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Boudica, one of the most iconic female warriors in English history, built Gallows Hill in Thetford then lead the revolt against the Romans
Iron Age Thetford is most famously associated with the tribe of the Iceni and their leader Boudica – the fierce Iceni warrior queen who rebelled against the Roman Empire.
In the Iron Age Thetford was a major centre of the Iceni tribe, with key sites at both Castle Hill and Gallows Hill / Fison Way. Two important Roman hoards and many Iron Age and Iceni artefacts have been found in Thetford, some of which are on display in the Ancient House Museum. However, the most impressive and valuable remains in the town are two very different sites: at Castle Hill the ramparts raised by the Iceni still tower over the landscape, now eclipsed by the Norman motte, while at Gallows Hill, the flat land hides the remains of an impressive but mysterious Iron Age site.
Boudica is one of the most recognisable figures in English history – a powerful heroine who stood up for her people and fought with passion and honour – and her people were based right here in Thetford.
It’s not all a happy story however, and the warrior queen and her tribe were just as violent and ruthless as the Romans. The trouble started when Boudica’s husband Prasutagus named both his wife and daughters and the Roman emperor as heirs, but when he died his wishes were ignored. His lands and properties were confiscated by the Romans; Boudica was flogged and her daughters raped.
In retaliation, Boudica’s tribe destroyed the capital of Roman Britain, Camulodunum (Colchester), before heading down to Londinium (London) – slaughtering the residents and burning it to the ground. The Iceni then moved on to Verulamium (St Albans) which suffered the same fate. The Romans rallied around however, and even though they were outnumbered, managed to defeat the Iceni. The exact location of Boudica and her tribe’s last battle is unknown.
The earthworks at Castle Hill have been dated to a number of periods, and local folklore even links it to the Devil.
The site is one of only six Iron Age hill-forts in Norfolk, only two of which are accessible to the public: Castle Hill in Thetford, and Warham in north Norfolk. Excavations show that the double-ditched ramparts were constructed during the Iron Age, and were then enlarged at a later date either during the later part of the Iron Age, or in the Norman period. The hill fort was a sign of power, as such monuments required a both significant manpower and materials for their construction and maintenance. The extent of the ramparts that we see today may not tell the full scale of the site, which could have been larger and grander, although excavations around the site have not uncovered a continuation of the ramparts. It may be that the ramparts did not in fact encircle the site in its entirety: the river could have been acted as a natural boundary.
At Gallows Hill, the flat land hides the remains of an impressive but mysterious Iron Age site. Excavations show a complex site that was in use over a considerable period of human activity. The two main enclosures had entrances facing the likely route of the ancient Icknield Way path, and later development included the construction of a double-ditched enclosure, new circular buildings and a ceremonial gateway at the entrance to the inner enclosure.
Some of the artefacts found here are high-status and there is evidence of the production of coins on the site. It was probably a site that was some kind of focus for the local elite – probably ceremonial and ritual in nature but not necessarily religious. The drawn reconstructions of the site illustrate the impact of the site on the landscape, and on individuals passing by on the Icknield Way.
By 70AD the site had been largely abandoned. Boudica’s rebellion against the Romans took place in 60AD, so the site fell out of use after the failure of the rebellion. After the site was abandoned there is little evidence for further occupation until the end of the Roman period.
The Gallows Hill area has been the site of two important Roman finds – the Thetford Treasure and a Roman coin hoard. The Thetford Treasure consist of 22 gold rings, 33 silver spoons, 4 gold bracelets, 4 necklace pendants, 5 gold chain necklaces, a gold amulet and more. The 33 silver spoons carried inscriptions to the Roman god Faunus, and it is possible that they were deposited by a guild as part of a Roman ritual. It is now in the British Museum, although you can discover more about it and see replicas at the Ancient House Museum in Thetford.
The Icknield Way was an ancient long distance trackway that some archaeologists have suggested linked Norfolk with the Neolithic cultures responsible for the ritual monuments constructed in Wiltshire and the South Downs. There is however some disagreement over the likely route of the Icknield Way, which may have divided at Thetford with an eastern branch running toward the centre of Norfolk and a northern route leading up to the Wash. The route crossed the rivers Thet and the Little Ouse at a ford on the site of Nuns Bridge, and it is widely believed that the rivers have been crossed there for thousands of years.