Research design


The nature of Anglo-Saxon civil defence, its conduct and political context, has long been a field of central concern to early medieval historians and more latterly to archaeologists. A major question arising from existing research is the extent to which developing military institutions helped national consolidation and the emergence of a new political order in England during and after the period of Scandinavian incursion into the British Isles (late eighth to eleventh centuries). This question has particular relevance to the issue of state formation in Late Anglo-Saxon England, where it is argued that strong external influences on politics and culture precipitated an emergency conversion with the formation of the English nation-state an eventual corollary (e.g. Maitland 1897; Stenton 1971; Brooks 1979; Abels 1988, 1997; Hollister 1998) .

In support of this model, earlier work by both historians and archaeologists has focussed almost without exception on the thirty-three major fortifications (burhs) listed in the early tenth-century document known as the Burghal Hidage (e.g. Brooks 1964; Hill 1969; Hill & Rumble 1996). Drawing on these data, existing research has argued that the burghal system represents a systematic approach to defence, incorporating centralised planning, significant communal investment of labour and resources, and an overarching military strategy. Yet key questions remain regarding the nature, scale and organisation of Late Anglo-Saxon military institutions in the landscape, not least the comparative chronology of Mercian and West Saxon civil defence networks.

The project Anglo-Saxon civil defence in the Viking Age (ASCD) addresses this significant gap in our knowledge of Later Anglo-Saxon society. In contrast to previous work, it adopts a bottom-up approach, focussing on networks of local forts and strongholds, beacon sites and lookouts and routes of communication to provide a military and social context for the burghal system. Previously, very few studies have explored these topics, and none have reviewed evidence beyond selective localised studies other than to offer brief considerations on the nature and form of beacons and routeways (e.g. Gower 2002; Hill & Sharpe 1997; Pepper 1996; Rainbird 1998; Reynolds 1995; 1999; 2000). The ASCD project represents the first truly comparative survey of all archaeological, place-name and documentary evidence regarding military institutions in this critical period of British history. It represents a major step towards understanding the extent and complexity of Late Anglo-Saxon defensive organisation at a national scale, while it also considers a series of related sub-themes, many which remains unstudied in a comparative way (for example, overland communications, urban defences, including urban hinterlands, and frontier settlement and defence).


The aim of the project is to advance the first multi-disciplinary study of Late Anglo-Saxon military organisation and its landscape context. The systematic and detailed analysis of archaeological, place-name and documentary sources will focus on three principal research questions:

  • What is the form and structure of Late Anglo-Saxon civil defence in the landscape? Using a variety of quantitative and qualitative analyses this research attempts to understand how major fortifications functioned as part of more complex defensive networks. It will define the hierarchical order of defensive structures and provide a classification system of defence characteristics. Hypotheses to be tested include whether there exist relationships between the form and location of defensive structures, topographical features, issues of accessibility and visibility. It will determine whether central places have a diversity of civil defences, and will consider the timing and development of different civil defence networks in different regions. A related issue is whether local systems of signalling and observation utilised more subtle or discreet networks of communication in contrast to the highly visible system of major beacons and related sites, such as burhs. Two localised studies have revealed a close relationship between overland routes and visual lines of communication (Gower 2002; Reynolds 2000) and this aspect of the research has major implications for our understanding of the relationships between urban communities normally studied in isolation.
  • What links can be identified between Anglo-Saxon militarization and state formation? The project will explore the role of frontiers as special places, on the one hand defining the peripheries of Anglo-Saxon polities and on the other, forming important permeable zones for trade, innovations and socio-political interaction (Green & Perlman 1985; Lightfoot & Martinez 1995; Reynolds & Langlands forthcoming). It will examine the causes and effects of political and economic expansion into new regions and assess the evolution of civil defence structures with respect to these expansionist processes. Hypotheses to be tested include: whether frontier zones have different settlement histories to core areas; whether the principles of communal upkeep of civil defences in boundary areas promoted increased regional integration in socio-economic and political terms; and whether the reorganisation of local resources to facilitate defensive arrangements had different transforming effects in different regions. While previous work has been concerned with the nature of West Saxon civil defence in the face of the Vikings, this research will examine in particular, defensive structures and settlement patterns in relation to the contested, and comparatively well-documented, frontier between the consolidating Mercian and West Saxon kingdoms between the seventh and ninth centuries. Traditionally, the Mercian kingdom is credited with the development of the earliest fortified towns, yet the West Saxons’ eventual military success during the tenth century (against the Vikings) raises either the possibility that they emulated the Mercian model or that, prior to the 10 th century their approach to organising the landscape was different (i.e. dispersed administrative functions) with much less emphasis on major central places as expressions of social complexity. This research will address in a comparative way this fundamental issue.
  • What effect did Late Anglo-Saxon manorialisation have on military organisation? Was the rapid growth of the manor and associated military obligation to the crown driven by an overarching strategy? Richard Abels’ hypothesis that fortress-building reinforced and regulated “the traditional connection between landholding and the military obligation to the Crown” (1998, 208) has yet to be tested by quantitative evidence. The links between landholding, administration and civil defence will be examined through the comparative analysis of map information, including civil defences, minster estates (Blair 1985; 1987), royal tuns (Sawyer 1983) and public assembly, the latter of which may have functioned as military mustering points)(Anderson 1934; 1939a; 1939b). Hypotheses to be tested include: did the evolution of manors transcend geo-political demarcations or did it help to define frontier zones; in what way did borderland communities effect the form of military organisation; are there differences between areas of ecclesiastical and secular lordship and the shape and local civil defence networks; what is the role of fortified, or defensible, manorial complexes (including masonry towers or so-called ‘turriform naves’) in the pattern of civil defence? Is manorialisation and the development of nucleated communities more or less marked in frontier areas?


