‘For such is the wonderfull workmanship of nature that the tops of these mountains resemble in fashion the battlements of walles. Among which the highest is Moilenlly, on the top whereof I saw a warlicke fense with trench and rampier, also a little fountaine of cleere water.’
W. Camden, Britannia, 1607
At the southern extreme of the magnificent Clwydian Range, the hillfort of Moel Fenlli broods, looming above the landscape and the ancient routeways, the fertile lands of the Vale of Clwyd. By any measure you wish to judge these most curious and mysterious of ancient earthworks, Moel Fenlli is extraordinary.
At over 9 hectares in size, only the mighty Penycloddiau to the north, a hillfort with which it shares many features, is bigger. Moel Fenlli is the highest hillfort in the Range, rising to some 511m, though it is not the highest peak - nearby Moel Famau owns that distinction at 555m. It is a multivallate fort in the main, surrounded by a series of ramparts on all but a short section on the steep southern face. Excavations and surveys have suggested it was built in two phases - which is not uncommon with hillforts. Evidence of around 60 roundhouse platforms have been discovered. Unusually, it would seem to be the only Clwydian hillfort that did not have stone revetted ramparts - a curiosity.
The impressive double bank and ditch made Moel Fenlli a formidable fortification - here built on the east face of the hill fort as it begins to face the less steep approach to the site.
There are a number of aspects of Moel Fenlli which intrigue, which suggest that of all the hillforts in Clwydians, it is something different - special. Its size is impressive enough, and like Penycloddiau it is not a true contour fort, but tilted, clearly deliberately, built it seems with a mind to face the fertile lands of the Vale of Clwyd. Moel Fenlli, again like Penycloddiau has a water source within its ramparts, a once impressive spring - something of a rarity in hillforts. It has a Bronze Age cairn within the enclosure, which seems to have been regarded with some reverence by the later inhabitants. It is also extremely visible, which is to say visible from other hillforts in the Range, and as far afield as the enclosure at Melin-y-wig some distance to the south west. It is likely that visibility was hugely important and a sign of the importance of a hillfort. And of course, we cannot ignore the name - Moel Fenlli, having taken its title, uniquely, from the mysterious, semi-mythical figure of Benlli Gawr, Lord of Iâl, tyrant and tormentor of Christians.
As a result, Moel Fenlli has ever been of interest to historians and antiquarians. The first excavation that we know of was in 1849, conducted by W. Wynne Ffoulkes (assisted by the Rev. John Williams). The interest of Wynne Ffoulkes had already been piqued by the finds of Roman coins, including a hoard of 1500 on the slopes of the hillfort, uncovered in 1819 after a fire which burnt away much of the hiding heather. More were found in 1845. These coins, most of which have now been lost, were dated at the time to the years AD 330-350.
‘For some hours our hopes seemed doomed to disappointment.’
W. Wynne Ffoulkes, Archaeologia Cambrensis, April 1850 p. 84
Wynne Foulkes’s efforts were initially futile, despite his digging, ‘trench after trench’, but his persistence, and that of the Rev. Williams eventually unearthed a sizable amount of pottery, as well as objects of glass, iron, brass, hammer stones, whetstones and flint flakes. The pottery was of varying quality, and some of it identified at the time as being of Romano-British origin, which is to say made in Britain to a Roman design. A ‘stone knife’, described by a quite excited Wynne Foulkes in 1850 as, ‘the greatest curiosity we found,’ was found, and declared, due to the softness of the stone, as ceremonial. It was forwarded by Foulkes to, ‘the lord of the manor’ F. R. West of Ruthin Castle. It was subsequently lost, and all we have now are Wynne Foulkes own engravings in Archaeologia Cambrensis of April 1850. Ellis Davies, writing in 1929, reassessed the ‘knife’ as a hone which, based on the engravings, seems now to have been accepted. The flint finds, judged by Wynne Foulkes to be arrowheads, are another puzzle, but Wynne Foulkes suggested that they were indicative of a pre-Roman origin, native made. He is probably right. The dating of Moel Fenlli is tricky, as dating hillforts often is, but it seems unlikely that it did not have a significant pre-Roman history - Iron Age certainly, late Bronze Age possibly. Wynne Foulkes makes the claim that the hillfort was,
‘one of the posts originally formed by the Ordovices for the defence of their territory, when, as yet, they were untamed by the conquering, but civilizing, sword of Rome.’
