Honour and Borough: Anatomy of a Royal Town
Wallingford, 3 October 2009


The Assize of Clarendon is not as famous as, say, Domesday Book, Magna Carta, or the Bill  of Rights. But, in its own way it is every bit as important in English constitutional history. In 1166 England was suffering from an outbreak of lawlessness which threatened the peace of the realm. The king, Henry II, consulted with his barons and they agreed that local juries should be called to identify criminals, so that they could be arrested and brought to trial. The procedure was probably a temporary expedient, but was made permanent in 1176. The Assize of Clarendon was the origin of the Grand Jury which was to form the basis of peace-keeping in England until 1879 and remains a significant institution in the United States of America to the present day.

            What was significant about the Grand Jury was that it by-passed seigneurial privileges and local procedures. It is of some interest to us, then, that it is stated in two different clauses that it even applied to the honour of Wallingford. No other honour is so distinguished. What was it about this honour that signalled it out for especial mention? The answer to that question provides not only an insight into the formation of the honour and its relationship with Wallingford itself, but also something of the nature of Norman institutions and their debt to the Anglo-Saxon past. I shall argue that  Wallingford belonged to a small group of honours that were also liberties. Further, I shall assert that it owed its identity to arrangements for the defence of the middle Thames Valley of the tenth or early eleventh century. The honour of Wallingford was essentially an Anglo-Saxon institution.

            There, given the game away. Let me explain. We should start by defining what an honour is. That is more complex than it might at first appear. The word comes from the Latin honor, that is ‘honour’ in the every-day sense and is used to described estates. It is not a particularly precise term. It may refer to a single parcel of land, on the one hand, to a vast fee on the other. Common to all these usages, however, is the notion of the honour that is conferred by tenure of the land in question. The honourable relationship between lord and man is central to the concept. So it is that the most common use of the word 'honour' is for the complex of estates that a baron held of the king in return for knight service after the Conquest.

            The Norman Conquest of England saw a tenurial revolution that was unprecedented in English history and has not been paralleled since. All those who fought on the English side against Duke William at the Battle of Hastings automatically forfeited their lands. In the next twenty years almost all the English of the highest ranks were similarly dispossessed and their estates transferred to the followers of William the Conqueror. Illegal seizure was one mechanism, but it was of limited extent. Most lands were granted out by the king in an ordered way. The most visible method was the transfer of blocks of land to a single lord. This was an expedient that was used in strategically sensitive areas such as the south coast and the Welsh marches. More generally, however, the estates of a single pre-Conquest lord, designated antecessor, ‘predecessor’, in Domesday parlance,  were given in their entirety, regardless of their location to a Norman successor. Typically, an honour consisted of the lands of a number of such lords.

Quite how the service due from these honours – their servitium debitum – was calculated we do not know. The Domesday inquest, however, marked a significant stage in the process. Change was possible after 1086, but by and large the honour had already assumed an identity which to it was to retain for the next 200 years or so. The court of the honour was its main institution. There its affairs were decided and disputes between the knights who held land from its lord were determined. We are not supposed to use the f-word nowadays – I mean ‘feudalism’ of course – but, yes, we are talking about a feudal system. It is important, however, not to run away with the idea. We are dealing with a private jurisdiction but it was not unlimited. Apart from a few special cases – I wont go into the matter of infangentheof and the like here - the court of the honour was only competent to deal with the business of the honour. The king retained jurisdiction in criminal matters over its lands and men through the public courts of hundred and shire.

            The Assize of Clarendon was not so much aimed at seigneurial franchises than at the smooth running of these courts. Why, then, is the honour of Wallingford explicitly included in its provisions? The immediate reason may well have been some well-known incident in which the honour had figured. No such is recorded. It must be suspected, however, that more generally it was perceived as in some way different from other honours. And indeed it was. The first clue comes in early thirteenth-century legal records: anomalously, itinerant justices in eyre held separate sessions for the honour.

