Saturday 7 September 2013

Searching for the Stafford Burh

The Burh: Instrument of War
Following the decisive English victory over the Great Heathen Army of Guthrum at the Battle of Ethandun, probably the village of Edington in Wiltshire, in May 878 AD King Alfred had pushed on with the Anglo Saxon recovery and secured Wessex in the south. Guthrum was baptised three weeks after the battle and under the terms of the Treaty of Wedmore was required to leave Wessex and return to East Anglia. The Danes were contained within what became known as the Danelaw and Wessex was to remain free of Danish control.

After his death in 899 AD Alfred's descendants continued with the plan to create one kingdom of all England and complete the recovery from the Danes. Alfred's daughter Æthelflæd, The Lady of the Mercians, took command of the left flank in the northward advance throughout English Mercia, while her brother Edward the Elder led the pincer movement on the right flank. The primary instrument of the war against the Danes was the burh, a fortification with provision for residence and trade, which was garrisoned by conscription from its local territory. The burhs were located at strategic points and along the Danelaw boundary at former Roman forts or fortified towns, or on new foundations that resembled Roman forts. Smaller sites were established at promontories or river junctions taking advantage of the local topography. Together the burhs created a formidable network of fortifications.

Many of the larger Wessex burhs were laid out to a uniform street grid indicating they were intended as towns, not just forts, from their inception, although in most cases it took perhaps another century or so for urban life to fully develop. It is expected that the Saxon towns in the Midlands, although less studied than their southern counterparts (Stafford being one of the most neglected), will be similar in design to those of Wessex. However, there was a distinct difference in the military campaigns; in Wessex it was largely defensive and consolidation, while north of the Thames it was an aggressive policy of recovery.

The history of the county town of Stafford begins with the Anglo Saxon Chronicle entry for the year 913 AD recording that Æthelflæd, Lady of Mercians, “before Lammas, built the stronghold at Stafford.” No doubt the natural defences in the crook of the River Sow was part of the attraction of Stafford to Æthelflæd; the town inhabits a strategic crossing point in the marshy valley of the River Sow, a tributary of that great Mercian river, the Trent. Earlier in the summer of that year Æthelflæd had gone with “all the Mercians to Tamworth and then built the stronghold there.” The Chronicle entry suggests that both burhs were constructed one after the other with the same Mercian engineers responsible for overseeing the layout and construction of the defences. The speed of construction suggests the burh defences at Stafford and Tamworth, consisting of outer ditch with an inner bank topped by wooden palisade, must have been thrown up in a matter of weeks.

It is a reasonable assumption that a settlement of sorts, with known defensive properties, existed at Stafford before the construction of the burh; it seems unlikely that The Lady of Mercians would select a vacant site for her fortification. But there is little evidence for activity at Stafford before the Late Saxon period and direct evidence of the burh itself has not been located to date. So what could have attracted King Alfred's daughter to include this unassuming location in Western Mercia in her system of burh defences?

At first glance Æthelflæd's choice of Stafford for a burh might not appear to be an obvious position for a military post but combined with the burhs at Bridgnorth and Tamworth, Stafford was clearly intended to defend not only the Midland Gap, the route of the Upper Trent between the southern end of the Pennines and the plateau of Cannock Chase, but also the principal and strategically important east-west route through the region, Watling Street Roman road, running to the south of Stafford.

Defending the important Severn crossing associated with pillaging Danish armies on at least two occasions, Bridgnorth, lies some 45 miles from Stafford. About 40 miles from Stafford is the Mercian royal site at Tamworth, situated on a broad spur at the junction of the rivers Anker and Tame, and formerly protected by a semicircle of marshland. Stafford was in a similar situation with natural defences of river and marsh on three sides and  roughly equidistant between Bridgnorth and Tamworth making it an ideal location for another burh.

As the site at Stafford is enclosed on three sides by watercourses or marshland it may have been selected by Æthelflæd as a burh site because a short barrier across the northern neck of land would be all that was required to create a strong defensible site: Æthelflæd's fortification may have been limited to a palisaded bank and ditch along that line, or may have reinforced an earlier Anglo-Saxon fortification. Yet the early burh is thought to have been located in the town centre and the line of this northern defence has not been found.

Apart from a tongue of land running into the centre from the north, the town lies on low ground surrounded by water-courses or water-logged ground on three sides, which even today still flood regularly. The wet and marshy ground surrounding Stafford provided a naturally defended site; indeed marshy ground provides far better defence than water or hill, possessing the potential to totally incapacitate an attacker attempting to cross it.

Boreholes and excavations in the area reveal the earliest deposits as Mercian mudstone overlain by fluvio-glacial gravels deposited at the end of the last ice-age by the melting ice sheet. These in turn were overlain by recent river alluvium, consisting of mud, loose brown gravelly, silty sand deposited by flowing water over the flood plain.

The historic core of Stafford lies within the valley of the river Sow, the floodplain almost entirely surrounding the town centre, except for the route to the north, with the line of the medieval town walls tracing the limit of the gravel. The town is effectively surrounded by the Sow to the west and south, and the Pearl Brook and a large wetland area, close to the centre of the current town, to the east.

