2.4 Extensive Lordship and the Scir

The 7th and 8th centuries saw the gradual development of territorial grouping, with tribal and political identities, focussed on the lord or king. Despite more well defined hierarchies, lordship remained relatively light, based on lords who travelled from place to place.  At tribute centres, they would to meet with their people  and receive their tribute, and in return offer their largesse, counsel and listen to local concerns. Relationships remained customary and personal, not formal based on tenancy, legal or contractual ties.




In ASE Land Lordship and People we are talking about the development of Anglo Saxon society. How it arrived in the British landscape, how it’s economic and social relationships worked and developed; what made it distinctive, and how it will fundamentally change with the Norman conquest.

So far in our series we have talked about the theories around the adventus saxonum, England’s basic foundation story; in last week’s episode about Early Settlers, we talked about how that worked in our area of South Oxfordshire, how the process of settlement was affected by Landscape, and is still reflected in Landscape.

We talked a bit about the emergence of simple hierarchies, eoelisc and ceorlisc, nobles and the armed free farmers known as Ceorls. This time I am going to talk about how those early groups of settlers, family and tribal groups and their lords began to organise into larger groups and political units, as lords gradually accumulated relationships with dependent ceorl families through commendation. Through this process, nobles and lords, and increasingly kings, acquired groups of farms and farmers, on large territories with multiple farms and estates. These territories we are going to call scirs. We are going to talk about how lords managed these large areas, and the concept of ’extensive lordship’ – which essentially means the opposite to intensive,  so the hand of the lord on the land and people was relatively light, in a period of widely dispersed settlement. A world with an emerging moral economy, accepted ways of doing things.

The word scir, then, is an Old English word derived from the Germanic word for ‘care’, in the sense of something being in your care or charge, therefore something you need to govern or administer, or look after. It’s a word which plays to the idea we talked about last time of a moral economy; the sharing of reciprocal rights and obligations between ruler and ruled. A relationship which put the ceorl family in the care of the lord to whom they gave tribute.

Scir is the same word as our modern shire, so in common with an author called Rosamund Faith, I am using scir to distinguish it from the Shire, which would be much larger units with more modern implications. Rosamund Faith, by the way, wrote a very popular book called the English Peasantry and the growth of Lordship’, and it is a work of genius. Though when I say popular, by the way, I mean not that popular with the book buying public, since it’s pretty hard to get; I think I saw it on an online bookshop which shall remain nameless at a cool £206. This is a shame. But I am sure your local library will get it for you.

Anyway, where were we? ah yes, Scirs. These early scirs might be pretty large; they might be a hundred square miles for example – these are substantial areas of land. But of course even a 100 square miles is not the kind of area we associate these days with mighty and puissant kings and queens. But in the society of the time, when people moved around so much less, they were much more meaningful units of group identity, of the kind of scale people could cope with. Powerful local Identities like this survived much longer than you might think; in the 17th century people would refer to the community they identified with as their ‘country’, and when they said that, more often than not they were referring to their county, not to England. Even in late 19th century Oxfordshire people still spoke of a place called Banbury-shire, Banbury being just one town within Oxfordshire.

Over time, people and territory began to be associated with each other, become tribal areas and kingdoms. Again there are reasons for that. One is around the identity of lordship – In the Deben valley in Suffolk, this is the territory where all the households owed allegiance to Wuffa, they are the Wuffingas; so go to your local scir and insert the name of their people as applicable; Wuffingas scir.

But also these territories have their own characteristics, their own internal logic, driven by landscape and resources that work together and complement each other. The physical characteristics of the Chiltern Hills, with its woodlands and pasture, gives rise to the idea of the tribe of Chilternsaeten.

