The aim of this essay is to investigate aspects of the development of public assembly in the Danelaw area of early medieval England using topographic, place-name and archaeological evidence for hundred and wapentake meeting-places. The article considers aspects of the Anglo-Saxon tradition of public assembly, and assesses the probable origins of the system. It then compares the system of meeting-places in the Danelaw with moot-sites in other areas of Anglo-Saxon England. The article attempts to outline topics such as the different functions of meeting-places and the changing rationale behind meeting-place locations. This leads to suggestions about the antiquity of the system of public administration in the Danelaw and the nature of Scandinavian settlement in eastern England.
The Danelaw was the area of England thought by medieval jurists to have been under Danish law in the early middle ages, having been largely settled and controlled by Scandinavians in the late ninth and early tenth centuries (Campbell et al. 1982: 161-4; see fig. 1). The Scandinavian settlement meant that there were cultural and political differences between the Danelaw in the north and east and the rest of Anglo-Saxon England, ranging from language to landholding customs. Nevertheless, there were also continuities and similarities, and this essay aims to look at one of these: the system of meeting places through which the law was administered in the localities.
Figure 1: The Danelaw area of eastern England (after Hill, 1981: fig. 174).
In the eleventh century, at the end of the early medieval period in England, there were public assemblies of several different kinds, each serving several different functions. The shire court, for example, met twice a year for the assessment of public burdens and royal dues, and the settlement of property disputes county-wide. It was presided over by earls and bishops, with the shire-reeve representing the interests of the king, and was attended by the freemen of the shire (Loyn, 1984: 138). In some northern and eastern areas, such meetings were held in the central county-town, as at Leicester (Cox, 1971-2), and in other areas at ancient established meeting-places, for example Scutchamer Knob in Berkshire (Adkins & Petchey, 1984: 247). Below this level, the hundred court assembled to settle matters of criminal law and to organise public duties, such as the raising of posses to pursue cattle thieves (Reynolds, 1999: 75-6). It met once every four weeks, and was attended by the freemen of the hundred, the administrative unit into which late Anglo-Saxon shires were divided (Loyn, 1984: 142-3). In many parts of the former Danelaw, the wapentake fulfilled very similar functions to the hundred, although wapentakes were often larger than the hundreds of southern and western England. At the lowest level, within each hundred, tithings were groups of ten men whose purpose was to regulate, and if necessary take responsibility for, each other’s behaviour (Campbell et al. 1982: 180). This essay will concentrate on hundred and wapentake meeting places, since enough is known to draw comparisons between the areas settled by Scandinavians and the rest of England. In order to understand public assembly in the Danelaw, it is necessary to look in more detail at the system that existed in Anglo-Saxon England before the Scandinavian settlements, and to investigate its origins.
The Origins of Public Assembly in Anglo-Saxon England
The emergence of meeting-places reflected the developing sophistication of Anglo-Saxon society from the late sixth century. Sedentary agriculturists generally have a different way of conceptualising the land to mobile peoples, who often see territories through the paths and views that make them up, rather than as blocks of land defined by boundaries (Bradley, 1997: 6). Agriculturists tend to impose their own constructs upon the land such as settlements, boundary markers and meeting-places, and their conceptions of territoriality become more sophisticated as their social institutions develop. Power can come to be defined in relation to territory: the more an individual or group controls, the more powerful they become in comparison to competitors or those who pay them tribute (Harvey, 1997: 66-7; Davies, 1990: 15-16). In Anglo-Saxon England social groups increasingly defined themselves in relation to their territories from the sixth century onwards. Such territories probably made up the primitive units on which the most ancient hundreds are likely to be based (Hooke, 1998: 46-54).
Within each territory social groups assembled at recognised meeting-places.
In early Anglo-Saxon societies, controlling the land on which meetings took
place could imply a degree of control over the meetings themselves, since power
‘...flowed from the land’ (Driscoll, 1991: 83).
