Little Doward Hillfort
The ancient fortress at Little Doward occupies a substantial hill, peaking at 724ft at the north west corner of the ramparts, an outlier to the Great Doward and Lord's Wood massif on the north bank of the River Wye, some 2 miles from Monmouth in Herefordshire. The single rampart hillfort was constructed in the Iron Age but the history of the Doward's goes back many years beforehand.
In Post-Roman days this area was known as Erging (or Ercing) centred on the Roman town of Ariconium. Later the English called the region Archenfield. Today, the area of western Herefordshire sits in the shadow of the Black Mountains hosting a number of Arthurian sites such as the prehistoric Arthur's Stone and the tomb of Arthur's son, Amr.
|Little Doward Hillfort (British History online)|
King Arthur's Cave
Situated at the foot of a low cliff at the north-western end of Lord's Wood on the hill of Great Doward at Whitchurch near the River Wye, King Arthur's Cave is one of the most well known of the limestone caves located at the Doward, near Symonds Yat in the Forest of Dean. King Arthur's Cave was occupied by man during the upper Palaeolithic making the cave the oldest location associated with the legendary King.
|King Arthur's Cave|
To find the caves take the Symonds Yat West exit from the A40 and follow the signs for the Doward, parking at a lay-by just before reaching the camp site and follow the track down into the woods, past the old quarry.
During the 19th century Richard Blakemore carried out extensive landscaping of Little Doward, apparently cutting away the top of the rampart to make a walkway, and substantially altering the entrance to King Arthur's Cave.
It is not known when the name of “King Arthur” name became attached to locations in the Wye valley, however from the 19th century “King Arthur's Cave” had become equated with the name “King Arthur's Hall”. On an 1805 map of Herefordshire “King Arthur's Hall” is shown between Little and Great Doward, roughly the location of King Arthur's Cave. However, in 1871, Rev William Symonds described King Arthur's Hall as the summit of Little Doward hillfort with the cave on the western slope.
Around the year 1700 the skeleton of a very large man, accompanied by a brass-headed spear, was discovered in the cave. The gigantic bones were presented to a surgeon in Bristol by the name of Pye, who took them with him on a sea voyage to Jamaica, but they were lost when the ship sank. Some link this discovery to the naming of the cave with Arthur.
Frederick John Snell considered the old hill fort at Little Doward to be a potential site for Arthur's eighth battle at Guinnion. However, not many commentators would agree with him today, preferring the Roman fort of Vinovium at Binchester, constructed to guard the crossing of the River Wear by Dere Street, the main Roman artery linking Hadrian's Wall to the city of the Legions at York.
In Arthurian times, according to Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae (The History of the Kings of Britain), Vortigern, the high king of Britain infamous for inviting the Saxon's into the country, died by burning in his stronghold. Sure enough Caer Guorthegirn (Fortress of Vortigern) has been identified as Little Doward. However, other stories locate Vortigern's death at other locations across the country, such as Old Carlisle, Cumbria, Salisbury (Stonehenge) and Craig Gwrtheyrn, Llandysul, Dyfed.
The Historia Brittonum (History of the Britons, aka Nennius) describes Caer Guorthegirn as one of the 28 cities of Britain, being located in the region of Gueneri, or Guenessi, usually considered to be in Gwent:
“Then the king assigned him that city, with all the western provinces of Britain; and departing with his wise men to the sinistral district, he arrived in the region named Gueneri, where he built a city which, according to his name, was called Cair Guorthegirn.”
The Triads of the Island of Britain (Trioedd Ynys Prydein) recorded in the Red Book of Hergest, (Llyfr Coch Hergest, c.1425), recall Vortigern as one of the Three Dishonoured Men of the Island of Britain:
“.... the second is Gwrtheyrn [Vortigern] the Thin, who first gave land to the Saxons in this Island, and was the first to enter into an alliance with them. He.......... exiled the two brothers Emrys Wledig and Uthur Penndragon from this Island to Armorica, and deceitfully took the crown and the kingdom into his own possession. And in the end Uthur and Emrys burned Gwrtheyrn in Castell Gwerthrynyawn beside the Wye......”
|Vortigern besieged in the tower|
Geoffrey's story says that, impressed after Merlin delivered his prophecies (HRB, BOOK VII), Vortigern asks about his own fate. Merlin advises the king to flee the fire of the sons of Constantine, the two brothers, Aurelius Ambrosius and Uther Pendragon, who have set sail from the Armorican shore heading for Britain to seek revenge for their father who Vortigern betrayed and then invited the Saxons into the island. On landing at Totnes, Merlin continues, they will subdue the Saxons; but first they will burn Vortigern besieged in his tower.
And so it happened; on arrival in Britain the Sons of Constantine (Ambrosius and Uther) marched into Cambria, to the town of Genoreu, where Vortigern had fled for refuge. Geoffrey says that town was in the country of Hergin (Ercing), upon the river Gania (Wye), in the mountain called Cloarius:
“Immediately, therefore, they set their engines to work, and laboured to beat down the walls. But at last, when all other attempts failed, they had recourse to fire, which meeting with proper fuel, ceased not to rage, till it had burned down the tower and Vortigern in it.” (HRB, BOOK VIII)
Whereas Geoffrey used the name 'Cloartius' as an incorrect form of the Latin 'Doartius' which is found in most manuscripts with reference to the Doward, in the Brut, the Welsh version of Geoffrey's Historia, we find the hill of the site of Vortigern's fortress called Mynyd Denarth, or Deu Arth, which may have led to the connection of the cave with Arthur.
The location of the Herefordshire village Ganarew (Genoreu - from old Welsh: Genau rhiw translates as ‘Pass of the hill, or situated between two hills’) only separated from the Doward by the A40 road would affirm the location beside the Wye as the correct site of Vortigern's final stand at Caer Guorthegirn. This is barely a couple of miles from Geoffrey's native town of Monmouth; no doubt he knew the hillfort and may have even visited the site.
|Church of St Swithin, Ganerew - the site of Vortigern's grave?|
Copyright © 2017 Edward Watson
Mary Andere, Arthurian Links in Herefordshire, Logaston Press, 1995.
Geoffrey of Monmouth: History of the Kings of Britain, ed & trans. Lewis Thorpe, Penguin Classics, 1977.
Rachel Bromwich, Trioedd Ynys Prydein, University of Wales Press; 3rd edition, 2006.
Nennius: History of the Britons, ed. John Morris (Arthurian Period Sources, Volume 8), Phillimore, 1979.
F J Snell, King Arthur's Country, Dent, 1926.
The Cities of Vortigern – Robert Vermaat's Vortigern Studies.
The Welsh Triads from The Red Book of Hergest, Mary Jones, Celtic Literature Collective.
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