Another example are the Fenlands of East Anglia, complex wet land environments, where survival depended on sharing resources and common rights – to pasturage, haymaking, managing water supply, reed beds and so on. That led to customs and procedures about jointly managing resources, balancing individual rights and entitlements with the needs of the wider community. These become well established customs and practices handed down from generation to generation. These reciprocal rights and obligations were shared by the people in the scir which became known as the land of the Spalda. They are aware if their joint identity, and are tenacious of their rights. So when Croyland Abbey was established, they extended claims over the lands granted to them. With which the locals did not completely agree. So, 3,000 of them gathered outside the Abbey to make clear their rights and defend them against the Abbey’s claims. While they were away protesting, presumably bearing the Anglo Saxon equivalent of batters and high vis clothing, they organised some of their community to stay behind and manage their lands.

Over time of course, the lord of a scir might find themselves gently persuaded to give their allegiance to a more powerful lord or king. And so these scirs, these old petty kingdoms, would become part of something larger, part of a kingdom of say, East Anglia, or Northumbria, depending where they were.  Some of these then are named in that surviving catalogue of kingdoms, the tribal hidage, which I mentioned last time.

The scirs on which larger kingdoms or tribal groups are based often survive for a long time, large and small, in different forms. Some will become later subdivided into the administrative units known as hundreds. Which is what happened in our area of south  Oxfordshire.

The area may originally have been is a scir of about 100 square miles. The scir stretched over a large area in the loop of the Thames,  the southern Chilterns, Benson to Henley, ander over time will be subdivided into a number of hundreds – 4 ½ of which become the famed Chiltern hundreds. I say famed, because it used to be the only way to resign as an MP to apply for the non existent office of the Chiltern Hundreds. It’s an odd system, but hey. But back when we are looking, 7th and 8th century, it will become a royal part of the personal estates of the king of the Gewisse. They, it will be half inched, and become part of the royal estates of the Mercian kings. And then back to the Gewisse, I mean borderlands, there and back again, like Bilbo’s road that goes on for ever. The scir was centred on Benson, which was the Royal estate centre, often called a vill or township.

First of all let us talk about the manner in which these scirs were managed in the 7th and 8th centuries. This was described by a thoroughly eminent historian of my youff, G W Barrow, as kind of ‘extensive lordship’. Extensive here is used as the opposite of intensive if you see what I mean, a lordship that was broad and high level rather than detailed and very specific, a little distant and, like Joey’s pants, a little loose.

This extensive lordship was characterised by a lord who was often, or maybe even usually, absent.  And so he and his queen and family only really paid attention to the scir when they were in town. The king exercised rights over their self sufficient peasantry, his ceorls, who practised agriculture in a series of small, scattered settlements. You can a forget the England you see now as you hurtle round in lycra and the pelleton, or indeed in your car, the classic England of nucleated villages based around a pretty church, and manor house and the local sewage plant – that lies in the future, and their arrival will be very much part of this series – well, not the sewage plant probably. But we are not there yet, now the Romans are no more – their towns lie broken and deserted, for only for the poets to wonder at. For which, by the way, see The Ruins from the 9th century Exeter book. A very evocative Anglo Saxon poem, similar in a way to Charlton Heston kneeling before the broken statue  of liberty in that film. Though without the nuclear war thing. Or sewage plants. Anyway, I’ll pop a link on the webpage for this series. The point is, Britain before the 800s, with the exception of the Roman bit, was a countryside of dispersed farms, forts and halls.

For the main part, we are talking of very small settlements composed of a family and their dependants, working together to farm their land. Based on the Hide farm we talked about briefly last time, a unit of land sufficient to maintain a family. It’s a term which will come up frequently, so I might point out that the hide is deliciously analogue. Because the amount of land needed to maintain a family would be much smaller on arable, fertile and easy to work Norfolk land, than it would be in the highlands of Cumbria. Isn’t that nice? Delightfully connected with the realities of life. In late medieval days though it gets regularised as administrators don’t like such chaos – and becomes recognised as 120 acres, or 48.5623 hectares. But it would have been much smaller in them old days of Anglo Saxon yore.

