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Adam's Grave


What was a bury?

What do 'Woden's beorg', Oldbury and Avebury and Marlborough have in common? Easy – they're all places in central Wiltshire. True enough, but that wasn't what I had in mind. What else do they have in common?

The Iron Age hillfort known as Oldbury ('the old earthworks'), near Cherhill.

Well modern spelling is a hindrance here, so set that aside. And they're only four examples from a great many others I could have chosen from England. Got there? Yes, they are all place-names with some version or another of the Old English words beorg or burh. OK, the 'borough' of Marlborough and its ilk is at least a couple of generations down the line – I'll explain why later. Indeed, if you are feeling pedantic then all four of these examples refer to something different: a Neolithic long barrow, an Iron Age earthwork, a seventh or eighth century farming community, and a twelfth century planned market town.

The bounds of Avebury's burh.

The footpath which runs from the main visitors' car park to the High Street (shown here from the summit of the adjacent prehistoric henge bank) seems to follow one corner of the seventh or eighth century burh earthworks. Instead of a hawthorn hedge, imagine a ditch, bank and wooden palisade.

The modern building in the middle distance was formerly the primary school. When it was erected in 1970 evidence of mid-Saxon settlement was revealed.

The tower of the present church, the successor to the minster contemporary with the creation of the burh, is to the far right of the photograph.


A plan of Avebury's burh. The internal plot boundaries are Late Saxon, and probably older than the sub-rectangular burh. (After Reynolds 2001.)

The photograph above shows the bottom right (south-east) corner of this burh.


The King's bury in Calne, with the parish church.

So why do they share the word burh? The original sense of this is 'earthwork'. So that's long barrow and hill fort sorted – they would have been prominent at the time the Anglo-Saxons were giving names to landmarks in this part of Wiltshire. The mid-Saxon farming community would have also been protected by banks, presumably with a timber palisade on top. The course of these earthworks can still be traced in modern road patterns in place such as Alderbury, Amesbury, Avebury, Heytesbury, Malmesbury, Ramsbury, Tisbury and Westbury. They can also be traced at a number of places which are not called something-bury, such as Wilton, Cricklade and the oldest parts of Calne and Marlborough, all of which were founded around the same time. Part of the evidence is streets still known as Kingsbury (as at Calne, Marlborough and Wilton).

Avebury's 'wall ditch'.


Durrington Walls.

Avebury could have been named after the prominent Neolithic ditches and banks to the immediate east of the burh earthworks (and into which the village later 'seeped'). But it wasn't. The earliest reference to what we call the henge was to the Walditch – literally the 'wall-like ditch'. This corresponds directly to the name Durrington Walls for the henge near Amesbury and Stonehenge.

A small part of Barbury Castle – another Iron Age hill fort.

Three words with overlapping meanings: beorg, bury and mund

The Old English word burh started life with the primary sense of 'fortified place'. Hence Oldbury – literally the 'old burh' and Barbury, commemorating someone called Bera. Both these Wiltshire earthworks are Iron Age hillforts so were nearly a thousand years old by the time they acquired these names Throughout England there are many such Iron Age earthworks known by an Anglo-Saxon name ending in 'bury'.

In old documents burh appears as byrig which is the dative singular. The dative case is generally used to indicate the noun to which something is given so is common in place names.

Adam's Grave

This early Neolithic chamber tomb (or long barrow) was built well over four thousand years before the Anglo-Saxon's dubbed it Wodnesbeorg or 'Woden's bury'. It is at one end of a dry valley known to the Anglo-Saxons as Woden's dene, which cuts through the Wansdyke, or 'Woden's ditch' (see next photograph).

All these references to the god Woden were too much for local Christians so at some point this mound was renamed Adam's Grave. It stands on the summit of Walker's Hill, near the early Neolithic causewayed enclosure, built at about the same time, known as Knapp Hill. The chamber tomb and causewayed enclosure stand above the dramatic scarp slope of the chalk downland which looks over the Vale of Pewsey to the south (see next-but-one photograph).

Woden's dene, less than a mile to the east of Wodnesbeorg. The course of the Wansdyke is now marked by a row of trees. The gap in the middle, where the modern and Anglo-Saxon road cuts through, may have led to the entire dyke becoming associated with Woden.

Part of the view of the Vale of Pewsey from Adam's Grave.

