2.7 Rise of the Thegn

The Danish wars from the 9th century had a enormous impact on the Anglo Saxon state. The national struggle to repel and survive meant the creation of a centralised bureaucratic state – to raise geld, armies, build burghs. The economy was stimulated, towns and markets grew, and a new class of Thegns was endowed to administer this new bureaucracy. These Thegns created and invested in their ‘manors’ and villages. They intensified the exploitation of their estates, built churches and endowed priests. Thus the lives of English people became inceasingly focussed on their local village


So, where are we then, in our story. A quick recap. We’ve talked about the changing interpretations of how post Roman Britain began to assume new identities, and began to emerge as something recognisably English – however far you believe migration and violence was part of that story. We’ve seen the conversion of new and existing political units into larger kingdoms, with an era of Extensive lordship; and by extensive we mean ‘not intensive’ – peripatetic royal landlords moving from tribute centre to tribute centre, being offered feorum, the hospitality due to them from free peasants as their people.

I have tried to build a picture of the ordinary Joes, if by ordinary Joe we mean the families of Ceorls, the general name for the independent Anglo Saxon farmer in their many guises, the inhabitants of warland, whose sweat went to support the well being of the AS kingdoms. And I’ve noted that, new more intensive models of lordship had begun to appear; particularly, afterthe conversion to Christianity in the 7th century, with the growth of religious institutions with resident populations, the Minster and Monastery. They demanded more from their estates, and thus in some circumstances grew up Inland estates. The status of Inland inhabitants was much more tied to land, much less free, and with new agricultural methods such as the mouldboard plough, much more dependent on the capital to deploy labour and plough teams, that only major londowners could deploy.

In this episode, I think we should talk a bit more of shoes, and ships and sealing wax, and possibly the odd cabbage, though most definitely not of cucumbers; but along with the cabbages I suggest we may need to touch also on kings, or at least politics just for a bit. Ewe, nasty. Sorry. I’ll try to avoid that, but what I mean is that we need to look up from the farm for a bit, and talk about the wider economy; how it grows and changes, and how the growth of the state leads to the creation of a new basic unit of landholding, that would become the fundamental unit of later medieval England. When the Normans arrive, they will call in the manor.

The place to start is probably a few ‘shun’ words, to give us a few themes as it were, and who could live without a daily shun? First up, is Privatisation, a dirty word to many of course. The sense I use it here is not the selling off of railways, but land I suppose.  Because Kings will begin to give away land to private individuals, in return for useful stuff they do, so that more and more land ends up in the hands of great landowners, rather than the king.

The second shun is Intensification; the demands on land and their inhabitants made by secular lords other than the king or church intensifies as these landowners demand more and more, and that has some consequences, which we’ll come to.

And then finally, localisation, because these landowners start building their own titchy tiny local kingdoms in a way, and they want their world to be complete, available locally by their side. So, watch out for those themes then – Privatisation as kings give away or lend their land, Intensification as more is demanded of people and the land, and localisation as the worlds of ordinary people begin to be focussed even harder on a local lordship, vil or village.

So, the politics stuff first of all, and I suspect you will know it all anyway because you are superbly intelligent people, and surprisingly good looking too may I say. First of all, the last time we mentioned the Anglo Saxon tribes we were in 7th century, Tribal Hidage mode. Over the 8th century and the early 9th century there’s a certain amount of doing what kings are designed to do – rewarding their followers with the fruits of war and all that glory stuff, you know how it is, with your Edwins, Aethelbalds, Offas, Ecgbert no bacons and things. And so larger and larger states emerge, and with great states come great bureaucracy – though we’ll come to that.

Then, wham bang thank you Ubba, the Vikings arrive and chuck it all into the air, with the progress of the Great Heathen Army, the fall of most of the Anglo Saxon kingdoms, and Jolly nearly all. Wessex survives and rebuilds and Alfred implements very fundamental changes; through the 10th and 11th centuries, the Anglo Saxon state therefore becomes increasingly sophisticated, centralised and bureaucratic, and it is here really, with Aethelstan and Edgar that the idea of England becomes a reality; Alfred may have conceived of England, but he really came from the world of an enhanced Wessex.  But then of course those blessed Vikings have a second bite of the cherry in the late 10th and early 11th century, and this time they go all the way, until the return of the late Anglo Saxon state under Edward the Confessor.

