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English Logistics and military administration, 871-1066:
The Impact of the Viking Wars

By Richard Abels

from Military aspects of Scandinavian society in a European perspective, AD 1-1300 (1997)

King Harold Godwineson is remembered as one of the great `losers’ in history, the man who provided William the Bastard with the opportunity to earn a more flattering sobriquet. Harold’s defeat at Hastings has obscured not only the very real military talents that earned him victories over formidable Welsh and Viking opponents bur, more importantly, the sophistication of the military organization chat he and other late Anglo-Saxon kings possessed. Scholars have not sufficiently appreciated Harold’s logistical accomplishments in the summer and autumn of 1066. Learning of William’s invasion plans. Harold summoned in May a massive naval and land force, characterized in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as “larger than any king had assembled before in this country.” He billeted his troops along the southern coast of England and harbored his fleet throughout the summer and early autumn on the Isle of Wight, awaiting William’s move.1  Finally, on 8 September, at least two months after the army and fleet had been assembled, provisions finally ran out and the troops returned home. Almost immediately thereafter Harold learned of the invasion of Harald Hardrada, hurriedly assembled a new army and forced marched it some 200 miles along the Great North Road to Stamford Bridge, then, after a hard fought and bloody victory, he forced marched the survivors south to confront William at Hastings.2

That Harold was able to overcome such formidable logistical challenges in 1066 was due to the sophisticated military administration he had inherited from his predecessors. Little scholarly attention, however, has been paid to the development of military administration in pre-Conquest England. Scholars have done much to illuminate the evolution and workings of Anglo-Saxon governance, but how these kings raised, provisioned, and transported troops in time of war remains largely unstudied.3  Maitland’s dictum that “no matter with which we have to deal is darker than the constitution of the English army on the eve of its defeat” merely demonstrates how little he thought about logistics.4 But the observation that late Anglo-Saxon England was a much, perhaps even oppressively, administered state is as true for the practice of war as it is for the regulation of coinage and commerce or the administration of justice. Yet tae topic of Anglo-Saxon logistics has been virtually ignored. Undoubtedly, this is due in part to a problem of evidence; few texts have survived that deal explicitly with the provisioning and transportation of pre-Conquest armies.5 But I would posit a more fundamental reason for this neglect. As a field of study, military history traditionally has been dominated by enthusiasts for whom battle is a synonym for warfare, and only recently have academic historians found warfare and the military to be suitable topics for serious scholarly research. As my students at the U.S. Naval Academy would attest, tactics and strategy are fun, while logistics is not. The former conjures up images of great captains heroically leading men into battle; the latter, of clerks taking inventory of stocks. Nevertheless, the study of Anglo-Saxon logistics is essential to understanding the nature of war and its relationship to society and government in pre-Conquest England. In the following pages, I will attempt to shed some light on the evolution of logistics in England from Alfred the Great to Æthelred the Unready. What I hope to be able to demonstrate is that the Viking invasions of the ninth and tenth centuries created strategic and tactical problems that could only be solved through a revolution in logistics and military administration. This ‘military revolution’, moreover, was key to the growth of royal power in the tenth century and to the development of the institutions of governance that have so impressed administrative and institutional historians.

The origins of Harold’s military administration can be traced to the military innovations undertaken by King Alfred the Great (871-899) in defense of Wessex against the Vikings. Early Anglo-Saxon kings, to be sure, were capable of impressive feats of logistical planning. Recent archaeological research has demonstrated that Offa’s Dyke, of which some 81 miles survive, was the result of careful planning that involved advance surveying parties to determine and mark out the line of the dyke with a series of small banks. The actual construction of the massive ditches and ramparts, by my calculations, absorbed at least 9 million man hours, representing the labor of tens of thousands of conscripted peasants.6 The logistical planning that went into campaigns during the seventh and eighth centuries, however, was not nearly as impressive. Nor did it have to be. The armies of the period were small, numbering in the hundreds, and the strategic doctrine that their commanders followed dictated short campaigns most often decided by a single battle.7 Though we have evidence that less prosperous peasants acquitted whatever military obligation that had by carting supplies for the soldiers,8 there can be little doubt that for offensive campaigns into enemy territory provisioning was largely a matter of forage and plunder. The very verb in Anglo-Saxon to describe the activity of an army; hergian, means to harry or seize. Given the difficulties involved in transporting and preserving food, it was far easier to move an army to provisions than to cart them along with it. Even kings, one might remember, itinerated through their own and their subjects’ estates rather than have their food‑rent, feorm, brought to them.