Modern spellings are poor indicators of original pronunciation, not least because Old English scribes wrote 'g' for the final 'y' sound – hence the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the year 592 describes two warriors, Coel and CÆwlin, fighting at a place written as Wodnesbeorg but pronounced more like 'Woden's bury'. Although Neolithic long barrows are very different in size to Iron Age hillforts, they did have deep ditches running down either side, so could have been thought to be defensive rather than funereal. The fact that Wodnesbeorg – which was later re-christened Adam's Grave – provides an excellent look out place over the Vale of Pewsey would have strengthened the military associations in Anglo-Saxon minds.

The original sense of beorg is 'hill or mound' – whether natural or manmade. Because beorg (pronounced 'bury') and burh (in the genitive case also pronounced 'bury') sound alike then the two words merged to mean 'defensive earthworks'. The Old English word mund, originally meaning 'protection' and used to refer to mounds erected over burials to offer protection, shifted from an adjective to a noun denoting the burial mound itself, replacing beorg. We still use the word 'mound' in this sense.

Just to confuse modern place-name researchers, there are two words which sounds similar. The first is berie which means an 'open field' and the other is bearu, which meant 'wood or grove'. So, for example, Barrow on Soar in Leicestershire does not take its name from one or more burial mounds, but from a grove. Suffice to say that just be wary before assuming that 'bury' in modern place-names necessarily refers to a burh.

The early burys and their functions

So, when in the seventh century Anglo-Saxons started building settlements with defensive banks and ditches, then these places began to be named after what made them different – these earthworks. In Wiltshire these are Alderbury, Amesbury, Avebury, Heytesbury, Malmesbury, Ramsbury, Tisbury and Westbury and elsewhere there are, Aylesbury, Bibury, Bury St Edmunds (originally 'Saint Edmund's bury'), Canterbury, Tetbury and many others.

There was also something unusual about these settlements. They all had churches. Indeed these were almost always the first churches in the region. Historians once assumed that this was deliberate missionary activity, with the churches intentionally placed to convert the locals. But the evidence, when available, suggests something different. These were aristocratic communities whose primary activities were farming and, given the locations near watercourses and early roads, probably the focus of local trade.

There were no market towns at this time. Indeed there were no significant settlements of any size in most parts of Britain, not even villages. Almost everyone lived and farmed in 'farmsteads' where a family group – presumably spanning several generations – lived.

The early burys were no exception – these too have been described by historians as 'family businesses'. In the seventh and eighth centuries ownership was hereditary, with these rights being asserted in charters. The survival of these early legal documents is largely by chance than because of anything resembling good archival practices down the centuries, but more have survived in Wiltshire and the West Country than elsewhere in Britain. Sometimes they provide indications of when the rights were acquired from the king, the size and who the initial owners were. However we would be wrong to think of them as conveying ownership of the land. The king still owned all the land. What these charters conferred was both the income from the farming and trading activities taking place there and exemption from many of the 'taxes' and other dues of the time.

Because charters waived numerous payments and duties we can reasonably assume that kings were 'bribed' to offer them. The technical term was a 'fine'. But this was not a 'penalty', as the word now signifies but, instead, something more akin to making a substantial donation to a political party in the hope of suitable favours once they are elected. Think in terms of acquiring much more than a non-hereditary peerage!

Despite these charters being clearly dated, historians caution about taking these at face value. The written document may be the 'tidying up' of a de facto situation (perhaps only after the fine had been paid) or even the re-establishment of rights which had been granted some time previously.

The idea of written agreements was still novel in Anglo-Saxon times – prior to that everything had been agreed verbally in front of witnesses and using various forms of oaths, whether Christian or otherwise. Legal documents were thought of more like a record of the voices of now-dead witnesses. This was the powerful 'magic' which writing is thought to possess in semi-literate societies. The usefulness of a literate clergy for record-taking must have been one reason why church and state merged so closely in the sixth to eighth centuries, and became all-but inseparable thereafter. The subtle distinctions between the modern words 'cleric' and 'clerk' betray their shared origin – even though a secular 'clerical assistant' now performs widely different duties from an ecclesiastical one.

Early minsters would have included at least one literate priest. Among his duties would have been attempting to teach at least some of the sons of the noble family how to read and write Latin. How successful such teaching might have been we can only guess – 'patchy' is perhaps as good as it got, as little doubt the aptitude of both students and tutors varied widely. Certainly King Alfred thought there was scope for considerable improvement! Having a fairly evenly distributed network of 'clerical clerics' able to read and write was a good one as, in principle, was the idea of these men offering lessons in literacy to the sons of the nobility. Furthermore, until the mid-seventh centuries the daughters of English noblemen were sent to northern France to be educated. Surely there must have been a wish to create comparable institutions closer to home. From the perspective of the king having clerical and educational 'services' within easy access of all parts of his kingdom would be worth paying for by relaxing tax obligations on the 'host' communities.