There’s a wee flu by for you. The viking invasions and reconquest by Wessex, particularly of the 9th and 10th centuries century have a major impact on the nature of Anglo Saxon England – its organisation, economy, and to some degree on its traditional nature, the structure of the moral economy which lay behind the culture of Anglo Saxon society. This is a society which relied on the personal bond between free families, not equal with wide difference in wealth and rank, but based on shared reciprocal, customary values; a society that advantaged the strong, but gave dignity to the weak – or at least if you were free.  It is underpinned by a law that focusses on personal rights and worth, embedded in the wergilds associated with rank, which focusses on people not property, and on crimes against people rather than crimes against the state. By the end of the 10th century some of that will have changed, and influential speakers will warn against what that means. The status of free men will have been challenged, property will assume a greater importance.

Alfred of course is fundamental to this in the late 9th century, and at their heart lay the need to organise and marshal the resources of the state for cash, often to pay the Danes to stop hitting us for a while, and to fight wars. That demands bureaucracy, administrators, and fortifications, arms and armour. There are factors working strongly against this – the main one being the constant waves of Viking attacks. But it’s worth noting that there are a few things going for us too.

One simple advantage is that despite all the war, population growth continues. That means competition for land, enhancing the landowner’s power but it also equals more demand, trade and the reappearance of towns. Towns and markets of course, amongst other things, help convert goods into cash, and cash can be used to pay Danes and shipbuilders and blacksmiths.

The Anglo Saxons had been notably suspicious of towns of course, but reasonably early, in the 7th century, while proper towns were still some way off, trading centres, or emporia had begun to appear. It’s is impossible to use the word emporia without thinking of the National Cheese Emporium of course, but these emporia were broader in their interests than simply runny camembert, and each was seemingly associated with one of the greater tribal kingdoms. So in East Anglia, Ipswich begins to develop as a permanent trading centre. It’s only 12 miles from the vill at Rendlesham, which now begins to decline. Because Rendlesham’s market is only temporary, and it’s not predictable when the king will turn up, nor is it on a navigable river. It’s not suitable for large scale trading.

Ipswich, and other emporia around the country, were at places that were easy to get to, where foreign traders could appear a few times a year with confidence there would be traders and manufacturers waiting for them. Where local farmers and artisans would tip up every so often to meet those traders and others and sell their wares. Where warlords or the East Anglia kings would come to sell slaves they’d gathered in one of their many wars and spats. And this seems to be what happened in the 7th century on the River Gipping in Suffolk, at Ipswich. The very name denotes a market, wic, and the Ip bit may come for the word for corner, so at a corner in the river Gipping. Ipswich was born, with regular market times, and one day Tractor Boys would follow.

Kings in all the kingdoms loved this idea of markets, were keen to encourage the growth of these centres. They were jolly helpful for the creation of cash and making smart things available. And so more settlements with wic appear – Londonwic, for example, or Hamwich which became modern Southampton.

During the 7th century, there wasn’t a lot of difference between Ipswich and any large rural tribute centre – the quality of the manufactured goods wasn’t much greater than homemade stuff, suggesting there wasn’t massive specialisation, the majority of people living at the emporium there were local. But it was an emporium, and foreign traders could come to find a market, and there is some evidence of foreigners staying and putting up houses there. From the 720’s a few towns – Ipswich, Eoferwich, Hamwic, Londonwic – expanded rapidly. Metalled roads appeared in the town, houses and workshops were structured behind frontages on the main street, suggesting buying promotion, selling. It’s still, relatively speaking, titchy-tiny; maybe Ipswich and Southampton got to 2-3,000 people, London somewhere between 5 and 10,000.

