The Brigantes were loose confederation of tribes who in pre-Roman times controlled the largest section of what would become Northern England. Their territory, often referred to as Brigantia, was centred in what was later known as Yorkshire.
The Brigantes Tribal Name
“Below the Selgovae and Otalini are the Brigantes extending to both seas, among whom are the following towns: Epiacum 18*30 58°30 Vinovium 17*45 58°00 Caturactonium 20*00 58°00 Calatum 19*00 57°45 Isurium 20*00 57°40 Rigodunum 18*00 57°30 Olicana 19*00 57°30 Eboracum, Legio VI Victrix 20*00 57°20 Camulodunum 18*00 57°45.” Above quote from the Geographia of Ptolemy (II.ii)
The Brigantes tribe occupied/inhabited the whole of North-East England with exception of Humberside, which was inhabited by the Parisi, and Cumbria, which was occupied by the . They built small, fortified hill crofts but very few hill-forts. They were probably a federation of smaller states, once independent but at some time uniting under a single tribal banner. It is possible that the vast earthworks still visible at Stanwick on the North Yorkshire Moors was a moot of the tribe, a place where the widely-separated branches of the Brigantean federation would meet once a year to exchange goods and livestock, to bandy tall tales and to arrange marriages between thier children.
Other passages in Ptolemy Book II Chapter 2 give the ancient names of a number of rivers and other geographical features within the territories of the Brigantes tribe:
- Tinea Fluvius (River Tyne) is thought to have formed the north-eastern boundary of the tribal lands, separating the Brigantes from the [link_post post_id="1333"] tribe in Northumbria.
- Vedra Fluvius (River Wear) empties into the North Sea at Sunderland.
- Dunum Sinus (Tees Bay) between modern Hartlepool and Redcar. The name may be translated as ‘The Bay of the Fortification’ but it is uncertain as to which fortified settlement is meant.
- Abus Fluvius (River Humber) may have once formed the south-eastern tribal boundary between the Brigantes and the [link_post post_id="1316" type="link"]Coritani of Lincolnshire, before the parisi moved into North Humberside.
- Seteia Aestuarium (Mersey Estuary) marked the south-western boundary of the Brigantes, separating them from the Cornovii in Cheshire.
- Belisama Fluvius (River Ribble) is thought to have formed the southern boundary of a minor tribal sect, the Setantii, who inhabited the area of modern Blackpool and the Fylde.
- Moricambe Aestuarium (Morecambe Bay) on the west coast of Lancashire probably marked the border with the Carvetii.
The Civitas Brigantum The Principal Tribal Centre
The Nine Tribal sites Assigned by Ptolemy
- Epiacvm(Whitley Castle, Northumberland) …
- Vinovia(Binchester, Durham) …
- Cataractonivm(Catterick, North Yorkshire) …
- Calacvm(Burrow in Lonsdale, Lancashire) [Overborough?] …
- Isvrivm(Aldborough, North Yorkshire) …
- Rigodvnvm(Castleshaw, Greater Manchester) [Ingleborough?] …
- Olenacvm (Elslack, North Yorkshire) [Ilkley?] …
- Ebvracvm(York, North Yorkshire) …
- Cambodvnvm(Slack, West Yorkshire) …
Other Tribal Settlements
- Bremetenacvm Veteranorvm(Ribchester, Lancashire) – A number of Sarmatian veterans were settled here, probably by Antoninus Pius following a Brigantian revolt mentioned by Pausanias.
- Calcaria(Tadcaster, North Yorkshire) – Assigned to the Brigantes in the Antonine Itinerary and the Ravenna Cosmography.
- Cambodvnvm(Cleckheaton?, nr. Dewsbury) – South-west of Tadcaster, along the road to Slack and Manchester. Mentioned in the Antonine Itinerary. Roman name transferred from the Brigantian hillfort at Castle Hill, Almondbury, near Huddersfield.
- Dictivm(Whitby?, North Yorkshire) – Sea-Jet for votive carvings and personal ornaments was collected from the beach here, but no settlement has been identified.
- Adel(nr. Leeds, West Yorkshire) – Small civil settlement.
