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Author Topic: Divide and rule? The military infrastructure of eighth- and ninth-century Mercia  (Read 180 times)
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« on: April 22, 2007, 06:22:49 AM »

Divide and rule? The military infrastructure of eighth- and ninth-century Mercia

Steven Bassett 1 1University of Birmingham1University of Birmingham


   Military might is widely recognized as having been a key element in the Mercian kings' ability to forge and maintain a large kingdom in midland England in and after the seventh century. The paper argues that its basis was a network of fortified places ? all major royal settlements that were given substantial defences in the eighth and early ninth centuries ? and a systemic mechanism for manning them. The archaeological evidence of these defences at Hereford, Tamworth and Winchcombe is reviewed; the probable locations of other such early fortified places in midland England are considered; and the significance of this burghal system for our understanding of 'the supremacy of the Mercian kings' is weighed.

   The nucleus of the early Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia seems to have been in the middle and upper valley of the River Trent, an area that included important contemporary settlements at Lichfield, Tamworth and Repton. In the course of the late seventh and eighth centuries the Mercian kings enlarged their kingdom until it extended from the River Humber to the Thames and from the modern Welsh border to the edge of East Anglia. They were also able during the same period to exercise overlordship to a greater or lesser extent and for longer or shorter periods over every other Anglo-Saxon kingdom except Northumbria.

   This widespread control is often referred to as 'the supremacy of the Mercian kings', a phrase coined by Stenton in the early part of the twentieth century and still regularly used today.1 However, it would be unwise to read too much into the concept of 'supremacy': there is, for instance, nothing to show that the Mercian kings' sights were set on creating a united kingdom of the Anglo-Saxons, something which in the event did not occur until the tenth century, and which was achieved not by the Mercians but by the West Saxons.2

   Despite such caveats it is still undeniable that the Mercian kings kept a firm hold on a large part of England south of the Humber for over a century and a half from the late seventh century to the early ninth, while the peoples living beyond this area were often subject to their overlordship during the same period, although some bore it more heavily or for longer than others did.3 One of the most challenging questions we need to ask about this period of their 'supremacy' is how the Mercian kings managed to gain it, and then sustain it, for so long. If we have a good understanding of this we should be able to gauge the true strength of their control and also identify its weaknesses. By doing so we shall have a better grasp of the reality lying behind the rhetoric of their 'supremacy'.4

   One of the reasons must be their military organization. Unlike the Frankish kings, the Mercians did not steadily add new territory to their kingdom by frequent military campaigns. There is no doubt that they fought many battles, but these seem to have been fought, not to conquer new land, but to adjust or reinforce the balance of power in their own favour. The Mercian kings' methods of enlarging their kingdom were, then, significantly slower and more subtle than those often adopted by the Franks.5 Arguably, their methods were ones that could have led eventually to the creation of a united kingdom of England under their own rule; but why that neither happened, nor was ever likely to, is a separate issue and beyond the scope of this paper.

   Simon Keynes suggests that the Mercian kings' supremacy was 'sustained essentially by a threat or display of force'.6 This must be a large part of the answer which, although Keynes does not elaborate on it, needs to be examined in detail.7 It is no surprise that the king of a relatively large kingdom could exercise an overlordship over other rulers which rested primarily on military strength. Sometimes a small kingdom sandwiched between bigger ones might seek protection from one of its neighbours against the plainly aggressive tendencies of another of them; at other times the relationship might be imposed by the bigger kingdom rather than be asked for by the smaller one.8 This is the probable explanation of the origins of the Mercians' overlordship of the many east midland peoples named in the 'Tribal Hidage' and known collectively as the Middle Angles.9

   But whether the patron?client relationship began with a request for protection or with an offer of it which could not be refused, its survival and intensification presumably reflected an ever active fear of an invasion by the overlord. To many minor kings it must have seemed expedient to accept a powerful king's overlordship, to agree to pay him a substantial annual render, and to submit to indignities such as having to send land charters to him for ratification. At least the minor ruler kept his position, and he and his subjects had peace. They may increasingly have enjoyed economic advantages too, since being linked to the Mercians or West Saxons in and after the late seventh century also meant a welcome opportunity to belong to their commercial sphere. This level of subordination might often have been seen, therefore, as the lesser of two evils.

   The greater evil was invasion and conquest. How often it actually occurred cannot now be known. There are very few cases where we can say unequivocally that one Anglo-Saxon kingdom or lesser polity was added to another as the direct result of a battle. A heavy defeat occasionally meant that the losing kingdom was subject to the winner's direct rule for a short time, as for instance the Mercians were for a brief period after the Northumbrians had killed Penda in 655, and again in 829 after a heavy defeat by the West Saxons.10 But it is important to note that in both cases the Mercians rapidly regained their independence. Northumbria, despite its long history of exercising extensive overlordship, could not hold on to Mercia after its great victory at the battle of the River Winw?d, let alone make it a permanent possession. Similarly, in 829 the West Saxons were not powerful enough to turn their victory over the Mercians into anything more long term. So, even by the middle of the seventh century, outright conquest and immediate absorption seem to have become a thing of the past.

    It looks, then, as if the regularly shifting patterns of relations that characterize the middle Anglo-Saxon period were the best that the more ambitious kingdoms could cope with. That is to say, at some point in the seventh century it became clear that there would be no more easy gains. Even when one of the larger kingdoms managed to defeat another one in battle, it had no guaranteed means of holding on to it. Indeed, big kingdoms had enough trouble holding on to the smaller polities over which they had overlordship.11 The Frankish method of expansion was not for them. It was perfectly possible for the Franks to operate in permanently aggressive mode, but after the time of Clovis and his sons they had no rivals lurking beyond their borders who were almost as powerful as they were themselves. For a late seventh- or eighth-century Anglo-Saxon king, trying to enlarge the kingdom by direct military action became like staking his house on a poker hand; for his Frankish contemporaries it was still like shooting fish in a barrel.

   Accordingly, the state formation process in England entered a new phase. The first phase had seen the rapid amalgamation of many tiny polities into a relatively small number of middling and large ones, with a few atypical regions like the east midlands stuck in a time warp.12 In the new, second phase the relationships between kingdoms underwent kaleidoscopic variations, but with Mercia in particular mainly managing to hold on to what it had begun with. The first phase had seen a feeding frenzy; the second one, the period of Mercia's 'supremacy', was a time for slow digesting. If the kingdoms that had been the most successful ones in the first phase wanted to make any further progress, they would first have to learn how to get full control of what they had already acquired. This, then, was when the Mercians needed to begin devising the apparatus of a state and to make sure that it was put firmly in place. Overlordship needed to cease being wholly ad hominem and instead become institutionalized. Only two other kingdoms had the potential for similar structural development in the middle Anglo-Saxon period. These were Northumbria and Wessex. For various reasons the Northumbrians were not able to realize their potential. Sometimes the West Saxons were, but their ambitions were very largely confined to southern England alone, and both the scale and the nature of their problems as rulers were different from those that the Mercian kings faced.

