The Mystery of
Stonnall Hill Fort
The hill fort located at Castle Hill, Stonnall presents us with a substantial mystery that can be circumscribed by the following questions: who built it, when was it built and why was it built?
In view of the fact that there does not seem to have been any substantial archaeological investigation of the site and that the earliest historical reference to it dates from as recently as the late 17th century, it would appear at first sight that these questions are intractable.
However, as we will see, it is possible to shed light on this mystery through an examination of all the historical, topographical, linguistic and circumstantial evidence that we have at our disposal. This paper will describe all that evidence and, in accordance with scientific principles, form a theory that accommodates all the facts and thereby come to quite specific conclusions.
© Julian Ward-Davies
Physical description of the hill fort
The hill fort is located to the north of Castle Hill Road. It is oval-shaped and is orientated north-west to south-east, measuring 170 metres in length and 140 metres in width. Its grounds are enclosed by a bank and an outer ditch and is thus considered as a univallate, or single-walled fortification. However, there are traces of further ditches to the north-east and south-west which indicates that the monument may have been designed originally as a bivallate, or two-walled structure.
The earthworks are quite well-preserved for the most part, the bank varying in height between 1 and 2 metres and up to 8 metres in width. The ditch is between 1 and 2 metres in width and up to 4 metres deep.
The bank was constructed from earth and cobbles, as can be seen from places where there has been some weather damage. The cobbles were almost certainly collected and transported from the nearby valley in Stonnall, where they are plentiful in the soil. Local woodlands would have provided all the required timber.
A gap in the bank on the north-east side seems to indicate an entrance at that point. However, the existing entrance on Castle Hill Road seems to have provided the occupants with an easy route to fresh water from Pen Brook via Old Chester Road. Thus the hill fort may have had two entrances originally. If so, Castle Hill Road is of great antiquity.
Its original appearance
Although its original appearance must be a matter of conjecture, the bank was quite possibly mounted by a wooden pallisade with, one might expect, internal ladders and look-out points at intervals in its circumference. There certainly would have been a stout gate at every entrance. Internally, there would have been accommodation for people and almost certainly for cattle and horses too.
All in all, the hill fort would have presented an impressive and formidable spectacle when viewed from outside and especially from the southern approach at Chester Road.
It should also be noted that, deviating from that which might be described as standard practices, it was not located on the highest point of the hill, which would have been at the top of Shire Oak Hill, where maximum military advantage might have been achieved. Thus, the structure is classified as a promontory hill fort, of which there are several other examples in Great Britain. This fact is of great significance.
It seems, therefore, that the principal reason for the fort's placement on the side of the hill gave its defenders a natural advantage in observing traffic on Chester Road (see photo below).
That the fort's location was a matter of careful selection on the part of the tribal authorities is illustrated by the formidable obstacles that faced any would-be attackers. On the southern side adjacent to Chester Road, there was an extensive boggy area known in later years as Stonnall Gorse (see map above). On the eastern side, there was the difficult gradient of the hill, which gave the defenders the advantage of elevation. The western and northern sides were tribal hinterland and an attack from those directions was, therefore, much less likely.
Thus, any attackers using Chester Road would have needed to approach the fort along Castle Hill Road, which would have only been a narrow track in those days.
These natural obstacles and hindrances placed assailants at a considerable disadvantage. In short, the hill fort was a masterpiece of strategic defence in terms of its location and design.
The cost of its construction
We can see from its size, location and constituent materials that the hill fort was a massive construction project that took many months, if not years, to complete. It required intelligent surveying, planning, design and a well-organised and well-motivated workforce of overseers, carpenters and labourers, not to mention packs of horses, carts and carters.
The probability that the size of the local adult population was insufficient to provide the required personnel to make up the workforce need not detain us long. People from outside the area were almost certainly brought in to make up numbers.
Although it is difficult to assess the expense of it in present-day terms, the hill fort would have cost the equivalent in resources of very many hundreds of thousands by any standard.
We may now turn to the economics of the project. Although the use of modern terminology may seem to be somewhat anachronistic in consideration of an ancient piece of work, nevertheless there can be no doubt that the hill fort represented an investment on the part of whoever built it and who, in turn, anticipated a return or benefit for that investment.