The reign of King Alfred proved a watershed in royal military adminstration.9  To appreciate why Alfred undertook a costly and difficult reorganization of the military resources of his kingdom, one must first consider the unique logistical challenge presented by the Vikings. Though the goals of the invaders – the acquisition of wealth in all its forms – were familiar to equally predatory Anglo-Saxon kings, the manner in which they waged war was radically new and disconcerting. While Anglo-Saxon commanders sought battle, the Vikings avoided it, much preferring to loot an undefended monastery or town than to risk their earnings in a battle that promised little in the way of profit. Frankish chroniclers were struck by the Vikings’ mobility and use of strategems. They were masters of the trackless ways and of the forests, and an unwary company of travelers or even a Frankish army if not careful could find itself ambushed by marauders hidden in the woods.10  Like Roman legionaries, the Vikings were accustomed to making camp upon entering new territory. This might be a well-stocked royal estate or even a stone church. They proved skillful at field engineering, enclosing their camps with ditches, ramparts, and palisades.11 When confronted by a superior enemy army, the Vikings would retreat to the safety of their camp. Though the defenses of these camps were slight, they nonetheless proved effective against an enemy unfamiliar with siege warfare and saddled with a logistical system designed for short, decisive campaigns. Most often a besieged Viking army would simply out wait the enemy, hoping that they would either exhaust their supplies or grow frustrated enough to offer a profitable peace. But if their besiegers grew careless or if they themselves ran low on supplies, a besieged Viking force might suddenly counter-attack. Anglo-Saxon commanders thus often found themselves outmaneuvered or stalemated.

Logistical considerations determined the strategy of the Great Heathen Army’s invasion of Wessex in 870/1. In the winter of 870, the Danish kings Bagsecg and Halfdan crossed the Thames with their forces into Berkshire and set up camp in the royal estate of Reading.12 Immediately they set about shoring up the estate’s defenses, fortifying its southern boundaries between the Thames and Kennet Rivers with a ditch and rampart. While the main body of the army was so engaged, a small detachment was sent out to reconnoitre and forage for supplies.

The choice of Reading showed a keen understanding of logistics. Straddling the Thames and the Kennet, Reading was within easy striking distances of Wallingford, an important royal estate at a major ford over the Thames, as well as the rich lands of Abingdon abbey. As a base, Reading offered not only food stores and a fresh water supply but easy access to the major lines of communication in the middle Thames valley: the river itself, Icknield Way along the crest of the Berkshire Downs, and the complex of Roman roads that met at the ruins of Silchester lying about eight miles to the south west. Perhaps most importantly, as a royal tun, Reading was the administrative center for the surrounding region, which meant that the invaders could expect to find the king’s `food rent’ (feorm) stored there.13 This was essential for the success of their winter campaign. Such unseasonal warfare ensured surprise, but it also created logistical problems of the rist order. The immediate objective of an army campaigning so late in the year had to be the acquisition of supplies, especially food and liquid nourishment. As the Vikings undoubtedly knew, the cellars and storehouses of royal and manorial estates would be especially well stocked in late autumn. In the agricultural calendar of the ninth century, October and November were devoted to threshing and to slaughtering and salting the meat of excess livestock in preparation for the winter months, and, indeed, Martinmas, 11 November, was when peasants rendered churchscot.14  The seizure of royal estates was thus key to the overall strategy of the Viking invaders; it lay at the heart of their logistical planning.

The stubborn resistance of the West Saxons, who engaged the Danes in four battles within a month of their arrival at Reading, produced a stalemate. As the weather worsened, the war ground to a halt. Overwintering in Reading taxed Halfdan’s ability to feed his troops. Even if we place their numbers in the upper hundreds rather than thousands, the invaders would still have required nearly two tons of grain a day, at a minimum, and their horses many more thousand kilograms of fodder.15 Within weeks or their arrival at Reading, if not sooner, they would have depleted the estate’s stocks of corn and salted meat. To fend off hunger and thirst, Viking foragers scoured the frozen Berkshire countryside for provisions and fodder, stripping neighboring monastic and lay estates of seed corn and anything else edible, as eagerly as if they were looting silver and gold plate from churches. King Æthelred and Alfred responded by sending our their own small bands of mounted warriors, composed of king’s thegns and their personal retainers, to intercept and destroy the foragers. Alfred himself, we are told, led many such expeditions in the months before he became king.16  His first-hand experience with the hit-and-run tactics of Viking marauders proved invaluable seven years later when the young king found his world turned upside down and himself in the uncomfortable position of outlaw raider. During the winter months of 878, Alfred, holed up in the Somerset marshes, played Viking raider to feed his small band of followers.17

In the wake of his dramatic victory at Edington in the spring of 878, Alfred began to reorganize the military system he inherited so that it would be more effective against his Viking foes. The result was a defense-in-depth system consisting of a standing mobile field army and garrisoned fortresses that commanded Wessex’s lines of communication.18 Alfred transformed the West Saxon fyrd from a sporadic levy of king’s men and their retinues into a mounted standing army that could react quickly to Viking incursions. He divided his forces into two rotating contingents, so that he might always have fresh troops in the field and his fyrd men protection for their localities.19 We do not know the length of each rotation. The term of service of owed by Berkshire fyrd men in 1066 was a full two months, and it is not unreasonable to suppose that Alfred demanded as much.20

