In this section the results of all the previous archaeological work on the defences are summed up, and an attempt is made, using this and similar evidence from other late Saxon fortresses, at placing the various periods in their historical contexts. The conclusions reached are in some cases at variance with generally accepted opinion, and are put forward here as historical models which can be tested both by further excavation and by historical and topographical analysis in similar places.
In order to test the interpretations and hypotheses put forward as a result of the reassessment of the work to date on the defences of Cricklade, discussed in Part 2, the comparable archaeological evidence from five other sites with late Saxon defences in Wessex (Wareham, Christchurch, Wallingford, Lydford and South Cadbury) is also re-examined. Because this relates principally to the phase of the destruction of the wall, this is included under period 3.
Period 1 | Period 2 | Period 3 | Periods 4-5
Period 1: The bank | The intra-mural walkway | The ditches | The construction of the defensive system | Dating and historical context
The principal elements in the original defensive system have been established in the preceding sections as consisting of a bank of clay with front and rear turf revetments (probably without a timber palisade), an intra-mural walkway or wall street, and three shallow ditches outside the bank separated from each other and the bank by berms. It seems likely, though direct physical evidence is lacking, that the defensive capability of the bank was completed by a small palisade on the crest of the bank associated perhaps with a pathway behind it (as suggested by Radford 1972, 102), and that these features were connected in some way with a wooden tower placed over the inner angle of each corner of the bank. Furthermore, these elements can be demonstrated by excavation (Part 2) to have continued with little variation around all four sides of the defences, providing evidence for a layout which is established by a probably more complete archaeological sampling than is available from any other late Saxon fortress. There is no direct archaeological dating for any of these separate elements. Taken together, however, they form a logical arrangement for the defence of a large area.
The bank has been shown above to have been of dump construction, built principally of clay, with a substantial front revetment and a slighter rear revetment made of turves. In several sections in the south-west corner the turf component increased towards the upper levels of the bank as well as towards the front. It is clear that turf was systematically stripped, probably from the whole area occupied by the bank, berms and ditches, and stockpiled for use in the bank's construction. The clay used in the building of the bank must have been obtained from the ditches, which therefore must have belonged to the initial phase of the layout of the defences. No timber strengthening was used in the construction of the bank, and there is no definite evidence for the existence of a fronting timber palisade. Although these observations reflect similar methods of construction used in other defences of the period (Biddle 1976a, 127-9; Radford 1972, 100-2), it is clear that the details of construction of the various defences of late Saxon fortresses were governed as much by the availability of different materials, or even traditional local building techniques, as by adherence to fixed methods.
The intra-mural walkway (wall street)
In many ways this feature is the most interesting to have been discovered at Cricklade. It consisted of a layer, about 1.4m in width, of small flat stones placed at the back of the bank on a layer of turf, its upper surface being worn smooth by use. Evidence has been given (Part 2) that this walkway ran around the entire circuit of the inner edge of the bank. It is particularly significant not only in throwing light on the method of layout and construction of the defences, but also in that it provides an archaeologically well-documented example of a feature which can now be recognised as being generally characteristic of the construction of fortress-towns in the late Saxon period (Biddle 1976a, 129-31).
It is also significant in another way. The excavations in 1975 established that in every place where the walkway had survived (section 4 and section 6 and Figure 7), the stones forming its surface were placed directly on a layer of soil which was thicker and darker than that surviving underneath the bank, and of the same colour and texture as the material comprising the front turf revetment. These relationships were repeated in many other sections recorded by Wainwright (see Part 2). It can be inferred from these observations that the soil sealed directly underneath the walkway was undisturbed turf which elsewhere had been removed for use in the construction of the bank and its revetments. This carries the implication that this walkway was in position before turf was stripped from the area surrounding it, and that it was therefore the first element in the defensive system to have been constructed. As such it would have acted both as a marker line for the building of the bank, as well as a dry and firm pathway during its construction. It has been argued (Haslam 1986) that this conclusion is supported by measurements taken between this and other features within the fortress, which suggest that the walkway was surveyed and laid out in modular units of multiples of 16 poles (16 x1 6.5ft).
