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Wychbury hillfort origins?

The name "Wychbury" would seem to derive from the English "Hwicce" tribe who intruded into this part of Worcestershire in the 6th century. Certainly the story of St. Kenelm, a princeling murdered by a wicked Sister and her lover to disposses him of his Kingdom, seems to centre around the tribe. "Hwicce" seems derived from a word meaning "knowledge"or "wisdom". However, the Kenelm story is a historical impossibility, for we know he lived on into adulthood. The beheading of the prince, and a sacred spring arising from the spot where he fell -- seems to derive from a much more ancient source (see other entries on this weblog), and a sort of shadowy magic still casts a spell over this place. We know that in some ancient cultures, Kings were sacrificed as the "dragon power" waned, and that virgin princes were sacrificed to honour the "soveriegnty" of the land etc. Although these feel like flights of fancy as they are perused on TMA, they take on an altogether different feel when one is alone in the Yew Groves on a moonless night! The fort itself is an impressive bastion. But who would have been the potential enemy? Indeed, was there an enemy at all, or was the place merely a gesture of power and prestige by the local people? My conjecture is that the percieved enemy may have been either the Ordovicians of North Wales, or the Cornovii of Staffordshire & Shropshire. The borderlands of Worcestershire & Staffordshire were the original border between the Dobunni and the Cornovii. The latter were an aboriginal and pastoral tribe, underdeveloped with no coinage, and only imported ceramic wares from the Malvern area. Mike Hodder an Archaeologist from Birmingham postulates that the fort "served" an area approximating to the parishes of Oldswinford (Stourbridge) and Kingswinford, whilst the predecessor of Dudley Castle, an Iron age fort on Castle hill, served a similar function for Dudley/Cradley etc. Excavations have revealed Horse furniture at Wychbury, apparently, and I am reliably informed that the Round Hill site produced an Iron age Dagger, burial urn and human cremated remains. Nearby, a "Villa" type residence was discovered, and also a beacon tower (Wychbury is on excellent sightlines for Malvern, Abberley and Clee, where, no doubt, others were operational). The Dobunni had 2 separate but related Kingdoms in Worcestershire and Gloucestershire, and may well have dominated the Northern outposts of this territory by fortifying the westernmost point in the Clent hills and making this a nexus for their trade with the North midlands (and to guard the approaches to the Severn), not least in salt, which we know pre dates the Roman occupation of Droitwich. A project like a hillfort was costly in terms of resources and labour, and the concept was much like a feudal Castle of the middle ages. The people worked the soil, but the Lord gave protection in times of war. Some person of power must have overseen the construction of the fort, and of course there may have been additional uses other than defensive military ones, all along. The two sources of wealth and power in the area at this time, were wool (British wool was prized across Europe long before the Romans), and salt (especially salted beef, which was a valuable source of preserved protein in the lean Winter months). My theory is that the salt trade was the origin of the local nobles power and prestige, and that a network of ancient saltways pre dates the Roman road system that concentrated on Droitwich. More and more evidence is accumulating about the sophistication and extensiveness of the British road system, and there is no reason to doubt that "Salinae" was the hub of a considerable communications system at least 3,000 years ago. The problems in terms of security came when travellers had to approach the interface of tribal territories, where goods in transit would be vulnerable to attack from a small but determined banditry, or even war parties on a bigger scale, especially near major water obstacles. Could this explain why Wychbury was built where it was? Strong escort parties, and good beacon signaling within a politically cohesive area would have meant security and wealth for the Dobunni. But just ten miles away, in what the Romans later called "Salopium", literally meaning "The Outback" or "The Bush", were wilder people, noted for their ferocity and impetuosity, the Cornovii. The River trade and forest routes would be easy places to ambush the valuable commodities, and of supplementing a meagre, underdeveloped lifestyle. Thus, in my hypothesis, this Fort was constructed as a depot and place from which to sally forth, rather than as a defensive work per se, although this was to become its ultimate fate. Usually, these forts were not great centres of population in themselves, perhaps housing a core of 100 -- 200 people of the same clan or family group, the bastions and redoubts only coming into play when a large incursion threatened, and people had to come in from the outlying areas (lit at night by a beacon on the summit). But above all, they were symbolic of power, and the more extended concept of tribe that came with the population explosion in the late Bronze Age and early Iron Age (i.e about 1000 B.C). Another crucial element is the nearby river Hafren (Severn) which would have provided a means of transporting both finished woollens, such as blankets, and the precious salt. I've postulated that this may be a possible connection to the site known as "Burf Castle", an Iron age hillfort downstream of Bridgnorth, 12 miles west, on a secret ford, by means of which people and cattle could walk across the River. One more thing was that in the Iron age, the Stourbridge area was a series of almost impassable meres and swamps, and was little changed even when Charles Stuart fled for his life through it in 1651 (he needed guides to prevent being quagmired). Clent, the local village, may be a British word (though in the Domesday book, it is called "Klinter", which may refer to a Nordic origin meaning, "wooded slope". Anyone who has seen the "Paps of Anu" in Co. Kerry will notice the resemblance of the Clent hills to Female breasts, and the presence of a spring would certainly not have been lost on the Celts, who may well have identified this site with Danu ("heavenly waters"), the goddess associated with the famous "Tuatha de Danaan",the children of Danu". If this were the case, the hills would have been a sacred site for the local population,and a centre of pilgrimage, yet another reason why its defence would have been culturally vital. In the days before the Black Country had been despoiled by industry and urban settlement, the legend was that Thunor, a derivative of Thor, resided on the summit of Clent, and Woden/Odin sat astride Turner's hill near Rowley Regis. The former hurled a stone at the latter, and this was known as the "Halestone" , until local Ministers disposed of it due to it's evil associations. It is worth remembering, that it is said that if one draws a line on a map east from Clent, there is no higher land until one reaches the Urals, on the border of Siberia. The significance of this may be, that the incoming Germanic/Nordic peoples were probably somewhat overawed by the height of the place, and may have accorded magical qualities to it for that reason alone. The beech and yew groves were, I contend, planted by the conquering "Hwicce", to subdue the spirits of the local conquered folk. Many legends say that the fallen warriors of one or both sides, are buried beneath the trees at Wychbury/Clent. Legend tells of a huge battle here, some say between Romans and "Britons" others say between Saxons and Britons. We know that there was little resistance to the Romans when they came around 45 or 46AD (the 14th "Gemina" Legion") so, it seems the latter is more likely to have been the origin of the legend. This would account for legends with King Arthur being recounted about the site. Although this is only conjecture, the historical British war leader Ambrosius does have definite local connections as attested in the place name of Ombersley. Arthur is said to be buried (astride his horse) beneath Saddleback hill, on a slope beneath Wychbury. At one time, Wychbury hill was targeted by the Highways Agency for a new road underpass which would have been tunnelled under the hill itself. There was significant protest, and the plan has been dropped, for the time being.

Posted by Forrester
29th July 2004ce
Edited 1st December 2005ce

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