   When I quoted Simon Keynes's opinion that the Mercian supremacy was 'sustained essentially by a threat or display of force', I said that this must be a large part of the answer. I now intend to argue that his explanation does not go far enough. There is solid evidence that the Mercians employed more than the 'threat or display of force' in their efforts to develop a reliable method of holding on to what they had already acquired and consolidating their control of it. The evidence is from two sources ? archaeology and land charters. Taken altogether it points to the existence of an essential feature of Mercian military organization to which Nicholas Brooks authoritatively pointed us in 1971, but which by and large has been insufficiently focused on by historians and archaeologists alike ever since.13 This comprised, first, the building of substantial defences around important settlements in many, and arguably all, of the areas that were under direct Mercian rule in the eighth and early ninth centuries; and, second, the complementary introduction of a general obligation, laid on those holding land in the kingdom of Mercia, to supply men at regular intervals for army service and for the building and repair of fortified places and of bridges.14

   We hear about this 'threefold obligation' or 'common burden' ? the trimoda necessitas ? from charters of the mid-eighth century onwards.15 By the end of the century it was a widespread burden within the whole area which the Mercian kings ruled. A few years ago I proposed that it formed the basis of a conscious programme of military organization which was possibly the single most important factor in the Mercian kings' ability to maintain their 'supremacy'.16 If the programme existed, it was almost certainly the prototype of the much better known burghal system employed by Alfred in Wessex in the late ninth century, and by his children, Edward the Elder and ?thelfl?d, over the rest of England south of the Humber.17 I now intend to consider the proposal in detail.

   So as to make my explanation of the Mercians' programme intelligible I must first make one thing clear about its late ninth- and early tenth-century successor. Alfred's daughter ?thelfl?d and her husband ?thelred, and then ?thelfl?d acting on her own after ?thelred's death in 911, are known from contemporary written sources to have built defences at twelve places in western Mercia, and there is archaeological and other evidence that they did so at at least five others too.18 When we had to rely solely on written records for our knowledge of what they did in and after the 890s, it was always believed that, except at former Roman towns like Gloucester, they were the first to build defences at these places. But excavations carried out during the second half of the twentieth century at Hereford, Tamworth and Winchcombe (Fig. 1) have shown us that what ?thelred and ?thelfl?d did was to refurbish and enlarge the defences which these places already had.19

   It is most unlikely that these three places were the only ones to be defended in the eighth or early ninth century; but it is necessary to discuss what has been found there before I consider which other contemporary settlements may also have had defences, and then in conclusion consider the wider implications. Only a brief impression of the archaeological evidence can be given here,20 but even a sample is not easy to explain. Archaeological excavators trace the history of a site by peeling away in reverse chronological order the layers and features which form the evidence of past human activity there. But many people are not used to scrutinizing archaeologists' drawn records. Their plans can usually be understood without too much trouble, but for anyone without practical experience of excavation their vertical records are much harder to decipher and interpret. A section drawing, to use the excavators' term, portrays what is known as the stratigraphical sequence (i.e. the sequence of superimposed, and therefore chronologically successive, layers and features) along a particular line on the site. Even on a fairly straightforward single-period site, such as an iron age hillfort or a motte-and-bailey castle, the defensive sequence can be complicated and therefore hard to understand.21

   What often increases the difficulty is the fragmentary nature of the evidence. Where there has been a succession of superimposed defences, each new phase is likely to have removed a significant amount of the remains of its predecessors, with the late medieval phase on urban sites usually having done the most extensive damage. As a result excavators may be unaware that the fragmentary features and layers found in the lowest levels of their excavation site ? when these are actually investigated, which does not always happen ? represent a distinct defensive phase.22 That, I suggest, is what we find at Tamworth, Hereford and Winchcombe, where the evidence for a defensive circuit of the middle Anglo-Saxon period is overlain and very badly disturbed by what ?thelred and/or ?thelfl?d did, by the subsequent addition of masonry to their ramparts up to a century later, and finally by one or more phases of late medieval town wall construction and ditch digging.

Archaeological evidence of a network of Mercian fortified places

   There have been ten recorded excavations on the relevant parts of Hereford's defences, ten on Tamworth's and two on Winchcombe's; but only two of the many excavators involved realized that, underneath these places' late ninth- and early tenth-century defences, there was something even earlier which might also be a defensive circuit. One of the excavators was J. Gould at Tamworth. He described the pre-?thelfl?dan features which he found there as 'most interesting', but regrettably he devoted only a few sentences to them in his report.23 P. Rahtz was the first person to identify the middle Anglo-Saxon circuit for what it was in his excavation on Victoria Street, Hereford.24 His own and the other excavations of Hereford's defences were published by R. Shoesmith.25 Two excavations on the northern arm of the defences at Winchcombe were written up by P. Ellis, who proposed that there were successive middle and late Anglo-Saxon defences there, both of them very similar to Hereford's, but that the surviving evidence of the earlier ones was very fragmentary.26 However, a close re-examination of the reports of the two dozen or so excavations strongly suggests that substantial remains of their middle Anglo-Saxon defences were found at all three places.27 Elsewhere in the west midlands a section of what may be its late ninth-century defences has recently been found at Worcester, but no earlier ones were found underneath; and no trace of equivalent ones has been found so far at any of the other places known or strongly suspected to have been fortified by ?thelred and/or ?thelfl?d.28

   The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports that Hereford had defences by 914, and the work of Rahtz, Shoesmith and others has established their course convincingly (Fig. 2).29 On the western side of the circuit Rahtz's excavation on Victoria Street found that only the rear of the rampart had survived (Fig. 3), with the majority of it having been removed by nineteenth-century house-building, and the ditch beyond it being unavailable for excavation. The rampart was made of clay with timber-lacing.30 On a site at the north-eastern corner of the circuit (5 Cantilupe Street) the full width of the rampart had survived. Initially it had had a timber revetment, but this had been replaced by a stone wall in the late tenth or early eleventh century.31 No earlier phase of defences was found there, but on the Victoria Street site the late ninth- and early tenth-century rampart overlay an earlier one made of rammed gravel (Fig. 4). Only the latter's tail survived, and the ditch which presumably accompanied it lay, like its late Anglo-Saxon successor, beyond the excavation site.32 With the use of archaeological and topographical evidence the full extent of the circuit formed by this rammed gravel rampart has been tentatively proposed by Shoesmith. Its western and northern sides very probably followed exactly the same course as the defences of the ?thelfl?dan period, by which they would therefore have been overlain as far as the earlier circuit's north-eastern corner.33 Its eastern side is thought likely to have lain a short distance to the east of the cathedral, but no independent archaeological evidence of its course is known.34 This early defensive circuit enclosed the head minster complex and the industrial/mercantile community which was developing adjacent to it by the early eighth century. The royal minster dedicated to St Guthlac, which probably existed by the eighth century, lay outside the proposed course of the eastern arm but was incorporated in the later, more extensive circuit which was in place by the early tenth century.35

   We get a very similar story from Tamworth. The so-called 'Mercian Register' reports that in 913 ?thelfl?d 'went with all the Mercians to Tamworth and built the burh there in the early summer'.36 Her defences have been excavated on a number of sites, and their course is well established (Fig. 5).37 Figure 6 reproduces Gould's sectional view of the defensive sequence found on his Brewery Lane site. It shows what survived of the turf-built rampart (which had a frontal timber revetment and internal 'wooden strapping') and the accompanying ditch, both of which he convincingly identified as ?thelfl?d's work. Much of the lower part of the ditch had been cut away by its large late medieval successor, and both its upper part and most of the rampart had been removed by a post-medieval lowering of the ground surface and by other intrusions.38 No direct evidence was found of the replacement of the rampart's timber revetment with a stone wall. However, a substantial deposit of sandstone rubble found overlying the primary silts near the base of the ditch seems to have come in from the east, i.e. from the direction of the rampart. Almost certainly it was derived from the collapse of a stone wall in front of the rampart. Similar material was seen in ditch sections on other sites; and on the Albert Road site (near the north-eastern corner of the circuit) the base of the wall itself may have been located.39

   Constructing a reliable composite diagram of Tamworth's ?thelfl?dan defences, such as Shoesmith published for Hereford,40 is impossible because the records of the many excavations done there, both written and pictorial ones, are by and large too abbreviated and imprecise to allow a clear understanding of what was found in them.41 However, the defences at Tamworth and Hereford had important features in common,42 both in their late ninth-/early tenth-century form and after their refurbishment with masonry up to a century later. This is an important conclusion, not only for what it reveals of ?thelred's and ?thelfl?d's activities, but also because it allows yet earlier features to be identified in individual section drawings with greater confidence.

