'Burh' is an Old English word originally indicating a fortified site, which later became specifically to mean a fortified town and from which the modern English word 'borough' is derived; whilst a hide is an Old English measure of land.
The Burghal Hidage is therefore nothing more than a list of fortified sites within the kingdom of Wessex, with a number of hides listed against each site. The relevance was that it had been calculated that four men were needed to defend each pole of defensive earthwork (a pole being a measure length of around 16.5 feet) - each hide of land supplied one man, and therefore so many hides needed to be assigned to each burh in order to supply the necessary bodies to man the defenses.
As there indeed appears to be a close correlation betweem the length of wall attributed to the burhs within the Burghal Hidage, and the actual length of the defenses at the time, what we therefore have is a plan to assign some 27,000 men to garrison a series of Anglo-Saxon fortifications.
No contemporary manuscript of the Burghal Hidage exists and it is only known through the later copies that have survived. Generally it has been regarded as an early tenth century list, compiled sometime between the years 905 and 920 i.e. sometime during the reign of Edward of Elder. Attempts to explain its purpose have normally resulted in some conclusion that the list is based in some way on Alfred the Great's original fortification plan of the 880's and 890s, and that it was created in order to be able to supply the same calculation methods as originally conceived by Alfred to the garrisoning of the new fortified burhs constructed in Mercia by Edward the Elder.
Suggestions that it was Alfred's plan were rejected on the grounds that the list included Oxford, Buckingham, Warwick and Worcester which were't Alfredian burhs and also included Porchester, which couldn't have been fortified by Alfred because it didn't come into royal ownership until 904 and that therefore the Burghal Hidage must have been first compiled after that date.
As it happens, it has now been established that the figures for Warwick and Worcester don't belong to the Burghal Hidage, and are therefore irrelevant in considering its purpose; the fact that Portchester was owned by the local bishop does not seem to exclude the possibility that it wasn't fortified during Alfred's time and there are reasons to believe that Oxford and Buckingham may well have been occupied by Alfred as well.
Arguments have therefore been advanced that the Burghal Hidage was not drawn up during the reign of Edward the Elder and should more properly be dated to the 880s and does in fact represent Alfred's plan for the defence of Wessex.
It is worth nothing in this context, that the Burghal Hidage is actually a systematic list of fortresses describing a clockwise circuit around the bounds of the 'Greater Wessex' of Alfred's time. It starts in Sussex, working its way down the south coast, up through Devon, across the lower Severn valley and down along the Thames valley ending at Southwark; which tends to suggest we are looking at a coherent planned fortification system rather than simply a haphazard listing of forts.
(The Burghal Hidage lists no burhs in Kent, presumably because a separate system of garrisoned fortresses had already been established in Kent; and there is nothing west of the Tamar, because Cornwall was probably not subject to the kings of Wessex at the time.)
Indeed the argument has been put forward that the placement of these burhs only makes sense in view of the particular strategic challenges faced by Alfred after his victory at the battle of Edington in the May of 878 and the later Treaty of Wedmore in 879, and that all these fortifications were constructed in a comparatively brief period during the years 878 and 879 and represent Alfred's strategic plan to induce the retreat of the Vikings from Mercia and London in late 879.
Of course not everyone agrees with this idea and whilst accepting that the Burghal Hidage represents Alfred's plan suggest that either this burghal system was,
- a) constructed between the years 880 and 886 (when London was captured by Alfred), or
- b) built during the course of the late 880s and early 890s as a purely preventative measure to protect Wessex from the threat of further Viking attack.
Therefore, depending on which explanation is accepted, estimates of the importance of Alfred's burghal strategy ranges from being crucial to the very survival of Wessex as a political enity to merely being a useful tactical device in withstanding the Viking onslaught. But the Burghal Hidage remains the best evidence of the nature and extent of these fortifications and was clearly the inspiration behind Edward the Elder's later burghal construction programme.
THE BURGHAL HIDAGE
The list set out below, identifies the location by the modern English equivalent, with the exception of the first named 'Eorpeburnan', whose location has not been securely identified, but it may possibly by Rye in Sussex.
Some of the burhs listed, Lyng for example, were clearly nothing more than small forts, whilst others such as those at Winchester and Malmesbury were more akin to town defences protecting the population within. Some, at places such as Exeter and Chichester are believed to have been adaptations of existing and surviving Roman fortifications, whilst others such as those at Cricklade and Wallingford were entirely new constructions, and therefore of the nature of eearthworks with timber pallisading.
- Eorpeburnan - 324
- Hastings - 500
- Lewes - 1,300
- Burpham - 720
- Chichester - 1500
- Portchester - 500
- Southampton - 150
- Winchester - 2,400
- Wilton - 1,400
- Chisbury - 700
- Shaftesbury - 700
- Twynam - 470
- Wareham - 1,600
- Bridport - 760
- Exeter - 734
- Halwell - 300
- Lydford - 140
- Pilton - 360
- Watchet - 513
- Axbridge - 400
- Lyng - 100
- Langport - 600
- Bath - 1,000
- Malmesbury - 1,200
- Cricklade - 1,500
- Oxford - 1,400
- Wallingford - 2,400
- Buckingham - 1,600
- Sashes - 1,000
- Eashing - 600
- Southwark - 1,800
In addition the surviving copies include the following burhs;
but the opinion is now that these are later additions and corruptions of the original text and formed no part of the original Burghal Hidage and therefore should be excluded.
Ann Williams Kingship and Government in Pre-Conquest England (Macmillan, 1999)
Anthony Bradshaw The Burghal Hidage - Alfred's towns
(which also has some maps plotting the locations of the burhs)
Steven Muhlberger Alfred
In particular see:-
Jeremy Haslam King Alfred and the Vikings - strategies and tactics, 876-886 AD
PART I - The defeat of the Vikings in Mercia and London
PART II - The Burghal Hidage - a reassessment