Perhaps for this reason, important Anglo-Saxon meeting-places often seem to
have been located away from centres of population, on the boundaries of estates
Pagan English public assembly and later meeting places
The earliest Anglo-Saxon places of assembly for which any evidence exists, other than cemeteries and settlements, are sites of probable pagan religious activity. The place-name evidence relating to pagan sites is broadly divisible into three categories. In the first category, place-names including the elements weoh, wih ‘idol’, ‘shrine’ and hearg ‘heathen temple’ may contain references to former pagan shrines. There is a chance that some of these sites continued to be used as meeting-places, although the only instance of a hundred name containing such an element is Wye hundred (Kent) (Anderson, 1939b: 128; hundreds were very commonly named after their meeting-places – see below). Secondly, place-names containing the elements stapol (post/platform) or beam (post) may refer to pagan structures or parts of religious sites (e.g. Staploe (Cambs) and Staple (Wilts; Anderson, 1934, Anderson 1939a). Blair (1995: 20) points out that single posts such as those at Yeavering in Northumberland are a recurring feature in excavations of Anglo-Saxon pagan temple sites. The third indicator from place-name evidence of an Anglo-Saxon pagan religious site is an element containing the name of a pagan god or goddess usually Woden or Thunor as in the hundred-names of Wenslow (Bucks) and Thunderlow (Essex) (Anderson, 1939b: 19; Meaney, 1995: 33).
It could be coincidental that sites of pagan worship and hundred
meeting-places share similar locations (Wilson, 1985),
but it is possible that there was some connection between the two and that some
hundred meeting-places originated as pagan sites whose religious significance
was subsequently forgotten.
Hundreds in Anglo-Saxon England: their names and meeting-places
The majority of hundreds are named after their meeting-places, and the earliest record of these names for most of England is usually Domesday Book (Anderson, 1934; Meaney, 1997). Some hundreds bear the name of the royal vill where the hundred court met from the tenth or eleventh centuries, and it is possible that they represent territories administered from the royal centre for taxation purposes whose bounds were set out de novo at this time (Loyn, 1984: 142). The first written reference to the hundred occurs in the Hundred Ordinance, a document probably composed some time between 939-961, possibly by Edgar (Whitelock, 1979: 429). It issues guidelines for the hundred court, and some scholars have argued that it is contemporary with the first establishment of the hundreds as territorial units throughout England (e.g. Roffe, 1986: 110).
However, as Stenton noted, other historical evidence demonstrates that public assemblies existed before the Hundred Ordinance was issued. An early ninth-century charter of Coenwulf of Mercia states that the king had freed some land from the burden of popularia concilia (public assemblies), and in the tenth-century laws of Edward the Elder mention is made of courts held every four weeks (Stenton, 1971: 298-9).
Furthermore, many hundreds are named after meeting-places, which were distant from the royal or ecclesiastical centres, often in apparently isolated positions. There is evidence to suggest that meeting-places at royal vills or other estate centres replaced meeting-places elsewhere in the land unit whose names have now been lost (an exception is Alleriga or Ermington hundred in Devon, where the first name represents the initial meeting-place and the second the estate centre which replaced it) (Anderson, 1939a: 92-3; Meaney, 1997: 198).
Hundred names derived from meeting-place names away from royal vills suggest a more ancient origin for the district court and imply some form of administrative unit on which the hundred was later based (Yorke, 1995: 124-5). The possibility that meeting-places preserve the sites of pagan assemblies was mentioned above. Further evidence is found in hundred names and meeting-place names that preserve the name of early Anglo-Saxon social groups. It is probable that the territories of such early groups roughly correspond to the areas of later hundreds. The likely meeting-places of such groups can sometimes be identified, as at Armingford (Cambs; the ford of the Earningas) and Hurstingstone (Hunts; the stone (-stan) of the people of (-inga-) the wooded hill (hyrst-); Meaney, 1993, 1997).
In the absence of historical references, perhaps the most convincing
evidence for the existence of (proto) hundreds before the tenth century is now
provided by archaeology. One of the functions of the hundred-moot was to act as
a court. Harsh Anglo-Saxon laws meant that criminals were relatively frequently
put to death, and archaeologists have excavated several cemeteries where the
victims of the Law were interred (known as ‘execution cemeteries’; e.g. Stockbridge
Down (Hants); Hill, 1937). Reynolds has shown that these
sites were almost always located on hundred boundaries, and that in parts of
England this custom may have begun as early as the eighth century (Reynolds, 1997). This shows that the (proto) hundred
and the hundred court have considerably earlier origins than had previously
The location and function of hundred meeting-places in Anglo-Saxon England
Many meeting-places were located close to major routeways. In the Cambridge area the Icknield Way passes close to the meeting-places of the hundreds of Odsey, Thriplow, Whittlesford and Lackford, and other Roman roads in the area pass the meeting sites of Braughing, Armingford, Longstow, Clacklose, Edwinstree and Hinckford hundreds (Meaney 1997: 218). The location of meeting-places near to major routes could show a concern that they should be accessible to the men of the hundred that had to attend them.
