Hillforts in England
Plus Cornwall and the Isle of Man
England as the largest and most populous portion of the British Isles, has some areas which were ripe for hillforts, and some areas which were less well suited to them. It especially in what later came to be called Wessex has some of the finest and largest hillforts of all.
It's forts have been studied for centuries, with antiquarians like the 18th Century's William Stukeley and the sixteenth century's William Camden showing a notable great interest in the sites.
There were times when the forts were regarded as Saxon or Roman sites, but it was people such as these who realised they were the sites of the more ancient Britons.
The South West's Maiden Castle and British Camp, the South Central's Danebury Hillfort, and such are magnificent sites, but away from the many great examples in that zone, other gems occur such as Old Oswestry right up on the northern half of the border with Wales. My story does visit some of these spectacular locations. I also have some pics below and across hillforts.co.uk of some of them.
A general mention of hillforts in England would say. That they had existed for centuries, from the Bronze age onwards. Indeed many of the great Wessex hillforts, had began as smaller sites, often in the middle of the Iron Age. Then as the Iron Age age wore on they began to be increased in size and complexity. Some speculate that as trade increased with the continent, partly boosted by trade with Classical Empires across the long trade networks, via the Atlantic, or even the Seine-Rhone route to Massalia and what became Marseille, with Rome and Carthage for example, that forts like Maiden Castle seemed to expand more. Though it would likely be wrong to discount that there must have been internal increases in trade and economy as well adding to the processes of size and wealth enlargements of certain areas.
It must be said Hengistbury Head, and sites at Poole, actually had harbours, sending cattle, and other exports overseas. Though actually in the century before Rome's conquest, proto-towns like what were later called Chichester and St Albans were expanding. So there was if anything a move away from large hillforts to what were effectively more of a walled towns. Indeed by this time some of these such places had their own mints, and were copying the idea of having currency. It does seem trade with wealthy societies was a boost for hillforts across the era for sites to grow. The proto towns it must be said though did have walls, not that dissimilar to hillforts, at times, but on the other hand, were more on flat lands, in most cases. Indeed as can be seen from modern evidence many of them became fully fledged Roman towns under their conquest. Whereas a site like Maiden Castle, was other than seeing a temple built atop it, left to become a less populated site, with the Roman site of Dorchester built down below on the plain below it, as it's heir.
Some even speculate that the early Iron Age and late Bronze Age growth of hillforts, in Europe was partly caused by trade with earlier Classicial societies, from Greece and such. With yet others blaming the late Bronze Age collapse, for a resulting decline in order, and a need for greater defensive mechanisms. Though at times I feel it seems a bit all encompassing of a theory. Indeed as I say elsewhere I just feel it is better to say there was some sort of natural process of a arms race, between tribes in small localities, in North Western Europe, sometimes in areas not much bigger than modern British counties, that helped lead to different tribes building and developing on the great structures. With possible sparks of classical societies trade, not forgetting that the economies of these North Western European lands, and their local trade themselves could also have been a spark, helping to encourage the growth in the economy and building of the structures. After all there is evidence of Iron Age trade between Gaul and Ireland, from French oppida, and such, so it was not just classical societies that provided a economic impetus, though they were a great part of the boom.
It has to be said the South East of England does have a relative lack hillforts compared to it's modern population size related to the rest of the country, but there were some there. Such as Caesar's Camp which sits now quite denuded in Wimbledon Common in London. Plus Leicestershire's, Burrough Hill, notable, as John Leland in the sixteenth century noted festivals there, which you wonder how far back their traditions were from, were they Pre-Saxon, even Roman or Celtic, the potential reality there is intriguing. Additionally the South Eastern part of the country, was a region like much of the rest of Southern England for these developing proto Towns, towards the arrival of Rome's invading armies. With after then of course, them in many cases, really becoming proper Roman towns in many cases. With in cases like Canterbury them being so in some form for centuries, and even to today.
Although histories of Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Viking, Norman and more recent England, are usually a more dominant theme in terms of the realm's recounted story. The Celtic Iron Age, and Dark Age Celts' structures known as hillforts were a major part of the tales of what became with all the many changes that followed even to nowadays, the English people, and deserve their place in the History of England's many celebrated structures.
