Hill Forts: the Unintentional Foundation of Many Castles

It is crucial to start this investigation into castles by defining just what qualifications a fortified structure must meet in order to be called a castle. Most would likely start by defining the castle as a type of defensive structure, but this is too broad of a term. After all, before the castle, there were other forms of defensive fortifications in Britain (Cawthorne para. 7). When defining the word castle, historians are referring to a private defensive “dwelling of an individual rather than a structure with a communal purpose” (Fernie 17).

The structures that existed in Britain prior to the introduction of the castle included “Iron Age hillforts, Roman legionary forts, and the fortified towns built by the Anglo-Saxons themselves, known as boroughs or burhs” (Cawthorne para. 7). Again, these fortifications were slightly different from the castle, often being built and used by communities (Dawson para. 2). These previous structures had kept the protective fortification and the private residence separated into two entities (Morris 00:1:50-00:2:30). The castle essentially combined the two providing a protective fortification for a private resident.

The main early fortification that has a tenuous connection with the later English castle was the Iron Age hill fort (“History of Castles” para. 5). No doubt built to exploit the advantages of holding the higher ground, hill forts were defensive structures that “consisted of ditches and ramparts with protected entrances and exits” (Yarwood 6). They provided shelter and storage (Yarwood 6). These fortifications generally were built and maintained by the local community “with very little sign of status distinctions within or between settlements” (Sharples 84). Their purpose could be varied (Sharples 83). They provided protection “for people and livestock in times of danger” (Williams para. 6). In addition to their defensive applications, hill forts also had granaries for “considerable grain storage capacity” (Sharples 84). One example of a well-preserved Iron Age hill fort is Maiden’s Castle in Dorset, England.


Allen, George. “General View of Maiden Castle Taken 12 Oct 1935.” 1935. Wikimedia Commons,  commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Aerial_photograph_of_Maiden_Castle,_1935.jpg. Accessed 29 Nov. 2016.

Hill forts were built in the Early Iron Age due to an emphasis on defending the “communal ownership of the land,” which was prevalent during that period (Sharples 87). However, there was a shift overtime so that by “the Late Bronze Age and the Late Iron Age an emphasis on redistribution and specialization invested power in the individual” (Sharples 87). As a result, the prominence of hill forts as active defensive structures had declined by the third and second centuries (Sharples 83). The Romans later dominated some hill forts and demolished others (“History of Castles” para. 3). They took the last fort sometime between A.D. 45 and 50 (Yarwood 6). Later, some hill forts were reused by the Anglo-Saxons to combat the Vikings (“History of Castles” para. 4).

The hill forts regained some of their importance with the Norman Conquest, though not in the way that most would expect. When the Normans began building castles in England, they often reused parts of previous British fortifications (Dawson para. 2). These “ancient hill fort sites” proved to be particularly useful building sites because they provided the advantage of ready-made high ground (“History of Castles” para. 5). “Building on hill forts is one of the reasons why so many Norman castles (especially the early ones) are of the famous motte-and-bailey design” (Etrusia para. 6). The motte-and-bailey was a design that could quickly be constructed and could take advantage of the preexisting structures (Etrusia para. 6). For example, the motte-and-bailey castle that was constructed by the Normans at Hastings modified the area’s preexisting hill fort (Cawthorne 10). Another example of a hill fort being adapted to suit the construction of a castle can be seen in Dover Castle (“History of Castles” para. 12). Due to its defensive significance, Dover castle has undergone many alterations and seen many types of fortifications, but the earthy structure of the former hill fort can still be seen in the current castle’s terrain (“History of Castles” para. 12).


Smits, Lieven. “Dover Castle Aerial View.” Wikimedia Commons, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dover_Castle_aerial_view.jpg. 16 April 2011. Accessed 29 Nov. 2016.

In many ways, it is kind of ironic. Hill forts were originally built to protect the community and were ultimately high jacked by invaders to suit their own purposes. Many became the groundwork for a more private type of fortification that was used to maintain control over the community rather than protect them: the castle.

Works Cited

Allen, George. “General View of Maiden Castle Taken 12 Oct 1935.” 12 Oct. 1935. Wikimedia Commons, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Aerial_photograph_of_Maiden_Castle,_1935.jpg. Accessed 29 Nov. 2016.

Cawthorne, Ellie. “Castles of the Conqueror.” BBC History Magazine, 11 Oct. 2016. www.historyextra.com/article/bbc-history-magazine/castles-william-the-conqueror-norman-conquest-1066. Accessed 29 Nov. 2016.

Dawson, David. “The English Castle, Part #1.” Britannia, 2007, www.britannia.com/history/david1.html. Accessed 30 Nov. 2016.

Etrusia. “Who Were the Normans?” The Normans: The Norman Invasion and Conquest of England. normans.etrusia.co.uk/whowere.php. Accessed 14 Nov. 2016.

Fernie, E.C. “Technical Terms and the Understanding of English Medieval Architecture.”  Architectural History, vol. 44, 2001, pp. 13-21. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1568729. Accessed 02 Nov. 2016.

“History of Castles.” Historic UK: The History and Heritage Accommodation Guide. www.historic-uk.com/HistoryMagazine/DestinationsUK/History-of-Castles/. Accessed 01 Dec. 2016.

Morris, Marc. “Castle Episode 1: Tower of London & Dover Castle.” Discovery Channel, Youtube, uploaded by HistoriaandHistory, 2003, www.youtube.com/watch?v=slLf1Nq8o2Q. Accessed 06 Dec. 2016.

Sharples, Niall. “Warfare in the Iron Age of Wessex.” Scottish Archaeological Review, vol. 08, pp. 79-89. Google Scholar, scholar.google.com/scholar?hl=en&q=%22Warfare+in+the+Iron+Age+of+Wessex%22+Niall&as_sdt=1%2C45&as_sdtp=&oq=%22Warfar. Accessed 30 Nov. 2016.

Smits, Lieven. “Dover Castle Aerial View.” Wikimedia Commons, 16 April 2011, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dover_Castle_aerial_view.jpg. Accessed 29 Nov. 2016.

Williams, Peter N. “Narrative History of England—Part 1: The Prehistoric Period.” Britannia, 2011. www.britannia.com/history/narprehist2.html. Accessed 01 Dec. 2016.

Yarwood, Doreen. “Chapter I: Early Architecture in Britain until 1066.” The Architecture of England: From Prehistoric Times to the Present Day. London: B.T. Batsford LTD, 1963. pp. 1-28.



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