A Comparison of Burhs and Castles

in history •  4 months ago

A Comparison between Alfred’s Burhs and William’s Castles in Medieval England

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Wigmore Castle, Herefordshire. "The stone castle was built by one of William the Conqueror's captains, William Fitzosbern."
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When comparing the structures of burhs to early castles in England we can see that general commonalities existed between the two systems. These include the fact they were both intended for defence against invaders, and both were used as centres for royal administration, justice, and commerce. Although there was a difference in the scale of numbers and capacity between the two systems, they were also places where people lived. Both used a system of defensive enclosure, and both were garrisoned. There were also great differences, which I will go into detail about.

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"A reconstruction of a typical West Saxon burh. The fortification represented here shows the different types of wall and rampart, and represents the transition of construction from wood to stone."
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During Alfred the Greats rule in the 880s, he ordered the building of a series of defensive enclosures called burhs. Burhs were fortified towns or forts – often consisting of incredibly high banks and ditches - and most built within Wessex defensively against possible Viking invasions, and offensively to retain the Viking-run Mercia and London areas. They were most certainly effective as the Vikings were forced to retreat Alfred regained control of London – and therefore the important London mint – and he negotiated a peace treaty with Guthrum1.

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"A map of places named in the Burghal Hidage."
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The document the Burghal Hidage2 lists 33 burhs – 30 in Wessex and 3 in Mercia. These burhs were strategically placed so that everyone lived within a day's march (approximately 20 miles) and had a far better chance of safety against attack, or being called upon quickly to the offensive. Some burh sites were reused Roman fortification, administrative or trading centre placements. This allowed the utilisation of pre-built fortification structures – although not necessarily following the street pattern. Other sites were chosen where the Roman Church had a strong influence, and showed metropolitan growth. There were other sites chosen for the natural defensive structure of the land – like a promontory – and yet others were built on entirely new sites.

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"A reconstruction of Old Sarum in the 12th century, housed at Salisbury Cathedral."
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The design of the burh was that of a large enclosed area of land – fortified by earthen ramparts lined in wood or stone - the size depending on how many men would be needed to defend the area. The formula was 1 hide (of land) supplied 1 man to the crown in whatever capacity was needed. It would take 4 men to man each pole – a pole being approximately 5.5 yards - of wall, with 16 hides to the acre. Archaeological evidence has shown that the layout inside each burh the historians have excavated as generally the same - the designers used a regular grid pattern of streets. According to one theory there is technically sophisticated evidence of specialist surveyors being used in the planning process because of the precision of measurements.3 Men were given parcels of land inside the burh in return for their aid in manning and maintaining the fortification. Because these structures were able to hold several hundred people, one could find a church, housing, garrison, mint, buildings for trade, commerce and storage, and in fact these burhs were encouraged to become centres of commerce and local government, thereby permanent settlements; although not all achieved this as some were abandoned after the Viking threat receded.

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Aerial view of Old Sarum; with the exposed foundations of the old cathedral to the left.
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Where the burh at Goltho4 has been excavated, it has shown to contain a large timber hall, kitchen building, weaving shed, and bower building. Typically the burh buildings could be made of wooden planks, wattle & daub, stacked turf, or cob, with thatched roofs. Locally sourced materials were utilised.

Although there were a few castles built before the invasion by William I in 1066 - probably by Normans wishing to settle in England - it is generally acknowledged that nearly all were erected after the conquest and based on castles built in Normandy. Even though some were little more than lookout posts, and others privately owned by nobles, they were all originally built as military strongholds, with most coming under the direct and strict control of the royal administration. Nearly all Anglo-Saxon nobles were ousted and Norman ones put in their place, as a further reinforcement of Williams rule over England.

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"Reconstruction of a ringfort at Curraheen, Co Cork, Ireland"
Ringforts, ringworks, circular ramparts - all very similar constructions.
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While ringworks – enclosures without a motte – were most commonly put up at first, as they were cheap and quick to build - they were harder to defend than the motte & bailey designs which were also ordered. These were sited in places they could dominate – roads, river crossings, settlements. Some were built in the country, others in towns – even old burh and Roman fortifications were utilised. While each motte & bailey castle varied in size, shape, building materials and planning, a simple one could be erected within a week – especially as William had some prefabricated structures shipped over from Normandy, but the use of wooden planks near water or touching the earth soon made them rot and so were abandoned fairly quickly, better built ones could last up to 150 years. There are believed to have been around 1000 built all over the newly-united England5, to help strengthen the show of William’s domination, but were especially numerous in the Welsh Marches in order to squash the many uprisings there.