This raises the question of centrality. The location of the meeting-place relative to the boundaries of the hundred varies considerably from hundred to hundred. In a geographical sense some are very central, and this could imply that moot-sites were originally chosen to be near the centre of the administrative unit (Anderson, 1939b: 213; Christy, 1925-8: 180). For example, Reynolds has recently noted that the majority of Wiltshire hundred meeting-places are central to their hundreds (Reynolds, 1999: 78-80; see fig. 2).
2: Late Saxon Wiltshire: hundreds and hundred
meeting-places (after Reynolds, 1999: fig. 26).
It was also common for hundred meeting-places to be located on or near estate (later parish) boundaries. There was not necessarily a clash between geographically central locations and locations chosen for neutrality, since meeting-places central to the hundred could still be established on estate boundaries (e.g. Secklow (Bucks; Adkins & Petchey, 1984: 244), or on common land within the hundred (e.g. Haytor (Devon)). Examples of meeting-mounds from Anglo-Saxon charter-bounds include Moot Barrow, Calbourne (Isle of Wight; S 274) and cwicelmeshlaew (Cuckhamsley Hill), the Berkshire moot-mound (S 1454; Grinsell, 1991: 49). Examples not mentioned in charters include the Wormelow Tump, at the meeting point of three parishes and six roads and Webtree, at the junction of three parishes, (all Herefordshire; Gelling, 1978: 210). Meeting at a place where no individual or group controlled the land could mean that there was no implication of overall control at the assembly (see also Cubitt, 1995: 32-9 for a discussion of Anglo-Saxon synods, which often seem to have taken place on boundaries). However, it is also possible that meeting-places, which would have been well-known features of the landscape, were used as convenient boundary-markers when estates were divided in the later Saxon period. The position of other hundred meeting-places on or near to hundred boundaries could reflect their function as judicial assemblies, located there in order to be close to execution sites. Alternatively, their positions could result from the division of an earlier hundred in which they had once been central (e.g. Freebridge and Freebridge Lynn (Norfolk); Meaney 1993).
From the tenth and eleventh centuries there is a tendency towards hundreds
assembling at (and being named after) estate centres rather than neutral
hundred meeting-places, as at Cheveley (Cambs; Meaney, 1997:
235) or Ermington (Devon; Anderson, 1939b: 210).
This most likely reflects an increasing desire by landowners to wield greater
influence in proceedings at the hundred-court (see Wormald,
1995: 162-3). Such a move may have facilitated the administration of an
increasingly complicated tax system and allowed greater regulation of any
financial transactions (Loyn, 1984: 142).
The nature of hundred meeting-places in Anglo-Saxon England
Before the ‘relocations’ to administrative settlements of the tenth and
eleventh centuries, most hundred meeting-places (and therefore hundreds) were
named from features of the landscape. Meaney has discussed such meeting-places
at length, and divides them into three categories (1993,
1997). Although this categorisation imposes slightly
artificial divisions (for example, mounds used as meeting-places could have
been either natural or man-made), it does break up the evidence into convenient
chunks (fig. 3). ‘Natural’ meeting places include
fords, cross-roads, gaps for crossing ditches or dykes, and bridges. Examples
include Hinckford (Essex), Upton (Northants) near the junction of Roman roads,
and Launditch (Norfolk) at a crossing point in the ‘Devil’s Dyke’. ‘Secondary’
meeting-places at naturally occurring landmarks include prominent water
features, stones and trees, such as Wixamtree (Beds; Meaney,
1993: 91) or Tibblestone (Gloucs; Heighway, 1987:
61). Meaney’s final category consists of hundred meeting-places that
take their names from man-made structures or monuments, as at Staploe (Cambs)
and perhaps Clacklose (Norfolk; incorporating Old English hlose, ‘shed’
or ‘shelter’; Meaney, 1997: 212).
