The Ancient History of Mann

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Regular readers and attendees will know that the Roman Empire beyond its frontiers, particularly in (although by no means limited too) the lands surrounding Roman Britain, is a subject which members of CANI have delved into. We have already had talks, articles and blogs on Roman interaction with Ireland, Scotland, and Japan.

Prima_Europe_tabulaThis time it is the turn of the Isle of Mann, which had a long history of habitation before appearing in the surviving written record.

An island from the end of the Ice Age in Britain, the earliest identified inhabitants were hunter-gatherers and fishermen of the Mesolithic period, who were capable of rudimentary flint and bone tool-making. The Neolithic period saw such development in tools, pottery and farming that the island saw its own megalithic builders, with Cashtal yn Ard, Meayll Circle, King Orry’s Grave and the Ballaharra Stones all providing examples. Even on such a small island, Mann even developed its own culture distinct from these builders with the Ronaldsway culture uncovered at the site of what is now the Isle of Mann Airport.

While difficult to prove, it is probably by the Iron Age that Mann was inhabited by Brythonic tribesmen from mainland Britain, who brought their own building techniques and tendencies – hill top and promontory forts and wooden framed roundhouses.

Mediterranean knowledge of Britain predates the Greek advances through the adventuring of Carthaginians such as Himilco (cf. Pliny the Elder, NH II.67; Avienus, Ora Maritima). However, it is unknown if that knowledge extended to the existence of the Isle of Mann. It does have some deposits of iron ore and lead, but these may have been in limited enough quantities to not attract the attention away from the tin mines of Cornwall, which were to such extent that by the mid-fifth century BC, Herodotus was referring to the British Isles as Cassiterides – the ‘islands of tin’ (Herodotus III.115.1-2; cf. Diodorus Siculus V.22), a name still being used by the first century BC (Strabo III.5.11).

At the very least, the Romans learned of the island through their initial military forays to Britain in 55-54BC as Julius Caesar wrote of how there was “an island which is called Mona” between Ireland, Gaul and Britain (Caesar, BG V.13).

However, despite nearly four centuries of Roman control of Britain, surprisingly little Roman material has been found on Mann so far. Indeed, even though there are records of the circumnavigation of Britain by Agricola’s fleet (Tacitus, Agr. 38), Roman naval patrols in British waters into the late fourth century (Vegetius, Mil. IV.37) and reports of Roman involvement with the even more remote Orkneys as early as the Claudian invasion (Pomponius Mela III.49-54; Eutropius VII.13.2-3; Jerome, Chronicle 2061; Orosius I.2.78), it is difficult to tell if the Romans ever made a formal annexation of or official landing on the island.

kirk-maughold-church-bigIt had been speculated that there was a Roman fort or camp on the site of what is now Kirk Maughold Church, but there has never been any Roman finds within that area and it is now thought that the square enclosure at Maughold was originally a seventy century monastery. A Roman amphora was also discovered at South Barrule, the highest hill in the south of Mann, which was topped by a fort. This could be evidence of a Roman presence on the island, but as it is a find largely in isolation, it is more likely to be the result of trade.

roman_conquest_britain_mapAnother potential Roman site on Mann is the small rock shelter found at Trae Coon on the south end of the island. Mid-20th century excavations found not only a significant congregation of shells, burnt wood and animal bones but also the remains of an adult male. The accompanying wood has been carbon dated to c.70, a generation after the initial Claudian invasion of Britain and during the period before and after the Boudican revolt which saw the legions driving into Wales and northern England. The proposed circumnavigation of Britain by the fleet of Agricola (Tacitus, Agr. 38) demonstrates that the Roman fleet was active in the Irish Sea, which could play into the possibility that these remains were those of a shipwrecked Roman sailor. However, there was plenty of other traffic in the Irish Sea which was not of specifically Roman origin and it goes beyond the available evidence to determine that the Trae Coon shelter was built by a Roman.

More easily transported Roman material evidence comes in the form of coins and given that Ireland was not beyond Rome’s numismatic reach, it would be unsurprising to find similar deposits in Mann too. However, while there have been Roman coins found on Mann, they are small in number – just seven in total – and appear in isolation.

