Logistics of defence of the West Saxon

Monday, March 9, 2009

At the heart of royal security was the network of some thirty proto-urban ‘burhs’, fortified centres evenly located throughout Alfred’s kingdom: no territory lay beyond a day’s march. The scheme was probably informed by many precedents: alongside eighth-century Mercian burhs and West Frankish fortifications of the later 860s is the likely influence of Rome, in the ‘Leonine City’, papal defensive work completed in the early 850s. Organizational mechanisms drew intensively on West Saxon common burdens. The fullest picture emerges from the Burghal Hidage, seemingly written in the latter part of Edward’s reign, though probably based on earlier information. To each burh was assigned a garrison for defence and repair, drawn from territory measured in hides. Four men would be needed for each pole (5½ yards) of perimeter wall; each hide would supply one man. The figure of 2400 hides for Winchester would provide for the adequate defence of 9900 feet of wall; its Roman walls measure 9954 feet, a discrepancy of less than one per cent. Comparable matches have been detected at many other sites, although some assessments remain problematic. Burghal walls consisted of a deep bank of earth, clad with timber revetments at the front and rear, and surmounted by a fighting platform and palisade, also of wood. Intra-mural streets, running continuously behind the wall, enabled efficient deployment against attack. The burhs were not only protective, but supplied permanently manned bases from which sorties could be mounted against local threat. The Chronicle consistently refers to burgware, burghal ‘inhabitants’, yet the context often supports reference to the garrison alone. The suffix –ware related closely to waru (‘defence’), accorded prominence in the Burghal Hidage. Resistance of this sort forced invaders northwestwards in 893; viking armies never penetrated far within Alfred’s defended kingdom.

The burghal network was complemented by efforts to reorganize army mobilization, the fyrd. The Chronicle adds by way of explanation that ‘the king had divided his fyrd into two, so that always half its men were at home, half on service, except for those men who were to guard the burhs’. The most likely implication is that while each burh would be garrisoned on a continuous basis, only half of all other men liable for military service would be required on campaign at any one time, the other half being allowed to remain ‘at home’, in a system of periodic rotation. Such mechanisms met agrarian as well as military needs. Increased viking mobility forced defenders also to deploy horses, placing a premium on the supply of basic provisions. Viking survivors at Chester in 893 faced the fyrd’s ravaging of the surrounding countryside, killing cattle and seizing corn to feed horses. The aim of adequate provisioning seems to have outweighed the difficulty of achieving smooth rotation; men ‘at home’ would have aided agrarian continuity. The two roles were complementary: in 895 the fyrd reportedly camped close to a viking fortress on royal orders, specifically to protect the local corn harvest.

The Chronicle assigns two further innovations to Alfred’s initiative; whatever the nature of such attributions, both made notable adaptation of established tactics. One was the construction of double riverine fortifications, also deployed in 895 on the river Lea; the vikings were forced overland, abandoning their ships to destruction and requisitioning. Charles the Bald had employed similar tactics on the Marne, Seine and Loire. Only two bridges were actually fortified, at Pont de l’Arche and Les Ponts-de-Ce´, but both involved fortifications on either side of the river.13 Bridge-work had long numbered among the common burdens; as early as 811 a Kentish charter had referred to ‘bridge-building against the pagans’. Many Alfredian burhs lay at the mouths of navigable rivers and at vital crossing-points; both locations may have extended an existing strategy. The other innovation, in ship design, is harder to assess, reportedly involving faster ‘long ships’ of sixty oars or more. Specially constructed on royal orders, such ships differed from a known design of forty oars. Alfred’s prototype ‘long ships’ are accorded only mixed results; by the early eleventh century, when sound evidence next emerges, ship crews were commonly assessed in units of sixty men. Earlier naval engagements had been won in 851, 875 and 885; at the least, this report shows the importance of seaborne forces as a first line of defence.

Alfred’s reforms extended across all three common burdens; fulfillment hinged on the co-operation of aristocratic landholders, under co-ordinated local direction. For Asser, the entire process led back to Alfred’s nautical helmsmanship, guiding the ship of his kingdom ‘through the many seething whirlpools of this present life’. In place of sailors were all bishops, ealdormen, reeves and ‘dearest’ thegns; the king had secured their passage ‘by gently instructing, cajoling, urging, commanding, and (in the end, when his patience was exhausted) by sharply chastising those who were disobedient’ in such a way that he converted all participants in power ‘to his own will and to the communal benefit of the whole realm’. The image was more than wishful thinking: supported by the intensive environment of Alfred’s household, it gains substance from every aspect of documented action. The ‘persuasion’ that emerges was fundamentally material, rooted in further measures likely to have eased the worst pressures on local resources. Explored in the following sections, such interaction supplies a context for still deeper aspects of material encouragement, in continuous gesture and wise rule.


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