This then is joined by the Five Hide unit., which becomes a culturally and financially significant unit also as the basic amount of landed required to maintain an armed and equipped warrior – hold onto that thought, we’ll return to it like a dog to its bone. One more thing, is that the word Hide itself is also witness to the triumph of the West Saxon brigade after Alfred – we are all west Saxons now, as well as socialists. Because in the Danelaw – including Norfolk of course – there is a similar concept – but the unit is called the Carucate. In Kent I think they might be called yokes and sulongs. So I apologise for my West Saxons centricity. But let’s keep it simple. I give you, ladies and gentlemen girls and boys, and indeed all genders, I give you the Hide.

Back then to those kings and lords of these scirs, full of hide farms, and ruled by a loose collection of lordly rights under the general title of extensive lordship.

Now as I mentioned, these kings and lords, didn’t sit still in one hall or palace as we .ike to imagine of kings and lords of Narnia and stuff, or Denathor and all that, they travelled from scir to scir and township to township. They travelled to show themselves to their people. The very stuff of lordship was meeting face to face, personal relationships, to see and be seen. To show their greatness and wealth, listen to the needs and issues and advice of their followers. To distribute gifts. As they travelled, they would feed themselves and their household by calling in the custom of hospitality – the render or tribute, called the feorm. The feorm is an English version of an obligation and institution that has a long tradition throughout Europe.

Now there is not much surplus around from subsistence farms in this time, so they took only what a ceorl could afford; a little bit from a lot of farms basically. But the process of feorm becomes systematised, structured, planned for; I mean – how embarrassing would it be for the lord and lady to turn up with all those hungry mouths to feed and entertainments to run  – and yet the larder to be empty except that old packet of last year’s mince pies you forget to eat for Christmas and thriftfully put by for next year? You couldn’t go up to a grand lady, shove a tart at her and say ’there y’are lass, wrap yer tonsils round that, love’ could you, very well?

So kings began to set up permanent tribute centres, places where the tribute could be gathered for when they were needed; and of course, they would then serve as a location where the king could meet his people as well. Over the season, people come from their farms and hills and brought their required produce to the tribute centre to fulfil their forthcoming obligation of hospitality. And then return to their valleys and their farms, with no desire to be brothers in arms, until next time, or until the king called them in, to meet and feast with him and his family.

Places like this have been excavated; at a place called Higham Ferrers, there’s a series of buildings that serviced a Great Hall just across the river Nene at a place called Irthlingborough. High Ferrers was surrounded by a large enclosure, acting as a pen for the livestock which had been brought as part of the feorum. It had a ditch probably topped by a thorn hedge. In the enclosure was accommodation for a small permanent workforce, with storage buildings, malting ovens and a mill. There are others – at Yeavering and Cowdrey’s Down – evidence of outside halls for storing more resources than would be needed immediately by any one family. Archaeology has found evidence of cattle which was raised elsewhere, and driven long distances to pay feorum. Of rain processed elsewhere and driven there by the wagon load to the  centre. There is a slide with an imagining of how one of those centres would have looked on the accompanying PDF – slide 16 I think.

But the biggest, best and most recent example is one that I did a podcast on for the History of England. It’s a place called Rendlesham, and you can hop along to the History of England and listen, it’s not very long. Rendlesham is in the Deben River valley in South East Suffolk. It is connected with a landscape that includes the royal burial sites at Snape and, most famously, at Sutton Hoo, where the best bet is that the 7th century Bretwalda of the Wuffingas is buried – Rædwald. Rendlesham has been revealed as the largest royal vill and Trubute centre yet uncovered by a dig, with a hay day that stretched from somewhere around 570, to the 730s. There was a great hall there set in a in a royal complex; and when the king was in town, the whole site would have been flooded with temporary market stalls and tents. The coerls and farmers from around the scir would have flooded in to be feasted and entertained – on their own food essentially – and hear their lord dispense justice with the help of his people and his eorlisc, his nobles. The quality of the feast gave face to the lord, but also face to his people – this is the pay back for all those renders, this the custom of hospitality at work, this is the dignity and respect and service due to and from the lord and lady for their family’s pre-eminence. It was a very important opportunity for the local elite of the Deben Valley  a chance to meet their lord, look him in the eyes and give access to his ear to discuss the troubles and issues of the day. This was a big event.