The hill fort mysteries
Thus we may ask the following questions:-
- Who financed, as it were, the project and who took the decisions that planned, designed, initialised, implemented and completed it?
- When did these events take place?
- What possible return motivated somebody to go to the time, trouble and expense of building the hill fort?
As we will see, it is possible to answer these questions with a fair degree of precision, detail and certainty.
Historical references to the hill fort
The earliest known reference to the hill fort is contained within The Natural History of Staffordshire, 1686, by Dr Robert Plott, who was a professor of chemistry at the University of Oxford. In a chapter on the county's antiquities, he discusses the presence and historical notices of hill forts in Great Britain and then goes on to say:-
"Such as this about a quarter of a mile westward of over-Stonall [Upper Stonnall], where there is an old fortification situate upon a hill."
He goes on:-
"Castle-old-fort, in [Old] British, Castle Hean, being encompassed with a double trench, in diameter between the entrances (that seem to have been on the SE and NW sides) 160 paces. Which I am willing to think this to be a British Rampire [fort] because of the ancient name"
Dr Plott goes on to note that iron spear-heads and other "warlike instruments", as he put it, had been ploughed up within the hill fort's grounds.
It should be noted here that Castle Hean would be rendered as Castell Hen in Modern Welsh and that this translates as Old Castle or Old Fort, an exact match to the hill fort's name in English. Also it should be noted that Welsh is the immediate successor of the Old British language. But why would there be a Welsh connection in the context of the hill fort? As we will see, this fact is of great significance.
Incidentally, note the group or grove of five trees atop Grove Hill,
a feature from which the hill's name was undoubtedly derived.
Our next historical reference comes nearly 100 years later from The History and Antiquities of The Parish of Shenstone, 1769, by the Reverend Henry Sanders, a one-time curate of that parish.
Reverend Sanders noted that hill forts are commonplace in Britain:-
"There are in many places of this kingdom fortifications made of earth, cast up into high entrenchments, with large ditches round them, in such manner and form as the high places would admit of, that may be presumed to be of the old Britons."
By 'old Britons', Rev Sanders is referring to the Iron Age tribes of pre-Roman Britain. He goes on:-
"[The Britons] chose for their place of fighting a situation fenced with a bank of earth, having a narrow entrance to keep off the horse."
Rev Sanders says of the hill fort at Castle Hill:-
"Of the same kind was this at Over-stonall [Upper Stonnall], where was an old fortification upon the eminence, well known by the name of the Castles, or Old Fort (Castrum Vetus [in Latin], in British Castlehean)."
Here we note a consensus of opinion between Dr Plott and Reverend Sanders. Both considered the hill fort to have been the work of the Old British who flourished on this island in the period known as the Iron Age. But who, exactly, were these people? And can we find any other examples of their work on the landscape in this locality? This brings us to our next point of interest.
Knaves Castle has now, unfortunately, disappeared from the landscape, but its location and appearance are well documented.
Dr Plott expresses this opinion of Knaves Castle:-
"Of what use was the treble entrenchment on the South side of the Watling-street, near Frog-Homer, called Knaves-castle, which is not above forty, or at most fifty yards diameter, in the middle whereof there is a round hill, now excavated, I cannot imagine, being so very small. The tradition is, that this heath being formerly all wood, and much infested with robberies, here was a watch set to guard strangers over it, for which the passengers allowed some small gratuity."
Reverend Sanders says this of it:-
"On the borders of Shenstone on the Cannock, adjoining to the Watling Street, is a rise or swell of land, with three trenches; the circuit of this rise is nearly eighty three yards; it hath the appearance of a barrow [burial place], and, having a fir tree growing on the center, serves as a guide or landmark to strangers over a wild and desolate heath. The nearest trench is 5 or 6 yards deep, reckoning its gradual descent from the plain ground; the second is nearly the same; the third is full six yards; though greatly below the Castles and Shire Oak hills, it affords no despicable view of the adjoining country.
"Though there remain no signs of a fort, it seems very likely to have been one to guard strangers passing over so wild and dreary a country as Cannoc wood is at present; much more was it such formerly, when full of woods and thicket."
