The Significance of the Hill-Fort: Military


Dotting the landscape of late Bronze Age and Iron Age Britain were the hill-forts, those bastions of defense, commerce, and society that helped define the land for hundreds of years.

This three-part series will examine the importance of the hill-fort from three perspectives: military, economic, and social. On, then, to the military.

As every good commander knows, high ground allows two extremely significant advantages for a defending force: easier defense and view of surrounding terrain. It is a lot easier to stand on top of a tall hill and wait for your enemy to come to you than it is to be that enemy, slogging your way uphill through dirt, mud, trees, rocks, and man-made obstacles like landslides to finally reach the top of the hill, exhausted, to face the enemy you came to fight in the first place. Standing atop a tall hill, you can see your enemy long before he gets to you and you can probably also gauge his strength and weakness and compare them to your own.

This, then, is good tactics: get command of a hill and keep it. This is exactly what chieftains did in ancient Britain. Beginning in the late Bronze Age, we see the emergence of the hill-fort, which arose from the need of a chieftain to defend himself, either from other chieftains or from his own people. (The latter would be, of course, the case, presumably, only if they found his leadership lacking.)

No one knows for sure who first seized the advantages of the high ground in defense, but it was a good decision indeed. The chieftain could sit atop his hill and wait for his enemies to come to him. He would have fortified his hill with wood and/or stone barricades, and he would (if he had the manpower) have planted scouts on the edges of the plateau to alert the rest of the troops to trouble.

Hill-forts have been found throughout the Island, from Scotland to Wales and everywhere in between. Some of the more famous hill-forts are Castle Rock in Lothian, Swansea in Wales, and, of course, Somerset’s Cadbury, reputed to the military home of King Arthur.

It was not just in Britain, either, that these hill-forts appear. One of the more famous hill-forts in Western History is that of Vercingetorix, who held out against Julius Caesar longer than just about anyone else. Caesar, of course, was victorious in his siege of Gergovia, but it took tremendous time and effort and manpower.

What, then, is the significance of the hill-fort? It emphasized the importance of high ground in defense and reconnaissance. Military history throughout the ages has proved this maxim time and time again. Some things don’t change.