The people who came along to meet their lord might be described as peasants – in the sense that they are all farmers, and all essentially subsistence farmers, with their bit of surplus for the feorum. But the word peasant is very misleading word for Anglo Saxon society; because it implies class; a coherent class of people, who recognise they are the same sort of folk, working the land,  of an inferior status. That is not the way society works at this time. We have not had the idea of villeinage, of the legal unfree serf which arrives later, which will create the derogatory flavour of the word peasant. The ceorl was just like the noble –  free; the word Ceorl derives from the word karl,[1] which means free man or woman. So although of lower status due to a variety of factors we’ll come to, they none the less demand respect and honour.

A ceorl in theory is still a warrior; they are able to bear arms, they can be called out for military service. I mean in practical terms their military function gets less and less important. One sign of this is that of all the men buried before 525, fully 40% were buried with a spear; between 525 to 625, it falls to 33%, and after 625, it falls still further to 20%. What this means is not that war and the right to carry arms becomes culturally less important, but in practical terms it was less common. A purely warrior class begins to emerge, employed in the household of the noble rather thn doubling up as a farmer.

Status, rather than being based on class, rested on a number of factors. The basic division was of course between noble and ceorl, eorlisc and ceorlisc. This was reflected in lawcodes as something called the wergild. Wergild defined the compensation due to individuals of different rank if they were killed; and the ranks are defined as  – earl, thegn, ceorl. The lawcodes even gave it a monetary value. The wergilds overlap; the lower orders of Thegn might have a wergild the same as the prosperous ceorl. And wergild anyway was a very broad definition of rank; just as important was the concept of weord, your  worth, reputation, standing. You must be seen to be worthy of your wergild, to gain respect, you must live up to the standard of wergild. A person with a strong reputation, weord, would find deals easier to make, credit easier to gain, find their lord more willing to offer them support, and listen to their advice and concerns.

Weord might be affected by material things – the amount of land you held for example, but was not defined by the amount of land you held, as it would later be. It was affected by your compliance with those reciprocal codes of society implicit in feorum and hospitality, lordship and responsibilities of commendation .

It might be affected also by your role, the skills or tasks. So blacksmiths seem to have a special value. Traction, power was an absolutely critical factor towards survival – so the family that owned a plough and team of Oxen, hugely expensive to buy and maintain, well, they were local dignitaries, shiny bright sword or no shiny bright sword.

But altogether across the piece, weord was derived fro your ability to live up to the requirements of the moral economy, the responsibilities of your rank – delivering feorum, carrying out judicial service, military service, attendance on your lord. The reciprocal giving and receiving of honour and service.

Anyway back to the big hooley. When all was done with the feasting and the buying and selling, the king or Lord and his household would move on. Rendlesham would remain; maybe 1-200 people would be permanent, among them the king’s agent, or the king’s reeve as he would be called, and some crafts men and women would also remain. Making ready for next time.

Ok, where did all this feorm come from within the scir, and how did the lord and his reeve know it wouldn’t always be just apples in Somerset, wheat in Suffolk and beef in Cumbria? It is time then for another term sadly, that of Multiple Estate.

The idea of a ‘multiple estate’ is that a geographical unit such as a scir must be able to deliver the full range of products required for its inhabitants, and a full and pleasant life for its lordly family. So the Scir must contain a number of different estates, all producing enough for subsistence, but also with some areas of specialism, or products they were notably well designed to produce. No one’s suggesting that a particular designated farm would be dedicated to beef production as might be done now; but farms centred on rough pasture might be expected to have a large component of cattle in their output.