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Impression of a motte & bailey keep.
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A motte was a flat-topped mound of soil or stone, the base diameter at least twice the height of the mound. Sometimes a natural mound could be utilised but more often packing materials from the surrounding area was used. Because of this the mottes were most often made of wood, although a shell keep could be built on those mottes deemed strong enough. The reasoning behind building a motte was to gain a height advantage for both defensive and offensive purposes. Surrounding the motte was the bailey – an enclosed courtyard surrounded by a wooden palisade and ditch - averaging 1-3 acres. The whole ensemble often took on a general keyhole shape. Atop the motte sat a keep or castle, although some were only used as watchtowers. As these baileys were often too small to support an entire village – as the burhs had – there were very few occupants in residence normally, and it meant the households were constantly moving about their domains around the country, thus lessening the burden on each residence to store enough supplies; although, some baileys did contain domestic and communal buildings. The Normans quickly put their architectural stamp on the buildings, often pulling down or drastically altering previous structures, and tending to use more permanent materials such as stone and brick – subconsciously reinforcing the ‘permanency’ of their rule. During William’s reign there were 86 stone castles built.5 Moats were dug, drawbridges and portcullises made, and barbicans used. As these structures took far longer than the wooden ones to build, there was far more care taken into sites chosen for the placement of them.

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"The White Tower is a central tower, the old keep, at the Tower of London. It was built by William the Conqueror during the early 1080s, and subsequently extended."
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With the development of the feudal system, the castles had to expand to contain all the new entourage necessary for defence - like blacksmiths, needed to support the effective mounted army. The castles were made out of stone, and therefore situated on the flatter landscape – which then changed the design as they still had to be safe against attack. Features included walls that were very thick, windows just narrow slits. Slowly the castles became a symbol of prestige, their designs more elaborate and the structures much larger. Whereas the burhs contained the towns and therefore limited in their physical growth, the castles attracted the expansion of towns nearby seeking protection, but without the walls their growth could become quite substantial, centering on convenient trading areas.

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Aerial panorama of the castle as it stands today. It was founded in the 11th century.
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So although at the most basic level the two systems were essentially the same – built for defensive and offensive strategies - there were vast differences in the designs, layouts, functions and capabilities of each. The burhs were essentially communal places, while the castles were run on a hierarchical system, with nobles being able to own more than one, although scattered throughout the kingdom as William sought to keep any chances of any one noble gaining too much control to a minimum. Burhs did not really get to establish themselves much further than Wessex as Alfred’s rule did not encompass all kingdoms. The burh system faded away quickly as the castle system was established and expanded upon, many structures lasting for centuries and some even to this day.

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"A [painting of a] late, Anglo-Saxon burh – defended by the raised, keep-capped mound."
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This essay was one I wrote as an assignment, while obtaining my University degree. I have included the reference list and bibliography - reference materials I used while writing - just as I’d had to for its submission. It has never before been published anywhere public, though. Images have been added for visual interest.

References:
1 Guthrum was the Viking leader of the Danelaw area of England, and tried to wage war against Wessex. The treaty was named the Treaty of Wedmore, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

2 The Burghal Hidage is an Anglo-Saxon document providing a list of Wessex’s fortified burhs.
Burghal Hidage, retrieved 1 May 2009, from:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burghal_Hidage

3 Cricklade, Wiltshire, England is the site of an Anglo-Saxon burh.
Jeremy Haslam, The Metrology of Anglo-Saxon Cricklade, pp 100, par 3, retrieved 7 May 2009 from:
http://ads.ahds.ac.uk/catalogue/adsdata/arch-769-1/ahds/dissemination/pdf/vol30/30_099_103.pdf

4 Goltho, Lincolnshire, England is the site of an Anglo-Saxon burh.
Goltho, Lincolnshire, England, retrieved 2 May 2009, from:
http://www.octavia.net/anglosaxon/earlyEnglishArchitecture.htm

5 Norman Medieval Stone Castles, retrieved 5 May 2009, from:
http://www.castles.me.uk/norman-medieval-stone-castles.htm

Bibliography:
Eric Fernie, The Architecture of Norman England, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002, retrieved 6 May 2009, from:
http://books.google.com/books?id=jMURu7Hfx6kC&pg=PA50&lpg=PA50&dq=layout+medieval+castle+norman+england&source=bl&ots=YMIUaJ0BN-&sig=021Tt5o8Y5njZWDjkU0naJquuUY&hl=en&ei=2SUFSs7yE4va6gPX4P2sAw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=8#PPA68,M1

Gies, Joesph & Frances, Life in a Medieval Castle, New York: Harper & Row, 1974

Platt, Colin, The Castle in Medieval England and Wales, London: Martin Secker & Warburg Ltd, 1982

Pounds, N.J.G, The Medieval Castle in England and Wales, A social and political history, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990

Salter, Mike, The Castles of Wessex, Worcestershire: Folly Publications, 2002

Nigel Saul, The Oxford Illustrated History of Medieval England, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977

P.H. Sawyer, From Roman Britain to Norman England, Oxon: Routledge, 1998

Thompson, M.W, The Rise of the Castle, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991

Anglo-Saxon Burhs, retrieved 6 May 2009, from:
http://lovelyoldtree.wordpress.com/2008/05/28/anglo-saxon-burhs/