Ipswich then boomed, because it moved from being just an emporium and cross roads, to being a specialist producer. It had easy access to water, and to London clay; it had a market and distribution channels. So it began to produce pottery, silly not to, even potty not to; and it began to produce pottery on an industrial scale, using industrial techniques; and they sold their wares well beyond the Ipswich hinterland, beyond the kingdom’s borders as far south as Kent and north as Yorkshire. By the mid 8th century then, centres like Ipswich were no longer simply temporary emporia, they were recognisably towns, with manufacturing and production centres as well as being places of trade.

They were still different to later towns, since their population was quite seasonal, it grew and fell dramatically through the year. Good weather was one driver – when weather improved, ships sailed and trade picked up. Another would be the Autumn months, and the need to sell excess produce and livestock. Many households would practice more than one craft – to cover themselves for the slow periods, for example, and therefore specialisation in manufacturing could still be limited.

However, there is evidence of some kind of guiding agency – whether that be king or town community – building roads and markets, building embankments along rivers, that sort of thing. We also know that kings took a fierce interest in controlling and profiting from trade. For the Mercian kings, getting hold of London was crucial – and when King Wulfhere of Mercia breathed his last in 675, maybe it gave him a short burst of satisfaction, for his taking of London was a great feather in the Mercian cap. Once they had control of London, they could use it to shift the goods they collected – whether from rural tribute centres, or from their specialist centres – for Mercia, Droitwich for example produced large quantities of Salt. But it wasn’t just the produce of their lands that gave them wealth – it was also the opportunity to tax commerce moving through their ports and towns like London.

So, in the late 7th century we see evidence of the wic reeve – the town reeve. By the 8th century there’s evidence of kings collecting tolls from traders and merchants, and also tolls from those travelling to and from trading centres. So what we’ve got to then are emporia and towns beginning to grow, and helping kings increase their wealth, and convert stuff into cash.

Then came the maelstrom of the 9th and 10th centuries, and all those badly behaved tourists from Scandinavia. Under the pressure of the Viking wars, Alfred famously created his system of burghs. 31 in Wessex, 3 in Mercia, though once Wessex began to expand its empire, Mercia, East Anglia, the Five Counties, Northumbria; the burghal model will be replicated in the development of more burghs across Danelaw – Chester for example.

The network of Burghs gave a great boost to the growth of towns. Each were provided with a mint and a market, all protected by its citizenry and town walls to keep it safe from marauders. In our area of South Oxfordshire, one of these was established around this time – I speak of the burgh of Wallingford, on the river Thames.

As the name suggests, Wallingford, the burgh’s existence depended on the nearby ford, though a bridge was probably established reasonably early. There’s also evidence of Roman activity there on the site which could have made it an obvious place to develop, and a Romano British origin may explain why its name is based on wealha, foreigner, or Briton; and why the nearby royal Vill of Benson was not chosen instead for the burgh – this would adversely affect Benson’s development. The immediate impact was that Wallingford became the centre of all military activity and obligations; and although estate management of the Scir probably stayed at Benson, it is Wallingford that develops as the major town in the area.


Either way, it was here that the basically square burgh earthworks were thrown up under Alfred – you can still see sections of the old earthworks today if you are in the area, and Saxon herring bone designs in the old church of St Leonards – it is a surprisingly exciting town, with a load of history. There’s also a pond, incidentally, in the remains of the old Norman castle, slighted in the Civil Wars, into which my daughter felt one happy  summer’s day to general amusement, although it happened too long after 1155 to be properly recorded in the ASC.

All this creation and management of burghs and their wall  maintenance, taxation for armies, mustering and disbanding of armies, paying off the enemy; and indeed carrying war into the Danelaw in the 10th century – all this needed an extensive bureaucracy, and greater administration. The Anglo Saxon needed ways to reward the servants that made up that bureaucracy. The administrative device of the Hundred appears – a territory nominally of 100 hides, with its own hundred court and centre where the fyrd and assembles could gather; it had its equivalent in the Danelaw – the Wapentake. Another device is the appearance of the role of Earldorman from the 9th century. The Earldorman was given a territory composed of a number of hundreds by the king to control, to administer justice and public order, raise taxation and all matters military. This was a public the office, which could be removed, it was not hereditary, it was not a feudal earldom.

