Celtic tribes of South England
Capital Isca Dumnoniorum (Exeter)
Location Cornwall
West Somerset
Rulers Kings of Dumnonia

The Dumnonii or Dumnones were a British Celtic tribe who inhabited Dumnonia, the area now known as Devon and Cornwall in the farther parts of the South West peninsula of Britain, from at least the Iron Age up to the early Saxon period. They were bordered to the east by the Durotriges.


Tribal nomenclature

William Camden, in his 1607 edition of “Britannia”, describes Cornwall and Devon as being two parts of the same 'country' which:

“was in ancient time inhabited by those Britains whom Solinus called Dunmonii, Ptolomee Damnonii, or (as we find in some other copies) more truly Danmonii. ... . But... the Country of this nation is at this day divided into two parts, known by later names of Cornwall and Denshire [Devonshire] ... The near or hithermore region of the Danmonians that I spake of is now commonly called Denshire, [or] by the Cornish-Britains ‘Dewnan’, and by the Welsh Britains ‘Duffneint’, that is, ‘low valleys’, for that the people dwell for the most part beneath in Vales; by the English Saxons [it is known as] ‘Deven-schire’, whereof grew the Latin name ‘Devonia’, and by that contraction which the vulgar people useth, ‘Denshire’.”

William Camden had learnt some Welsh during the course of his studies and it would appear that he is the origin of the interpretation of Dumnonii as "deep valley dwellers" from his understanding of the Welsh of his time. An alternative derivation is from the Gaelic Domhnain which merely means "land" and leads to the meaning "people of the land", Latinised as Dumnonii. Another tribe with a similar name but with no known links were the Fir Domnann in the province of Connacht.

The Roman name of the town of Exeter, Isca Dumnoniorum, contains the Celtic root *iska- "water" (cognate with Irish uisce (See Whisky)) for "Water of the Dumnonii". The Latin name suggests that the city was already a Celtic oppidum, or walled town, on the banks on the River Exe before the foundation of the Roman city, in about AD 50. The Dumnonii would give their name to the English county of Devon, and their name is represented in Britain's two extant Brythonic languages as Dewnans in Cornish and Dyfnaint in Welsh. Amédée Thierry (Histoire des Gauloises, 1828), one of the inventors of the "historic race" of Gauls, could confidently equate them with the Cornish ("les Cornouailles").


The Dumnonii are thought to have occupied relatively isolated territory in Somerset, Devon and Cornwall and possibly part of Dorset. Their cultural connections, as expressed in their ceramics, were with the peninsula of Armorica across the Channel, rather than with the southeast of Britain.[1] They do not seem to have been politically centralised: coins are relatively rare, none of them locally minted, and the structure, distribution and construction of Bronze Age and Iron Age hill forts, "rounds" and defensible farmsteads in the south west point to a number of smaller tribal groups living alongside each other.[2]

Ptolemy's 2nd century Geography places the Dumnonii to the west of the Durotriges, and names four of their towns: Isca Dumnoniorum (later Caeresk, now Exeter), Tamara (presumably on the River Tamar, possibly in the area of modern Plymouth), Uxella (perhaps on the River Axe) and Voliba (unidentified). The Ravenna Cosmography adds the names of two more settlements: Nemetostatio, a name relating to nemeton, signifying "sanctuary' or "sacred grove" (probably to be identified with North Tawton, Devon) and Durocornavium (unidentified, but possibly Tintagel or Carn Brea). The name Durocornavium implies the existence of a tribe called the Cornavii, perhaps the ancestors of the Cornish people (although some trace the Cornish to an unlikely hypothetical migration of the Cornovii of the West Midlands). See the article Cornovii (Cornish) for further information.

In the sub-Roman period a Brythonic kingdom called Dumnonia emerged, covering the entire peninsula, although it is believed by some to have effectively been a collection of sub-kingdoms.

Interestingly a kingdom of Domnonee (and of (Kernev/Cornouaille alongside) was established in the province of Armorica directly across the English Channel, and has apparent links with the British population, suggesting an ancient connection of peoples along the western Atlantic seaboard.

The Dumnonii would have spoken a Brythonic dialect ancestral to modern Cornish and Breton.

Victorian historians often referred to this tribe as the Damnonii, which is also the name of another Celtic people from lowland Scotland, although there are no known links between the two populations. Another tribe with a similar name but with no known links was the Fir Domnann in the province of Connacht.

