Romans, Celts & Saxons

Romans, Celts & Saxons

Julius Caesar had first launched an exploratory expedition to Britain in 55 B.C. but this had been a brief campaign restricted to the south-east and a full-scale Roman invasion was not attempted until A.D. 43 when Emperor Claudius ordered a large force across the Channel from Boulogne. These invaders, however, like the French-Normans after them, were to find the task of subduing the natives a long and costly affair, and over a decade passed before the first Roman legions penetrated the south-west. In A.D. 55-60 a legionary fortress was built at Exeter and, as the Second Augustan legion gradually progressed westwards, a chain of garrisoned forts was also erected although only one Cornish example, Nanstallon on the River Camel, has been identified. This solitary site, in fact, reflects the paucity of our knowledge of the military subjection of Cornwall, and the material cultural contacts with the Romans are restricted to a solitary villa near Camborne and a few milestones. It is accepted that a military conquest had been completed by A.D. 61, but 14 years later the legion at Exeter was withdrawn and the peninsula settled down to four centuries of only nominal Roman rule. While there was undoubtedly a steady diffusion of Roman culture, laws and language there was no Roman town west of Exeter, and the bulk of the population can hardly have been greatly disturbed by their new overlords, perhaps making contact only with visiting tax collectors and the occasional trading party in the market for tin. Quite a few coin hoards are known, however, together with many more instances of individual coin finds and this suggests the adoption, in part at least, of a money-based economy along Roman lines.

Throughout the Roman period the population of Cornwall continued to live in the scattered ’rounds’ and ‘courtyard houses’ favoured by their Iron Age predecessors. These, for the most part, were heavily defended like the first-century ’round’ at Castle Gotha, St Austell, while excavation of similar sites at Carlidnack near Mawnan and Shortlanesend near Truro have confirmed the continuing popularity of this settlement model.

In the far west the density of ’rounds’ seems to have been as high as one per square mile/2.5km, although the continued need to live within such defended enclosures must tell us something about the unsettled nature of society at this time. Hillforts, on the other hand, do not seem to have continued in use as they did in Wales, and if we regard these as having been the main centres of a developing social order, the seats of local rulers, then the Romans evidently had control over tribal hierarchies.

For the inhabitants, economic life continued very much as before. Inevitably agriculture remained paramount with the emphasis on live­stock while industry was largely confined to pottery manufacture and a few salt workings. While trade links with Brittany continued, the demand for Cornish tin declined as the Romans exploited more acces­sible reserves in Spain. Diodurus Siculus, citing the account of the Greek traveller Pytheas, c. 325 B.C., had noted that ‘in Britain the Inhabitants of a promontory called Belerion [Land’s End] . . . prepare the tin.. . they beat the metal into masses shaped like an ox hide and carry it to a certain island lying off Britain called Ictis’ (probably St Michael’s Mount). If this trade had fallen off during the early phase of Roman occupation, it seems to have revived in the mid-third century and by the end of the fourth Cornish tin was again in demand through­out the civilised world.

If Roman authority in Cornwall was essentially nominal, the four centuries of incorporation within the Empire nevertheless precipitated :a number of important social and political developments. In A.D. 80 the new Roman governor Agricola initiated a process of administrative reorganisation by which each recognisable tribal unit became a self-governing region or civitas. In the south-west the regional capital was fixed at Exeter, then Isca Dumnoniorum, a name which provides a pointer to the developing identity of the whole peninsula. To the Romans the inhabitants of Cornwall, Devon and west Somerset were cthe Dumnonii, the descendants of the Iron Age Celtic settlers who had äbsorbed the older Bronze Age population. While the Dumnonii had extensive maritime contacts they had little intercourse with the Belgic tribes of south and east England. They spoke, but did not write, a primitive Celtic tongue which was absorbing Latin loan-words and which, by the 10th century, had become sufficiently different from the speech of other regions to be classified as Cornish. It seems likely that within this increasingly civilian-controlled region smaller administra­tive units or pagi came into being, each responsible to the authorities at Exeter but under the control of a local chieftain enjoying a substantial degree of autonomy.