According to Lempriere, the word Briga or Brica was used by the ancient inhabitants of Gaul and Germany simply to signify a town or settlement. Although this could be the root of the tribal name, the Briga- prefix in this instance probably refers to the British goddess Brigit. This deity is often associated with the Roman Minerva, Greek Athene, and probably the Irish Morrigan, all fertility-curative-knowledge deities. She was perhaps also known by the name Brigantia.
The name Brigantes, then, should be translated ‘The People of Brigit’.
Briga- Prefixed Names in Europe
- Brigantes Major tribe of Northern Britain. Tribal capital Isurium Brigantum. (22CDb)
- Brigantii People of Central Raetia whose tribal capital named Brigantium was situated on the south-east shore of the Brigantinus Lacus. Another of their major towns was Cambodunum. (23HJd)
- Brigantinus Lacus A lake in Raetia in the Alps, now known as Lake Constance, through which the River Rhine flows. (23Hd)
- Brigantium Raetiae Tribal capital of the Brigantii situated on the eastern shores of Brigantinus Lacus in Central Raetia. Now known as Bregentz on Lake Constance in the Austrian Tyrol. (23Hd)
- Brigantio Roman settlement in the Cottian Alps. (23Ge)
- Brigantium Hispaniae also known as Brigantinus Portus, was the ancient name of the seaport of Corunna in north-western Spain. A major settlement of the northern Gallaeci tribe, was situated in the conventus Lucensis, part of the province of Gallia Tarraconensis. This seaport was the western terminus of a major trade route in tin, gold, lead and silver. (25aBa, 30aDe)
The codes within brackets in the above list refer to the maps and grid-references in Atlas of the Greek and Roman World in Antiquity by Nicholas G.L. Hammond.
Shrines to the deity Brigantia in Britain
Brigantia was the patron deity of the Brigantes tribe and was also venerated throughout the iron-age world under the names of Birgit, Brigit and Bride. She was the three-fold goddess of wisdom, known as the ‘Mother of Memory’, a daughter of Dana the Iron-age mother goddess. Many of her altars are conflated with Victoria or Nike and demonstrate that she must have shared some attributes with these martial goddesses.
- Slack, Outlane (623 [Bregantia et Num Aug]);
- Greetland (627 [208AD; Victoria Brigantia et Num Aug]);
- Castleford (628 [Victoria Brigantia]);
- Adel (630 [deae Brigan]);
- South Shields (1053);
- Corbridge (1131 [Iovi Aeterno Dolicheno et Celestial Brigantia]);
- Hadrian’s Wall (2066 [212-17AD, Nymphae Brig]);
- Birrens (2091).
Brigantian History from the Classics
A revolt in Brigantia is quelled by Ostorius Scapula 47AD
After devastating the lands of the Deceangi in north-east Wales, Scapula prepared to assault the island of Mona, or Anglesea, off the north-west coast of Wales.
‘… Ostorius was within measurable distance of the sea which looks towards the island of Hibernia¹, when an outbreak of sedition among the Brigantes recalled a leader who was firm in his resolution to attempt new conquests only when he had secured the old. The Brigantian rising … subsided on the execution of a handful of men, who were beginning hostilities, and the pardon of the rest; …’ (Tacitus Annales xii.32)
Following this internecine struggle among the Brigantes, the clientship of Rome was conferred upon Queen Cartimandua, who, along with her consort Venutius, were to rule the Brigantes for the next few years in comparative quiet.
Cartimandua surrenders Caratacus to Ostorius 51AD
A test of Cartimandua’s loyalty to emperor Claudius in Rome came after the crushing defeat of the British warlord Caratacus in mid-Wales by the Roman legate Ostorius Scapula.
‘Caratacus himself … after seeking the protection of the Brigantian queen Cartimandua, was arrested and handed to the victors, in the ninth year from the opening of the war in Britain. …’ (Tacitus Annales xii.36)
Caratacus was led in triumph by Claudius through the streets of Rome some time in the autumn of 51AD, and the ornaments of a triumphant general were conferred upon Ostorius, without him actually celebrating a triumph himself, which honours were reserved exclusively for the imperial house.