Burghal Hidage, retrieved 1 May 2009, from:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burghal_Hidage

Burhs, retrieved 1 May 2009, from:
http://www.britainexpress.com/architecture/burhs.htm

Early English Architecture, retrieved 6 May 2009, from:
http://www.octavia.net/anglosaxon/earlyEnglishArchitecture.htm

Imperial Measurements, retrieved 7 May 2009, from:
http://gwydir.demon.co.uk/jo/units/length.htm

Jeremy Haslam, The Metrology of Anglo-Saxon Cricklade, pp 100, par 3, retrieved 7 May 2009 from:
http://ads.ahds.ac.uk/catalogue/adsdata/arch-769-1/ahds/dissemination/pdf/vol30/30_099_103.pdf

Motte and Bailey, retrieved 1 May 2009, from:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Motte-and-bailey

Motte and Bailey Castle, retrieved 1 May 2009, from:
http://www.eng-h.gov.uk/mpp/mcd/mbc.htm

Motte and Bailey Castles and Ringworks, retrieved 1 May 2009, from:
http://www.castlewales.com/motte.html

The English Castle, retrieved 5 May 2009, from:
http://www.britannia.com/history/david2.html

Town Life, retrieved 6 May 2009, from:
http://www.btinternet.com/~timeref/townlife.htm

Massey University extramural paper 148.113 course material.


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(extra tags: #geopolis #medieval)

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Hi ravenruis,

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Interesting story again! Here in Belgium there were also quite some burhs. Some places here still carry that part of history in their name with towns like "Leopoldsburg" or streets named "Oude Burg". And indeed as you already mentioned this system faded away while castles remained more dominant in the landscape. But I like how you can derive some parts of history with things that are still present today 😁

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Yes, I like that aspect also. It can be quite fascinating ... and just plain cool! :D

Very interesting post. I have just recently learned of the burh system from a couple of history podcasts I listen to. They focused more on the political organization that led to building them. Great to learn more about how they were built and how they compared to the more familiar castles.

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Great timing, then :)

It is so difficult today to get a true sense of what it was like to live then, but I do know there are places that have been recreated to give people such an idea (although not, perhaps, the 'oops, we are under seige from the neighbours again' part lol).

omg i love this so much * ___* what a wonderful post, so well researched and so well illustrated too <3 this is going to be super useful~ for me~ since i like castles and stuff and i have no frame of reference.......... BUT NOW I DO :D

Thanks for sharing <3 <3 <3

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awww, how cool that it can be useful for you. I like that. :)

Hi ravenruis,

This post has been upvoted by the Curie community curation project and associated vote trail as exceptional content (human curated and reviewed). Have a great day :)

Visit curiesteem.com or join the Curie Discord community to learn more.


This post was shared in the Curation Collective Discord community for curators, and upvoted and resteemed by the @c-squared community account after manual review.
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I really appreciate it!

It’s an very informative post. I can feel the effort and time that you put it into this masterpiece. great job done here!

A few weeks ago on vacation I also had been into one of those old castles. I like the feeling o the medieval times, knights and kings :-)

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I'm jealous, then. I've never had the chance to visit any castles, but would very much love to. So much history!

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Oh yes very much history behind this thick walls and deep trenches.

If you have little time and you like, you can check sometime my last visit in a Castle :-)

https://steemit.com/architecturalphotography/@avizor/vacation-impression-andalusia-spain-mini-series-castillo-arabe-2018-17-pics-vip

Hello while i was reading your post i was wondering how is it possible to know all of this!it looks like so much research!it did made sense when i saw at the end it was for an assignment:)great work very well explained

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Thank you very much. :) Yes, definitely a lot of research, but it isn't so difficult when you really enjoy the subject. ;)

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That is for sure if you like something and do it with pleasure it is easier:)

I learned something new today. The medieval architecture and ages before that are amazing to learn about. Before reading your post, I was familiar with the old Chinese Dynasty structures with their versions of royal castles being built with similar progression to the Western counterpart. It was a consequence after being forced to study history in about Asia. I ended up liking it, but your insights on this post have led me to add the subject to my to read list in the future. Thank you!

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That is wonderful to hear. Perhaps you'll discover some insights of your own. :)

Found a familiar name on that effofex’s curation post! So had to visit your blog. I liked the look of this post, but it’s just got too many words, too much of an heavy history read for my tired brain. I’m not going to lie, but I enjoyed the pictures! I know you won’t mind. Hope you’ve been well.

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It's nice to see you! Hope you've been well too. :)

lol, imagine what it would be like if I didn't add the pics to break up the text? ;D

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Hehe...I’m glad you can see the humour. I admire your efforts to share the knowlege, I’m just always too heavy in the head to take it in. If you do ancient Egyptian, tag me please! That, I am required to read no matter what. :)

Take care, ravenruis.