   At Tamworth, as at Hereford, there was an earlier line of defences beneath the late Anglo-Saxon ones (Fig. 7). Because of the difficulties already referred to it is impossible to make a firm identification of every pre-?thelfl?dan feature and layer on the many sites excavated there. Some of them can be securely recognized by their position in the stratigraphical sequence; but of the others it can only be said that they are likelier than not to be pre-?thelfl?dan, and arguing for their recognition as such has to be done circumstantially.

   Gould found evidence of this earliest defensive phase on both of his sites. At first he thought that the features concerned included what was 'possibly an early palisade trench', because of 'the impression of upright posts' in the clean loose wet sand in its bottom (feature X and layer 2 on Figs 6?7); but later he described it as 'the pre-AD 913 ditch . . . "V"-shaped with a rounded bottom, 5 ft deep and 8 ft wide at the top'. He identified another feature as a beam-slot (feature Y on Figs 6?7).43 It is clear, however, that he was unable to examine these earliest features fully.44 They are rarely commented on in the records of the other Tamworth sites, but the excavators' section drawings illustrate them.45

   Figure 7 shows all of these layers and features on the Brewery Lane site. An examination of the available evidence, published and unpublished, strongly suggests that the linear feature which Gould and others found sealed securely below the ?thelfl?dan rampart, and which Gould at length decided was a ditch, was instead a trench which had held a line of vertical posts revetting the front of a rampart. It was mainly cut into sand, which is a very unstable subsoil. Its profile looks much more like that of a trench which had been dug to hold posts and then been rapidly backfilled as soon as they had been inserted, and from which the posts had subsequently been removed, than that of a ditch which had been open to long-term sub-aerial weathering.46 If this is correct, other pre-?thelfl?dan features found at Tamworth probably also held timbers, and one of them may have been an accompanying ditch which was, it seems, at length deliberately backfilled so as to prepare the ground for the construction of the early tenth-century defences. Figure 8 is an imaginative attempt to show what role the pre-?thelfl?dan layers and features found on the Brewery Lane site may have performed.47 However, even if it is badly mistaken, there can be no doubt that there was at Tamworth, as there also was at Hereford, a substantial earthwork defence which was significantly earlier than the one in place by 913.

   The same is true at Winchcombe (Gloucs.). What is different there, however, is that a considerable length of the two ramparts (the one on top of the other) still survives as a visible earthwork (Fig. 9). It lies along the south side of Back Lane, a modern road that sits in the top of the town's late medieval ditch. Much of the rest of its course can be deduced from topographical evidence, and there is a length of an originally very large bank and ditch to the south of the River Isbourne which may represent part of its southern side.48

   Two excavations on the northern arm revealed a defensive sequence closely matching the one found at Hereford and Tamworth (Figs 10?11).49 The later of two ramparts had been frontally revetted in timber, and there was very good evidence of the limestone rubble wall which had been built into the front of it during a subsequent major refurbishment.50 Although we have no direct historical evidence that Winchcombe was fortified in the late Anglo-Saxon period, the close similarity of this later rampart to what was found at Hereford and Tamworth suggests that it was almost certainly of the same period (i.e. the late ninth and early tenth centuries). Moreover, Winchcombe's history as a major royal site, its possession of a mint by c.973x5, and its albeit short-lived role as a shire town make it an obvious candidate for fortification then.51

   As elsewhere, an earlier rampart directly underlay the late Anglo-Saxon one. The excavators themselves seem not to have been aware of its existence. Ellis recognized it but thought that only a very small portion of it had survived;52 however, it is likely that most of it did (Figs 12?13). On one of the two sites a substantial linear feature with a flat, narrow bottom was located immediately in front of what is being reinterpreted here as the pre-?thelfl?dan rampart (F64 on Figs 11, 13). (Since the excavation of the other site was never finished, it is not known if the feature was present there too.)53 Ellis considered it to be a ditch; but its profile, which he described as being 'V-sectioned . . . with a spade-width flat base', is also appropriate for a palisade trench. Its predominantly homogeneous fill suggested to him that it may have been deliberately backfilled,54 which is also consistent with its having had a role as a feature which had not been left open to sub-aerial weathering for long.

   So far nothing has been said about direct dating evidence for the first-phase defences at Hereford, Tamworth and Winchcombe, which have been referred to only as being pre-?thelfl?dan or of middle Anglo-Saxon date. That is because there is none. In each case the rampart and associated features were securely located in the stratigraphical sequence below archaeological layers and features which together comprised a distinct later defensive work which can be reliably dated to the period in which ?thelred and ?thelfl?d, and then the latter alone, are said to have built fortifications in western Mercia.55 It is most unlikely that the first-phase defences at Hereford, Tamworth and Winchcombe could have been of a later date than the early ninth century, since otherwise insufficient time would have been available, between their construction and the construction of those of the period of ?thelred and ?thelfl?d, to allow for sub-aerial weathering and deterioration to occur on the scale recorded.

   The absence of direct evidence of when the first-phase defences were constructed led those who reported on the excavation of them to be cautious in discussing their date of origin. Shoesmith preferred to assign the earliest defences at Hereford to 'the middle part of the ninth century', but concluded that they 'could be as early as the reign of Offa'.56 Gould commented that his 'pre-rampart features' at Tamworth 'are most interesting, especially as Tamworth was from an early period one of the chief residences of the Mercian Royal House', and subsequently implied that they were likely to have been of eighth-century creation.57 To Ellis the features found at Winchcombe 'suggest comparison with the vallum monasterii of early monastic boundaries'.58 However, all three writers accepted that the defences which superseded these earliest ones belonged to the period of ?thelred's and ?thelfl?d's recorded military activity.59

   In terms of the area enclosed and the size and sophistication of their build the late ninth- and early tenth-century defences of Tamworth, Hereford and Winchcombe considerably surpassed the ones built there in the middle Anglo-Saxon period; but the latter were themselves well in excess of what would have been needed merely to fortify or otherwise enhance a royal residence or episcopal complex. I am unaware of anything on their scale elsewhere in western Europe in the same period. If these three places were defended as part of a formal programme of fortification, no one is known to have followed the Mercians' lead in the construction of new defences until Charles the Bald may have done in the 860s and Alfred certainly did soon afterwards.60

Other Mercian places fortified in the eighth and early ninth centuries

   Hereford, Tamworth and Winchcombe are most unlikely to have been the only places that had defences in the middle Anglo-Saxon period. So far, however, no other west midland settlement has been shown to have had serviceable ones before the late ninth century (apart from Gloucester and Chester, where most of the Roman walls remained standing throughout the Anglo-Saxon period and so could have been used at any time).61 But we must bear in mind that no other west midland shire town, Worcester included, nor any other equivalent place has yet been excavated on a scale sufficient to show whether or not it had middle Anglo-Saxon defences.62 In the east midlands, in first place among the obvious candidates is Nottingham, where evidence for an allegedly middle Anglo-Saxon defended enclosure was found by C. Young in the early 1970s, according to a few tantalizing scraps of published information. However, even at the maximum extent which he allowed for it (c.2.8 ha), it would have been far smaller than the equivalent circuits elsewhere.63

   It is important, therefore, to note that in 868 the Danes took up quarters at Nottingham and were unsuccessfully besieged there by a large English army.64 In his Life of King Alfred Asser records that this army was called together immediately on the Danes' arrival there, that it was an immense one, and that 'the Vikings, protected by the defences of the stronghold, refused to give battle, [but] . . . the Christians were unable to breach the rampart.' As a result, Asser reports, peace was made and the English army went away.65 When in 918 Edward the Elder captured this burh, he 'ordered it to be repaired and manned both with Englishmen and Danes.'66 Almost the full circuit of this Danish, then English, burh is reliably known from archaeological and topographical evidence.67 It was probably of middle Anglo-Saxon origin. Although the Danes may have built a new defensive enclosure as soon as they took up quarters at Nottingham in 868 (and, if so, they plainly did an excellent job), the information which we have about that year's campaign and the one of 918 makes it much likelier that they captured an existing fortified settlement.