So when you tipped up at a tribute centre, you really didn’t want just oats, you’d want a number of grains, you’d want livestock, you’d need wool, leather, honey and so on. The scir would be healthier  place if it could produce a good range of stuff, and be insulated against the vagaries of weather and topography.

Each of the estates on the scir would also have their own profiles, their own composition or farmers, and a sort of centre where people would get together, a tunescipe[2], township. Don’t think village or nucleated settlement, but maybe small hamlet where people and neighbours might gather from time to time. Places where they could talk about the practicalities of farming, arrange the sharing of resources such as Oxen, or plough teams that only the very richest could afford but which everyone needed. As time goes by they’ll be administrative units the townships, they’ll gather people together into groups called tithings for the legal assemblies of their lord when he’s at the central tribute centre or vill for one of his visits.

Think of townships as bottom up – local farmers getting together on their own terms.  As opposed to the lord’s vill and tribute centre, which is top down, the lord taking feorum, handing our feasts and justice to his people. The townships are social centres where families can meet and consult people who are respected across the scir – which might be holy people, or cunning women, or the elders of the area with the wisest heads – the 7th century equivalent of podcasters effectively. Farm workers might get together  after work for some entertainment – there are references to geborscipe, a ‘beerscipe’ where everyone would take turns singing along to a harp – the rule was that everyone had to take a turn.

So, back to the tribute centres, the central vill of the king or lord. As I say, these vills were not deserted when the lord had moved on. Someone had to manage the estate, and make sure everything was ready for the lord when they returned, gathering and storing tribute and food from the communities around. And so appeared the all-powerful Reeve, a Resident estate manager for the king essentially. The Reeve themselves would be accompanied no doubt by a household and slaves. However, here’s an important point to make – these centres were not themselves farms, or demesne farms as we will see in later centuries. They are not there themselves to produce all that loot for the lord, they are not farming the whole estates; there’s just a small home farm there, to produce a bit for the Reeve and his household. They might, however, be a centre where craft activities were concentrated – iron working for example, a centre of resource and expertise in that sense, upon which the scattered settlements of ceorls living in the Scir might draw.

I can see that you are wondering at what kind of thing people might take as feorm, when the time came. To give a flavour of the sorts of things that might be demanded, it’s handy to nip along to the laws of Ine, as is common late on a Saturday night when the drinking and dancing is done. Hopefully you will all remember old Ine, the early 8th century king of Wessex who ended his life by abdicating and travelling to Rome, there to found the Schola Saxorum for other English travellers. In 694 Ine produced a law code, one of the earliest. One of the things it did was to define the sort of tribute a lord might expect from his large, multiple estates, and the entry gives a practical flavour of what we are talking about. It reads:

10 vats of honey, 300 loaves, 12 Ambers of Welsh ale, 30 ambers of clear ale, 2 full grown cows or 10 wethers, 10 geese, 20 hens, 10 cheeses, a full amber of butter, 5 salmon, 20 pounds in weight of fodder and 100 eels

This is a thing of beauty, which evokes an image of the produce of a typical estate. You might want some interpretation, and a sense of scale.  Welsh Ale for example. This was a dark and strong ale, probably a survival from the British, hence the name. It might also be a bragget, which was an ale fomented with honey. An Amber was a vessel with one handle like a bucket or a large jug, probably derived from a germanicised version of the Latin for amphora, and Amber became a liquid measure. I was asked how much was an amber and I confess to you that I do not know – some may say between 2 and 6 gallons. Others may say 309 gallons. Sadly no one else knows either. The amount of fodder, though, 20 pounds is not very much, and that’s probably because the king would expect to be given grazing pasture for his horses at each place he visited anyway. The 300 loaves might have supported a family for around 150 days, so it’s a reasonable amount, but the quantities are rather difficult to interpret. The big question is how tough the tribute was.