The Uprising of Venutius is Quelled by Didius Gallus c.55/56AD
Following the betrayal of Caratacus, all was not well in Brigantia, and dissentions were being voiced, particularly it would seem, from Venutius, the prince-consort of Cartimandua. Though unproven, it is thought that Venutius hailed from the Carvetii, an influential sub-tribe of the Brigantian Federation who inhabited the area in and around the modern county of Cumbria in north-west England, including parts of Durham and south-west Scotland; it is very likely that the lost part of Tacitus’ Annals would have confirmed this assumption (see footnote below).
‘… Since the capture of Caratacus, however, the Briton with the best knowledge of the art of war was Venutius, whose Brigantian extraction has been mentioned earlier.¹ He had long been loyal, and had recieved the protection of Roman arms during his married life with Queen Cartimandua: then had come a divorce, followed by immediate war, and he had extended his hostility to ourselves. At first, however, the struggle was confined to the pair; and Cartimandua adroitly entrapped the brother and family connections of Venutius. Incensed at her act, and smarting at the ignominious prospect of submitting to the sway of a woman, the enemy – a powerful body of young and picked warriors – invaded her kingdom. That event had been forseen by us, and the cohorts sent to the rescue fought a sharp engagement, with dubious results at the outset but a more cheerful conclusion. …’ (Tacitus Annales xii.40)
- The previous reference in the Annals is now lost.
Following his domestic dispute and subsequent escapade with the Roman military, Venutius could not remain at the court of Cartimandua and would have been forced to retire to his own lands in the north. This is not documented in any of the classics, but seems to be the only logical conclusion. The Roman intervention led by Gallus was to see peace amongst the Brigantes for the next decade or so.
The Revolt of Venutius 69/70AD
It is obvious that relations between the royal couple were to deteriorate significantly in the intervening years, for the ageing queen had a scandalous affair which rocked the Brigantian court, and eventually led to the Roman governor Vettius Bolanus being replaced by a more forceful general.
‘Inspired by these differences between the Roman forces and by the many rumours of civil war that reached them, the Britons plucked up courage under the leadership of Venutius, who, in addition to his natural spirit and hatred of the Roman name, was fired by his personal resentment toward Queen Cartimandua. She was ruler over the Brigantes, having the influence that belongs to high birth, and she had later strengthened her power when she was credited with having captured King Caratacus by treachery and so furnished an adornment for the triumph of Claudius Caesar. From this came her wealth and the wanton spirit which success breeds. She grew to despise her husband Venutius, and took as her consort his squire Vellocatus, whom she admitted to share the throne with her. Her house was at once shaken by this scandalous act. Her husband was favoured by the sentiments of all the citizens; the adulterer was supported by the queen’s passion for him and by her savage spirit. So Venutius, calling in aid from outside and at the same time assisted by a revolt of the Brigantes themselves, put Cartimandua in an extremely dangerous position. Then she asked the Romans for protection, and in fact some companies of our foot and horse, after meeting with indifferent success in a number of engagements, finally succeeded in rescuing the queen from danger. The throne was left to Venutius; the war to us.’ (Tacitus Historia iii.45)
Partly Annexed by Petilius Cerialis 71-74AD
Since the legitimate monarch of the Brigantes, a client of Rome, had been forcibly removed from her throne, Brigantia for the first time was to feel the full wrath of the Roman military machine. Petillius Cerialis, recently victorious against the renegade Julius Civilis in Lower Germany, was sent to Britain with a new legion, the Second Adiutrix, and immediately launched a campaign against the northern tribe.
‘When Britain with the rest of the world was recovered by Vespasian, … Petillius Cerialis at once struck terror into their hearts by invading the commonwealth of the Brigantes, which is said to be the most numerous tribe of the whole province: many battles were fought, sometimes bloody battles, and by permanent conquest or by forays he annexed a large portion of the Brigantes.’ (Tacitus Agricola xvii.1)
The following governor, Sextus Julius Frontinus, focussed all his attention on reducing the Silures tribe of south Wales, the Brigantes were for the moment, given respite from attack by Rome.