In 410 Britain ceased to be part of the Roman Empire. Most occupying forces had in fact already been withdrawn to deal with an increasingly rebellious continent, and the authorities in Rome no longer had the sources to satisfy ‘the groans of the Britons’. Even before the last legions had embarked, however, the coastal regions of Britain were already attracting Saxon and Goidelic (Irish) settlers and it was becom­g clear that the end of one age of occupation was about to be followed by another and equally important one.

Roman-British Cornwall, showing sites mentioned in the text.
Roman-British Cornwall, showing sites mentioned in the text.

Throughout the fifth and sixth centuries East Anglia and south-east England experienced a substantial folk colonisation by Anglo-Saxon farmers in search of new lands. Gradually they spread westwards until even the remote people of Dumnonia were obliged to face up to the reality of these Germanic intruders. Already, however, the people of Cornwall were being faced with newcomers from a different direction, Ireland. Since the fifth century Goidelic settlers had been establishing colonies in western Scotland and the extremities of west Wales and from the latter they began to cross the Bristol Channel to Cornwall. Evidence for this migration is derived from several sources, including the rather dubious church dedications and later ‘Saint’s Lives’, but -more reliably from the inscribed stones which they left behind. These people possessed a unique form of script known as Ogham whereby letters were represented by a variety of lines cut into the face of standing stones, and in Cornwall there are four of these stones plus another two on the Devon side of the Tamar, all commemorating some local chieftain or dignitary. The distribution of these memorials shows a clear concentration in north-east Cornwall above the Camel estuary, although other standing stones bearing Irish names but with Latin inscriptions can also ‘be found in the west. Whether these should be interpreted as indications of large scale colonisation, however, is far from clear. Such a view was fashionable until relatively recently but is now questioned, and the absence of Irish loan-words in the Cornish vocabulary argues against a substantial Goidelic presence. We may be talking about no more than a few pockets of settlers or a localised aristocratic take-over which led to the dissemination of Irish cultural influences.

If many points remain to be clarified on this issue, uncertainty also surrounds another contemporary development, the colonisation of Amorica (Brittany) by emigrants from Dumnonia and east Wales. This movement of Celtic-speaking peoples across the English Channel has traditional1y been interpreted in terms of a flight from the advancing Anglo-Saxons, but more recent writers have concluded that the process began well before their presence was felt in the south-west. The first Dumnonian settlers, in fact, may well have made the crossing in the fourth century, although there was undoubtedly an acceleration in the sixth century which other scholars have seen as a consequence of increased Goidelic activity in Cornwall. Whatever the explanation, the creation of this Celtic-speaking colony on the European mainland proved to add a major dimension to the future history of Cornwall and led to a close relationship for centuries to follow. The 12th-century chronicler Gerald of Wales was able to observe ‘that the people of Cornwall and Armorica speak a language almost identical’, while medieval Cornish towns were home to many Breton merchants. Fishermen sought refuge in each other’s harbours and this cultural intercourse must have been a major factor in prolonging the life of the Cornish language. Even today the Cornish retain an affinity for their Breton cousins, and choirs, folk singers, ‘twinned town’ associations as well as a host of other cultural organisations regularly sustain the links first established so many centuries ago.