The 10th and 11th century kings had to pay these people, both ealdormen and bureaucrats recruited at the centre. And they came up with the idea of allocating public land for public service, grants of lands to government servants and ministers.

This was not a new concept; Ine’s laws of the early 8th century include a class called the gesithcund, originally the ‘king’s companions’ who were granted land in return for their service. But with the growth of the sophistication of state, the pace accelerated through 10th and 11th centuries. There was a demand for reliable servants at every level, for specialised household officers, supervisors of royal vills, for diplomats. Thegns offering the king service and being rewarded in land became more and more important and common.

Now that sounds all very simple, but how do you do that? You’ve got these whopping great royal vills and their estates extending over large areas, maybe a hundred miles or more. That’s way too much land to give away to someone who might carry out a relatively minor role, indeed it’s too big to hand out to almost anyone.

And so what happens is that the big royal estates are broken up into smaller pieces, and the way that is done is something of a joy and a delight, I do not know why I find this bit so exciting, and yet I do. It all comes back to the point that land tenure and structure might reflect big themes like social and economic change, such as the need for cash, growth in trade or war and taxation; but in the end the way changes occur must take note of the landscape and the need to work within its frameworks and characteristics. And I find that reassuring. You can go to pages 24 in the slides provided on the website to see some examples of what I am talking about.

I think I also find it exciting because it is very clear evidence that the Anglo Saxon state had an astonishingly sophisticated understanding of their land and resources, and were able to create specific landholdings for specific purposes, and manage the process, in a way that was far more sophisticated than the feudal mess that would follow the conquest. That whole thing about Norman efficiency is just tripe, or it certainly in in the 11th century. There multiple studies now that show royal estates were broken up and allocated; they were allocated in different ways for different purposes – some attached to an office, some given for a certain period, some heritably.

Before we go into that, I must talk about the five hide unit. Fundamental to all the reforms following the Viking wars, is the concept that the land needed to maintain a fully armed and equipped soldier was 5 hides. It’s a unit also associated also with the amount of land you needed to attain the rank of Thegn, in the previously mentioned Geþyncðo. It’s an interesting concept – not just for social mobility, but because that’s a lot of land, though bear in mind it would at the same time be supporting multiple families. So you see Five Hide units of land all over the place; it’s so important it even gets into placenames – the village of Fifield, for example, means a 5 hide unit of rough open ground.

So, as an example of how these reforms worked in practice, here’s a superb example reconstructed by a couple of very well known historians, Baxter and Blair, conducted in Oxfordshire, further west than our example area of South Oxfordshire, in a place called Bampton, where there was a large royal estate. Their study showed how that estate was carved up, into four regions, in a way that was clearly carefully planned.

So, one section was retained as royal demesne, meaning it was directly farmed by agents of the Crown to deliver revenue to the king. A second was granted away in perpetuity as Bookland, that is granted by charter to thegns and their families, heritable land in return for their service. A third section was granted as what you might call ‘comital land’, comital from the Latin comes or companion. In practical terms that meant land that was reserved to those carrying out the big public offices like the Ealdormen. Where this happened, the land stayed with the office rather than the person, so it moved as the office holder changed. And then finally, the 4th section was land granted out in smaller parcels for ministerial service, for a wide variety of lesser roles – falconers, goldsmiths, procurement officers in the royal household, chancery clerks. These might be small estates worth a few £; there’s a section of 14 hides for example, which was held by 14 Thegns. That’s a lot less for each Thegn than the 5 hides needed to provide a fully armoured warrior, so they would have worked together, each paying a certain amount towards a soldier – they’d club together to meet their public obligations. Once again, these ministerial holdings would revert to the king once the individual completed their term of ministerial office.