Conquered by Agricola during his Second Campign Season 79AD
The Silures were reduced by the campaigns of Frontinus, but the following governor, Gnaeus Julius Agricola, after finally conquering the supposed stronghold of the druids on the Isle of Mona (Anglesey), turned the focus of Rome once more upon the Brigantes.
‘When summer came he gathered his army and was present everywhere on the march, commending discipline, curbing stragglers: he chose himself the camping-ground: he was the first himself to explore estuaries and forests: meanwhile he gave the enemy no peace from the devastations of sudden raids: …’ (Tacitus Agricola xx.2)
The estuaries mentioned were those on the north-west coast of England, above North Wales; Mersey, Ribble, Lune, Kent, Deddon, Esk and Solway. Perhaps also the estuary of the Tees on the east coast.
‘By these means many states which up to that time had been independent were induced to give hostages and abandon their hostility: …’ (Tacitus Agricola xx.3)
The next chapter places Agricola the following year [80AD] at the Estuary of the Tay in southern Scotland, it would seem therefore, that the ‘many states’ mentioned were those of the Brigantes, including the Carvetii, Venutius’ own tribe, who formed the north-western part of the Brigantes federation.
Other Classical References
‘…’ (Juvenal, xiv.196)
‘…’ (Pausanias, viii.43)
An Error in Agricola?
‘A woman could lead the Brigantes to burn a colony, to storm a camp; …’ (Tacitus Agricola xxxi.4)
The Brigantes took no part in the rising of the Iceni under Boudicca in the winter of 60/61AD, and the only documented queen of the Brigantes, Cartimandua, was a client of Rome and would not have been involved in the destruction of a Roman Colonia such as happened to Camulodunum (Colchester). It is thought that the original manuscript of Tacitus here contained the word Trinobantes, and that the error was later introduced by some unknown copyist.
The Brigantian Nobility
One of only two British women to be mentioned in the ancient sources, namely the Annals of Tacitus, the other being Boudicca, mentioned by Dio. She was the leading noble of the Brigantian federation who was probably granted a clientship with Rome in 43AD, along with her consort Venutius of the Carvetii. During the spring of 48AD, political pressure from certain rebels within the Brigantian nobility forced Ostorius Scapula to abandon his campaign against the Ordovices in north Wales, and turn his attention to the Brigantes (Tacitus Annals XII, 32). In 51AD Cartimandua tricked and captured the Catuvellaunian warlord Caratacus, then honoured her agreement with Rome by surrendering him to Scapula, who was still governor (Tacitus Annals XII, 36). This action seems to have stirred up some resentment towards the rule of Cartimandua within the Brigantian nobility, which for a period, lurked beneath the surface of the seemingly calm tribal pool. In circa 53AD, however, Venutius divorced Cartimandua and formed a faction of his own amongst his Carvetian tribespeople, attacking Cartimandua’s power-base and causing the new Roman governor, Aulus Didius Gallus to send a number of auxiliary cohorts to her aid (Tacitus Annals XII, 40). Cartimandua continued to rule the Brigantes for a number of years with her own armour-bearer, Vellocatus, as her consort. However, the seeds of discontent were still germinating in the ranks of the Brigantian ruling houses for another rebellion occurred during the governorship of Marcus Vettius Bolanus around 70AD. During this uprising, Cartimandua had to be rescued by an ala of Roman auxiliary cavalry sent specifically for this purpose by the governor who was occupied against the Silures in south Wales. This continuing Brigantian unrest caused the emperor Vespasian to annul the clientship of the Brigantes and for the first time, they came under the direct rule of Rome.
The shield-bearer of Cartimandua, who became her lover after her consort Venutius divorced her, some time around 55AD. He lived possibly until after c.70AD when another Brigantian revolution forced Cartimandua to seek the protection of the Roman governor, leading to the dissolution of the clientship and the advent of direct rule by Rome.
For further information on Venutius see the Carvetii tribal page.
References for The Brigantes
- The Geography of Claudius Ptolemaeus, trans. by E.L. Stevenson (Dover, New York, 1991);
- Atlas of Great Britain by the Ordnance Survey (Country Life, 1982);
- Historical Map and Guide: Roman Britain by the OS (4th Ed., 1990);