Myth and Legend

Panorama from river severn broadoak to the littledean camp
The River Severn is the only river which can justify mention in Tacitus’ description of Caratacus’ Last Stand. Only one place fits the description fully for shifting fords, towering cliffs and crude and clumsy embankments. At low tide the half mile wide Severn at Broadoak can be crossed on foot over the fords. Caratacus’ strategy can be recreated through the combined events of recent and modern day history, whilst modern Lidar reveals secrets never before revealed.

Myths have to start somewhere and generally have their roots in cultural tradition. Myth and legend can often be seen as the same thing and the term folklore is probably more useful in British terms. We shall use the terms indiscriminately in describing the rich mythic legacy which pervades Dean Hall and its environs.
One of the most enduring myths about Dean Hall is the story of the Roman army which defeated Caratacus and his army of Ancient Britons in a battle at Newnham, after crossing the Severn, supposedly with elephants. The army then chased the Britons to the top of Dean Hill, where they finally defeated them and in the words of the local foresters of recent times, set up camp in the grounds of Dean Hall for tea! The legends go on to tell of a Roman monument or temple being raised on the hilltop to the God of Victory. Another legend according to Mr Ray Wright, Verderer, Forester and Free Miner, is of a temple to Sabrina goddess of the Severn, built on the hilltop overlooking the awesome horseshoe bend of the River Severn in the great valley below.
The discovery in the grounds of Roman remains in 1984, which were subsequently identified by the late Professor Barri Jones as a Roman water shrine and by Dr Anne Ross, the renowned authority on the ancient Celts, as probably the cult shrine of Sabrina, was a dramatic vindication of the enduring nature of folk memory.
Dean Hall is surrounded by myth and legend not only from the Roman period but also from the Arthurian period, the so called Dark Ages and the Viking and Saxon centuries. In historical times legends abound to put a gloss on the recorded events of the Norman and later Middle Ages, the Civil War and the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the Corn Riots of the 19th century, and right up to both the World Wars. In fact there doesn’t seem to be any point in history when Dean Hall or its inhabitants have not left a mark on this ancient place, not to mention the family legends of murder and intrigue handed down to the present day.

the roman camp

Littledean Roman Camp along with many Roman roads throughout the Forest of Dean were erroneously given the Roman label when the first Ordnance Survey Map was drawn up. Today we know that the ‘Roman’ kerb stones throughout the Forest are probably late 17th/early 18th century road edges and the Roman Camp of Littledean is the site of the Norman Castle of Dene.

Viewed from the river Severn just downriver of the White Hart Inn by the river ford, the Camp is situated just over a mile away as the crow flies at just over 600 ft. It was directly accessible through a pass in low hills just beyond the flood plain. Not one commentator, whether an historian, archaeologist, folklorist or historical ‘puzzle solver’ has ever promoted this site as the place where Caratacus’ Last Stand took place. The academic reason for this can lie with the reference by Tacitus that Caratacus had moved his campaign into the land of the Ordovices. Confusingly no historian appears to commit themselves to naming the tribe which occupied the hilly afforested lands between Severn and Wye, known since the Norman period as the Forest of Dean. Some would have it the territory of the Dobunni and others of the Silures. We must jump forward to the time of King Offa to seek a possible solution. The Welsh name for the Forest of Dean is Gwent Goch yn yr Ddena which probably has the literal meaning Red Gwent in the Valleys and refers to the iron rich red soils coloured by ochre and haematite. Importantly the name tells us that the Forest of Dean, before the time of King Offa of Mercia, was part of Gwent which comprised Gwent is-coed, Gwent uwch-coed and Cantref goch east of the Wye (forest of Dean). The divisions meant literally above the wood and below the wood and the red cantref. The wood was modern Wentwood, the wooded hills between Newport and Usk.