Figure 3: Diagram showing Meaney’s classification of hundred meeting-place sites (Meaney, 1993)
Anglo-Saxon meeting mounds
The most common features chosen for meeting-places were mounds (Meaney, 1997: 212). Mound meeting-places show one of the problems with Meaney’s classification, as they fall between the second and third categories: naturally occurring mounds, prehistoric barrows and Anglo-Saxon mounds were all put to use as meeting-places. The Old English place-name elements for mounds are beorg and hlaew.
Beorg is found all over England although it generally seems more common in the north, meaning either ‘hill’ or ‘mound’, than in the south, where the term hlaew predominates (Gelling, 1978: 136). Both words are found in the names of meeting-mounds, although hlaew is more common, perhaps indicating a preference for Anglo-Saxon barrows or purpose-built mounds.
Hlaew probably has a wider chronological range than beorg. Names such as Wenslow (Beds; ‘Woden’s hlaew’) and Thunderlow (Essex; ‘Thumor’s hlaew’) may have been formed in the pagan English period (Meaney, 1997: 212). Oswaldslow (Worcs) was most likely named in the tenth century after Bishop Oswald of Worcester (Wormald, 1995: 126), and various ‘Mutlows’ probably continued to incorporate the hlaew element into the thirteenth century (Meaney, 1993: 69).
The archaeology of meeting-mounds
A number of Anglo-Saxon meeting mounds have been excavated, and this work has produced some interesting results. Firstly, it has made it clear that many meeting-mounds were constructed in the middle ages, although they are very difficult to date closely (Adkins & Petchey, 1984: 246-250). Usually there is no diagnostic evidence within the mound or surrounding ditch to indicate the date of construction, probably owing to the rural position of the meeting places and the periodic nature of their use. In some cases mounds can be identified as post-Roman, such as Mutlow Hill (Cambs) or Lexden Mount (Essex), or definitely in use at some time in the medieval period, as at Bledisloe Tump (Gloucs), although it is often difficult to be more specific (Adkins & Petchey, 1984: 248-9; 250).
Perhaps more surprising in view of the abundance of existing funerary mounds in the English landscape is the probability that only a few of the excavated mounds were constructed as tombs. Of twelve excavated meeting-mounds considered by Adkins and Petchey (1984: 246-250), only one is interpreted as a re-used burial mound, the meeting-place of Culliford Tree hundred (Dorset). Other sites such as cwicelmeshlaew (Berks), and Secklow (Bucks), were probably built specifically as meeting-places.
By the ninth century, therefore, the Anglo-Saxons had an established
tradition of public assembly and of constructing meeting-places to serve early
administrative units that were similar to (and often co-extensive with) the
later hundreds. Having established this, the essay will now go on to examine
aspects of the Scandinavian settlement of England and compare public assembly
in the Danelaw to other areas of Anglo-Saxon England.
Scandinavian settlement in England
The Scandinavians first appear to have become permanent settlers in England from the 870s, when the Anglo-Saxon chronicle notes that land was ‘shared out’ by a Viking leader and settled for agricultural purposes (Hadley, 1997: 69-70). How many Viking settlers there were and the impact of their settlements on Anglo-Saxon society has been the subject of considerable debate. Past interpretations have ranged from theories of complete social and economic re-organisation as a result of Viking conquest and migration on one hand, to arguments for a very slight impact with small numbers of settlers who were rapidly assimilated into Anglo-Saxon society on the other (see e.g. Stenton, 1971: 519-524; cf. Sawyer, 1957-8). Such arguments have necessarily been based largely on the evidence of Scandinavian place-name elements such as -by, -thorpe, and hybrid names which are part-Scandinavian, part-English. These place-names are supposed to have been coined either to describe new settlements or to replace existing Anglo-Saxon place-names (see e.g. Fellows-Jensen, 1995). Establishing a chronology of place-name formation may be important, but recent critical essays have pointed out that previous work has often relied on narrow assumptions about the use of language by different ethnic groups and their social relationships with each-other (e.g. Hadley, 1997). For example, Scandinavian place-names do not necessarily indicate the settlements of groups of ethnically Scandinavian people, and sculpture in styles thought to be distinctively ‘Viking’ can be found in several places with English names (Morris, 1984: 11). For the purposes of the present essay, it should suffice to follow Hadley in saying that Scandinavian settlement history in Britain should be viewed as a process of cultural interaction and influence in which a major dynamic was the integration of Scandinavian settlers into the native society. There was probably no simple correlation between numbers of settlers and their impact on society, nor a simple confrontation along ethnic lines of ‘Vikings’ versus ‘English’ in the ninth-century landscape. Instead, the most important factors in landscape and settlement change are likely to have been any re-structuring resulting from the actions of the (new) elite (Hadley, 1997: 93; 88).
