Castle Hill: History & Folklore Pt3

Introduction

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 Victoria Tower at Castle Hill looking west to West Nab

The Victoria Tower at Castle Hill looking west to West Nab

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.

West Nab dominates the horizon beyond Netherton and Meltham

The saddleform feature of West Nab dominates the horizon beyond Netherton and Meltham

The Cradle

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).

The summit of West Nab. A compass carved in the rock near the ‘bowled’ stone

The summit of West Nab. A compass carved in the rock near the ‘bowled’ stone

West Nab

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.

West Nab Triangulation Point possibly sits on top of an ancient cairn

West Nab Triangulation Point possibly sits on top of an ancient cairn

Conclusion

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.

Sunrise from West Nab Brow. Castle Hill is to the left of the sun

Sunrise from West Nab Brow. Castle Hill is to the left of the sun

(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

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Castle Hill: History & Folklore Pt2

Introduction

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.

Fleeting Light at Castle Hill

Fleeting Light at Castle Hill

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?

The Keep

The Keep

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.

Castle Hill from the Flats

Castle Hill from the Flats

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

Castle Hill: History & Folklore Pt1

Introduction

It is common for ancient sites to be linked with other landscape features, visible in the surroundings. In the latest part of this short series I would like to demonstrate how landscape features can be linked in folklore, using an example that straddles the northern boarder of the Peak District National Park.

The history and folklore of Castle Hill and its surroundings is long and convoluted, which has necessitated that I split this piece into sections. This first part pieces together the known history of Castle Hill and is a forerunner for the folklore that will follow in a separate part.

Castle Hill at Sunset

Castle Hill at Sunset

Castle Hill, a Brief History

To the west of Huddersfield Town Centre near Almondbury, rises a flat-topped hill that dominates the scenery for miles around. Known locally as Castle Hill, this prominent hilltop has witnessed such a long and chequered history and folk tales swarm around it like bees around a hive.

Castle Hill is a multi-period hill top settlement, which has seen clusters of habitation followed by long periods of abandonment. The first people to use the hill seem to have been small bands of Mesolithic hunters in the form of short-lived camps. This was followed by a Bronze Age settlement, that enclosed the western tip of the hill, possibly on the site of an earlier Neolithic settlement. The remains of burnt huts from this period have been dated to c.2151 BC.

The hill seems then to have been largely abandoned until c.590 BC, when a new period of occupation began. The earthworks were extended to enclose the entire hill in the form of an Iron Age hillfort, with and imposing entrance at the eastern end of the hill. Later extensions were added to the earthworks, which were most probably topped with a wooden palisade. This would have made the hill into quite a formidable fortress and an important Brigantine stronghold.

This period of habitation came to an abrupt end c.430 BC when a fire destroyed a section of the ramparts and spread to the huts within the enclosure. Excavations drew the conclusion that the fire may have originated from the inner core of the ramparts (or possibly in waste matter thrown into the ditches) by spontaneous combustion.

‘Officials of the Yorkshire Division of the National Coal Board, who examined that section in the field, were of the opinion that the effects they saw resembled those they were familiar with in coal waste-tips and which were attributed to spontaneous combustion. Oddly enough, Professor Robert Newstead held a similar view of the ramparts I excavated at Maiden Castle, Bickerton and the Castle Ditch, Eddisbury. In both these cases, there was visual proof that the heat had not been applied outside the revetments of Triassic sandstone within which the affected cores were encased’ William Varley (1).

For many years it was assumed that an attack by the Romans had destroyed the fort, when in fact the hill had been unoccupied for over 400 years by the time the Romans arrived. Although excavations found no evidence of a Roman presence at Castle Hill, later resistivity surveys now suggest that there may have been a Roman observation post stationed on the hill (2). It would seem odd for the Romans to ignore such a prominent vantage point in their attempt to drive a road over the Pennines. Roman activity is well recorded in the area, with forts at Slack (Cambodunum) near Outlane, Castleshaw (Rigodunum) near Diggle and the remains of an inter-connecting road that probably forms a section of the York to Chester road that the forts defended until c.125 AD.