The references which have been made to inscribed standing stones and chroniclers remind us that the age of recorded history had now begun. The Irish settlers may well have employed their Ogham script, but the overwhelming impact of Roman culture dictated that Latin be the language of formal communication. The legacy of Rome is also evident in the political development of the south-west, which gathered pace throughout the centuries of migration and colonisation. As we have already seen, Dark Age Cornwall was part of the larger Celtic kingdom of Dumnonia which seems originally to have extended as far east as the River Parrett in Somerset but was now steadily contracting in the face of Anglo-Saxon expansion. While no written evidence of the nature of Dumnonian administration has survived, if it ever existed at all, a possible pattern has been gleaned from the study of inscriptions, place-names and later chroniclers, all considered in the light of what is known of other regions. Professor Thomas has envisaged a tribal system of authority which was perhaps based on a continuation of the Roman pagi system whereby the whole region was divided into a number of districts or pagi, each with its own regulus or chieftain. This would be in keeping with the conclusions of Dr. Wendy Davies who has shown that in sixth-century Wales local kings – and the title should not be seen in its medieval context – ruled over small areas of little more than 15-mile/24km radius. Above the petty Dumnonian rulers would have been the regional king and the names of several have survived, including Constantine, born c. 500 and described by the chronicler Gildas as ‘the tyrannical whelp of the unclean lioness of Damnonia’. This interpretation makes it possible to account for the many notables remembered on inscribed stones and for the known survival of local chieftains well into the Saxon era when the royal house itself had been displaced. In 875, for example, the Welsh Chronicle of the Princes records the drowning of ‘Dumnarth, king of Cornwall’ and his name, in its Old Cornish form Doniert, is also inscribed on a cross base near Liskeard. Again, an inscription on the old Penzance market cross to a ‘King Ricatus’ probably records a local regulus who lived during the early 10th century.

If this administrative model is essentially an intelligent guess, we are even less confident when it comes to the social structure of pre-medieval Cornwall. No Cornish equivalent of the ‘Welsh Laws’ is known, although it is difficult to believe that the region was isolated from the common social stratification of Dark Age Europe. Below the tribal and sub-tribal hierarchies hereditary slavery was common, although it was possible to obtain freedom through a process of manumission as the early 10th-century Bodmin Gospels reveal. There are indications that settlement patterns were changing with the abandonment of the earlier favoured ’rounds’ and the development of agricultural settlements associated with tre place-names, many of which later emerged as medieval manorial centres. The substantial element of academic uncertainty which sur­rounds other aspects of this period, however, has much to do with the imminent collapse of Dumnonia and its institutions and the super­imposition of new cultural and administrative models. The kingdom, after all, had been in retreat for centuries as Anglo-Saxon colonists continued to push westwards, until by the eighth century only Cornwall remained to enjoy a brief period of uneasy independence.

The stages in the westward expansion of Wessex have been comprehensively reconstructed by W. G. Hoskins and H. P. R. Finberg and it is only necessary to make a few cosmetic modifications to their accounts. It is important to envisage Anglo-Saxon expansion as a haphazard process which spanned several centuries and not as a series of planned military operations. The exodus to Brittany coupled with the effects of the sporadic outbreaks of plague, which affected most of Europe in the fifth, sixth and seventh centuries, must have resulted in marked depopulation of many areas, and in that light we can envisage a steady Anglo-Saxon movement which occasionally provoked Celtic military resistance followed in turn by a series of reprisals. The process began in 682 when Centwine ‘drover the Britons as far as the sea’, probably back into the north-eastern corner of Cornwall. After this campaign the frontier was probably the Ottery-Tamar line, but in 710 Ine of Wessex defeated Geraint of Dumnonia and advanced across the Tamar as far as the River Lynher. This success was followed by a royal charter to Glastonbury granting lands between the two rivers and the large number of English place-names in the area reinforces the view that ‘ substantial Anglo-Saxon colonisation followed Ine’s victory. In 722, however, aided by a force from Wales, the Cornish launched a counter attack and defeated the Saxons at Hehil, an unidentified site but perhaps somewhere along the Camel estuary. This was to provide only a temporary respite, however, and in 753 Cuthred of Wessex launched a new campaign which was continued by his successor Cynewuif. In 815 Egbert is said to have ‘harried Cornwall from east to west’, probably an exaggeration, but a counter-offensive was launched 10 years later when the Cornish crossed the Tamar and fought the enemy at Galford. A crucial stage was reached in 838 when the Cornish threw in their lot with Viking marauders and advanced against King Egbert, only to be defeated at Hingston Down near Callington. Cornwall was now nominally incorporated into the kingdom of Wessex and the Cornish bishop, Kenstec, was compelled to acknowledge the superiority of the archbishop of Canterbury. A sizeable amount of Cornish land was granted off, but it is significant that most of the estates involved were confined to the northern and eastern areas and for the rest this Saxon ‘conquest’ seems, to have meant very little. As we have already seen, petty rulers continued to exercise power and almost another century had to pass before the whole of Cornwall was assimilated into the newly united kingdom of England. It was Athelstan, 924-39, who completed the process, and he appears to have devoted considerable attention to south-western affairs, dealing with a threatened uprising and holding councils in Devon in 928 and 931, when he seems to have reorganised the six Cornish tribal divisions of pagi into hundreds in line with the English pattern. According to the chronicler William of Malmesbury, Athelstan then fixed the Tamar as the county boundary, a decision based on geographical convenience rather than racial division, as the Celts were by then clearly in a minority east of the Lynher.