While these conclusions are by no means unequivocally demonstrated by the evidence (the street could possibly have been laid around the inside edge of the bank on a separately piled layer of turves), these observations do at least demonstrate that the walkway formed an integral part of the initial layout of the defensive system as a whole. The significance of the wall street has been emphasised by Biddle (1976a, 130; 1976c, 278-9). Many if not most late Saxon fortresses in both southern England and Mercia show at least some topographical and/or archaeological evidence for the existence of such an intra-mural street system. The demonstration of its existence on every side of the defences of Cricklade clearly validates Biddle's inferences from Winchester (Biddle and Hill 1971, 70-8; Biddle 1976c, 277-82) and other places (1976a, 130) for the function of this street in providing a physical link between the internal street system and the defences, and thus between the urban and military functions of late Saxon fortresses.
It is probable that the stones of the intra-mural walkway were obtained from the Middle Jurassic Oolitic Limestone deposits which outcrop about 6km to the north-west along Ermin Street. It is clear from this evidence that Ermin Street was in use as a highway for the transport of goods in the late 9th century. Furthermore, it did not seem to matter that the material for the intra-mural walkway came not from Wessex but from Mercia which, when the fortress was first built, was technically part of Viking-held enemy territory (see arguments in Haslam forthcoming).
The initial military purpose of this walkway, however, is emphasised by its subsequent fate. It is suggested below that it continued to function into period 2 when the defences were refurbished by the insertion of the wall, arguably in the last decade of the 9th century. Some time after this it appears that, together with the rest of the defensive system, it went out of use (period 2B), to become covered by a thick layer of dirty clay probably eroded from the back of the bank. This is argued below as occurring during the middle and later 10th century. This contrasts in particular with the wall street found in the south-west corner of Winchester, which remained in regular use as a street throughout the 10th and early 11th centuries, its initial military purpose of providing access to the defences being superseded by its function as a street serving houses by its side. At Cricklade, however, subsequent internal development of the fortress was nowhere sufficient to ensure the survival of the walkway, or even of its alignment, as a significant topographical feature through its regular use as a street.
The existence of three ditches, the outer one considerably wider than deep, can be demonstrated with some certainty in two places on the west side of the defences. It is clear from the position of the 12th-century ditch on the east side (see discussion of Period 4) that the same arrangement must also have existed on the west side, as well as on the south side for similar reasons. On the north side near the river there is evidence for only one ditch. It seems likely that the two outer ditches on this side were rendered unnecessary by the marshy ground between the defensive bank and the river. This arrangement is shown in Figure 7.
Since the clay required for the construction of the bank must have been obtained from the excavation of the ditches, it can be inferred that they must all have belonged to the defensive system as initially laid out in period 1. Radford, however, states that the inner ditch 'belongs to the second period and is contemporary with the wall' (1972, 106), a conclusion based on his observation of the existence of a 'setting of stones' on the edge of the ditch. This latter feature has, however, been shown (Part 2) to have been part of the debris from the destruction of the wall piled onto the berm in period 3, and in no way dates the construction of the ditch. It is probable, however, that the inner two ditches were cleaned out more than once, and their profiles changed both by this process and by natural erosion. Separate phases of re-excavation are likely to have taken place during the phase of refortification which is marked by the insertion of the wall (period 2A), argued below as occurring in the last decade of the 9th century, and in period 2C, only a short time before they were filled with stones from the destruction of the wall in c. 1016 (period 3). This latter phase of reuse of the ditches (i.e. period 2C) probably belongs to the reign of Ethelred, more precisely in the years around AD 1000.
Although Martin Biddle, in his analysis of the archaeological evidence of the fortresses of the period (1976a, 129), has postulated a double ditch system as being the norm for the defences of late Saxon fortresses, more recent evidence suggests that an arrangement of three ditches was not uncommon, if not itself the norm. Three widely spaced ditches were found on the eastern side of Lydford (Ann Talbot, personal communication) and it is probable that a similar arrangement existed at both Christchurch and Winchester. At Christchurch, a section through the north-west defences (Jarvis 1983, site X2, fig. 5 and p.27) produced definite evidence of three ditches. The outer one of these was of the same order of depth as the inner two (even allowing for recuts), but was considerably wider. A similar large outer ditch on site XI (Jarvis 1983, 23) is suggested from geophysical evidence. At Winchester what can possibly be interpreted as an equivalent feature to the wide outer ditch at Cricklade was excavated on the northern side of the defences at 10 City Road. This ditch was flat-bottomed, 8.2m in width at the top and 1.7m in depth, its inner edge lying approximately 40m in front of the wall (Biddle 1976c, 274-5). It can be inferred from topographical evidence that this ditch existed on all sides of the town except the east, and that its presence governed the layout of lanes around its outer edge. Biddle has suggested (1976c, 274) that the ditch was open in the 10th-12th centuries, and that it was probably an element in the initial Alfredian defences. He also infers the existence of a ditch 'of some size' in the space between the broad outer ditch and the front of the wall. The evidence from Cricklade, however, raises the possibility that this space could have been occupied by two smaller ditches, and that the wide outer ditch at Winchester could be all that now remains of a triple-ditch defensive system which is similar in every respect, except its greater scale, to that at Cricklade.
