In this final installment I 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.
The Dragon in Folklore
A very old tale tells that Castle Hill is home to a sleeping dragon that guards a golden cradle. Folklore of dragons as the guardians of treasure can be found all over the world. Some of the earliest written tales seem to have originated in Greek Mythology but it is likely that the notion is much older.
In the case of Castle Hill, it is possible that this particular legend was attached to the hill in the time of the Anglo-Saxons, although of course dragons existed in Celtic and Norse lore too. The dragon of the Saxons was the Wyrm, often depicted looking more like a ferocious serpent without the wings or limbs of the better-known Medieval dragon. In a rental record of 1425, the hill is referred to as. ‘three acres of demesne land called Wormcliffe’. The name occurs again in a manorial survey of 1584 (1).
It was common for dragon legends to be attached to hills and burial chambers by the Germanic peoples who came to Britain at the time that the Roman Empire was beginning to crumble. Such as Wormelow Tump in Herefordshire, said to be the burial place of Arthur’s son Amr and Drake Howe cairn near Guisborough, thought to originate from the Old Norse ‘draukr’. In the epic Saxon poem Beowulf, he finally meets his end fighting a dragon that guard’s treasure, when a slave steals a cup from the hoard and provokes attacks upon the towns and crops of the Geats.
The dragon was a potent symbol in Britain following the Roman retreat. The Saxon battle standard was that of a white dragon, which had probably been inherited from the Roman draco, a wood or metal dragon head with gaping jaws on a pole or lance with coloured material fixed behind it. This would bellow like a windsock and most probably make an unsettling noise when caught by the wind or in motion. These were first thought to have been introduced into the Roman Army by Samaritan and Dacian cavalry during the 2nd century (2).
The battles between the Britons and the Saxons is symbolised by dragons in the tales of Merlin. Vortigern, King of the Britons is attempting to erect a tower after beating a retreat into northwest Wales from the Saxons. Each day, he and his men return to find their work destroyed. Vortigern is advised by his wise men to sacrifice a boy with no father and sprinkle his blood on the foundations to appease the restless spirits of the place. His men go out and eventually return with a boy named Myrddin Emrys (Merlin Ambrosius). Merlin advised that the tower would not stand as a pool containing two dragons, one white and the other red lay beneath the tower placed there by Lludd. He ordered that the pool should be dug out and drained and the dragons released. This Vortigern did and the two dragons fought fiercely. When asked to tell what this portended, Merlin explained that the white dragon was the Saxons and the red the Britons. That the Saxons were winning and would oppress the Britons but that a leader would emerge and drive the Saxons back. The fort was named DInas Emrys (Fortress of Ambrosius) (3) (4).
Dragons and serpents are also used as symbols of paganism in folktales of the christianisation of Britain. At Winlatter Rocks in Derbyshire, a priest fought off a dragon and left his footprints behind in the process. St Columba’s encounter with the Loch Ness Monster is also an allegorical tale of the victory of christianity over paganism.
The Celtic goddess Bride (another aspect of the Brigantine goddess Brigid) was known as the Serpent Queen. The day of Brigid/Bride is 1st of February (the pagan Imbolc or christian Candlemass), the snake is believed to emerge from its bolt hole on this day and symbolise the coming of spring. ‘Early on Bride’s morn shall the serpent come from the hole, I will not harm the serpent, nor will the serpent harm me’ (5). When St Patrick supposedly drove the serpents out of Ireland, he in reality was attempting to purge Ireland of the worship of Bride. He was of course unsuccessful and she became christianised as St Bride.
As we have already seen in the previous part of this blog, Brigid was likely to have already been associated with the hill by the Brigantines, by way of being the goddess of high places. It is also possible that the hill was seen as a sacred place of Brigid by way of the fire that destroyed a section of the hillfort. Maybe a shrine was placed on the hill to placate the goddess (6). Brigid also being associated with fire (7). If Brigid/Bride’s guise of the Serpent Queen was also considered here, then there is already a tradition in place of the hill being protected by a serpent. It may also be that as the hill was circled by quite impressive fortifications, the Saxons recognised it as a likely place for a stronghold in the case of possible rebellion and the sleeping dragon is a representation of a possible Celtic uprising should the dragon awake.
