Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A map of the Burghs of Alfred's Wessex, taken from the Burghal Hidage.

After he had beaten off the serious Viking attack of 878, which very nearly cost him his throne, Alfred the Great set himself to reorganising Wessex’s defences. This reform had two principal elements. The first was the construction of a series of burhs, discussed further in chapter 10, organised so that no one lived more than about a day’s journey from one. Each burh was assigned to an administrative district, which would maintain the walls and furnish its garrison. We know about the system by which this was calculated from an early tenth century document known as the Burghal Hidage. This states that one man from each hide of land would be responsible for the maintenance and defence of about 4 feet of wall. If one measures the length of the walls of Alfred’s burhs, where this is known, and compares them with the size of the area assigned to the burh, the former fits very closely with the latter, according to the Burghal Hidage’s formula. The document, as we have it, dates from the reign of Alfred’s son, Edward I ‘the Elder’, roughly to 918. Though it may well represent Edward’s formalisation and administrative regularisation of a situation created by his father, during Edward and his sister Æthelflæd’s expansion of the burghal system into Mercia and the territories conquered from the Danes, it is equally likely that the system described originates with Alfred’s reforms forty years previously.

London is not listed within the document, which has often caused some confusion, as London was certainly within the West Saxon kingdom. It may be that London, which did not really have a rural hinterland and which lay on the edges of several earlier kingdoms and later administrative districts, depended for its garrison and maintenance upon its own burghers. The men of London appear, in military contexts, as a distinct entity from the late ninth century. Thus it would lie outside the provisions of the Burghal Hidage’s system. Whilst Southwark is listed in the document, it is assigned to Surrey and, to judge from Domesday evidence, was assigned more or less all of the resources of the county.

King Alfred and the Vikings - strategies and tactics, 876-886 AD.

By Jeremy Haslam





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