Tag Archives: civitates

All Quiet On The Eastern Front? – Part Four

This blog is going through a rethink and rework as of 12.11.11. New material or changes will be in bold type.


Warning! Warning!

I want to look at who the enemies of these western Britons might have been, but first a very important point from Barbara Yorke I kept in mind:

“The existence of these numerous small provinces suggests that southern and eastern Britain may have have lost any political cohesion in the fifth and sixth centuries and fragmented into many small autonomous units, though late Roman administrative organization of the countryside may have helped dictate their boundaries.” (Yorke, ‘Kings & Kingdom’s of Early Anglo-Saxon England’, 1990, p13)

I also kept in mind, whether you agree with him or not, Stuart Laycock’s theories that there could be old British tribal scores to settle and animosity after the Romans left. Their ‘tribal’ identity (for want of better name) would mean more to them than ‘British-ness’. If using Germanic mercenaries or Anglo-Britons (and their culture) to forward their cause (and their territory) would help, then I’m sure they’d use them. (The ‘Anglo-Saxon’ settlement/culture does seem to match what are thought to be the boundaries of the eastern Britannian provinces of Maxima Caesariensis and Flavia Caesariensis). This use of them, of course, may have backfired on the Brits as they found themselves becoming second class citizens if they kept their cultural identity. This is not to exclude sheer invasion and expulsion in some areas.

A rough placing of the 'Anglo-Saxon' regions


(At the time thought to be roughly that of the British civitates of the Antrebates and the eastern Antrebatic half of the Belgae)

We should explore if every ‘Saxon’ or ‘Angle’ (remembering that these could be Anglo-British/Saxo-British ethnically mixed – clarifying my position after comments below) in the ‘east’ was the enemy. Let’s start with the infamous ‘West Saxons’. The words “can” and “worms” come to mind here. (I’ll use these later terms, such as ‘West Saxon’ and ‘East Angles‘, merely for convenience. The kingdoms didn’t exist, as far as we know, and I believe they would be made up of smaller groups of *-ingas or *-ge and the like rather than kingdoms at this point in time. We should also keep in mind that all these southern ‘Saxon’ areas have much smaller cemeteries compared with the ‘Anglian’ regions, which is what has led some to think these areas were indeed élite take-overs). The ‘West Saxons’; Cerdic and Cynric (two very British names) are said to ‘arrive’ in the area in 495 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles (ASC).  With regards to this date I would like to quote the following:

“David Dumville’s detailed study of the regnal dates given in the Chronicle and in the closely related West Saxon Genealogical Regnal List reached the conclusion that the fifth—and sixth century dates were extremely unreliable and had been artificially extended to make it appear that the kingdom was founded at an earlier date than was actually the case. His calculation on the basis of the reign-lengths given in the Genealogical Regnal List was that Cerdic’s reign was originally seen as beginning in 538, with the arrival of Cerdic and Cynric in 532.” (Yorke, 1990, p131)

However, regardless of who was ‘expanding’ in this region, some peoples of ‘Saxon’ culture were there prior to Badon. As many argue, Cerdic and Cynric may not have ‘arrived’ from anywhere but have been either Britons or Saxo-Britons of the area. (Besides their possible British names, Wessex does claim later men with the other British names. There are also mixed cremation/inhumation as well as inhumation cemeteries here which, according to Ken Dark, could point to mixed British/’Saxon’ sites). However, whichever of the dates for their arrival is correct, and whichever date for Badon is correct, could have a bearing on whether they were personally involved at the Battle of Badon and what would happen afterwards.

There are two arguments as to where the ‘West Saxons’ (as the Geuissae) originate from: the western Thames Valley, and southern Hampshire. Some think the Geuissae or Gewissae could themselves have been a Saxonized British group or even Jutish. These may have been confused or merged with the group around Dorchester-on-Thames. To quote Keith Matthews’ (aka Bad Archaeology blogger) article, ‘What’s in a name? Britons, Angles, ethnicity and material culture from the fourth to seventh centuries’ (Heroic Age, Issue 4, 2001)

“The exception is the upper Thames valley, where there are large numbers of villas and small towns but an early group of German material culture remains. What makes this group stand out is the early date of the material culture and its homogeneity: this group appears to have few contacts with the local Romano-British population, unlike the thousands of Germans whose material culture sits alongside that of indigenous groups elsewhere in the Late Roman diocese. The upper Thames Valley group has long been identified as in some way anomalous (e.g. Leeds: 53), as the invasion/settlement hypotheses are clearly inadequate to explain so massive a penetration so deep into central Britain at this date. Furthermore, it is not identifiable as the core of a later Anglo-Saxon kingdom, despite valiant attempts to link it with Wessex (e.g. Stenton: 26). Here is perhaps the best evidence for the Germanic mercenaries mentioned by Gildas (Higham 1994: 104).”