Many readers will have been brought up on a view of the conversion to Christianity in which persuasive missionaries and personal piety were to the fore – what might be called the 'Venerable Bede school of history'. The reality is far more cynical – the king 'bribed' the nobility to set up minsters with favourable taxation exemptions (although they almost certainly 'bribed' the king to be the recipients of this largesse). The evidence is the significant number of charters, merely a very small proportion of the total number drawn up and ratified. Every one is conferring significant financial advantages – but not, as is commonly assumed, ownership of the land. The charters start in the late seventh century but only with the Vikings and the establishment of the Danelaw in 886 did the idea of buying and selling land become part of British culture. Yes, the Vikings were Britain's first 'estate agents'. But the king still remained the ultimate owner – the concept of 'freehold', still very much central to British property law, refers to a holding of land which the monarch allows to be freely assigned by the freeholder (and, usually, these rights can be inherited).

All in all, setting up communities as minsters was a bit of 'tax dodge', albeit one which came with the obligation to provide different types of services to the community. A further cost came from building the earthwork and associated buildings which characterised these burhs. Whatever a minster might have been, in England these were only viable if located within sub-rectangular defensive earthworks and in Wales and Cornwall if set within sub-circular counterparts. There are few, if any, examples of early minsters which do not have such a 'burh' surrounding them. If arable produce and other tradable good were stored there, as seems entirely reasonable, then this accumulation of wealth would attract raiders. Serious defences were not an option – but they came at a substantial cost in labour and timber.

It is a small step into the unknown to suppose that defensive earthworks require a suitable number of fighting men to defend them, although the costs of equipping and training them would be a customary part of the life of the nobility at that time. Erecting, repairing and enhancing defences is a time-honoured way of keeping such troops both fit and occupied; any spare time could be devoted to repairing bridges and roads. No coincidence that later medieval monasteries and abbeys were traditionally responsible for the upkeep of bridges and ferries in their vicinity – a tradition only broken with the Dissolution of these establishments.

The locations of minsters

Clearly the church or minster was important to these early burys, and these early churches certainly became locally important over the next few hundred years, evolving into 'mother churches' for the region (until manor chapels, later to become parish churches, become the fashion from the tenth century onwards). But we need to resist the assumption that burys were founded primarily for religious reasons. Practical matters of trade and 'access to literacy', along with demonstrations of appropriate social standing seem to be as much to the fore rather than anything we might recognise as piety. The locations of early minsters near roads and, in many cases, watercourses navigable to small punt-shaped craft and such like reveal that they were set up in places which enabled trade with the 'outside world'.

The small hamlet of Disserth in Radnorshire still retains some of feel of the eponymous 'desert hermitage',

If piety was a dominant aspiration then the intention seems to have been to get away from the hustle and bustle of normal seventh century life by aspiring to the lives of the desert fathers. This can be seen in the Welsh Marches as Disserth (or Diserth) in Radnorshire takes its name from a word meaning 'desert hermitage', reflected in its 'backwater' location. Also in the Welsh Marches are places called clas. The word is now obsolete and often corrupted to 'glas' in modern spellings as glas is a current word (meaning 'green-blue'). Examples of this shift from clas to glas include Glascwm and Glasbury. The original sense of clas has the literal meaning of 'chapter', suggesting a subsidiary settlement of an earlier foundation (which accurately describes Glascwm). Glasbury, in Herefordshire, is a 'creole' of Welsh clas with Old English buryand seemingly matches the usage of llan to describe early Welsh churches and their circular or sub-circular enclosures.

In Surrey and Sussex the preferred location for these early communities was at the side of estuaries, in places chosen to provide both easy access to the inland waters of the Channel but also in some way protected from storms and such like. In Wiltshire and the East Midlands the predominant location of early churches is in the upper valleys of the rivers. As I have described elsewhere (Trubshaw 2015) there seems to be a pattern of one such early community for each upper valley system. These suggests two things. Firstly, that upper valleys were regarded at the time as a 'unit of land' whose boundaries were already established. Secondly, by establishing such a 'centre of trade' in each and every upper valley then there was a network of 'inland ports' right in the heart of England, even in the places furthest from the sea. This is entirely consistent with the way Anglo-Saxon kings administered their kingdoms and, in itself, would be worth offering 'tax breaks' to establish. Among other advantages, it meant that in times of poor harvests – and there were plenty of those at the time – then food could be readily redistributed.

