Who were the Hwicce?
by Edward Dawson, 1 March 2009. Updated 24 November
One aspect of historical study involves words and
their meanings. As I am fascinated by words and their meanings let's
take a closer look at one name that has puzzled and annoyed me: that
of the Hwicce.
The apparent meaning of the word 'hwicce' in
Anglo-Saxon (AS) is 'locker, chest, trunk'.
However, it's very hard to see a group of aggressive
Saxons deliberately calling themselves that. It neither proclaims
them to be powerful (for example, Goth, ie. the gods, or Alemanni,
'all men'), nor does it attempt to belittle them (for example, wiking
or viking, a waterborne thief who hides in inlets).
But there may be a solution to this oddity. What if
Hwicce is a degenerate form of Gewissae (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:
the certain, knowing or trustworthy)?
The Gewissae were laeti who were embedded
among Britons, and who knows what liberties they and their neighbours
took with mispronouncing the name? It's easy enough for the 'g' of
Gewissae to shift into a 'k', and the Briton habit was to pronounce a
'k' as 'ch' (as in the Scots word, 'loch'), then the Saxons could soften
it more into an 'h'. And the 'ss' of Gewissae may well have been spoken
as an 'sh' by Britons, which the Saxons could alter into a 'ch'. And as
we have no idea which dialect the Belgae spoke, all of this could produce
'Hwicce' by natural processes.
So where did 'Gewissae' come from in the first place?
An individual named Gewis is claimed as a descendant of Blaedaeg, son
of Woden, almost certainly an invented name. 'Gewisse(n)' is a plural
form, with the personal name being backwards formed from it by removing
the plural. The prefix is 'ge-'. This indicates more than one person is
doing something together, or it is something else acting which is not a
single thing. 'Ge-' gradually degenerated over the centuries into 'y-'
and 'i-' (for example, the Anglo-Saxon 'Sumer is icumen in'), and
then later into 'a-', and is now entirely archaic and has been dropped.
When you read the old sentence 'a-hunting we will go', the 'a-' on the
front indicates that at least two people, maybe more, will go hunting.
Thanks to the 'ge-' on the front of 'wisse' there is no way that it
can be a personal name. Instead, 'wis' and 'wit' mean 'to know'. It is
still used in modern English as deliberately archaic slang, for instance
when someone says 'to wit'. It can also be seen in 'wise'.
The Gewissae were the 'Educated People', probably a
reference to the laeti being Roman citizens after the first
generation and receiving a level of Roman education. It seems that
these Saxons could have become the dominant force in the Thames
Valley Saxons, prior to conquest by the West Saxons. It's also
possible that they were the Saxon migrants into later Hwicce land,
perhaps moving to avoid West Saxon control, (see the relevant lists
for more information).
An intriguing alternative possibility is that their
name was a British pronunciation of 'guest' (ASC: 'gaest,
giest') which is 'gwestai' in modern Welsh. The Britons may have
taken the second pronunciation of 'giest', added their habitual 'w'
after the 'g' and dropped the 't'; and with an ending vowel added by
the Saxons. This would produce the name Gwiesa or Gwiese - just add
the Latin plural (nouns ending in '-a', with the plural being '-ae')
and you have Gwissae. One must always keep in mind the fact that
although the Britons spoke their Old Welsh, they wrote in Latin.
The River Dee, Deva to the Romans, or Afon Dyfrdwy to the Welsh,
forms part of the modern border between England and Wales, but
in the sixth century it may have formed another border, that
between Powys to the west and Rheged to the east
Æthelfrith's Growing Fyrd
West Saxon Ethnic Cleansing?
Who Were the Jutes?
The Kings of Northumbria
RULERS OF EUROPE:
Thames Valley Saxons
School of Archaeology, University of Oxford: The Celtic Coin Index
(direct link no longer valid)
As stated, it's easy enough for the 'g' of Gewissae to shift into a
'k', then to a 'ch', and then to soften into an 'h'. Similarly, the
'ss' of Gewissae could have become 'sh' and then 'ch' with the Britons.