Interestingly in terms of hillforts, England's forts have the biggest evidence of battle. There is some from the Celtic Iron Age, but also with evidence of Roman ammo, in some forts. Confirming to a extent what some Roman writers say about their armies taking hillfort sites. I mention that in my Britain and Ireland overview of hillforts.
My story in it's adventure does journey to England, and also to Cornwall as well. You can follow the links, to buy my ebook, if you want, on the home page of this site.
In Dorset's Hod Hill, there is evidence of construction around 43 to 44 AD, near to when the Romans came. With iron ballista points found at what seems to be a major roundhouse so evidence of a attack from Roman forces. Also South Cadbury Castle, in Somerset has evidence of burnings at the fort in this era, which indicates possible attacks again.
There is also evidence of a large number of fatalities, I will not recount the evidence here, (it's too brutal) at the site of Ham Hill, near Yeovil from this time. With other forts having some evidence of attacks in Pre-Roman times. Many wonder if a burned entrance is a indication of a attack, or just of a accident, but there are forts in Wales, and the rest of the British Isles, with signs such as this, and it certainly seems probable that at least some are evidence of attacks.
By 48AD, the Romans held most of England east of the Severn and south of the Humber. A borderline that coincidently became the Fosse Way, their great road that later ran along there as a remarkable almost straight line. Plus seen as a major boundary between more upland areas to the north and west, by some archaeologists.
The Romans wreaked havoc in North Wales in 49AD. This was part of the campaign to catch Caratacus, to stop them helping this major figure against Roman rule. He being the fleeing chief of the Catuvellauni tribe, a tribe who led much of South East England’s Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire and southern Cambridgeshire, North of the Thames. A tribe who had one of those large ringed city capitals that is now St Albans. Indeed they had rivalled the Trinovantes of South-East East Anglia who had been the most powerful land in Caesar's time in this part of Britain, and of whom they had been overlords of till the Romans conquered both these areas.
St Albans Celtic name was Verulamium, something to do with it being on a marsh, and started around the 20s BC, in keeping with moves to more urban style settlements.
Famously Caratacus used guerrilla tactics, moving into swamps, forests, and marshes to harry the Romans from surprise attacks. Just like some Saxon warriors against the Normans after 1066, briefly. Interestingly using the lands more of hillforts for his defensive war, rather than the flatter more plains filled and lower hills of the south east. This may have been more as of the terrain of higher lands to escape to, than just the more numerous hillforts as let’s face it Wiltshire had many hillforts, and was part of that initial quick conquest of the first years, when Roman generals prided in taking 20 or so towns, likely hillforts in South West England in their initial invasion. So after fleeing west he used the Silures of South East Wales to cause major damage and casualty figures to legions who marched into their lands. So much so, they eventually caused a legionary fortress to be built at Usk in South East Wales, and later Caerleon to control this group that had destroyed thousands of Roman troops.
As of having to go north, Caratacus then used the Ordovices of Mid Wales who allied by him, to fight against the Romans. Then according to writings in 51BC, his army of this Mid Wales and other tribes was forced to a extent into a battle, according to surviving sources near some ramparts protected by high hills, and a river, possibly the Severn. Some make guesses at which forts, which I state below of. Of course this is almost pure speculation, but whatever, if it happened it does seem likely it was a fort, and I think that general fact is good enough. Indeed it is certain the Roman sources were relaying that there were some sorts of battles, at sites such as these, as proven beyond realistic doubt by archaeological research. With Roman soldiers according to the Roman writer Tacitus, moving onto the Celts, who had withdrawn to higher ground. Using tortoise formation shields above their heads and in front, to protect off slings and spears, and take down the rubble stone walls apparently, and then be able to defeat their opponents. So sounding like a attack on a hillfort of rubble stone walls.
I am a believer for the most part in what the Romans wrote, as quite if not very accurate writings of history, so it could be fair to say there was a exciting battle of tens of thousands of Celts on a hillfort v the Legions. A hillfort, or a temporary camp, site, perhaps the same thing at times. Indeed some claim this for British Camp. In fact some like to claim 20,000 defended it v Romans, or a similar number at Caer Caradoc. Some even say, a site not far from Caer Caradoc, actually near Welshpool's Gaer Fawr, Breidden Hill in Wales was the location. Maybe that is a total a few times the real number, but maybe it is quite right, what seems likely is it probably occurred in some sense. So one of these tremendous sites, British Camp, Caer Caradoc, maybe Moel Hiraddug, or any other site, was the site of a brilliant panoramic gradient inducing battle scene perfect for a drone camera. It seems likely such a battle occurred in western England, or Wales, and that another occurred in Scotland later, as of evidence there, at Burnswark Hillfort, and maybe others on such a scale as well. This surely was a great testament to the drama and story of hillforts, and surely such battles on a same or lesser scale occurred before Rome sent it’s legions to the mystical fogs of the island of Britain to fight the many Iron Age tribes of this isle of Europe.
