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Representational image of Boudica, the warrior queen of the Iceni, one of the many Iron Age tribes of Britain. Source: NorLife / Adobe Stock

Forging a Nation: The Iron Age Tribes of Britain

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The Iron Age tribes of Britain were dynamic societies that flourished between roughly 800 BC and 43 AD. This pivotal period marked a significant transition in British history, characterized by the widespread use of iron tools and weapons, the emergence of complex social structures and the construction of impressive hillforts and settlements across the landscape.

Often organized into distinct communities with their own leaders and customs, the Iron Age tribes of Britain navigated a landscape shaped by both cooperation and conflict. Through archaeological discoveries and ongoing research, we continue to unravel the mysteries of these ancient peoples and gain insight into their daily lives, beliefs and interactions.

The British Iron Age and the Tribes Recorded by the Romans

As a period, the British Iron Age began around 800 to 600 BC and lasted until the Romans invaded and established the province of Britannia between 50 BC and around 100 AD. The people of Iron Age Britain lived in tribal groups ruled over by chieftains. Historians usually divide the period into three eras—the early, middle and late. It’s believed that during the Early Iron Age, the relationship between different Iron Age tribes was often antagonistic but evolved over time, especially as many of the tribes began to unite during the Roman Conquest.

There were many, many tribes. At the time of the Roman Conquest, there were at least 27 major tribes with many other smaller offshoots. The Roman historian Tacitus believed that the ancient Britons were all immigrants who had arrived in Britain from the continent. He wrote that the different tribes had origins in various parts of the continent, for example, the people of Caledonia were German, the Silures of Wales were Iberian and those in the South came from Gaul.

Much of what we know about the tribes comes from Greek and Roman historians and scholars who visited the land in the second century AD (long after the Romans had staked their claim). Ptolemy’s writings were particularly influential as his works give us many of the tribes’ names and geographical locations. Some of his musings have been backed up by archaeological evidence, especially the distribution of coins from different tribes and pottery fragments unique to each tribe's culture as well as their burial sites.

There are more Iron Age tribes than we can list here so we’ve included only the most powerful, influential and downright interesting. It should be noted that the names used here were given by Roman and Greek historians and in most cases, the tribes themselves never used these names.

Excavations at Calleva Atrebatum, the capital of the Atrebates Iron Age tribe, near Silchester in Hampshire. (Philip Pankhurst / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Excavations at Calleva Atrebatum, the capital of the Atrebates Iron Age tribe, near Silchester in Hampshire. (Philip Pankhurst / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Iron Age Tribes of Britannia #1: The Atrebates

At the time of the Roman Conquest, the Atrebates were the second most powerful of Iron Age Britain’s tribes. It’s believed they were made up of a confederation of tribes that were ruled over by a single dynasty and their territory covered modern Sussex, Hampshire and Berkshire.

The Atrebates share their name with a tribe from pre-Roman France and most likely originated in northern Gaul, settling in Britain at some point in the first century BC. According to one contemporary historian, Sextus Julius Frontinu, the Atrebates were founded by a Belgic King, Commius, who fled to Britain.

Throughout their existence the Atrebates maintained close relations with the French tribes, trading with them and even marrying into them. During the Roman conquest of Britain, the Atrebates initially resisted Roman rule but eventually became part of the Roman province of Britannia.

Iron Age Tribes of Britannia #2: Cantiaci

Like the Atrebates, the Cantiaci also hailed from Gaul and were also originally a Belgic tribe. They most likely settled in Britain during the second century BC, ruling over parts of North and East Kent. They were also made up of smaller tribes who tended to band together during times of conflict.

Little else is known about them except that their culture was heavily influenced by the peoples of France and the Mediterranean. This influence can be seen in the way the Cantiaci copied the French custom of cremating their dead.

British gold coin the iron age Catuvellauni tribe showing a horse from the Essendon treasure hoard at the time of the Roman invasion of Britain. (Tony Baggett / Adobe Stock)

British gold coin the iron age Catuvellauni tribe showing a horse from the Essendon treasure hoard at the time of the Roman invasion of Britain. (Tony Baggett / Adobe Stock)

Iron Age Tribes of Britannia #3: Catuvellauni

The Catuvellauni were one of the more interesting Iron Age tribes of Britain and we actually know a surprising amount about them. They had a relatively large territory that included Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire and southern Cambridgeshire as well as parts of Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire. 

