The enormous neolithic cairn of Y Gop is impossible to miss - which is quite possibly the point. Rising some 12m atop Gop Hill, itself over 840ft in height, and some 75-80m in diameter, it dominates the landscape. From its height, the mountains of Snowdonia are visible, the Clwydians marching away to the south, the Great Orme at Llandudno and the Bay to the west - and in its prime, some 4000 years ago, without the obscuring woodland to the north, the estuaries of the rivers Mersey and Dee and Irish Sea to its offing would have been quite there to behold.
Y Gop is in fact the largest prehistoric monument in Wales, and the second largest neolithic mound in Britain. Only Silbury Hill in Wiltshire is larger, part of the Avebury UNESCO World Heritage Site, which includes the Avebury Henge, the West Kennet Avenue and Long Barrow and Windmill Hill - all rightly venerated as evidence of our shared prehistoric past. Y Gop, a contemporary to these southern monuments, has been all but ignored - at least in comparison to the amount of study and investigation that has been conducted on the Wiltshire monuments. Perhaps this is due to the reluctance of the landscape about Y Gop to give up the earth held secrets of its ancient past. For sure, the enormous volume of cairns and tumuli have always been known - you will find the history and the legends that have attached themselves to these ancient burials throughout this website. But, what is really beginning to emerge from the soil and sources are the shadows in the fields, of henge, cursus and causeway. Along with the awe inspiring Mold Gold Cape and Caergwrle Bowl, they are beginning to illuminate a landscape of intense ceremony and ritual in north Wales. If Stonehenge and the Avebury stones were the catalyst for the tremendous deluge of investigation and continuing academic speculation, is it too fanciful to see Y Gop, in perhaps a small way, as being the starting point for a re-interpretation of the landscape about this ancient monument? What other surprises are yet to be found?
It is yet entirely possible that Y Gop itself has surprises yet to be uncovered. Very little is known about the cairn. The one and only excavation of the monument was in 1886-87, when the cave hunter, Professor Boyd Dawkins was asked to investigate the mound. At the time, the land upon which Y Gop stood was owned by Henry Davies Pochin, a man of considerable wealth and power. A chemist by trade, he had made his fortune by discovering a process of distillation which turned naturally brown coloured soap to a more acceptable white, and by producing alum cake, which was used in the process of making paper, amongst other things. He had retired to Bodnant Garden in the Conwy Valley, and set about remodelling that estate. He also owned land elsewhere, centred about Prestatyn, where he ventured to bring clean water, gas and a very pleasant promenade to the growing resort. He also happened to own the Golden Grove estate, directly to the north of Y Gop, from the windows of which the awesome cairn was clearly visible. His interest piqued, Boyd Dawkins was hired to investigate.
It’s hard to know just how much Boyd Dawkins knew of the Y Gop before he began to sink the shaft from the top of the cairn, but he had certainly heard something of the myth surrounding the mound. If the importance of the area about Y Gop is now slowly becoming clear to us, it had not gone unnoticed by the peoples of the villages about in the centuries past. They saw the enormous number of cairn and tumuli, and tried to make sense of them, as people always do. The association of Y Gop with a tremendous battle in antiquity, whether it was the slaughter of Boudicca and her army, or Agricola’s near extermination of the Ordovices in AD 77, is very old - older than Edward Lhuyd’s reference to the mound in 1699.
‘Vulgarly call’d Gop and lying between the pasihes of Rhyd-y-Lyfnid & Gwaen-yskor: the ancient name of ye mount Coperleny where, by tradition, Aurelius one of ye Roman Generals fortified himself and was afterwards inter’d.’
This extraordinary statement is worthy of further study. It is our first record of the name of the cairn - both its ‘vulgar’ title of ‘Gop’ and its apparently more ancient name of, ‘Coperleny’. It is likely that both names can find their foundation in the word, ‘copa’, rendering into English as ‘summit’ - a clear reference to its height and dominance in the landscape. All subsequent naming of the cairn does seem to relate to this root, though some later writers have speculated on it a little further. Perhaps of more interest, however, is Lhuyd’s mention of a tradition in which a Roman general, by the name of Aurelius, was required to fortify himself upon Gop HIll, and was subsequently buried within a cairn built upon it. He says nothing of whether Aurelius’ death came in the battle on Gop Hill or later.
This tradition spoken of by Lhuyd is intriguing. It is possible that he is referring to Ambrosius Aurelianus, a Romano-British warlord, spoken of by an incandescent Gildas and described as,
‘a gentleman who, perhaps alone of the Romans, had survived the shock of this notable storm. Certainly his parents, who had worn the purple, were slain in it. His descendants in our day have become greatly inferior to their grandfather's excellence. Under him our people regained their strength, and challenged the victors to battle. The Lord assented, and the battle went their way.’