Once upon a time the view was that this was quite a heavy imposition; the old master Frank Stenton, for example, considered it so. But with more analysis, opinion has moved. This render was levied on 10 hides of land, and that is substantial amount of land. And in the context of the general social trend we will be describing, which is about how the hand of lordship becomes heavier over time, it is probable that your farmer of the 10th century would look back to a tribute of this kind with misty eyed wonder and envy, mutter ‘those were the days’ before drowning his sorrows in weak ale. Or indeed Bragget.

There are some other examples. There’s a feorm attached to Hickling and Kinoutlon in Northamptonshire, which asked for

  • 80 bushells of malt for brewing
  • 40 bushells of oatmeal
  • 80 bushells of flour
  • 8 sides of bacon
  • 16 cheeses
  • 2 fat cows
  • And 8 salmon

There appears to be no suggestion that the 2 fats cows needed to come out of the Nile ah ha huh. A Bushell, now a bushel is about 8 gallons so that’s 640 gallons of malts and so on. Professor Chris Dyer, author of more books on social and economic history than you can shake a stick at, he worked out that all of this would be the annual produce of about 30 acres of land, a single typical peasants yardland. If that is the case, and I am not worthy so much as to pick up the bushels of wheat from under Chris Dyer’s historical table and so I am not going to argue, then this feorm was a small fraction of the produce of the two settlements in question.

Now, as it becomes regularised and regular, the feorm does begin to look awfully like a tax doesn’t it? One approach is to describe it as ‘feigned reciprocity’; that means it’s simply a way for a king to extract goodies from his subjects, but legitimise it and give it a nice name and a nice gloss. And it’s true to the degree that the net result is indistinguishable from a tax. But two things. Firstly, this is not a tax based on land. Many ceorls held their land as of right not from the grant of king or lord, they are landowners not tenants or mere landholders. This is not  relationship based on land in return for military service, feudalism as it will be called.

Secondly, rightly or wrongly, everyone believes in it. In the search to define the moral economy of the AS state, here is one, an idea of action and appropriate response – ‘what is owed in return’ as an English text had it, the principle of reciprocity. But it must be said – this render is no longer optional. If it’s not there, there’ll be trouble, start knitting arse covers for the next time the king tips up and asks for his buns.

Feorm brings us back to the E word – Extensive. The point about extensive lordship then, was that the pressure from above in terms of feorm was really not very heavy at all. There is no great administration to extract it and define it, no upward pressure. There was no great incentive for the travelling king or magnate to try and squeeze his tenants. He was travelling around, sharing the load; lordly households were comparatively small in those days, and as long as he looked good and  was able to feast and entertain and hunt when he rolled into scir, then there was not great need or incentive to squeeze any further. A golden age indeed. So it’s a little from a lot of farmers. And the system is progressive, in the sense that the amount demanded was based on your wealth, how much you had. If you were too small to produce more than your family needed to survive, there was no tribute to give.

At the moment, the lord is generally taking their rights in kind, as in Ine’s law, in stuff, food mainly. But there is in the background the concept of cash rolling around. A cash value is in itself important and helpful as a yardstick, a measure, a term of reference; so the wergilds for example were expressed in cash terms, in shillings. They probably wouldn’t be paid in coin, or not all of it anyway, but it’s a useful way to give an agreed definition of value.

Bit cash in the form of coin will have its day, and it will help transform life for many of course. Two things with that; the lord would dearly like to convert at least some of their tribute in kind into a rather more convertible format; they might be drowning in Welsh ale but be desperate to buy themselves a nice series of gold torcs for their warriors. From this desire will appear the idea of cash tribute, to which you can be sure we will return. On a more practical level the farmer themselves would rather like to be able to buy farm implements or have things fixed with an easier method of exchange than what they produced; so the idea of all levels of society being able to find a place, a market where they could convert produce into cash is important.