We have to wait until 1275 to find out why. In the Ragman inquest of that year the honour is described as a libertas, a ‘liberty.’ The term is normally used to express the right to regalian privileges, that is jurisdiction that was normally reserved to the king. Several Berkshire juries variously declared in what these privileges consisted. Edmund earl of Cornwall, the lord at the time, enjoyed the assizes of bread and ale, view of frankpledge, pleas of vee de naam, gallows, and return of writs. The assizes of bread and ale, although notionally royal, were by the thirteenth century essentially manorial rights. The liberty was unusual here only in so far as the lord enjoyed the regulation of brewing and baking throughout his honour; normally it was the sitting tenant who concerned himself with such matters. The others liberties were more substantial. View of frankpledge conferred the right to organize tithings, that is a system of communal bail that stood in for policing. Vee de naam was about the right to make distraints, the taking of chattels to enforce court orders. Gallows implied the right to capital punishment, although only in very limited circumstances. Finally, topping the lot, return of writs conferred the right to execute royal writs. In short, the sheriff, the king’s representative in the shire, was largely excluded from the honour of Wallingford.

            The franchise was not as extensive as those of the baronies in the far north of England. English kings were slow to make their authority felt beyond the River Tees and many of the fees that were created there in the twelfth century inherited the extensive regalian rights of the earls of Northumbria who proceeded them. Nor could the honour of Wallingford compete with the ecclesiastical liberties of the great Anglo-Saxon churches of Glastonbury, Bury St Edmunds and Ely: they could claim the pleas of the crown, and, as far as is recorded, the lord of Wallingford never claimed the same. It would, nevertheless, appear to have its own shire-like administration. It was, then, akin to the Rapes of Sussex, the lordships of the Welsh marches, and the Yorkshire liberties of Richmond and Holderness.

            All of those fees were undoubtedly post-Conquest creations. The origins of the honour of Wallingford, however, were somewhat different. Remarkably, a medieval tradition survives. In 1212 the constable of Wallingford Castle was asked by the king to make an account of the number of knight fees in the honour of Wallingford. He began his report with this account of the honour:

Wigod of Wallingford held the honour of Wallingford in the time of King Harold and afterwards in the time of King William I and he had by his wife a daughter whom he gave in marriage to Robert d’Oilly. Robert had by her a daughter, Matilda by name, who was his heir. Miles Crispin married this woman and through her had the honour of Wallingford. When Miles died, King Henry I gave the said Matilda to Brien fitzCount along with her inheritance. He had no heir by her. Both Brien and Matilda his wife gave themselves up to the religious life and Lord Henry, the son of the Empress Matilda, at that time duke of Normandy, took the honour. 

Such traditions have to be treated with care. They do not always prove to be accurate. Katharine Keats-Rohan, however, has shown that this one has more than a grain of truth in it. In her study of the twelfth-century honour she found that Wigod was indeed a common denominator. A few figures. Of the 135 manors in the honour c.1129, 59% had been held by Wigod himself, his family, or his men in 1066; 16% had been in hands of a certain Beorhtric who seems to have been closely associated with him, and 6% had belonged to the king or earl. The remaining 16% had been held by others who were unrelated or, the vast majority, can not be identified.

            I don’t want go into detail here. Katharine presented the evidence at last year’s conference and her paper is now published as 'The Genesis of the Honour of Wallingford', The Origins of the Borough of Wallingford: Archaeological and Historical Perspectives, eds K. S. B. Keats-Rohan and D. R Roffe, British Archaeological Reports, British Series 494 (2009), 52-67. All I shall do today is cherry-pick the salient points and try to draw some general conclusions. What is most remarkable about the honour is that it asserted its identity as a fee between 1066 and 1129. The significance of this becomes clear once it is realized that there was no simple continuity of tenure between the two dates. In 1086, the time of the Domesday inquest, just over half of the manors held by Wigod himself in 1066 were in the hands of Miles Crispin, but the rest were in the fees of Robert d’Oilly, William de Warenne, Earl Roger of Shrewsbury, and William de Braose. The majority of the remaining estates were held by Miles or Robert, but a significant minority were held by others. What had been largely one holding before the Conquest had been broken up thereafter, but had come back together by the early twelfth century.

            What, then, constituted this identity? Clearly the rights of family were a potent factor. Wigod’s daughter, Eadgytha by name, who married Robert d’Oilly was an heiress as was their daughter Matilda. Their rights may well have informed the re-formation of the fee. Domesday Book reveals that claims of inheritance of this kind, either from family or predecessors, might inform title in 1086. However, once another tenant-in-chief acquired land, such claims were rarely made good. It is significant that neither Robert d’Oilly nor Miles Crispin ever made any. Forces other than inheritance seem to have been at work.  

