Wallingford: the borough and the shire


The shire is a uniquely English institution. Nowadays its political functions have been usurped by Westminster. It administers decisions made elsewhere. Nevertheless, it still has a potent hold on our sense of identity. I was born a sokeman in the Soke of Peterborough and I am a yellowbelly, a Lincolnshire man, by adoption. I now live in Cheshire but I cannot hide my origins or indeed allegiances. I’ll never be a Cheshire man. Even today, the shire is not just about cricket. In the past it articulated identities in a much more essential way. It organized policing and justice, collected taxes and provide services of various kinds in its own right. It was a locus of power that countered as much as complemented central government. 

            The institution came into being at a time of great change in European society. In France and Germany the tenth century had seen an increasing privatization of public authority. The essential relations in society became less those between ruler and subject than between lord and man. Society had become feudalized. England experienced the same sorts of pressure, but kings never lost sovereignty over their subjects in this way. In large part it was the shire that was responsible for the preservation of royal authority. How it did so is one of the more interesting problems of the pre-Conquest history of England. The story begins with one of the earliest surviving government documents.

The Burghal Hidage is a list of boroughs in the south of England and the hides attached to them. It survives in a number of manuscripts, but the original is most clearly represented by the Old English version of Cotton MS Otho x which was destroyed by fire in 1731. It is now known only from a transcript, BL Additional MS 43703, made by Laurence Nowell in 1562. You will see from this photograph that he tried to produce something like a facsimile. The date of the document is controversial. It has usually been assigned to the years 914-19, but recently Jeremy Haslam has argued that it better fits the circumstances of 878-80. Its purpose, then, is equally controversial. However, there is general agreement that the Burghal Hidage relates to a kingdom-wide system of defence set up by King Alfred in the late ninth century to counter Danish attacks.

            As primarily a list of place-names and the hides assigned to them, the document is not exactly a riveting read. And yet it has been central to our understanding of the origins of the shire. Appended to the Nowell transcript is a formula linking the length of the defences of the borough to the number of hides needed to maintain them. Up until the ninth century military obligations had been largely been a personal matter. The king had to rely upon the loyalty of his men to bring out their dependents for the defence of the locality. For the first time King Alfred forged a bond between himself and every free man and henceforward military service was due to the crown directly. The system of defence that the Burghal Hidage records was the outcome. It proved a particularly effective weapon against the hit-and-run tactics of the Viking marauders. It also proved an effective instrument of royal power. So it is that it is assumed that it was the foundation of the shire. It is argued that in the course of time the system was extended to Mercia and subsequently imposed upon the Danelaw as the kings of Wessex ‘reconquered’ England and freed it from subjection to the Danes.

The conclusion seems reasonable enough: the emergence of the shires north of the Thames does indeed shadow the expansion of Wessex. On the other hand, there are marked differences between the shire north and south of the river. In Mercia it is named after the county town and is often an artificial unit, cutting across pre-existing tenurial structures. The boundary between Leicestershire and Northamptonshire, for example, along the River Welland divides Middle Saxon multiple estates and regiones. In Wessex, by contrast, the shire tends to perpetuate earlier tribal boundaries. What does Wallingford and the land attached to it tell us about the process of shiring? Surprisingly, quite a lot.

Like Winchester, Wallingford was assessed at 2400 hides, the highest figure in the document. It was clearly perceived as one of the primary strategic centre of Wessex in the early tenth century. I think that it is very likely that it had only recently been founded. It would, of course, be stupid to assume that the first reference to a place indicates that it did not exist before. Most settlements are first recorded in the late eleventh-century Domesday Book, but all sorts of evidence – archaeology, topography, place-names, and the like – indicate that many had a much longer history. However, there is evidence that suggests that the borough of Wallingford was not a primary feature of the Berkshire tenurial landscape. It was, I shall argue, a new town, an early Milton Keynes if you like, minus roundabouts, of the late ninth or early tenth century which was inserted into a much older landscape. I shall further argue that it had a territory of sorts attached to it, but this was only contingently related to the later Berkshire. The world of the Burghal Hidage was not unlike the feudalized society of continental Europe. The shire was born in an entirely different context.

First of all, a word on sources. What follows draws on a mass of evidence from the whole of the medieval and early modern periods. However, the main source is the Domesday account of Wallingford dating from the late eleventh century. You’ll be glad to hear that I am not going to analyse it in detail. I did that when I was last here last May and the results will be published with chapter and verse in the proceedings of the conference. But because of its importance, I’ll just outline its content. The account is divided into to five sections. The first deals with the king’s burgesses who paid all customs, that is taxes of one kind and another, and those who had withdrawn the customs. The second, describes non-customary tenements that belonged to rural manors. The third is a schedule of land which was produced in the early stages of the Domesday inquest.. It is of primary interest because it seems to be arranged by wards. Then there is a record of the value of the borough. Finally, there is a list of manors in Oxfordshire that had tenements in Wallingford. It is this document that provides the framework of our understanding of the early history of Wallingford.

