English-ruled. Every kingdom in the area of civilian governance during Roman times apparently corresponded directly to a civitas (after adjusting for the Hadrian’s Wall effect). It would be weird indeed if governance in the Lindinis territory had not developed similarly. Having identified Gildas’s 28 civitates, and the proto-medieval kingdoms that emerged from every one of the others that remained under British control, the assumption that there was likewise a Kingdom of Lindinis as the fifth-century successor state to the Lindinis Civitas is the only rational possibility.

It is a step beyond this to say that Lindinis was King Arthur’s kingdom, or that it became mistily remembered as the Kingdom of Lyonesse of later legends. On other posts here, I am showing why I hold these two propositions to be true.


[1]bis denis bisque quaternis ciuitatibus” (De Excidio, chapter 3)

[2] Civitates whose status as such is not disputed, including Aldborough and Carlisle, are identified by C.E. Stevens (1937. Gildas and the Civitates of Britain: English Historical Review 206: 193-203), by J. Wacher (1997. The Towns of Roman Britain: Routledge), and on the Ordnance Survey map of Roman Britain.

Corbridge’s status is attested by its presence in the Ravenna Cosmography in the format regularly used there and elsewhere for civitas capitals, the place name being followed by that of the appropriate tribe in the genitive case, Corie Lopocarium; and by its absence from the Notitia Dignitatum, which lists military units and their stations including those guarding nearby parts of Hadrian’s Wall.

[3] Caesaromagus is “the one British place-name of a type which is not uncommon in Gaul, in which a Celtic suffix is combined with an attribute of the emperor (Julio-, Caesaro-, Augusto-). In Gaul such names…… are …… almost  invariably tribal capitals” (C.E. Stevens, 1937, p198).

[4] A fifth Province of Valentia was created, for the area north of Hadrian’s Wall. It was wholly under military rule.

[5] R. White (Britannia Prima: 2007, p198) does not put Brough-on-Humber in Flavia Caesariensis. He draws boundaries of the four Provinces on the hypothesis that the commanders of each Military Province invited ‘Saxon’ mercenaries from a different Continental homeland, differences revealed by the distribution of varying types of Germanic brooches. However, boundaries placing East Yorkshire in Flavia, and Norfolk in Maxima, improve the brooch evidence for White’s hypothesis compared with his boundaries. The coast of Flavia as amended makes military sense, being all of, and solely, the part of the east coast unfortified in the 4th century: from south of Bridlington to the Wash.

[6] The two areas of Britannia south of Hadrian’s Wall that were under military rule in the fourth century were north and mid-Wales, and Lancashire (at least between the Mersey and the Lune).

[7] See P.K. Baillie Reynolds, 1938. Excavations on the Site of the Roman Fort of Kanovium at Caerhun, Caernarvonshire. Cardiff: Kanovium Excavation Committee.

[8] There are, for example, a Roman ‘Saxon Shore’ fort of Brancaster on the north coast of Norfolk; and a village of Branscombe on the coast of east Devon.

[9] Leintwardine is sometimes known as Bravonium, reserving Brano Genium for Brandon, the hillfort on the hill overlooking the Roman city.

[10] The ending –saetna indicates a territory with British Celtic inhabitants, never settled by English immigrants, but under English suzerainty.

[11] It approximately comprised the areas that became Essex and Middlesex.

[12] Much later, in the second half of the sixth century, inspired by King Urien and his son Owain, the historical poems of Taliesin celebrate Rheged’s successes in expanding eastwards to conquer much of North Yorkshire and almost overrun English Bernicia on the Northumberland and Durham coast.

[13] I have used the word ‘English’ to mean any or all of Britain’s Germanic newcomers. Jutes were one of the fifth century’s groups of English warriors and immigrants, as also were Angles, Saxons, and Frisians.