Wednesday, 25 January 2017

The ‘Palace’ of an Iron Age Queen, or the Stronghold of a Rebel? - the fascinating site of Stanwick Camp.

Stanwick Iron Age Camp North Yorkshire

Stanwick Camp is a huge enclosure of Iron Age Fortifications in Northern Britain, comprising over 5.5 miles of ditches and ramparts which enclose almost 700 acres of land. Despite it's enormous size, obvious importance, and possible role in a British revolt against the Romans; its purpose and history, like many Iron Age sites, is still unclear.

Sited deep within the tribal lands of the Brigantes, who were the most extensive tribal group (probably a confederation of tribes) of late Iron Age Britain, occupying territories from sea to sea in much of what is now Northern Britain and Southern Scotland, it is also close to Scotch Corner, an important crossroads throughout history.

Stanwick Camp North Yorkshire Information Board
Information Board: Stanwick Camp North Yorkshire

Overgrown ditch: Stanwick Camp, North Yorkshire
One of the many overgrown fortification ditches

The majority of fortified Iron Age sites in the North are hillforts, and Stanwick stands out, not just because of its sheer size, but also because of its unusual construction, which has lead to it being classified by some as an 'oppidum' (large fortified Iron Age settlement associated with the late Celtic La Tené culture, thought by some to be early 'towns.') - a structure much more common in Europe and Sourthern Britain.

The Brigantes and their Leaders


The Brigantes were initially loyal to Rome and first appear in the written record when Caratacus, the British leader of resistance to Roman rule for over a decade following the invasion in AD43, was defeated in Wales and fled to Brigantian territory, perhaps hoping for their support. The Brigantian Queen, Cartimandua, showed her loyalty to the Romans by promptly handed him over in chains: a contributory factor in two subsequent Brigantian revolts against Cartimandua and her Roman allies. These revolts were lead by her former consort, Venutius in AD50, and again in AD69.

Caractacus delivered to Ostorius by Cartimandua - Print by Francesco Bartolozzi 1781 - 1797
Caractacus delivered to Ostorius by Cartimandua - Print by Francesco Bartolozzi 1781 - 1797

There were obviously also other factors at play, as Tacitus relates:

"[Cartimandua] Casting aside her husband Venutius, she took Vellocatus, his armour-bearer, in marriage and to share in governing the realm. This huge scandal rocked her household to its foundations. The tribe's sentiments favoured her rightful husband [Venutius.]  Favouring the illegitimate husband were the queen's libido and her ferocious temper. So then, Venutius mustered some warbands and was helped at the same time by an uprising amongst this tribe, the Brigantes. He succeeded in putting Cartimandua into an extremely desperate position. She requested Roman forces. Some of our infantry and cavalry auxiliary units, after fighting for a time with mixed results, resued the queen from this dangerous crisis. [But] Venutius power was not finished, and we were [thus] left with a war."

The story of the powerful Queen Cartimandua, the rebel Caratacus, and the vengeful ex-husband Venutius, is compelling narrative indeed, spawning at least two exciting novels that I know of. 

As the largest fortified site in Northern Britain, Stanwick Camp must have played an important role in these events.

Excavations at Stanwick Camp

So far there have been two excavations at Stanwick:

Ramparts Stanwick Camp, North Yorkshire
Ramparts Stanwick Camp, North Yorkshire

The first one was undertaken by Mortimer Wheeler in the 1950s. He concluded that the site had been constructed in three seperate phases starting with a small earthwork enclosure on a low hill known as 'The Tofts' in about AD40 which was then extended to the North in AD50-60 and enclosing over 130 acres. The final phase in AD72 extended the site to over 700 acres. Wheeler felt that it had been the rebel stronghold of Venutius during the two revolts. 
Wheeler left an enduring legacy on the site by digging out part of one of the ditches and reconstructing part of the stone rampart. This wall is only two feet high above the rampart, but Wheeler estimated that it would originally have been closer to 15 feet. The site is under the care of English Heritage, and does give quite an impressive indication of just how awe-inspiring the fortifications would have been in their time.

Stanwick Camp: Mortimer Wheeler's 'Wall'
Mortimer Wheeler's reconstructed ditch and (partial) rampart wall with 6ft bod figure for scale

Stanwick's name is thought to derive from the old Norse word steinvegges meaning 'stone ways' or 'stone walls'

The next excavations were undertaken by a team from Durham University in the 1980s, led by Percival Turnbull and professor Colin Haselgrove. They concluded that the outer fortifications had been completed first during the middle of the first century AD, and then the inner area subdivided. They argued that it was far too big to be a mainly defensive structure, and was rather intended to reflect power and status, so, rather than being the stronghold of Venutius, they felt it was the royal estate of Queen Cartimandua.

Finds of Roman Samian ware and other luxury goods found on the site could support this view.

The Tofts Stanwick Camp, North Yorkshire
The Tofts area of the camp, which contained evidence of high-prestige trade with the Romans

The famous 'Stanwick Hoard,' found in the 1840s: a hoard of 140 metal artefacts including four sets of horse harness for chariots, and a copper alloy horse head (it is not clear whether the 'Hoard' was found within or without the fortifications, or a short distance away) also lends weight to the importance of the site.

The Stanwick Horse Mask
The Stanwick Horse Mask. (See our version below)

So we have two excavations with apparently opposing conclusions, or, could they both be right, with the 'camp' starting as Cartimandua's estate, and ending as Venutius' stronghold?


