By the time Rome was able to record the political
situation in Britain during and after the second expedition by
Julius Caesar in 54 BC, the Catuvellauni tribe was the dominant
force in the south-east. It soon expanded that dominance to
encompass much of the south.
The tribe's name is a fascinating one, but breaking
it down is a long and complicated business, and one with no clear-cut
outcome. In fact it seems to have at least four outcomes!
The straightforward explanation
The most likely explanation is perhaps the most
straightforward one, as provided by Rhys Saunders.
The meaning here is derived from a study of
modern Welsh, which is certainly a descendant of Common Celtic.
The tribe's name can be broken up into 'cat', plus 'vel' and
-auni'. That much at least is undisputed.
The first part, 'cat', means 'battle', while
perceived conventional wisdom in regard to the second element,
'vel', is that it means 'leader', which would produce something
like 'the battle leader'.
However, Rhys contends that it stems from the
Gaulish word, 'wello', meaning 'excelling, better'. Note that the
'w' in Common Celtic acquired a 'g' in front of it in modern Welsh.
The Welsh 'gwell' (adj & adv) means 'better', while 'gwella'
[gwell-] (v) means 'improve, better, mend, rally, amend, reform,
remedy, convalesce, ameliorate', and 'gwellwell' (adj) means
'better and better', all serving to support this interpretation.
So the tribe were probably something like '[those
who are] excelling in battle'.
The second-favourite explanation
Edward Dawson admits that his supposition that
the Common Celtic and Latin were close could be subject to some
debate, but it certainly provides an intriguing (and somewhat
complicated) breakdown that should in this case be seen as the
second favourite in terms of its likely accuracy.
The first element, 'cat', still means battle.
This is universally accepted.
As for 'vel', Edward disputes its normal reading
as 'leader'. The problem with the resultant 'battle leader' is
that it is in the German sequence, not the Celtic. In the latter
language the modifier comes after the noun.
As the Catuvellauni were possibly Belgic in origin
rather than Gaulish or early Britons, this could be due to heavy
contact with the Germanic tribes of Scandinavia in the Iron Age,
prior to migration to Britain somewhere between the fifth to
second centuries BC.
John Deare's late eighteenth century sculpture shows Julius
Caesar and his troops on their beachhead in Kent, desperately
fighting off the Britons