Here we see further signs of consensus. Dr Plott relates a tradition that Knaves Castle had once been a guard post on Watling Street and that travellers had paid the guards for their protection. As we will see, this folklore is of great significance.
Reverend Sanders agrees with Dr Plott's assessment, but goes as far as to say that Knaves Castle had once been a fully fledged fort. With the element castle in its place-name, this does seem to be entirely plausible.
Thus far, we have determined the presence of two ancient fortifications, one located on Chester Road at Stonnall and one located on Watling Street between Wall and Brownhills - and only a matter of a few miles away from each other. At Castle Hill, we most certainly have an Iron Age hill fort, but what of Knaves Castle? Can we locate it also in that period of time? And if so, can it be possible that these two fortifications were somehow working together in some way?
Iron Age Britain
The Iron Age is considered as extending approximately between 800BC and 100AD, during which time Great Britain was inhabited by a number of Celtic tribes who spoke a language that is the immediate precursor of Welsh. Such was the cultural impact of these tribes that we still refer to various features of the landscape with the names that they coined for them. Moreover, various towns and counties are named, at least in part, after them. Here are a few examples of very many:-
- Dorset - the area inhabited by the Durotriges, an Iron Age tribe;
- Dorchester - the fortification belonging to the Durotriges;
- Devon - Welsh Dyfnaint - the area inhabited by the Dumnonians, an Iron Age tribe;
- Malvern - Welsh moel + bryn - 'bald hill';
- Avon - Welsh afon - 'river';
- Penkridge - Welsh pen + crug - 'end (of the) hillock';
- Lynn - Welsh llyn - 'lake/flood';
Dr Plott considered that the dominant tribe in this part of the West Midlands was a group of people known as the Iceni. Reverend Sanders agreed that this was a possibility, but considered that the tribe known as the Cornavii, sometimes written as Cornovii, was a greater likelihood. In any event, modern scholarship informs us that, indeed, the Cornavii was the dominant tribe in this area.
Returning to Knaves Castle
This information hands us the key to unlock the mystery of Knaves Castle. We have already noted that the castle element of its place-name denotes its former function as a fort - and now a complete understanding of it in its entirety is staring us in the face. The knave element must surely be a slightly corrupted version of Cornavii. Indeed, this should not be too surprising in view of all the other Celtic-influenced place-names that are common throughout England.
Thus we can deduce that Knaves Castle means the fortress belonging to the Cornavii and thus we can place chronologically this ancient feature squarely in the Iron Age, along with the hill fort at Stonnall. Here we have two forts, both placed in a seemingly strategic manner on two ancient major roads. In all probability, they were constructed by the same tribe. Also, we can now explain the Welsh language connection with the Old Fort. It was anciently called Castell Hen because it had been built by the Welsh-speaking Cornavii. Is it possible that the Cornavii constructed these forts to serve a common purpose?
The Cornavii occupied a territory that included what is now the West Midlands conurbation of Birmingham, Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton and which extended into Staffordshire, Shropshire, Powys and into Cheshire. Tribal life was hierarchical and dominated by a royal family that consolidated its power and prestige through the taxation of its people that was facilitated by the imposition of petty chieftains in every locality. Traders who moved into and out of the tribal territory also would have been taxed. As we will see, these facts are of great significance.
They do not appear to have been great horticulturalists, having relied on cattle-raising and hunting. The first element, 'corn', of their tribal name means 'horn' in Welsh. Were these people noted for their affinity to cows, goats, deer and the like? We have only to travel a few miles to Abbots Bromley to view the Horn Dance that may be a pagan ritual left-over of their reverence for horned animals.
And yet there may be another explanation for their name. 'Corn' could also be interpreted as 'grain', but as the Cornavii were not great horticulturalists, as already noted, it is possible that this element may well have been a reference to an entirely different commodity. It is known that the Cornavii controlled large deposits of salt in Cheshire. Could their name be a reference to granular salt? Certainly, in the days before refrigeration and other types of food preservation, they dominated the supply of a very important resource: the salting of food to keep it over the winter months was an essential process for the maintenance of health.
