Forts were around in the Iron Age

Forts appear often in my novel Spirit of Iron and its sequels. Why? Because they were an important part of Iron Age life. You can’t see many today unless you apply your imagination to a series of grasssed-over ridges where there were once earthworks and wooden structures. The Welsh word for fort is caer, which is why so many placenames begin with that syllable, such as Caernarvon, Caerphilly and Caersws. The anglicised version is car as in Carmarthen, Cardiff and Cardigan.

Map of pre-Roman Britain showing some native forts.

Map of pre-Roman Britain showing some native forts.

Were forts only in Wales?

Before the Angles and Saxons took over what is now England, there was no concept of ‘Wales’ and the language of most of Britain was an early form of Welsh. There were forts in most parts of Britain in the Iron Age but most have been destroyed because, starting with the Romans, people have been building over so many of them. One of the biggest and best sites is Maiden Castle near Poole in Dorset, where you can see the arrangement of the ramparts in concentric circles with gaps for the gatehouses.

The English brought castles

The English – or rather the Normans – built castles in Wales, as in England, not to protect the local people but to oppress them. They house the local lord, his servants and his men-at-arms, plus their families, safe from revolting peasants. They also made a statement that the Normans and their successors were here to stay.

Cardiff Castle. Now seen with pride and affection by locals and visitors. Was it once the site of a fort?

Cardiff Castle. Now seen with pride and affection by locals and visitors. Was it once the site of a fort?

Did this regime change matter?

Doesn’t this just mean that the Welsh, as well as the English, had inadvertently swapped one lot of oppressors for another?

Not necessarily. The relationship seems to have been different. Archaeology has revealed a surprising puzzle with an intriguing possible solution. It’s not what they have found but what they haven’t found.

Forts yielded few finds

Castles have provided a steady stream of archaeological finds, illuminating the Middle Ages, but forts have been remarkably less forthcoming. One possible explanation is that nobody lived in most of them!  All right – there may have been a few lookouts and caretakers, but they would have left much less for the archaeologists than the permanent inhabitants of castles. The people generally lived in surrounding villages and took refuge in these strongholds only when danger threatened. In Spirit of Iron, I have assumed that at least some kings and chieftains lived in one of these strongholds, but \every kingdom would have contained more than one such place.

Why does it matter to us today?

Think about the different ways in which people would have regarded their nearest fortified place. Did it represent oppression or protection? A place of safety in times of danger or a place where you would be taken for punishment? Iron Age Britons might have looked upon their kings or chieftains as defenders as well as rulers. Few would have felt much affection for Norman barons.

What about us today?

How do you think of authority figures? The government, the courts, the police? On your side or your enemies? How do others see you, if you are in authority in any way: an employer, an official, a magistrate, a local councillor? Are you there to serve or to rule? Perhaps you can do both. At least you could try.