Problems of definition | Continuity or creation? | WIKS, BURHS, AND PORTS
Planned/planted towns | Growth of self-government | Urban economy | Urban society
Sources of our knowledge | further reading
|Origins: wiks, burhs, and ports|
Until the important studies of James Tait, the conventional view was that urbanization was one of the Norman introductions, or at best an initiative begun by King Alfred and his successors. Certainly it is true that evidence of urban entities in the earlier period is sparse, but archaeology in particular has helped show that the process was more ancient and more gradual. In the Early Saxon period, international trade that is, largely, the trade in "luxury" goods had, if not disappeared, then declined and most people's basic needs could be met through local or regional production. This economic environment could not have been conducive to more than very modest urbanization, and that centering around markets redistributing regional products and some growth in industries such as pottery-making whose goods gradually reached wider markets both inside and outside England.
The situation gradually improved during the eighth and ninth centuries, as the consolidation of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms brought a measure of peace that encouraged some revival of long-distance trade, particularly to the closer markets of the Frankish kingdom, the Low Countries and Germany. This trend became particularly marked in the eleventh century, whose evidence of widespread revival of international commerce led Henri Pirenne to portray a comparable resurgence of urbanization, dismissing earlier post-Roman towns as mere fortresses and administrative bases. Although his theory, influential for half a century, is now largely discredited, he at least set historians thinking more about economic characteristics as defining towns. International commerce in earlier centuries had not so much disappeared as been redirected away from the embattled Mediterranean to northern Europe, while regional and local trade were still a factor in the economic fabric.
By the tenth century in England new invaders, the Danes, had made their mark in northern and eastern England, establishing new settlements alongside existing ones and breathing new life into some towns (York and Lincoln being notable examples). Although the Viking raiders had initially disrupted long-distance trade, Danish settlement gave an impetus to agriculture, commerce and industry alike. At the same time, or even earlier, kings of many of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms had been fostering urban development to some degree. One key indicator is the appearance of settlements with names ending in "-wich", one derivation of which is from the Scandinavian term vik applied to numerous locations around the North Sea and meaning originally "bay" or "inlet" but becoming applied particularly to landing-places where travelling merchants would disembark from their vessels to conduct trade these were not necessarily permanent marketplaces but were likely the locations of locally-based industries (similar to the situation which gave rise to Lynn).
In time, some of these trading destinations became more permanent, perhaps with encouragement from the Anglo-Saxon kings. In fact, the wik phenomenon predated the Danish arrival and can be traced back to at least the beginning of the eighth century. It is notable that of the settlements incorporating wik in their names including Lundenwic (the site of the Saxon settlement at London being remembered later as Aldwych, the old wik), Fordwich (the outport for Canterbury), Swanawic (Swanage), Eoforwic, Gippeswyc, Westwyk, Nordwic, Sandwich, Hamwic (Southampton, the outport for Winchester) several were the principal leading estuarine-based settlements and/or sites of royal administration in one or other of the royal kingdoms; every kingdom had at least one such trading centre associated with a place that later became one of the country's leading towns. To what extent these types of settlement, with market functions, can be considered towns is still debated, although some have tried to skirt the issue by suggesting a category of "proto-urban" that is, settlements either having the potential to develop into towns, or already a good part of the way along the process of developing the urban character they would later unquestionably have; this, of course, incorrectly assumes we are agreed upon a precise and clear set of qualifications for "town" status. Whether urban or not in intent, it is nonetheless becoming clear that the wiks were an important innovation as foci for commerce, rather different from rural settlements or administrative centres; Hamwic, or Hamtun, with two to three thousand inhabitants, was important enough to give its name to the larger administrative unit of Hamp[ton]shire, before Viking raids prompted its inhabitants to relocate into a fortified area at Southampton. In fact, the Norse invasions seem to have disrupted the wik trading network generally.