There’s another similar example of this highly structured approach at Shapwick in Somerset which is interesting because it looks as though the area as a whole might well have been a Roman estate, the land originally was just occupied as a piece by some warlord of king, and then divided up into 6 units. Often the units created do follow a 5 hide rule again, enough land to support a soldier.

All of this stresses the fundamentally highly centralised and organised nature of a late Anglo Saxon state. The picture politically can look pretty chaotic, what with the shenanigans with the Godwins and Edward the Confessor. But in the background, an impressively advanced administration and governmental system was grinding away remodelling the English landscape.

Because these grants were carefully modelled with sustainability in mind, an intimate knowledge of what made an effective farm or estate. To be handed an estate at the foot of the Chiltern Hills might be great, but if it’s all arable land, you’ve got a problem with maintaining livestock without pasture or meadow or woodland. So the new estates which are carved out of the old multiple royal estates or scirs, carefully include a range of resources and land types. Sometimes these grants can be traced by charters which survive; sometimes there’s a combination of that and guess work. But very often it’s in the surviving parish structure that the shape of these estates can be seen; the church parish and secular estates often mirror each other closely.

In our area of south Oxfordshire, the dominant landscape feature is the contrast between lowland and upland. So what you see created are long, thin, strip parishes which extend from the river or well watered lowland, to the open arable land of the plains and then up the scarp to the hills where there is woodland and pastureland. Once you are up on the dipslope behind the scarp, the structure becomes more standard, fatter and rounder. Go to slide 34 to see what I mean.

Sometimes the need to create viable estates with the right range of resources creates physical anomalies. So you’ve managed to create a lowland estate for example, but there is no woodland nearby. So, rather clumsily, you just carve out a bit of pasture or woodland from up on the hills somewhere, not physically side by side bit as close as you can manage. This emphasises the need for pathways and fielden ways with common rights of access – because you might have to drive your sheep or cattle up the hill in the summer, over the lands of your neighbours.

So the Benson scir and multiple estate therefore becomes split up into what will be described in the Domesday Book as 4 ½ hundreds – Lewknor, Pyrton, Ewelme, Langtree, Binfield, and these hundreds themselves are divided into estates and parishes, with strip parishes running up and down the Chiltern Scarp. It is, ladies and gentlemen, a thing of utter beauty and functionality


This process of the splitting up of the huge royal estates and scirs has acquired a name, and that name shall be fissioning. This fissionning of royal estates in the later Anglo Saxon period would have a profound impact on the lives of ordinary people.

To see this in action, lie back, close your eyes, and imagine that you are a thegn called Ordgar. POK, are you all Ordgars now? So, Ordgar, you have just been granted an estate of 5 hides in south Oxfordshire. You survey your estate with your reeve, and see that your main estate is at a place with the modern name of Berrick Salome. At the time you are imagining, in the 11th century as it happens, it would have been called just Berewick, because the Salome bit would be added later in the 13th century when it was acquired by one Aymer de Sulham. Anway, Ordgar, you are not a time traveller, so you would not know that.  This name, Berewick has two connotations which might suggest to you and your reeve where it came from. The Bere bit suggest barley, and so we have ‘Barley Farm’. But the name Berewick also suggests that it was an outlying farm. So that suggests that before it was split off, it was an outlying farm attached to the nearby Benson royal vill.

So, here we have a piece of fissioning, a manor split off from the royal vill. And given to the king’s servant, Ordgar – you. You are also very chuffed, because you have in your sweaty mitts a charter, this is bookland, very nice and legally clear. This charter by the way has survived, because the manor of Berrick Salome was created in 996.

So you and your reeve know Berrick as a fine patch of low-lying land set in the plains well back from the Chiltern Scarp. The village was positioned where it was because it was where a spring sprung from the chalk; and it also happens to be on an old roman road. You rub your hands with satisfaction at the range of excellent resources your new estate contains – woodland and meadow as well as its trademark fine fertile arable land.