The construction of the defensive system
It is possible to make a reasonably educated estimate of the manpower resources which must have been used to construct the defences at Cricklade. It can be estimated that all the elements in the defensive circuit could have been constructed by 1000 men working for about eight months. The calculations are as follows: given a wall length of 2280 yards [2083 metres] (the longest estimate), an average width of 6m, and an average (estimated) height of 2.5m, the bank would have comprised around 34,200 cubic metres of material. On the premise that a team of four men could have built 2 cubic metres of bank in a day's work, the whole defensive circuit would have been completed in 68,400 working days, or by 1000 men working for 68.4 working days, or 13.6 weeks of 5 working days - say around 4 months. The laid stones of the intra-mural walkway would have had to have been quarried and brought some 6km from the nearest quarry, and there was possibly a simple timber revetment on top of the bank. If a similar amount of manpower was needed to construct these elements sequentially with the bank (in the order: 1 - walkway, 2 - bank and ditches, 3 - palisade), this gives a total of eight months for a team of 1000 men to have constructed the basic defensive system. Even making allowance for the use of the available human resources on other works (building a bridge and causeway, laying out streets, constructing gateways and watchtowers, and general supportive provision for the workers), and allowing extra time for surveying and laying out the site, bad weather, general inefficiency and human wastage, the whole enterprise, if reasonably well organised, could therefore have been comfortably completed in a year. This is based on the manpower resources available from the 1,400 hides appurtenant to Cricklade in the Burghal Hidage, at the rate of one man being conscripted from each hide.
Dating and historical context
The layout of the defensive system as a whole, which must have included the intra-mural walkway or wall street, is one of some sophistication. This impression is reinforced by the inferences about the planning processes involved in the layout of the defences as a whole which can be drawn from a detailed examination of their metrology (Haslam 1986). The highly regular arrangement of the defences which emerges from this discussion, combined with the existence of the intra-mural walkway, is a strong argument in support of the view already advanced by Biddle and others (Biddle 1976a, 130; Brooks 1979, 18-20) that both the defences and the internal streets were (as at Winchester) contemporary, and that they were laid out by a central authority - i.e. royal initiative - as both a fortress and a new settlement of urban character.
No new dating evidence was obtained from the 1975 excavations which either altered or confirmed Radford's view (1972, 100) that the defences belonged to the reign of King Alfred. There is thus no new evidence either for or against the commonly accepted view that this was part of a system of such fortresses which was created by the king by 892, and very probably before 886 (Biddle 1976c, 273; 1976a, 124; Davis 1982). (A preferred date range between 880 and 886 is now suggested by Biddle - 1983, 120 and refs in note 1). An earlier date for the construction of the street system at Winchester has been discussed as a possibility (Biddle 1983, 120-6).
It would therefore be possible to advance several hypotheses about the historical circumstances and therefore date of the defensive system at Cricklade. If Biddle is correct about the possibility of sytematic planning at Winchester before the reign of Alfred (1983, 120), this opens the possibility that other fortresses in Wessex, Cricklade amongst them, might belong to the decade or two before the reign of Alfred. The rights to royal dues of fortress-work, bridge-work and army service were certainly established in Wessex by this time (Brooks 1971). This in turn carries the implication that the stone wall added to the bank very soon after could have been an Alfredian addition to these earlier defences.
There are, however, several considerations which argue against the idea of a pre-Alfredian context for the creation of the defences. As I argue in detail (forthcoming), it must be inferred from the existence of the Burghal Hidage document that Cricklade was functioning as part of a system, which comprised all the other fortresses listed in it, which had a particular role in the struggle of (it must be assumed) Wessex against the Vikings. To accept that Cricklade, one of the larger fortresses in the system, belongs to the pre-Alfredian period therefore implies that all the other fortresses mentioned in the document also belong to the same period, and that they were operating at this time as such a system.