It has frequently been argued that the many small eleventh-century estates
recorded in the Danelaw in Domesday Book reflect a fragmentation of larger
units that happened in the ninth century as a result of the Scandinavian
settlements and the distribution of land by the elite among their followers
(e.g. Morris, 1984: 5; Richards,
1991: 30). These small estates have been supposed to demonstrate a
distinctively Viking attitude to property and landscape which represents a
break with past institutions. However, it is not clear that settlement
structure in the Danelaw was derived directly from settlement organisation in
contemporary Denmark (see e.g. Lund, 1976: 479-80). The
emergence of large estates which were privately-owned by the elite classes in
eighth-century Denmark is similar to the ‘privatisation’ of land that had
occurred in sixth- and seventh-century Britain, in both the Anglo-Saxon east
and the British west (see e.g. Carver, 1989). A more
revealing comparison can be drawn between the development of private property
and land ownership in areas of Danish settlement and other areas of
contemporary Anglo-Saxon England. The supposed proliferation of smaller estates
in the ninth- and tenth-century Danelaw is comparable in many ways to
developments in Wessex which are recorded in Anglo-Saxon charters at about the
same time (Costen, 1994; Reynolds,
1999: 82-3). It is therefore likely that the movement towards ‘private’
land ownership reflects a continuation (possibly with some acceleration) of
existing trends, rather than a total break with the Anglo-Saxon past. Hadley
has recently argued that both estate fragmentation and amalgamation were
important features of property ownership in the Danelaw, and that it is
probably mistaken to assume that patterns of landscape organisation were in any
way ‘simple’ before the Scandinavian settlements (Hadley,
1996: 11-12). Whilst there were elements of change, there was also
considerable continuity. Even so, Hadley follows Roffe’s arguments that the
wapentake system of public administration in the Danelaw was established in the
mid-tenth century (Hadley, 1996: 6; Roffe,
1986: 110). This essay will proceed to argue that meeting-places and
territorial administration in the Danelaw were not first established in the
tenth century. Despite some measure of change, they essentially continued
systems that were already well established in Anglo-Saxon England. This was
probably in part due to similarities between the pre-existing Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon
The Scandinavian tradition of public assembly
The meeting-places of the Anglo-Saxons would not have seemed strange to
Viking settlers, since there was an established custom of meeting for the
administration of justice in Scandinavia. Such meetings were known as ‘things’,
and place-names including a ‘thing’ element often indicate the former site of a
meeting-place. As in Anglo-Saxon England, in Denmark mounds were commonly
chosen (and constructed) to act as ‘thing’ meeting-places (Adkins
& Petchey 1984: 246). Furthermore, ‘things’ seem to have been
associated with early administrative groupings that were roughly equivalent to
the hundred in England, for example the ‘herred’ in Denmark and the ‘herad’ in
south-eastern Norway (Crawford, 1987: 84). In areas
they settled overseas, Scandinavians established ‘things’ as meeting places for
their administrative districts. In Iceland thirteen local ‘things’ divided
between four quarters and an ‘Althing’, or general assembly, served the
judicial needs of the settlers’ communities. ‘Thing’ place-names and sites are
also characteristic of areas of northern Britain settled by Scandinavians which
were not part of Anglo-Saxon England. Tynwald on the Isle of Man is perhaps the
most famous example, but other ‘thing’ names are to be found in the Hebrides,
Shetland, Orkney and on the Scottish mainland (Crawford,
1987: 206-10; Graham-Campbell & Batey, 1998:
33, 107-11). Crawford has commented that the legal administrative arrangements
of the Scandinavians formed one of their most valuable contributions to
society, and that they enabled settler communities to maintain their identity (Crawford, 1987: 209-22). Therefore, the long-established
Anglo-Saxon meeting-places in England that served administrative units for
judicial enquiry would have seemed very familiar to Scandinavian settlers.