Emperor Date Type Find Site Find Date
Tiberius 14-37 bronze, Alexandria Glen Auldyn quarry  
Trajan 98-117 sestertius Monk’s Bridge 1950
Trajan 98-117 denarius Scouts’ Glen, Onchan 1942
Antoninus Pius 138-161   Douglas beach  
Septimius Severus 193-211 bronze Santon 1889
Maximian 286-305   Colby Glen  
Constans 337-350 bronze Noble’s Hospital, Douglas 1951

While these seem like slim pickings, there are some points of interest. Not only were they from a wide time period between the reigns of Tiberius I (AD14-37) and Constans I (337-350), they were also spread quite widely around the north, east and south of the island. This suggests a prolonged and possibly extensive engagement between the Isle of Mann and Roman Britain due to its position on routes of trade through the Irish Sea.

The lack of any Roman building on Mann would suggest that the legions did not visit the island at any stage, while the hoards of coins or hacksilver may downplay the idea of Roman diplomatic contact with the inhabitants of Mann. Perhaps the inhabitants of the island were in no need of gentle persuasion, military or monetary, to behave within the Roman orbit. This does not preclude Romano-British mercantile shipping arriving in the ports of Mann, with the even such a limited amount of coins indicating at least some connection between the Isle of Mann and the traffic passing through the Irish Sea.

Irish Christian Mann

Even with the seemingly continued presence of Roman forces in Britain and its surrounding waters well into the late fourth century, there was a growing threat to Roman holdings in the British Isles from surrounding tribes. And the Irish Sea and Roman navy proved not to be enough of a deterrent. While the Scotti/Irish are infrequently named as the actual culprits, the primary sources hint at Irish raids from the late third through to the early fifth century. Constantius Chlorus, Constantine and Constans may have faced Irish raiders (Pan. Lat. 9(5); Eusebius VC 1.25.1, 2; Laterculus Veronensis 13.2.4; Ammianus XX.1.1), while Ammianus describes the “savage tribes of Scotti” (Ammianus XX.1.1) joining the Picts in attacking Britain in 360 and 367 (Ammianus XXVII.8; XXVIII.3; XXX.7.9-10). While local legend and court propaganda have infected the post-Ammian record, Magnus Maximus and Stilicho may have faced Irish raiders, who penetrated into Cumbria, Wales, Cornwall and along the south coast of Britain (Prosper Tiro, Chronicon Gratiani IV; Claudian, III cons. Hon. 52-58; IV cons. Hon. 24-33; In Eutrop. I.391-393; cons. Stil. 3.247-255; Ridgeway (1924) 123ff and Mattingly, Pearce and Kendrick (1937), 42 on Niall ‘of the Nine Hostages’).

Britain.Deisi.Laigin.jpgThese repeated raids may have had consequences for the Isle of Mann, including perhaps being the explanation for the presence of coins of Maximian and Constans on the island; however, it is what these raids developed into which had the greatest impact of them all. In Wales and Cornwall, late fourth/early fifth century Irish raids were giving way to more permanent settlements, bringing with them significant Irish influence on local archaeology, linguistics, etymology and literature: the Lleyn Peninsula in northern Wales takes its name from the Laigin of Leinster, while Dyfed is perhaps derived from the Munster Déisi (Byrne (1973) 134-136; Coplestone-Crow (1981-1982) 11-12 on Laigin/Lleyn Peninsula; Smyth (1982); Rance (2001) 252 n.58 on Irish settlement in Dyfed). Something similar was happening on the Isle of Mann too. In looking at “the island of Mevania… [and its] tolerably fertile soil,” (Orosius I.2.81-82) Orosius mentions that by the time of his writing in 417, it was inhabited by the Scotti. This suggests that such Irish raiders had landed on Mann in sufficient numbers to overthrow any Roman control or Roman-leaning leadership which had prevailed there.index2

The arrival of the Scotti initiated the ‘Gaelicisation’ of the Isle of Mann, with the most prominent result being the alteration of the island’s language. This is evidenced by ogham inscriptions (the presence of which alone hints at the influence of Irish tribes) being found on Mann containing Primitive Irish, such as the Ballaqueenee Stone in the Manx Museum, which has two DOVAIDONA MAQI DROATA – “Of Dovaido, son of Droata” and BIVAIDONAS MAQI MUCOI CUNAVA[LI] – “Of Bivaidonas, son of the tribe Cunava[li].”

