The Archaeology of Nennius' 28 British Cities
By David Nash Ford
T H E
2 8 C I T I E S
O F B R I T A I N
as listed by
Nennius, the Welsh monastic author
of the "History of the Britons" is well known for his
list of the Twenty-Eight Towns of Sub-Roman Britain that followed
his work. Though Nennius was writing in the 8th century, it is
unlikely that he meant to imply that all these places were still
inhabited by Britons at that time. Indeed, archaeological
evidence would seem to suggest that many of them had ceased to be
occupied by the end of the 5th century. Many of the names are
difficult to identify today, but I would suggest the following:
Caer-Brithon is known from other
sources to be Dumbarton Rock (Din-Brithon), the Fort (or City)
of the Britons and capital of the Kings of Strathclyde. It
was known to Bede as Alcludd, the Rock of the Clyde. Excavation
has revealed evidence of Dark Age occupation here, including 5th
century pottery. Though the site appears to have been newly
established in that century. Occupation continued well into the
late 9th century, for the Vikings attacked the Royal residence
there in 871.
Caer-Caratauc could be one of
several hillforts of that name which still exist throughout the
country, though it is probably to be identified with Cary
Craddock in the parish of Sellack in Herefordshire. This hillfort
is just within the Kingdom of Ergyng, and is said to have been
the palace of King Caradog Freichfras of Gwent.
Caer-Ceint is Canterbury
(Durovernum), the capital of the British Kingdom of Ceint. There
is much evidence of continuing Romano-British occupation of this
town. New buildings were built along the Roman streets and
cobblers and bone-workers set up workshops in the old baths.
Second century buildings were reused or converted to industrial
workshops. The Riding Gate was blocked up and its vaulted
carriageway became a smithy. A goldsmith's scattered hoard has
been discovered and a silversmith was also working in the town as
shown by a hoard of silver spoons, some bearing a Chi-Rho
monogram. Did St.Martin's and the Roman church on the site of the
Cathedral carry on being used into this period? Dark Age burials
include a family buried within an old temple adorned with
imported jewellery; and, of course, there was 5th century
pottery. Much of the town, however, appears to have become rural
Caer-Celemion is probably Silchester
(Calleva) via, perhaps, an original of something like
Caer-Callef. Interestingly, Celemion was the name of the
grandmother of Merfyn Frych, King of Gwynedd. Perhaps she came from
the town. A Roman column discovered here reused as a Dark Age
memorial to one Ebicatus shows that urban life continued into the
5th century, but the Victorian excavators had not the skills to
discern anything else. Very recent excavations, however, have
revealed at least one late 4th century house that was occupied
well into the 5th, if not the 6th century. The dykes surrounding
the town to the north are also generally supposed to have been
constructed to keep out the Saxons invaders moving down the
Thames. Legends of a giant named Onion living within the old
town-walls may indicate a King named Einion.
Caer-Colun is Colchester
(Camulodunum). Most historians tend to see Colchester as a back
formation from the River-Colne. However, it surely comes from
Caer-Colonia. It is generally supposed to have been the centre of
some kind of British Kingdom, since early Anglian finds from
North-East Essex are comparatively rare. Some late Roman houses
in Stockwell Street may have continued in use into the Dark Ages,
whilst the find of an elaborate Germanic buckle may indicate the
employment of foreign mercenaries to defend the town. Camulodunum
is almost certainly the origin of the name of King Arthur's court
of Camelot, though he certainly never lived here.
Caer-Custoeint may possibly be a
hillfort site in Dumnonia named after one of the two King Constantines who reigned there.
Caer-Daun is Doncaster (Danum). I
know of no archaeological evidence to suggest that the
Romano-British continued living here after 410.
Caer-Ddraitou appears as
Din-Draithou in the "Life of St.Carannog". Here it is
identified as Dunster in West Somerset, a name derived from Din-Torre,
"Fort on the Torre". It was a stronghold of
King Cado of Dumnonia, who entertained King Arthur there.
Caer-Ebrauc is York (Eboracum), the
headquarters of the Dux Brittaniarum and capital of Britannia
Secunda. It later became the capital of the British Kingdom of
Ebrauc. It supposedly had its own Dark Age Archbishop. There is
little archaeological evidence for the continued occupation of
the town, though a terribly worn threshold of a late 4th century
entrance to the Roman Headquarters Building would indicate its
use continued for some time after the Roman administration
departed. It is also noticeable that many of the city's streets
remain today above the old Roman thoroughfares, notably
Petergate, Stonegate and Chapter House Street. The so-called
"Anglian" Tower along the town walls is of disputable
origin. Late Roman or Anglian are the most popular suggestions.
Could it have been sub-Roman?
