The Celtic tribe of the Catuvellauni emerged in the late first century BC to become one of the most powerful tribes in southern Britain.
They were bordered to the north by the Corieltavi, to the east by the Iceni and Trinovantes, to the south by the Atrebates, and to the west by the Dobunni and Cornovii.
Like many of their neighbours in the south-east, they were probably a Belgic tribe from the North Sea or Baltics, part of the third wave of Celtic settlers in Britain. They may have been related to the Catalauni, a Belgic tribe of Gaul.
The main territory of the Catuvellauni lay on the northern bank of the Thamesis (River Thames), and northwards from there (in modern Hertfordshire), which is where they originally had their powerbase. The tribe’s early capital was at Wheathampstead.
Under Cassivellaunus they expanded outwards to dominate Cambridgeshire, Northamptonshire, Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire east of the Cherwell, Middlesex and north-east Surrey. The Segontiaci may have been a neighbouring tribe that was swallowed up by the expansion of the Catuvellauni.
They were one of the most prominent Celtic tribes of their time, and also one of the richest. They were good agriculturalists and had some of the best soil in the country on which to farm. Nevertheless, as with all the pre-Roman Celts, they left no written records. Their rulers are only noted after they began issuing coinage or came into contact with the Romans.
It is possible that the tribe’s famous king, Cassivellaunus, was in fact named Catuvellos or Catuvellus, and his people were therefore the Catuvellion or Catuvellon. A tribe called the Cassi were recorded by Julius Caesar and this may be a nickname or shortened form of Catuvellauni.
Intriguingly, Caesar fails to mention the Catuvellauni by name in his memoirs, but his description of them and their territories clearly tallies with later information. The fact that their king is the person who takes charge of the defence of the country clearly shows that he already holds precedence over the other tribal kings. Caesar does give an alternate name for the Iceni which is either a mishearing or an earlier version of the name. Similarly, he may refer to the Catuvellauni as the Cassi in 54 BC.
Following his defeat by Julius Caesar in 54-55 BC and the subsequent withdrawal of the Roman expeditionary force, Cassivellaunus begins to expand his tribe’s territory from its core heartland north of the Thames in all directions, building up the larger kingdom that will dominate south-eastern Britain for the next century and the one which adopts the Catuvellauni name.
Territory was subjugated in the modern counties of Cambridgeshire, Northamptonshire, Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire east of the Cherwell, Middlesex and north-east Surrey.
The king also founded a new, hopefully more defendable, capital at Verulamium (just outside modern St Albans and later possibly known as Caer Colun).
The subsequent line of Catuvellauni kings includes Tasciovanus 20 BC to AD 10, Cunobelinus AD 10-41, Togodumnus AD 41-43 and Caratacus from AD 43.
As the most prominent tribe in the south of Britain and the leaders of the opposition against the Roman invasion, the Catuvellauni had to be defeated by the invaders before the region could be secured.
The Romans under Governor Aulus Plautius held off until the Emperor Claudius could join them before marching on the capital at Camulodunum (the former capital of the Trinovantes).
Despite stiff fighting, the Catuvellauni under Caratacus were conquered and subjugated. Caratacus himself disappeared for a time, possibly sheltering with the anti-Roman western Dobunni. He re-emerged in AD 47 to lead the tribes of the Silures and Ordovices in Wales against the Romans.
A descendant of his is to be found ruling the Dunbarton Damnonii in the second century, while the fifth century kings of the Goutodin also traced their lineage back to him, suggesting that his surviving family in Britain fled to the free British north of lowland Scotland, either in AD 43, or later, following the final defeat and capture of Caratacus.
In AD 50 Verulamium became a Roman municipium, with its inhabitants being granted Roman rights by law. It is possible that this grant explains why the tribal named is not suffixed to the canton, as in Verulamium Catuvellaunum.
The revolt of the Iceni under Queen Boudicca in AD 60-61 saw both Verulamium and Londinium sacked and burned. Both towns were subsequently rebuilt. The forum and basilica of Verulamium was completed between AD 79-81 and are dedicated to Emperor Titus.
In his work, Geographia, written in the AD 140’s Ptolemy ascribes the towns of Salinae and Urolanium to the Catuvellauni, showing at least that they still retain their identity as a recognisable tribe in the second century AD. Around the same time, the first Roman theatre in Britain is built in Verulamium.
Although the date of his death is disputed between three dates 209, 251 and 304 Alban or Albinus is martyred at Verulamium for his conversion to Christianity. He is the first-known Christian martyr in Britain. By the fifth century a cult already exists in his name in what has probably become Caer Colun, and the later St Albans Abbey is founded near the site.
In the late fourth century or early fifth century, following the expulsion of Roman administration in Britain and the gradual diminution of any subsequent British central administration, the heartland of the Catuvellauni territory re-emerges as the British kingdom of Cynwidion.
Caratacus’s last stand
Tacitus describes the highland position that Caratacus chose as his stronghold as well-defended by a river (which may have been the Severn), and he also describes the methods he used to rally the British fighters.
“Caratacus dashed about in all directions, telling his men that in the battle to come that day they would either begin to regain their freedom or be doomed to everlasting slavery. He recited the names of their ancestors, who had thrown out the tyrant Julius Caesar. Their bravery had kept them free from military oppression and reparations, and their wives and children safe from physical threat. The crowd responded to these and similar words with acclaim. Each soldier swore a solemn oath not to yield in the face of weapons or wounds.” translation by Andrew Green
The description of the battle’s location is not detailed enough to allow modern historians to place it with any confidence but Caer Caradoc near Church Stretton in Shropshire which bears the Welsh form of Caratacus’s name is a strong contender.