Sunday, 7 October 2018

The Mercian Burhs

Continually ravaged by Viking raids in the first half of the 9th century, the situation deteriorated further for the Anglo Saxon kingdoms when the Danes changed tact and became intent on settling. A large Danish army plundered Northumbria, East Anglia, Mercia, London and parts of Wessex in the south-west. English Mercia was reduced to its western half, up to Offa’s Dyke, from Gloucester in the south to Chester in the north, while the Danes occupied the eastern part of the kingdom; the division was clearly in place many years before King Alfred's formal treaty conceding the 'Danelaw'.

Alfred's response in the recovery of Wessex was to construct a network of burhs, fortified towns, at strategic points, during the late 9th century AD. Expansion of the burghal system would prove decisive in the recovery of the Danelaw by Alfred's children Edward and Æthelflæd during the early 10th century. However, there is evidence for some earlier, 8th century burhs found in the kingdom of Mercia.

In the later 9th century Mercia was ruled by Æthelred, Ealdorman of the Mercians, who had shown strong allegiance to Alfred until the king's death in 899 and then his son Edward thereafter. Æthelred was king of Mercia in all but title until his death in 911. From that point on his wife Æthelflæd, daughter of King Alfred, ruled on her own as the Lady of the Mercians.

Although the Mercian Register, included in several versions of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, records a series of fortifications, or burhs, constructed by Æthelflæd after Æthelred's death it is apparent that this Anglo Saxon defensive policy had been used by Æthelred across Mercia for many years.
In its current form the Mercian Register would appear to be limited to burh construction solely by Æthelflæd and does not, with the exception of the refortification of Chester, record those built jointly with Æthelred.

However, we may suspect Æthelflæd's hand in some unrecorded constructions, or refortications, of burhs across Mercia as evidenced by the translation of Royal Anglo Saxon Saints' relics. As the Mercian Register consists of a short list of annals centred on the Lady of the Mercians from 902 to 924, Æthelflæd is implicated in the translation of St Oswald's relics from Bardney in Lincolnshire to Gloucester in 909, interred in the very same crypt that both Æthelred and Æthelflæd would be laid to rest. Not only was the translation of precious saints' relics westward and away from the threat of desecration by the Vikings but Æthelflæd also introduced a spiritual dimension to the new burh's; St Weburgh from Hanbury to Chester; St Alkmund from Derby to Shrewsbury (and probably also Whitchurch); St Bertelin to Stafford and Runcorn. Many of these sites developed as cult centres for these saints.

Certainly the burghal system of defences was not new to Mercia; Æthelred and Æthelflæd together in the late 9th century, and after him in the early 10th century, continued a Mercian policy that had been used to exert Mercian dominance from the 8th century. Several Mercian burhs, such as Tamworth and Hereford, display evidence of earlier fortifications that were later enhanced by Æthelred and Æthelflæd.

These were centres of civil and ecclesiastical governance that, in many cases, developed into the administration centres of the later Shires. Tamworth is an oddity; a significant burh and Royal palace of Offa, but it did not go on to become the administrative centre of Staffordshire.

The increasing hegemony of Mercia during the 8th century (Wikimedia Commons)
The use of fortified towns to guard road and river crossings can be traced back to the so-called period of 'Mercian Supremacy' that emerged during the reigns of Penda (d.655) and Wulfhere (d.675), reaching its peak under Æthelbald (d.757) and Offa (d.796); a period of Mercian dominance which Stenton argued resulted in the unification of England south of the Humber. Offa's Dyke, the huge earthwork, shadowing much of the modern boundary between England and Wales, bears testament to this period and the Mercian kings ability to organise work parties on a massive scale. Wat's Dyke, running parallel to the northern sector of Offa's Dyke for 40 miles from Oswestry to Basingwerk, was probably built earlier by Offa's predecessor Æthelbald.

Toward the end of Offa's reign, the late 8th century, he constructed a series of burhs in 'Greater Mercia' as a system of defence against seaborne Viking raids. These burhs were associated with fortified bridges placed at strategic points to block access up river by the Viking longships. The fact that Offa extended this burghal system against the Vikings implies it was not a new defensive system. The Mercian king also introduced the three common military obligations to Kent; army service, bridge work and burh work.

Documentary evidence for the 'common burdens' of bridge work and burh work first appear in a charter during the reign of  Æthelbald (716 – 757), while army service first appears during the reign of Offa (757 – 796). These obligations may have developed as a consequence of 'bookland tenure' under Æthelbald in which grants of land were given for service to the king.

Grants of land and immunities to the church proved restrictive leaving the king without sufficient resource to reward his young warriors. To avert a potential military crisis the king would often come in conflict with the church. In response to a reprimand around 747 from Boniface for forcing churchmen to participate in manual labour on Royal projects, surely bridge work and burh work, Æthelbald issued a charter at Gumley in 749 which freed the church from such obligations. The implication being that such obligations were clearly in place prior to this charter.

In conclusion, although it must be conceded that the archaeological evidence for 8th century burhs is not abundant, documentary evidence for the development of military obligations, notably bridge work and burh work, as a condition of bookland tenure can be found in Mercian charters granting immunities to the Church during the reigns of  Æthelbald and Offa from the mid-8th century, if not before. It would appear that for the fortification of Wessex, Alfred was inspired by the burghal system used in Mercia at least 150 years earlier.

Jeremy Haslam, Market and fortress in the reign of Offa, World Archaeology 19 no.1 (1987), 76-93.
Steven Bassett, Divide and rule? The military infrastructure of eighth‐ and ninth‐century Mercia, Early Medieval Europe, Volume15, Issue 1, February 2007, pp.53-85.
 FM Stenton, The Supremacy of the Mercian Kings, English Historical Review, 33 (1918), 433 – 52.
Gareth Williams, Military Obligations and Mercian Supremacy in the Eighth Century, in Æthelbald and Offa: Two Eighth-Century Kings of Mercia. Papersfrom a Conference held in Manchester in 2000, Edited by D. Hilland M. Worthington. BAR British Series 383. Archaeopress, 2005.

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