W. Wynne Foulkers, Archaeologia Cambrensis, April 1850, p. 87
That the hillfort was of the Ordovices is still a matter of debate, and more of this will be mentioned a little later, but that it was of native build before the arrival of the Romans seems certain - the existence of the Bronze Age cairn is no guarantee of an Iron Age presence, it seems entirely likely, and does certainly suggest that the site of Moel Fenlli was of some considerable importance for perhaps a millennium before the Roman arrival. That it was occupied till at least the middle of the 4th century is equally likely, given the finds of 4th century Romans coins. But, its connection to Benlli Gawr would suggest its continued use into the 5th century and perhaps later.
Looking out towards the fertile Vale of Clwyd - a declaration of power. The mountains of Eryi National Park in the distance.
Moel Fenlli is not a true contour fort, but, like Caer Drewyn further south, tilted to face the Vale of Clwyd. As our understanding of hillforts has developed away from regarding all hillforts by the same measure, it has become clear that many of these earthworks were built to ‘face’ certain aspects of the landscape. Caer Drewyn, ignoring higher ground nearby, was built in its place to deliberately face the ‘crossroads’ of routeways moving north to south, and west to east, likely controlling trade and traffic. Moel Fenlli seems to have been built to perform a similar function, tilted to face the fertile Vale of Clwyd - likely in an attempt to incite awe, possibly fear upon those moving along the ancient routeway at the base of the Clwydians. The ability of those below to view the inside of the hillfort - for many years considered to be a military weakness - was likely a means by which the hillfort inhabitants attempted to prevent an attack or raiding by a visible declaration of their power.
The position of Moel Fenlli has ever been on interest. As has been mentioned, the hillfort is the highest of the Clwydian earthworks, but not built upon the highest peak - Moel Famau being some 40m higher. Why so? Well, the position of Moel Fenlli seems to have been ever so carefully considered, since not only does it tilt towards the Vale of Clwyd, but it controls two ancient passes (Neolithic finds have been found here) - Bwlch Pen Barras to the north and Bwlch Crug-glâs to the south - the entranceway to the hillfort, probably the only entrance to the hillfort, a strongly built inturned feature, seems to be facing the junction of these two passes. It would seem that Moel Fenlli was built to make a statement, to declare power and control - dominance. Those using these ancient routeways, passing beneath them, would not have been ignorant that they were in the presence of power. It is also tempting to see Moel Fenlli as being on the border between the Deceangli, to whom, despite Ffoulkes belief the hillfort likely belonged, and the Ordovices, which would perhaps mean the hillfort here was a centre for diplomatic relations, as well as trade and frontier defence.
Visibility was also of real importance to the builders of Moel Fenlli. There are some 31 hillforts within a 25km radius of Moel Fenlli, and those within the hillfort would have been able to see, and be seen by 22 of them. This issue of intervisibility is crucial, and suggests that Moel Fenlli was built to be a capital of its people. It was important that Moel Fenlli could be seen, its presence a statement of power, a warning to ne'er-do-wells, raiders and invaders. Its visibility, together with its strategic and logistical position would suggest that those that built Moel Fenlli were extraordinarily competent planners and engineers.
