Hampshire Before Domesday – new ideas from old place-names

The Small Shires of Hampshire

Clever detective work is putting flesh on the way Hampshire was governed before the arrival of the Normans.

During the last hundred years many small countries have experienced the withdrawal of a colonial power. More often than not, a long period of chaos is endured before order is regained. More than 1500 years ago Hampshire was in a similar situation, as the Romans left and Saxons took their place.

The first coherent snapshot of the organization of the country is the Domesday Book. It was compiled nearly 700 years after the collapse of the Roman Empire and a generation after the Norman Conquest. It shows a county divided into ‘hundreds’, with some names that make little sense to modern eyes.

The question is: what happened before the advent of the feudal administrative systems of the Normans? Until recently very little was known about it. But clever analysis by scholars, many from Winchester, has now come up with some answers that make sense of the development of a system of local government that in various forms survived into the Victorian era.

At the heart of this is the fusion of documentary sources, archaeology and landscape history. One of the pioneers is Professor Barbara Yorke of Winchester University, whose recent retirement was marked by a book– or Festshrift – which outlines progress in her field.

This is The Land of the English Kin edited by TV presenter and archaeologist Dr Alex Langlands and Professor Ryan Lavelle of the University of Winchester. It provides the latest thinking on the territories that early Saxon settlers occupied, including ‘small shires’. These are reckoned to have been larger than hundreds, but much smaller than counties and evolved into larger districts and early Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.

It includes a fascinating account of the territorial organisation of Hampshire before Domesday by Dr Stuart Brookes, Senior Research Associate at UCL Institute of Archaeology, London.

Old documents refer to ‘regions’ and ‘provinces’, which were probably larger than hundreds (in Latin, regiones and provinciae) and often took their names from geographical features. Bede in his Ecclesiastical History of England records that on conversion to Christianity the South Saxon king was given the Isle of Wight and ‘the province of the dwellers of the Meon’– essentially the lands of the Meon Valley, which had been settled by Jutes from North Frisia.

Another feature reflected in old names is the custom of Anglo-Saxons to meet in given places to settle disputes and make law. By the 10th century or earlier assemblies were held every four weeks, according to Dr Brookes. For example, Evingar hundred in north-west Hampshire, met in a triangular field at its centre, still recorded in 1650 as ‘Evingdale’.  It lay about a mile north-west of Whitchurch, on high ground near crossroads on the ancient Harrow Way.

Some hundreds were named after burial barrows, such as Mainsborough (in the Candover valley), which comes from Maegen’s Barrow, and Bountisborough (today’s Itchen Abbas and Itchen Stoke) from Bunt’s Barrow. Others were named after landscape features – a tree, a hillock or a stone – which have long disappeared. The people of the Malshanger, near Basingstoke, met ‘under a hedge’!

‘Royal vills’ were obliged to give royalty and their court sustenance for a day and some gave their name to a hundred. An example is Kingsclere hundred, though meetings were held on Nothing Hill (yes, really!), a mile or so to the west of the village itself, but central to what had been the ‘region’ of the Cleras people.

Others took their name from the main manor, such as the Somborne hundred, but might assemble elsewhere. In 1272 it was called the ‘hundred of Stockbridge’ and experts suggest it may therefore have met on Stockbridge Down, where there is a late Anglo-Saxon cemetery for executed criminals (there are others in Winchester and Andover).

The distribution of Anglo-Saxon burial sites on the chalklands of Hampshire seem to reflect the territories of various groups of settlers. This has led to a so-called ‘river and wold’ model, based on the concept that landscape features define areas of settlement. Developed from studies in Kent, it suggests that communities grew up where there were both free-draining river terraces for crop-growing and ‘thinner’ higher ground for woodland and animals.



In support of the theory, some territories and early burials follow the drainage basins of rivers. Hence, Chilcomb, which includes Winchester, relates to the upper Itchen. The Anton served the territory of the Andeferas people of Andover and the private hundred of Micheldever was in the drainage basin of the Dever.

Similar associations are not generally seen in the claylands to the north and south of the chalk, but interestingly where chalk does exist – on Portsdown Hill, the Isle of Wight and in the upper Avon valley –collections of burials are found, implying settlement.

However, the ‘river and wold’ theory does not work in the Kingclere region, nor in the upper Test valley, where there were extensive areas of undeveloped commons well into the eighteenth century.

Also, in and around Southampton, which in Saxon times was served by the port of Hamwic, the ‘small shire’ of Hylthingas is thought to be an artificially created administrative unit, with assemblies held at river crossings, including Mansbridge and Redbridge.

A surprise in The Land of the English Kin is that scholars now believe that the Roman name of Winchester, Venta belgarum, is not – as most sources say – best interpreted as the market town of the Belgae, a Celtic tribe. In fact, when the Romans successfully invaded Britain and took over the tribal territory of the Atrebates – a larger tribal region – Winchester was a poor third to Chichester and Silchester.

It seems that Silchester kept the major ‘tribal’ name Calleva Atrebatum, Chichester took the ‘regal’ name Noviomagus Regnorum, and Winchester had a name that reflected ‘the ancestral spirit of the old Atrebatic realm’, according to Roman expert Professor Tony King.

The Winchester-based studies pioneered by Professor Yorke and others show how evidence from documents, archaeology and landscape is illuminating the so-called Dark Ages. Every little helps: in Winchester City Museum is a 3rd century milestone unearthed in South Wonston with an abbreviation believed to read: ‘the council of the Belgae put this up’.

The Land of the English Kin is on open access .
Barry Shurlock, first published in the Hampshire Chronicle, 4 March, 2021.

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