That may give the impression by the way that there is no cash – and that’s not so, the idea and use of cash has never gone away. But it’s relatively rare, and bullion is in short supply. The mechanisms for converting food and produce into cash is hard to find – there are, for example, no towns to go to and sell your stuff to merchants.  Also the denominations of coins can be too high for small scale, local transactions – coins are often cut into pieces, though the small silver penny introduced in the late 7th century does help. No one is quite sure how communities deal with financial exchange in these early centuries, but probably credit has a lot to do with it- like keeping a monthly tab at your local grocery shop.  And then dealing periodically in kind – services or goods for services or goods. However; money and coinage is always important. Kings continue to issue coins. And also they continue to rigorously regulate the value and bullion content of coinage – they regularly call in all coins, and re-issue them. And as I said, coins and denominations remain a crucial reference point for the most basic local transaction – you have to be able to price stuff somehow.

One more thing then about these multiple estates before we finish. I mentioned that one of the reasons they are called multiple estates is because of the many different types of resource available. And within the estate, farmers might specialise to some degree. We are not talking coals from Newcastle or Shoes from Northampton here, and remember AS farmers needed to produce the vast majority of what they needed to eat. But with their surplus capacity, they could specialise according to the qualities of their own land. Because of course the ability to modify land and it’s quality was much more limited that today.

You can see some of this in the place names. There was a study done on a in parish in the County of Cheshire. Within the parish then, there is a place called Bickerton, and this means ‘beekeeper’s farm’; there’s a Bulkeley, which means bullocks clearing, essentially a pacth of open pasture used for rearing cattle; there’s a Stockton, which means an enclosure at a dairy hamlet and then finally there is a place called Wychurch, which means valley at the market which could be about the production of salt. So here you have indications that within a parish, possibly part of an old scir, there were various estates that with specialisations.

I did promise that we would be talking about our own area to work all of this through, and so let me finish by doing just that, and look at our scir of Benson, so let’s just call it that. It seems likely that there would have been a Rendlesham type Tribute centre at Benson; and it may even had been found, according to recent studies, with a seventh or 8th Century Hall type structure.[3] The hundred square miles of our royal scir is probably 500 hides, so it’s a big old territory.

It’s placenames suggest a classic multiple estate. Benson and its surrounding lowland area has a variety of agricultural land, but it’s land these days graded as level I or II so basically good. The best is the fertile, and easy to work greensand under the hills I spoke of around Watlington but there was also good soil set on gravel beds and therefore easy to work around Benson, with heavier gault clay around villages like the Hazeleys – fertile but frankly heavy and stodgy and very hard to work with an ard plough. It is here that cultivation in the scir is at its most intensive, and the use of labour heavy;. Just to give you a plot spoiler for next rime, it’s in these areas of intensive agriculture around the royal vill  that something called inland will develop. Land farmed directly by the king’s agents, by peasants who are increasingly unfree.

Although these areas focus on arable, the kind of crops has changed from Roman times – the Romans focussed very much on Wheat and Barley, the Saxons on a wider range of grain with lower risk – rye, oats – and mix in pulses, beans and peas. Arable production fell, and was mixed even in lowland with a greater emphasis on pastorialism, so an increase in sheep, goats and pigs.

And then there’s the upland estates in the Chiltern Hills. There’s a combination of ground – areas of marginal arable, frankly infertile and pretty useless gravel, and a lot of heavy clay cap on chalk. There was very little settlement. But in the context of multiple estates, its perfect. Your uplands provide wood, and the Chilterns to this day have a relatively high proportion of woodland. The infertile gravel or clay is used for rough pasture by and large, for sheep or cattle. So you can drive your cattle and sheep up to the hills for pasture, when you are not using them to fertilise your fallow fields, and make sure they don’t get in the way of the arable fields. In the early centuries, 600s and 700s, there was probably not much pressure on land down in the vale; but as population grew, the importance of the resources in the hills would grow ever more valuable.

The names of some of those hill settlements meanwhile demonstrate that there’s a bit of specialisation going on, just as we saw in Cheshire. Swyncombe, for starters, means valley of the pigs, Pishill, means hill where the peas grow, Rotherfield as I believe I have mentioned means clearing for cows.