The burys and their near namesakes

There are two words in Old English which refer to churches: ciric, which usually appears in place-names as 'kirk', and eccles, from the Latin ecclesiastica. Furthermore, although the word stow has the primary sense of 'place' it always denotes a 'special place' and many have early churches. The inference is that these places were special before the conversion, but direct evidence is lacking. The best guess is they were seasonal meetings places – indeed there is still an annual fair at Stow on the Wolds in the Cotswolds. Because we know too little about the sixth to eighth century history of places which were referred to as kirks, eccles and stows there is no way of knowing in what respect they were different from burys. Indeed, because place-names are generally only known from the later forms, we do not know if a specific place started out as a kirk, eccle, stow or burh but became known by a different name later. In other words, any assumptions of fundamental differences must be regarded with caution – the terms themselves may have been overlapping, the meaning of the terms may have evolved, while places most certainly evolve. Permeability and fluidity rather than 'fixity' applies to any attempt to categorise place-names. Most importantly, we cannot assume that the list of places now ending in –bury represent all the examples of places which were once thought of – or even referred to as – 'burys'. And, to some extent, vice versa – a place might function akin to a burh but not be so named.

The parallels between early Christian communities in Wales and Cornwall which are known as llan and the burhs of Anglo-Saxon England are striking, not least that they are the first 'villages' in these regions. However the characteristic shape of a llan is circular or oval, while burhs are rectangular (usually with rounded corners). These are entirely pragmatic solutions for communities which needed to defend themselves. Wolves were far from extinct at this time, while wild boar and deer would be unwelcome guests in the 'vegetable patches. We can also assume that raiding parties would also attempt to rustle cattle and other livestock, attempt to take people as slaves, or seek 'protection money' and otherwise intimidate those living there.

And, just maybe, the people who set up such religious communities were thought to be more than a little odd by their contemporaries – just as in the seventeenth century the most zealous Protestant sects were, to all intents and purposes, packed off from Europe to form colonies in the New World. Once there, the settlers needed to defend themselves against both wild animals and less-than-friendly 'locals', and they needed to farm effectively to (hopefully) ward off starvation. And all the while the underlying motive was to set up idealistic religious communities. Yet we do not think of the successful settlements in, say, Virginia as essentially religious in nature.

Because the little we know of the early conversion of English comes from Gildas and Bede then history has very much been written by the winners. Quite what the 'losers' made of things at the time is entirely unknown. But human nature has changed little in fifteen hundred years so we can assume that early Christians – with their cultural roots in the eastern Mediterranean – were likely to be thought of in a similar way to how modern Britains think of converts to, say, the Krishna Movement or other 'exotic' oriental cults – a mixture of unease, condescension and 'Well, if you must, but not near our back yard.'

The early churches

Whatever the real reasons, burys reflect a 'new fashion' to live in larger social groups. The evidence suggests that one of the key reasons was for defence, although against what and whom is open to speculation. As these people had adopted Christianity by this time then a modest church would have been a logical part of the settlement. There may even have been an element of 'keeping up with the Joneses' – after all, these were aristocratic communities and explicit expressions of status went with their lifestyles.

Nevertheless these early churches would not look very impressive to people accustomed to later buildings. They would have been small – perhaps only room inside for about fifty people – and built of wood with a thatched or shingled roof. They would have looked very much like the hall which the local lord lived in. Indeed they would almost certainly have been built by the same craftsmen. Every fifty to hundred years the timber would start to rot and they would be taken down and rebuilt. Unlike stone buildings, the easiest way to repair a timber building is to take it down, salvage any timber capable of reuse and then put it back up.

The only surviving timber-built church in England, at Greensted-juxta-Ongar, Essex. Dendrochronology suggests the walls were built between 1063 and 1100. The porch and dormer windows are much more recent.

No matter if these early churches started out as 'private chapels' for the residents of the burh they evolved into churches provided pastoral care for the surrounding settlements. The Anglo-Saxons referred to them a mynsters, derived from the Latin monasterium and historians generally use the term 'minster' to describe them. Despite the Latin word monasterium meaning 'monastery' we should not think of them as akin to later medieval monasteries following a specific rule, such as the Benedictine or Augustinian houses. There were no such general rules to follow before the tenth century and each community had its own. As a result there was considerable variation. By the time they are being referred to in documentary sources then there are male-only communities, female-only ones and so-called 'double houses' – usually ruled over by an abbess rather than an abbot.