Caer-Grauth is Cambridge, that is
the village of nearby Grantchester (Duroliponte). Nennius' name
may be a corruption of Caer-Granth. I know of no archaeological
evidence for the continued Romano-British occupation of the town.
Caer-Guent is Caerwent (Venta),
capital of the British Kingdom named after it, Gwent. Coin hoard
deposits of around 425 show continued occupation. According to
the Life of St.Tathyw, the town was given to the saint by King Caradog Freichfras
to found a monastery, while the King moved
out to Portskewett. Several cist graves of St.Tathyw's followers
have been discovered around the present church and also around
150 burials outside the East Gate. Coins and metalwork, including
7th century fastening pins, show continued occupation up until
the Normans arrived.
Caer-Guinntguic is Winchester
(Venta): probably a corrupt form of Caer-Gwintwg. Winchester may
have been the capital of a southern British Kingdom possibly
ruled by one Elafius, whom St.Germanus met. Late Roman times saw
a shift of occupational focus in the town to the west, and there
is later extensive evidence of ironworking. A Dark Age Cemetery
outside the North Gate included graves of Germanic mercenaries
wearing distinctive military equipment. They were probably
brought in to defend the town in these chaotic times, when
bastions were added to the town walls. By the end of the 5th
century, however, urban life appears to have ended.
Caer-Guiragon is Worcester (Vertis).
Known to the Saxons as Wigran-Ceastre. I know of know
archaeological evidence for late Romano-British occupation.
Caer-Guorthigirn is possibly the
refortified hillfort of Little Doward at Ganarew (Herefordshire),
supposed scene of High-King Vortigern's last stand according to Geoffrey of
Caer-Guricon is Wroxeter
(Viroconium), hence the Saxon Wrocenset who later colonized the
area. This town, now buried beneath English fields, has revealed
the most extensive archaeological evidence for continued
Romano-British urban occupation throughout the 5th century.
Though the vast Roman Baths' Basilica was demolished around 350,
in the 5th century a large winged timber hall was erected within
its walls complete with classical portico and steps. Behind it
stood rows of timber booths along a finely sifted gravel street
roofed in like a pedestrian precinct! More wooden buildings with
classical facades stood beyond. Surely this could only be the
palace of a major Dark Age King, along with the homes and shops
of his subjects. It was most probably the capital of the original
enlarged Kingdom of Powys, ruled over by the High-King Vortigern.
Later Dark Age occupation may have been
centred on the Wrekin hillfort of Din-Gwrygon, at a time when a
more defensible site was desirable.
Caer-Legeion-guar-Uisc is Caerleon
(Isca): a major city in the Kingdom of Gwent that apparently had
its own Archbishopric. It is often said to have been one of King
Arthur's main courts and the old Roman amphitheatre was known as
"King Arthur's Round Table", but there is, as yet, no
evidence of Dark Age occupation here. A limited ecclesiastical
site might be indicated for the parish church is dedicated to
St.Cadog (6th century) who may have founded a monastery
here. It has been suggested that the secular settlement was
transferred to the nearby hillfort on Lodge Hill (possibly from Llys
Caer-Legion is Chester (Deva): a
major city, probably within the Kingdom of South Rheged. There is
some archaeological evidence of urban life continuing here into
the Dark Ages. There are fragmentary traces of buildings which
should probably be dated to this period; and some sherds of very
late Roman pottery imported from the Eastern Mediterranean have
been found, showing marine-borne trade links were long preserved.
Literary sources also indicate the town was still flourishing. It
may have been the site of one of King Arthur's battles.
Certainly, in 603, St.Augustine held his
second conference with the British Clergy here, and ten years
later it was the scene of the great Battle of Chester. Both show
the political and ecclesiastical importance of the town at this
period. Legend even gives it a Commander named Brochfael.
Caer-Lerion is Leicester (Ratae).
This is a city that features occasionally in Celtic mythological
literature. It may have been the centre of a kingdom of some
kind. I know of no evidence of Dark Age occupation.
Caer-Ligualid is Carlisle
(Luguvalium). This was the capital of Urien Rheged's kingdom of North Rheged. A major Dark
Age City apparently with its own Bishop, which St.Cuthbert
visited in 685. It was then under the control of a praepositus
civitas, perhaps one of Urien's family. Cuthbert noted the
city's high stone walls, probably around a Roman Fort (where the
Castle now stands) and commented on a still working fountain.
This indicates a functioning aqueduct at that date. Archaeology
has revealed that timber structures, possibly of the 5th century,
replaced Roman stone buildings on the same alignment in
Blackfrairs Street. These were later abandoned in favour of a
large hall-like building which cut across them.
Caer-Luit-Coyt was brilliantly
identified some years ago as Wall (Letocetum) in Staffordshire.