The god worshiped by the Dumnonii was known as 'Dumnonos' [3]

Isca Dumnoniorum and other settlements

The Latin name for Exeter, Isca Dumnoniorum ("Water of the Dumnonii"), suggests that the city was of Celtic origin. This oppidum (a Latin term meaning an important town) on the banks of the River Exe certainly existed prior to the foundation of the Roman city in about AD 50, however the name may have been suggested by a Celtic adviser to the Romans, rather than by the original inhabitants of the place [1]. Such early towns, or proto-cities, had been a feature of pre-Roman Gaul as described by Julius Caesar in his Commentarii de Bello Gallico ("Commentaries on the Gallic War") and it is possible that they existed in neighbouring Great Britain as well. Isca is derived from a Brythonic Celtic word for flowing water, which was given to the Exe and, elsewhere, to the River Usk (Welsh: 'Afon Wysg) on which Caerleon near Newport, South Wales stands. The Romans gave the city the name Isca Dumnoniorum in order to distinguish it from Isca Augusta, modern Caerleon.

Isca Dumnoniorum originated with a canaba that developed around the Roman fortress of the Legio II Augusta and is one of the four poleis (cities) attributed to the tribe by Ptolemy:[4][5] Next to these, but more to the west, are the Dumnoni,¹ whose towns are: Voliba [14*45 52°00] Uxella [15*00 52°45] Tamara [15*00 52°15] Isca,² where is located Legio II Augusta³ [17*30 52°45]. Ptolemy's Geography of the 2nd century.[4][5]

Isca Dumnoniorum is listed in two routes of the late 2nd century Antonine Itinerary, however, its inclusion in Iter XII seems to be an error. The remaining route, Iter XV, the last in the British section, is entitled "the route from Calleva to Isca Dumnoniorum", wherein Isca appears as the southern terminus and listed some 20 km from Muridunum (nr. Honiton, Devon).[4][5] Isca may also be the settlement named in the Ravenna Cosmography of the 7th century; however this is debated as perhaps due to the confused scribal entry of Scadu Namorum between two unknown entries, namely Melamoni and Termonin which may also be corruptions in themselves.[4]

The first Roman military building to be identified was the principia or regimental headquarters of a Neronian legionary fortress, built around AD 55-60 and below the monumental administrative buildings of the later Flavian period. This building lay at the centre of a 37 acre (15 ha) enclosure making it rather small for a legionary fortress – usually around 50 acres (20 ha) in area. It seems likely that the camp was never intended to house a full complement of the Legio II Augusta and that this reduction in the legionary complement may have been for two chief reasons. First, the legion may have suffered the loss of more than 1,000 men during its earlier campaigns in southern Britain. Secondly, a number of cohorts were housed elsewhere, possibly at Corinium in Gloucestershire or maybe on the Continent. "It is probable that there was an auxiliary fort at Exeter itself, which remains to be found below the later legionary base." [6]

An illustration of Exeter in 1563, entitled Civitas Exoniae (vulgo Excester) urbs primaria in comitatu Devoniae

For a long time the passage in Ptolemy which located the Legio II Augusta within the lands of the Dumnonii was believed to be wrong, in that the ancient author had mistakenly copied the data for Isca Silurum in South Wales; however, recent finds seem to confirm the presence of this unit during the early Neronian period. According to Salway, the legion's presence at Isca Dumnoniorum is supported by the appearance of a stamped roofing-tile there, in a layer dated to around AD 60.[7] A legionary bath-house was built inside the fortress sometime between 55 and 60 and underwent renovation shortly afterwards (c. 60-65) but by c. 68 (perhaps even 66) the legion had transferred to a newer fortress at Gloucester. This saw the dismantling of the Isca fortress, and the site was then abandoned. The Legio II Augusta was part of the Claudian invasion of Britain in AD 43, and future Emperor Vespasian was commander at the time. Vespasian led campaigns against both the Durotriges and Dumnonii. The Legio II Augusta was recorded as having suffered defeat by the Silures in 52. After Suetonius Paulinus's victory crushing the Boudiccan rebellion, the legion moved around military sites in Britannia. Around AD 75, work on the civitas forum and basilica had commenced on the site of the former principia and by the late 2nd century the civitas walls had been completed. They were 3 metres thick and 6 metres high and enclosed exactly the same area as the earlier fortress. However by the late 4th century the civitas was in decline.[8]

Significant parts of the Roman wall remain, though the present visible structure was largely built on the orders of Alfred the Great to protect the far west of his kingdom following the Viking occupation of 876. Most of its route can be traced on foot. There is a substantial Roman baths complex that was excavated in the 1970s,[9][10] but because of its proximity to the cathedral it has not been practicable to retain the excavation for public view. Exeter was also the southern end of the Fosse Way Roman road.