The sources are also silent about the steps Alfred took to provision his field army. That they carried some supplies with them seems certain. Fighting on one’s native soil has definite advantages, but it also limits an army’s ability to feed itself by `living off the land’, a polite phrase for extremely rude activities. One of Alfred’s goals in having a standing army was, indeed, to defend his kingdom’s produce. On one occasion, Alfred encamped his army near a Danish fortress on the Lea River in order to protect the crops then being harvested.21 In his writings Alfred observed that to be effective a king needed to possess the means of support for his praying men, fighting men, and work men, and these included weapons, food, ale, and clothing.22  In terms of his own household, he practiced meat he preached. He paid his military retainers a regular salary and feasted them in his itinerating court.23  On campaign, he undoubtedly was responsible for their provisions. Similarly, Alfred’s bishops, ealdormen, and king’s thegns cared for the needs of their followers. To judge from later practice recorded in Domesday Book, however, ordinary fyrd men were expected to supply themselves while on campaign.24 Since the `common burden’ of fyrdfaereld lay upon all lands, those who did not serve the king in person probably fulfilled their obligation by helping provision those who did.25  Some lesser landowners and tenants may even have accompanied the army with carts, like the `poor, married peasants’ who supplied the Northumbrian armies of Bede’s day.

The fyrd contingents apparently brought with them just enough provisions to last through their assigned rotation. This could, and did, create military problems. In 893 English forces led by Alfred’s eldest son Edward cornered a routed Viking army on the islet of Thorney, where they besieged them “for as long as their provisions lasted; but they had completed their term of service and used up their provisions.”26 Despite certain victory, Edward’s forces disbanded and returned to their homes, passing King Alfred and their relief on the way. The battered Vikings managed to escape.

By far Alfred’s most impressive logistical achievement was the construction and maintenance of thirty fortified towns of varying sizes so distributed throughout the West Saxon kingdom that no part of the kingdom was more than twenty miles, a day’s march, from a fortified center.27 Alfred, recognizing the importance of controlling lines of communication, planted these burhs upon all the major navigable rivers, estuaries, Roman roads, and trackways crossing or leading into his kingdom. By plotting the boroughs and royal estates on a map, one can began to appreciate the scale and intricacy of Alfred’s logistical infrastructure. A Viking fleet sailing up the Thames, for example, would encounter five burhs in succession. Roman roads and trackways allowed easy access between burhs. From Exeter one could follow Roman roads north to Bath, Malmesburv, Cricklade, or Axbridge, and east to Bridport, Wilton, Winchester and London. Complementing these major thoroughfares were lesser herepaths, `army paths’, known mainly from the bounds of charters.28 Because of the fragmentary nature of the charter evidence, we cannot reproduce fully this system of lesser military access roads, but what we do have suggests that they were mainly used to assemble forces rather than to move them over long distances. The present day A350 in northern Dorset and the A30 in south west Wiltshire seem to reproduce the routes of two of these `army paths’, and both parallel nearby Roman roads.29 Others herepaths were sited so as to connect outlying estates either to royal vills or to monastic foundations. We find references, for instance, to `herepaths’ in the boundaries of Priston, Corston, and Stanton, three estates belonging to the monastery of Bath that lay west of that foundation in an area lacking Roman roads.30  Though we cannot hope, given the present state of the evidence, to reconstruct with certainty the military road system of ninth- and tenth-century England, what we do possess suggests that it was designed to facilitate the assembling of troops and for the rapid movement of forces between towns, fortresses, ecclesiastical centers, and royal estates.

Alfred’s strategic plan required that the burhs be garrisoned. Not only did this protect them against seizure by enemy forces, but it provided them with an offensive dimension that is too often ignored.31 Alfred’s fortresses served not only as places of refuge but also as staging grounds for offensive directed against enemy forces in the area. The burhs tactically supplemented the field forces, allowing the latter to pursue the main body of the enemy without exposing the various localities to, a secondary attack. The presence of well-garrisoned burhs along the primary travel routes of Wessex presented a major obstacle for Viking invaders. Even if a Viking force avoided the English field army and successfully raided the interior, the booty-laden marauders would face borough garrisons as they attempted to return to their ships or strongholds. In 893, while Alfred and the fyrd engaged a naval force near Exeter, Ealdorman Æthelred, Ealdorman Æthelhelm, and Ealdorman Æthelnoth, and “the king’s thegns who were then at home” assembled a large force from the western burhs and besieged a Viking army in its stronghold at Buttington on the batik of the Severn. According to the Chronicle, they completely surrounded the Danes, occupying both banks of the river, and Successfully cut them off from supplies during a siege that lasted many weeks. “The pagans were sorely pressed by famine and had devoured most of their horses (the rest had died of hunger); they then came out against the men who were encamped on the eastern side of the river and fought against them, and the Christians had the victory … and there was a mighty slaughter of the Danes there.”32  Similarly, in 914 a Viking army led by earls Ohter and Hroald that had ravaged the coast of southern Wales and the Severn estuary was routed in the field by the combined garrison forces of Hereford, Gloucester, and other nearby blurbs and then besieged in its stronghold. Significantly, on neither occasion did the English want for supplies. One might reasonably suppose that Alfred used the burhs to store the feorm collected at royal vills and that during the 890s these widely distributed fortified towns served as a sort of magazine system for Alfred’s field forces, which would always be within a day’s march of food.33