The name still survives today in nearby Litchfield. Possibly the
centre of a sub-division of Pengwern, Wall is mentioned in the Marwnad Cynddlan
as having been a city inhabited by a
bishop and monks that was attacked and (probably re-)taken by
Prince Morfael of Pengwern in the 650s. His descendants later founded
the ruling dynasty of Glastenning (Somerset).
Caer-Lundein is London (Londinium),
the old Roman capital of Maxima Caesariensis. Massive rebuilding
in London over the centuries has made it difficult to identify
any Dark Age archaeology. However, it is generally now accepted
that there is probably nothing to be found, and that the city was
abandoned pretty soon after 410.
Caer-Maunguid may be Manchester
(Mamucium). However, I know of no archaeological evidence for the
survival of the Romano-British way of life in the town.
Caer-Meguaidd may be Meifod, the
court of the Kings of Powys at the Manor of Mathrafal from around
750 or before. The place was also a major ecclesiastical centre.
St.Gwyddfarch built the original church which was replaced by St.Tyslio in about 625. The present church was built in the
12th century and houses what may be the memorial stone to Prince
Madog ap Maredydd of Powys Fadog.
Caer-Mincip is St.Albans
(Verulamium), from Caer-Municipium, showing the important status
of the town. There is plenty of evidence for the British survival
at Verulamium. One late Roman building was converted into a barn
or granary using huge buttressed foundations, and corn dryers
were inserted in it so that agricultural processing could take
place within the safety of the town walls. A wooden water pipe
was later constructed across the site and maintained possibly up
to the end of the 6th century. Later, the focus of occupation
moved to around the martyrium of St.Alban that lay in a Roman
cemetery outside the city walls. St.Germanus visited the city in
429/440. Elafius whom he met was described as "Chief Man of
the District", probably a local King (though Morris
associates him with Winchester). Perhaps Verulamium was seen as a safe stronghold
for people deserting nearby Londinium.
Caer-Pensa-Uel-Coyt is Ilchester
(Lindinis), named after the Pensel Wood that still surrounds it.
Archaeological evidence indicates a quick decline here before the
end of the 5th century, with buildings collapsing, walls
crumbling and probably little, if any, population. The urban
centre may have moved to nearby South Cadbury.
Caer-Peris is probably modern Caer
Beris just outside Builth Wells. The first Castle at Builth was
erected here in 1093, but the name indicates an older foundation,
probably the ancient court of the Kings of Buellt &
Caer-Segeint is Caernarfon
(Segontium), which itself stems from the later Caer-yn-Arfon.
Little is known of the old Roman fort during so-called Arthurian
times. Tradition says it was the capital of the Kingdom of
Gwynedd, as presided over in the early 5th century by
Constantine, the son of the Emperor Magnus Maximus, before the Irish invaded and drove him
out. His memorial stone once stood just outside the fort. The
hypothesis is reinforced by the fact that the parish church,
which stands not in the modern town but near the old fort, is
dedicated to his brother, St.Peblig.
Caer-Urnac, is possibly a mistake
for Caer-Durnac which would be Dorchester (Durnovaria) in Dorset.
It may have been the centre of a British Kingdom. The survival of
the name as Dornwara-Ceaster to the Saxons, would certainly
suggest some Romano-British occupants remained. Though the only
signs of continuity here are at the Roman cemetery site at
Poundbury where a later settlement grew up.
Some other early
British Cities mentioned in various records:
Caer-Anderida is Pevensey
(Anderitum). It is mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles as a
British stronghold overrun by the invading South Saxons under
King Aelle in 491.
Caer-Baddan is Bath (Aquae Sulis).
From this town come indications of chaos and piratical raids on
the few citizens who remained resident, for a Roman House
discovered in Abbeygate Street revealed the severed head of a
young girl thrust into an oven around the 440s. The famous
Arthurian Battle of Mount Badon of around 500, probably took
place nearby, possibly on Bathampton Down. King Ffernfael, whose
capital was at Bath in the late 6th century, may have established
some degree of stability in the area, but he was killed by the
Saxons at the Battle of Dyrham in 577.
Caer-Correi is Caistor in
Lincolnshire, anciently known, apparently, as Thancaster. This,
so Geoffrey of Monmouth tells us, was the city that King Hengist tricked High-King Vortigern into giving
him. An early Saxon cemetery discovered just outside the city
walls may reinforce this theory.
Caer-Ceri is Cirencester (Corinium),
the old Roman Capital of Britannia Prima. It became the Capital
City of King Cyndyddan who was defeated by the Saxons at the
Battle of Dyrham in 577. There is much evidence for Dark Age
occupation in the town. The Verulamium Gate was repaired in the
early 5th century and buildings were occupied at least until the
6th. The forum was regularly cleaned, though what we might term
normal urban life had probably collapsed for unburied bodies have
also been found in the old Roman streets. In the amphitheatre,
however, the entrance was reduced in size and a large timber
building erected in the centre, from which came 5th and 6th
century pottery. It has been suggested that this was a fortified
stronghold perhaps of King Cyndyddan himself!