In the North of England, there are many hillforts, numerically so specially on the borders with Scotland, and also along the Pennines. Indeed there is the possibly Bronze or Iron Age site of Ingleborough Camp, which is the highest hillfort in Britain, and from where you can see all the way to the coast.
Those Wessex forts were used on a smaller scale, in some examples during the fights of the Britons versus the Saxons. So as of this top historians debate whether hillforts such as Liddington Castle, (Baddan byrig) , Badbury Rings, Ringsbury Camp, and the area around Bath, were the site of the semi-mythical Battle of Mount Badon, between King Arthur and his opponents. It was this battle that in legend that swung the tide temporarily back in the Britons favour. It does seem, according to folktales, and some archaeological evidence that there was a comeback in terms of the Britons, and that for a while they were reclaiming lands.
I am persuaded to think, there were many causes for the successful invasion by the Saxons, and mainly it was as the Barbarian armies, from places such as Germany and the like, had been getting used by Romans as mercenaries, causing them to become very effective armies. This factor across Western Europe for these such Barbarian armies, saw them have a military advantage till roughly the end of the sixth century. This does tie in with the story of many conquests by Barbarian times in Western Europe, including Britain. Indeed other than a larger Cornwall and West British territory around that era, the territories held by England now, are similar to what was held by the Anglo-Saxons in the beginning of the seventh century. Also I feel the fact they took the squarer, fertile south east, put them in a advantage over the thinner more far flung, so more easily divided, fertile territories of the Britons. As of this the Saxons were able to absorb local populations and overtime use the power of having South East England to take English plains elsewhere overtime, and just be halted at the more upland territories, and boundaries of Wales and Scotland.
What is for sure is that, in six one three, the Battle of Chester, saw a major conquest by the Saxons, their last of such huge strategic importance, splitting the North Britons in Cumbria and Central Scotland from Wales. Soon seeing much of the British lands of Northern England amalgamated into Saxon kingdoms. Plus as important, the Battle of Deorham, which in 577 cut off the West Welsh, of Cornwall, from modern Wales as well, it likely occurring in Gloucestershire. With the Saxons taking 3 important cities, plus the hillfort of Dyrham Camp, with 3 important Welsh kings, killed there. Commagil of Gloucester, Condidan of Cirencester and Farinmagil of Bath. Indicating again the British had been ruled by coalescing kings of mini regions, likely centred on old Roman towns, and newer hillforts. Like the reason there was a roundtable for Arthur, in later legends, so the kings could meet and co operate.
The loss of this Dyrham Camp, otherwise known as Hinton Hillfort, which commanded the Avon, saw the loss of this land from the Britons to the Saxons, so it being like a opposite of the Battle of Badon. The Saxons were amazed at Bath, believing it was made by giants, with its huge Roman baths, and buildings. Many wealthy villas were soon abandoned, and the wealthiest of Britons had their luxurious lifestyle taken away from them. There were still Welsh or British speaking communities deep into Wessex in the 8th Century though, but additionally very oppressed, and later absorbed into England. Wales itself though survived onslaughts from these new larger Saxon kingdoms, and sometimes there were even some Welsh kingdom's (It was rarely a united land in the Dark Ages) forces fighting for a English kingdom against another, and vice versa. Though in the 8th Century Offa's Dyke appeared, which indicating a later re-shining of Welsh kingdoms, is actually in the north, at small points, to the west of the line that the Welsh princes and the language held in the 11th and 12th century.
Northern England's British kingdoms may or may not have used hillforts. Though they were absorbed in the Dark Ages into England's kingdoms, and a Viking Northumbria, and later a melting pot of England's ethnicities, Saxon, British and Viking, before ten sixty six, and after under the Normans, and their castles. In fact a old base of the Northern Saxons, north of Viking Northumbria, in the Dark Ages, Bamburgh, could be said to have been a hillfortesque location, so sites like these had some use.