This could produce Hwicce or something close to it. Once it had mutated
that far, the Saxons would have tried to justify it or make it sensible
again by using the nearest word which sounded approximately the same,
one which means 'chest' or 'trunk'. In a culture with no written records
at the time, there would have been no references to use for going back
to the original meaning.
When I look at a modern conjectural map of kingdoms
of Britons and Saxons during the Dark Ages, I am struck by the neat,
even, tidy lines drawn between kingdoms. That there were many exact
boundaries I have no doubt. That there were many inexact borders
between kingdoms I am equally certain
Why? Because of non-arable or marginally arable
land. The period in which the Saxons managed to conquer the majority
of Britain was marked by persistent cold weather, apparently punctuated
by severe storms. The Roman Warm Period had ended during the fourth
century and it became much harder for a farmer to bring in a crop
every year. What is seen today during our modern warm period as
useable land was often not worth living on in AD 500. Uplands would
be abandoned in many if not most cases, and the people farmed the
valleys. A mid-fifth century plague and Saxon raids most likely cut
the British population down enough so that the survivors simply moved
into the suddenly extra-important river valleys.
For example, I have seen maps of Powys that show a
northern extension of the kingdom only on the western side of
the River Dee (Deva). In my opinion that northern extension of Powys
prior to the battle of Chester was the Dee Valley itself, on both
sides of the river. Whoever claimed as their own any unused or slightly
used nearby uplands was probably of little relevance. What was important
was the valley itself and the agriculture the valley supported.
The Thames Valley path to the west
So too were other British kingdoms formed around arable
river valleys. The kingdom which has been conjectured to have been centred
on Caer Gloui dominated the River Avon valley (one of many such rivers
named Avon, from the Brythonic word 'afon' for 'river'. I have to wonder
if the original name of this particular river was Afon Gloui, the River
Glou). Caer Baddan was the hill fort above the valley containing Bristol
(another Avon). Caer Ceri stood above the westernmost headwaters of the
The Thames watershed has its origin at Thames Head
(or nearby; there is some disputation on the subject), near the modern
village of Kemble in Gloucestershire. Kimble is four miles from Caer
Ceri (modern Cirencester).
Caer Ceri's location at the western end of the
Thames placed that kingdom in an awkward position: the Thames Valley
was occupied and controlled by Saxons, some of whom appear to have
been settled there as laeti by the Roman administration during
the fourth century. Eventually the Saxons would show up on their doorstep
as they expanded upriver...
Shown here is an artist's impression of the Roman
city of Aquae Sulis, a stronghold during the time
of Ambrosius but now buried under modern day Bath
If the Gewissae were indeed laeti who were settled in the
uppermost reaches of the Thames, they would have been perfectly
positioned to send their younger sons a few miles west to settle in
a West Saxon-controlled Ceri, Gloui, and Baddan (modern Bath). I would
argue against the Gewissae being located in a coastal area such as
Hampshire because seaborne barbarian laeti would be easier to
control if they were settled away from the sea. What seems to be
missing from the historical record is any mention of sub-Roman British
kingdoms in the Atrebates tribal area. I suspect the Gewissae were
settled in the north to north-west corner of the Atrebates territory,
on the fringes of the postulated British territories of Caer
Gwinntguic and Caer Celemion. So far the archaeology in the region
has found traces of Saxons farther east than I am postulating, in the
Emergence of the 'Hwicce'?
I perceive the pattern of conquest of the three
cities of Caer Gloui, Caer Baddan, and Caer Ceri to have happened
roughly like this:
1. The West Saxon army defeats the three cities at
the battle of Deorham (Dyrham) in 577 and kills the magistrates and
their knights. Most British nobles flee, abandoning their serfs.
2. The Wessex king rewards his most prominent and
effective soldiers with land. He assigns each of the three cities
(and also Worcester) to high ranking Saxon leaders, and smaller
subdivisions to lesser soldiers in his army. If these soldiers were
descended from the Gewissae then it would explain this entire
territory belonging to the 'Hwicce'.
But this leaves vast tracts with Britons on them
that have no Saxons...
