Thursday, July 4, 2013

Tribal Politics in Pre-Roman Britain

by Mark Patton

In the four decades following 43 AD, the whole of England and Wales came under Roman rule. Prior to this, what we now call Britain was made up of a number of independent "nations," which were frequently at war with one another.

"The most civilised of all of these nations," wrote Julius Caesar in 54 BC ( "are those which inhabit Kent, which is entirely a maritime district. Most of the inland inhabitants do not sow corn, but live on milk and flesh, and are clad with skins."

The real distinction, however, was not between maritime and inland districts, but between the lowlands of the south (the territories of the Catuvellauni, Trinovantes, Iceni, Cantiaci, Regnenses, Atrebates, Belgae and Durotriges), and the lands to the north and west. The economy of the lowlands was based on cereal crops, whilst that of the northern and western lands had a far greater dependence on cattle and sheep. Between 54 BC and 43 AD, the peoples of south-eastern England traded extensively with Romanised Gaul, supplying the legions with grain, and the civilian population with slaves, in return for wine, olive oil and luxury goods.

One of these nations was larger and more powerful than the others and, in the first half of the 1st Century BC, they embarked on a campaign of territorial expansion at the expense of their neighbours. Originally from Hertfordshire (centred around Verulamium - modern St Albans), the Catuvellauni took over part of the territory of the Trinovantes of Essex, seizing their capital, Camulodunum (modern Colchester) in 55 BC. The Trinovantian king, Mandubracius, fled to Gaul and appealed for help from Caesar, prompting his brief invasions. Caesar demanded hostages and tribute from the Catuvellaunian king, Cassivelaunus, and "...forbade and commanded...that he wage not war against Mandubracius or the Trinovantes." By 10 BC, however, Cassivelaunus's successor, Tasciovanus, was again minting coins from Camulodunum.

Between 30 and 40 AD, the Catuvellauni began to threaten their southern neighbours, the Regnenses and Atrebates, seizing the town of Calleva (modern Silchester). In 42 AD the Regnensian king, Verica, the grandson of Julius Caesar's some-time ally, Commius, fled to Rome, providing the Emperor Claudius with a pretext for invasion.

The spin was that he was intervening to protect the Regnenses, just as Julius Caesar had intervened to protect the Trinovantes, from the Catuvellauni.

The king of the Catuvellauni, Cunobelinus (Shakespeare's Cymbeline), had recently died, and it was his sons, Caratacos and Togodumnus, who led the resistance to the Claudian invasion. Their forces, however, were soon overcome by the legions. Togodumnus fell in battle, opposing the crossing of a river which may have been either the Medway or the Thames, whilst Caratacos escaped to the west, with his elite warriors, to continue a guerrilla war against the Romans.

Camulodunum became the capital of the Roman province of Britannia, and the Catuvellaunian elite, having lost the war, may have prospered from the peace that followed. Cunobelinus had pursued a policy of peaceful trade with Rome, and the legacy of his long reign may have been a population that was already largely Romanised (perhaps even bilingual), well-placed to exploit commercial opportunities and occupy key positions in the new administration.

The Trinovantes, who would have regarded Camulodunum as their territory, must have watched this with deep resentment and, when the Icenian queen known to us as "Boudicca" rose up against the Romans in 60/61 AD, they were among the first to join her ill-starred revolt. The cities that were sacked (Camulodunum, Verulamium and Londinium) were all mainly or largely Catuvellaunian, so perhaps the revolt was a settling of scores between British tribes as much as an assault on the Roman invaders.

When, in the 12th Century, the Anglo-Norman poet, Wace, came to write his fictionalised history of Britain (Le Roman de Brut), tracing the ancestry of his royal patron, Henry II, back to the Trojan Brutus, he gave the name "Trinovant" to the earliest foundation of London:

"Ca cite fist desur Tamise...pour ces anceisors remembrer, la fist Troi Nove l'apella l'om Trinovant...Trinovant est Troy nove."

(Having established his city on the order to honour his ancestors, he named it "New Troy"...In calling it "Trinovant" he meant to indicate that it was the new Troy).


Mark Patton's novel, An Accidental King, set in the 1st Century AD, is published today by Crooked Cat Publications. Details can be found at

Illustrations relating to the pre-Roman peoples of Britain can be found at


  1. Interesting. I was amazed when I moved to Norfolk and found that the nickname given to Norfolk locals by the people from Suffolk is 'Ickneys'. Memories run pretty deep around these parts!

  2. I didn't realise that! I spent a fair amount of time in Thetford when I was researching the book - some of the places are, I hope, recognisable.

  3. Excellent blog post, as is Mark's novel -An Accidental King- which I've just completed the reading of. It is a wonderfully spun tale set in the era as described above.

  4. I know nothing of this time period so this absolutely fascinated me. I want to know more about the "Icenian queen known to us as 'Boudicca.'" Great post, thank you!

    Dianna Rostad


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