Ancient ancestors

Who were the Setanii?

The Setantii were the ancient British inhabitants of the north west Coast, better known now as modern-day Lancashire. Referenced by Ptolemy in his second century geography of Britain (this is currently the earliest known written record of them), they are presumed to have been a clan of the Brigantes tribe, known for dominating most of northern England for most of the Roman era. Scholars also refer to ‘Segantii’, the etymology of which is believed to mean “the dwellers in the country of water”. This tribe was defeated by the Romans in 71 AD.

Etymological linguistics suggest the ‘nt’ element in ‘Setantii’ strengthens the hypothesis that the tribe were Brythonic Celts, descendents from the Iberian “beakers”. Certainly, the tribe seemingly had links to Sétanta, which is the birth name of the British/Irish hero Cúchulain – translated it means “he who knows the way”. His tribal stronghold was at Teamhair (Tara) in present-day County Louth. This indicated the Setantii may have had presence on both the Ulster and Lancastrian coastlines of the Irish Sea and were tribe well versed in sea travel, as referenced by “dwellers in the country of water”.

Ptolemy’s Observation of the Setanii supports the assertion that the tribe were in control of the only pre-Roman port on the western coast of Britain at Portus Setantiorum. This port is now considered to have been located off Rossall Point near present-day Fleetwood at the mouth of the River Wyre. It’s believed the most southerly boundary of the Setantii tribe lands was Seteia, the Mersey River. Their tribal territory is believed to have strecthed as far north as Borrow Beck, south of Tebay, in southern Cumbria. Their own Celtic language, in various derivations, survived in this location until approximately the mid 1300’s.

A 12 000 year old almost complete skeleton (animal), known as the ‘Carleton Elk’, was discovered at Poulton-le-Fylde (1970), with evidence of arrowheads on the remains of its leg bones. This strongly indicates a long and significant history of human hunters in this area, thus habitation. There is no direct evidence to link this habitation with the considerably later Iron Age Setanii group

The ancient and legendary tale of  Tain Bo Cuailnge documents the history of Sétanta, son of the God Lug. At the age of seven, Sétanta inadvertently killed the watch dog of the smith Culann. To make up for this, he proposed himself to take the dog’s place. He then became known as Cúchulain, ‘Hound of Culann’. A small and dark hound, his battles were the stuff of legend. During his last battle, Cúchulain had himself strapped to ensure he would die standing. Afterwards, his blood was shed over the earth of Ireland.

There are significant links to Welsh folklore and Arthurian legend. In the Welsh tale of Culhwch and Olwen, Seithennin, the bard, is the grandfather to Gwenwynwyn, (generally identified as Gawain), and Arthur’s First Fighter. Scholars and historians tentatively hypothesis that this may indicate the Setantii were among the first peoples to resist and rebel the English invaders in the fifth century, and that Gawain was the name under which the descendants of the Setantii in England kept alive their collective tribal history.

The  Setantii seems to be implied in Nennius account of the twelve battles of King Arthur. As supposition, he indicated that four of these battles took place on the banks of the River Dubglas, now known as the River Douglas, a tributary of the Ribble, in southern Lancashire.

Is it coincidence that the Douglas runs through Standish and that Jolly Milne, residence of the Jolly family as far back as the fourteenth century, sits on its banks?

For further information, see:

Cowell, RW &  Philpott, RA – Prehistoric, Romano-British and Medieval Settlement in Lowland North-West England (University of Liverpool 2000)

Newman, R, ed. – The Archaeology of Lancashire (1997)

Nevell, M, ed. –  Living on the Edge of Empire (University of Manchester 1999)

Shotter, D – Romans and Britons in North West England (2nd Edition, CNWRS, University of Lancaster, 1997)
Higham, N  –  The Northern Counties to AD 1000 (Longman, London 1986)


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