To man and maintain thirty burhs, however, was a formidable task that required Alfred to develop a sophisticated and effective administrative system. This is outlined in a text known as the ‘Burghal Hidage’.34  Though in its present form the Bughal Hidage probably post-dates 914, it is generally believed that it represents Alfred’s original conception for the maintenance of his burhs.35  The text names thirty West Saxon and three Mercian burhs, and quotes the number of hides `belonging’ to each. The meaning of the latter is made clear in an appendix that relates hidage allotments to the burhs’ defensive requirements: “For the maintenance and defense of an acre’s breadth of wall [4 poles or 22 yards], sixteen hides are required: if every hide is represented by one man, then every pole [5½ yards] of wall can be manned by four men.”36  This equation permits one to calculate on that basis of the its allotted hidage the length of wall belonging to each burh and the number of men required to man and maintain it. In some cases the correspondence between the actual length of walls and its hidage allocation in the text is nothing short of remarkable. In the case of Winchester it is almost exact: the text’s 2,400 hides allows for 3,300 yards of wall while the city’s actual Roman walls extend for 3,318 yards.37  Though there are exceptions, notably the woefully inadequate provisions made for Exeter, generally the stated hidages accord well with actual measurements upon the ground, which suggests that the compiler of the Burghal Hidage knew what he ,vas talking about and that the teat represents an official document behind which might be detected other now lost official documents.38

The cost of building, maintaining, and garrisoning 30 fortresses while simultaneously keeping a standing army in the field year round drained the resources of the West Saxon landholding class, already suffering from the devastation wrought by Danish incursions and the tribute paid the ,enemy during the previous decade. Alfred’s new burhs and those that lacked Roman stone walls were defended by ditches and earthen ramparts. These ramparts, on the average, were about 9-10 feet high and 30-40 feet wide.39  As with Offa’s Dyke, dump construction was the rule, though the earthen wall were often reinforced with turf and timber revetments, and, in some cases, crowned with wooden palisades. Construction of Wallingford’s 9,000 feet of bank would alone have absorbed more than 120,000 man hours of labor.

Obviously, Alfred’s burhs were major public works. As Alfred’s biographer Asset makes clear, many nobles were reluctant to comply with what must have seemed to them outrageous and unheard of demands – even if they were for `the common needs of the kingdom’.40  In effect, Alfred had expanded and regularized the existing obligation of landowners to provide `fortress work’ on the basis of the hidage assessed upon their lands. The hidage allotments of the Burghal Hidage represent the creation of administrative districts for the support of the burhs. The landowners attached to Wallingford, for example, were responsible for producing and feeding 2,400 men, the number sufficient for maintaining 9,900 feet of wall.

On paper to man and maintain Wessex’s thirty burhs required 27,071 men. Given that the total population of `Greater’ Wessex in 890 (including Oxfordshire but not Essex) could not have much exceeded 450,000, this regions approximate population in ro86, the borough garrisons, at least on paper, constituted at least 6% of the kingdom’s total population. Perhaps as many as one out of every four free adult males in Wessex was serving in these garrison forces – and this does not even take into account the warriors who served in Alfred’s standing army.41  At a seed grain ratio of 1:2, it took the true surplus produced by three peasant farmers working 19 hectares of arable land to feed just one non-agricultural laborer.42  To put this in historical perspective, the Prussian military at the height of the Napoleonic Wars absorbed only 4% of that nation’s population.43  If Alfred’s garrison troops were in fact full-time soldiers, it is difficult to see how in practice the manpower demands outlined in the Burghal Hidage could have been fully met.

Though created to protect Wessex from Viking depredation, the burghal system’s most lasting consequence may have been the enhancement of the institutional power of the West Saxon monarchy over its subjects. The maintenance of the burhs reinforced the traditional connection between landowning and military obligation to the Crown. It also regularized these demands. Æthelstan’s second law code, issued at Grately, Hampshire, around 930, ordered that every fortresses be repaired by a fortnight after Rogation days (and immediately followed that with a decree that there shall be only one coinage over the king’s realm and that no money is to be minted except in a town). By the early eleventh century this obligation had been extended to include the repair of bridges, “whenever the occasion demands, as may be ordered for our common need,” and the preparation of warships as soon after Easter as possible.44 The landed nobility not only formed the backbone of the armies of Alfred, his children, and grandchildren, but were responsible for producing the workforce to maintain boroughs, bridges, and probably roads as well. Long after the burhs ceased to be garrisoned, the obligation of landowners to secure labor to refurbish their defenses remained. In Cheshire in 1066 for example, a royal reeve called upon one man from each hide in the county to repair the walls of Chester and the bridges of the shire. If someone neglected to respond to the summons, his lord paid a fine of 40 shillings to the king and the earl.45

