For as long as people have had resources that others wanted, there has been a need for defence. The earliest people to come to the Dales were hunter-gatherers. There were probably very few of them and it seems unlikely that they would ever have faced competition for the abundant meat on the hoof to be found grazing the upland limestone pastures. On the other hand, water was in short supply for these great herds of animals so places like Malham Tarn and Semerwater would have been prime hunting spots where lookout locations like Chapel Cave might well have been argued over rather than shared. There is no evidence either way.
It is not until people start to settle in the Dales and create farms that we see the first possible evidence for a need to defend land and property. A Neolithic enclosure like Rough Haw near Flasby, with its massive rubble ramparts might at first glance look defensive. However, closer examination reveals that it is in an undefendable position, so we can only conclude that the ramparts were a statement of power of some sort, possibly even ritual. The polished quartz mace-head found near Kettlewell may also have been more a symbol of late Neolithic power than a functional weapon.
During the Bronze Age we see farmland being divided up for the first time with the co-axial field boundaries that run in parallel series up valley sides to the moorland edge and beyond. What few dated settlements there are, lie undefended, in open ground. The presence of bronze weapons in the archaeological record tells another story. The magnificent spearhead from Semerwater and the spearhead and rapier found near Flasby were probably deposited as part of some sort of ritual but would also have been effective weapons of war.
It seems that worsening climate and a growing population began to place pressure on those making a living from the hills. The advent of iron technology allowed people to make even deadlier weaponry and at this time we see the first truly defensive structures being built in the Yorkshire Dales. Fortified hill top enclosures like Ingleborough and How Hill, Downholme may have been places were communities sheltered from attack and from which raids on other people’s territories could be mounted. The Iron Age warriors that led them would have been well armed with swords such as the bronze sheathed example from Flasby, and spears, such as the example from Kelco Cave.
The tribal peoples of the Dales finally met their match in the heavily armed and well-disciplined Roman army. Their lands were conquered though never romanised and probably never completely subdued. In the centre of the Dales, at Bainbridge, the Romans kept an almost permanent army garrison for the 400 years of their occupation.
Once the might of the Roman army had been withdrawn, the power vacuum would have been filled by whoever could raise the most supporters and defend the most land. Ex-Roman soldiers, local aristocrats and then Anglian invaders would have all staked their claim. Territorial boundaries such as Tor Dyke and those around Grinton are reminders of the struggle as is the richly decorated Anglo-Saxon spearhead found near Bolton Priory.
The Danish settlers who laid claim to land in the Dales from the late 8th century left almost no archaeological evidence. Their many place names and the undefended farmstead at Ribblehead seem to indicate a relatively peaceful settlement. However, the Viking farmer buried at Wensley churchyard made sure that he had his sword and spear with him as well as his sickle.
What peace there was in the Yorkshire Dales was shattered by the arrival of the Norman conquerors. The Anglo-Danish population by this time called itself English, and the northern English lords who lost land to the Normans, led a disastrous rebellion in 1069. The result was the Harrying of the North where the fields, houses and stock of whole communities were destroyed. William’s Norman lords built earthen motte and bailey castles such as that at Castlehaw to reinforce control. These were followed by their great stone castles such as those at Middleham and Richmond. Such buildings were as much symbols of power as defensive strongholds.
The Norman lords and their descendants held the Dales in a firm grip and relative peace descended, troubled only by political struggles such as the War of the Roses and raids by the Scots. The latter problem led to the building of defensive farmhouses called tower houses such as the one at Nappa Hall. Medieval Bolton Castle would also have been built with this sort of low level threat in mind since it would not have been defendable against a properly equipped army. This proved to be the case in the last great struggle fought on English soil, the Civil War. Bolton Castle fell to the Parliamentarians and its walls were slighted so that it could never again be used for defence.
The peace and prosperity of the 18th and 19th century farmers and landowners of the Dales was shadowed by the threat of war from France. Things got so bad in 1859 that the Secretary of State for war allowed county lieutenants to raise volunteer rifle corps. The Settle volunteers were famous for their shooting abilities and Attermire Range was set up in 1860 for them to practice at. The range continued in use up until the First World War. The ‘war to end all wars’ and the global conflict of the Second World War, affected all parts of the Dales and nearly every village has its proud war memorial recording those who were lost and in the case of the one at Aysgarth, those who were lucky enough to return.
Even more recently, the Cold War with the Soviet Union has left its mark on the Yorkshire Dales. There are at least four Royal Observer Corps listening posts surviving including the one buried in the Norman motte and bailey at Castlehaw, Sedbergh.