Continuing from the previous installment that looked at the history of Castle Hill, this part now concentrates on the many aspects of folklore and legend that are associated with the hill. As would be expected from a prominent location that has been occupied variously by so many different cultures, over such a long time-span, it is not surprising that the hill is drenched in legend. Many tales involving sleeping dragons, the devil, a Brigantine Queen and secret tunnels abound, that it is difficult to pick out the grains of truth from so many fantastic stories.
A Queen, a King, Tunnels and the Devil
An ancient tale tells how Cartimandua, the hereditary Queen of the Brigantines (1) at the time of the Roman invasion, made the hill her stronghold during civil war with her husband. It seems that Cartimandua already occupied the Brigantine throne when the Roman invasion of Claudius arrived in 43AD and that Cartimandua was a willing client of the Roman Empire. Venutius rebelled against the Queen when she handed Caratacus (chief of the Catuvellauni) to the Romans in c.51 AD. Cartimandua divorced her husband and took up with his arms bearer Vellocatus, who she married in c.69 AD (2). This caused a second revolt, resulting this time in Venutius ousting the Queen from Eboracum (York), who fled under Roman protection. If she fled to Castle Hill is doubtable, as at this point the hill had been abandoned more than 400 years earlier and no sound evidence has been found for further fortification in this period.
Venutius knew that the Roman forces would come for him and fortified a number of locations in the Pennines near Grassington, at Ingleborough and at Stanwick Camp (it is also speculated that the line of the Roman Rig in South Yorkshire may also be part of Venutius’ line of defence). The Romans crossed into the north in 74 AD. One column led by Agricola up the western side of the Pennines and another led by Petillius Cerialis up the eastern side (3). Venutius made his final stand at Stanwick Camp and was defeated. The Romans seized Eboracum and subjugated the Brigantines. They fortified York and moved the Brigantine capital to Isurium Brigantium (now Aldborough near Boroughbridge). Further Brigantine rebellions continued sporadically almost until the end of Roman rule.
There has been much speculation that the hill may have been the site of Arthur’s stronghold of Camelot. This most likely arises from the Roman name for the hill of Camulodunum (not to be confused with Colchester, which bore the same name), seemingly named after the Celtic war god Camulos (the native British equivalent of the Roman god of war Mars, or the Greek god Ares) (4), who is represented as The Champion (depicted as sporting the horns of a ram) and is in keeping with one of the Celtic ways of warfare, conducted by combat between champions rather than all out set battles. Consider the possibility that the hill was being used for such contests by the local tribes when the Romans arrived. The fort was no longer occupied by a war-like tribe and had not been occupied for four centuries. Why then would the Romans name it after a Celtic war god?
It is true that there was a 5th century king of the Pennines named Arthius and slightly later, Arthwys of Elmet (born c.479 AD). It is unlikely that either made their strongholds on Castle Hill as Arthius was most likely based further north in Cumbria and Elmet seems to have been centered on Leodis (Leeds), which is a better contender for the home of Arthwys. No archaeological evidence has been found for occupation in the period either. There were a number of kings during this period that bore the name Arthur and the exploits of all of these could well have contributed to the tales of the High King Arthur when they were collected from the early Medieval period onwards (5). Also the etymological connection between the Celtic war god Camulos and the kingdom of Camelot is interesting, in that it provides a connection between King Arthur and pre-Roman conquest Britain. It may just be that the earliest legends of Arthur go way back into our prehistoric past and were later embellished with tales of the exploits of later Kings named after him. Frances Pryor has an interesting theory that the tale of the sword in the stone goes back to the casting of Bronze Age weapons (6) and there are many other tales of swords embedded in stone throughout Europe, that go way back beyond the Iron Age.
Local folklore tells of a number of tunnels that are said to lead out from the hill. Amongst others, one to Deadmanstone in Berry Brow and the other to St Helen’s Gate in Almondbury. There could be a number of explanations for these legends, other than physical tunnels. In the case of Deadmanstone, the rock has a hole in it through which a man can crawl. It was the custom in bygone times when carrying coffins from the Holme Valley for burial at Almondbury, to rest at Deadmanstone. Legend also tells that corpse would be pulled through the hole before being placed back in the coffin, in some form of ritual re-birth or rites of passage. There is also a tale that the remains of a soldier were found walled up in a cavity in Berry Brow, although it is not clear if this was at Deadmanstone. Depending on which version you read, it varies between a Roman Soldier, or a guard caught unaware by raiding Scots (7).
