The Celtic Tribes of Britain

The Cornovii

"From these [the Ordovices] toward the east are the Cornavi,
among whom are the towns:
Deva, Legio XX Victrix 17*30 56°45
Viroconium 16*45 55°45."

The Cornovii tribal lands encompassed the modern county of Shropshire along with considerable portions of southern Cheshire, western Staffordshire, the West Midlands and eastern Clwyd, also including small portions of north-east Powys and northern Hereford & Worcester. No pre-Roman tribal centre has been identified but the tribal lands are absolutely throbbing with Iron-Age hillforts. Despite this profusion of hill-top fortifications the tribe was remarkably aceramic, having no pottery industry to speak of. This points to the Cornovii leading a mainly pastoral lifestyle, where wooden bowls and utensils were used in preference to pottery vessels, which would be more easily broken. The tribe is also remarkable in that it produced no coinage of its own.

Ptolemy also tells us the names of the neighbouring tribes: the Brigantes in the north-east, the Coritani to the east, the Dobunni to the south, the Demetae to the west and the Deceangi to the north-west. Other passages in Ptolemy give the ancient names of other geographical features within the territories of the tribe:

Principal Tribal Sites

The Civitas Cornoviorum
The Tribal Administrative Centre

Viroconivm Cornoviorvm (Wroxeter, Shropshire)

Wroxeter was the fourth largest town in Roman Britain, occupying the same site as a former legionary fortress, originally built by Legio XIV Gemina Martia Victrix around 47AD. This legion occupied the fortress for only a short period before it was withdrawn from Britain, whereupon Legio XX Valeria Victrix took up occupancy, again for only a short time before being moved to Chester. The modern place-name, Wroxeter, evidently stems from an Anglo-Saxon contraction of the Romano-British name (coupled with the word ceaster), while the Wrekin hillfort, which dominates the site of the Roman Town from the east, has the same etymological roots.

The Tribal Πολεις Assigned by Ptolemy

Deva(Chester, Cheshire) - The home of The Twentieth Legion Valiant and Victorious was evidently built upon lands formerly belonging to the Cornovii. Chester was also known as Castra Legionis, 'The Legionary Fortress'.
Viroconivm(Wroxeter, Shropshire) - The tribal capital (see above).

Other Posting Stations, Settlements and Military Stations

Bovivm(Tilston, Cheshire) - Named in the Antonine Itinery, the site of the potteries and tile factory of Legio XX Valeria, just south of Chester.
Wilderspool(nr. Warrington, Cheshire) - Minor settlement on the south bank of the River Dean near its confluence with the Mersey.
Heronbridge(Cheshire) - On the south bank of the River Dee immediately south of Chester.
Ffridd(Clwyd) - Fort and substantial Roman Buildings near the border with the Deceangli.
Bravonivm(Leintwardine, Hereford & Worcester) - Small roadside town and important military complex on Watling Street West, S of Wroxeter in the Welsh Marches.
Vxacona(Red Hill, nr. Oakengates, Shropshire) - Small settlement on Watling Street, east of Wroxeter.
Pennocrvcivm(Water Eaton, Staffordshire) - Small town and military complex on Watling Street, south of Penkridge.
Letocetvm(Wall, nr. Lichfield, South Staffordshire) - Small town and military complex S of Lichfield, near the crossing of the Watling and Icknield Streets. Evidently the centre of an administrative pagus, with a substantial public bath-house and a mansio.
Rvtvnivm(Harcourt Park, Shropshire) - A small settlement and posting station on the road north between the military bases at Wroxeter and Chester, at the crossing of the river Roden.
Mediolanvm(Whitchurch, Shropshire) - Romano-British settlement, whose modern street plan suggests a small walled town.
Salinae(Middlewich, Cheshire) - Salt manufacturing town.
Condate(Northwich, Cheshire) - Salt works probable.
Levobrinta(Forden Gaer, Powys) - This military site possibly marked the SW border of the Cornovian canton.
Chesterton(nr. Newcastle under Lyme, Staffordshire) - Small town built on the site of an earlier Neronian? fort, on the road from Middlewich to Derby.
Rocester(North Staffordshire) - Small town built on the site of an earlier Flavian fort on the Cornovian borders, with the Brigantes to the north and the Coritani to the east.
Malpas(Cheshire) - Small settlement on the Whitchurch - Chester road.

Industries:

The Tribal Territories

Much of Shropshire, especially the SW is hill country, the Northern area is plain, covered by glacial drift of sand, gravel and boulder clay, in places covering the underlying bedrock to a depth of 45 metres. Broken by red sandstone ridges running north-east to south-west. The north-west part of the county is covered by meres and pools, the residues of lakes and great bogs which were very attractive to native peoples of mid-late bronze-age, where they could retreat from the powerful iron-age folk pressing steadily from the south. Fish and wildfowl were in plenty. Folk used dug-out canoes, net sinkers and bone harpoons. The large areas of sand and gravel alluvial deposits would have been covered by a light scrub, easily cleared for cultivation, and for this reason, the area has been widely settled since the stone-age. There exist a few possible bronze-smelting sites indigenous to the area, working for settled populace.