We can do worse than start with the land of the borough. The Domesday assessment of Wallingford is only 8 virgates, that is 2 hides. It would be nice to be able to convert this figure directly into acres. Notionally, the hide was 120 acres, giving a total area of the borough and its fields as 240. Unfortunately life is not that simple. Hides were primarily measures of service, so direct conversion is not possible. However, the assessment is very small compared with surrounding settlements. Cholsey, for example, was assessed at 23 hides, Brightwell, 20, Sotwell 10, and so on. So, it would seem that the land attached to Wallingford was as circumscribed in the eleventh century as it was when it is first mapped. To the north there were no fields at all, Clapcote being a separate settlement. There were borough fields to the south and west, but these were small, amounting to only a few hundred acres. With the parish of Brightwell immediately to the west, the town was largely confined to the area of the defences.

I say ‘largely’, for of course there is a significant area of settlement outside. I refer to the so-called ‘suburb’ outside the South Gate and the closely related church of St Leonard’s just within the walls. In origin this area seems to have been a separate and earlier settlement. It was, as it is today, peripheral to the main town and yet had always been densely settled from at least the time of the Domesday survey. There are indications that in the Middle Ages it was considered apart from the borough. Much of the area was tithe free and it is said to lie outside the borough in an inquest of 1346. More significantly, its three churches of St Leonard’s, St Lucian’s, and St Rumbold’s can be identified with the land and three churches which are said to lie 'outside the port’ in an authentic Old English memorandum attached to a forged charter of the twelfth century.

This land and its three churches belonged to the bishop of Winchester’s manor of Brightwell. The association is evidenced no earlier than the mid tenth century: there are two charters of that period that refer to lands of the estate in Wallingford. But it seems to have been an ancient one since it is reflected in parochial structure. I should explain here that originally churches served estates and so the boundaries of their parishes usually preserve the their bounds. In Berkshire the fact is demonstrated time and again by the regular coincidence of charter bounds with modern parishes or townships within them.  So, it is clearly significant that St Lucian’s parish encompassed the settlement of Sotwell which itself had always been an integral member of the manor of Brightwell. The conclusion seems plain: the South Gate area was part of the Brightwell estate from an early period.

            Until recently the history of the whole complex could be traced no earlier than the mid tenth century. A charter relating to Brightwell of 854, S307, has been held to be a forgery. However, S. E. Kelly’s study of the document and similar so-called ‘decimation’ charters, has demonstrated beyond doubt that it is substantially authentic. The thirty-hide estate of Brightwell, encompassing Sotwell, Mackney, and presumably Slade End, was granted to Winchester by Æthelwulf, king of Wessex, before Alfred’s campaign of burh construction. It seems to have been grouped with Cholsey and the Moretons around the moor which appears to have been a common resource. Note that it is this to which local place names refer.

No comparable evidence has come to light to indicate how Clapcot and All Saints fitted into this tenurial structure before the borough was constructed. Topographically, though, it ought to have been an integral element of the Brightwell complex. Wallingford itself, however, looks as if it has been inserted into this older landscape. Whether its site was determined by an existing crossing of the Thames or it superseded an earlier one is unknown. The original Wallingford; that is the crossing of the Thames from which the borough took its name, may have been further to the south. If taken literally, the boundary clause of a supposedly ninth-century Cholsey charter suggests that it was close to the outfall of the modern-day Bradford’s Brook (S354, Gelling 1974, 535-6). Alternatively, there may have always been a number of crossings. Whatever the case, the construction of the borough saw a shift of tenurial and settlement focus from the high ground and the moor to the west to the present town and the bridge over the Thames.

The first thing to notice about the defences is that in the South Gate area their line seems to have been deflected to the south to take in St Leonard’s church.. There had to be an accommodation to existing structures and institutions. The observations, however, highlights a number of  problems as to date of construction. In the past it has been assumed that the defences were built all in one go on the foundation of the borough. The fact seems to be more or less explicit in the Burghal Hidage. Attached to the Nowell transcript is the following formula:

For the establishment of a wall (weal-stilling) of one acre’s breadth, and for its defence (waru) sixteen hides are required. If each hide is represented by one man, then each pole (gyrd) can be furnished with four men.