To address these research questions the project will adopt two mutually sustaining multi-scalar approaches. Firstly, it will involve the detailed and systematic study of all archaeological evidence relating to Late Anglo-Saxon civil defences. This aspect comprises the first comparative study of the defences of the major burghal fortifications, a number of which are only recently published, complemented by a survey of related sites, known either archaeologically or identifiable from place-name evidence, to define a typology, chronology and political context for civil defensive networks. This research will provide for the macro-scale analyses of territoriality, civil defence policy and frontier issues outlined above. Secondly, detailed analysis of the local landscape context of four selected areas will provide case studies from which to interpret local military organisation. These four case-studies, comprising examples from coastal and riverine areas alongside inland examples in contrasting regions, will allow for an analysis of micro-scale issues of intentionality and social action occurring in borderland communities. Furthermore it is argues that comparisons between the regional studies will allow for major questions regarding the chronology, planning and development of these systems to be addressed.

As part of these two approaches the project has the following objectives:

  • To produce an empirical dataset of current archaeological, documentary and place-name evidence to support this project and promote future work on the development of early medieval political and military institutions.
  • To determine the location, form and morphology of Anglo-Saxon civil defences, as represented by major fortifications (burhs), local forts and strongholds, beacon sites, lookouts and routes of communication.
  • To carry out a detailed study of all place-name elements relating to defence, observation and military activity in order to clarify their uses and interpretations.
  • To investigate the geographical context (topographical, territorial and settlement) of civil defences to identify the social-political context of their construction, maintenance, and use.
  • To define the distribution of settlements relating to civil defence networks and assess the relationships between frontiers and settlement patterns.
  • To carry out four detailed case-studies analysing the form, location and development of military defences in relation to the patterns of lordship, landholding and administration.
  • To assess the impact of Late Anglo-Saxon military institutions on later medieval settlement and administrative units.


The first year involves the collection and collation of the various relevant sources for Late Anglo-Saxon civil defence and contemporary Danish activities, including written evidence, archaeology and place-names. This involves the creation of an on-line database of evidence collated from library and bibliographic resources, National Monuments Record (NMR) and county Sites and Monuments records (HERs), ‘grey-literature’ held by contracting archaeological units, and existing scholarly corpuses (e.g. the electronic thesaurus of the English Place-Name Society). Years two and three will entail the detailed analysis of this material.

Year two will also include field-study involving the detailed analysis of place-name elements and archaeological features and their topographical context, e.g. intervisibility, access and spatial organisation.