De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, Gildas
Here is not the place to get into a discussion as to the motives of Gildas in his work, but it is curious nonetheless, that Aurelianus is one of the few people identified by Gildas by name. It is interesting that the historian refers to him as being the child of parents, ‘who had worn the purple’ - which would indicate, at the very least, a high born and influential heritage, and clearly identifies him as of Roman stock. Subsequent writings, by Nennius, William of Malmesbury and of course, Geoffrey of Monmouth, raise Ambrosius Aurelianus to a mystical, almost supernatural status, and famously to the role of Arthur’s uncle. But Gildas’ initial and rather more simple identification of Aurelianus as a Roman gentleman, is probably closer to Lhuyd’s understanding of the tradition.
Lhuyd’s acknowledgement of the tradition is vital to our understanding of the gathering of legend about Y Gop. It is clear recognition that Y Gop and the tremendous volume of cairn and tunuli in the area of the mound had stimulated the people of the settlements around and about to build a rationale for their number - a battle, and a huge battle at that. And if indeed we are talking of Ambrosius Aurelianus, can we deny that the tradition referred to here by Lhuyd, is in fact describing the Battle of Badon, in which famously the tide of Saxon advance was checked for a generation? It’s more than likely that the Battle of Badon is historical fact, but its location is hotly debated. It remains entirely unlikely, however, that it was fought as far north as modern day Flintshire, but it does suggest that in seeking to understand the number of burial cairns in the landscape, the people of the area looked to a famous, extremely bloody and successful battle from their past, even if the cairns that prompted the speculation are, in fact significantly older than the Battle of Badon. Hence, Lhuyd’s acknowledgement of what must have been by the time of his writing, a deeply entrenched tradition. He also makes mention of the appearance of this tradition in a number of field names in the parish of Trelawnyd that suggest conflict, including,
‘Coetieu‘r ffattel, supposed to be a piece of ground anciently concern’d for by Battle.’
A little over 70 years later, Thomas Pennant who lived just 5 miles away at his ancestral home of Downing, visited the mound and indulged in something of a debate as to the etymology of the name. Initially, he calls the cairn, ‘Copa’r’leni’, a name by which it was known locally and which confirms Lhuyd’s brief account. However, Pennant seems clear in himself that Y Gop was in fact,
‘probably the site of a specula, or exploratory tower, and memorial of some chieftain.’
Tour in Wales, Vol II (1778)
In a few words, Pennant says a lot, describing the mound as both a Roman beacon (burgus) and a memorial (possibly grave) of a notable chieftain. He is, then, musing to himself as to a possible purpose for Y Gop, as we are still doing to this day. His suggestion that it was beacon, warning of, ‘Saxons or plundering Scoti’, is entirely logical, given its size and position overlooking the vital waterways to the north, . His belief that it was a memorial, a grave of a notable chieftain, is entirely understandable, given that it does look like a cairn, if on a massive scale. It seems that the belief that it may be a beacon caused Pennant to begin tinkering with the name of the mound, until he came to the derivation of, ‘Gop yr Goleuni’, the ‘Mount of Lights.’ Historians do seem to have convinced themselves that Y Gop was employed as a beacon during its lifetime, whatever else its purpose, and it seems entirely logical that it was employed as such when necessity required it. The question remains as to whether this was its original purpose, or a fortuitous after effect of building a cairn of such enormous size. Pennant does seem to be indulging in trying to make the name fit a theory, but in fact he isn’t doing anything many others have not done probably before, and certainly since.
Pennant’s tinkering with the name also leads him to speculate a connection to the Roman general Gaius Suetonius Paulinus. Mulling over the traditions of a Roman connection to the mound, Pennant seems to be reflecting on Lhuyd’s observations, but also, no doubt, the continued traditions of the local people, of which he was one, of course. It is this tinkering which is probably the origin of the barely credible myth that Y Gop was the scene of the destruction of Boudicca’s army after the British rebellion against the Romans in AD 60 (or perhaps 61) and which had consumed much of southern Britain. Pennant suggests that Y Gop if,
‘Roman perhaps Paulinus gave name to it, Cop Paulini.’
This would be an example of the influence of Pennant on those that followed him, since from this chin tapping musing comes much of the subsequent spurious belief that Y Gop was intimately connected to the end of Boudicca’s rebellion and her ultimate suicide.
