Saturday, 6 April 2013

Contested Territories: Essex in the 1st Century AD.

Essex may seem an unlikely war-zone but, for much of the 1st Century BC and 1st Century AD, it was very much on the front line of a tribal conflict in which the most powerful men in the world took a close interest.

Most of what is now Essex (but probably extending as far west as London) lay within the traditional boundaries of the Trinovantes tribe, but they were under constant pressure from a more powerful neighbour, the Catuvellauni of Hertfordshire. The Catuvellauni, like the Trinovantes, were an agricultural people, the basis of their economy depicted unambiguously on their coinage.

                                Coin of Cunobelinus of the Catuvellauni.

When, in 57 BC, Julius Caesar invaded northern Gaul, both tribes probably saw an opportunity to make a profit by supplying his legions with grain. The problem for the Catuvellauni was that their territory was land-locked. They, however, had the greater military strength, and their king, Cassivellaunus, invaded the territory of the Trinovantes, siezing their capital, Colchester.

Mandubracius, the king of the Trinovantes, fled to Gaul, and sought help from his ally, Caesar. Caesar invaded Britain in 55 BC, and again the following year, "defeating" the Catuvellauni and reinstating Mandubracius in Colchester. By 10 BC, however, a new king of the Catuvellauni, Tasciovanus, was again issuing coins in Colchester.

                                        Coin of Tasciovanus of the Catuvellauni.

The Trinovantian king, Addedomarus, and his son, Dubnovellaunus, seem briefly to have regained power, before being definitively conquered by the Catuvellaunian king, Cunobelinus, at the turn of the century. The Roman Emperor, Augustus, who would surely have had spies in place on the ground, probably viewed the conflict with detached amusement, drawing on the resources of both tribes to supply his Gaulish legions whilst using the circumstances of the conflict to manipulate the terms of the trade.

                                          Coin of Addedomarus of the Trinovantes.

When Cunobelinus emerged victorious, he seems to have sought and obtained friendly relations with Rome. Roman wine, olive oil and luxury goods flowed into Colchester throughout his forty year reign, whilst grain, and perhaps also Trinovantian slaves, flowed in the other direction. The archaeologist, John Creighton, has commented that the picture painted by Shakespeare in "Cymbeline" (the character is based directly on Cunobelinus), of a native court with Roman ambassadors travelling back and forth, may not be so very far removed from the reality of life at Camulodunum (the early name of Colchester, and plausibly the origin of "Camelot").

Gosbecks Archaeological Park - the site of Cunobelinus's capital, Camulodunum.

When Cunobelinus died, probably in 41 or 42 AD, this stability broke down. His sons, Caratacos and Togodumnus (a third brother, Adminius, had already taken refuge in Roman Gaul, having lost a dynastic struggle with his father) pursued a more aggressive policy in relation to neighbouring tribes. It was ostensibly to support the smaller tribes (including the Regnenses, of which more in a subsequent posting) that Claudius Caesar invaded Britain in 43 AD. In reality he was simply following the example of Julius Caesar in using conflicts between peoples as a pretext for military action in his own interests. A disabled man with no military experience and a precarious grip on power, Claudius badly needed a foreign triumph.

Claudius's general, Aulus Plautius, crushed the British tribes, led by the Catuvellauni, in two battles in southern England, perhaps around the crossing points of the Medway and the Thames. According to some accounts, Togodumnus was killed in one of these battles, whilst Caratacos escaped with his elite warriors to continue the resistance in western Britain.

Colchester 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. The legacy of Cunobelinus's long reign may have been a population that was already largely Romanised (perhaps even bilingual), well-placed to exploit commercial opportunities, and to occupy key posts in the new administration.

                         Roman Colchester in the 1st Century AD.

The Trinovantes, who would have regarded Colchester 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 joined her rebellion. The three great cities that were burned to the ground, Camulodunum (Colchester), Verulamium (St Albans) and Londinium (London) were all largely or mainly Catuvellaunian, and the Trinovantes may have been as much concerned to settle scores with an ancient British enemy as they were to drive Rome and its legions from their land.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon.


  1. This was so, so interesting. I don't write about that period, but I love the Arthurian legends and books based on them, and this gives new insights. Lovely post.

  2. Glad you enjoyed it, Elizabeth. If you love the Arthurian legends I can recommend J.P. Reedman's "Stone Lord."

  3. I have added some pictures on a new board over at