   Among other places in the east midlands which may have been defended by the early ninth century are Derby, Leicester, Lincoln and Stamford. They, together with Nottingham, are commonly referred to as the 'Five Boroughs' of the Danelaw.68 They were among the sites from which the Danes controlled the eastern half of the kingdom of Mercia after its conquest in 874 and partition in 877. All were evidently important centres before the Danish military campaigns began, and so it is no surprise that they were chosen by the Danes to serve as military and administrative centres in the Danelaw.69 Leicester and Lincoln were former Roman walled towns which, like Gloucester and Chester, would have been relatively easy to defend in the middle Anglo-Saxon period.

   What we know about Hereford, Tamworth and Winchcombe makes it likely that Stamford and Derby, too, may also have been fortified then, so that after their capture by the Danes nothing more than running repairs would have been needed to make the places immediately serviceable as military and administrative centres.70

   Other places too in the east and south midlands may have been defended in the period of the Mercian kings' supremacy. Given that four, and almost certainly all, of the 'Five Boroughs' had become shire towns by the early eleventh century (as had Hereford and Winchcombe),71 it is probable that a planned network of fortified places situated at regular intervals throughout the Mercian kingdom would have included Northampton, Bedford, Cambridge and Huntingdon, and perhaps Buckingham. If there was no compelling archaeological evidence of middle Anglo-Saxon defences at three major west Mercian settlements, this argument would look circular; but what we know from Hereford, Tamworth and Winchcombe, and arguably from Nottingham too, suggests a significant correlation between places in the midlands of which almost all were shire towns by the early eleventh century and ones which had been fortified in the period of the Mercian kings' supremacy in England. There is explicit evidence that all but one of the future west midland shire towns were defended during the period of ?thelred's and ?thelfl?d's rule; and in Shrewsbury's case the evidence, though only circumstantial, is also strong.

   All those in the east midlands also had defences by 918, traditionally assumed to have been erected in most cases by the Danes, and in Buckingham's by Edward the Elder during his campaigns of reconquest.72 Without archaeological excavation we cannot prove that any eleventh-century midland shire town was already defended before its capture by the Danes and/or its fortification by ?thelred, ?thelfl?d or Edward the Elder. However, what we know of the middle Anglo-Saxon defences of a handful of future midland shire towns, and of the general requirement for work to be done on building and repairing fortified places throughout the enlarging kingdom of Mercia, makes it very likely that many of the places which the Danes used as administrative centres, and/or where fortifications were built, in the late ninth and early tenth centuries already had defences by the early ninth century.

   The similarities which the middle Anglo-Saxon defences at Tamworth and Winchcombe shared (too little of Hereford's survived for any worthwhile comparison to be possible), suggests that they were built to a standard design.73 However, with only three adequately excavated and published examples of such defences in the whole area of the kingdom of the Mercians, it would be premature to conclude firmly that these similarities are more than merely coincidental.

   The next example to be found (and let us hope that it will be a securely dated one) may be significantly different. By itself, then, the archaeological evidence is sufficient to show us that some major Mercian centres in the west midlands were first fortified in the eighth or early ninth century; and the evidence from the east midlands, although far more insubstantial, hints that the same was also true there. But the available excavated evidence can do no more than that; it cannot alone support a convincing case that the Mercian kings fortified important settlements in all parts of their kingdom, let alone that they established an integrated burghal system.

The wider military context

   However, there is also the fact that from the mid-eighth century onwards Mercian charters began to require the inhabitants of the lands concerned to do specified military duties, and that these included building and repairing fortified places. If people were required to do it, fortified places must have existed at which the work was to be done. Therefore, given the geographical distribution of the lands from which this work was expected in the period up to the partition of Mercia in 877, we may reasonably conclude that there were many such places, and that sooner or later the Mercian kings decided how to give their kingdom a formally coordinated military infrastructure.

   That is as far as it is safe to go within the strict scope of the evidence. However, an important question remains to be answered. If such a programme existed in the later part of the period in which the Mercian kingdom was easily the strongest in England, what would its uses have been? It would certainly have been a major step forward in early medieval military organization; it would also have created the physical infrastructure for a new form of hierarchically arranged administration, one which marked a significant advance in the nature of Anglo-Saxon royal power.

   The arrangement would presumably have been reciprocal. Each fortified place's hinterland would have contained many estates, from which men were taken at regular intervals to do routine military duties as and when required. They would have done running repairs on the fortified place's defences, or more substantial work if it were needed. They would have kept the area's bridges in good order, so that soldiers could move rapidly along its main roads in an emergency.74 They might also have helped to garrison the fortified place, so that a trained fighting force was always on hand if the need for one should arise. That is one side of the reciprocal arrangement. The other side is that every part of the kingdom would have had a local militia to protect it, thus providing a far more effective method of defence for an area's inhabitants than sending messengers to ask the king or ealdorman for help and hoping that an army would arrive in time to do more than help bury the dead.

   But there might well have been more to this second side of the arrangement than protection. Having a network of fortified settlements spread across the kingdom and having a system in place for repairing and improving its military infrastructure would have given the Mercian kings an effective device for controlling their subjects. Quite apart from the problem of attacks by Northumbrians, West Saxons, Welsh or other outsiders, for a long time the Mercian kings must have faced constant difficulty in keeping control of the more recently added parts of their kingdom. People such as the Hwicce, the Magons?te, the Middle Angles and the people of Lindsey were at length absorbed into an enlarged Mercia, with their own rulers consigned to minor administrative roles or oblivion; but this does not mean that they were happy with this state of affairs. It would therefore have been most advantageous for the Mercian kings to have some means of controlling newly acquired territories beyond the threat of force or an occasional display of it made by marching an army into the disaffected area.75

   This is merely a hypothesis. However, it is a fact that Mercian charters from the mid-eighth century onwards began insisting on specified military duties being done by the inhabitants of the lands being granted. It is also a fact that at two of the places where middle Anglo-Saxon defences have been excavated in western Mercia, they appear to have been of closely similar build. A third fact is that these two places (Tamworth and Winchcombe), and Hereford, too, were major centres; and while we cannot establish the same beyond doubt for any of the east midland places without Roman walls which became shire towns, it may well be that they (all but one of which are explicitly said to have had defences while they were in Danish hands),76 were chosen as the centres for Danish armies because of their prior existence as important Anglo-Saxon settlements with substantial, clearly defined hinterlands. In one instance, the burh at Bedford, it was the place's 'citizens [burgware] who dwelt there before' who are said to have submitted to Edward the Elder in 915, which adds weight to this argument.77

   It is likely, then, that by the early ninth century there were fortified places situated at regular intervals throughout the kingdom of Mercia. A planned network of this sort must have been invaluable, not only for the maintenance of the kingdom's security and cohesion, but also for the devolved conduct of a wide range of administrative, judicial, fiscal and broadly economic matters. It is very likely that each fortified settlement had a clearly defined rural territory assigned to it, which it was responsible for protecting and from which it drew the men who were required to fulfill the 'threefold obligation'.78

   These places would have played little or no part in the very considerable enlargement of their kingdom which the Mercian kings achieved in the eighth century; but, once established, they would have been an essential asset for kings who were trying to hold together, indeed govern, an area of far greater extent than the one over which their seventh-century predecessors had held sway. No better scheme could have been devised for the sustenance, 'by a threat or display of force',79 of their rule; and the apparent ease with which the West Saxons absorbed and governed the former Mercian kingdom in the tenth century is eloquent testimony to its strength and flexibility.