The Catuvellauni were one of the most powerful tribes and it’s thought their name means “good in battle.” They earned this reputation during the rule of their first known king, Tasciovanus, and his successors. These rulers built a large kingdom by defeating rival tribes and allying themselves with other powerful tribes, especially the Trinovantes and Cantiaci. Eventually, these three united to form perhaps the most powerful tribe in Iron Age Britain, led by the Catuvellauni.

Like their allies, the Catuvellauni were heavily influenced by the culture of French tribes; they also cremated their dead and mimicked French ways of dressing and cooking. The Catuvellauni built a royal and ritual center at Verulamium, modern St Albans, and their territory featured several large settlements such as Baldock and Welwyn.

The Catuvellauni did especially well under Roman rule. Following Caesar’s visit in 44 to 45 BC, the tribe only grew in power. This is because the Catuvellauni were very pro-Roman and happily adopted Roman lifestyles and easily adapted to Roman rule. Their capital city, Verulamoum, became one of the richest cities in Roman Britain.

Iron Age Tribes of Britannia #4: Dobunni

The Dobunni were one of the most peaceful Iron Age tribes of Britain. A pastoral Celtic culture, they lived in small farming communities across much of southwest Britain and were known for their advanced farming techniques, particularly in the cultivation of grains and the raising of livestock.

During the late Iron Age, they made a half-hearted effort to oppose the Romans and started building fortified camps and settlements called  oppida. However, according to local accounts when these fortifications failed to dissuade the Romans, the Dobunni surrendered, rather than take on the might of the Romans. They were ultimately incorporated into the Roman province of Britannia and their territory became part of the Roman administrative system. 

Iron Age Tribes of Britannia #5: Trinovantes

Alongside the Catuvellauni, the Trinovantes are one of the more well-known Iron Age tribes. This is likely because they were the first tribe to be mentioned by a Romana author and appeared in Caesar’s writings of his 54 BC invasion. Much like the Catuvellauni and Cantiaci, the Trinovantes likely originated from France and were heavily influenced by French culture.

They bartered with coins, cremated their dead and even ate from plates and used cups. This might not sound particularly special today, but these details made them somewhat “civilized” compared to many of Britain’s other tribes. While the Trinovantes started out in an alliance with the Catuvellauni, they were ultimately swallowed up by their most successful ally.

The Catuvellauni’s most successful king, Cunobelinus, eventually absorbed the Trinovantes and Cantiacito to create one, more powerful, kingdom. He established the center of his power at Colchester, which was attacked by Claudius in 43 AD. Following this, the Trinovantes split from the Catuvellauni and were made a  civitas (an administrative unit or county) by the Romans. Ironically, under the Romans the Trinovantes regained some of the autonomy they had lost after allying with the Catuvellauni.

The Great Torc from Snettisham, is a large neck ring dating back to the 1st century BC connected with royalty from the Iceni Iron Age tribe. (Paul Hudson / CC BY 2.0)

The Great Torc from Snettisham, is a large neck ring dating back to the 1st century BC connected with royalty from the Iceni Iron Age tribe. (Paul Hudson / CC BY 2.0)

Iron Age Tribes of Britannia #6: Iceni

Before the Romans came along the Iceni ruled over what is now Norfolk and parts of Suffolk and Cambridgeshire. They peaked between 200 and 50 BC and were among the most powerful and wealthy of Britain’s Iron Age tribes. In fact, their former territory has yielded the greatest hordes of gold treasure found in Iron Age Britain sites; the Snettisham torcs (a collection of gold neck rings).

Unlike the Catuvellauni and Trinovantes, who welcomed the Romans, the Iceni initially avoided them and shunned the lifestyle changes that came with the Romans. When the Romans tried to force their influence upon the Iceni the result was a massive revolt in 47 AD. While the Iceni technically lost this revolt, they still managed to stay somewhat independent until their King, Prasutagus, died around 60 AD.

Following his death, the Romans once again tried to take control over the Iceni lands. This didn’t go down well with the Iceni’s new ruler, the infamous warrior queen, Boudica. She responded by launching a massive rebellion between 60 and 61 AD against the Romans. It was the largest threat the Romans ever encountered in Britain and resulted in Boudica burning the major settlements of Londinium, Camulodunum and Verulamium. 

Sadly, the revolt was short lived, and the Romans crushed Boudica and her supporters. Other Britons took inspiration, however, and Boudica’s action inspired later, longer-lasting revolts against the Romans.

