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Narrative History of the County of Somerset
by David Nash Ford

S O M E R S E T

The Dark Ages

With the withdrawal of the Roman Administration from Britain, around AD 410, the Roman way of life did not suddenly disappear. However, there were some aspects which the Romano-Britons found it hard to maintain. Urban life had been in decline for some years and the Celtic people of what was to become Somerset, as elsewhere, reverted largely to a rural existence - though small towns such as Cheddar, Gatcombe and Congresbury seem to have survived. Local self-styled 'Kings' emerged in society to both control the land and protect its people from continuing Saxon and Irish incursions. Somerset appears to have had at least two families considered of Royal standing, though their relationship is unclear. A leading family of the Dumnonii tribe, from South-West Britain, traditionally established their local authority even before the Romans left. Their territory stretched from Land's End to, at least, the western reaches of Somerset. King Cado is particularly recorded as having a stronghold at Din-Draithou (Dunster) and it is quite probable that the famous excavation at South Cadbury uncovered an important residence named after him. The vast Iron Age hillfort here was completely refortified in the 5th or 6th centuries, including a sturdy wooden gatehouse. Within its walls, was built an extensive residential complex including large numbers of granaries, a kitchen and huge timber feasting hall, 63 feet long. Imported Mediterranean pottery added to the evidence for a high-status owner, but traditional connections with Cado's cousin, 'King Arthur,' appear to be unfounded. It was probably re-occupied after the final abandonment of the nearby Roman Town of Caer-Pensawel-Coyt (Ilchester).

Similar Dark Age 'great estates' have been identified at Brent Knoll, Lamyatt Beacon and Wells. Further north, at Ynys-Witrin (Glastonbury), a second Dark Age high-status residence has been discovered atop Glastonbury Tor. Structures were difficult to detect but were indicated by several surviving hearths. There was evidence of metalworking and probably feasting. While finds included a small cast bronze head (probably a bucket decoration) and tell-tale sherds of imported 6th century Mediterranean amphorae. Tradition makes this the home of a Somerset King named Melwas who once kidnapped Queen Guinevere. He was almost certainly a member of the family of Glast, the little known Celtic founder of the modern settlement of Glastonbury. He appears in ancient Welsh pedigrees at the head of a long line of Kings of 'Glastening' who ruled this area either as sub-monarchs of Dumnonia or possibly as independent rulers of Northern Somerset. There are references to the family originating from around Caer-Luit-Coyt (Wall in Staffordshire), part of Kingdom of Pengwern. Though this may seem, at first, unlikely, perhaps the leaderless Southern Dubunni saw a dispossessed Celtic Prince as their best defence, not only against foreign invaders, but also from the expanding Dumnonii.

Possibly related to the Kings of Glastening was Cyndyddan, the last ruler of Caer-Bathan or Aquaemann (Bath) who was killed fighting the Saxons at the Battle of Dyrham (AD 577). The vast Roman structures remained (in a ruinous state) for many years in this city and are recorded in Saxon poetry as having been built by 'Giants'! The great Siege of Mount Badon almost certainly took place somewhere nearby around AD 500 - possibly on Bathampton Down. This is remembered as the conflict at which the advancing Anglo-Saxons were completely crushed, forcing them to cease their westward expansion for a whole generation. The British leader is usually said to have been King Arthur - said to have been buried in Glastonbury - though this is far from certain.

Christian memorials to some of these Celtic Kings and their noble followers survive at various Somerset locations, notably the Caratacus Stone on Winford Hill. The Romano-British communities seem to have continued the use of their small hill-top churches, identified at the previously pagan sites of Brean Down and Lamyatt Beacon, where east-west Christian burials carried on until about AD 520 and AD 650 respectively. At this time, it was not Wells that was the centre of ecclesiastical Somerset, as today, but Congresbury. This was supposedly the home of an itinerant Bishop whose see was founded by St. Cungar around AD 500. Excavations at the large hillfort in the parish, also called Cadbury, have shown 5th/6th century occupation levels which may represent the homes of the saint's community of followers. Other Celtic missionaries who helped Christianity to continue to flourish in Somerset were St. Decuman at Watchet, St. Carantoc at Carhampton, St. Beon at Meare and St. Gildas at Street. The latter two had associations with Glastonbury Abbey which was supposedly active during this period. Visitors, if not Abbots, are said to have included Saints Patrick and David. An Irish influence was certainly strong in the area and there were, no doubt, missionaries from the Emerald Isle as well as pirates. This is strongly indicated by a number of early church dedications to St. Bridget, centred on Beckery.

Next: Saxon Times




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