[NB The brief explanation given below has been drafted on the assumption that the reader is already familiar with the basic building-blocks used in Celtic topographical place-names (Chapter 1 of the Home menu), with the structure of compound place-names (Chapter 2) and with the structure of Celtic river-names (Chapter 19)]
The form Catuvellaunorum is known from an inscription (RIB 1962) thought to date from around AD369. This would suggest a tribal name of the form Catuvellauni. Earlier forms, such as the Katyaechlani in one manuscript of Ptolemy, are rather strange and difficult to understand. Those earlier forms will thus be overlooked here, since the form Catuvellauni is relatively easy to understand.
The tribal name Catuvellauni, like most British Celtic tribal names, is based on a topographical place-name. The place-name was most probably of the form Vencatuvelcatunion, with two elements, Vencat and velcat, having exactly the same meaning, namely ‘slope of hill steep high’. The name indicates that the place concerned had belonged to the Trinovantes but was taken over by the Catuvellauni. The people of the tribe will have been called the Vencatuvelcatuni. Then, with loss or omission of Ven and the second t, and the change lc→ll, we obtain the form Catuvellauni. The place Vencatuvelcatunion may have been the hillfort/settlement at Langdon Hills in Essex (part of modern Basildon) and was perhaps occupied by the Catuvellauni during their eastwards expansion around 100 BC which caused some Trinovantes to move to Kent (see Chapter 23, 2.6). The hillfort/settlement stands on a slope, with a 10 metre difference between its highest and lowest points (Lock, G. and Ralston, I., 2017). Another possible location for Vencatuvelcatunion would be Braughing. The enclosure at Gatesbury Wood, just south of Braughing, stands on a slope, so if that enclosure was occupied in the first half of the 1st century BC it may have been Vencatuvelcatunion. The nearby enclosure, possible oppidum, between modern Braughing and the river Rib, also appears to be built on a steep, high slope, so here we have a third candidate for Vencatuvelcatunion.
Note that the first element of the name may simply have been Nocat, meaning ‘hill steep high’. This does not affect what is said above regarding the location of the fort/settlement, or the fact that the fort/settlement had belonged to the Trinovantes but was taken over by the Catuvellauni. Note, too, that Ptolemy’s information as to tribal names and the locations of the tribes appears to date from the first half of the first century BC, and probably earlier in that half century rather than later, so we are discussing here the possible location of the Catuvellaunian tribal centre before Verulamion at St. Albans took over that role, this last event apparently taking place after Caesar’s expedition of 54BC.
[This page was last modified on 24 March 2021]