This infiltration of Primitive Irish shifted the language of the Isle of Mann from the Brythonic branch of Insular Celtic, which eventually spawned Welsh, Cornish and Breton to the Goidelic/Gaelic branch. The later development of this Primitive Irish first into Old Irish and then Middle Irish, with varying influences from Latin, Norse and English produced the Manx language. involvement in the Late Roman era Isle of Mann may also be seen in the Christianisation of the island supposedly in the mid/late fifth century. This was largely attributed to two disciples of St Patrick, Romulus and Conindrus, and a former Irish prince/freebooter called Maughold. The latter had reputedly attempted to embarrass Patrick only to be either banished to the seas as a penance, washing up on the shore of Mann or intentionally taking himself to the island to avoid temptation after having accepted baptism from Patrick.

Maughold made a strong impression amongst the inhabitants of Mann for not only was he chosen to succeed Romulus and Conindrus as bishop of the island, he would become its patron saint, with several places on Mann named after him – Maughold parish, St. Maughold’s Well, St. Maughold’s Chair and Maughold Head. However, this Patrician inspired conversion may be much more reflective of tradition than of how and indeed when the Christianisation of Mann actually occurred. The building of many of the earliest small chapels on the island has been dated to the second half of the sixth century.

Ramsey,_St._Maughold_Church,_Isle_of_Man-LCCN2002697054.tifSuch potential for the shifting of the Christianisation of Mann to the period 550-600 could connect it to two further potential waves of Scotti/Irish involvement with the island. In 577-578, the Annals of Ulster record Báetán mac Cairill, king of Ulster, leading a successful expedition to subdue Mann; however, when Báetán died in 581, the island is said to have fallen into the hands of his rival, the king of Dál Riata, Áedán mac Gabráin (there is some suggestion that Báetán instead attacked and subdued the south coast of the Firth of Forth, called Manau Gododdin, rather than the Isle of Mann).

1024px-Northumbria.rise.600.700The Venerable Bede (HE II.8-9) records Edwin, king of the Northumbrians (616-c.633), taking control of the Mevanian Islands, a collective terms which may include both Mann and Anglesey. In saying that that Edwin lifted the island from Britons, Bede may be recording that Mann had been lost by the Dál Riata before the 620s. Any Northumbrian rule may not have lasted long for they were seemingly ousted from Lancashire sometime in the mid-seventh century – perhaps after the defeat and death of Edwin at the Battle of Hatfield Chase in c.633, the defeat and death of his successor Oswald at the Battle of Maserfield in 641/642 or on the division of Northumbria between the sons of Oswiu in 670. That said, the destructive raid of Ecgfrið of Northumbria on the east coast of Ireland in 684, which brought much destruction from Dublin to Drogheda may have involved either using any retained Northumbrian influence on Mann or re-establishing it briefly on the way.

Mona or Mona: The Name of Mann (and Anglesey?)

The potential misidentifying of the ‘Manau’ target of Báetán’s 577-578 campaign highlights a problem with the Isle of Mann in the historical record – from the very earliest appearance of the island in Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars (V.13), Mann frequently shared similar and sometimes even the same name as Anglesey – Mona. Pliny the Elder (NH IV.30) appears to be refer to Anglesey as Mona and the Isle of Man as Monapia, while Tacitus (Agr. 14, 18) also refers to Anglesey as Mona. In his Geographia (II.1), Claudius Ptolemy records both a Monœda island and a Mona island off the eastern coast of Ireland. It is the former which appears to refer to Mann, while the latter refers to Anglesey.

The form used by Orosius I.2.81-82 – Mevania – was also used by Bede, HE II.8-9 as a collective descriptor for the islands of Mann and Anglesey when recording their occupation by the Northumbrians during the reign of Edwin (616-c.633). This shows that the linking together of Mann and Anglesey first recorded by Caesar may have remained in use for over six centuries.