Trade in the Iron Age
Human desires, requirements, endeavour and enterprise being what they are, resources and commodities that are in surplus in one area are moved to places where they are scarce, in exchange for other goods and services. Indeed, this quid pro quo is the essence of trade.
Archaeology informs us that trade was conducted across tribal borders in Iron Age Britain. Moreover, international trade also took place on a grand scale. In pre-Roman times, Britain was noted for its exports of grain, wool, livestock, hunting dogs, metals and slaves.
The defence of territory and economic assets
The boundaries between tribal territories were probably never defined precisely and, thus, there was likely to have been a possibility of conflict over land and other economic resources in border areas. The Cornavii were surrounded by potential enemies: to the east, the Corieltauvi, to the south, the Dobunni; to the north, the Brigantes; and to the west, the Ordovices.
Then there was the potential for conflict arising out of matters of trade. No doubt, the Iron Age British possessed a form of contract law and safe passage that was conducted fairly uniformly across tribal boundaries, for without it, trade would quickly degenerate into chaos and become untenable, which would not have been in the interests of anyone. However, no doubt as is the case in the present day, circumstances would sometimes be blighted by occasional acts of criminal behaviour such as fraud, deception and outright theft. When such events occurred, there could be a strong possibilty of raised tensions between neighbouring tribes. In order to prevent armed conflict, using wisdom that had accumulated over hundreds of years, the tribal authorities dealt with this problem in two ways.
Image: Lock, G. and Ralston, I. 2017. Atlas of Hillforts of Britain and Ireland. [ONLINE] Available at
There was a custom that seems to have been common to all Celtic tribes that is encapsulated in the Welsh word gwystl. A straightforward translation is hostage and that would certainly describe the legal status of the people involved. However, the meaning of the etymologically-related English word guest is really more appropriate. This legal concept was of such value and importance that another ethnic group, the Germanic tribes, imported it into their own culture, using their own form of the word: Geisel.
In operation, the custom worked like this: by arrangement, two tribes would swap families who would then live and work in a new social environment. These people would then learn any differences in language, laws and customs while retaining their knowledge of their original tribe. In the event of conflict, they could be deployed to act as intermediaries, or diplomats, who would be very well equipped to deal with any misunderstandings, whether customary, legal or linguistic. An additional benefit was that young men and women could marry into different tribal social structures, thus reinforcing ties between tribal hierarchies.
Of course, as a last resort, it must be the case that on occasions military conflict arose out of deteriorating relations beween neighbouring tribes, or as a response to an outright attempt at all-out conquest. After several episodes, no doubt, of devastation and catastrophe, hill forts were constructed all over the British Isles as a means of reinforcing and protecting tribal territories. In many cases these were placed adjacent to major roads, as is the case in Stonnall.
The road network around Stonnall
Thus, we may deduce that trade-generated traffic was moving into and out of the area as traders sought - amongst many other things no doubt - supplies of the essential and valuable commodity of salt. It is this traffic that created the road network as we more-or-less know it today. We may now consider this network as it evolved around Stonnall.
Watling Street and Chester Road
Watling Street and Chester Road represent two major routes that have been in use since ancient times. The former connects North Wales to the south-east of England and the latter branches off from the former to connect with the heart of southern Britain. If we were to contemplate for a moment the types of traffic that used these roads in the Iron Age, we would expect to have seen drovers, people seeking seasonal work, people on horseback and carters carrying a variety of goods.
© Julian Ward-Davies
The tax gatherers
We should also expect that anyone carrying valuable goods would have been stopped periodically, perhaps when entering or leaving a tribal territory, or perhaps when entering or leaving a major road, to hand over a cut of their goods to the tribal authorities by way of tax, customs, tithes, tolls, or call it what you will. This means that the tax-gatherers would have needed to select their toll-points carefully. What better a place for such a toll-point than a position on Chester Road at Stonnall? Or for that matter at Knaves Castle? There is a very good reason for this.
© Julian Ward-Davies
In the Iron Age and indeed in times before mechanised transport became a reality, the southern approach towards Watling Street from Chester Road and the northern approach towards Stonnall presented a considerable obstacle to anyone transporting a heavy load - and that is the gradient on both sides of Shire Oak Hill. Carters using a single animal to drive their vehicles would have been affected in particular.
