Leading to Borough Freedom

Lord with Kin and Bondsmen

This social system, based upon the principles of ‘kinship’ began in early English tribal culture. But what is feudalism? It is a system of rule whereby the nobility held land from the Crown in exchange for military service. The vassal nobles were tenants of the king, and their retinue bondsmen and peasants were retained by the noble to work the land and to assist in the military protection of the lord and his lands.

I have written something about this ancient practise in my essay covering “Tribal Rites and their Influence on English History.” However, when referring to Feudalism this normally conjures the period of the Norman Conquest. Contrary to a common acceptance and general assumption that William of Normandy introduced feudalism to England I feel I must clarify upon its introduction.

The principle began much earlier within the ‘Tribal Hidage’ assigning numbers of hides (or tribute-paying families) to each region or province, originating in Mercia, during the Mercian ascendency. It was loosely tied to the ‘Wergild’ a grading system that played multiple roles including a person’s value and status. In Anglo-Saxon times there were codes of obligation (duties and taxes) beginning with the ‘Trimoda Necessitas’ (Three-knotted obligations) a tax on the subjects of an Anglo-Saxon king. These required the services of Bridge-bote (to repair bridges and roads) Burh-bote (to maintain fortifications) and Fyrd-bote (for military services). These duties were the mainstay of Anglo-Saxon society.

It seems that this system can be dated back considerably in time, to even before the great Offa’s Mercian empire. This was pointed out to me by my old friend Charlie Morriss. It became very apparent with the establishment of the fortified burhs under the directions of Alfred the Great and was widely accepted under the Norman regime. Feudalism, in England, appears to have actually begun by Aethelbald (King of the Mercians (716-756) with ‘obligations’ later formalised by King Offa (757-796). His son-in-law Beorhtric (Brihtric) King of Wessex (786-802) a close ally of the Mercians, adopted the ‘Trimoda Necessitas’ and the principles of feudalism. By Alfred’s time the duties were commonly referred to as the Bridge-bote, Burh-bote and the Fyrd-bote. The Fyrd-bote may have been also known as the Wyre-bote to include suitable landless men of the lord’s holdings within his levy.

Quite probably, according to Asser, Alfred’s biographer, Offa may have constructed a minor number of basic burhs while improving upon Aethelbald’s fortifications when developing a defence mechanism against the early Viking and local Welsh raids.

The conquests and settlements of the Vikings, that ringed the northern waters, brought England fitfully within a Scandinavian orbit and it was not until England was subjugated by the Normans, themselves of Viking origin, though gallicised in part, that Scandinavian influence reached its height in England during the Danish dynasty. But the empire of Cnut disintegrated after his death in1035. Edward, son of Aethelred II and Emma of Normandy was accepted as King of the English in 1042.

Edward (the Confessor) united the lines of Cerdic and Rollo, although by his upbringing he was more a Norman than a west-Saxon (neither English nor French). The Conquest by William was a systematic replacement of the many remaining Scandinavian-Anglo-Saxon residual influences. To some extent the Norman impositions were corrected by the ‘Magna Carta’. The folk-rights and local traditions set in motion under Alfred-the Great’s policies provided special advantages to the ‘freemen’ of the boroughs that to some extent remained until their eventual dissolution under the Municipal Corporations Reform Act of 1835.


The origins of the 3 feudal obligations known as the ‘Trimoda Necessitas’. These were imposed by the king on all Saxon landholders. There is an argument over the spelling of this being Trinoda, either way it should be considered as the ‘three fundamental obligations. Bridge-bote will have broadly covered the repair of roads and the ‘Wyre’-bote to maintain the military routes across country. The first formalisation appears with Aethelbald of Mercia (716-756) following a Council had in 749. Ref. H P R Finsberg “The Formation of England 550-1042”

Aethelbald (King of Mercia) according to Bede, in 731 “was now master of all England south of the Humber”. He appears to have developed a broad strategy to defend and protect his empire,

It is likely that Wat’s Dyke, running 38 miles from Dee in Flintshire to Newbridge nr Oswestry in Shropshire, was constructed under the direction of Aethelbald to dominate Cheshire.

Offa with greater Mercian Supremacy demanded Bridge and ‘Fortress’-work, plus all occupants of ‘bookland’ must provide quota for military service when the king or local ealdorman calls out the host. By 794 they were exacting ‘military service’.

‘Bookland’ (law) in Anglo-Saxon land tenure was vested by charter. Land held without a charter was ‘folkland’.

Offa’s Dyke was conceived of an idea of a negotiated frontier with the Welsh.

By 1042 the assimilation of the Vikings was in progress and their terrifying marauding hordes had ended. The kingdom which Edward had been called to rule was bounded in the west and north by the limits of the Mercian and Northumbrian earldoms. The frontier with Wales had greater stability with Offa’s Dyke marking the chosen limit of Anglo-Saxon penetration. However, the Welsh principalities and the kingdoms of the Scots were not completely independent of the English king.

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