Other settlements that may have been identified are:

  • Uxelis (Launceston) - Uxella in the Ravenna Cosmography. The name has been connected to the Somerset river Axe, although no Roman settlement has yet been found.[4]
  • Tamaris (Plymouth)-Tamara in the Ravenna Cosmography suggesting a settlement on the River Tamar- although not yet positively identified.[4][5]

Names that appear in the Itineraries include:

  • Nemetostatio (North Tawton)- A Roman earthwork found here may be military, or possibly a tax collection station. This location is named in the Ravenna Cosmography.[4]
  • Voliba - unidentified[4]
  • Durocornavium - Purocoronavis in the Ravenna Cosmography, it may refer to an important native hill fort, such as Carn Brea or Tintagel.[4] The name has led to speculation about the Cornish Cornovii.

Other Romano-British sites in the Dumnonian area include:

  • Topsham (Devon) - a settlement and harbour that served Isca Dumnoniorum to which it was connected by road and river.[4]
  • Ictis (St. Michael's Mount) - an ancient port trading in tin.[4]
  • Nanstallon (Cornwall) - a square military enclosure, seemingly associated with tin workings at nearby Boscarne.[4]
  • Taunton (Devon)[citation needed] - a Roman settlement difficult to define.[4]
  • Mount Batten (Devon) - an Iron Age tin port that continued into Roman times.[4]
  • Plymouth (Devon) - evidence of a Roman settlement has been found on the north side of the harbour.[4][5]

New settlements continued to be built throughout the Roman period, including sites at Chysauster and Trevelgue Head. The style is native in form with no Romanised features. Near Padstow, a Roman site of some importance now lies buried under the sands on the opposite side of the Camel estuary near St. Enodoc's Church, and may have been a western coastal equivalent of a Saxon Shore Fort.[4] At Magor Farm in Illogan, near Camborne, an archaeological site has been identified as being a villa.[4]

Dumnonian territory

Dumnonia is noteworthy for its many settlements that have survived from the Romano-British period, but also for its lack of a villa system. Local archaeology has revealed instead the isolated enclosed farmsteads known locally as rounds. These seem to have survived the Roman abandonment of Britain, but were subsequently replaced, in the 6th and 7th centuries, by the unenclosed farms taking the Brythonic toponymic tre-.[11][12] As in most other Brythonic areas, Iron Age hill forts, such as Cadbury Castle, were refortified for the use of chieftains or kings. Other high-status settlements such as Tintagel seem to have been reconstructed during this period. Post-Roman imported pottery has been excavated from many sites across the region, and the apparent surge in late 5th century Mediterranean and/or Byzantine imports is yet to be explained satisfactorily.[13]

Dumnonian industries

Apart from fishing and agriculture, the main economic resource of the Dumnonii was tin mining. The area of Dumnonia had been mined since ancient times, and the tin was exported from the ancient trading port of Ictis (St Michael's Mount).[4] Tin extraction (mainly by streaming) had existed here from the early Bronze Age around the 22nd century BC. West Cornwall, around Mount's Bay, was traditionally thought to have been visited by metal traders from the eastern Mediterranean[14] During the first millennium BC trade became more organised, first with the Phoenicians, who settled Gades (Cadiz) around 1100 BC, and later with the Greeks, who had settled Massilia (Marseilles) and Narbo (Narbonne) around 600 BC. Smelted Cornish tin was collected at Ictis whence it was conveyed across the Bay of Biscay to the mouth of the Loire and then to Gades via the Loire and Rhone valleys. It went then through the Mediterranean Sea in ships to Gades.

During the period c. 500-450 BC, the tin deposits seem to have become more important, and fortified settlements appear such as at Chun Castle and Kenidjack Castle, to protect both the tin smelters and mines.[15]

The earliest account of Cornish tin mining was written by Pytheas of Massilia late in the 4th century BC after his circumnavigation of the British Isles. Underground mining was described in this account, although it cannot be determined when it had started. Pytheas's account was noted later by other writers including Pliny the Elder and Diodorus Siculus.[15]

It is likely that tin trade with the Mediterranean was later on under the control of the Veneti.[16] Britain was one of the places proposed for the Cassiterides, that is Tin Islands. Tin working continued throughout Roman occupation although it appears that output declined because of new supplies brought in from the deposits discovered in Iberia (Spain and Portugal). However when these supplies diminished, production in Dumnonia increased and appears to have reached a peak during the 3rd century AD.[15]

Dumnonian Brythonic language

The people of Dumnonia most probably spoke a Southwestern Brythonic dialect similar to the forerunner of more recent Cornish and Breton. Irish immigrants, the Déisi,[17] are evidenced by the Ogham-inscribed stones they have left behind, confirmed and supplemented by toponymical studies.[18] The stones are sometimes inscribed in Latin, sometimes in both scripts.[17] Tristram Risdon suggested the continuance of a Brythonic dialect in the South Hams, Devon, as late as the 14th century, in addition to its use in Cornwall.