This formula translates as follows: each perch (16½ feet, about 5 metres) of borough wall was to be defended by four men and each hide was to provide one man. Assessed at 2400 hides, Wallingford should originally have had a wall of  3300 yards. The problem is that no more than 2800 yards are apparent on the ground. Various adjustments to the defences have been suggested. Some analyses have proposed lengthening the defences by including a hypothetical wall by the Thames or the so-called bridgehead to the east of the river. More radically, others have asserted that the Mercian pole of 15½ feet was employed.

It seems to me that all of this takes the formula far too seriously. True, it seems to work for Winchester and Wareham, but elsewhere it can be made to fit only with special pleading. To take the formula as a precise prescription is to misunderstand Anglo-Saxon society. The sources are littered with neat formulas that we know express ideals rather than reality. No one nowadays sees Anglo-Saxon laws as legislation; no one accepts hides and wergild at face value. Nor should we see the Burghal Hidage formula as prescriptive. It is inherently unlikely that the extent of defences was determined by some quill-pusher in Winchester. Soldiers know that such matters depend on circumstances and locality. Rather the formula was intended to guide on the basis of rule of thumb and then only in a general way.

            There is no necessity, then, to believe that the defences of Wallingford were built all in one go. In fact, they may well be multi-period. As we have seen, the first reference to St Leonard’s, situated as it is snugly in the south-east corner of the defences, asserts that it was outside the borough, although this may mean nothing more than that it was not part of the institution rather than physically without the defences. St Rumbold’s site is also ambiguous. The cemetery at the bottom of Goldsmith’s Lane, noticed in the 1606 survey of Wallingford and excavated in the 1980s, presumably belonged to the church. And yet much of the medieval, post-Conquest, evidence for St Rumbold suggests that it was extra-mural. We must await further archaeological investigation of the defences for further enlightenment.

It seems likely that the northern part of the borough was always high status. All Saints with its large parish originally encompassing the north-east quadrant of the borough and the hamlet of Clapcot, was clearly a primary nucleus. In the late eleventh century it was a royal foundation which was attached to the castle, but the association with authority was evidently of long standing. The fact that only 8 messuages were destroyed in the construction of the castle suggests that the king’s hall was in the vicinity before the Conquest. St Nicholas’ may also have been an early church: land in Newnham Murren that later belonged to it was held in 1066 by a certain Engelric who may well have been the royal priest of that name. We might expect that there had been a high status residence, possibly even a palace, on the site from the foundation of the borough.

The north-west quadrant, by contrast, seems to have been given over to an important episcopal church. Holy Trinity priory has always been assumed to be a new foundation of the late eleventh century but in fact it was founded in a pre-existing church – first identified as Christchurch – which St Albans tradition seems to have understood as a collegiate church. It was granted to the monastery by Nigel Daubigny in the late eleventh century, but the bishop of Salisbury did not relinquish his claims to it until the 1150s. Excavations at St Martin’s, probably a daughter church of Holy Trinity, has shown that it dates back to the early to mid tenth century. So, we might expect the mother church to have been more or less contemporary with the foundation of the borough. The endowment of a major church at this period is well attested in other boroughs.

The borough itself was set out to the south around the market. It was highly developed by the time of the Domesday survey. In 1086 there were over 400 properties. It is impossible to convert this total into a population. The units – hagae, masure, or domus – are units of tenure and probably each contained a number of houses. But clearly Wallingford was a largish town if not in the league of the likes of London, Norwich, and York. The schedule embedded in the Domesday account indicates that there were four wards. One, possibly associated with the castle site, seems to have had few properties, but the other three were densely settled. Wallingford was not to be so fully developed again until the late nineteenth century.

The parochial system was also established. There is positive evidence for the existence of 8 out of the medieval total of 11 churches. The three churches of the South Gate area, All Saints, and Holy Trinity have already been noticed. The church or chapel of St Nicholas was founded in the reign of William the Conqueror if it did not have pre-Conquest antecedents. Half of St Mary’s church was granted with Holy Trinity by Nigel Daubigny, and the church held by Roger the priest in Domesday Book was probably St Martin’s. There is no evidence for St John on the Water, St Peter’s, and St Mary’s the Less until later in the Middle Ages.

Wallingford was a flourishing town. The bulk of the properties were burgages. The burgesses who held them owed dues to the king. There are little indication of their occupations – Domesday identifies only ‘smiths’ and then in passing - but they were presumably the tradesmen, craftsmen, and merchant who characterized most towns at this time. There were in addition 31 tenements that belonged to rural manors held by the greater lords of the shire. However, they probably had little to do with the borough in either 1086 or 1066: the properties were just manorial appurtenances.

