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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

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 in nature.

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 Monmouth.

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 Hill).

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 & Gwerthrynion.

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 disappeared.

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 menace.

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.




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