Whether Alfred intended it or not, he had begun a process that was to result in a unified kingdom of England ruled by an effective, if demanding, central authority. Though the specific military demands that Alfred made upon his subjects were allowed to lapse during the halcyon reign of his great-grandson Edgar the Peaceable (959-975), the habit of bureaucracy that he, his son and grandsons fostered was to shape royal governance to 1066 and beyond. It also continued to define the kingdom’s military administration. Military service and logistic support for the defense of the kingdom remained a form of taxation levied upon landowners according to the cadastral assessment levied against their land, the `collection’ of which was to be overseen by royal officials. This was even true of the 300 (or 310) hide ship-sokes instituted by either Edgar and universalized by order of Æthelred the Unready in 1008. Pamela Taylor concluded based on a careful analysis of a `ship list’ detailing how the bishop of London ca. 1000 organized the shipfyrd owed from his estates that the obligation to construct and man ships was imposed by the Crown on episcopal estates, which were reorganized “against some sort of three-hundred-hide benchmark”, rather than on a simple territorial basis.46

Though the reign of Æthelred the Unready (978-1016) proved to be an unmitigated military disaster, this was not due to the indifference of the king and his advisors to logistics and military administration. By 991 the English military system had reverted to ad hoc levies of warriors based on hidage. Peace had transformed Alfred’s boroughs into Edgar’s towns. They still remained islands of royal authority in which the king could control minting and oversee trade, but they had ceased to be garrisoned forts. Their vulnerability was immediately exposed by the Viking raiders who descended upon the coasts of England almost as soon as the child Æthelred ascended the throne. The king and his advisors understood the deficiencies of the existing military organization and attempted to remedy it with an ambitious program of military construction. New boroughs were raised on the sites of iron-age hillforts at South Cadbury, Old Sarum, and Cissbury, and the defenses of existing boroughs were refurbished, as stone walls replaced timber revetments and palisades.47  The disasters of the 980s and 990s also led Æthelred to reevaluate and strengthen his naval forces and military forces. In ioo8 he parceled his kingdom into naval districts of either 300 or 310 hides to facilitate the construction of a great armada, and ordered that a helmet and corselet be provided from every eight hides.48  If we extrapolate from the total hidage of Domesday Book, about 70,000 hides for all of England south of the Tees, this would have meant a fleet of about 200 ships and armament for about 9,000 warriors.

Though the institution of the `ship-sokes’ in this annal has attracted the lion’s share of scholarly attention, the provision for the production of body armor is of equal military interest. , Æthelred and his advisors apparently recognized that their troops were `outgunned’ by the Vikings, and took the necessary steps to upgrade the equipment of their warriors. That this royal order was more than an exercise in paperwork is underscored by an interesting change in the composition of heriots before and after 1008. Mail coats and helmets are rarely found in heriots specified in tenth-century swills. After 1008, however, body armor appears as a matter of course.49 The tariff of heriots listed enumerated in II Cnut 71 stipulates that a king’s thegn in Wessex and Mercia (§ 1) was to render to the king four horses, two saddled and two unsaddled, two swords and four spears and as many shields and helmets and byrnies, which reflects the demand of the Crown that their warriors arm themselves and their followers properly. Thietmar of Merseburg, a contemporary writer, had heard that Æthelred in 1016 had “the incredible number” of twenty-four thousand coats-of-mail stored in his armory in London.50 One can only speculate how and to whom his officers distributed these weapons. What is certain, though, is that Æthelred used the powerful institutions of governance available to him to remedy the deficiencies in his military forces.

The sophisticated royal administration at his disposal allowed Æthelred to exploit fully the great wealth of England for the defense of the realm. Between 1008 and 1013, while his subjects were fortifying boroughs, constructing ships, and gathering coats-of-mail on the basis of their land assessments, Æthelred raised enormous sums of danegeld to appease the raiders as well as monies and provisions to support a mercenary fleet of perhaps as many as 3600 men.51 At times, the king was even forced to feed the enemy. The amount of cash the English are said to have render in tribute between 991 and 1018, 240,500 pounds in all, is so great as to provoke skepticism.52  But the evidence seems to weigh in favor of the Chronicle’s numbers. What is perhaps equally remarkable is the amount of bread, meat, wine, and beer that the English and Viking armies must have consumed during the same period. Vegetius would have been proud of the Viking way of war, in which incendiaries and foragers were at least as important as spear men. Olaf’s, Thorkell’s, and Swein’s armies `harried’ throughout the length and breadth of England. In other words, they `lived off the land’. During the spring, summer, and autumn the marauders found it easy to live off the land, though `horsing’ an army required the cooperation of locals, often in return for a grant of ‘peace’. Overwintering was a far different matter. To feed thousands of men during the winter months required stores, and the same was true for periods of `peace’. Consequently, Viking leaders made it a point to negotiate provisions for their men as part of the price of peace-making. In 994 the king and his advisors paid a fleet of 94 ships 16,000 pounds of silver in tribute and enough provisions for them to overwinter in Southampton. To feed this enemy army of 4500 to 7500 men required a `national’ effort; provisions, we are told, were levied from the entire West Saxon kingdom.53  Similar arrangements were made in 1002, 1006, and 1013. One might suspect that even when we do not hear tell of demands for supplies, they were nonetheless made and met. The importance that the Vikings placed on obtaining regular provisions is attested by Thorkell the Tall’s dealings with King Æthelred in 1012. After extorting an immense tribute and necessary supplies – including wine – from the king, he suddenly decided that it was more profitable to eat at the king’s table than to steal food from it. He consequently struck a deal with the king. He and his 45 ships would defend Æthelred’s kingdom against their own king in return for being fed and clothed. To fulfill his end of the bargain Æthelred instituted a regular tax, the heregeld a much hated impost that was to survive into the reign of Edward the Confessor.54