While Cornish political independence had come to an end it is nonetheless important to make a distinction between conquest and settlement. While the eastern districts had been exposed to steady Anglo-Saxon colonisation for some time, the central and western areas had remained relatively untouched. Place-name evidence points to the paucity of colonists west of the Lynher where they were so rare as to be specially distinguished by the Cornish with the suffix Sawsen (Saxon or English), as in the case of Nansawsen and Tresawsen. The investigation of settlement patterns, coin distribution, and pottery types has also strengthened this conclusion and it is significant that in a ‘land of saints’ very few Cornish parishes, perhaps only three, are dedicated to specifically Saxon saints. Life, in short, went on very much as before, and for the inhabitants of, say, the coastal community at Mawgan Porth, whose village was excavated in the 1950s, there can have been no noticeable change. Somebody obviously acquired the silver penny of Aethelred II unearthed by the archaeologists, but the inhabitants continued to eke out a living, make their ‘bar-lug’ pottery and live in the multi-chambered courtyard houses much as their predecessors had done. Again, while most of the land had passed into Anglo-Saxon hands by the eve of the French-Norman Conquest/Crusade, and only one instance is known of a land grant being made by a Cornishman in the 10th century, it seems likely that even the majority of the new landholders lived elsewhere.

As always with the Celts, however, the loss of political independence was only to be followed by the growth of myths and legends and talk of leaders who would rise up to free the people from their new masters. The greatest of these traditions, of course, is that of King Arthur who is always associated with the cliff-top castle at Tintagel. The Arthurian legend was firmly established by the 12th century and taken to fanciful extremes by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his History of the Kings of Britain written c. 1136. Earlier, in 1113, we hear of a Cornishman who fought with the manservant of a visiting clergyman claiming that Arthur was still alive! Yet the Welsh and Bretons also lay claim to him and, if Arthur did exist, which is quite probable, it is better to envisage him in the role of a Celtic resistance leader, fighting the Saxons on a number of fronts, whose exploits reached untold heights in the imagination of medieval chroniclers and Tudor story-tellers.

For over a century after Athelstan’s reign Cornwall enjoyed a respite from the turmoil which had characterised the preceding two hundred years. English authority was now unchallenged, and the absorption of cultural and linguistic influences proceeded in a peaceful and sub­conscious fashion. At the end of the 10th century, however, this scene was briefly disturbed by outside aggressors when a handful of Cornwall’s villages and churches were the target of Viking raiders.

Simeon of Durham recorded an attack in 981 which destroyed the monastery at Padstow while in 997 a ‘host of Danes . . . ravaged Cornwall. . . thence returning around Penwithsteort [Land’s End], and going up the mouth of the River Tamar they landed, and without opposition continued their burning and renewed their slaughter’. Fortunately this was to be only a temporary disturbance and, compared with other maritime regions of western Britain, Cornwall was not again to be exposed to ‘the fury of the Northmen’. Viking manpower, after all, had its limits and this was hardly a county of riches to warrant regular expeditions. Cornwall’s poverty, in fact, was soon to be confirmed with the arrival of the French-Normans who were about to open another chapter in the history of Britain.