Representational image of Queen Boudica of the Iceni, one of the many Iron Age tribes of Britain. (Riya / Adobe Stock)

Representational image of Queen Boudica of the Iceni, one of the many Iron Age tribes of Britain. (Riya / Adobe Stock)

Iron Age Tribes of Britannia #7: Parisi

The Parisi are one of the more mysterious and intriguing Iron Age tribes of Britain. The only historical reference to them is in Ptolemy’s  Geographica, in which he places them somewhere in East Yorkshire. This would imply they were a relatively small and unimportant tribe.

However, we have a surprising amount of archaeological information on them. The Parisi carried out strange “chariot burials” and buried their dead in large cemeteries from 300 to 100 BC. This was similar to how the French and German peoples buried their dead during this period. This, along with their name, which comes from the region around Paris, would suggest the Parisi shared close ties with the continent.

But in other ways, the archaeological evidence shows the Parisi were distinctly “British.” They lived in British-style houses, wore typically Iron Age jewelry and decorated their pottery in a distinctly “British” way. By the time the Romans arrived, they had also changed the way in which they buried their dead.

Despite their small size, the Parisi avoided being swallowed up by their large neighbor, the Brigantes (a large confederation of tribes that cropped up around the same time the Romans invaded) and remained distinct even after being taken over by the Romans and being turned into a civitas.

Iron Age Tribes of Britannia #8: The Fearsome Deceangli of Wales

The Deceangli were one of three major tribes living in the mountains of what is Wales today during the Iron Age. The Deceangli lived in north Wales and their territory covered parts of Flintshire and Cheshire and, for the most part, they lived in hill forts located in the region’s mountains. Unlike most of the Welsh tribes, the Deceangli put up little resistance against the Romans and quickly surrendered during the conquest. This isn’t to say there was no bloodshed.

Historians believe that the Isle of Anglesey also fell within the Deceangli’s territory. Known as Mona at the time, Anglesey was famously a Druid stronghold. The Druids were anti-Roman and had historically encouraged the Britons to resist Roman influence. In either 60 or 61 AD the Romans completed their conquest of Wales by invading Anglesey and slaughtering all the Druids who lived there. The Deceangli, who had already surrendered, failed to protect the Druids against the Romans’ vengeful onslaught.

The Roman invasion of Anglesey, depicted in a painting by John Harris Valda. (Public domain)

The Roman invasion of Anglesey, depicted in a painting by John Harris Valda. (Public domain)

Iron Age Tribes of Britannia #9: The Ordovices of Wales

The Ordovices were another Welsh mountain tribe. Located mainly in the Northwest of Wales, they lived on small but heavily defended farms. Of all the Iron Age tribes the Ordovices, alongside their neighbors, the Silures, put up the longest and most fierce fight against the Romans.

This resistance began in 43 AD when a Breton leader, Caratacus, fled to Wales following Emperor Claudius’s invasion. While there he whipped up a rebellion that culminated in the Battle of Caer Caradoc in 50 AD. During this battle, the Ordovices were defeated and Caratacus was captured. 

However, despite their defeat, the Ordovices continued to be a thorn in Rome’s side, and it took nearly thirty years for the Romans to defeat them for good. It wasn’t until 77 to 78 AD that the Ordovices were subdued by the Roman governor Gnaeus Julius Agricola and General Agricola and officially made part of Britannia.

Iron Age Tribes of Britannia #10: The Silures of Wales

The Silures were just as hard to deal with as the Ordovices. Located in southeast Wales, Tacitus described the Silures as a strong, warlike nation, who initially led the charge against the Roman advance into Wales.

For over ten years successive Roman governors fought against the Silures, trying to contain them. It’s unclear what happened to them. Some Roman historians claim that around 78 AD Sextus Julius Frontinus defeated the Silures. 

However, Tacitus claimed the tribe was “changed neither by cruelty nor by clemency” which some have interpreted as meaning that rather than being destroyed the Silures eventually came to terms with Rome. This continued resistance and independence may explain why they were granted civitas status much later than most other tribes.

Iron Age Tribes of Britannia #11: The Demetae of Wales

Not all the Welsh tribes had such an antagonistic relationship with the Romans. The Demetae covered much of Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire, and being less warlike than their neighbors, tended to focus on agriculture over warfare.