In many cases, tales of tunnels, great strides or leaps can be indicators of solar alignments to other landscape features. At Alsmcliffe Crag near North Rigton is a natural cave in the rock, known as Faerie Parlour, which legend says is the entrance to the Otherworld. One tale tells how curious locals pushed a goose into the fissure for it to re-emerge three-and-a-half miles away at Harewood Bridge. The goose is a symbol of the sun and the direction of travel from Almscliffe Crag to Harewood Bridge closely coincides with sunrise on the winter solstice (8).
On St Helen’s Gate in Almondbury, lies St Helen’s Well (St Helen being a christianised pagan deity), which doubtlessly lies at the heart of the legend of a tunnel to this location. It lies north east of Castle Hill and could possibly be in line with the summer solstice sunrise. Another possibility is that the legend of the tunnels relates to the journey taken by funeral corteges (or corpse ways) from Deadmanstone to Almondbury, via Castle Hill. It was also said that it was possible to pass through the landscape, using the natural folds of the land and remain unseen from the hill. Perhaps to people who knew the landscape intimately and may have planned their escape route, this too could contribute to the legend of tunnels leading out from the hill.
A further tale tells how the devil was said to have made a mighty leap from Netherton Scar to Castle Hill. At Netherton Scar is a (most likely naturally occurring) depression in the rocks known as the Devil’s Footprint. This tale opens up all sorts of interesting theories. Netherton Scar lies a couple of miles south west of Castle Hill, tantalisingly close to an alignment with the winter solstice sunset. Perhaps the devil in this case symbolises the sun (Lucifer the light bearer), a christian demonisation of enduring pagan practises such as sun worship. It is interesting to note that other footprint marks in rocks have been associated with the coronations of Celtic kings, such as at the centre of the Scottish/Irish kingdom of Dalriada at Dunadd and King Arthur’s Footprint at Tintagel.
Other possible explanations here could include a folk memory of one of the many fires on the hill. It would be a great feat if folk memory of the fires that destroyed the Bronze Age settlement or the Iron Age fort had survived, although Brigid, the goddess of the Brigantines was the goddess of high places and of the hearth, so the connection with fires on the hill may possibly have endured. Another explanation could be connected with the beacon fires on the hill, or perhaps connected with the various dark doings of the Norman overlords in the castle dungeons. It may have seemed to the local populace that the devil himself had come to reside at the grim castle on the hill.
In the next and final installment, I shall examine perhaps the most enduring and romantic legend attached to Castle Hill, that of the Dragon and the Golden Cradle and see how this could possibly connect the hill to another feature in the surrounding landscape.
(1) A confederacy of northern tribes stretching from roughly modern South Yorkshire/Derbyshire to southern Scotland, with the possible exception of the Parisii in East Yorkshire/Humberside.
(2) It has been speculated that the tale of Cartimandua, Venutius and Vollocatus could have been the original inspiration for the tale of the adulterous tryst of Arthur, Guinevere and Mordred (later replaced by Lancelot), which bears many similarities.
(3) Brigantia – Guy Ragland Philips.
(4) Huddersfield in Roman Times – Ian A. Richmond
(5) That Arthur existed at all in a historical context is doubted. The primary source for such proof was his mention in the Historia Brittonium (History of the Britons), attributed to the 9th century Welsh ecclesiastic Nennius and the 10th century Annales Cambriae (Welsh Annals). No mention of Arthur can be found in the Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Bede’s 8th century work, the work of Gildas, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle or any manuscripts prior to the 9th century. Current thinking is that his origins lie in pre-Roman conquest folklore as a fictional hero or Celtic deity, that later became historicised and intermingled with the deeds of regional Dark Ages Kings bearing the name Arthur.
(6) Britain AD – Francis Pryor
(7) Deadmanstone. Door to the Other World; Northern Earth Issue 99 – Steve Sneyd
(8) The Old Stones of Elmet – Paul Bennett