Sabrina Fluvius - The River Severn

The River Severn rises in the central massiv of Wales, flowing first north-east, the river turns east before Shrewsbury, then south-east until Ironbridge where it turns sharply southwards. It was a main communication route and a source of food such as salmon, and also provided strategic easy access into north Wales. The Severn is wide enough to require and provide key crossing places where fords or ferries could be maintained. Worcester was one such important crossing point, Bewdley where the Clun-Clee ridgeway crosses the river was another, and there was also a crossing at Buildwas, giving a route south from the Wrekin via the Wenlock Edge ridgeway. In the area of modern Shrewsbury, marshes made crossing very difficult, but another possible pre-Roman route exists leading from the north, crossing the Isle of Coton and fording the river near the site of the later castle (Shrewsbury).

Wroxeter Palaestra
The Palaestra at Wroxeter

Pre-Roman Settlements

The Cornovii had many Hillforts, one of the largest and most populous being on the Wrekin in Shropshire, overlooking the eventual site of the Romano-British tribal capital. The eventual size of Viroconium is inconsistent with the estimated size of the population. Extrapolated from the number of known pre-Roman settlements the area, the archaeological evidence suggests a much more sparsely populated region. estimated population is much less than is suggested. It is possible therefore, that the bulk of the population lived in dwellings such as timber cabins without stone foundations, which are very difficult to find using current archaeological methods.

The tribe had no coinage and no distinctive metalwork, with what little pottery they had being imported from the Malvern hills region. There are some sites however, where local potteries have been found, such as the Berth and Breidden hillforts, and possibly Credenhill in the west. The other significant cultural detail is the manner of defences and gateways in hillforts on both sides of the Severn, and linked to those of the Wye valley in the south.

The Distribution of Hillforts in the Cornovian Canton
Cornovii Hillforts The dotted lines in the diagram denote the borders between the Celtic tribes in the Severn Valley area, based on hillfort construction methods, and to a lesser extent, similarities in culture based on recovered artefacts.
Map adapted from Graham Webster's The Cornovii (Fig.4, pp.8).

Most Significant Cornovian Hillforts

Other Hillforts of the Cornovii

It has been suggested that the lack of metal and fine pottery finds is indicative that the Cornovii were not the most wealthy of Celtic peoples. They had a mostly pastoral economy, tho' some cultivation of cereal crops occurred in the river valleys. These lowland areas were populated by peasants who paid tribute to local lords in thier lofty citadels, in cattle and in grain.

Possible Lowland Forts

Miscellaneous Cornovian Facts

The Cornovian Borders

On the southern side of the Berwyn range, there is a hillfort at Craig Rhiwarth deep in the Tanat valley at the extreme northern tip of Powys. This fort marks the boundary between the Cornovii and their less-refined neighbours the Ordovices. This extreme outpost of the Cornovii was possibly founded by a renegade prince and his retinue, who travelled westwards along this tributary of the Sabrina from their Cornovian homelands in Shropshire. Possibly captured from the Ordovices in the first instance, the location, on a southern-jutting spur of the Berwyns, in a narrow tributary valley of the Sabrina, would have offered very little in the way of arable land, and the principle economic product may have been sheep, thus bearing-out the overall pastoral qualities of Cornovian life.

The general aspect of the hillfort at Craig Rhiwarth fits in quite well with the description outlined by Tacitus as the last stand of Caratacus and his forces in Wales in AD50.

A Cornovian Noble ?

VirocoThe name of this Cornovian noble is derived purely from the notion that the later tribal capital of the Cornovii was originally named 'Viroconon' or 'Viroco's town', possibly after the leader of the Cornovian resistance to the Roman advance, who died with his followers during the storming of the Wrekin Hillfort, and that the original Celtic name for the settlement was later Romanised to Viroconium [Cornoviorum], i.e. 'The town of Viroco [of the Cornovii]'.

Of particular interest is the tombstone of a woman named Vedica, a member of the Cornovii tribe who was buried at Ilkley in Yorkshire (RIB 639).

The Broadward Tradition:

The following article was taken from Iron Age Communities in Britain by Barry Cunliffe (pp.51-52).

1. Ewart Park Sword 2. Broadward Spearhead 'The Broadward group, named after a Herefordshire hoard, can be defined in terms of an assemblage of weapons which includes swords of Ewart Park type, chapes and spearheads, among which a barbed variety is characteristic. The contrast between the predominantly domestic character of south-east Welsh hoards and the military nature of the Broadward hoards may possibly reflect a difference in social structure, but the total absence of occupation sites which can be definitely be assigned to the period prevents any consideration of settlement pattern or economy. The area covered by the group extends from Pembrokeshire through central Wales into Cheshire and from here into the Welsh border-land, while some of the diagnostic weapons are found even further afield. The territory is well suited to a pastoral economy which would be consistent with a warlike society. The absence of pottery is another feature suggestive of pastoralism, since under such living conditions pottery would tend to break easily and would be better replaced by leather, wooden or metal containers. Indeed, there is clear evidence from the later forts in the Welsh borderland that the communities remained largely aceramic into the 4th or 3rd centuries BC.'
  1. Double-edged bronze sword with an elongated leaf shape and an integral handle; from Ewart Park, Northumberland.
  2. Flat bladed spearhead, 4' wide and 7' long made of bronze; from Broadward, Herefordshire.

Bibliographical Links

See: Peoples of Roman Britain : The Cornovii by Graham Webster (Sutton, Rev. Ed., 1991);
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);