   The discovery that by no later than the middle of the eighth century, and perhaps from a considerably earlier time, the Mercian kings had an embryonic burghal system plainly has important implications for our understanding of how their 'supremacy' was established and maintained.80 Although we know nothing about the details of the system's operation, and probably never shall, there can be no room for doubting that its installation and operation were a key factor in the kings' ability to hold down and rule the inhabitants of the very substantial parts of their kingdom which had formerly had their own more or less independent rulers. The Mercian kings' insistence that all land under their rule should contribute to military organization looks like part of the solution for one of the hardest problems which faced a successful early medieval ruler ? how to hold the kingdom together once it had outgrown what he and those around him could control in person.81

   The Franks employed a system which meshed the entire aristocracy together in a nexus of relationships of dependence; but the outcome always threatened to deliver disunity rather than cohesion. In West Francia this dependence on power which could be, and was, easily privatized led to extreme political fragmentation and loss of royal control. By contrast the Mercian kings devised a system which was based on the fortification of major royal settlements and the use of public power to supply the required personnel. Here, then, the coordinating of archaeological and documentary information affords a rare and valuable insight into the nature of the Mercian kings' power and the mechanics of their regime.82 It shows us that their sense of supremacy was based on far more than mere rhetoric: it was firmly based on their pioneering of a seminal development in early medieval military organization.83

* Earlier versions of this paper were given at the conference on '?thelbald and Offa' held at the University of Manchester's Centre for Anglo-Studies in March 2000, and at seminars at the University of Birmingham (April 2000) and the University of Nottingham (December 2000). I am indebted to all those who engaged in discussion on these occasions for their helpful comments and questions. I am also most grateful to Chris Wickham and an anonymous referee for their comments on an earlier draft of this paper; to the Council for British Archaeology for a grant to cover the cost of the preparation of the figures; and to all the following for permission to reproduce figures already published elsewhere: English Heritage (Figs 3, 6, 10?11); the Council for British Archaeology, Philip Rahtz and Ron Shoesmith (Fig. 3); the South Staffordshire Archaeological and Historical Society and Jim Gould (Fig. 6); and the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society and Peter Ellis (Figs 10?11).

1  F.M. Stenton , 'The Supremacy of the Mercian Kings' , English Historical Review 33 ( 1918 ), pp . 433 ? 52 ; reprinted in D.M. Stenton (ed.), Preparatory to Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford, 1970), pp. 48?66.

2  On the Mercian kings' 'supremacy' and their development of overlordship see in particular: B. Yorke, 'The Vocabulary of Anglo-Saxon Overlordship', Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History, British Archaeological Reports, British series 92 (Oxford, 1981), pp. 171?200; P. Wormald, 'Bede, the Bretwaldas and the gens Anglorum', in P. Wormald with D. Bullough and R. Collins (eds), Ideal and Reality in Frankish and Anglo-Saxon Society (Oxford, 1983), pp. 99?129; S. Keynes, 'England, 700?900', in R. McKitterick (ed.), The New Cambridge Medieval History II: c.700?c.900 (Cambridge, 1995), pp. 18?42; S. Keynes, 'The Kingdom of the Mercians in the Eighth Century', in D. Hill and M. Worthington (eds), ?thelbald and Offa: Two Eighth Century Kings of Mercia, British Archaeological Reports, British series 383 (Oxford, 2005), pp. 1?26.

3  B. Yorke, Kings and Kingdoms of Early Anglo-Saxon England (London, 1990), pp. 100?27; D.P. Kirby, The Earliest English Kings (London, 1991), pp. 113?41, 163?89; Keynes, 'England, 700?900'.

4  Stenton, 'Supremacy of the Mercian Kings'; Yorke, 'Vocabulary of Anglo-Saxon Overlordship'; Wormald, 'Bede, the Bretwaldas and the gens Anglorum', pp. 106?7; Keynes, 'England, 700?900', pp. 28?30.

5  My characterization of the Frankish kings' mode of increasing their territories may be flavoured, so far as the sixth century is concerned, by too literal a reading of Gregory of Tours. For more nuanced views than mine of Frankish military strategy: E. James, The Franks (Oxford, 1988), pp. 78?108; P. Fouracre, The Age of Charles Martel (Harlow, 2000), pp. 50?4, 145?50; and T. Reuter, 'The End of Carolingian Military Expansion', in P. Godman and R. Collins (eds), Charlemagne's Heir (Oxford, 1990), pp. 391?405; and for a holistic view of how large early medieval kingdoms operated: P. Fouracre , 'Cultural Conformity and Social Conservatism in Early Medieval Europe' , History Workshop Journal 33 ( 1992 ), pp . 152 ? 61 .

6  Keynes, 'England', p. 36.

7  In a discussion of Offa's power he rightly stresses that 'We need to look at the nature as well as the extent of Mercian power: at the mechanics as well as the dynamics of the Mercian regime': Keynes, 'The Kingdom of the Mercians in the Eighth Century', p. 12.

8  Lindsey is a classic case: F.M. Stenton, 'Lindsey and its Kings', in Stenton (ed.), Preparatory, pp. 127?35; S. Foot, 'The Kingdom of Lindsey', in A. Vince (ed.), Pre-Viking Lindsey (Lincoln, 1993), pp. 128?40; B. Yorke, 'Lindsey: The Lost Kingdom Found?', in ibid., pp. 141?50. The kingdom of the Hwicce may be another one: S. Bassett, 'In Search of the Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms', in idem (ed.), The Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (Leicester, 1989), pp. 3?27, at pp. 6?17.

9   W. Davies , 'Middle Anglia and the Middle Angles' , Midland History 2 ( 1973 ), pp . 18 ? 20 ; D. Dumville, 'Essex, Middle Anglia and the Expansion of Mercia in the South-East Midlands', in Bassett (ed.), Origins, pp. 123?40, at pp. 130?4, 140.

10  On Mercia's battles in the period 600?850: G. Halsall, Warfare and Society in the Barbarian West, 450?900 (London, 2003), pp. 2?3, 27, 142; D.J. Tyler, 'Orchestrated Violence and the "Supremacy of the Mercian Kings"', in Hill and Worthington (eds), ?thelbald and Offa, pp. 27?33. For its defeats in 655 and 829: Bede's Ecclesastical History of the English People, ed. B. Colgrave and R.A.B. Mynors (Oxford, 1969) [hereafter HE], III.24, pp. 288?95; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: A Collaborative Edition. Volume 4: MS. B, ed. S. Taylor (Cambridge, 1983), pp. 29?30 (s.a. 827, for 829); English Historical Documents: Vol. 1 c.500?1042, ed. D. Whitelock, 2nd edn (London, 1979) [hereafter EHD], p. 186.

