Defensive Places

People have needed to defend themselves from both animal and human enemies from the earliest times. The flint tools found around Malham Tarn were effective as weapons as well as hunting tools. When people began to clear fields and settle down as farmers during the Neolithic, we might then have expected to see defensive places appearing. At first sight the possibly Neolithic enclosure at Rough Haw seems to be one of these places, but closer examination shows that the massive rubble ramparts were unlikely to have been defensive. Current opinion is that the site may in fact have had ritual significance. At this time, although communities were large enough to be organised to build such places, it seems that they weren’t large enough to get in each other’s way.


It is not until the Iron Age, when climatic conditions had worsened and population pressure was being felt on the remaining cultivable land that we see the first true defensive places appearing in the Dales. Farming communities seem to have banded together under the protection of a warrior class whose seats of power were heavily fortified with banks, ditches and stone walls or wooden palisades. These sites are known as hillforts because of their location on high places. The one on top of Ingleborough is the largest and most spectacular in the Dales. It is so high that it seems unlikely that people ever lived there permanently and indeed, the most recent research has suggested that it might even have functioned as another ritual place rather than a defensive one. The smaller sites such as that at How Hill, Downholme are more typical. This site occupies a strategic position commanding two valley routes.


Iron Age warriors and their hillforts proved to be no match for the conquering Roman army although factions of the Brigantes, a northern tribe, held out longer than most. The Roman marching camp on Mastiles Lane may have been built during the final campaign to mop up resistance here. The camp is laid out in typical playing card shape with an outer ditch and inner bank, originally topped with wooden stakes carried by the soldiers. It would have provided a safe, temporary resting-place for an army on campaign in hostile territory.


Once the Dales had been subdued, a chain of Roman forts connected by roads was established around them. At the centre, just outside Bainbridge in Wensleydale, a permanent fort was built called Virosidum. Its high earth banks and deep V-shaped ditches along with its highly disciplined, formidable garrison, must have been a strong disincentive to further rebellion.


With the withdrawal of the Roman army and abandonment of its forts, chaos descended. The strongest leaders survived although no trace of their power centres have been found, only the enigmatic banks and ditches of Grinton and Tor Dyke, apparently built to establish control of territory during these uncertain times.


The Norman Conquest brought another invading army to the Dales with a need to control and exert power. The physical manifestation of this was castles. Wood and earthen motte and baileys appeared, built to watch over people, like at Castlehaw and stone monsters like Richmond and Middleham. There could have been no better representation of a Norman lord’s power over his new territories than his castle. Although built to be impregnable, many were never put to the test in their builders’ lifetimes. The worst that places like Castle Bolton faced during the medieval era was Scottish raiders. Several grand houses from that period were fortified with towers in response to these devastating attacks, Nappa Hall is a fine example. Mallerstang has an interesting defensive medieval landscape, including three manorial halls within a couple of miles of each other. This includes Pendragon Castle, a 12th century fortified tower-house.


It was not until the English Civil War that the great stone castles faced their real test. Both Castle Bolton and Skipton Castle held out as Royalist strongholds long after other northern castle garrisons had capitulated. Skipton lasted the longest, finally surrendering just before Christmas 1645.

Both had their walls slighted by Parliamentarians to prevent them ever being used defensively again. Black Dub Monument records that Charles II and his army rested at that spot (which is now commemorated) on their march from Scotland on 8th August 1651.

From then on, threats to peace came from beyond the borders of Britain and the people of the Dales never again had to build defensively.

Related sites:
Tag Bale Hill enclosure
Far Gregory enclosures
Skyrakes enclosure


Bowden, M C B, Mackay, D A & Blood, N K (1989) ‘A New Survey of Ingleborough Hillfort, North Yorkshire’ Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society Vol 55 pp267-271

Hartley, B R & Fitts, R Leon (1988) The Brigantes Gloucester: Alan Sutton [Bainbridge Roman Fort]

Hatcher, Jane (1990) Richmondshire Architecture Richmond: C J Hatcher [Nappa Hall]

Higham, Mary C (1991) ‘The Mottes of North Lancashire, Lonsdale and South Cumbria’ TCWAAS Vol 91 pp79-90

Spence, Richard T (1991) Skipton Castle in the Great Civil War 1642-1645 Otley: Smith Settle

Welfare, H and Swann, V (1994) Roman Camps of Britain London: HMSO

White, Robert (2002) The Yorkshire Dales. A Landscape Through Time Ilkley: Great Northern Books [Rough Haw; How Hill; Grinton-Fremington Dykes; Tor Dyke]

Williams, D J; Richardson, J A & Richardson, R S (1987) ‘Mesolithic Sites at Malham Tarn and Great Close Mire, North Yorkshire’ Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society Vol 53 pp363-383 – website for Bolton Castle