Now, your Ordgar is an ambitious Thegn, and you inherited the land from your Uncle, who in turn had inherited it from Ordgar’s Grandfather. Being an ambitious thegn, you would note that despite its general excellence, Berrick lacked rough pasture. So Ordgar at some stage had it organised that as part of his manor, he would also be given a small 1 hide farm at Gangsdown. Gangsdown, as the ‘down’ element of the name implies, is on the slope of the Chiltern hills. Gangsdown is quite a distance away from Berrick – 6 miles as the crow flies, and so you will be imagining why on earth Ordgar was so keen to have it. I’m kind of dropping the you are Ordgar gig now by the way, doing my head in – Well, Gangsdown is near the village of Nuffield; the ‘field’ suffix tends to suggest an open area of not terribly fertile land, and sure enough the soil up there is rather quick draining, infertile gravel. So although Ordgar runs 2 ploughs on the farm at Gangsdown, the real reason for this farm is that he can use it for pasture, which is what his main manor of Berrick lacks. And so he does just that – we know from the Domesday book that he keeps a substantial area of 24 acres of it as pasture. So there you go – land allocated to create fully viable estates – Berrick on the plains, Gangsdown in the hills. You can see all of this in Domesday

Keep imagining that you are Ordgar then. Now Thegns like Ordgar were proud of their new found status. We don’t know much more specifically about Ordgar, but typically they would build for themselves an estate that might look a lot like the old scir and large estate of the king in miniature. Or actually maybe that’s the wrong analogy – because more, they began to look like those monastic and minster estates – because the key similarity is that the lord was now resident. So you, or Ordgar, having been granted your estate, you want to put down roots, have a family, employ servants, become a local dignitary. You don’t want to be like a king, buzzing around the country like a blue arsed fly, consuming the local tribute and then moving on when it’s finished. You want your very own mini scir, your Manor, to deliver to you the lifestyle to which you would dearly like to become accustomed.

So the likes of Ordgar set about organising their manor to support themselves and their family. They would create their own Inland estate, demesne land, with various farm workers, producing food for their household. Just in case I have not laboured the point enough, what we are seeing is the creation of new manors for the likes of ambitious thegns like Ordgar – privatisation if you like, royal land transferred to private individuals. And the creation of swathes of new resident landlords who, just like those minsters and monasteries, would require feeding and maintaining – managing their land and labour intensively.

That’s not all though, there is more to this intensification thing. Now that you have your coherent estate, now that you have your inland with tied tenants delivering a steady supply of food and working your demesne farms, you want to create your own little world – yes your own mini scir, just like a mini king.  Just like the Promotion Law has it,  Geþyncðo, ‘a bell and a castle-gate’. So there are a few essential elements to this world you want to create.

Because inherent in Geþyncðo is the idea that as long as you had the trappings of a Thegn, then thegn you would be. If you looked like a Thegn you would be a Thegn. It will be a long time until the bizarre English idea of under statement appears, when the easiest way to identify an aristocrat is to find the person with the largest holes in their jumper. In Anglo Saxon England, if you didn’t flaunt it, you simply might just as well not have it.  That helps build the economy too – more goods become available through the towns, because there is a demand for it from this expanding newly enriched elite.





Away westwards across Oxfordshire was the Abbey of Eynsham, and in the 10th century Aelfric of Eynsham wrote down a series of homilies and recollections. On one occasion, the good Abbot spoke to a local merchant, who gives a rather nice idea of the kind of luxuries the better off now might expect to take advantage of

Goods from overseas brought by ship…I buy precious things that are not produced in this country…purple cloth and silks, precious jewels and goldwork, unusual clothes and spices, wine and oil, ivory and bronze, copper and tin…sulphur and glass and all sorts of things like that.

I might note, by the way, that the bit of Geþyncðo that rarely gets quoted is the bit about merchants; social mobility extended to them also. The Promotion Law goes on to say that Merchants can also become Thegns by virtue of having made three voyages at his own cost.

