The Burghal Hidage

The document, named by F. W. Maitland in 1897 as the ‘Burghal Hidage,’ provides a list of thirty three fortified places (burhs) in Wessex and the taxes (recorded as numbers of hides) assigned for their maintenance. It is a crucial document for our understanding of Late Anglo-Saxon civil defence as it details not only the location of fortifications designed to defend the West Saxon kingdom from the Vikings but also the relative size of burghal defences and their garrisons.


The location of the places listed in the Burghal Hidage document (solid squares) and other Late Anglo-Saxon civil defence fortifications.

Today, the document survives in two versions of medieval and early modern date (Rumble 1996). Version A, Cotton Otho B.xi was badly damaged in a fire at Ashburnam House in 1731 but the body of the text survives in a transcript made by the antiquary Laurence Nowell in 1562. Version B survives as a part of seven further manuscripts, usually given the title De numero hydarum Anglie in Britannia. There are several discrepancies in the lists recorded in the two versions of the document: Version A includes references to Burpham, Wareham and Bridport but omits Shaftesbury and Barnstaple which are listed in Version B. Version B also names Worcester and Warwick in an appended list.

After listing the series of forts Version A of the Burghal Hidage includes a note describing how:

“For the maintenance and defence of an acre’s breadth of wall sixteen hides are required. If every hide is represented by one man, then every pole [an Anglo-Saxon system of measurement equating to c.5.03m] of wall can be manned by four men. Then for the maintenance of twenty poles of wall eighty hides are required”

Taking this formula it is possible to calculate the length of burghal defences at each of the named sites; an interest several authors have extended to archaeological evidence at burh sites (e.g. Hill, 1969; 1996).


The Roman walled town of Bath is assessed at 1000 hides in the Burghal Hidage. This can be calculated to an equivalent length of 1257m. Excavations to the north and east of the town walls have revealed evidence of a defensive forework, which if continued around the whole circuit would equate to 1257.3m of fortifications. This image also shows the position of Baths street-plan, which appears also to have been heavily remodeled in the Late Anglo-Saxon period.

The Burghal Hidage is generally believed to date from between 911-914 based on comparison between it and other contemporary sources, but it may describe a system largely implemented in the last quarter of the 9th century (Brooks 1964; Radford 1970; Biddle 1975; an alternative date is suggested by Haslam 2003). It was during the period 878 onwards that King Alfred and his successors sought increasingly to arm themselves against Danish attack. Alongside burh building the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle annal relates additional measures aimed at coastal defence, including the construction of large numbers of innovatively designed long-ships aimed at challenging contemporary Viking naval power. Simultaneously, the increasing impact of social and economic restrictions, such as the ‘three obligations’ (bridge-work, fortress-work and military service), enshrined in law the sources for centralized military power.

Each of the burghal hidage forts was located no more than forty miles from the next, which represents a comprehensive and centrally planned exercise only achievable through a powerful and efficient system of governance and administration (Reynolds 1999). Their distribution emphasizes a concern both for global coverage and security, with several of the largest garrisons positioned strategically along the Thames frontier. However, cost and expediency were clearly also factors contributing to the pattern of defence. Alongside de novo foundations several burghal hidage fortifications re-used Iron Age and Roman forts.


The burghal hidage fortification of Piltune is commonly associated with the Iron Age hillfort of Pilton Camp, near Barnstaple in North Devon.

Biddle, M. (1975) ‘The evolution of towns: Planned towns before 1066,’ in Barley M. W. (ed.) The Plans and Topography of Medieval Towns in England and Wales. York: CBA Research Report 14, pp.19-31.

Brooks, N. P. (1964) ‘The unidentified forts of the Burghal Hidage,’ Medieval Archaeology VII pp.74-89.

Haslam J, (2005) King Alfred and the Vikings: Strategies and Tactics 876.886 AD. Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History 13

Hill, D. H. (1969) ‘The Burghal Hidage - the establishment of a text,’ Medieval Archaeology XIII pp.84-92.

Hill, D. H. (1996) ‘A gazetteer of Burghal Hidage sites,’ in Hill, D. and Rumble, A. R. (eds.) The Defence of Wessex: The Burghal Hidage and Anglo-Saxon fortifications. Manchester: University Press, pp.189-231.

Maitland, F. W. (1897) Domesday Book and Beyond. Cambridge.

Radford, C. A. R. (1970) ‘The later pre-conquest boroughs and their defences,’ Medieval Archaeology XIV pp.83-103.

Reynolds, A. (1999) Later Anglo-Saxon England: life and landscape. Stroud: Tempus

Rumble, A. R. (1996) ‘The manuscript evidence: The known manuscripts of the Burghal Hidage,’ in Hill, D. and Rumble, A. R. (eds.) The Defence of Wessex: The Burghal Hidage and Anglo-Saxon fortifications. Manchester: University Press, pp.36-58.

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