            This is where Wallingford itself comes to our aid. We are fortunate to have a very detailed account of the borough in Domesday Book. In many respects Wallingford was like many another borough in the late eleventh century. Much of the land therein was held by the king, but by no means all. Just about all the great lords of the surrounding area, in both Berkshire and south-eastern Oxfordshire, held tenements which were attached to manors in the countryside. The data, in conjunction with contemporary and later evidence, can be used to construct a fairly detailed topography of late eleventh-century Wallingford. I shall here refer you to my article in 'Wallingford in Domesday Book and Beyond', The Origins of Wallingford, 27-51. Domesday Book also provides us with an account of the social structure of the borough and here we find differences. What characterizes Wallingford is the high proportion of royal ministers in the population. A large number of people were engaged in royal service and held their lands ex officio.   

            Foremost among these, and one of the biggest landholders in the borough, was Miles Crispin, the lord of the honour of Wallingford. He seems to have been the constable of the castle which had been built for William the Conqueror by his father-in-law Robert d’Oilly. To what extent he lived in a tied cottage, as it were, is not explicit. However, it is clear that the bulk of his recorded land in the borough had been ministerial in 1066. Domesday Book records that ‘King Edward had 15 acres on which housecarls dwelt; Miles Crispin holds them, they do not know how; 1 of them belongs to Long Wittenham, a manor of Walter Giffard’. Housecarls were the personal bodyguard of the king and the reference here seems to have been to a garrison. The fact that [the burgesses of Wallingford] did not know under what terms he held suggests that Miles did not have full rights to the land.

            Apart from King Edward the Confessor, his predecessor in 1066 is not named. There can be no doubt, though, that it was Wigod to whom he owed most of his lands through his wife and mother-in-law. Wigod is styled ‘of Wallingford’ in the Buckinghamshire folios of Domesday Book and so he has become known to posterity. It is nevertheless clear that he was not lord of the borough before the Conquest: Wallingford was in the hands of the king. Wigod, too, then, was evidently a minister. He may himself have been a housecarl. His son Toki was. He was certainly close to the king. In one early source he is said to have been a kinsman of Edward the Confessor and a pincerna, a butler. As Katharine has suggested, Wigod was most likely a staller, that is a species of military governor who stood in for the earl.

            As such we might expect much of his land to have been akin to what was known before the Conquest as laenland, ‘loanland’. Such land was granted for a life or term of lives in return for service of one kind or another. Wigod’s fee was in effect appurtenant to this office. This, at least, seems to have been a characteristic that informed the subsequent history of the  honour. As we have seen, in the first two generations inheritance played a part, if only a part, in the descent of the fee. But from the mid twelfth century, the crown kept a close oversight. On the retirement of Matilda and Brien fitzCount, the honour was seized by Henry of Anjou, later King Henry II. Richard I gave it to his brother John, and thereafter it was regularly granted to the younger son of the king as an appanage. Herein, I suspect, lies the key to the special status of the honour of Wallingford in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. It was distinguished from other honours because it was always considered to be akin to a royal estate and was subject to the special procedures that they enjoyed..

            The honour of Wallingford, then, was unusual in so far as it was an honour. That is not to say that it was unique. The pre-Conquest office of staller was regularly translated into constable after 1066. Most famously, Esgar the staller was the predecessor of Geoffrey de Mandeville and conferred on him title to his extensive estates throughout southern England. His office was based on London  and, significantly, Geoffrey became constable of the Tower. However, the reservation of rights over the associated fee was more unusual. The closest parallel to Wallingford is perhaps the honour of Peverel of Nottingham.

            The defence of Nottingham was entrusted to Earl Tostig, King Harold’s brother, and then Earls Edwin and Morcar before the Conquest. William Peverel was in possession of many of their lands in 1086 and those of their thegns, many of whom were still in place. Again like Wallingford, the terms of tenure did not change markedly. William was constable of Nottingham Castle, but much of his land was said to be held in custodia, that is, ‘in custody’: he did not have full rights to it. His honour passed to his son William Peverel II in 1113, but he subsequently forfeited and the honour reverted to the crown. Thereafter, it too became a royal appanage.

             From at least the early tenth century Nottingham had occupied a key strategic position. Situated on the Trent and straddling the main road between the Midlands and Yorkshire, it was the fulcrum in the relations between the kingdom of the English and the bandit country beyond the Humber. Edward the Elder had fortified it in 918 and built a second borough across the Trent in 920. The defences of the English Borough were remodelled in the mid tenth century and Nottingham probably became the headquarters of the defensive alliance of the Five Boroughs of the Northern Danelaw.  Nottingham was the Balham of the North, as it were, and William Peverel’s control of it in 1086 was but the latest manifestation of provisions to garrison and defend it.