Ok, so there’s bling. More importantly, every kinglet would have their own centre, or court.  The word often used in the Latin curia, which gives that idea of a court similar to a king’s court. The curia was more than a home for the thegns like Ordgar, although it was certainly that; the hall they built would have had a separate ‘bower’ for the lord and lady’s living accommodation. But there would also be a more public space for the lord’s wider household, with shed and buildings for farm kit and accommodation for slaves and workers and their families. As 9th century turned to 10th or 11th, they may have fortified their enclosure. There’s an excavation of a deserted site called Goltho in Lincolnshire which shows how a settlement of Romano British origin developed over time, and sometime after 850 the site developed a hall, kitchens, a separate bower and a large shed for what looks like weaving; but it also acquires an earthwork enclosure.

So that’s great. But it was not enough. You are trying to create you own world, and as they watched the priests from the closest minster church turn up, or as they walked with their tenants and workers to the closest working church, lords like you and Ordgar would have experience some twang of regret  – why not here, they might have thought, why not have a church just for my own villagers? Why do I have to have these foreign turbulent priests coming from far away over whom I have no influence  – and half inch their tithes!





Now if you go to any village – well the vast majority of English villages anyway, and you want to find its heart, its centre its usually easy – you head for the church. Because from somewhere around the later 9th century it became increasingly common for these newly endowed lords to set up their own manorial churches, and employ their own priest. The process had a profound effect on the lives of villagers, who now no longer went outside to minister churches with parishioners from other settlements, they no longer saw priests who came from a minster church some way away, but were increasingly focussed on their own. These local churches might be reasonably well endowed, but equally they might not, and have far less resource than the minsters which served such a larger area; the priest might be far less well educated; sometimes even slaves. For lords like you and Ordgar, it was a matter of pride, and of control; they held now a living they could present for a priest, their very own priest.

There is here then a process not just of intensification – because all this stuff needed to be paid for, so it means more pressure placed on tenants to produce more rent or payment in kind. But it’s also localisation. Rather than coming to a tribute centre when the king swung by, with other people from a wide territory;  or helping out on the royal hunt; rather than seeing a priest from another village or minster, or worshipping with a nearby parish – you have your own local man. There are benefits and drawbacks I suppose; everything is more familiar it brings the local community together; but it’s also less varied and more controlled by one person – your local lord. Sometimes the position of priest even became hereditary; in Marlingford, Norfolk, Siflaed had her own priest, Wulfmaer, and she bequeathed land and firewood to support him; in her will, she gave orders Wulfmaer and his descendants were to hold the position ‘as long as they are in holy orders’ She felt other goodies more generally as well. Here’s the text of her grant alongside other stuff in her last will and testament:

And Wulfmaer my priest is to sing masses for my soul, he and his issue so long as they are in holy orders. To the village church five acres and one homestead, two acres of meadow; two wagonloads of wood; and to my tenants their homesteads as their own possessions; my serfs to be set free; to my brother a wagonload of wood; to others four head of cattle

You can see here the tradition of the portion of land, or the glebe, set aside to support the church; so when you come across a street name with glebe in it, you know where it comes from, though you probably know that anyway. Here you can see a great sense of ownership in this relationship, and thegns would jealously guard their right to present a priest to the church living, to the distress of the church hierarchy. And although this brought villagers very much further into the scope and orbit of their lord, and restricted them to an extent, yet there were benefits too though for them; now they had a local church, a local priest. As I say, there were without doubt pros and cons in localisation.

The way this happened varied enormously over the country. In some areas, minsters and their wider parochiae survived much longer. In some cases, minster churches established smaller parishes with their own churches, so that you get a system of mother parishes with their subordinate churches; in some areas like the northwest of England, these mother parish systems survive quite late into the 12th century. In other areas, the Viking invasions drive a lot of ecclesiastical land into secular hands. In some cases, it is even better off peasants who gather together and create churches and endow priests. But the general path is clear; it is towards the privatisation and localisation of the church structure, local churches created often by local lords, often individually, sometimes with the lords of several smaller manors clubbing together. The 10th century is critical; at the start of the century, the broader minster and mother parish system predominated; by 1000 the localisation of churches and their priests is well advanced.