The project results will be published in four main ways:

  • as a series of articles in relevant, peer-reviewed journals (e.g. Medieval Archaeology, Antiquity).
  • as an ADS special collection database that provides for non-specialist access to the project’s results, but also specialist access to the ASCDV dataset
  • a monograph that presents the results of the project
  • proceedings of the conference held in year 2


  • Abels, R.P. 1988. Lordship and Military Obligation in Anglo-Saxon England . Berkeley : University of California
  • Abels, R.P. 1997. English Logistics and Military Administration, 871-1066: the Impact of the Viking Wars. In Jørgensen, A.N. & Clausen, B.L. (eds.) Military Aspects of Scandinavian Society in a European Perspective AD 1-1300. Copenhagen : National Museum of Denmark , 257-65
  • Abels, R.P. 1998. Alfred the Great. London : Longmans
  • Anderson, O. 1934 The English Hundred Names. Lund : University of Lund
  • Anderson , O. 1939a The English Hundred Names: the South-Western Counties. Lund : University of Lund
  • Anderson , O. 1939b The English Hundred Names: the South-Eastern Counties. Lund : University of Lund
  • Blair, J. 1985. Secular minster churches in Domesday Book. In Sawyer, P. (ed.) Domesday Book: a reassessment, London : Edward Arnold, 104-42
  • Blair, J. 1987. Local churches in Domesday Book and before. In Holt (ed.) Domesday studies. London : Boydell, 265-78
  • Brooks, N. 1964. The unidentified forts of the Burghal Hidage. Medieval Archaeology 8, 74-89
  • Brooks, N. 1979. England in the Ninth Century: the crucible of defeat? Trans. Royal Hist. Soc 29, 1-20
  • Gower, G. 2002. A suggested Anglo-Saxon signalling station between Chichester and London . London Archaeologist 10.3, 59-63
  • Green, S.W. & Perlman, S.M. 1985. The Archaeology of Frontiers and Boundaries. London : Academic Press
  • Hill, D. 1969. The Burghal Hidage – the establishment of a text. Medieval Archaeology 13, 84-92
  • Hill, D. & Rumble, A.R. (eds.) 1996. The Defence of Wessex . Manchester : Manchester University Press
  • Hill, D. & Sharpe, S. 1997. An Anglo-Saxon Beacon System in Rumble, A. & Mills, D. (eds.) Names, Places & People. Stamford : Paul Wathius, 97-108
  • Hollister, C.W. 1998 [1962]. Anglo-Saxon Military Institutions: On the Eve of the Norman Conquest. Oxford : University Press
  • Lightfoot, K.G. & Martinez , A. 1995. Frontiers and Boundaries in Archaeological Perspective. Annual Review of Anthropology 24, 471-92
  • Maitland, F.W. 1897. Domesday Book and Beyond. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press
  • Pepper, G 1996. Tothill Street Westminster , and Anglo-Saxon civil defence. In London Archaeologist 7:16, 432-434
  • Rainbird, P. 1998. Oldaport and the Anglo-Saxon Defence of Devon . Devon Archaeological Society Proceedings 56, 153-164
  • Reynolds, A. 1995. Avebury, Yatesbury and the archaeology of communications. Papers from the Institute of Archaeology 6, 21-30
  • Reynolds, A. 1999. Life and landscape in later Anglo-Saxon England. Stroud: Tempus
  • Reynolds, A. 2000. Yatesbury: Vikings and villages in North Wiltshire. Current Archaeology 171, 113-118
  • Reynolds, A. 2001. Avebury: A Late Anglo-Saxon burh? Antiquity 75, 29-30
  • Reynolds, A. & Langlands, A. forthcoming 2006. An Early Medieval Frontier: a maximum view of the Wansdyke. In Davies, W. (ed.) People and Space in Early Medieval Europe AD 300-1300. Brespols: Studies in the Early Middle Ages
  • Sawyer, P. 1983. The Royal Tun in Pre-Conquest England', in Wormald P. (ed.) Ideal and Reality in Frankish and Anglo-Saxon Society: Studies presented to J.M. Wallace-Hadrill, Oxford : Blackwell, 273-99
  • Stenton, F.M. 1971 (3 rd ed.). Anglo-Saxon England. Oxford : Clarendon Press

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