Today, June 21, marks the day commonly known as the summer solstice. It is the pivotal moment that the sun reaches its peak before nights begin to draw darker once more.
Ancient Celtics celebrated Litha, meaning ‘light’, on the summer solstice – with festivals dedicated to the life-giving, regenerative powers of the sun. In ancient times, people’s survival depended on the cycle of the seasons, and there was great belief in ritual to keep those cycles going for healthy crops, cattle and pleasant weather.
A Celtic goddess often associated with Litha is Brigantia. She was known as the goddess of poetic arts, crafts, prophecy and divination. A notable name, as there was once a Celtic tribe residing in the North of England between the River Tyne and Humber named after her, called ‘The Brigantes.’
They were not a single tribe, the name is attributed to a number of tribes who had alliances across the area. When the Romans arrived in Britain in 43 AD, they were culturally a stable and settled society with a strong Queen, Cartimandua.
Granddaughter of King Bellnorix, Cartimandua ruled for nearly a quarter of a century from 43 AD to 69 AD, and was a formidable force for her time. Roman historian and writer Tacitus names her as the only native Regina, (meaning Queen), in Roman Britannia.
Making a treaty with the occupying Romans during a time of great Brigante tribal upheaval, she was defended by the fabled Ninth Legion Hispana – an honor that showed her significant importance to the male-dominated hierarchy of Rome.
In 51AD Cartimandua’s allegiance to Rome was tested. The British king Caratacus, leader of the Catuvellauni tribe, had been leading the Celtic resistance against against the Romans. After successfully launching guerrilla attacks against the Romans in Wales, he was finally defeated by Ostorius Scapula and sought sanctuary, along with his family, with Cartimandua and the Brigantes.
Instead of sheltering him, Cartimandua had him put in chains and handed him over to the Romans who rewarded her with great wealth and favours. However, this treacherous action turned her own people against her.
In 57AD Cartimandua furthered angered the Celts by deciding to divorce Venutius in favour of his armour-bearer, Vellocatus.
The scorned Venutius used this anti-Roman sentiment amongst the Celts to incite rebellion against the queen. Much more popular with the people than Cartimandua, he set about building alliances with other tribes, ready to invade Brigantia.
The Romans sent cohorts to defend their client queen. The sides were evenly matched until Caesius Nasica arrived with the IX Legion Hispana, and defeated Venutius. Cartimandua was lucky and narrowly escaped being captured by the rebels, thanks to the intervention of the Roman soldiers.
Venutius bided his time until 69AD when the death of Nero resulted in a period of great political instability in Rome. Venutius seized the opportunity to launch another attack on Brigantia. This time when Cartimandua appealed for help from the Romans, they were only able to send auxiliary troops.
She fled to the newly built Roman fort at Deva (Chester) and abandoned Brigantia to Venutius, who ruled briefly until the Romans finally ousted him.
What happened to Cartimandua after her arrival at Deva is not known.
Excavations during the 1980s at Stanwick Iron Age Fort, 8 miles to the north of Richmond in Yorkshire, have led to the conclusion that the fort was probably Cartimandua’s capital and main settlement. In 1843 a hoard of 140 metal artefacts known as the Stanwick hoard were found half a mile away at Melsonby. The finds included four sets of horse harness for chariots.
After a whole series of great battles across the North, Venutius’ Brigantes is finally defeated though the date and location of his’ death is unknown. Around 73AD the Brigantes had abandoned their fort at Stanwick. The Roman leader Petillius Cerealis starts building a series of forts across Brigantia to prevent further encounters and a legion is stationed at York in a fortress built of earth and timber. Other new forts include one at Piercebridge defending a crossing of the River Tees. It lies within the heartland of the Brigantes’ territory.
The Romans marched to the Tyne which straddled the northern fringe of the Brigantes’ territory. Beyond the Tyne, the major tribe are the Votadini based in and around the Edinburgh and Bamburgh areas.
The Brigante territory was officially annexed by Rome in 79 AD.