‘Near this place is an artificial bank of earth, called Trueman’s-hill, which tradition says was raised as a fortification to prevent Henry II from advancing by this pass into Wales 1157.’
Richard Willet, ‘Memoir of Hawarden Parish’ (1822)
Trueman’s Hill motte is a curiosity, largely because no one has any idea when it was built, by whom, or to what end. For many years it was considered to have been a tumulus, a burial mound, rather than a motte and bailey, though current thinking and an excavation of the early 19th century would point to it being one of those thrown up fortifications so favoured by the Normans.
Our first written record of the site comes from Edward Lhuyd’s Parochialia of 1699, which does rather sum up our rudimentary understanding of the mound.
‘Here’s a Barrow or Artificiall mount call’d Trueman’s Hill near ye Town.’
The lack of clarity is something to become used to, since through to the 21st century, little else is said of the mound. It is, according to most of those who mention it, either a burial mound or a motte. Having said that, Thomas Pennant, writing at the end of the 18th century, seems to be tentatively suggesting it to have been a motte, though interpretations of his writing exist.
‘To the west of the church, in a field adjoining to the road, is a mount called Truman’s Hill, within a piece of ground which appears to have been squared, and nicely sloped. This evidently had been a small camp, whose figure has been much obliterated by the frequency of agriculture. It stood on the brow of the hill, and commanded a full view of the country.’
So while Pennant says a little more than Lhuyd, we learn little else than his belief that it was, ‘evidently...a small camp’, by which perhaps we can infer that he is pointing us towards a suggestion that the mound was a motte, rather than a barrow.
In 1820, the Reverend Edward Stanley of Alderley Edge in Cheshire, believing the mound to be sepulchral, undertook a partial excavation of the site. He found no bones, charred wood, broken pottery or any other materials which might suggest its origins as a burial mound. Interestingly, instead of coming to the conclusion that it was a motte, which does rather seem to be the most obvious alternative, he wandered elsewhere.
‘It is most reasonable therefore to conclude that if it has any pretensions to great antiquity it partook rather of the character of Tinwald Hill in the Isle of Man, which is known to have been consecrated to the promulgation of laws or public edicts. The platform in front with the semi-circular recess seems to favour this supposition.’
With his focus on the Isle of Man, it would seem Stanley rather favoured a Norse explanation, which does seem somewhat curious. Was he influenced by Maen Achwyfan, 16 miles up the coast? He even suggests a possibility that the mound was used, ‘as a sort of throne for the highest rank, from whence they might more easily superintend games or tournaments.’ Anything, it seems, other than a motte.
Part of the issue might be with its very near vicinity to the rather more obvious Hawarden Castle, the history of which as a fortress stretches as far back as the Bronze Age, in all likelihood. Why on earth would anyone build a motte so very close to an established, and rather more extensive fortress. It's a pickle of a question, and one for which I have no answers. Stanley is likely incorrect in assigning the mound to some platform for the watching of tournaments, but its origins might well have been of a temporary nature, a mound that was never reduced. There is little evidence of a bailey, it seems, although opinions differ on that - a hint possibly. The truth is that many mottes within the British landscape are undocumented, and within that number, Trueman’s Hill motte can likely be counted. I think we can fairly dismiss Willet’s assertion that the mound was raised to prevent Henry II advancing into Wales - Owain Gwynedd was rather more practical than that, as subsequent actions at Coleshill testify.
As for the name, this was likely the result of the land being leased to a George Trueman in 1660-61, by one Thomas Ravenscrofte of Bretton, he of the rather suspicious surrender of Hawarden Castle to the Parliamentarians in 1643. This would explain the naming of the mound as Trueman’s Mound in all written records of the mound that we have left to us.
The mound was donated to the village in 1912 by W.G.C. Gladstone, grandson of that famous Hawarden native, William Ewart Gladstone, four times Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, for use as a playground - and how very wonderful is that? W.G.C. Gladstone was killed at Laventie in France in 1915 during World War 1. It is still used as a playground to this day, which I find remarkably moving.
So, what was Trueman’s Hill? Your guess is as good as mine, and we might never know for sure. Fantastic, isn’t it?