In 1013 the English found themselves in the unenviable situation of having to supply provisions to both the invading army of King Swein and to the forces of their nominal defender Thorkell. In all, this entailed the support of perhaps 9,000 men. A force of this size would have consumed a minimum of 27,000 lb. of bread a day, though it is doubtful that either Cnut’s or Thorkell’s seamen would have been satisfied with bread alone. Certainly they would have demanded something stronger than water. (When Thorkell’s men martyred Archbishop Ælfheah they were very drunk on wine brought from the south.55  Each of Swein’s horses, obtained along with provisions from the Northumbrians and the inhabitants of the Danelaw, required an additional 20 lb. of grain and forage. Apparently, Edward’s efforts did not sate Thorkell’s hunger. The fleet at Greenwich took the food but continued to ravage “as often as they pleased.”

Cnut’s conquest was bloody and brutal. In the first years of his reign he purged the magnate class and raised new men to replace them. But like William some fifty years later, Cnut appreciated the administrative machinery of the state he had conquered. During the wars Cnut and his men had harried the countryside without merry. Now that England belonged to him, he was able to plunder it administratively, demanding and receiving in 1018 some 72,000 pounds from a geld levied throughout England and an additional 10,500 pounds from the citizens of London. Cnut and his sons continued to exact the heregeld instituted by Æthelred in 1012 to support a standing fleet of 40 ships that Cnut later reduced to 16 ships, but which Hardacnut raised to either 60 or 62. The paid at the rate of 8 marks for each rowlock. This tax, which was given priority over other imposts and which was collected in kind and well as cash, was extremely unpopular, and Edward the Confessor won himself a great deal of popular approval by dismissing the foreign fleet from his service in 1049/50 and abolishing (or, more, accurately, suspending collection of) the heregeld a year later.56 Within a few years Edward had probably resumed the collection of geld – though he probably did not reinstitute the standing mercenary fleet for which the tact had been established.57

Domesday Book, William I’s great inquest into England’s lands, resources and royal dues, affords a tantalizing glimpse of some of the institutions and customs that underlay this system. In it are a few scattered references to military obligations owed the Crown in the `Time of King Edward’ (1066). Some of these are clearly fiscal, involving the render of money, weapons, ships and horses for the defense of the kingdom.58 Despite regional differences in military customs and obligations, what emerges from a study of Domesday Book is the sense that Harold had at his disposal a central and local administration capable of rationally and systematically exploiting the wealth of its subjects to raise, arm and provision royal armies and fleets.59  The precociously bureaucratic character of the late Anglo-Saxon state is reflected in the manner in which the king supported his military household. All lords were obliged to feed and maintain their followers and dependents, and the king was no different in this. Edward the Confessor acquitted this obligation, at least in part, through regular imposts upon the burgesses of a number of towns. Some towns had a choice of responding to a royal summons to a military expedition by sending a quota of warrior-representatives based upon an assessment of tax liability (`hides’) or providing, instead, a specified sum of money for stipendiary troops.60

In Berkshire, certainly, and perhaps throughout the hidated shires, one soldier (miles) was owed from every five hides.61 The nature of his obligation to service has been much discussed: less noted has been the 20 shillings, i.e. 240 pennies, that he carried with him for his two months of campaigning. Given that a man could be fed for a pence, what was required was an endowment far exceeding there subsistence rations.62  Since the money was to be given to the soldier rather than the king or his agents, we are not dealing with a hidden ‘tax’ but with a custom intended to guaranteed `quality’ troops.63  What is more, these troops were expected to come with cash, which implies that the king and his agents would arrange for markets in which they could buy provisions and weapons as needed. That the king’s armies were accompanied by extensive baggage trains is hinted at by the obligation of some boroughs to `find’ horses for expeditions,64 and by the standard cartage obligation of sokemen and liberi homines.

The elaborate logistical arrangements hinted at in the folios of Domesday Book had their origin in military and administrative developments that stretched back two centuries. That Alfred and his successors developed governmental machinery for the provisioning of troops reflects a key fact of Anglo-Saxon military history: that, with the exception of the misnamed ‘Reconquest’ of the Danelaw, Anglo-Saxon kings from Alfred to Harold Godwineson fought defensive wars upon their own soil. They did not have the luxury of following Vegetius’s advice to live off of the enemy’s territory. Rather, they had to create administrative mechanisms that would allow them to expropriate the wealth and agricultural surplus of their subjects for the defense of the kingdom. The nature of the Viking threat was such that English success depended upon the ability of its central government to maintain naval and land forces over extended periods of tithe. The mobility of the enemy dictated the development of a network of fortified towns and the maintenance of an impressive bride and road system for military transport. The result was the emergence of a military administration that, arguably, was as sophisticated as its more celebrated civil counterpart.