However, the account in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of the numerous battles between the Vikings and the kings of Wessex in the late 860s and 870s not only gives no indication of the existence of this system of fortresses, or of any fortification at all apart from the Viking one at Reading, but also shows that warfare was conducted against the Vikings in a way which implies that these fortresses did not play any role in the tactics used against them. The inference is that the system of fortresses indicated by the Burghal Hidage was not in place at this time.
Secondly, the account in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of the take-over of at least part of Wessex by the Vikings under Guthrum after Alfred was defeated at Chippenham in early 878 also implies that the system of fortresses of which Cricklade was a part was not in existence at this time. As has been argued (Haslam forthcoming), it was only after his defeat of Guthrum at Edington in the spring of 878 that Alfred was in a position to implement the construction of this system. His defeat of the Vikings and their submission to him, as well as his hugely increased standing amongst the people and nobility of Wessex, not only gave him the opportunity but also the motive - the need to remove the Viking forces from Mercia and London so that Wessex could no longer be directly threatened in a way that it had been only a few months earlier.
Thirdly, one of the significant aspects of this system of fortresses is that the combined hidage figures of the eight fortresses placed around the northern border of Wessex in the Burghal Hidage - Bath, Malmesbury, Cricklade, Oxford, Wallingford, Buckingham, Sashes and Southwark - (totalling 12,500) is nearly as much as the combined hidage figures (totalling 15,671) of all the other 22 fortresses put together. It must be inferred that, at the time of the construction of this system, the border of Wessex with Mercia was the frontier line to which most of the manpower resources of the relevant shires were channelled. The construction of this system must therefore not only be placed after the take-over of Mercia by the Vikings in 877, but must also pre-date the removal of the Viking forces from Mercia in late 879. There would have been little point in committing these huge resources along a border between two areas owing allegiance after 879 to the same king, and against an adversary which had by this time effectively disappeared.
This line of argument does not of course mean that there were no fortresses in Wessex before this time. Alfred himself oversaw the construction of one at Athelney in the early months of 878; and a fort at Arx Cynuit (Countisbury) in North Devon was used successfully against a Viking force which stormed it in early 878. With these exceptions, there is no evidence for the existence of newly created fortresses in Wessex prior to 878-9. It is commonly believed that Wareham was fortified before the Vikings came on the scene, though there is no evidence for this in the archaeological findings. There are no grounds for believing that either Reading or Chippenham were fortified before being used as fortresses by the Vikings. It seems likely therefore that these three non-Roman places used by the Vikings were newly fortified by them for their own purposes. It is one thing to have the institutional framework in place (royal rights to fortress-work, bridge-work etc.), but quite another to extrapolate from this the existence of a particular fortress (such as Wareham), several fortresses, or even a system of fortresses. On the other hand, it is possible - indeed probable - that some of the small so-called 'emergency' forts of the Burghal Hidage (all probably reused earlier fortifications, like Countisbury), as well as others, were in use before 878-9 as rallying places for the local fyrd in times of emergencies, and that some of these customary places were then absorbed into the more organised system created later, which was set out in the Burghal Hidage list.
As suggested elsewhere (Haslam forthcoming) and above, it is argued that the most plausible historical context for the creation by King Alfred of the fortress at Cricklade was in the period 878-9, It was created as one element in a defensive and offensive system (which included all the fortresses mentioned in the arguably contemporary Burghal Hidage), which was designed to oust the Viking armies from Mercia, which outcome was achieved in late 879. Cricklade was well sited to guard against an incursion into Wessex by Guthrum's army stationed at Cirencester along Ermin Street, just as Malmesbury and Bath guarded the route from Cirencester south-westwards along the Fosse Way. (This aspect is examined in more detail in Haslam forthcoming.) This conclusion is supported by the calculations made above about the speed with which the defences could have been constructed.
The evidence is discussed under period 2 which suggests that the wall was built to replace the turf revetment of the bank after only a short interval in the last decade of the 9th century. This fits in with the historical circumstances of a date for the initial construction of c.878-9, followed by a phase of more secure fortification initiated also by King Alfred aganist renewed Viking incursions in the 890s. This fits in with the historical circumstances of a late 9th century date for the initial construction, followed by a phase of more secure fortification initiated by Edward the Elder. Although the evidence from Cricklade does not provide firm dating evidence for these phases, it does arguably provide a better demonstration of the scale and sophistication of this programme of refortification than has hitherto perhaps been realised.
Period 1 | Period 2 | Period 3 | Periods 4-5
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