11  Surrey is a good example. Frithuwold, in his charter of 672x4 to the minster community at Chertsey in Surrey (Cartularium Saxonicum: a Collection of Charters relating to Anglo-Saxon History, ed. W. De G. Birch, 3 vols with index (London, 1885?99) 34; S 1165), calls himself sub-king (subregulus) of the Mercian king Wulfhere (657?74), but reveals that the minster 'was first constructed under king Egbert', i.e. Egbert of Kent (664?73), which indicates a very recent change of overlordship. Only a few years later (688) the West Saxon king C?dwalla issued a charter in respect of land for the community of a minster which was about to be founded at Farnham (also in Surrey by 1086 and arguably so in the late seventh century), which lies only seventeen miles to the south-west of Chertsey (Cartularium Saxonicum: a Collection of Charters relating to Anglo-Saxon History, ed. W. De G. Birch, 3 vols with index (London, 1885?99) 72; S 235). By then Wulfhere was dead, and C?dwalla had brought the Surrey area into the West Saxon sphere of influence: J. Blair, Early Medieval Surrey (Stroud, 1991), p. 8.

12  As I argued in Bassett, 'In Search of the Origins', pp. 23?4, 26?7.

13  N. Brooks, 'The Development of Military Obligations in Eighth- and Ninth-Century England', in P. Clemoes and K. Hughes (eds), England before the Conquest (Cambridge, 1971), pp. 69?84; reprinted in N. Brooks, Communities and Warfare (London, 2000), pp. 32?47.

14  Old English burh, usually translated here as 'fortified place' (A.H. Smith, English Place-Name Elements, 2 pts, English Place-Name Society 25?6 (1956), I, p. 58), has been adopted into modern English as a loanword ('burh', plural 'burhs') by archaeologists and others (mea culpa), but this is an unsatisfactory usage: D. Hill and A.R. Rumble, 'Introduction', in eidem (eds), The Defence of Wessex: The Burghal Hidage and Anglo-Saxon Fortifications (Manchester, 1996), pp. 1?4, at p. 3. Although 'fortified place' is cumbersome, it is preferable to 'fortress', 'fortification' or 'fort', all of which are often assumed to denote a place which was not permanently settled and which, whenever it was settled, had few or no civilians among its occupants. A translation of burh is needed which comfortably includes pre-existing civilian settlements to which defences had been added as well as fortified sites of exclusively military origin. I am most grateful to Nicholas Brooks for discussing this issue with me. For an important new discussion of the meanings of burh as used in place names and contemporary written sources to refer to settlements of the middle Anglo-Saxon period: J. Blair, The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society (Oxford, 2005), pp. 249?51, 269?70, 287?9.

15   W.H. Stevenson , 'Trinoda necessitas' , English Historical Review 29 ( 1914 ), pp . 689 ? 703 , which lists all references to it in Anglo-Saxon charters (n. 3 on p. 689). For a stimulating discussion of this issue which reaches different conclusions from mine: G. Williams, 'Military Obligations and Mercian Supremacy in the Eighth Century', in Hill and Worthington (eds), ?thelbald and Offa, pp. 103?9.

16  S. Bassett, 'The Administrative Landscape of the Diocese of Worcester in the Tenth Century', in N. Brooks and C. Cubitt (eds), St Oswald of Worcester: His Life and Influence (London, 1996), pp. 147?73, at pp. 155?7. In developing this idea I acknowledge the inspiration provided by J. Haslam , 'Market and Fortress in England in the Reign of Offa' , World Archaeology 19 ( 1987 ), pp . 76 ? 93 .

17  Hill and Rumble (eds), Defence of Wessex; D. Hill, 'The Shiring of Mercia ? Again', in N.J. Higham and D.H. Hill (eds), Edward the Elder 899?924 (Manchester, 2001), pp. 144?59. It may also have inspired Charles the Bald if, as is likely, his fortified bridges on the Seine and Loire river systems were defended by permanent garrisons: C. Gillmor, 'The Logistics of Fortified Bridge Building on the Seine under Charles the Bald', Anglo-Norman Studies 11 (Proceedings of the Battle Conference 1988; Woodbridge, 1989), pp. 87?106, at pp. 89?91, 99?106; S. Coupland, 'The Vikings in Francia and Anglo-Saxon England to 911', in McKitterick (ed.), New Cambridge Medieval History, pp. 190?201, at p. 198. The capitularies issued at Charles's assemblies held at P?tres in 862 and 864 refer to the building of fortifications in the Seine valley, but it is unclear if it extended beyond fortifying bridges; for the background to this activity see J.L. Nelson, Charles the Bald (Aldershot, 1992), pp. 206?8, 213, 218?19. For general remarks on the pre-Alfredian use of fortifications in Anglo-Saxon England see Halsall, Warfare and Society, pp. 218, 220?3. Halsall accepts that the Mercian kings 'create[d] a network of fortresses from which to administer their kingdom' and implies that he, too, considers that Alfred's burghal system owed its inspiration to their scheme: Warfare and Society, pp. 86, 264 at n. 197.

18  The twelve explicitly documented ones are Worcester, by c.889x99 (S 223; EHD, I, pp. 540?1), and, between 910 and 918, Bremesburh , Briege, Chirbury, Eddisbury, Runcorn, Scergeat, Stafford, Tamworth, Thelwall, Warwick and Weardburh (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle MS. B, ed. Taylor, pp. 49?50 (Mercian Register, s.a. 910, 912?15, 918)). The five for which the evidence is circumstantial are Chester, Gloucester, Hereford, Shrewsbury and Winchcombe (see references in nn. 19, 29 below; Anglo-Saxon Chronicle MS. B, ed. Taylor, pp. 48 (s.a. 914), 49 (Mercian Register, s.a. 907); S. Bassett , 'Anglo-Saxon Shrewsbury and its Churches' , Midland History 16 ( 1991 ), pp . 1 ? 23 , at pp. 1, 18?19). For ?thelfl?d see F.T. Wainwright, '?thelflaed Lady of the Mercians', in idem, Scandinavian Studies, ed. H.P.R. Finberg (Chichester, 1975), pp. 305?24 (originally published in P. Clemoes (ed.), The Anglo-Saxons: Studies in Some Aspects of their History and Culture Presented to Bruce Dickins (London, 1959), pp. 53?69); P. Stafford, 'Political Women in Mercia, Eighth to Early Tenth Centuries', in M.P. Brown and C.A. Farr (eds), Mercia: An Anglo-Saxon Kingdom in Europe (London, 2001), pp. 35?49, at pp. 44?9. For a reappraisal of the so-called Mercian Register see P. Stafford, '"The annals of ?thelfl?d": Annals, History and Politics in Early Tenth-Century England', in J. Barrow and A. Wareham (eds), Myths, Rulership, Church and Charters in England c.400?c.1100 (Aldershot, forthcoming).

19  See in the first instance R. Shoesmith, Hereford City Excavations Volume 2: Excavations On and Close to the Defences, Council for British Archaeology, Research Report 46 (London, 1982); J. Gould , 'First Report of the Excavations at Tamworth, Staffs., 1967 ? The Saxon Defences' , Transactions of the Lichfield and South Staffordshire Archaeological and Historical Society 9 ( 1967?8 ), pp . 17 ? 29 ; J. Gould , 'Third Report on Excavations at Tamworth, Staffs., 1968 ? The Western Entrance to the Saxon Borough' , Transactions of the South Staffordshire Archaeological and Historical Society 10 ( 1968?9 ), pp . 32 ? 42 ; P. Ellis , 'Excavations in Winchcombe, Gloucestershire, 1962?1972: A Report on Excavation and Fieldwork by B.K. Davison and J. Hinchliffe at Cowl Lane and Back Lane' , Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society 104 ( 1986 ), pp . 95 ? 138 .

20  It will be fully reviewed and discussed in my paper, 'The Middle and Late Anglo-Saxon Defences of Western Mercian Towns', Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History 15 (forthcoming).