Public assembly in the Danelaw
Many meeting-places in the Danelaw probably had their origins in the Anglo-Saxon period before the Scandinavian settlement, and it is reasonable to assume that there was already some kind of administrative system in existence similar to the later system of hundreds and wapentakes. The evidence for this comes mainly from the meeting-place names and their locations.
It is noticeable that in the Danelaw, meeting-places generally occupy sites
similar to those of meeting-places in other areas of England. Numerous
meeting-places are at sites where people would be likely to meet or at
naturally occurring landmarks (Meaney’s (1993) first
and second categories). For example, Normancross (Hunts) and Walecros (Derbys)
are both at crossroads, and Winnibriggs (Lincs) is at a river crossing;
Morleyston (Derbys) and Guthlaxton (Leics) are both named after meeting-places
at stones, Gartree (Leics), Appletree (Derbys) and Skyrack (W Yorks) are named
after important trees, and Avelund (Lincs) and Toseland (Hunts) are named after
groves of trees (Anderson, 1934). If this locational
similarity suggests a relationship between the two systems, so does the
presence in Danelaw areas of meeting-places with English names. It might be
expected that the majority of meeting-place names in the Danelaw would be
derived from the Scandinavian languages if the administrative organisation of
the Danelaw into wapentakes and hundreds was wholly organised by the
Scandinavian elite. However, this is not the case, as the examples cited above
show (Winnibriggs, Morleyston, Guthlaxton and Appletree are all Old English
names). In Lincolnshire, a region with many Scandinavian place-names, around
half the wapentake and hundred names have English origins (Anderson,
It is also interesting that the most common names for wapentakes and hundreds in the Danelaw, as in Anglo-Saxon England, are derived from meeting-places at mounds. The most frequently occurring Scandinavian place-name element that indicates a mound is haugr, and this appears to be used in the same way as English hlaew and beorg. Numerous examples of hundred or wapentake names incorporating haugr include Haverstoe, Wraggoe, Threo (all Lincs), South Greenhoe and Grimshoe (Norfolk). Haugr is considerably more common in the Danelaw than the ‘thing’ name-elements which are used in other areas of Scandinavian settlement for meeting-places. It is probable that instead of building new meeting-mounds in the Danelaw, Scandinavian settlers simply continued to use existing Anglo-Saxon meeting-places with names in hlaew or beorg, which were subsequently referred to using the -haugr name element. Even so, in some cases, the Old English names of mound meeting-places survived, as at Babergh (Suffolk) and Beltisloe (Lincs) (Meaney, 1993; 1997).
Archaeological evidence also suggests an Anglo-Saxon origin for some Danelaw meeting-places. Thingoe (Suffolk) is one of the Danelaw hundred meeting-places with a name that incorporates the element ‘thing’, and this might suggest that it was first built by Scandinavians. However, archaeological investigation has revealed that the mound is probably a re-used prehistoric barrow, comparable to another East Anglian example at South Greenhoe (Norfolk). It is therefore quite possible that both were first used for meetings in the Anglo-Saxon period, although this early use has left no archaeologically detectable traces (Meaney, 1997: 216).
Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon meeting-places shared a common purpose as sites of judicial assembly, and this may also have led to continuity of use. For example, Blyth Low Hill, the meeting-place of Bassetlaw hundred (Notts), was probably originally constructed as a meeting-place, and there is evidence for continuing use of a gallows there in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The site bears an English name, which could indicate that its origins lie in the pre-Scandinavian period (Adkins & Petchey, 1984: 248). A similar example (although without archaeological evidence) is Wartre (E Yorks), whose name is seemingly derived from Old English wearg-treo, ‘gallows’ (Anderson, 1934: 15).
Archaeological evidence also shows that some of the boundaries of Danelaw administrative units were remarkably stable throughout the early middle ages. It was noted above that in Anglo-Saxon England the execution cemeteries of criminals were usually located on hundred boundaries (Reynolds, 1997). At South Acre in Norfolk the execution cemetery lies close to the boundaries of three hundreds, Freebridge Lynn, South Greenhoe and Launditch. Although South Acre was not the meeting-place of any of these hundreds, there were clearly close links between judicial assemblies and judicial execution sites. Radiocarbon dates suggest that the cemetery was in use from the seventh into the tenth century, indicating that the hundred boundaries were long-established and respected (Whymer, 1996).