Caer-Conan is Conisburgh. Geoffrey
of Monmouth gives us the name of this town. It is certainly in an
ideal defensible situation and it could possibly have been a
hillfort stronghold of the Kings of Elmet, though none of those
known were called Conan.
Caer-Eityn is Edinburgh, though this
is usually given as Din-Eityn. The stronghold on the hillfort
site of what is now Edinburgh Castle has been occupied since the
Iron Age. In the Dark Ages, it appears to have been the
stronghold of a lesser branch of the Strathclyde dynasty. It may
have been the scene of one of King Arthur's battles, that of
Mount Agned, which is sometimes given as an alternative name for
the Castle Rock. It was the home of the mid-6th century King
Clinog Eitin whose epithet records the placename. In 598,
however, King Mynyddog Mwynfawr (the Wealthy) was in residence.
The early 7th century poem, Y Gododdin, describes his
feasting hall here in great detail. He and his men, and those of
Gododdin, celebrated there before marching south to recapture the
strategic outpost of Catraeth from the expanding Northumbrians.
Din Eityn was besieged by the Angles in 638, and it is generally
thought to have become part of Northumbria at this date.
Caer-Fawydd is Hereford: probably
only the Welsh name for a nearby Anglian town.
Caer-Gloui is Gloucester (Glevum).
This was Capital City of King Cynfael who was defeated by the
Saxons at the Battle of Dyrham in 577. Excavations at New Market
Hall showed signs of sub-Roman occupation in the town, possibly
up to the time of this battle.
Caer-Lind-Colun is Lincoln (Lindum)
from Caer-Lindum-Colonia, the old Roman capital of Flavia
Caesariensis. Excavations have shown that the late Roman
proto-Cathedral built in the middle of the forum survived here
until about 450 and burials continued around it well into the 6th
century. Citizens appear to have remained in the town to an
extent, though abandoning the old Roman street-plan. Perhaps it
was the centre of the British Kingdom of Lindsey. In 629
St.Paulinus met a Praefectus Civitatis here named Blecca and
converted him and his household to Christianity. The 7th century
saw a new church built at the Roman Cathedral site, over the body
of a wealthy British chief with a Celtic hanging-bowl. Saxon and
Celtic society appear to have merged quite peacefully in the town
until the Vikings took over in the 9th century.
Caer-Merddyn is Carmarthen
(Moridunum). Traditionally named after Merddyn, alias Merlin the
Magician. The name actually derives from the original
Romano-British name. Nothing is known of Dark Age urban life in
the town, though it is generally supposed to have quickly
Caer-Paladur is traditionally said,
by Geoffrey of Monmouth, to have been Shaftesbury, but this town
is of Saxon origin.
Caer-Portus is Portchester (Potus
Adurni). Possibly a corruption was Caer-Peris (see above), called Portchester by Geoffrey of
Monmouth. A number of sunken floor huts dating from the mid-5th
century have been discovered here, perhaps indicating the
settlement of Germanic mercenaries to help keep out the Saxon
Caer-Sallog is traditionally said to
be Salisbury, or rather the nearby hillfort of Old Sarum
(Sorviodunum). According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, King
Cynric of Wessex fought against the Britons here (at Searoburh)
in 552 and put them to flight. This would indicate the fort was
occupied by the British until this time, and the find of a late
Roman bronze bridle cheek-piece may reinforce this theory. The
identification of the historical Caer-Sallog, as recorded in the
Black Book of Caermarthen, with Salisbury is, however,
problematic for it may derive from a mistranscription of Geoffrey
of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain.
Caer-Teim, is probably Cardiff
(Tamium), via an intermediary Caer-Teif. Traditionally this was
the residence of the Arthurian King Ynwyl in the early Welsh tale of Gereint and Enid.
Perhaps the old Roman fort was the Ruined Palace to which
he had been banished, while the usurper occupied Dinas Powys to
the south, the new home of the Kings of Glywysing.
Caer-Uisc is Exeter (Isca).
Tradition has King Clemen of Dumnonia defending the city in the early 7th
century, though the only archaeological evidence for occupation
at this time indicates it was the residence of a religious
community. Six mid-5th century burials have been discovered on
the Roman Forum and Basilica site near the present Cathedral.
These were succeeded by an extensive cemetery a hundred years
later which is thought to have been part of the monastery where
it is recorded St.Boniface was educated around 680.
Caer-Weir is traditionally said to
have been the name that the British gave to Durham, hence the
River Wear. Durham is Saxon in origin, but this name may have
been a mistranscription of Caer-Wein, possibly a reference to
Binchester (Vinovia) just to the south.