You might be forgiven for thinking that hillforts are ubiquitous in North East Wales. You’d be right, of course. You might further believe that the term, Moel y Gaer is in fact a generic term used to describe these hugely impressive and wholly unignorable landmarks. Again, you’d be right. Moel y Gaer renders into English as, ‘Fort on a flat topped hill’ - hillfort, then. You will find many moel y gaers within these pages, but none are as well excavated or documented as at Rhosesmor, none have answered as many questions or, indeed left us with as many questions. All this because the powers that be decided to build a covered reservoir on top of it, necessitating and making possible a far reaching series of archaeological digs on the site.
Investigations centred on the area earmarked for the reservoir, to the south west of the site, and the discoveries have been both exceptional in detailing the various phases of activity and occupation, and relatively poor in terms of physical finds due to the acidic nature of the soil. But, what is clear, is that over a period of 1000 years, there were three distinct phases of occupation, stretching brom the late Bronze Age into the Iron Age, finally ending before the arrival of the Romans to the British Isles in 43AD.
However, perhaps we can push back the history of Moel y Gaer even further, perhaps by another 2000 years, in fact. The excavations that began in the 1970s also found evidence of a possible Neolithic longhouse beneath the later Bronze Age settlement. Such buildings are very rarely found. Along with the distinctive post holes of the longhouse, a sizeable amount of leaf shaped arrowheads were discovered, along with their associated flint knapped debris, with some shards of simple, undecorated Ebbsfleet pottery (a substyle of the better known Peterborough ware) which has been interpreted as evidence of possible ritualism. However, the longhouse cannot be seen as evidence of wider settlement, since it seems to have been an isolated farmhouse, but it does fit into a growing body of evidence for a very ancient past in this part of Flintshire.
Looking south from the summit of the covered reservoir, it is possible to clearly see the outline of the hillfort, the embankment which once would as likely as not have been of greater height and topped with a palisade.
The existing earthworks at Moel y Gaer have been described as simple but deceptive, referring to its apparent single vallate (bank) construction. But, emerging evidence of further, later development lies hidden beneath the gorse.
As has been said, a sizeable section of the hillfort was excavated in the 1970s, concentrating on the south west where the construction of the reservoir was to occur. Undoubtedly, the sheer size of the area to be investigated led to a deeper understanding of the history of the settlement. The first phase of development seems to date from the end of the Bronze Age, around 1000BC. A group of roundhouses were discovered enclosed within a timber palisade. These roundhouses were in some examples, rather large, at least in comparison with those that followed, varying between 33-104m2. Not all of these roundhouses were found to have hearths, which leaves their purpose open to interpretation. There is also some overlap of building in this phase, showing evidence of destruction and rebuild. It’s likely that the timber palisade enclosed the entire hilltop. Curiously, a 11m gap in the palisade was discovered within the excavated area, and whether this was an entrance or not has not been ascertained.
After an unknown break of occupation, long enough for there to be clear historical water between them, the second phase of occupation began. It was during this period that the most recognisable aspect of the hillfort, indeed any hillfort, was constructed. The inner bank which entirely encompassed the hilltop was some 6m wide and 2m high and was built within the line of the phase one palisade, and was itself topped with a wooden palisade. From within the enclosure, the bank sloped upwards to the 2m height with an external vertical face which was revetted with stone. Within the enclosure, a number of roundhouses were found, smaller in surface area than those of phase one, some 25-52m, all of which were without hearths, it seems. Along with these roundhouses, a number of smaller rectangular buildings were unearthed. It has been speculated that these buildings incorporated raised floors and were used for storage. The placement of the phase two buildings also show a level of planning and suggest zones of usage. For all of this - the clear and considerable effort that must have gone into the building of the rampart and palisade, the elements of town planning, the length of phase 2 seems to have been fairly short. The end came with the recycling of the posts of the rectangular buildings for purposes unknown, while the roundhouses were left to decay and the rampart and palisade left to slow decline and collapse.
The outline sketch of Moel y Gaer from the Royal Commission's Inventory of Flintshire from 1912.
Whereas the impreciseness of the available radiocarbon dates available has made the timeframes of phases 1 and 2 difficult to tease apart, we can be fairly certain that phase 3 fell between 400 - 100BC. In a departure from the previous phases, the buildings of phase 3 were very different. These rectangular buildings were not posthole founded, but seem to have rested on sill beams laid on the ground. The rampart was further heightened and widened, with another wooden palisade raised, anchored in place with a capping of rubble laid behind it on top of the rampart. It seems that phase 3 also saw an attempt to make the hillfort bivallate, which remains a somewhat vague and undergrowth obscured construction. It remains unclear as to whether this new rampart fully encircled the hill, and it is possible that it remained unfinished at the time when occupation finally came to an end at some point around 100BC.