So it seems hillforts were strategically significant, but the geography of Scotland and Wales was a more important factor in holding back the Saxons for them, than the hillfort. Though the hillfort did have uses that were very helpful, as shown by their importance at major battles in the Dark Ages era.
Cornwall with it's ancient West British heritage, does have some fine sites as well, and I have some of their pics below. It is less the Iron Age that intrigues most about the structures here. It is more the age of the mythical King Arthur, in the Dark Ages, that draws the attention. Though there were some interesting sites associated with the tin trade from before then, often promontory forts, of this Celtic nation, that in it's other guise as a county within the realm of England, proudly has the longest of those county's coastlines, so helping explain it's predominance of coastal forts.
In terms of the Cornish language, Tintagel Castle, is a name from Cornish, as Din is ancient Cornish for fort, similar to that for many Celtic languages. Indeed it would have been Dintagel, and is known as Kastel Dintagel, in Cornish. This site Tintagel, was actually during the Dark Ages, a site that was importing vast amount of produce from Classical Societies, like the Byzantine Empire, which indicates some kind of power and wealth. It does indicate that there was a powerful Celtic force in this area, similar to the power that King Arthur would have had.
Additionally there is St Michael's Mount, down on the south coast, and this site has had evidence of ancient defences on it. Some then say that it could likely have been a site for importing and exporting tin to the continent, possibly before or after Rome. In all honesty there were certainly sites like this, indeed Exeter in Devon, was likely doing this sort of thing with Dartmoor's metals before the Romans, and there were likely sites importing goods into Cornwall after the Romans for the West Britons as well.
Another fine hillfort in Cornwall, is the site of Chun Castle. This site's name comes from the Cornish Chi An Woon, which means the house on the downs. Which is why it is sometimes called Chun Downs. Built around 500 BC, and sitting right on the north of the far western tip of the county, it seems to have been less used in the 1st Century AD, but then was reoccupied after the Romans, or late in their era, till the 6th century. Many wonder if it was there to protect the tin trade. Indeed the great linguist Edward Lluyd who developed important theories on the Celtic languages, stated in 1700 AD, how it was of great military significance as of his knowledge of that kind of thing. Sadly some of it's walls have reduced since his time as of quarrying for stone, but it still has some great points. There is also a well there, that till even the 1940s was used by locals, as it stayed usable even in dry times. The well has legends associated to it, which is interesting as a few wells in hillforts are seen as possibly partially ritual. It overlooks ocean to the north and west which makes it surely a great viewpoints site.
It seems the Saxons had less use for hillforts, but they were more based in the lands less suited to hillforts at the start. In addition to this, when the Vikings had their Anglo-Saxon kingdoms under pressure, kings such as Alfred are more famed for using the Continental creation of walled towns, which operated as kind of refuges, like some say hillforts were for, for Celtic England. A small number of hillforts in England, but walled towns and later castles left hillforts to be left to decay and become denuded. Whereas Scotland, Wales and Cornwall, have plenty of castles on sites that were once hillforts, England as of it's geography does not have this situation so much.
The Isle of Man, shows up how hillforts dotted every part of the British Isles. This isle in the middle of the Irish Sea, possessed forts. Just like Welsh, English and Scottish isles often did, and symbolises, as much as any of these lands, that the Iron Age was the "Land of Hillforts". A hillfort in the Isle of Man would include South Barrule, which sits high on the isle, overlooking the sea surround, so in Manx, Barool Jiass, and in legend this is where the God, the isle was named after dwelt. Most "hillforts" on Mann are coastal and promontory forts. Some of these sites were used by Vikings when they arrived and led for a number of centuries over this Celtic land. The Manx for hill is Cronk, and one fort is actually called hill of refuge, so much like what some think these many of these type sites were for across much of Europe. Though I prefer to think many were often hilltop villages, forts and refuges, sometimes all 3, sometimes just a refuge or even a monument, or even a ritual site.