When the Romans arrived the Demetae were friendly and soon adapted to life under Roman rule. The Romans wasted few resources garrisoning the region, except to protect the Demetae from their hostile neighbors, the Silures.

The Demetae quickly became a civitas and their capital was founded at Carmarthen. Ironically, while the other Welsh tribes ultimately disappeared, swallowed up by the Romans, the more peaceful Demetae were the only tribe to survive the Roman conquest intact. The Demetae tribal name and homeland were still in use well into the Middle Ages, long after most Iron Age tribes had been forgotten.

Iron Age Tribes of Britannia #12: The Tribes of Caledonia

Caledonia was the Roman name for the region corresponding to modern-day Scotland during the Iron Age. The Iron Age tribes inhabiting Caledonia were fiercely independent and known for their resistance against Roman expansion into their territories. Among the prominent tribes were the Caledonii, who fiercely defended their lands against Roman incursions.

Little is known about the specific social structure and customs of the Iron Age tribes of Caledonia, as most of the information comes from Roman accounts (mainly Ptolemy), which tend to be biased and limited. However, archaeological evidence suggests that these tribes lived in fortified hillforts and practiced agriculture, herding, and possibly some form of organized trade.

The Caledonians were known for their military prowess and often clashed with Roman forces attempting to subdue their territories. One of the most notable conflicts was the Battle of Mons Graupius in AD 83, where the Roman general Agricola claimed victory over a coalition of Caledonian tribes.

Despite Roman attempts to conquer Caledonia, the tribes of the region maintained their independence for centuries, resisting Roman control until the eventual withdrawal of Roman forces from Britain in the early 5th century AD. 

The Iron Age tribes of Caledonia managed to resist Roman control. (snapshotfreddy / Adobe Stock)

The Iron Age tribes of Caledonia managed to resist Roman control. (snapshotfreddy / Adobe Stock)

The Legacy of the Iron Age Tribes of Britannia

The Iron Age tribes of Britain, including the Atrebates, Cantiaci, Dobunni and others, left an enduring legacy that continues to captivate our imagination today. Their sophisticated societies, characterized by skilled craftsmanship, intricate social structures and formidable fortifications, shaped the landscape and culture of ancient Britain. 

Iron Age Britain may have fallen to Rome’s might, but not all the tribes went willingly. Boudica remains a British national heroine and the Caledonians legacy lives on in Scotland’s continued fight for independence.

Through archaeological discoveries and historical accounts, we catch glimpses of their daily lives, their struggles and their achievements. As we unravel the mysteries of the Iron Age, we gain a deeper appreciation for the rich tapestry of human history that unfolded in these ancient lands, reminding us of the resilience and ingenuity of our ancestors.

Top image: Representational image of Boudica, the warrior queen of the Iceni, one of the many Iron Age tribes of Britain. Source: NorLife / Adobe Stock

By Robbie Mitchell

References

BBC. 2014. “Native Tribes of Britain” in  BBC History. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/british_prehistory/iron_01.shtml

Doughty. S. No date. “Iron Age Tribes in Britain” in  Warwick University. Available at: https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/classics/warwickclassicsnetwork/romancoventry/resources/prehistoricbritain/ironage/tribes/

Milligan. M. 20 January 2021. “The Iron Age Tribes of Britain” in  Heritage Daily. Available at: https://www.heritagedaily.com/2021/01/the-iron-age-tribes-of-britain/136847

 

 

Frequently Asked Questions

Iron Age tribes who flourished from about 800 BC to 43 AD in Britannia left a profound mark on the landscape and shaped the course of British history. These included tribes such as the Iceni, known for Queen Boudica's revolt, the Catuvellauni, renowned for their powerful kingdom led by Tasciovanus, and the Trinovantes, famed for their alliance with the Catuvellauni.

The original tribes in England during the Iron Age, amongst the earliest known inhabitants of the region at the time of the Roman conquest, included the Atrebates, Cantiaci, and Catuvellauni, among others. These tribes established distinct territories and cultural identities, contributing to the rich tapestry of ancient Britannia.

Several British tribes fiercely resisted Roman conquest, including the Iceni, Trinovantes, and Silures. Their courageous resistance against Roman encroachment left a lasting legacy of defiance and resilience in the annals of British history.

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Robbie

I’m a graduate of History and Literature from The University of Manchester in England and a total history geek. Since a young age, I’ve been obsessed with history. The weirder the better. I spend my days working as a freelance... Read More

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