3. Younger sons, and young men with no prospect of
inheriting land, head west to join the West Saxon soldiers mentioned in
Point 2, forming personal bodyguards, and slowly or quickly (more likely
quickly) they are each assigned a hide of land or more in return for
military service. Lower caste Saxons use the conquest as an
opportunity to better their conditions. These Saxons are the
Gewissae, moving in; from adjacent settlements. At first they settle
the Caer Ceri area, then later filter into Gloui and Baddan.
4. Within a few years the three cities area has
changed, being managed by a Saxon nobility on whose land lives both
Saxon soldiers and British serfs/slaves.
The majority of the Saxons in Point 3 would come
from the nearest Saxon settlements; these would be in the upper Thames
Valley from where I am postulating the presence of the Gewissae. A
possible major settlement of Hwicce Saxons among Britons is
Wanborough, mentioned below in a quote from the Anglo-Saxon
Chronicle. The Roman town is less than twenty miles south-east
of Caer Ceri down the Roman road called Ermin Way (not to be
confused with Ermine Street).
Wanborough was likely to be another of several
Roman towns who, because they held onto the civitas system
of Roman-style leadership elections, selected a Saxon as magistrate.
Saxons acquiring Roman titles appears to have been the case at
Lincoln of the Lindisware, because Saint Paulinus reported meeting a
Praefectus Civitatis there who was a Saxon. I doubt that Lincoln
was a single isolated case. One could argue that much of Roman
Britannia didn't actually 'fall' to the Saxons. Many civitas
capitals may have embraced the protection of a strong Saxon leader and
his war band, legally electing the Saxon as magistrate. Only in places
where the British 'magistrate' was mere window dressing for a
hereditary kingship did the Britons have a chance to remain British.
If the Hwicce were indeed the Gewissae, they would
have been living among Britons for centuries. They would view Britons
as a familiar people to be exploited, not foreigners to be killed. As
was pointed out to me in a discussion on this subject:
Like the former three cities
area of Caer Baddan, Caer Ceri, and Caer Gloui, Lincoln
apparently retained a prominent population of Britons and many
British influences on the Anglian kingdom that later emerged.
...there's a strong element of the survival of
British culture and worship practises in the Hwicce lands. Maybe
they just accepted their new, apparently benevolent, masters over
the old. The period of serious conquest, with Britons fleeing before
the swords of the invaders, was on its way out by 577. Now it was
more a game of shifting political patterns (with the British
kingdoms usually losing out), so a British defeat like 577 may have
been nothing more than losing the top level of Britons in exchange
for a top level of Saxons. The British farmers carried on ploughing
their fields regardless. 
That there was some sort political interaction
between Saxons and British citizens is implied in a fascinating (and
chilling) entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:
AD 591. This year there was a great slaughter of
Britons at Wanborough; Ceawlin was driven from his kingdom, and
Ceolric reigned six years.
It sounds as though Ceawlin was supported by the
British at the Roman town of Wanborough, and that when Ceolric took
control he killed Ceawlin's supporters... British supporters.
Since Ceawlin had been the leader at the battle of
Deorham, then it seems the Hwicce were Ceawlin's (probably loyal)
supporters. I can see the likelihood of Ceawlin operating with
British-tolerant political support, and apparently direct support
by the Britons of Wanborough. To remove Ceawlin would require
pacifying his supporters, especially 'foreign' (Welsh) ones, whose
deaths would not cause a reaction from angry Saxon relatives demanding
Were the Hwicce the (Saxon laeti) soldiers
of Wanborough's Britons, descended from the Gewissae who had been
settled by the Roman administration two centuries earlier?
Peter Kessler, 15 November
Greek references - Dictionary.com website
Latin references - Bantam New College Latin &
English Dictionary by John Traupman, and the University of British
Columbia Maths Department website
Ammianus Marcellinus - Res Gestae Libri
XXXI available online at 'Early Church Fathers - Additional
Ptolemy - Geographia
Map at Rootsweb (the main map is very silly
because it has Concani and Gangani adjacent in the Thomond area,
when anyone can see they are the same tribal name with different
Map perhaps not under copyright: Alexander G
Findlay's Insulae Brittanicae, produced in 1849 in A
Classical Atlas of Ancient Geography, available online at the
University of Texas Libraries
Text copyright © Edward Dawson. An original
feature for the History Files.