What then of the golden cradle, the treasure that the dragon is said to guard? Why a cradle and not a hoard of treasure as at many other sites bestowed by dragon and treasure legends? (8) If the hill was home to an altar to Brigid, could it have been that infanticide occurred at such a place?
‘The invasion of Britain in the first century could have been considered catastrophic enough to trigger the sacrifice of newborns by indigenous people attempting to persuade the gods to lend them assistance in their resistance to the invading Romans. Researchers at Hambleden were appalled to discover at least one infant skeleton with cut marks indicating it had been possibly ritually dismembered.’ (9)
Or perhaps in a world where infant mortality was much more commonplace than now, maybe deceased offspring were brought to the hill in some form of funerary rite. Alternatively, it could be possible that newborns were brought to the hill for a form of blessing, the Serpent Queen protecting their cradle.
Another possible and very interesting explanation that involves a connection to another landscape feature is suggested by John Billingsley. Symbolic landscapes have found gathering acceptance in association with ancient sites. For example, Callanish stone circle on the Isle of Lewis is aligned to a landscape feature on the horizon, known as ‘Cailleach na Mointeach’ or the ‘Old Woman of the Moors’, formed by the shape of Mount Clisham. It is here that a lunar phenomenon occurs every 18.6 years where the moon skims low across the hills. Also at the summer solstice sunrise, the ‘golden one’ is said to walk down the avenue of stones. A likely reference to the sun. Avebury stone circle lies at the heart of a symbolic landscape that includes both natural and man-made features such as the massive artificial hill, Silbury Hill. Castlerig Stone Circle in Cumbria uses surrounding landscape features as alignments. These are just three well-known places in a long and growing list of symbolic landscapes in the British Isles.
The southwestern horizon from Castle Hill, looking towards the moors beyond Holmfirth to Meltham Moor, is dominated by a saddle feature formed between the points of West Nab and Hind Hill on Shooters Nab. John Billingsley suggests that when the sun sets between these two points (thought to be during February, if 1st February, that would be perfect) this could represent the golden cradle.
‘If we follow this line of speculation so far, what then might we make of the legend of the golden cradle, the treasure of Castle Hill? Gold, like the sun, like fire; a cradle, like a bowl, like the saddle on the SW horizon; treasure, like the protection of a powerful goddess; buried in the ramparts, where the mysterious fire started. Nothing proven, but perhaps there is something to think about?’ (10)
Here another representation of Brigid as the goddess of fire may come into play. The sun, cradled in the saddle of the hills like the eternal flame of Brigid, or Brigid putting the sun to bed in its cradle.
A further theory of interest is put forward by Catherine McLester, similar in regard of a celestial alignment being at the heart of the golden cradle legend but this time centered on the belief that the cradle is buried in the hill’s ditches.
‘According to tradition the cradle lies buried at a certain point in the ditch or moat between the north-east ward and the middle ward on which the public house stands.’ Philip Ahier (11)
Catherine McLester suggests that possibly during an autumnal moonrise over the hill, the rising moon may align with the ditch in question, when viewed from the south east of the hill and form the golden cradle of legend (12).
West Nab itself is a place worthy of consideration. Sat on the western point of Meltham Moor overlooking Wessenden Head, it too could have a very interesting history. The summit of the hill is strewn with boulders that is the result of glacial scatter. At the very top of the hill is a curious looking boulder that is greatly weathered, along the brow of which are three large ‘bowls’, big enough for a man to sit in. Next to this stone, underlying the trig point is what looks very much like the remains of an ancient cairn. There is also what could be a toppled former rocking stone lying on the cairn spoil and other rocking stones (now destroyed) have been recorded elsewhere on the Nab. In some cases, rocking stones have also been known as cradle stones. As one of the highest points locally, it would be no surprise if it were found to have been a place of reverence to the Bronze and Iron Age locals. Visible from both West Nab and Castle Hill is Pule Hill on Marsden Moor, where early Bronze Age cremation burials have been found.
A letter to the Yorkshire Post in the 1930’s ventures to call West Nab a ‘Temple of the Sun’:
‘The unique feature at West Nab is the three seats cut in the rock of the highest and largest stone, facing the east, doubtless those of the priests of the sacred Triad, from which they watched for the first rays of the sunrise, when the sacrifice was made’.
Although the local historian and folklorist Philip Ahier correctly explains away the correspondent’s suppositions as being the result of nature (13). I still can’t help but feel that in a way, he may be right in his suspicions of West Nab being a place of ancient importance. There has been plenty of ancient historical activity around West Nab.