There is absolutely no evidence to suggest anything other than the most tenuous of very tenuous connections between Y Gop and Boudicca’s rebellion - indeed, hold it up to the light and it is virtually transparent. It’s difficult to understand Pennant’s thoughts on the connection of Y Gop and Paulinus, but it is possibly due to his understanding of the general’s actions in Anglesey (Mona) in AD 60 (or AD 61, as previously mentioned), which Boudicca had taken advantage to claim her revenge in fire and blood. Paulinus made a hasty return to the mainland, and to Watling Street which ran from Wroxeter (Viroconium Cornoviorum), and which would have likely required him to pass through what is today, modern day Flintshire, hugging the coast by Prestatyn and the lead mines there. Pennant’s suggestion is also a reflection on the volume of place names connected to battle, including Bryn y Saethau (Hill of Arrows), Bryn y Lladdfa (Hill of Slaughter) and Pant-y-Gwae (Hollow of Woe), amongst others. And there are a seemingly unusual volume of place names, including field names which reflect a memory of war. Now, it’s possible that Y Gop, its enormous size and mysterious past (by which we mean, unknown), was simply the catalyst to speculation of battle, which then led to the naming of the hills and fields about the mound, but this possibility is unconvincing - as others have found. It’s more likely that place name evidence has led to the attempt to find some evidence of a bloody battle. As Pennant asserts,
‘The tract from hence to Caerwys was certainly a field of battle: no place in North Wales exhibits an equal quantity of tumuli.’
HIs ponderings on the origins of Y Gop lead him then to the more credulous opinion that the mound was the possible battleground between the Ordovices, who had by the summer of AD 77 largely destroyed the Roman forces in their territory of north and mid Wales. The new governor of Britain was Gnaeus Julius Agicola, who had served under Paulinus and ws likely present at the suppression of the Boudiccan rebellion. Given that the Ordovices were a north Walian tribe, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that the battle that destroyed the British tribe took place in Flintshire, though the area of Y Gop would have been in the hands of the Deceangli at that time - though how firm and structured the borders were is open to debate. It’s hard not to see Pennant looking for a battle in antiquity which might explain an enormous amount of deaths, and scar the landscape, almost literally. For Lhuyd it was Badon, for Pennant it was Agricola’s offensive.
‘It will not be too hazardous a conjecture to suppose, that in this place was the slaughter of the Ordovices by Agricola, when our gallant nation was nearly extirpated.’
Pennant’s thoughts on Y Gop were born of a lack of information - one can imagine from his writings that this Flintshire native had oft pondered the mound. But, his mere mention of Paulinus seems to have firmed up to something closer to fact by the time of Samuel Lewis’ Topographical Dictionary of Wales of 1833. The name of Gop Paulini is referred to as another name for Y Gop, along with Copa’r’leni. In just 40 years, the association of Y Gop with the Boudiccan rebellion seems to have become something other than a possibility. The writing here is excitable.
‘Part of the brow of the hill is called Bryn y Saethau, or ‘the hill of the Arrows’ intimating that it was the station of the archers in some of these engagements which in the early period of British history, deluged this neighbourhood with blood, but the direful calamities of which have not been recorded by the historian, and are now involved in the obscurity of ages.’
Lewis was known to heavily lean on Pennant for his information - and why not? Reference is made to the names in the landscape, while the belief that the cairn was for some powerful man is absolutely understandable. But one does get the impression that in the absence of fact, legend has rushed in to fill the cavernous void of obscurity.
Further works of the 19th century follow the same format in ascribing some enormous battle at Y Gop, making sense of the enormous cairn and the surrounding place names of war and slaughter. There is even an attempt in some cases to shoe-horn into this mix the 10th or 11th century cross of Maen Achwyfan, hanging some meaning on the Pennant misreading of the name to, ‘Stone of Lamentation’. Writing in 1851, Edward Parry, a native of Trelawynd, stated that he knew of,
‘no place where so many striking circumstances and coincidences are calculated to point out the field of battle where such a tremendous carnage took place, as in the joint parishes of Caerwys, Newmarket and Llanasa in Flintshire.’
Royal Visits and Progresses to Wales (1851)
He chooses to see this carnage as that of the Boudiccan rebellion, thus further extending the myth that was written of in the work of Thomas Pennant at the end of the 18th century. Further writings, many extending into the 20th century, depart from even a biscuit’s width of credibility by placing the graves of Boudicca and her daughters within the limestone blocks of Y Gop. And such stories were readily renewed by the fairly regular sightings of ghostly figures upon Y Gop. In assessing some of these myths, the Canon Ellis Davies sums up the theories as entirely baseless, stating,
‘It would not be necessary to refer to these absurd stories about the association of Boudicca with the Gop and the neighbourhood were it not for the fact that locally they still persist.’