The women of the burys

When we look at the names of the Wiltshire burys we get some indication of the gender balance. Early forms of these names tell us that they were once Æthelwearde's burh (Alderbury), Ambre's burh (Amesbury), Eava's or Afa's burh (Avebury), Heahthryth's burh (Heytesbury), Maildulf's burh (Malmesbury), HrÆfnes' burh (Ramsbury), Tissa's burh (Tisbury) and – perhaps – GÆta's burh (Yatesbury – although the name may be derived from 'goat' or 'gate' instead). And the gender balance is perfect as half of these eight 'patrons' are female: Æthelwearde, Afa, Heahthryth and Geata.

Other women commemorated in bury place-names include FlÆde (short for ÆthelflÆd or EanflÆd) of Fladbury (Worcestershire), Beaga of Bibury (Gloucestershire) and Tette of Tetbury (Gloucestershire). As an aside, Tetbury starts out being called Tettan monasterium and then Tettanminster, providing confirmation – as it were needed – that mynster and burh were all-but indistinguishable. Prominent religious houses known to have been led by women, although not named after them, include Bath, Gloucester, Hartlepool, Leominster, Much Wenlock and Withington (Lancashire).

The surprising number of female religious communities can probably be explained by the lack of other options for widows, especially those of noble birth. While the later term 'nunnery' is used by historians, this is misleading. There is none of the emphasis on piety which was proclaimed for later medieval nunneries. These would have been communities where a woman was 'the boss' and provided an environment which was convivial to other women. However men would no doubt have been required for many of the farming activities. Religious services would have led by a male priest. However there is no evidence that such priests were permanently attached to female houses so the best guess is that there was an 'arrangement' whereby the priest was based elsewhere and visited as necessary. Some, although not all, of the burys do seem to close enough together to share this 'dual placing'. However one possible example of intentional close proximity – Avebury and Yatesbury – seemingly are both named after women (although in both cases there is some doubt; however the alternative options are not male names).

Two 'spinsters' using distaffs.

We can reasonably assume that the women did not sit around idly. The word 'spinster' has its origin in Old English, indicating that unmarried women would have spent much of their time spinning wool and flax. The somewhat archaic expression 'distaff side' to refer to female ancestors refers to one of the tools used for spinning. In Anglo-Saxon times textile production was not some genteel recreational activity, still less part of the nineteenth century view that it kept idle hands occupied. Making clothes and other fabric-based items was a necessary yet very time-consuming part of the economy. All women would have spent a considerable part of their lives spinning and sewing.

Bayeaux tapestry.

We know that Anglo-Saxon women excelled at needlework such as decorative embroidery, and that this included highest quality items for ecclesiastical uses – whether to cover altars or for the priests to wear. Surviving examples are mostly on the Continent, as there was a big demand for opus Anglicorum, 'English work', as this was known at the time. The Bayeaux tapestry is an example of some of these skills, although the finer work involved velvets and gold threads.

Needlework skills need to be taught to girls and younger women so, just as the minsters named after men presumably had a duty to teach noble boys (see above) so too those named after women had an important role teaching their female siblings. Indeed, before the mid-seventh century the daughters of English nobility had been sent to monasteries on the Continent, mostly in Gaul. Reverting to my previous suggestion that there were entirely pragmatic reasons for the 'tax breaks' associated with the founding of minsters, there seems to be a deliberate attempt to create communities which would offer the same educational opportunities in England as those offered by Continental monasteries.

How the burys developed

The burhs were founded around the eighth century. So by the time of the Norman Conquest they would have been about three hundred years old. By way of comparison, the earliest Virginia colonies reached the same sort of age in the late nineteenth century and, by then, were quite different from the pioneering communities. We should expect the same extent of change for Anglo-Saxon communities too.

Indeed, there is evidence for just this process. Historical evidence allows for some sweeping generalisations – although there must have been considerable local variation. In the ninth century the minsters included one or more priests who would have performed services at the minster itself but would also have travelled around the surrounding area providing spiritual guidance, preaching and (presumably) saying Masses in the homes of the local thegns or freemen – the 'county set' of their time. This would have come to the fore when illness prevented the thegn or a member of his family from attending the church services.

Sometime around the ninth century these thegns were organised into administrative 'hundreds'. Nominally there were a hundred 'hides' of land in each hundred, with a hide being thought of as the amount of land needed to support one man and his family – a 'smallholding' in modern parlance. Thegns owned at least five hides (hence place-names such as Fyfield, which is a contraction of 'five fields', using the original sense of 'field' as all-but-synonymous with 'hide').