In the fields on either side of Wessenden Head Road, that rises out of the village of Meltham are two ancient earthworks. On the left by Royd Edge (where flints have been found) is an irregular square enclosure that resistivity surveys suggest was probably Iron Age in date. On the right below Oldfield Hill is a sub-rectangular enclosure. Here the same resistivity surveys didn’t quite find a conclusive use, but dated it to possible Iron Age or Romano-British (14). One finding was that the ditches are cut in a ‘V’ shape, which is common (although not exclusive) for early Roman military earthworks. It is possible that this was a rudimentary Roman Camp that oversaw an early attempt to cross the Pennines via Wessenden Head, the current A635 and into Saddleworth. A possible ‘Agger’ (raised bed of a Roman Road) has been found at Shiny Brook Clough (15). A Roman observation post at Castle Hill would have overlooked both the camp and a good section of that road.
It seems then, that the story of the dragon and the golden cradle is likely to be an amalgamation of certain cultural or religious influences associated with the hill and possible celestial alignments that build eventually into the legend that we are familiar with. Possibly beginning with the tale of the golden cradle by way of mythologising actual events into folk memory, followed by the addition of a guardian dragon by Germanic invaders from their own culture, or the adaption of associations that already existed via an identification of the hill with Brigid or as a possible centre for native uprisings. We must remember that in past times, people did not apply the same literal meanings to stories that we do today. Folktales are often ways in which societies with oral traditions remember events, customs or allegories to pass from one generation to the next. They have layers of meaning that speak to those who are accustomed in their ways. It is common for tales to change over time as embellishments are added by subsequent storytellers.
Much by the way of tradition and folklore has been lost over the years. The little that we know about the Celts, particularly the Celtic inhabitants of Yorkshire, comes from the Romans and it is likely that a great deal of what they wrote was biased and self serving. By the time the Normans arrived in Britain, a thousand years had passed since the Roman invasion. Our understanding of that period of British history is fragmentary at best and a great deal of what has survived can be dubious or inaccurate. So piecing together the ancient tales of this land can sometimes be a matter of personal interpretation that is open for correction if later evidence comes to light. I will happily amend any content if that should happen.
I hope that though out this short series I have been able to demonstrate that the landscape we see around us today, can be viewed almost as a storybook of the history of the area. Physical remains, legends and place names sometimes reveal a glimpse into a distant past and unrecorded events that have long passed from memory. This can add levels of meaning and interest to photographic work in the landscape.
If anyone has any questions or further information regarding the history and folklore of the areas that I have covered (or any others around Yorkshire/Derbyshire and the Peaks), please feel very welcome to contact me via my website.
(1) The Making of Huddersfield – George Redmonds
(2) Robert Vermaat
(3) History of the Kings of Britain – Geoffrey of Monmouth
(4) Geoffrey of Monmouth’s works are generally thought to be rather unreliable as historical references. It seems that he has taken earlier tales of Myrddin and added the Ambrosius part of the name to create a link with Ambrosius Aurelianus, a 5th century Romano-British leader who campaigned against the Saxons and may have led the British forces at the Battle of Badon Hill. He is also one of the historical figures that may have influenced early tales of King Arthur.
(5) From a Gaelic prayer for St Bride’s Day – Kate Westwood 1998
(6) An Earth Mysteries Interpretation of Castle Hill – John Billingsley
(7) A perpetual flame in honour of Brigid/St Bride was kept alight at Kildare. It was only extinguished during Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries.
(8) This is probably a good point to refresh your memory that a Romano-British coin hoard was found on the hill in 1829, including five Brigantine gold coins.
(9) Simon Mays 2011
(10) An Earth Mysteries Interpretation of Castle Hill – John Billingsley
(11) Legends and Traditions of the District of Huddersfield, Vol 1 – Philip Ahier
(12) Castle Hill and the Golden Cradle, Huddersfield Local History Journal, Winter 2005-2006 – Catherine McLester
(13) Legends and Traditions of the District of Huddersfield, Vol 2 – Philip Ahier
(14) Royd Edge & Oldfield Hill Earthworks, Geophysical Survey – Archaeological Services WYAS
(15) Three Ravens to the West, Northern Earth Magazine issue 76 – Steve Sneyd