But also, the uplands are perfect for the entertainment of kings – hunting. The number of people is probably very small up there, and when in town the king and his household would go hunting – that’s even reflected in the name of one of the settlements, Huntercombe, Hunter’s valley.

In terms of political identity, Benson and it’s scir was frontier land; between the West Saxons, as the Gewisse will become known, and the Mercians. The links into the scir from Mercian lands were strong –  along Roman routes and northeast along the Ickneild way, inland trade seems to have been developing along that route, and at the scarp foot settlement of Ewelme. Mercia, and especially its most powerful king the 8th century Offa, was constantly pushing to extend its territory fully to the Thames or even across the Thames.

So while Ceawlin and his West Saxon successors were in the ascendant, Benson and nearby Dorchester were clearly Saxon; Cyngils established a Bishopric at Dorchester; and his successor Cwichelm was baptised a Christian, and presumably bit by bit their scir as well as the emerging kingdom of Wessex was to follow suit. But the West Saxon kings were not consistently successful. In 628 the Last Pagan, the Mercian war leader Penda defeated Cynegils at Cirencester. 150 years later, the ASC chronicle records a battle at the royal vill of Benson itself, with Offa defeating the King of the West Saxons, Cynewulf of Wessex. What impact this would have had on local identity and loyalties is impossible to know.  But there are signs in the landscape of the significance of war and contested land in names of the area.

One of these is the naming of a boundary which also becomes the meeting place for the scir’s folkegemot, its folk assembly. It’s called Ceolwulf’s Tree. YThat’s interesting because it’s a name with close connections to both Mercian and West Saxon royal houses. On the rising slopes from Benson is a feature called sigor dene, ‘Victory ridge’; and then there’s gisles bæce, ‘hostage’s ridge’ also close by. Whatever specific events these names signify, they are at very least a record of dispute and conflict, and a conscious naming for public memory of the scir’s very own history and therefore identity.

OK, I think that’s enough for now then. Just to recap; in the 7th and 8th century, as population of Anglo Saxons grows, elites and hierarchies begin to appear, as a new nobility. Society remains based on personal bonds between men and women and their lord; and this is not a society based on contract, rent and legal obligations – but on reciprocal customs around that personal bond. Those kings, sub kings and lords rule tribal territories called scirs, many of which will end up becoming grouped together by marriage, conquest or negotiation into the political organisations we recognise – the Anglo Saxon kingdoms.

Scirs were political grouping, but within them were economic and social subdivisions, the farms, tunescipes that together produced the tribute to sustain the elites. These estates get the name multiple estates, since they were often large and contained a full array of landscapes and produce which gave the inhabitants all the range of resources they needed to thrive. Tribute centres develop to gather the output of these estates, legitimised by the tradition of hospitality. This was a world of independent free peasants and light, extensive lordship, where the yoke of hierarchy and lordship lay relatively lightly on the soldiers of the English Ceorlish family.

Next time we will hear how in some cases those relationships begin to intensify, and the experience of the English peasantry begins to change, depending on whether the land you farm is on inland or warland estates. Which are two concepts we will also explain next time.

Until then folks, thanks very much for listening, do get in touch wit comments questions and so on, and failing that I will be back in 2 weeks’ time to talk about the areas where life becomes harder – life on the inland.

[1] Faith, R: ‘The Moral Economy of the Countryside’, p33

[2] Faith, R: ‘The Moral Economy of the Countryside’, p38

[3] Milesom, S & Brookes, S: ‘Peasant Perceptions of Landscape’, p73


2 thoughts on “2.4 Extensive Lordship and the Scir

  1. Did you know that Marie Brennen’s fantasy novels about a women naturalist who studies dragons calls the UK “Scirland”? I had wondered where she got the name.

    1. Interesting! No I hadn’t heard of it, but maybe she had read Rosamund Faith; I must admit,I’ve never heard of it outside of Faith’s work

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