21  This is well explained and illustrated in P. Barker, Techniques of Archaeological Excavation (London, 1977), pp. 41?2 and Figs 8?11.

22  Excavations often run out of time or resources and consequently leave the lowest stratigraphical levels inadequately, or not at all, examined.

23  Gould, 'First Report', p. 18.

24   P. Rahtz , 'Hereford' , Current Archaeology 9 ( June 1968 ), pp . 242 ? 6 ; P. Rahtz, 'The Archaeology of West Mercian Towns', in A. Dornier (ed.), Mercian Studies (Leicester, 1977), pp. 107?29.

25  Shoesmith, Defences; R. Shoesmith, Hereford City Excavations Volume 3: The Finds, Council for British Archaeology, Research Report 56 (London, 1985).

26  Ellis, 'Excavations in Winchcombe'.

27  Bassett, 'Middle and Late Anglo-Saxon Defences'.

28  H. Dalwood and R. Edwards, Excavations at Deansway, Worcester, 1988?89: Romano-British Small Town to Late Medieval City, Council for British Archaeology, Research Report 139 (London, 2004), pp. 55?6, 59, 219?24. Part of 'a possible pre-conquest rampart' was said to have been found at Warwick (P. Rahtz, 'Hereford', p. 246; D.M. Wilson and D.G. Hurst , 'Medieval Britain in 1968' , Medieval Archaeology 13 ( 1969 ), p . 241 ), but 'subsequent investigations have failed to confirm this' (Emma Jones, Warwicks. S.M.R. Officer, pers. comm.).

29  '?a gemetton ?a menn hie of Hereforda 7 of Gleawceastre 7 of ?am nehtum burgum 7 him wi? gefuhtan' ('Then the men from Hereford and Gloucester and the nearest fortified places met them and fought against them'): Anglo-Saxon Chronicle MS. B, ed. Taylor, 48; EHD, I, p. 212. Shoesmith, Defences, pp. 34, 36?8, 77?80.

30  Shoesmith, Defences, Fig. 22 on p. 33, pp. 34?5, 77?80.

31  Shoesmith, Defences, pp. 36?40, 77?82.

32  Shoesmith, Defences, pp. 33?4, 76?7.

33  Shoesmith, Defences, Fig. 15 on p. 28, pp. 35 ('Appendix'), 76?7. It is not known if ?thelred and ?thelfl?d were together responsible for the timber-laced rampart or if it was the work of the latter alone. Terms used here such as 'defences of the ?thelfl?dan period' and 'the ?thelfl?dan circuit' used in relation to Hereford are therefore merely convenient shorthand for 'the late ninth-/early tenth-century defences'.

34  Shoesmith, Defences, pp. 77, 92; R. Shoesmith, Hereford City Excavations Volume 1: Excavations at Castle Green, Council for British Archaeology, Research Report 36 (London, 1980), p. 53.

35  Shoesmith, Defences, pp. 47?55, 71, 73; Shoesmith, Castle Green, pp. 1?6, 10?17, 48?56; A.T. Thacker , 'Kings, Saints and Monasteries in Pre-Viking Mercia' , Midland History 10 ( 1985 ), pp . 1 ? 25 , at p. 17; J. Barrow, 'Urban Cemetery Location in the High Middle Ages', in S. Bassett (ed.), Death in Towns (Leicester, 1992), pp. 78?100, at pp. 81, 96, n. 16.

36  'Her Gode forgifendum for ??elfl?d Myrcna hl?fdige mid eallum Myrcum to Tamaweor?ige 7 ?a burh ??r getimbrede on foreweaedne sumor' ('In this year . . . ?thelfl?d, lady of the Mercians, went with all the Mercians to Tamworth and built the burh there in the early summer'): Anglo-Saxon Chronicle MS. B, ed. Taylor, p. 50; EHD, I, p. 212.

37  Gould, 'First Report'; Gould, 'Third Report'; K. Sheridan , 'Sixth Report of Excavations at Tamworth, Staffs. (1971): A Section of the Saxon and Medieval Defences, Albert Road' , Transactions of the South Staffordshire Archaeological and Historical Society 14 ( 1973 ), pp . 32 ? 7 ; K. Sheridan , 'Seventh Report of Excavations at Tamworth, Staffs: A Section through the Northern Defences Excavated by Dr F.T. Wainwright in 1960' , ibid. 14 ( 1973 ), pp . 38 ? 44 ; K.W. Sheridan , 'Ninth Report of Excavations at Tamworth, Staffs., 1972: A Section through the North Defences at Bell Inn Corner' , ibid. 15 ( 1974 ), pp . 54 ? 7 ; A.D.W. Richmond, 'An Archaeological Evaluation of the Former Tamworth Hospital Site' (unpublished report, Tempus Reparatum Field Services Department, Oxford, 1996). For short notices of other excavations: J.H. Barratt , 'Tamworth' , West Midlands Annual Archaeological News Sheet 7 ( 1964 ), p . 10 ; C. Young , 'Brewery Site, Tamworth (SK 210043)' , ibid. 11 ( 1968 ), p . 21 ; K.W. Sheridan , 'Orchard Street, Tamworth, Staffs. (SK 205041)' , ibid. 15 ( 1972 ), p . 26 ; [
C. Young ], 'Tamworth, Bolebridge Street (SK 210040)' , Medieval Archaeology 13 ( 1969 ), p . 239 ; [ R. Meeson ], 'Tamworth' , ibid. 23 ( 1979 ), p . 245 .

38  'The rampart had been of turf and only the bottom foot of it remained.': Gould, 'First Report', pp. 18, 20.

39  '17. Stones, ?wall': Sheridan, 'Seventh Report', p. 38, and Fig. 1 on p. 40.

40  Shoesmith, Defences, Fig. 133 on p. 79.

41  However, matters would have been much worse without Gould's and Sheridan's prompt publication of their own sites and without the latter's paper presenting the very sketchy data available about Wainwright's excavation in 1960 of what was evidently a key site near the circuit's north-eastern corner (references as in nn. 19, 37 above).

42  The major difference was that Tamworth's defences seem to have lacked the informal timber-lacing found at Hereford, where the clayey soil and turf which were the rampart's chief components had a natural strength not shared by the sandy turf make up at Tamworth. The latter, therefore, needed a more formal timber framework, evidence of which was well preserved on its western side. However, the often very sketchy records of excavations done on the northern and eastern sides (many of them, moreover, on badly preserved sites) offer generally much poorer evidence of settings for vertical posts similar to those found by Gould; the exception is a site on Albert Road close to the north-eastern corner: Sheridan, 'Sixth Report'. The size and sophistication of the Tamworth rampart's timber framework should be judged by the publication of Gould's Brewery Lane site ('First Report', Figs 2?4), not by the one of his Lichfield Street site where many of the smaller features interpreted as post-holes ('Third Report', Figs 2?4) may have been naturally formed, such as by tree roots.

43  Gould, 'First Report', p. 18; also ibid., p. 28, where feature X is unequivocally identified as a palisade trench, as it also is in J. Gould, 'Tamworth, Town Defences (SK205060)', West Midlands Annual Archaeological News Sheet 10 (1967), p. 16. For his reinterpretation of it as a ditch: Gould, 'Third Report', pp. 33, 35.

44  Gould, 'Tamworth, Town Defences', p. 16. His full statement is, 'Below the Saxon rampart and sealed by it was a palisade trench and beam slot but time did not allow these earliest features to be examined except in section.'