Sub-Roman and post-Roman Dumnonia

The Sub-Roman or Post-Roman history of Dumnonia comes from a variety of sources and is considered exceedingly difficult to interpret[19] given that historical fact, legend and confused pseudo-history are compounded by a variety of sources in Middle Welsh and Latin. The main sources available for discussion of this period include Gildas's De Excidio Britanniae and Nennius's Historia Brittonum, the Annales Cambriae, Anglo Saxon Chronicle, William of Malmesbury's Gesta Regum Anglorum and De Antiquitate Glastoniensis Ecclesiae, along with texts from the Black Book of Carmarthen and the Red Book of Hergest, and Bede's Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum as well as "The Descent of the Men of the North" (Bonedd Gwŷr y Gogledd, in Peniarth MS 45 and elsewhere) and the Book of Baglan.

See also


  1. ^ Cunliffe, Barry (2005) Iron Age Communities in Britain: an Account of England, Scotland and Wales from the Seventh Century BC Until the Roman Conquest, 4th ed. pp. 201-206.
  2. ^ Cunliffe 2005:201-06.
  3. ^ Thomas, Charles (1986) Celtic Britain. London: Thames and Hudson; p. 22
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r http://www.roman-britain.org/tribes/dumnonii.htm#ptolemy
  5. ^ a b c d e http://www.roman-britain.org/ptolemy.htm
  6. ^ Webster, Graham (1993) The Roman Invasion of Britain. London 1993; p. 159
  7. ^ Salway, Peter (1981) Roman Britain. Oxford; pp. 98-99
  8. ^ http://www.roman-britain.org/places/isca_dumnoniorum.htm
  9. ^ "Great Sites: Exeter Roman Baths". British Archaeology magazine. June 2002. http://www.britarch.ac.uk/ba/ba65/feat2.shtml. Retrieved 2008-07-12. 
  10. ^ "The Roman Fortress at Exeter: The Roman Bath House". Archived from the original on 2008-06-04. http://web.archive.org/web/20080604101008/http://www.exeter.gov.uk/timetrail/02_romanfortress/bath_house.htm. Retrieved 2008-07-12. 
  11. ^ Pearce, Susan M. (1978) The Kingdom of Dumnonia. Padstow: Lodenek Press
  12. ^ Kain, Roger; Ravenhill, William (eds.) (1999) Historical Atlas of South-West England. Exeter / provides detailed information
  13. ^ Thomas, Charles (1981) reviewing Pearce (1978) in Britannia 12; p. 417
  14. ^ Hawkins, Christopher (1811) Observations on the Tin Trade of the Ancients in Cornwall. London: J. J. Stockdale
  15. ^ a b c http://www.trevithick-society.org.uk/industry/cornish_history.htm
  16. ^ Champion, Timothy "The Appropriation of the Phoenicians in British Imperial Ideology" in: Nations and Nationalism, Volume 7, Issue 4, pp. 451-65, October 2001
  17. ^ a b Thomas, Charles (1994) "And Shall These Mute Stones Speak?": post-Roman inscriptions in western Britain. Cardiff: University of Wales Press.
  18. ^ Celtic Inscribed Stones Project (CISP) on-line database
  19. ^ Webster, Graham (1991) The Cornovii (Peoples of Roman Britain series). London: Duckworth

Further reading

Annales Cambriae

  • Phillimore, Egerton, ed., The Annales Cambriae and Old Welsh Genealogies from Harleian, MS. 3859, Y Cymmrodor 9 (1888) pp.141-183.
  • Remfry, P.M., Annales Cambriae. A Translation of Harleian 3859; PRO E.164/1; Cottonian Domitian, A 1; Exeter Cathedral Library MS. 3514 and MS Exchequer DB Neath, PRO E (ISBN 1-899376-81-X)
  • Williams (ab Ithel), John, ed. (1860), Annales Cambriae (4441288), London: Longman, Green, Longman, and Roberts.

External links

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