Whoever they were, or whatever they were called, they could indeed have posed a threat. (However, we should keep in mind that by the late 5th century they may have married locally). It could depend on where Britannia Prima’s border lay and which side of it the Dorchester-on-Thames group where on. It’s very difficult to know if this ‘border’ was an east-west division of the Atrebates, Belgae and Regni civitates, or if it cut through them. If it originally did, we also don’t know what would have happened after the empire ‘fell’ and if a border would be ‘redrawn’ or how much they had fragmented into smaller polities. Since it looks as if many ‘Saxon’ take-overs used these civitas boundaries, it’s worth keeping them in mind. I’d also like to quote another passage from Yorke:

“A further problem with the Chronicle’s account of the origins of Wessex is that it seems to locate the origins of the kingdom in southern Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, though unfortunately not all the place-names it cites can be identified. Bede, on the basis of information supplied to him by Bishop Daniel, indicates that southern Hampshire and the Isle of Wight were independent provinces which did not become part of Wessex until after their conquest by King Cædwalla in 686–8. A number of sources, including Bede and placename evidence, affirm that the people of southern Hampshire and the Isle of Wight were classed as Jutes and not as Saxons.  It seems impossible to place the origins of the kingdom of Wessex in these Jutish provinces.” (Yorke, 1990, p131)

So wherever the ‘West Saxons’ were coming from it may not have been from the south. Let’s say the Dorchester-on-Thames group were on the east side of the border, in what was the old Roman province of Maxima Caesariensis, and weren’t on the Brits side, and Ælle (or whomever) managed to recruit both them and ‘West Saxons’. If Badon was in the south and they were the enemy then they are most likely to get the brunt of the aftermath of a victory … if they didn’t run east and south for protection. (Higham’s theory not withstanding). If Badon was in, say, the Lincolnshire proposed site (by Thomas Green), they could either have had nothing to do with a battle in that part of the country or they were involved with one of the subsequent (or previous) battles to Badon that Gildas mentions in their own region.

What isn’t obvious, and I’ll explore it more below, is who were those ‘Anglo-Saxons’ before the Mercians north of Oxford: those of the south Midlands. They were the ones bordering on what Christopher Gidlow thinks to be the real power base of the Britons: the Cornovii and the Dobunni. (But who Higham thinks were vassals of the ‘Anglo-Saxons’!) If the Britons did win back some of these Midland territories also, the ‘Germanic’ inhabitants don’t seem to have gone anywhere. If Dumville’s 538 dating is right, however, this date could have been the start (or false start) of the push back by the ‘Anglo-Saxons’, in the south at least, although it could have been even much later elsewhere. It may not even have been a ‘push back’ at all but the first push by them if they didn’t become a force to be reckoned with until 532 or after.

If it was around these dates that the Gewissae start to appear, then it may not have been very long after Gildas had completed his polemic before he could say, “I told you so!” This region would be relatively close to Gildas, if he wrote where most think he did in the Durotriges tribal region (roughly western Somerset and Dorset), giving him a very good reason to be nervous. (Always keep in mind that any push or expansion is most likely nothing to do with an ethnic group fighting another ethnic group, but merely the leaders of a group proving what great a leader they are by either raiding, taking a territory or making other territories tributary either through conquest or fear.)

Wherever Badon was, this lot seem to have stopped expanding too, so something may have halted their ambitions and with this possibly being relatively close to Gildas he should have been aware of anything going on here. It could be these peoples that made him worried, but it’s more likely to be those even closer: the ‘Jutes’ of Hampshire (see next blog). If the map above is remotely close to the politcal situation, there was a British divide between Gildas (if he was in the southwest) and them. Of course, as I put forward above, these ‘Saxons’ could even have given allegiance to the Brits and not been a threat at all … at this time. Although it should be noted that Gildas never mentions such alliances.