What characterized the borough above all else was the number of ministri, that is, officials of the royal household and administration. Apart from the lords of rural manors, almost all those named in the Domesday account personally served the king in one way or another. The same held true in 1066. There was a garrison of housecarls, the royal guard, there and even Wigot of Wallingford seems to have been a staller, that is a military commander. Wallingford was above all else a royal borough. It had probably been always so. What is striking about the Domesday account is that the earl held no property in Wallingford and very little elsewhere in the county of Berkshire. As such one must suspect that the town had a command economy, that is, it was largely dependent on the demands of the garrison and king’s hall. It was to rapidly decline in the later Middle Ages once the crown lost interest in the town.

In both 1086 and 1066 Wallingford was the county town of Berkshire. Although we have no record of the fact, the sheriff was presumably based in the town, but whether the shire court ever met there is unknown; at least on one occasion in the late tenth century it was held at Scutchamer Knob in East Hendred.  The extent of the shire was substantially that of the historic county until the shotgun marriage with Oxfordshire in 1974. The whole county was assessed at 2495 hides. If there were any justice in the world, then it ought to be the same as the territory of the Burghal Hidage. The Domesday hidation must indeed substantially date from about this time. The ancient assessment founded in the land of the family had been displaced by an assessment based on the plough by 900 or so and the Burghal Hidage shows considerable continuity through to Domesday. But the two sums cannot be identical in Berkshire, for there was a second borough in the county. Shaftsey, or what is now known as Sashes, an island in the Thames next to Cookham, was assessed at 1000 hides.

It has been argued that these extra hides were remitted in the period between the Burghal Hidage and Domesday Book. In some areas of England beneficial hidation, as it is called, resulted in the lowering of assessment by as much as 50%. In Berkshire, however, there is no evidence of such a procedure. Such changes as there were are post-Conquest. The pre-Conquest assessments of the county are based on the original five-hide unit and Anglo-Saxon charters suggest no great changes in liability. Where, then, was the territory of Wallingford if not historic Berkshire? 

The so-called ‘contributory manors’ of Wallingford provide a clue. We have already noted that there were properties in the borough that belonged to 31 rural manors, only to  dismiss them as simple manorial appurtenance in both 1066 and 1086. They were of little moment to their lords in the mid eleventh century. At an earlier date, however, they were probably related to their lord’s obligation to fortify and defend the borough. It is clearly significant that over half of those in Wallingford belonged to manors in south-east Oxfordshire. As you can see, this area of the county does indeed look as if it is an addition. It cannot be coincidental, then, that the assessment of Oxford in the Burghal Hidage was less than its Domesday total of 2,434 hides. Either 1300  or 1500 hides were assigned to the borough at the earlier date (the two main recensions of the Burghal Hidage disagree at this point).

There is no comparable evidence for Sashes. The borough was apparently short-lived – it does not even appear in Domesday Book – and there is no reference to contributory manors (if they ever existed). But, like Wallingford, it is situated across the Thames from another seemingly anomalous area: southern Buckinghamshire again looks as if it has been tacked onto the county and again the Burghal Hidage assessment attached to Buckingham was less than its Domesday, 1,600 hides as against 2130 in 1086 date.

            I would suggest that the territories of both Wallingford and Sashes extended across the Thames into what is now Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire respectively. With the present evidence it is not possible to reconcile the Domesday assessments with those of the Burghal Hidage. The three counties of Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire had a combined assessment of 7060 hides in 1086 where there were 6,300 or 6,500 at the earlier period. The discrepancy may be due to the transfer of hundreds from other counties, piecemeal re-assessment, or simple plain old error. These are imponderables. But the figures may make more sense in terms of hundreds.

The hundred was notionally a hundred hides, but in reality was rarely assessed at that amount. It had its own court to which the free men of the area paid suit and it was the basic unit of military organization. After the Conquest, when we can first see it in operation in detail, it seems to have been subordinate to the shire court. In origin, however, the hundred was an independent institution, and somewhat earlier, often representing ancient folk moots. Like many another feature of the social landscape, its area was not immutable. Hundreds might divide, amalgamate, or otherwise change. But in some areas there was considerable continuity of numbers. Worcester, for example, in a later addition to the Burghal Hidage, was assessed at 1200 hides as it was in the early eleventh-century County Hidage, while there were twelve hundreds in 1086 assessed at 1189 hides. It may be significant, then, that Berkshire, Oxfordshire, and Buckingham in total encompassed 63 hundreds in 1086 where the Burghal Hidage would suggest 63 or 65.