I must admit that before I visited, I had heard Stanwick called a hill fort, and this is what I was expecting. However, despite some low hills and mounds within the site, the land is fairly flat and not at all what I was expecting. It's also extremely difficult to gain a true appreciation of the sheer size of the site, even after walking around the ramparts, and I couldn't find anywhere that provided a view over the whole area. So it does seem to be an unusual siting if thinking about defense when there are so many very defensible hills in the area.

Stanwick Camp, North Yorkshire
Even walking the ground, it is hard to get a grip on the sheer size of the site

Stanwick Camp, North Yorkshire
Miles of ramparts....

Whether it was Queen Cartimandua's seat of power, or Venutius' rebel stronghold, or both, it is obvious that Stanwick was a site of major significance, and must have played a role in those key events in the first century AD. Although there are only Tacitus' accounts, it does appear that the second revolt was quite extreme, with Tacitus remarking that Vespasian, once emperor, had to "recover" Britain. Even after the Romans crushed the uprising, which took them almost three years, Northern Britain remained a Military Zone for the duration of the Roman Occupation, and there is a school of thought that one of the reasons for the positioning of Hadrian's Wall was to control and split the Brigantes.

As this is my favourite period of history, and Yorkshire is my county, I would love to know so much more about these fascinating events in the story of the occupation of Britain by the Romans. I imagine that Stanwick holds a vast amount of information within its many ramparts, bumps and mounds, perhaps information that could unlock some of the mystery. Maybe one day....

However, at the moment, and to quote Alen McFadzean from his article about Stanwick:

"All you know is that once, a long time ago, something extremely important and probably tragic occured in this place." 

Stanwick Camp, North Yorkshire

Update April 2017

There have been quite a lot of recent exciting finds at Scotch Corner and Catterick, during the A1 widening scheme. Both of these are in the near vicinity of Stanwick. The discoveries include high status Roman artefacts, and a very large town at Scotch Corner, dating from the early Roman occupation, and in existance for only 20 years. All of these discoveries help to cast light on this most interesting story.
See the 'sources and information' section at the end of this article for links to several news articles detailing some of the new discoveries.

Earlier Occupation and the Church of St John the Baptist


Although we do not hear much of the Brigantes until the Roman invasion, many sites show continued, undisturbed occupation from an early date. Various earlier items have been found in the Stanwick area including a bronze age battle axe. Even more intriguing is the fascinating site of the Church of St John the Baptist, which occupies a very unusual circular churchyard, which suggests a much earlier pre-Norman conquest site, which could even date back to the Iron Age occupation, or earlier.

Church of St John the Baptist, Stanwick, North Yorkshire
The circular churchyard of St John the Baptist, Stanwick, North Yorkshire

The present church dates from the 13th century, although it was extensively 'restored' in the nineteenth century.

Carved cross shaft Church of St John the Baptist, Stanwick, North Yorkshire
Carved cross shaft Church of St John the Baptist, Stanwick, North Yorkshire

A plethora of interesting stone carved items await the visitor, including an intricately carved Viking ring cross-shaft and several Saxon carvings including cross-heads. Built into the wall are a large number of old grave covers, and fragments of carvings. A helpful ringbinder within the church has illustrations and descriptions of all the carvings. 

Viking ring cross-shaft Church of St John the Baptist, Stanwick, North Yorkshire
Carved Viking ring cross-shaft. Church of St John the Baptist.

Carved fragments in wall Church of St John the Baptist, Stanwick, North Yorkshire
Some of the many carved fragments in the walls of the Church

The church has not been used for regular services since 1990, but was open when we visited. Please consider leaving a donation if you do stop by this interesting building. 

Visiting The Site

Stanwick Camp, entrance to Wheeler reconstuction
Stanwick Camp, entrance to Wheeler reconstuction
Stanwick Camp is a really interesting and intriguing site to spend a few hours, but quite difficult to find and navigate. If you are interested in visiting, I thoroughly recommend downloading one of the walks listed in the 'Sources and further information' section at the end of the article, and planning your visit before you go. 

Thanks for reading


Justbod Team

Artwork, Carvings & Sculptures
~inspired by a love of history & nature~

You might also be interested in: 

A bold example of Celtic Art: The Stanwick Horse Mask


Celtic Horse Mask Wall Plaque in bronze and oak from Justbod
'Stanwick' in bronze and oak. Available from our main site.

 For regular updates on new products, articles & offers:

Sources and further Information:


Update April 2017 - news articles: discoveries at Scotch Corner

Photos: Archaeology at Scotch Corner 
The Romans Who Paved the Way for the Straight A1
Monumental Archaeology Unearthed Along the A1
New Light Shed on Royal Sex Scandal as Ancient Roman Remains Unearthed


The Celtic Heroic Age: Literary Sources for Ancient Celtic Europe and Early Ireland: John T. Koch and John Carey
Britain Begins: Barry Cunliffe
Roman Britain and the English Settlements: Collingwood and Myers

Gnor Bodi: Frederick Covins
Daughters of Fire: Barbara Erskine


Northern Echo: Stanwick Camp (PDF)
Brigantes Nation: Stanwick Iron Age Hillfort

1 comment:

  1. Some more recent work on Stanwick from April 2013: 'New Geophysics Results at Stanwick Oppidum, North Yorkshire' by Alistair Galt - for anyone who's interested in learning more about this site: Thank you to Jo on Facebook for the link!