The English kings recognise what’s happening here; there’s a law code of Edgar between 959 and 972 which laid down a series of injunctions

And all the tithe is to be given to the old minster to which the jurisdiction pertains, and it is to be rendered both from the thegn’s inland and from the tenanted land, according as it is brought under the plough.

But if there is any thegn who has on his bookland a church with which there is a graveyard, he is to pay the third part of his own tithe into his church.

And all church scot is to go to the old minster, from every free hearth.

The law code at once tries to protect the old minsters; but at the same time, helplessly recognises that the movement towards privatisation it is irresistible. You might note by the way that a new church tax has now joined the club – Aethelstan had made the old voluntary Peters Pence into an involuntary tithe. Meanwhile, the Thegn is effectively trousering 1/3rd of the tithe for himself and his church. The benefits of privatisation eh?

If we go back to our example of Ordgar – are you still feeling like Ordgar by the way or have you given up? – Berrick has a rather lovely little church called St Helens, rather quirky and substantially changed since the 17th century, but with a very old font. There are different traditions about the church; the old romantic one has it that the dedication to St Helen, which is very unusual, was due to Offa, since St Helen was a favourite of the 8th century Mercian king. Since Benson church is also dedicated to St Helen, the idea is that Offa set up Benson church when he recaptured Bensington for Mercia in 779, and then the Chapel at Berrick was a subsidiary chapel of the main Benson Royal vill; until Ordgar’s father came along and was given the manor and privatised it. Within our hundred though, there are plenty of examples of the traditional English settlement pattern which lies at the heart of many villages, and is often Anglo Saxon in origin – Manor house and church at the centre. Great Hazeley is a good example in our sample region, of church and manor house side by side.

This then is a process which is broadly common to most of Europe, it is a trend in which England is very much not alone; a general word for it is seigneurialisation, the increasing power of the local lord or seigneur in French. There are differences in England – to pull out one particular example, England had a particularly strong tradition of participatory judicial systems; and the tradition of public justice at the hundred and shire courts was very strong and well established. And so there’s little evidence of local lords establishing manorial courts of justice where the lord delivers justice to his tenants.  That is very much a feature in France, and will come to England when the French conquer us. Pre conquest lords were not allowed to exercise private justice. But in general, this process of the growth of the local power of resident, relatively small scale lords and the transformation of the English countryside into private estates is a European process.

The idea of a manor – is not a strong one pre conquest at all; the French Manor is really on one place, but a set of multiple estates held under one set of customs and contracts by one lord. The English scene is far more varied than that. But when the Norman clerks of Domesday start their work, they find these English villages based around Lord’s Hall, enclosure and Church; and they force England into a manorial structure.

If you are one of those that wonders what it is exactly that the AS’s ever did for us well, the basic structure of the English countryside remains organised according the changes that happened here in Anglo Saxon and Norman England, particularly in Shires and parishes, but hundreds and manors are there too if you look for them, and the word Manor becomes a standard unit.

The old scirs and royal vills take a time to die; so in our area then, the massive royal estate of Benson as we have seen, fissions into multiple areas and manors as I have described, into the 4 ½ hundreds and the subdivided still further into manors like Berrick in the plains, or Swyncombe on the upland, or Rotherfield on the dipslope. But when Domesday comes along with Billy the Conq in 1187, the survey for Benson will contain this line:

From the church scot 11s. From the corn rent for 1 year £30. The soke of 4 ½ hundreds belong to this manor

What you can see surviving in the Domesday entry for Benson in 1187 are the rights and jurisdictions from the old days of the royal scir – the king is still charging those outlying areas something called Corn rent, and may be exercising rights of justice over those other hundreds as well. And thus the shards of the old massive scir survives in some ancient rights.

Ok, so this time we have covered a process that creates one of the defining features of the English landscape for almost a millennium, the structure of hundreds, local manors and private estates, and parishes with churches. The processes of the privatisation of land ownership, the localisation of relationships with the church and lord, and most significantly, the intensification of lordship through increased residency, will have other impacts on people and on landscape, on the creation of the traditional village in particular. Which we will discuss next time.


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