In common with Penycloddiau to the north, Moel Fenlli has within its ramparts a spring. One of the several reasons many historians began to question the military nature of hillforts, was the lack of a reliable water source within many of the forts. All the Clwydian hillforts have springs closeby, but only Moel Fenlli and Penycloddiau have them within the ramparts - making them more likely to be in a position to defend against a siege and sustain year long habitation. The spring at Moel Fenlli would seem to have been something of a feature, and was enhanced into a reservoir structure, ensuring that the year round availability of water would not be an issue. And the possibility of year round habitation is enhanced by the number of round houses that have been discovered - some 60 in total (though there is likely to be more beneath the heather), a considerable number. It’s possible then that these two hillforts were in effect ‘bookending’ the Clwydian Range, in the north and south of the Range, built to project power all year round.
Only Penycloddiau and Moel Fenlli had a spring within their ramparts - suggesting year long habitation and the ability to withstand seige.
Again, like Penycloddiau (and other hillforts here), Moel Fenlli has within its ramparts a Bronze Age cairn - topped today with a modern collection of stone. The relationship with Iron Age hillforts and the Bronze Age cairn is a fascinating one - and almost entirely a mystery. It seems likely, given the fact that they were invariably unmolested, that they retained the respect of the Iron Age peoples. In what way, however, is unknown. The Bronze Age peoples who built these cairns did so with a mind to the landscape, height and aspect, certainly, and they can be found on most, if not all of the peaks in the Clwydian range, including Moel Famau. When it came to raising hillforts, then, it was unlikely that the builders would have found a peak that did not have a Bronze Age presence. But were these cairns relevant to the builders? At Moel Fenlli, the cairn stands at the highest point of the hillfort, overlooking the rest of the enclosure, overlooking the passes and Vale. It is hard to say as to whether it was incorporated into the hillfort as a feature, or whether it was simply ignored and allowed to stand, perhaps an object of ritual or superstition. The evidence of roundhouses is clustered about the spring, but there seems to be none in the near vicinity of the cairn.
The Bronze Age cairn within Moel Fenlli (the stones are modern). Untouched and undamaged, showing a reverence for the past.
Perhaps, the most intriguing aspect of Moel Fenlli is its name. It is rare that hillforts are given the names of individuals, but in the Clwydians we have two - Moel Arthur and of course, Moel Fenlli. It would seem that Fenlli had taken the name, at some point in the distant past, of the semi-mythical figure of Benlli Gawr, Benlli the Giant, said to have been a king of Iâl in the 5th century. Everything we know of him comes from the 9th century British monk, Nennius, author of the Historia Brittonum, who was at great pains to label him a tyrant and committed persecutor of Christians. Moel Fenlli was said to have been his capital, and while it is not certain that Benlli should be associated with the hillfort, given its stature, its obvious and endearing power, it is very tempting to see Moel Fenlli as a capital for some powerful and influential figure. And Benlli has certainly lent his name to some considerable landmarks - Ynys Enlli is the by far the most obvious. He has also been connected, through legend and myth, to the fabulous Mold Gold Cape. It singles out Moel Fenlli as being something different - special.
While you walk upon the mighty ramparts of Moel Fenlli, the big skies pressing down upon you, look out upon the Vale of Clwyd and know that here you walk within the shade of 2000 years of history, know that here you walk within what was perhaps one of the most important hillforts in North East Wales. Hillforts remains a mystery - wonderfully so - but at Moel Fenlli we perhaps can distinguish a little more from within the brume.
I. Brown, Beacons in the Landscape. The Hillforts of England and Wales, London, 2009
E. Davies, The Prehistoric and Roman Remains of Denbighshire, Cardiff, 1929
T. Driver, New Perspectives on the Architecture and Function of Welsh Hillforts and Defended Settlements, Internet Archaeology 48,
W. W. Ffoulkes, Moel Fenlli, Archaeologia Cambrensis, April 1850
W. Gardner, The Ancient Hillfort of Moel Fenlli, Denbighshire, Archaeologia Cambrensis, 1921
E. Lloyd Jones, Connections between the hillforts of the Clwydian Range and the wider Landscape, Bangor, 2017
T. Pennant, Tours in Wales Vol. II, ed. J. Rhys, Caernarvon, 1883