In these terms, the territory of Sashes can, I think, be delineated with some confidence. The assessment of 1000 hides suggests 10 hundreds. There are six in the southern portion of Buckingham, assessed at 748 hides and a further four in eastern Berkshire, again defined by topography, assessed at 292 hides. That makes 1,040 hides in all. Sashes would seem to have taken in the three Chiltern Hundreds of Buckinghamshire plus a further three, Aylesbury, Risborough, and Stone, on the scarp to the north.

            The figures do not work out quite so well for Wallingford because of the uncertainty over the assessment of Oxford in the Burghal Hidage and subsequently. Topographically, the area to the east of the River Thame would fit the bill with all but two of the Oxfordshire contributory manors situated there. The area encompassed 5½ or 6 hundreds at the time of Domesday assessed at 664 hides, while the 18 remaining hundreds in Berkshire (that is, the 22 hundreds of Domesday less the 4 hundreds assigned to Sashes) were assessed at 2,203. This would approximate to the 24 hundreds predicted by the Burghal Hidage, but the actual assessment is 2,867 hides. It cannot be ruled out that the Vale of White Horse, in part or whole, was attached to Oxford in the early tenth century. That would be consistent with the Wallingford and Sashes evidence and, indeed there were tenurial links across the Thames at this point. However, all we can say with reasonable certainty is that the territory of Wallingford probably took in the Oxfordshire Chilterns as well as land to the north.

Well, that’s enough pyramidiocy. I will not insist on the exact line of these boundaries, for I think that it is unlikely that they were territories in exactly the same way as the shires of 1086. What is striking about the Burghal Hidage is that it described a national system of defence. The list of boroughs starts at Eorpeburnam, probably on Romney Marsh, and then proceeds westward along the coast to Devon and then returns along the northern boundary of Wessex to Southwark. The boroughs were clearly intended to operate as an integrated whole. Indeed, the sources show that garrisons acted in a concerted fashion on more than one occasion. It seems very likely, then, that Oxford, Wallingford, and Sashes worked together in the defence of the middle Thames valley.

This brings us back to our starting point: what does Wallingford in the Burghal Hidage tell us about the process of shiring? Clearly, there was no simple extension of the Burghal Hidage system to Mercia and beyond. Between the Burghal Hidage and the shires of Domesday Book there was extensive remodelling of territories in the middle Thames valley. Berkshire, Oxfordshire, and Buckinghamshire were not alone in this. There is evidence that Gloucestershire, Warwickshire, and Northamptonshire also underwent similar changes.

What seems to have prompted these developments was the different circumstances obtaining north of the Thames. In Wessex propaganda the defeat of the Danes was portrayed as the liberation of England from the Danish joke. The myth has been pervasive. Even today it is usual to refer to the campaigns of Alfred and his son Edward the Elder as the ‘reconquest of England’. The reality was otherwise. Mercia had been an independent kingdom right up to 919: the expansion of Wessex north of the Thames was a conquest. The shrieval system that was set up was at once an instrument of that conquest and a settlement. Like the Burghal Hidage boroughs, the Mercian shire had military functions. The fyrd, the county militia, was organized through its hundreds. But its fundamental remit was the maintenance of the peace. At every level, from village to borough, it enlisted the support of the free communities of the shire to that end. Title to land, law-worthiness, and free status all depended on cooperation: if a free man failed in his obligations he was in danger of losing everything. The upshot was the isolation and neutralization of regional aristocracies with separatist tendencies. By localizing loyalties and forging links with the free men of the shire, the kings of Wessex enlisted local communities to their cause.

The Burghal Hidage, then, organized society for war, while the shire organized it for peace. Berkshire stands at the boundary between two very different societies. Its social structure places it very firmly in the former camp. Elements of the Mercian shire were introduced into Wessex in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Courts were reorganized and hundreds were reformed, but the militarization of its society in the late ninth and early tenth centuries continued to colour its history and institutions. Berkshire above all preserves the society of Alfred’s Wessex. Just as Wallingford was a pre-eminently royal, so was the shire of which it was the chief town. Royal estates predominate and many others were held by ministri; the earls were weak and great lords few. It looks as if successive kings had taken steps to maintain their undivided authority in the area. The reorganization of territory that saw the creation of Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire in the tenth or eleventh century may have intentionally preserved the concentration of royal authority there. In origin Berkshire was probably little more than a royal appanage, a private jurisdiction. Its closest parallels are thus areas like Rutland, Cornwall, and the Isle of Wight.  It was to remain so for many centuries. As I have said on more than one occasion, Royal Berkshire was a potent reality in the Middle Ages.


©David Roffe 2008