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Ancient Forests, Deer Parks and Celtic Tribes

Updated: Oct 26, 2023

I’ve been diving into the history of Needwood Forest an ancient forest that was filled with deer parks, hunting grounds and white cattle enclosures, that’s bound by the River Trent once called Trisantona and the River Dove to the North. It is a beautiful part of Staffordshire that is now full of smaller woods since the deforestation of the 1800s for the growth of enclosures. The forest was full of Oak and Holly trees plus other native trees. It spans from Yoxall to the South, to Tutbury near the River Dove, out to Abbots Bromley West and Marchington to neighbouring Uttoxeter and towards Burton on Trent in the East.

It was once a wide spreading forest of over several parishes of Needwood, Barton Under Needwood, Tutbury, Hanbury, Tatenhill, Yoxall, Marchington. Brykley Lodge was at its heart, this is now home of the George’s Park England National Football Centre. The Brykley Lodge Walled Gardens is the Brykley Park Garden Centre too.

I know not when the forests were seeded, yet suspect they have been in situ for some 1000 years or more, maybe this area of Staffordshire was full of forests? The great oaks near Marchington were over 1000 years old and it’s a shame that one was hit my lightening in the early 21st century.

Needwood Forest was one of the Royal Hunting Forests, it was rich with vegetation, timber, deer, wild boars, wild oxen and wolves. It was the topic of poetry, in its beauty by Mundy and Keats, a place that inspired poets full of ancient oak lands, hollies, brooks and dingles.

Cannock Chase is another of the Royal Hunting Grounds after the Norman’s arrived and I wonder if the Chase was connected to the Needwood Forest as they run so close together just separated by the River Trisantona to the south.

The Cornovii Celtic tribe people lived in the forest, and a golden torque was found near Greaves Wood on the Duchy of Lancaster’s land near Duchy Sawmill, near Six Lanes Ends on the A515 in 1849, near a fox hole. This land is held by the Crown, so the torque is now at the British Museum with the Romano-British items in London. The A515 runs straight through the ancient woodlands it starts near Lichfield and runs through the villages up to the other side of Ashbourne.

The gold torque dates from around 75 BCE, and other torcs were found at Glascote (Tamworth) and Stanton, Staffordshire (near Stoke on Trent) so there was evidence of wealthy Bronze Age people living in Staffordshire. There were two main tribes the Cornovii and the Coritani and I think some resided on either side of the River Trent. There was a settlement at Walton on Trent, and evidence at Tutbury and a large settlement on Cannock Chase. At Cannock Chase there was a large hill fort near old Beaudesert, there's parking nearby and you can walk around the Castle Ring.

Ther is evidence of a wooden henge at Catholme by the River Trent too.

The Cornovii tribal lands were in Shropshire, parts of Cheshire, Staffordshire, in the West Midlands, Eastern Clwyd and parts of Powys, Hereford and Worcester. There doesn’t seem to be one central location but there are hillforts and barrows throughout their lands.

There has been little archaeological evidence that they used pottery, they probably had wooden bowls etc and there is no evidence of using coins. However, there is some evidence that they traded salt in pottery from the Cheshire areas. These people were mainly pastoral and probably hunted in the forests and lived in safer hilltop locations like Castle Ring on Cannock Chase and Tutbury near the castle and priory church.

There are bound to be more items and sites of importance throughout the ancient forest areas, there were hillforts at Tutbury on Castle Hill, Barrows on the other side of the River Dove, a hill fort at Stafford, near the castle and one on Cannock Chase. I wonder if there were settlements or hillforts in the Needwood forest and suspect there may have been at the Lodges eg Byrkley, Hoar Cross, Yoxall. I am particularly interested in Hoar Cross as its sits on the top of a hill overlooking the surrounding areas and this would be a suitable place for a small, fortified area.

The map below of United Kingdom shows the different tribes before the Roman Invasion

Cornovian Noble was a name that I came across on my research, it could have been Viroco or Virico. There is a grave of his daughter with a tombstone at the Roman Settlement of Verbeia, near Ilkley, saying she is the daughter of Viroco. The stone does specifically say her father was a chieftain, he must have been someone of importance. He could have been the leader of the Cornovian people at the time of the Roman invasion. The name Viroco is at the origin of the name Viroconium the latin name of the Brythonic name for the tribal hill fort at Wrekin, which was thought to be the central areas for the Cornovian people. Viroconium holds the Gaulish word Wiros meaning man, and the com means together, so this name could mean the Place of Men together, or comrades from the Welsh word Cymru. The Romans reached the Cornovii area in 47 AD and this area fell to the Romans and the tribe was defeated. The area was then under the control of the Roman Governor Aulus Plautius this would seem to the only major conflict between the tribe and the romans.

There is some history that some of the Cornovians moved away to Caledonia as recorded in AD 140 showing that some migrated to find a new homeland. Their homelands were now the supply base for the Roman operations, roads were established and Roman forts built at strategy places to conqueror all the neighboring tribes. By the second century the Romans had left Vironconium Cornoviorum and the settlement started to expand.

The roads are relatively straight through the Needwood forest area and this was due to the positioning of roads between the villages when the forest was developed into farms. Roads were built by direct line to join up the villages that had been situated on the edges of the forest.

This is the land, of the Horned One, of the Cornovii tribe, the ancient Celts that lived here in Britain pre-Roman Invasion, it is the land of the horned forest God, Herne or Cernunnos. The Cornovii tribe were said to be related to the tribes in Scotland and Cornwall. There is evidence that some moved to Scotland during the 2nd Century and they may have moved via the River Sabrina, in to what is now Somerset, Devon and Cornwall during the Roman Invasions, no doubt some would have fought the Romans at the Wrekin centre, at other hillforts such as Stafford and Rocester and others would have migrated away. That would be interesting to connect the dots between these different areas of the country.

By the 400’s the Latin word pagenese started to appear, its is the name of the people from the territory that was the former area of the Cornovii tribes. The southern half of the Cornovii, with extensions to the east and west and some areas that were Dobunni territory. Paganes or pagenes, has links to Vortigern’s native land and links to Lludd Llaw Ereint or pre Roman Prydein, there is some ancestry for these families and it would seem that the Cornovii tribes may have become Paganes over the centuries. Paganes may have extended to North Wales and this could have been an alliance between the King of Dogfeilion and Pengwern to move between Powys.

This name pagenses was used through the fifth century to describe the territory and it extended to the West Midlands. During the 6th century the languages started to change and the name Powys emerged, the name may have evolved from pagenses, to paganes then to powis. The early capital of paganes was Caer Guricorn, Roman Viroconium, modern day Wroxeter but this wasn’t their capital in the sixth century maybe for a better defendable location.

The Paganese city of Caer Guricon, has an inscription to its ruler, Cunorix, this name might mean Cuno means Dog or servant of a deity, whilst rix or rex means king. Cunorix may come from Cernunnos the Forest God, he is often seen with dogs too. This name may have changed over time too. This name is very probable to be a Pagan, and this word probably comes from the territory Paganese, “cuno” might relate to Cunedag, meaning servant of Dagda.

Cernunnos, the Horned God, God of the Forest is often depicted with antlers, seated cross legged, he is associated with stags, horned serpents, dogs and bulls. He is usually shown wearing a torc and either a bag of coins or grain and a cornucopia. Most of his depictions come from Gaul and there are several inscriptions referring to him.

More to follow in this diving into the Ancient Forest in Staffordshire

Kim Ora Rose

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