Eagles Have Flown
The Roman capital of the North was Eboracum (modern York), which was located in territory that had formerly been under the control of the Brigantes. While the city was founded by Rome, an eponymous Celtic founder figure is included in the list of High Kings. From AD 197, Eboracum became the capital of the province of Britannia Inferior, which covered not only the entire north of Roman Britain up to Hadrian’s Wall – essentially the former territory of the Parisi and Brigantes combined – but also a large swathe of the Midlands. In the early fourth century, the province was renamed Britannia Secunda and was reduced in size, roughly from the Humber to the Wall.
It is this Late Roman province that Coel Hen is traditionally assumed to have inherited at the end of the fourth century. He is thought to have gained the post of dux Britanniarum either thanks to the usurper Magnus Maximus or perhaps shortly after Maximus’ death on the Continent. He was effectively its first post-Roman Governor, and apparently came to be styled ‘King of Northern Britain’, either during his lifetime or more probably by later generations. At first, Ebrauc was most likely governed in much the same way as it had been under direct Roman administration, as a magistratum, a form of continuing governorship of the region, with (as has been quite reasonably suggested by the author Parke Godwin) the likely title of prince-magistrate, combining the old Roman world with the re-emerging Celtic one.
The Celtic world seems to have taken hold of the North more quickly than the more heavily Romanised south and east, and a militarily aggressive and defensive mindset preserved its independence without many of the problems that beset the south in the fifth century. However, its slow division into separate kingdoms ensured that it was a weaker region in the sixth century. Archaeologically, how late the Roman way of life was pursued in York is unknown. The town and its community may well have survived after the final Roman troops either left, merged into the general population, or served as British troops. Eboracum remained the capital of the North well into the sixth century and was a vital city while the British held it (after which it seems to have been abandoned for a short period).
Where did the name Eboracum come from? Some modern speakers of the more traditional forms of Yorkshire dialects state that the expression of surprise, ‘ee by gum’ equates to ‘Eboracum’. Many languages have a nasty habit of swapping sounds in sequence, so could the first part of the name, ‘ebor’, be constructed in a similar fashion to the name of the Celtic deity, Virotutis? The elements for this are ‘wiros’ and ‘toutas’, ‘man’ and ‘family’ or ‘tribe’. So Virotutis is ‘man of the tribe’ or, more specifically, a real man, ie. a warrior. The Gaulish ‘wiros’ means ‘man’, and in Latin this is ‘vir’, ‘man’ or ‘hero’, or a man of courage. This provides the first part of Eboracum, while the ending, ‘-cum’, could be a shortened form of Camulos, the warrior deity. Adding them together suggests (perhaps loosely) that Roman Eboracum could be the British Eviracam, meaning ’warrior [man of] Cam[ulos].
(Coel Hen’s ancestry supplied by Mick Baker. Additional information by Edward Dawson.)
383? – c.420
Dux Britanniarum Coel Hen
Son. Effectively High King after Magnus Maximus.
c.380s – 390s
Late in the century, the only known British military unit, the First Cohort of Cornovii (Cohors Primae Cornoviorum) can be found serving at the Pons Aelius (Newcastle-upon-Tyne) garrison on the eastern end of Hadrian’s Wall. By this time the five hundred-or-so men of the unit are probably under the command of Coel Hen.
As a centre of habitation, Eboracum is probably declining. The city’s rivers, the Ouse and the Foss, are known to be flooding at periods during the winter, inundating the wharves and probably even the bridge that connects the military fortress with the main town centre. The civilian population almost certainly declines, with many of its inhabitants migrating into the countryside, while the administrative centre remains in use. Suburban villas also remain occupied into the fifth century, suggesting that only the city centre falls derelict, with people moving to the outskirts.