Roffe has suggested that the hundredal organisation of some Danelaw counties
such as Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire dates to some time in the 950s or 960s,
after their conquest by the English in the early tenth century (Roffe, 1986). That there was a territorial re-organisation
at this time is perhaps confirmed by the occurrence of ‘minor’ meeting-place
names that seem to have lost their former administrative units. Cox has noted
some Leicestershire examples (with both English and Scandinavian names)
including Finger Farm (incorporating ‘thing’ and -haugr elements), Thingou,
Spelthorn and Spellow (with *spell and –hlaew, ‘speech-barrow’)
(Cox, 1971-2: 19). There are further examples in the West
Riding of Yorkshire (Smith, 1962: 65), and in the
counties of Nottinghamshire (e.g. Speller hill, Spellow Hill and Hanger Hill (Gover, et al. 1940)) and Derbyshire (e.g. Spellow Cross,
Moot Low and Spellow Ground Farm (Cameron, 1959)).
The evidence of hundred meeting-places cannot yet provide proof for the exact nature of administrative changes after the Scandinavian settlement, relying as it does on place-names and a small number of archaeological investigations. Further research, including the excavation of more meeting-place mounds, will undoubtedly produce more concrete evidence for the chronological development of public institutions. However, the evidence discussed above does suggest a number of preliminary conclusions.
In ninth-century Anglo-Saxon England there was a well-established system of meeting-places and administrative organisation which had grown out of the social, political and economic developments of the seventh century, and which may have had its origins in the earliest territorial and religious organisation of the Anglo-Saxons.
The Scandinavian settlers of the late ninth and early tenth centuries also had a tradition of meeting places that served as the judicial assemblies of administrative units, and the system in Anglo-Saxon England was therefore remarkably similar to that in many other parts of the Scandinavian world. The new Scandinavian elite, whose actions would have had the most important effect on settlement and land-use, would easily have been able to adapt the existing structures of social and political organisation for their own use. It seems that the majority of meeting-place sites in the Danelaw probably maintained their ancient positions after the Scandinavian settlement, and it is likely that in many areas the hundreds that they served kept their established boundaries. This is suggested by evidence from a number of sources. Firstly, there are the similarities in the locations of meeting-places in the Danelaw and other parts of Anglo-Saxon England, seen particularly in the use of mounds as meeting-places. Secondly, there are the archaeological excavations which have shown that ancient, pre-Scandinavian mounds were employed as meeting-places in the Danelaw, and that execution cemeteries established earlier in the Anglo-Saxon period continued in use during the Scandinavian settlement. Finally, there are the many meeting-places in the Danelaw with English names, in particular those which appear to have ‘lost’ their former administrative units after the tenth-century English conquest, and those which probably date from before this conquest since they are not located at estate centres. It appears from this evidence that there was significant continuity in the system of meeting-places operated both by the Anglo-Saxons in the earlier ninth century and their Danish successors. This shows that at least in the field of public administration the Danish settlement did not result in wholesale reorganisation of existing structures and customs.
The most radical changes to the system probably occurred later and resulted from different causes. Firstly, the administrative re-organisation after the English conquest of the Danelaw in the tenth century, and secondly, the growing power of the elite to re-locate meeting-places to central vills in the later tenth and eleventh centuries, not just in the Danelaw, but all over England.
The way social institutions developed in Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Scandinavian
England meant that many influences and concerns from the past were preserved,
including ideas about location and what activities were proper to a
meeting-place. Some assemblies occupied the same site for hundreds of years,
even if their ultimate origins were forgotten.
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I am grateful to Dr Andrew Reynolds and to Sarah Semple for reading a draft of this article and making several very helpful comments, and also to the participants at the SOCRATES Vikings Seminar 1999 at the University of York for their remarks on a version presented there.
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Sam Turner is a research student at the Department of Archaeology in the University of York. His main research interest is presently Britain in the later part of the early Middle Ages. His thesis is on ecclesiastical institutions and their part in the development of the social institutions and landscape of south-west England during this period.
Department of Archaeology, University of York, King’s Manor, York YO1 7EP.
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