Abels, Richard P. 1988: Lordship and Military Obligation in Anglo-Saxon England. Berkeley, Los Angeles and London.

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1.Cf Bachrach 1986: 1-26

2. ASC s.a. 1066 (C,D).  The following abbreviations will be used in the text and references: ASC=Anglo-Saxon Chronicle [by corrected year and, where necessary, recension]; DB=Domesday Book [cited by volume and folio, h standing for verso]; EHD=English Historical Documents (vol.1 500-1042. 2nd ed., Dorothy Whitelock (ed.) 1979: London; vol 2. 1042-1189, 1953, David C. Douglas (ed.): London]; HE= Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Bertram Colgrave and K.A.B. Mynors (eds and trans.). Oxford 1969 (cited by hook and chapter); Keynes and Lapidge Keynes, Simon, and Michael Lapidge (eds), 19 83: Alfred the Great: Asset’s Life of King Alfred with Other Contemporary Sources. Harmondsworth, Middlesex; S=Sawyer, P.H. 1968: Anglo-Saxon Charters: An Annotated List and Bibliography, London.

3. See, e.g., Campbell 1975:39-54: Wormald (forthcoming); Keynes 1980.

4. Maitland 1897:156. Responses to Maitland’s challenge include: Hollister 1962; Abels 1988; Hooper 1989; Abels 1991:143-55

5. The works of Bernard Bachrach excepted, though his focus has tended to be continental rather than insular. Bachrach 1993:57-78. See also Bachrach 1985:724-5; Bachrach and Rutherford Aris 1990:1-17.

6. On Offa’s Dyke, see Hill 1977:21-33; Wormald 1982:120-1; Noble 1983; Hill 1985:140-2; Gelling 1992:102-24; Hill (forthcoming). For my calculations I have assumed that a worker could excavate one cubic yard of earth per hour from a five foot deep trench in ordinary soil. See Beach 1897:73.

7. For evidence on the size of seventh- and eighth-century armies, see Abels 1988:33-6.

8. Bede’s miracle tale about the Northumbrian warrior Imma is the main evidence for this. HE IV.22, pp. 400-03.

9. Abels 1988:58-83.

10. Leyser 1993:106-7.

11. Martin Biddle’s excavations at Repton in Derbyshire provide a good example of Viking field fortifications. Batey, Clarke, Page, Price 1994:128, 129.

12. For possible routes taken by the army and fleet from East Anglia, see Peddie 1989:76-7.

13. We can get some sense of the royal feorm from a clause in the late seventh-century laws of King Ine of Wessex (70, § 1), which stipulates that from every to hides the king should receive to vats of honey, 300 loaves, 12 ambers of Welsh ale, 30 ambers of clear ale, 2 full-grown cows or to wethers, to geese, 20 hens, to cheese, a full amber of butter, 5 salmon, 20 pounds of fodder, and too eels. Cf. S 1195 (Harmer, F.E. (ed.) 1914) for annual food renders from Burnan, Kent, to Christ Church, Canterbury, ca. 850.

14. Ine 4, 61; S 359 (record of dues and services rendered at Hustbome, Hants, AD 900); Finberg 1972:457-8.

15. As may be extrapolated from Donald Engels’s path-breaking work on Alexander the Great’s logistics, 1978:123-30, 144-5.

16. ASC s.a. 871.

17. Asset, ch.55, trans. Keynes and Lapidge 1983:84; ASC s.a. 878; Campbell 1962:42.

18. Abels 1988:58-78.

19. ASC s.a. 891.

20. DB 1.566.

21. ASCs.a. 895.

22. Sedgefield 1899:ch. 17.

23. Alfred’s Will, in Keynes and Upidge 1983:177; Asset, ch. 100, in Keynes and Lapidge 1983:106.

24. DB I.56b.

25. We find hints of such an arrangement in Domesday Book. See, e.g., DB 1.3756 (Lincs, disputes):”In the time of king Edward Siwate & Alnod & Fenchel & Aschil divided their father’s lands amongst them equally, share and share alike, and held it in such wise that if there were a call to the king’s army, and Siwate could go, the other brothers assisted him. After Siwate, a second went, and Siwate with the others assisted him; and thus with respect to them all.” See also DB 1.354 (Ludborough, Lincs).

26. A.S.C s.a. 893 trans. EHD 1. no. 1, p. 202.

27. Abels 1988:68-71. 236 nn. 67,68.

28. Herepath, S 229, 255, 272, 275, 334, 345, 393, 400, 412, 414, 418. 419. 429, 438. 440, 468. 475, 485, 534, 540, 582, 601, 615, 630, 632, 640, 664. 672, 690, 706, 712, 735, 734, 744, 755, 785, 881, 891, 902, 970, 971, 1558; fyrdstraet: S 1590. 1599, 1664: herestraet S 931, 1165, 1450, 1589.