As far as the southern approach in the Stonnall area is concerned, the gradients of Church Hill and Lazy Hill would have presented similar impediments. Thus, some travellers had no choice but to turn right into the valley so as to take the route that we now refer to as Main Street, then enter Cartersfield Lane, then Barracks Lane and thus join Watling Street by a means that avoided the difficulty of Shire Oak Hill altogether. Persons travelling in the opposite direction would have taken this route in reverse if necessary.
Thus, we can see why the toll-points were placed at Stonnall and Knaves Castle. These locations were selected by the tribal authorities to ensure that they were able to tax all the traffic, no matter which route it took.
Further, we should remember that people engaged in legitimate trade were not the only people using the highways. Occasional forays from the bad guys would also have been a feature of Iron Age life. Thus we can see why the tribal authorities invested the time, effort and expense in fortifying the Stonnall toll-point as well as its counterpart at Knaves Castle. They needed to protect themselves and their assets from brigands. Such fortifications would also have been a last-resort place of safety for local people in times of trouble, a place where beacons could be lit as a warning of danger to their neighbours and they may also have functioned as social centres additionally.
© Julian Ward-Davies
We can now also see another reason why the hill fort was not built at the top of Shire Oak. Placing it there would have caused the tax gatherers to miss some of the traffic as it passed down Main Street when some travellers wanted to avoid the Shire Oak Hill gradient.
We can also now account for the item of folklore that was reported by Dr Plott. This was a folk-memory of the days when, by means of taxation, traders directly supported a military effort that was intended to ensure peace and security on the highways.
Postscript - the hill fort's legacy
Now there are one or two other matters that we may address during the course of this discussion - one of which is to answer this question: bearing in mind that the hill fort is over 2,000 years old, did it have any lasting effect on the history and development of Stonnall?
© Julian Ward-Davies
Let us consider for a moment the management of the hill fort and its business. We can say without much doubt that a single petty chieftain was in control of matters, being beholden only to his or her seniors in the tribal hierarchy. Would he or she have wanted to live within the confines of the hill fort on a permanent basis? We might conclude that the answer would be 'no': all that trekking up and down the hill every day would have been irksome and laborious. And after all, this person, as a chieftain, would have had the choice of living anywhere he or she wanted.
So where did they live? In keeping with this person's status as the local bigwig, the ideal location had to satisfy three criteria:-
- It had to be as near to the hill fort as possible so as to enable a rapid escape to a place of safety;
- It had to be as near as possible to a good source of running water, whilst...
- At the same time, it had to be far enough away from areas that were prone to flooding;
In the early 21st century, the location that represents the highest status in the Village of Stonnall is that part of Main Street that runs down from Chester Road to the junction with Lazy Hill Road, that some people - myself included - still refer to as Old Chester Road. It is precisely this piece of road that presents the most rapid escape route to the hill fort.
Moreover, the highest status location of all is represented by the Manor House at the corner of Old Chester Road and Lazy Hill Road. In the Old Days, this was situated only a matter of a few yards away from the fresh running water of Pen Brook. The piece of land on which it was built satisfied the three criteria mentioned above and thus we can expect that the hill fort's manager lived precisely at this spot. That is how it acquired its high status originally and that quality has remained with it ever since - for all the intervening 2,000 and more years.
A further matter that could be considered in this context is this: as an important point on a busy route, this part of Stonnall must surely have had a long tradition of innkeeping. Could it be that the Welsh Harp/Wordsley House and the Swan Inn/Manor House represented the Latter Days of hundreds of years of hostelry on Old Chester Road that had its origins way back in the mysterious days of the Iron Age?
Lastly, we may consider a legacy in terms of local language. There can be no doubt that (the italicised) elements of the feature-names Pen Brook and Stonnall Gorse were coined by the tribe that inhabited the hill fort and the surrounding area. Anyone who may be interested on the influence of Celtic on local place-names is invited to read this article.
© Julian Ward-Davies BA Hons 2010
Design, image editing and programming are the work of the author.
If you have any information, suggestions and/or photographs relating to the subject matter, no matter how trivial, please contact the author by one of the methods shown below.
Please revisit for additions, amendments and revisions.