BURH

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


1074 Chirbury character area, showing the village of Chirbury viewed from the west. A defensive burh was founded at Chirbury in 915, during the Danish wars. It subsequently became the principal manor of the Domesday hundred of Witentre and the site of an Augustinian priory. Extensive remains of ridge and furrow representing medieval arable open-field cultivation survive in the fields on all sides of the village.

The main reason for the willingness of the Mercians and the Welsh to enter alliances with the West Saxons was the existence of even more formidable enemies, the Vikings. The first Viking raid on Wessex had been made in the reign of King Beorhtric, but serious attacks did not begin until 836. To begin with the West Saxons were reasonably successful against the Scandinavians, even when the invaders joined up with the Cornish, but after 851 they fared less well and were unable to prevent a Viking army from wintering in Thanet in that year. Alfred’s four elder brothers died during the period of intensifying Viking attacks and, although we do not know the reasons for the deaths of any of them, it seems more than likely that some of them at least were attributable to injuries received during the campaigns against the Vikings. By the time the Great Heathen Army arrived in 865 the West Saxons had already been fighting major campaigns against Scandinavian forces for fourteen years, with substantial losses of personnel. The West Saxons were fortunate that the Vikings’ priority seems to have been the conquest of northern England and of York in particular, but they nevertheless came close to being conquered. 871 was one crucial year in which nine battles were fought between Vikings and West Saxons; Æthelred died in the middle of the campaign. In 878 Alfred was nearly captured in a surprise midwinter raid; he was forced to retreat to the Somerset marshes (scene of the popular, but apocryphal, cake-burning episode), but rallied and won his decisive victory at Edington (Wilts) after which terms were reached with the Viking leader Guthrum. In 886 Alfred recaptured London from the Vikings and although this did not lead to the recovery of all the lands the West Saxons had held in the former East Saxon territory, the victory seems to have been seen in Wessex and in other Anglo-Saxon areas as a sign that Alfred had mastered the Viking threat. Alfred also succeeded in countering a major attack by a new Viking army between 892 and 896.

The Chronicle accounts concentrate on the set-piece battles between West Saxons and Vikings, but Asser’s more detailed narrative allows us to see more of the logistical problems which the Viking wars introduced. It is clear from what Asser says that there was resentment within Wessex because of the long periods of military service and the other royal demands made upon the time and purses of the West Saxons. Some refused to obey royal commands and we know of at least one ealdorman who defected to the Vikings; a substantial portion of Wessex seems to have surrendered to the Vikings in 878 when Alfred’s future seemed uncertain. The bulk of the population might expect to reach reasonable terms with the Vikings which might ultimately leave them better off than they would be after a long period of resistance. But for the royal house there was no alternative but resistance, for the Vikings made a point of killing or expelling native kings when they conquered their kingdoms.

The West Saxon rulers had to develop new strategies and increase the demands they could make on their subjects in order to defeat the Vikings. They had precedents from Francia and Mercia (the latter too had drawn on Frankish advances) which they could follow. One important innovation was the burh or fortress which could be used both as a local refuge and as a base for a militia to intercept Viking forces and hamper their manoeuvrability. When Offa ruled Kent he had introduced the public services of fortress-work and bridge-work to help counter the first Viking attacks on the province so when the West Saxons conquered Kent they inherited the Mercian burhs there. The West Saxon burghal system has traditionally been associated with the reign of Alfred, but some of the West Saxon burhs, such as Wareham, were probably in existence before Alfred came to the throne, though he may deserve credit for extending the system and establishing a permanent militia in the fortresses. Fortress-work only seems to have been regularly referred to in West Saxon charters from the reign of Æthelbald (855–60). The fortifications themselves generally seem to have consisted of a timber-revetted bank with a ditch and even today some of the surviving ramparts such as those at Wareham are impressive structures. The task of building the fortifications and manning them fell upon the population of the surrounding countryside. Asser reveals that fortress-work was one of the royal demands which was most resented and it would appear that Alfred had some difficulty in enforcing it. However, if the West Saxons were to defeat the Vikings they had to persuade their subjects of the necessity of accepting greater royal control over their lives.

The Viking armies which attacked Wessex also operated in Francia and the Chronicle contains reports of the movements of the Viking forces across the Channel. The Franks also built fortifications to try to contain the Scandinavian threat and there are some similarities between Frankish and West Saxon defences. It was probably the common Viking threat which brought the Frankish and West Saxon royal houses closer together (though relations would have been established when Egbert spent three years in exile at the court of Charlemagne). One result was the marriage of Charles the Bald’s daughter Judith firstly to Æthelwulf of Wessex and then to Æthelwulf’s son Æthelbald. Such a marriage of stepmother and stepson was highly irregular by the ninth century and presumably reflects the importance placed on the Frankish-West Saxon alliance. By the reign of Alfred new powers were rising within the old western Frankish kingdom and towards the end of his reign Alfred married his daughter Ælfthryth to Count Baldwin II of Flanders.

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