800px-Karte_RavennatThe seventh century Ravenna Cosmography records Manavi, a slight change which could be the result of some knowledge of Mann, with its recognition as a ‘mountain in the sea’ being joined by the Latin word avis, due to the presence of many different birds on the Calf of Mann island (so many that it is now a bird sanctuary), although this may be complicating matters unnecessarily.

Caesar is unlikely to have simply made up names for Mann and Anglesey (islands which, of course, he himself got nowhere near on either of his forays to Britain) and was therefore relying on locals, who were either providing information directly to him or through various intermediaries. Mona could be Caesar’s attempt to transliterate the names given to him, using a Latin word familiar to him, suggesting that Mann and Anglesey were known by names which sounded like ‘mona‘ to the Roman ear or meant (or was described to him as) something similar like ‘hill’ or ‘mountain.’ The topography of Mann could be connected to such ‘mountainous’ depictions and naming as it essentially two large hills separated by a valley, so it could be described as a ‘mountain in the sea.’

Could the similarity in recorded names for Mann and Anglesey not only represent their relative similarity in size and geography but also some existing cultural and linguistic links? Along with Manau Gododdin in what is now Lothian in Scotland, they appear to have had Brythonic inhabitants, increasing the possibility of shared etymological origins.

Celtic_language_family_tree.svgThat said, the Gaelic, Welsh, Pictish and Latin names for Mann – moncrdh, mynydd, monadh, and mons respectively (there is also the Norse Mön, but it is uncertain if this is cognate with ‘Mann’ as the Norse used the same root word for cairns) – all seem to have similar linguistic roots, suggesting that the basis of ‘Mann’ was perhaps from an older linguistic branch than Brythonic, such as Insular Celtic or more umbrella Celtic.

Thomas Wilson, Lord Bishop of Sodor and Man (1663-1755), suggested that Mann derived from the Saxon mang, meaning ‘among’ and reflecting on the position of the island in-between Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England; however, this would discount all of the names recorded for Mann that pre-date the Saxon invasions of England…

Such pre-existing links between the two Monas could have seen Mann become a haven for Druids after the sacks of Anglesey in 60 by Suetonius Paulinus and in 77 by Agricola (Tacitus, Ann. XIV.29-33; Agr. 18). However, the vehemence with which the Romans attacked the Druids suggests that if it was known that any had escaped to Mann, the legions would likely not have been far behind in the course of, if not Paulinus’ conquest of Anglesey which was interrupted by Boudica’s revolt, surely Agricola’s wide-ranging campaigning after his sack of Anglesey in 77.

Manannán_mac_Lir_sculpture,_Gortmore_(geograph_4107287)There is also similarity with the Brythonic/Gaelic sea god, Manannán, who once ruled Mann, which seems to be an obvious connection, with both having links to the water; however, this does not prove if the island is named after him or he is named after the island. The suffix nán might suggest an endearing diminutive, with Manannán meaning something like ‘little man of Mann’ or ‘Mannling’, but this is not definitive.

Etymological connections for the name Mona/Mann may also exist in the west coast of Ireland, where according to Ptolemy’s Geographia (II.1) there lived a tribe called the Manapii (or a town called Manapia). This is very close in form to the Monapia or Monabia Pliny records for the name of the Isle of Mann (NH IV.30). Could the island have taken its name from the Manapii tribe, who inhabited a tract of land on the east coast of Ireland in Ptolemy’s time? This tribal name meant ‘hill-men,’ but whether they had any connection with Man it is impossible to say.

It is possible that truth of the matter lies somewhere in amongst much of this speculation. The watery connection to Manannán, Caesar using a word he was familiar with to record the ‘mountains in the sea’ described to him for both Mann and Anglesey and even Lord Bishop Wilson’s reasoning for positing a Saxon origin may not completely off the mark with the same core sound within the Insular Celtic languages being used in and around the Irish Sea. Perhaps ‘Mann’ encapsulates some notion of water being nearby.


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