Ancient Fylde

William Ashton's 1920's map illustrating the Fylde around 400AD

Geological evidence indicates that in ancient times the Fylde was an island, isolated by a River Wyre that stretched from Fleetwood to the River Ribble. It is known that the region was encircled by thick wood practically cutting it off. If this was the case, what kind of people lived here?

The earliest records come from the 3rd Roman Invasion of Britain in AD 43, when the Fylde was a landscape of boggy marches and thick, almost impenetrable forests with only islands of solid land and pathways.

The ancient tribe of the area were the Setantii (or Segantii), referenced by the Greco- Egyptian writer, Ptolemy, in his second century geography of Britain. They were a clan of the Brigantes who dominated northern England during this period.

The Setantii are thought to be Brythonic Celts descended from the Iberian “beaker folk” and were known as the “dwellers in the country of water”. Their existence in the marsh conditions of the Fylde was made evident in the 1800s by the unearthing of canoes from the main dyke of Marton Mere.

The vessels were light wooden frameworks covered in hide and supplemented by further discoveries of Celtic hammers, axes and spears that lay buried in the moss for centuries.

According to the Roman Dion Cassius, the tribe survived on hunting prey and foraging fruit. They lived in virtual amphibious conditions, commenting they would “continue several days up to their chins in water, and bear hunger many days.”

They lived in clay or mud huts and wicker shelters, scantily clad in animal skins and bodies painted blue with woad. The men had long flowing hair and clean shaven except for their upper lip.

Theirs was a sun worshipping Druidical religion, presided over by a chief Druid. Apart from spiritual duties, the Druids also functioned as judges settling disputes or criminal cases. They also believed that after death, the human soul transferred to another body. Consequently the Setantii seemingly did not fear death which made them even more formidable in battle.

Two attempts by Julius Caesar in B.C. 54 and 55 failed to subjugate the Setantii or Brigantes. It was not until A.D. 79 that Britain was conquered by Julius Agricola. The Setantii gave vigorous resistance under the Brigantine chief Venutius, but their undisciplined valour finally proved less than a match for the well drilled Romans.

Conquering was one thing but keeping the intrepid spirit of the Setantii subdued was quite another. Agricola realised the best way of quelling any outbreak was to offer them the benefits of civilisation as an alternative to their heathen, primitive existence.

Thus, the mud huts and wicker shelters gave way to more comfortable habitations, and the rule of Druids replaced by Roman law and temples. It is thought the Romans may have drawn up an alliance with the Setantii to exploit the tribe’s marine ability to mutual advantage.

According to Ptolemy the Setantii had the only pre-Roman port on the western coast of Britain at Portus Setantiorum, thought to have been situated off Rossall Point if his map of the coast during the time it to be believed.

But it seems the ancient Fylde tribe did not simply cease to exist by assimilation into Roman culture. Welsh myths suggest the Setantii were still active in the Dark Ages and their form of Celtic tongue survived until the twelfth century.

By then, wooden Saxon built structures stood on the more habitable locality of a Fylde largely drained of swamp, cleared of thick wood and more open to Norman occupation.

Barry McCann

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