Each hundred 'adopted' a 'mother church', almost always the 'minster' of the burh. Note that these churches were not created to 'be' the mother churches of the surrounding hundred. Rather, the most important church near the centre of the hundred was 'adopted'. Indeed, there was something of a chicken-or-egg scenario because the hundreds often 'shaped up' around the burhs. Indeed, as previously noted, the burhs seem to have been located within land units that already existed in the seventh century. (However hundreds do not necessarily 'reflect' these earlier land units – a few perhaps do, but mostly there are significant differences.)

Bear in mind these burhs became, by their very existence, places of trade. By the ninth century they fulfilled the role that market towns did later. In Wessex they were the biggest settlements apart from Winchester and a few coastal trading ports. Although by this time towns – or 'boroughs' – and perhaps nucleated villages were being established in Mercia, villages, towns and even the concept of parishes are still a long way in the future for Wessex. In Wessex the burhs were the 'central' and most important places in the hundred, so the churches in the burhs became the mother churches by an all-but automatic process.

Minsters are regarded as very profitable places so around the tenth century local big wigs establish many more. The net result is that these minsters compete with each other and, generally, are much less profitable. By the eleventh century minsters have lost their dominant statuse and, instead, a multitude of manorial churches have appeared throughout the countryside. From the twelfth century these evolve into the parish churches which are such a familiar part of medieval and later England through to the present day. About half of these – and an even greater proportion in Wiltshire – are the result of the thegns acquiring greater status and wealth and building churches on the doorsteps of their homes. Gone is the need for the peripatetic priests associated with the mother churches.

Quite how things changed in the tenth and eleventh centuries remains unclear as contemporary documentary sources are almost non-existent, so often the only evidence is the 'end result'. Some minsters go into complete decline. Others evolve into medieval monasteries (such as Malmesbury). Others merely become unexpectedly large parish churches – Avebury is as good an example as any. The substantial rebuilding of the twelfth and later centuries is evidence that the church either had wealthy benefactors or generated a healthy income. These are not mutually exclusive, of course.

For several hundred years, the former minsters remained more important emotionally and spiritually than the 'new fangled' parish churches. For example, merchant guilds of the tenth and eleventh centuries were more likely to be based at minsters (one of the rare survivals of a statute for such a guild is from Great Bedwyn).

Enduring mother-daughter relationships

Evidence for the vestiges of the evolution of minsters into mother churches may survive in the relationship with the 'daughter' churches. A whole range of documentary sources reveal what seem at first to be unlikely links between non-adjacent parishes. For example, wills may reveal gifts to both the 'mother' and more local 'daughter' churches. Lucrative burial rites may have been retained for as long as possible, meaning that corpses had to be carried through several parishes before burial. Romescot or 'Peter's Pence' (money levied annually to be sent to Rome) was commonly collected by the former mother churches until the Reformation.

Curiously, mother churches often retained the rights to perform judicial ordeals until quite late. Frustratingly there is little evidence of such judicial activities at former minsters, still less of when the practice became extinct and the current model of courts of justice took over for all but jurisdiction of ecclesiastical matters at episcopal seats.

Chrism is oil sanctified by the bishop during an annual ceremony and used in parish churches for rites of baptism and confirmation. Customarily the distribution was seemingly a three-tier process whereby the clergy of the 'mother churches' collected from the cathedral and then passed the chrism on to daughter churches. Presumably the 'gift' of chrism was dependent on all monies, goods and services perceived as due from the dependent churches to the bishop or the mother church having been received – i.e. a 'receipt' for payment in full – although this is never mentioned in the sources. Occasionally – and Wiltshire has examples, although not for Avebury – the distribution of chrism from former minsters persists as a 'fossil' of otherwise extinguished loyalties between mother and daughter parishes.

This slowly unravelling relationship between mother and daughter churches was not simply conceptual. There would have been entirely pragmatic reasons for travelling to the mother church for special feasts and locally-customary religious celebrations (such as the major feasts and saints days). We might want to think of them as 'local pilgrimages' although such a collective terminology seemingly did not exist at the time. Indeed we know very little about such activities. This is quite normal for 'popular customs' – everyone knew that on such-and-such-a-day they went off to so-and-so. Only when something 'odd' happened – such as a crime which survives in the relevant court rolls – would there be a written reference.


A whole new sense of burh arises from the 740s onwards. The word is used to describe settlements 'planted' to defend important places. This idea gains pace a hundred years later as the Viking threats intensify. In most cases these are known to this day as Burtons. Most remained quite small, with Burton on Trent one of the few exceptions.