The crown dependencies of the Channel Islands, of Guernsey and Jersey do not seem to identify any hillfort, but there are some contenders as sites. I mean Mont Orgueil on Jersey, sits on a hill in the main harbour as a imposing castle. This site was actually a fortified site in prehistoric times so likely a equivalent of hillforts. You would assume that surely promontory and coastal types of forts were existent here, like on the Scilly Isles, but in this case it was transformed overtime, as of it's geographic tactical points into the great castle it became.
How far you extend that territory "the land of hillforts" in land and era, depends on definition, I would include the whole of the British Isles for the Iron Age. Much of it for some of the Dark Ages, and some of the Roman era. Then I say it includes, parts of Iron Age France, Belgium, Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and possibly even Spain and Portugal. The hillforts of Lithuania, are a different story, those of New Zealand, a very different story.
THE WEBpages on hillforts
Part 43 of the Land of Hillforts, for sale on Barnes and Noble. Pictures of hillforts and countryside and related subjects and maps, related to my story, The Land of Hillforts, in terms of when it talks of England including Cornwall.
Some by myself, most of which are not that good, plus some by others some are often better, which I got from searching the internet for public domain pics, I will say which are mine, and
which are not in the main. There are over 100 pictures. Some just the
odd one like for From Tintagel, to Bamburgh, to British Camp, and numerous other forts, to Glastonbury area, that are usually public domain and not by myself, with Maiden Castle, but some by myself, including my Iron Age Age map of England, which is also on my maps part, part 46, plus mainly only on this part, almost a couple of dozen at Offa's Dyke in Clun area, over 30 of mine of Old Oswestry, and
a little less than that of the Wrekin, and a few of my poor ones of British Camp in between. Not comprehensive, but some things which may be of interest to some
Here is a list of the pictures on this page.
Left to right, and down the page.
So first of all a picture I found on Wikimedia Commons, Ingleborough from Chapel-le-Dale, Yorkshire, England, Views of the British Isles publication, 1890 to 1905.
Then well these barely count, 5 tiny pictures, linked to my pages on British Camp, Old Oswestry, Old Sarum, Maiden Castle, and Cadbury Castle. Now the bigger p[pictures.
Next, Cornwall's St Michael's Mount, although I have been there, it is a 1987 public domain picture on Wikimedia Commons.
A public Domain picture of An aerial view of Wittenham Clumps in Oxfordshire. 1939. Taken by Major George Allen (1891–1940)
Then 4 pictures by me, so you need by permission to use them. They are all of Old Oswestry Hillfort. The 1st of the western entrance and ramparts, the second of a typical rampart and ditch, the 3rd of the eastern ramparts overlooking the fields, and the 4th of the fort from a cricket pitch near it. My pictures do not do it justice, as it is in many senses when viewed from above, by accident a almost La Tene pattern style patterned masterpiece, and the best preserved hillfort in Britain.
Next is a public domain Wikipedia picture of British Camp, in east Herefordshire's countryside. Nicknamed the wedding cake by some, this must be among the longest of UK hillforts, and spans a wide area, for a remarkably snakelike slimness for a hillfort. I have been there but none of my pics were this good.
Then Old Sarum, another wikimedia commons public domain picture, ."Drawn by F. W. Fairholt, from a Model by W. H. Hatcher. Diameter of the Works, from East to West, 1900 feet." A 19th-century depiction of the ruins at Old Sarum, England.
Then Maiden Castle from above, I have been there, but can not find my pics, Anyway here is what I have, is sourced as the following sentence in wiki commons, Atlas of Hillforts 3598 An aerial view of Maiden Castle in Dorset. The Ashmolean Museum's description is "Maiden Castle Iron Age hillfort taken 31 Mar 1934, a wikimedia commons public domain picture taken by Major George Allen (1891–1940)
Then another public domain Wikimedia commons picture, Maes Knoll Tump, a hillfort, in Somerset, South West England.
Then 2 more pictures of Old Oswestry Hillfort, by me, so you need my permission to use them.
Then lastly, a picture on Cornwall's Tintagel, it is a wikimedia public domain picture, and sees the promontory, kind of a isle really where Cornwall's Dark Ages hillfort was. It also became a medieval castle, but was a Arthurian era, castle, steeped in myth and legend. Most amazingly a major trade entry harbour for Byzantine and such products into Post Roman Britain. King Arthur, and Tristan and Isolde, were myths strongly associated to this, both popular from the Middle Ages, to the Victorian era.