45  For example, Sheridan, 'Sixth Report', Fig. 2 on p. 34; 'Ninth Report', Fig. 1 on p. 40.

46  These supposed timbers were presumably removed when this early rampart was superseded in 913 by ?thelfl?d's, an activity which is likely to have destroyed the stratigraphical evidence of the original construction process. For similar but smaller features which show little or no such destruction, so that the width of the posts which they contained can still be observed, see features A, E and Y on Figs 6?7, the latter two of which still contained undisturbed original 'packing' material.

47  Or one perhaps more accurately described as a back-of-an-old-envelope-in-the-pub attempt.

48   S.R. Bassett , 'A Probable Mercian Royal Mausoleum at Winchcombe, Gloucestershire' , Antiquaries Journal 65 ( 1985 ), pp . 82 ? 100 , at p. 83 (Fig. 1); J. Samuels and D. Slatcher, 'An Archaeological Evaluation at Almsbury Farm, Winchcombe, Gloucestershire' (unpublished report JSAC 543c/2000/04, John Samuels Archaeological Consultants, Normanton-on-Trent, 2000), pp. 10?13, 23 (where the putative ditch is identified as a sunken way, an interpretation which I discuss in 'Middl

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The Kingdom of Mercia at its greatest extent (7th to 9th centuries) is shown in green, with the original core area (6th century) given a darker tint.

Mercia (Old English: Mierce, "border people"; IPA: [ˈmɜːʃiə]) was one of the kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxon heptarchy, centred on the valley of the River Trent and its tributaries in what is now the Midlands of England.

In pagan times the Mercians fought under the banner of the golden dragon. This remained in use during the Christian period as well.

Early history

Mercia's exact evolution from the Anglo-Saxon invasions is more obscure than that of Northumbria, Kent, or even Wessex. Archaeological surveys show that Angles settled the lands north of the River Thames by the sixth century. The name Mercia is Old English for "boundary folk" (see marches), and the traditional interpretation was that the kingdom originated along the frontier between the Welsh and the Anglo-Saxon invaders, although P. Hunter Blair has argued an alternative interpretation that they emerged along the frontier between the kingdom of Northumbria and the inhabitants of the Trent river valley.

The earliest known king of Mercia was named Creoda, said to have been the great-grandson of Icel. He came to power about 585 and was succeeded by his son Pybba in 593. Cearl, a kinsman of Creoda, followed Pybba in 606; in 615, Cearl gave his daughter Cwenburga in marriage to Edwin, king of Deira whom he had sheltered while he was an exiled prince. The next Mercian king was Penda, who ruled from about 626 or 633 until 655. Some of what is known about Penda comes through the hostile account of Bede, who disliked him both for being an enemy king to Bede's own Northumbria, but also for being a pagan. However, Bede admits that it was Penda who freely allowed Christian missionaries from Lindisfarne into Mercia, and did not restrain them from preaching. After a reign of successful battles against all opponents, Penda was defeated and killed at the Battle of Winwaed by the Northumbrian king Oswiu in 655.

The battle led to a temporary collapse of Mercian power. Penda was succeeded first by his son Peada, but in the spring of 656 Oswiu assumed control of the whole of Mercia after Peada's murder. A revolt in 658 resulted in the appearance of another son of Penda, Wulfhere, who ruled Mercia until his death in 675. Wulfhere was initially successful in restoring the power of Mercia, but the end of his reign saw a serious defeat against Northumbria. The next two kings, ?thelred and Cenred son of Wulfhere, are better known for their religious activities; the king who succeeded them (in 709), Ceolred, is said in a letter of Saint Boniface to have been a dissolute youth who died insane. So ended the rule of the direct descendants of Penda.

At some point before the accession of ?thelbald, the Mercians conquered the region around Wroxeter, known to the Welsh as "The Paradise of Powys." Elegies written in the persona of its dispossessed rulers record the sorrow at this loss.

The next important king of Mercia was ?thelbald (716 - 757). For the first few years of his reign he had to face the obstacles of two strong rival kings, Wihtred of Kent and Ine of Wessex. But when Wihtred died in 725, and Ine abdicated his throne the following year to become a monk in Rome, ?thelbald was free to establish Mercia's hegemony over the rest of the Anglo-Saxons south of the Humber. Because of his prowess as a military leader, he acquired the title of Bretwalda. ?thelbald suffered a setback in 752, when he was defeated by the West Saxons under Cuthred, but he seems to have restored his supremacy over Wessex by 757.

A silver penny from the reign of Offa, King of Mercia 757-796. Minted in London around 785

Reign of Offa and rise of Wessex

Following the murder of ?thelbald by one of his bodyguards in 757, a civil war followed, which was concluded with the victory of Offa. Offa was forced to build the hegemony over the southern English of his predecessor anew, but he not only did so successfully, he became the greatest king Mercia ever knew. Not only did he win battles and dominate southern England, he also took an active hand to administering the affairs of his kingdom by founding market towns and overseeing the first major issues of gold coins in Britain, assumed a role in the administration of the Catholic church in England, and even negotiated with Charlemagne as an equal. Offa is credited with the construction of Offa's Dyke, marking the border between Wales and Mercia.

Offa exerted himself to ensure that his son Ecgfrith of Mercia would succeed him, but after his death in July 796, Ecgfrith survived for only five more months, and the kingdom passed to a distant relative named Coenwulf in December 796. In 821, Coenwulf himself was succeeded by his brother Ceolwulf, who demonstrated his military prowess by his attack on and destruction of the fortress of Deganwy in Powys. The power of the West Saxons under Egbert was rising during this period, however, and in 825 Egbert defeated the Mercian king Beornwulf (who had overthrown Ceolwulf in 823) at Ellendun.

The Battle of Ellendun proved decisive. Beornwulf was slain suppressing a revolt amongst the East Angles, and his successor, a former ealdorman named Ludeca, met the same fate. Another ealdorman, Wiglaf, subsequently ruled for less than two years before being driven out of Mercia by Egbert. In 830, Wiglaf regained independence for Mercia, but by this time Wessex was clearly the dominant power in England. Wiglaf was succeeded by Beorhtwulf.

Alfred the Great's daughter, Aethelflaed, the 'Lady of the Mercians' has fortified the towns of Mercia, including Hereford, in response to the threat from the Danes who occupy most of England and are marauding in Wales.
For two hundred years, a wooden cathedral has stood near the central crossroads. At the bottom right, an equally old, or even older, monastery lies outside the defences. The latter's cemetery is the burial ground for the whole town.

Arrival of the Danes

In 852, Burgred came to the throne and with Ethelwulf of Wessex subjugated north Wales. In 868, Danish armies occupied Nottingham. The Danes drove Burgred, the last king of Mercia from his kingdom in 874. In 886, the eastern part of the kingdom became part of the Danelaw, while Mercia was reduced to its western portion only. The Danes appointed a Mercian thegn, Ceolwulf II, as king in 873 while the remaining independent section of Mercia was ruled by ?thelred, called an ealderman, not a king. He ruled from 883 until 911, in a close and trusting alliance with Wessex. ?thelred had married ?thelfl?d, daughter of Alfred the Great of Wessex. She gradually assumed power as her husband sickened after about 900, possibly as a result of his wounds gained at the decisive battle against the Vikings at Tettenhall where the last large Viking army to ravage England suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of the combined Mercian and Wessex army. After Aethelred's death she ruled alone until her death in 918 when her brother, Edward the Elder of Wessex became king. Ethelfleda freely gave London and Oxford to her brother in Wessex as a token of loyalty, and concentrated on fortifying Mercia's existing borders ? east towards Nottingham, north to Chester, along the Welsh marches, and down to the Severn estuary.
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« Reply #2 on: May 02, 2007, 06:38:36 PM »

A more simplistic overview for those of us not so knowledgable about UK geography...


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