Of course, we cannot look to coastal- or estuarine-based settlements alone for examples of settlements with some urban attributes. Others with -wic terminations are also found inland and may well have been so designated because one of their aspects was as trading centres, if only for the surrounding region. Examples are found in the salt wiches of Cheshire and Worcestershire. However, to complicate matters, "-wich" in some instances may derive from the Latin vicus, which was used broadly for dwellings, farms, hamlets, or subsidiary settlements.
An alternative origin for town-like settlements lies in the response to the Danish invasion from the kings of Wessex. Alfred initiated a fortification programme within Wessex, involving both new forts and the addition of defences to existing settlements; his son Edward the Elder did the same in the early tenth century as he gradually took the Danelaw away from the Danes beginning with East Anglia (e.g. Maldon) and then the Midlands and the north while the related rulers of West Mercia were doing likewise there at places such as Hereford and Shrewsbury. These fortified places, perhaps inspired by earlier examples of planned fortified settlements in Mercia, the Danelaw, and Wessex itself (Hamwic, unfortified), were called burhs. From that term derives our "borough", although burh originally applied to any fortified place (notably royal residences) endowed with a royal guarantee of enforcement of law and the peace there.
It was natural enough that burhs, which were often located on water transportation routes (for strategic reasons) would attract settlers. Rivers by themselves were attractors of settlement, particularly in the Early Middle Ages, when road transportation was less easy and much of the country still forested; they were trade routes, provided for domestic and industrial needs, and were natural defences. This is not to say land transportation routes were not important. Oxford provides an example of a town that originated as a small settlement that arose outside the gates of a monastery, itself lying beside a road linking Mercia and Wessex (and crossing the Thames by a ford there); it was an important enough place by the time of Edward the Elder to warrant him making Oxford a burh.
The protective environment of the burhs was incentive to the location of markets within or nearby, if they were not already present (as is probable) in those existing settlements converted into burhs. This added a purely commercial dimension to the burh, planned or unplanned, which was distinguished by another name: port (a late example is seen at Norwich, a composite settlement with two wics, later burh defences, and still later a Newport added with a strong commercial character). We should not think of 'port' in its modern usage of a coastal settlement with harbour facilities. In the Early Middle Ages the term could be used for a range of settlements, often but not necessarily with some access by water, but typically with regular trading activities. Not all burhs developed into towns, nor were all towns burhs at some point in their life. Similarly, not all ports were burhs. But, just as the burh benefited from special royal protection, so ports were privileged by the restriction of minting and major commercial transactions to such places (the latter restriction apparently proving impossible to enforce). Portmen was a name by which townsmen, or burgesses, were occasionally known in later centuries, as at Canterbury and Ipswich. As a generalization only, it can be suggested that the earlier of the burh foundations outside of the Danelaw were particularly likely to develop into towns, since they had more time take advantage of economic circumstances by adding market aspects; the later burhs there were more likely to remain no more than forts. The burhs established within the Danelaw, after reconquest, were typically within settlements already fostered by the Danes into commercial centres and so also tended to become important towns later in the Middle Ages.
If burhs were not guaranteed to develop into towns, it is in part because other factors were at play. After the unification of England under the Wessex dynasty, the country entered a period of considerable population growth and corresponding economic growth, as more land was put under cultivation, heavier farming and improved techniques produced a surplus of foodstuffs for trade, and market centres were able to benefit from this and from expanded international trade in luxury goods.
Some centres prospered faster, and at the expense of others; as they grew, they in turn provided a population of consumers for agricultural produce. Improved records give us a clearer picture of the urbanization process, which was in full swing, particularly in eastern England where there was room for expansion (not least due to the reclamation of marshland), rich farmland and only a handful of large settlements to compete for the role of regional trade centres. The Domesday Book identifies 112 places as boroughs, most of them with mints and features that do seem truly urban; yet we know this was not a complete list of English towns at that time. England's prosperity by mid-eleventh century was surely a factor in persuading William of Normandy to pursue his claims to dominion there, which in turn resulted in the introduction of a new aristocracy with its own interests in fostering the luxury trade and creating new market centres.