29. A350: S 419 (Fontmell Magna) and S 630 (Iwerne Minster); A30: S468 (Swallowcliffe), S881 (Fovant), and S 438 (Burcombe).

30. S 735 (Stanton prior, belonging to Bath). S 785 (Corston, ), S 414 (Priston). The same situation prevails in the vicinity of Taunton, Somerset: S 475 and S440 (Pitminster) and S 345 (Creech St Michael).

31. See Abels 1988:71-4.

32. ASC s.a. 893, trans. Keynes and Lapidge 1983:116-17.

33. Yorke 1995:21.

34. Hill 1969:84-92.

35. Dumville 1992:24-7 (and references).

36. Keynes and Lapidge 1983:194.

37. Hill 1969:91-2.

38. Hill 1981:85. But cf. Yorke 1995:116-18.

39. Radford 1970:82-103; Biddle 1976:126-34; Yorke 1995:115-23.

40. Asset, Life of King Alfred ch. 9, in Keynes and Lapidge 1983:101-2.

41. Domesday Book records 85, 96; heads of households and 15,058 (individual) slaves in these shires. My total is based on a generous multiplier of five for each free man. Cf. Brooks 1979:819. Since Devonshire was significantly under assessed in the Burghal Hidage, the burden on the other shires may even have been greater. The service owed to Wallingford and Sashes, for example, required 3400 men, while Berkshire in 1086 had a free adult male population of only 5346. Cf. Devon: 13,978 free heads of households in 1086 as opposed to 1534 burghal hides; Dorset: 6138/3060; Hampshire: 8015/3520; Oxford: 5711/1400; Somerset: 10,871/2613; Surrey: 3602/2400; Sussex: 9184/4344; Wiltshire: 8356/4800.

42. Estimate based on Bachrach 1984:51-3, 61. See also Bachrach 1986:18-19; Bachrach 1993:65, 67-8.

43. Chandler 1980:23.

44. II Æthelstan 13, 14; V Æthelred 26 § 1, 27; VI ,Æthelred 32, § 3, 33; II Cnut 10, 65.

45. DB I.262b.

46. Taylor 1992:293-301.

47. Haslam (ed.) 1984:76, cog, 128, 137, 153, 788, 793, 258.

48. ASC s.a. 1008. Cf. V Æthelred 27; VI Æthelred 33. For the administration of ship-sokes see Taylor 1992:293-301.

49. Brooks 1978:85-90; Brooks 1991:215-17.

50. Thietmar of Merseburg, Chronicon, VII-40, ed. R. Holtzmann, 2nd ed, Berlin, 1955:446-7, trans. EHD I, no. 7, p. 348. See also comments of Lawson 1993:37

51. ASC s.a. 1040, 1041 (E) permits one to calculate that Hardacnut’s ships were manned by go men. This agrees with what Thietmar of Merseburg says about the crew size of the ships that Harold and Cnut brought up the Thames in tot6. Thietmar, Chronicon, ch.40, in EHD 1, no. 27, p.348. See Lawson 1993:177.

52. On size of gelds, see Lawson 1984:951-61; Lawson 1989:385-406; Lawson 1990:951-61; Lawson 1993:189-96. Cf. Gillingham 1989:373-84; idem 1990:939-50.

53. ASC s.a. 994.

54. ASC s.a. 1012.

55. ASC s.a. 1012.

56. ASC s.a. 1049 (C), 1052 [for 1051] (D).

57. Hooper 1989.

58. See, e.g., DB 1.26 (Lewes’; DB 1.75 (Dorchester, Bridport, Wareham, Shaftesbury); DB 1.646 (Malmesbury); DB 1.88 (Exeter); DB 1.54 (Oxford); DB 1.238 (Warwick); DB 1.3666 (Wilsford); DB 1.368 (Somerby); DB 11.48; DB 11.1076 (Colchester).

59. For the recruitment of troops, see Abels 1988:96-115.

60. See, e.g., DB 64 (Malmesbury, Wilts); DB L 154 (Oxford); DB 1.238 (Warwick).

61. DB I.566.

62. Will of the ætheling Æthelstan, in Whitelock (ed.) 19;0:58; “hund penega gefede thær on thone dæg c. thearfena.”

63. On one occasion William Rufus called out the fyrd in order to take from the soldiers the money that had been given them. ASC s.a. 1094.

64. Sec, especially, DB 1. 230: if the king went on a land campaign the burgesses of Leicestwr sent him 12 soldiers, but if it was a naval expedition, they owed instead 4 horses for ‘bringing together weapons or anything else required’ as far as London. Cf. DB 48 (Maldon): shares with other burgesses obligation inuenire caballum in exercetu and to make a ship. See Abels 1988:114-15; 255 n.90.

This paper was originally published in Military aspects of Scandinavian society in a European perspective, AD 1-1300 : papers from an international research seminar at the Danish National Museum, Copenhagen, 2-4 May 1996, edited by Anne Nørgård Jorgensen & Birthe L. Clausen (Copenhagen: National Museum. Studies in archaeology & history, 1997).  We thank the National Museum and Richard Abels for giving us permission to republish this article.

(via De Re Militari)