Topography of Stafford
Many areas around the town are still subject to periodic flooding, and even areas within the town are still undrained marsh; the eastern boundary restricted by Kingsmead Marsh, remnant of a larger marsh area to the north and east of the town in Saxon times, much reduced in size today but still largely a wetland area and designated Local Nature Reserve in the modern townscape defined by the line of the modern town centre A34 by-pass, Queensway. To the northwest of the town there is still a large area of marshland stretching from beyond the Sow at Broad Eye to junction 14 of the M6 motorway, near Cresswell,  which is still subject to regular flooding. Doxey Marshes is now a nature reserve, designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSI), and managed by the Staffordshire Wildlife Trust.

The Causeway Through the Marsh
No doubt the natural defences in the crook of the River Sow was part of the attraction to Æthelflæd. The watery enclosure is reflected in the placename. The earliest documentary spellings for Stafford appears as Staef-forda, Staefford, Staffordaburh and Stadford, and in its respective abbreviated forms on Anglo Saxon coins (a mint was established at Stafford under Æthelstan who reigned 924-939); and as 'Statford' in the Domesday Book, 1086, where it is listed as one of seven walled towns.

Inhabiting a strategic crossing point in the marshy valley of the River Sow, 'Stafford', we are told, means the 'ford' at 'the landing place.' The accepted etymology of the placename is that the first element 'Staff' is derived from Old English 'staeth,' meaning 'the landing place, or wharf' and the 'ford' element is well known as a shallow river crossing, that can typically be waded on foot. The placename is therefore generally accepted as meaning 'the landing place, or wharf, at the ford'.

It has been suggested that Stafford is the highest point of the River Sow that was navigable, with some traffic along the river at an early date, so it seems a reasonable argument that there would have been a wharf, or landing place there. However, the Sow is a narrow, shallow river and it is difficult to imagine it carrying anything much larger than simple log boats. Furthermore, there appears to be little documentary or other evidence for water-borne commerce in the town in the past. The River Sow Navigation was a short waterway link constructed to connect the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal to a coal wharf in the centre of Stafford. It opened in 1816 with a single lock connecting the Sow to the canal, and closed in the 1920s, much too late to have any bearing on the placename.

However, you ford a river at its lowest, shallow point, and a wharf would be the deepest point; fully laden river craft sit low in the water. Clearly, the meaning of the placename 'Stafford' is not as straightforward as it appears: 'the wharf by the ford' is evidently a contradiction of terms.

The 'landing place' etymology appears to be derived from the Old English word 'stæp', an uncommon place-name element. Further, the OE term used in place-names for inland ports is usually 'hyth'. As long ago as the early 17th century the antiquarian Simon Degge argued that: `... the true etymology is Stadeford, that is the strand, shore or bank of a ford, and we find it in Doomesday Booke writ Stadford.' This concurs with the usual meaning of the word 'stæp' as 'a shore, river-bank; land bordering on water'.

The use of 'stæp' in the sense of 'landing-place' is not otherwise evidenced until the 14th century, whereas the Stafford placename is much earlier as evidenced by Anglo Saxons coins as noted above. Clearly identifying 'stæp' with 'landing place' is questionable and an alternative should be sort; places containing this element are often found in topographically inappropriate situations and may in fact refer to settlements in marshland where communications were limited to log boat for much of the year. As we have seen above, the early topography of Stafford is not incompatible with that meaning.

Stafford town centre
The town centre is aligned on a north-south axis, Gaolgate Street to Greengate Street, between the North (Fore) and South (Green) Gates, and is thought to have been so aligned since at least the layout of the original Saxon burh, but probably much earlier. This ancient trackway through the centre of the town crosses the Sow on the south side of the town at Green Bridge, into modern Bridge Street. If the word 'ford' in the name of Stafford was derived from a ford as in a shallow river crossing, then the crossing point of the Sow must have existed from a very early date, at least Roman or possibly earlier, where the north-south road exited the town at the place where the Green Bridge was later constructed.

However, there is another possibility. In OE the word 'ford' is often found where it is best translated as 'causeway'. The ford element is one of the most common topographical terms found in English place-names, and one of the earliest placename elements, recorded for at least nine places by 730 AD; Stafford may have been one of the earliest settlements in the region to acquire its English name, identifying 'the causeway through the marsh'. The causeway may refer to the broad peninsula of gravelly land running down into the centre of the town from the north, where it typically forms a route through the wetlands similar to the modern usage of the term for a raised up embankment across a body of water. It is very probable that in origin the name Stafford was derived from the descriptive term for a safe route of passage through the surrounding wetlands.

This is further supported by compound OE words which begin with the 'stæp' element and are often associated with stability and firmness, which reinforces the notion of a paved causeway on firm ground crossing a wetland environment. Therefore, it follows that the original name 'Stæpford' may have identified 'the firm ground or causeway through the marsh' and is perhaps associated with a suspected Roman road coming down from Blythe Bridge in north Staffordshire towards Pennocrucium in the south, running directly through Stafford on the same town centre north-south axis, crossing the river Sow at the southern end of the town.

Yet there is suggestive evidence for an even older trackway in the town.

© Edward Watson 2013

Notes & References:
David Horovitz, A Survey and Analysis of the Place-Names of Staffordshire, 2003, pp.42-45.
David Hill, The Shiring of Mercia - again, pp.144-159, in N.J. Higham and D.H. Hill, editors, Edward the Elder: 899-924, Routledge, 2001.
Philip Rhatz, The Archaeology of West Mercian Towns, pp.107-130, in Mercian Studies, ed. Ann Dornier, Leicester University Press, 1977.
Sarah Zaluckyj, Mercia: The Anglo Saxon Kingdom of Central England, Logaston Press, 2011, pp.207-215.

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