The Prehistoric and Roman Remains of Flintshire (1949)
This is perhaps a little harsh, since it is one thing to speak of the association of the Boudiccan myth to y Gop, it is an entirely different thing to actually believe it. At its most basic level, it is a simple effort to make sense of the unknown purpose of Y Gop - its size, its prominence in the landscape. In the absence of any reliable fact, legend arrives with a swagger, and in the continued absence of knowledge stubbornly remains. Davies might consider this absurd, and the Boudiccan myth is absurd in truth, but it is also entirely consistent with human nature.
And so we return to the excavation of 1886-87. Boyd Dawkins was aware of the myth surrounding the mound, of course.
‘It is attributed in common talk to Queen Boadicea, in spite of the fact that there is no evidence that the famous queen of the Iceni ever set foot in that region.’
It is still quite incredible that this excavation is still the only one that has been undertaken in an effort to understand the mound, especially given its size and the landscape about. It’s doubly difficult to comprehend since, in fact, Boyd Dawkns found little which added to our understanding. The persistence of the Boudiccan myth into the 20th and 21st centuries was unharmed by the findings of the 19th century excavation. His findings, or more accurately, his lack of findings were not published until 1901, some 14 years after his efforts at Y Gop - in truth there was not much to publish, no urgency to do so. His report stretches to little more than 800 words, and much of that is introduction.
Boyd Dawkins sank a shaft from the centre of the summit, some 6 feet 4 inches in width, which he describes as challenging due to the instability of the limestone blocks which he found made up the mound. Curiously, he mentions a ‘truncated top’, which has usually been reasoned as being the result of the shaft, dug by Boyd Dawkins. The remains of the filled in shaft are still visible on Y Gop, but it seems likely that there had been some removal of material previous to the excavation. Boyd Dawkins also suggests the possibility of subsidence from a subterranean chamber, though evidence for this was or has been found. Having sunk the shaft to the depth of 26 feet, having had to support the walls because of the loose material that was dug through, he came upon the original surface of bedrock. From there, a series of drifts were extended into the mound, radiating from the centre.
Very little was found - at least anything that could definitively explain the purpose of Y Gop. Fragments of animal bones were found, but nothing that could be, as Boyd Dawkins explains, ‘accurately determined.’ It was, it seems, a difficult dig.
‘We failed to obtain evidence of the archaeological age, or of the purpose to which it was put. If, as is usually the case, there was a central burial place, we missed it.’
While investigating the mound, Boyd Dawkins made the astonishing discovery of the Gop Cave, some little distance to the south, beneath the cairn. From his writings, you do come to the rather amusing conclusion that the mound became very quickly forgotten in his subsequent study of the cave.
And that, to date, is that. No more information has come to light, though speculation continues, of course, and Boudicca is still mentioned in writings - often as amused asides, though by peoples who are aware that such stories to many are as interesting, or more so than any truth.
There is a little more, however. The use of Y Gop as a beacon has been mentioned - by Pennant, amongst others. It is surely a nonsense to think that it was not used as such. The question as to whether it was built as such cannot be answered with any conviction, though it is unlikely that it was its primary purpose. Given its prominence, and what would have been superb views over the Irish Sea (now entirely obscured by woodland), and the expectation of local landowners to build and retain in good repair, warning beacons against raiding, it seems obvious that Y Gop was employed as such. In the 15th century, the owners of Y Gop, the brothers Gruffydd and Bleddyn ap Gwyllim were ordered to appoint watches for the movements of the followers of Owain Glyndwr, active in the area. In the 17th century, there was a need for an early warning beacon, not least from the Mediterranean Barbary Pirates (who had attacked as far north as Iceland), though there is no evidence that they ever attacked the Flintshire coast. And it seems unlikely that Y Gop did not retain its function as a beacon, for at least as long as those at Rhosemor and Whitford, into the early 19th century in light of the threats during the Napoleonic Wars.
So, what are we left with here? Well, despite some frustration at the necessity for speculation as to the purpose of Y Gop, further speculation is all we have to play with. But, it seems obvious now that the mound sits within a landscape of intense ceremonial and ritual significance. If looked upon in isolation, the mound is a mystery, a curiosity - a cairn, a beacon, a memorial of a battle which, ‘deluged this neighbourhood with blood’, and is reflected in place names throughout the parish. It is likely all these things, but also more. When Y Gop is seen together with the ever growing evidence of caves, cursus, causeway and henges in north Wales and, say it quietly for fear of being scoffed at, north east Wales, Y Gop becomes something else again - an intrical part of an ancient, prehistoric landscape of almost unimaginable meaning and significance. Should we choose to add the early Bronze Age artefacts that abound in the area, such as the Mold Gold Cape, we are left with something really rather breathtaking - a ceremonial landscape that must be considered along with Salisbury Plain as adding to our knowledge of the prehistoric British Isles.
What secrets lie within the limestone of Y Gop - what will it tell us about our past? Stand upon its heights, look about the landscape before you and wonder.