Phases 1-3 give us a fascinating insight into late Bronze Age, Iron Age life, so much so in fact that St Fagans National Museum of History in Cardiff used the information gathered in the construction of their own roundhouses as part of an exhibit that ran for some 30 years. But, if Steve Blake and Scott Lloyd are to be believed, Moel y Gaer’s story did not end with the collapse of the Iron Age buildings in around 100BC. In ‘The Keys to Avalon’ (2000), the authors make the extraordinary and exciting claim that the area around Rhosesmor should be seen as the original setting of the legendary Avalon of Arthurian myth.
Their argument hinges on what they see as a mistaken understanding of the latin, ‘Insula Avallonis’, coined by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his ‘Historia Regum Britanniae’ to denote the place which a mortally wounded Arthur was taken after the Battle of Camlan. The original Welsh source from which Geoffrey gained his information names the place, Ynys Affalach. The authors assert that while, ‘ynys’ can be rendered into English as ‘island’, and is often done so correctly, it can also mean, ‘realm’ or ‘kingdom’, which would then translate to, ‘Realm/Kingdom of Affallach’. Quite possibly then, Moel y Gaer, otherwise known as Caerfallwch, could be seen as the fortress at the centre of this realm. It is possible that the settlement of phase 3 has led to its identification with a warlord of some fame and stature, which has been appropriated by Affallach, the mythical ancestor to the kings of Gwynedd, the king of Annwn. It must be said, however, that there is a paucity of archaeological evidence for habitation or activity on Moel y Gaer during the time better known as the Dark Ages, following the departure of the Romans in around 410AD. Still, an interpretation of the oldest histories and the Welsh Triads as presented by Blake and Lloyd has placed the fabled Avalon within the wider area around Rhosemor and Moel y Gaer, and that is absolutely glorious.
A feature of many hillforts were their elaborate entrances, attempting to fortify what was the most vunerable point of the hillfort - a sentiment later castle builders would have understood.
And if further evidence of Moel y Gaer’s influence was needed, there remains its connection to the uprising of Owain Glyndwr at the beginning of the 15th century which began at Glyndyfrdwy in 1400. Howel Gwynedd has become something of a legend, largely due to the lack of known information about him before his dramatic appearance in the uprising. This was likely due to his suggested illegitimacy and the probability that he lived outside of the area until the time of his appearance in the events of the uprising. But he was real enough; a son, an illegitimate son, but a son nonetheless of Dafydd ap Bleddyn ap Ithel Fychan, ally and uncle to Owain Glyndwr, who had been killed fighting on the side of the Percys against Henry IV at Shrewsbury in 1403. Dafydd’s lands had been confiscated to the Crown as a consequence of this ‘treason’ and is rather blandly stated in the Chester Plea Rolls that there they,
‘had remained until Howel Gwynedd, Welshman, entered upon the lands of the prince’.
This would suggest that Howel had arrived at the head of an armed force of indeterminate size, but armed nevertheless, and that this happened some time after the lands had been taken into the ownership of the State. But where did he come from, of a sudden? As stated, the likelihood is that he was illegitimate, that perhaps he did not enjoy even the tacit favour of his father, that his actions were in as much an effort to take the lands he believed were his, denied him by the confiscation of them by the English Crown. Whatever the reasons for his apparent anonymity before his arrival in Flintshire, his actions after them have gone down in legend.
Coming into his fathers lands at some point after 1403, he established himself within the earthen ramparts of Moel y Gaer at Rhosesmor (Caerfallwch), from which he orchestrated and organised an effective resistance against the English Crown, notably harassing the burgesses of Flint. It may not be known when Howel began his resistance, but it is known with some certainty when that resistance came to an end. In the March of 1406, it would seem that he and his men were overwhelmed at Moel y Gaer by a surprise attack of the men of Flint, who having defeated the rebels, summarily beheaded Howel within the confines of his camp. Howel’s execution came at a time when the momentum of Glyndwr’s uprising was slowing down, with the departure of French forces in the previous winter and in the following spring, and the growing reticence of the Scots to involve themselves.
Subsequent to Howel’s death in 1406, Moel y Gaer disappears from recorded history, at least until the beginning of the 19th century. Making use of the hillfort’s height and position overlooking the Dee estuary, two timber built fire beacons were raised in 1814, at the end of the Napoleonic Wars as part of a warning and communications network along the North Wales coast.
Looking south, it is possible to see why the position of Moel y Gaer was so important, dominating the approaches from the south, with the Clwydian's to the west.
Moel y Gaer’s history has been a long one. It has provided us with a deep understanding of the late Bronze Age and Iron Age. On visiting the hillfort, consider its thousands of years of history, its role in the Glyndwr uprising, the Napoleonic War and that perhaps, just perhaps you are stood within the fabled land of Avalon.