The Celts in Britain circa 470 AD

Roman Britain in 410 A.D.

Roman Britain in 410 A.D.

We’ve talked a lot about the Celts here – their culture, religion, what they ate, in what kinds of houses/castles they may have lived – but I don’t think we’ve ever touched on exactly what the Celtic world looked like in the period of my novels (roughly 470 – 530 AD) and who lived where.

First of call, the Celts would not have called themselves Celts. That is an outside term from the Greek “Keltoi” or Latin “Celtae.” The Celts may have referred to themselves as Brythons or Britons. (They were not called English until after the rise of the Anglo Saxons later on in history.)

The term “Pict” meant “the painted people” and was used by outsiders to refer to anyone north of the Forth-Clyde line, an area that’s come to be called the Highlands. The Picts probably would have called themselves Cruithni, which translates into “the native people.” Their neighbors to the south usually called them Prydein or Priteni.

In Britain, there were many, many tribes (complete listing and some cool maps here) and kingdoms, but to summarize about the people, there were:

  • The Saxons – This map doesn’t show it because it’s before the major influx of Anglo-Saxons, but by the end of the fifth century, pretty much the entire eastern coast from Dover up to Hadrian’s Wall was inhabited by the Saxons, who relentlessly kept pushing north and east. Within a century or so, they would gain influence over most of the country, driving the Celtic people into what is now Wales and Cornwall or forcing them to emigrate to Brittany.
  • The Romanized Celts– Most of the country, roughly the areas in yellow and pink in the map above. Roman influence seems, logically, to be most keenly felt in major Roman towns and forts. The extent to which their influence spread into the countryside varies by location. The Roman towns and villas are likely where Christianity first touched the Celts of Britain.
  • The less-Romanized Celts – In the west, the kingdoms of Gwynedd, Dyfed, Gwent and Powys  (in modern Wales) were influenced by Rome, but perhaps not as much as in other areas. Laing nad Laing suggest that though they had major forts at Careleon and Caernarvon, the Roman influence was more of “regularizing” the government (110) than superseding it, especially in the western reaches, though they admit the influence Roman life was strong in the post-Roman era. In the south of Britain, the areas of Devon and Cornwall were relatively untouched by Roman influence, despite the town of Exeter being Rome’s westernmost holding.
  • The Lowland Britons – The lands between Hadrian’s Wall and Antonine Wall (what is today southern Scotland) were peopled by four main tribes of Britons: Votadini, Damnonii, Novantae and Selgovae. These “Men of the North,” as they were sometimes called, lived in a military zone in the first two centuries of the Common Era and some of the tribes were frequently attacked by the Roman army. But after that, Rome pretty much left them alone. This area is pinkish-purple in the map above.
  • The Highlanders – Today, we would call them Picts, but the were really a group of many tribes (some were thought to be nomadic). The Caledonii are the most well known, both for their fierceness and ability to live in extremely cold and bleak landscapes, but we would be remiss not to mention the others: Taexali, Vacomagi, Cornovii, Smertae, Caereni, Carnonacae, Creones, Venicones, and Epidi.

Obviously, my books focus on the area that is today the Britain and Scotland. But there were also Celtic people in Brittany (the Bretons) and Amorica/Galaicia (Gaul) at the time. And of course, the Irish were also Celts, perhaps the only ones completely devoid of Roman influence, since the Romans left them alone. I’m saving the Irish stuff until I write about Tristan and Isolde, so we have something to talk about then.

The Britons by Christopher Snyder
Celtic Britain and Ireland
 by Lloyd and Jennifer Laing
The Celts by Jean Markale
The Native Tribes of Britain (BBC)

What questions do you have about the Celtic peoples of Britain?

V is for Votadini, Tribe of the Gododdin

Ptolemy’s map of Scotland south of the Forth. The Votadini are called “Otadini” on this map. Map created by Notuncurious. Obtained from Wikimedia Commons under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Chances are good that unless you’ve studied Celtic history, you’ve never heard of the Votadini. I hadn’t either, until I began my research. They are one of the four tribes of living in what is today southern Scotland, but was in Arthur’s time (approximately 450-550 AD) the northern part of Britain. The area is most easily defined as between Hadrian’s Wall and Antonine Wall, or from the Firth of Forth to the Solway Firth. The Votadini’s land was in the southeastern section of this area. Other tribes between the walls included Damnonii, Selgovae and Novantae.

The Votadini, or Gododdin people, are best known from a 13th century manuscript of an earlier poem called Y Gododdin, which describes a battle fought at Catterick in Yorkshire in the late sixth century. In this poem, a group of British from the Gododdin, estimated at upwards of 2,000 footmen and cavalrymen set out from Din Eidyn (Endinburgh) to attack the walled palace of Catrarth, which was held by the Angles.  They were defeated, but their heroism was remembered in song, including one of the first known references to the man who is believed to be King Arthur: “He brought down black crows to feed before the walls of the city, though he was no Arthur.”

The daily life of the Votadini is a mystery. They were Britons somewhere between Pictish and Roman, and some sources say they were allied with the Romans, but allowed to keep their independence. According to Philip Coppen, the Votadini worshiped the god Llew and held Traprian Law as their capital. (For those who know Arthurian legend, that is the home of the fearsome King Lot.)

At some point around the time of Arthur, the Votadini were granted safe haven in the kingdom of Gwynedd (modern northern Wales).The Votadini provided formidable defense against the Irish in exchange for new lands on which to settle. Phillips and Keatman suggest this happened at the insistence of Ambrosius after the withdrawal of Rome, but don’t explain why.

This is only a brief introduction to the Votadini and other tribes of the area. I will probably do a longer series on these intriguing people once I’ve had the chance to read Tim Clarkson’s insightful books on the subject. (I own two, I just haven’t gotten around to reading them yet. It’s a shame research takes so long.) The reason I’m even bringing them up at all is that the Votadini are the ancestors several of my main characters (you’ll have to read the books to find out who) and the majority of book 3 will take place in the Gododdin.

Have you heard of the Votadini or their homeland of the Gododdin? Do you have additional details or sources to share? I’d love to hear from you!



Kings, Warriors, Craftsmen and Priests by Leslie Alcock
Land of the Gods by Philip Coppen
King Arthur: The True Story by Graham Phillips and Martin Keatman

Post updated August 4. 2013 to rectify errors in previous source material.