The reason most stayed small is because at the time they were established there was a fairly substantial 'town' about two miles away, and the larger settlement continued to dominate. This is not coincidental. While insufficient contemporary sources have survived to be sure about what a Burton was, it seems to have been a defendable garrison – a 'fort' in later parlance. It would be home to a moderate number of soldiers, always on standby to deal with threats. But most of the time they would be farming – the tun part of the name implies it would have included arable land as well as pasture.

As friends of mine who once lived in the garrision towns of Wiltshire will wryly attest, you don't want to live in the same place as a bunch of bored and, at least at times, drunken soldiers. Having them close enough to come when needed, but beyond 'staggering distance from the pub' seems an ideal compromise. Hence the two miles between Burton Lazars and Melton Mowbray, or Burton Overy and Great Glen. These are all in Leicestershire but othert English counties provide plenty of parallels.

What about Burton on the Wolds in Leicestershire? This is less than a mile from Loughborough, albeit on the other side of the River Soar. So perhaps it fits this scenario, although in the ninth century Loughborough had none of the importance it had acquired by the end of the nineteenth century. But it does fit a second scenario which also applies to some other Burtons. It 'controls' a key ford at a strategic place.

Before rivers were channeled fords would have been much wider – in the case of the crossing of the Soar between Burton on the Wolds and Loughborough, perhaps half-a-mile. This would mean that most of the time the depth of water was quite modest. Which in turn would mean that any boats intending to travel further upstream would needed to be dragged over the shallows. The men based at Burton may well have generated a bit of income by assisting welcome trading vessels. But what if the Vikings turned up, hoping to access the important 'inland ports' of of the time at Barrow on Soar, Melton Mowbray and Leicester? Would they get a helping hand? Seems unlikely... And should they make their way upstream anyway and conduct themselves in a less than honourable manner, they they could expect quite a substantial 'war band' to greet them as they attempted to drag their, now heavily-laden boats, over the ford to get back to the Trent and the Humber.

The reality was probably that the Burton on the Wolds garrasion never had to fight a Viking fleet at the ford. Their presence would be enough to deter any 'foolhardiness'.

Apart from the element burhBurtons are clearly distinct from the older burys. What both had in common was a defensive earthwork. But the burys were 'Christian communities' ensuring their own safety, whereas the Burtons were part of a national strategy.

From bury to borough

The place-name element 'bury' evolves into 'borough'. The reason has nothing to do with earthworks or defense, but instead with trade. As noted, the 'burys' were the first substantial settlements, and as such the leading trading place. Many of them evolved into market towns. A classic example is Chipping Sodbury in Gloucestershire. 'Chipping' is a latter word denoting a market town.

The church to the east of Marlborough (marked with a yellow cross) is linked to the first phase of settlement, with a green in the middle. The red rectangle is the probable extent of the 'burh'. The road forming the western boundary is still known as Kingsbury.

A few hundred years later the present High Street, running to the south-west, was added as a planned 'new town' – note the broad area for market stalls in between. Although not shown on this map, each of the buildings occupies what were originally standard width plots of land, extending back. A few 'alleyways' still allow access to these plots.

Looking west from within the burh at the green, with the church in the distance.

Looking west along Marlborough High Street. This photograph is taken from near the south-west corner of the burh (i.e. the bottom of Kingsbury). The church in the distance is different to the one in the previous photograph. On Wednesdays the parked cars in the centre of the road are replaced by market stalls.

Markets made money for the manorial lord through tolls. Lots of money, at least if the market was a successful one. No surprise that a large number of market towns were 'planted', often in close proximity to an already-successful one. The study of 'failed market towns' is a complex one, and way outside the scope of this article. By the later twelfth century and into the next century these were given names based on 'bury' but spelt in the Norman way, as 'borough'. Examples include various Harboroughs, Narborough (Leics) and Marlborough (Wilts); there are plenty more. Most of these became successful market towns, although usually at the expense of older settlements nearby.

The sense of the word 'borough' expanded to include the leading inhabitants being termed 'burghers'. 'Borough councils' now usually denote something more than one town, but they evolved from the importance of borough towns.