(At the time thought to be roughly that of the British civitates of the Dobunni and southern Cornovii)

But who were those further west, but north of the ‘West Saxons’? I found it very difficult to find anyone writing about those who made up the settlers of what is now the southwest and west Midlands of England at this time. The archæological evidence shows they were there, bordering on (or even within) the civitates of the Dobunni and possibly Cornovii. They may not have been Middle or West Saxons at all, but, what I will call, ‘West Angles’. If they were ‘West Saxons’ they certainly weren’t to become Wessex but the Hwicce and part of Mercia. (I realise it’s a lot more complicated than that and I apologise for the over-simplification.) To quote, ‘Research issues in the Post-Roman to Conquest period in Warwickshire’ by Sally Crawford with regards to Warwickshire, for example …

“The social organisation of the earlier Anglo-Saxon period is also one which would bear further research. The cemetery evidence supports the idea that there was a significant ethnic division within the county, with two separate groups based around the upper and lower Avon, which is echoed in the later documentary sources as a division between the tribes of the Hwicce and the Mercians (Hooke, 1996:100). “

Apparently Warwickshire does not fair well in its Early Medieval archæology so it’s almost impossible to judge the power or status of those “Saxons’ or ‘Angles’ there and their relationship with the Britons. However, the mixed nature of the cemeteries might show a mixed ethnic group. I found a little more information from John Morris (The Age of Arthur), although I don’t know how accurate or up-to-date it is.  His information shouldn’t always be trusted:

“But the south western borderlands of the corner of Cornovii have plain evidence; four large mixed cemeteries guarded the main crossing of the Avon on their side of the river, near Coventry and at Warwick, Stratford and Bidford. Their burials began very early in the sixth century and the main ornament derived from the Middle Angles. Further south a larger number of smaller burial grounds circle the territory of Cirencester and Gloucester on the north, the west, and the south, approximately on the borders of the Roman Dobunni. The earliest of them, Fairford, maybe as early as the Avon site cemeteries, but the ornament of most seem somewhat later, and was drawn from the Abingdon English; it passed onto Bidford, the nearest of the Avon garrisons, but only a little of it reached further north, though the Cotswolds sites about Cirencester took little or nothing of the Anglian ornament of Avon. Cornovian territory admitted brides and peddlars within its borders, but Cirencester allowed no traffic in the opposite direction.” (p.284)

I’m not exactly sure what he means by “Cornovian territory admitted brides and peddlars within its borders …” or where that information comes from!?

There isn’t universal agreement of which pre-‘Saxon’ eastern British tribal regions bordered here: some say the Corieltavi could have stretched that far south, others the Catuvellauni. It could be both, of course. Perhaps the Dobunni stretched further north than we think, although, I believe, coin distribution places them were the later Hwicce would be. But someone bordered with the Dobunni and Cornovii and it’s these eastern borders where the cemeteries of ‘Anglo-Saxons’ are found (cremations in the north and mixed and inhumations further south). Some could even have been within their territories. If these ‘Saxons’ were at Badon, or were involved in the struggle against the British of the west at the time, it’s hard to discern what happened to them in the aftermath or during this ‘peace’. Of course, if the Dobunni and Cornovii (or whatever they were called by this time) did ‘defeat’ them, and ‘threw them out’, would the archæology show this? If either of these British civitates were as powerful as Gidlow thinks, (and not as weak as Higham thinks!), then perhaps the ‘Saxons’ may have not tried to expand any further west or south because they were too scared of the consequences.

As Stuart Laycock puts forward (and others I believe) in his book ‘Britannia – The Failed State’ (2009), these ‘Anglo-Saxon’ groups may have been placed there by rival British civitates in the first place. Whether these too would have revolted at some stage or stayed on the Brits side we will never know, but it might explain Gildas telling us the revolt went from sea to sea. Meaning, there were revolts in their regions, rather than those of Kent marauding from the FRETVM GALLICVM (English Channel) to the Severn Sea (Bristol Channel). (However, always keep in mind the E. A. Thompson believes the revolts Gildas is talking about took place in the north (which is the region Gildas is discussing) and went from the North Sea to the Irish Sea). Those upper and lower Avon groups could reflect two sides of the divide, although the Avon appears to run through the centre of the Dobunni region. We must considered the distinct possibility that some of them, at least, weren’t the enemy.

In the next blog I’ll look at the ‘Jutes’ of Hampshire and the Isle of Wight and the ‘South Saxons’.

Thanks for readin and I look forward to any comments,



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