Another long period without obvious signs of occupation followed, until c.1130 AD when now in the possession of the crown following forfeiture of the de Laci family’s Honour of Pontefract, a motte and bailey castle was erected on the hill. King Stephen granted the castle to Henri de Laci in c.1137 AD.

The castle would have taken the form of a stone keep (standing on the spot now occupied by the Victoria Tower), surrounded by ditches and wooden palisades. The hill was divided into three baileys (inner, central and outer) and the earthworks extensively re-dug and extended. In fact, much of the earthworks visible today date from the Norman castle.

Norman rule was a dark period of English history. Regional lords acted like Kings and dispensed their own interpretation of the law by way of torture and death. A northern rebellion after the Norman Conquest had been cruelly crushed by William I, who raised York to the ground and continued his wave of destruction far and wide, in what became known as the ‘Harrying of the North’. The Doomsday Book starkly records numerous places throughout Yorkshire that had previously been prosperous under Saxon rule, but now were ‘waste’.

The Devil's Leap

The Devil’s Leap

‘When the castles were made they filled them with devils and evil men’ (3). This description seems to have also been true at Castle Hill as in 1307 the practices at the castle were examined by a jury after the murder of an unknown man in the castle dungeons, ‘that some person unknown, a stranger, had been murdered in the former Castle of Almondbury, and that his body appeared to have been devoured by worms, birds, and dogs; that he was killed elsewhere and his body afterwards placed in or thrown into that place, but by whom they knew not’ (4). By this time the castle was mostly being used as a hunting lodge by the de Lacis, who held many castles throughout the region, meaning that Castle Hill would have been held by a steward. This was probably just one of a number of dark deeds committed in the dungeons of the Norman Castle.

The castle passed to Thomas Earl of Lancaster as part of the Honour of Pontefract by way of marriage to Alice de Laci. By 1340 it had been demolished following Lancaster’s defeat at the Battle of Boroughbridge in 1322 against Edward II (his cousin). Thomas was beheaded at Pontefract Castle in 1323 and his lands forfeited. The well that dates from the time of the castle can still be seen to the south of Victoria Tower.

The modern history of Castle Hill has put it to various uses. It is speculated that there was an unsuccessful attempt during the 14th century to establish a village on the hill. A small battle took place nearby in 1471 at Hall Bower between the Beaumonts and the Kayes, during which Nicholas Beaumont was killed. In 1586, the antiquarian and cartographer William Camden reported that the castle ruins were still visible on the hill and that it had been the site of a Roman Fort and Saxon cathedral in which Paulinus preached. A beacon was light on the hill in 1588 to warn of the approach of the Spanish Armarda (and again during the Napoleonic Wars).

The hill’s modern use for recreation began during the 18th century with bare-knuckle contests and dog fighting. The original Castle Hill pub was built in 1811 to cater for the crowds that gathered on such occasions. During construction it is said that a ‘winding subterranean staircase’ was discovered. However, when the pub was demolished the old cellars were dug out and no staircase was found. It is possible that the discovery could have referred to the dungeons of the old Norman keep, as these were uncovered during the building of the Victoria Tower. The pub was rebuilt in 1852 and stood until 2004.

Castle Hill played its part in the social movements of the 19th century too. Being an area of textile manufacture, Huddersfield was at the centre of Luddite activity and of the fledgling trade union movement. The Chartists held a public meeting on the hill in 1848, the Secularists in 1861 and a large meeting during the Weaver’s Strike of 1883.

In 1829 a hoard of about 200 Roman coins and a handful of British gold coins was found at Castle Hill. Another hoard was found nearby at Honley in 1893 comprising of five British silver coins and eighteen Roman coins, dating from 209 BC to 72/73 AD (4).

Victoria Tower

Victoria Tower

The Victoria Tower was opened on 24th June 1899 and was built to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Silver Jubilee. A tower on the hill had been proposed in 1851 but the agent of the Beaumont estate had objected to the idea. The tower is now an iconic local landmark and is open to the public on a handful of days each year.

(1) Excavations at Almondbury, 1972 – William Varley

(2) Huddersfield Daily Examiner 26/1/96

(3) The History of Huddersfield and Its Vicinity – D.F.E. Sykes

(4) Ibid

(5) Early Man in the District of Huddersfield – James A. Petch