The burys that didn't make it

Avebury is an example. In the eleventh century Avebury was destined to evolve into a town the size of Ramsbury or even Amesbury. But it didn't, because both Marlborough and Devizes were developed in the early twelfth century, and greatly distorted local commerce. Only with the growth of coaching routes in the seventeenth century did Avebury regain some importance. The so-called 'Five Mile Act' of 1593 (more formally 'An Act for restraining Non-Conformists from inhabiting in Corporations') also worked to the benefit of Avebury and led to a number of Nonconformists settling here. Intriguingly, former minsters which, like Avebury, might be thought of as 'failed towns' are surprisingly often the focus of Nonconformism in the seventeenth century onwards – they are seemingly 'big enough' to support such communities without already being too 'urban' (and therefore subject to the Five Mile Act). Avebury was, handily, just over five miles from Calne, Devizes, Marlborough and Wroughton.

Ramsbury – a close comparison to Avebury. The modern streets (shown here in a map of 1773), especially Back Lane and High Street, seemingly follow the lines of an elliptical burh.

Tilshead has an almost-identical arrangement of streets with a central church, revealing that places not now called '-bury' were once burhs.

This insight into the evolution of Avebury is the result of excellent research by Brian Edwards (see Edwards 2004). Undoubtedly if the same level of expertise and insight were focussed on other burys then the 'peculiarities' of their development would also be revealed. But in the absence of such investigations then we can simply observe that the seventh century burys can evolve in many different ways. Many just carried on being market towns, or were even deliberately developed into 'boroughs' – Marlborough is a good example.

Some burys, such as Malmesbury, became major monasteries but then, after the Dissolution, 'dropped back' to being market towns. A sizeable minority might be deemed to be 'failed market towns' – usually because a twelfth century borough was established down the road.

A few of these failed towns regained some importance around the seventeenth century. Often this was because of the their location on trade routes (almost a defining feature of the original burhs) so could provide inns and other related services to the coaching trade. Or the villages were amenable to Dissenters. Indeed, as at Avebury, both the coaching trade and the Nonconformists led to significant growth.

And the rest? They just remain as small villages, albeit often with a busy main road running through them.



Blair, John (ed), 1988, Minsters and Parish Churches: The Local Church in Transition, 950–1200, Oxford University School of ArchÆology.

Blair, John, 2005, The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society, Oxford UP.

Edwards, Brian, 2004, 'Changing Avebury', The Regional Historian, No.12; online at www2.uwe.ac.uk/faculties/CAHE/Documents/Research/Regional-history/RHCissue12.pdf

Fenn, R.W.D., 2000, 'The character of early Christianity in Radnorshire', Radnorshire Society transactions, Vol. 70, p15–46.

Gardiner, M. and S. Ripon (eds), 2007, Medieval Landscapes (Landscape history after Hoskins Vol. 2), Windgather.

Lehmijoki-Garnder, Maiju, 2007, 'The women behind their saints: Dominican women's institutional uses of the cults of their religious companions' , in Debra Higgs Strickland (ed), Images of Sanctity: Essays in honour of Gary Dickson, Brill.

Masters, Phillip John, 2001, 'Church, land and lordship in West Sussex 680-1200'; unpublished PhD thesis, University of Leicester; online at lra.le.ac.uk/handle/2381/8769

Reynolds, Andrew, 2001, 'Avebury: a late Anglo-Saxon burh?', Antiquity, Vol.75, p29–30.

Sims-Williams, Patrick, 1990, Religion and Literature in Western England 600–900, Cambridge UP.

Thacker, A.T. and R. Sharpe (eds), 2003, Local Saints and Local Churches in the Early Medieval West, Oxford UP.

Trubshaw, Bob, 2015, Minsters and Valleys, Heart of Albion; online at www.hoap.co.uk/general.htm#M&V


Articles about Anglo-Saxons in and around Avebury

What was a bury?

St Afa

East Kennett: the church on the boundary


Other articles by Bob Trubshaw relevant to Anglo-Saxon Avebury:

Weohs and stapols why Waden Hill is so named.

Places of Anglo-Saxon worship

Anglo-Saxon inauguration sites and rites a possible origin for the King Sil legend associated with Silbury.

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Articles about the prehistory of Avebury and environs

Altars not burial mounds

Henges – brands or performances

Henges – dead or alive

Simulacra photos

Sound in the prehistoric landscape

Avebury and environs in the Roman period

Articles about Anglo-Saxons in and around Avebury

What was a bury?

St Afa

East Kennett: the church on the boundary


Articles about Medieval life in and around Avebury

St James' – from minster to mother church

St James dedications in Wiltshire

Skew passages

The alien priors

Medieval graffiti

The 'barber-surgeon'

Articles about aspects of Avebury's twentieth century history

Avebury ghosts

Keiller's occult connections

Halloween 1938

Mary's annunciation

photo gallery