The honour of Wallingford, I would suggest, performed a similar function in relation to the borough of Wallingford. In the present company and the present place I need hardly labour the strategic importance of the borough in the Anglo-Saxon period. We first meet it in the Burghal Hidage as, with Winchester, the largest fortress in Wessex. The evidence is all around us in the surviving earthworks. Situated on the Thames on the border with Mercia, it played a key role in the defence of the kingdom against Viking attacks in the late ninth and early tenth centuries.

It would, of course, be fatuous to claim that the honour goes back to that period. However, it was evidently somewhat earlier than 1066. The origins of Wigod’s family do not take us far. His name is Danish, as was that of his son Toki, and so he or his father may have been one of the men of the Danish King Cnut. By contrast, his daughter’s name Eadgytha may suggest English antecedents. Either way, there is no evidence that his family had held the land for a long time. Far more suggestive is the distribution of the lands of the honour itself. Although they were scattered over nine counties of southern England, there is a significant core – 40 manors out of 135 by my estimation, some 30% of the total - in Oxfordshire east of the River Thame.

We perhaps have here a clue to an earlier date for the honour. It is this area, the Oxfordshire Chilterns, which appears to have been part of the territory of Wallingford at the time of the Burghal Hidage. I have noted elsewhere that the 2400 hides that were assigned to Wallingford in that document cannot have been coterminous with the Berkshire of Domesday Book. At least a 1000 hides belonged to the borough of Sashes, an island in the Thames at Cookham. Wallingford must have looked across the Thames to Oxfordshire and, indeed, it is precisely this area in which the vast majority of the borough’s contributory manors – those rural estates with tenements in the borough – were situated. Does, then, the location of the core estates of the honour of Wallingford indicate that the honour pre-dates the formation of Berkshire and Oxfordshire as constituted in Domesday Book? It may well do so. Unfortunately, the chronology of shiring is not well understood. No date, as yet, can be assigned to the formation of the honour. But we must suspect that it is significantly earlier than 1066.

Before I finish I just want briefly to examine the impact of the honour on the borough. In the past I  think we have rightly speculated about the existence of a palace in Wallingford. The borough was strategically important enough to warrant a major royal residence. The best bet for its location is somewhere on the castle site, probably in the vicinity of All Saints church or possibly the royal free chapel of St Nicholas. Reasonable enough. But did Wigod have a separate establishment? Was there a second hall? If Wigod stood in for the earl, then the answer is probably ‘yes’. A comital manor was one of the elements that usually made up the complex of estates of which the borough was a part.

The same must also be true for Miles Crispin. As constable of the castle, it might  be supposed that he conducted all of his business in the great hall. But precedent is against that idea. In Nottingham the constable’s hall was not in the castle but in St James chapel within what had been Earl Tostig’s estate which became the French Borough after the Conquest. Likewise in Lincoln, the constable’s honour met in Bardolfshalle in the Bail rather than the castle. Was there another high status site in Wallingford? Precedent would tend to suggest that we should be looking for a seigneurial centre outside the castle.

More broadly, I wonder about what impact Wallingford’s military role had on the economy and development of the borough. The authorities on medieval towns tell us that the burh was from the start also a commercial centre. We know, however, that this was not always so. Our neighbour down river was, as far as we know, never a town in the conventional sense. Sashes was merely a fortress. Even a major settlement like Nottingham was barely urban before the Conquest, despite an attempt to urbanize in the late tenth century. The open spaces within the defences of Wallingford may merely indicate that it too was a primarily a fortress and that it had a command economy that was appropriate to such a settlement.

To conclude. We have come rather a long way from the odd references to the honour of Wallingford in the Assize of Clarendon. But I hope the journey has been illuminating. The honour, and the castle that went with it, in Wallingford as elsewhere, have usually been seen as Norman phenomena. And so they often, probably usually, were. But that is not to say that they were drawn on a new canvas. It has been recognized for many years that the first generation of Norman castles were usually built on high status English sites. Archaeological excavation has demonstrated a degree of continuity of structure and function in some of them. Now it is becoming clear that the honour too might perpetuate pre-Conquest institutions. The honour of Wallingford is a good example. This should not surprise us. The Norman settlement was effected through English law. It is therefore not surprising that the newcomers adopted English solutions to the problems that confronted them where they fitted the bill. William the Conqueror and his followers were aware of that age old wisdom: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.


©David Roffe, 2009