Cambridgeshire in the Viking Age

Cambridgeshire - a county of fens, rivers and flat land, renowned for its University town and the Cathedrals of Ely and Peterborough, and little else....except that in the Viking Age, Cambridge was a frontier town, Saxon in nature, but drifting in and out of the Danelaw almost by the month, and its fortunes reflected the fortunes of England as a whole.

From the first Viking raids at the close of the C8th to the Norman Conquest in the C11th, Cambridgeshire was at the forefront of the political bickering, in-fighting and outright war which marks the period, but it also prospered in peaceful times, and became an important administrative centre long before the arrival of the University.

These pages present a picture of Cambridgeshire in the Viking Age, with background information and commentary.

Having conquered England in 1066, the Normans set about a massive change in land ownership, which in places amounted to a chaotic land grab where the strongest snatched what they could. At the same time, William bestowed the lands of his deceased enemies on his followers, who in turn parcelled out much of it to their foremost men. Even by 1085, almost twenty years after their famous victory, the Normans were struggling to come to terms with what they had acquired - what was needed was a reckoning, a survey of all of the land holdings across England. As the Anglo Saxon Chronicle records:

  • at Gloucester at midwinter (..) the king had deep speech with his counsellors (..) and sent men all over England to each shire (..) to find out (..) what or how much each landholder held (..) in land and livestock, and what it was worth

Thus it was that William ordered the Domesday Survey to be undertaken. In every county, Commissioners were sent out to every Hundred to gather the information. The questions they were to ask had been clearly defined at the outset, and the record from Ely preserves the questions which were asked:

  • The name of the place. Who held it, before 1066, and now?
  • How many hides? How many ploughs, both those in lordship and the men's?
  • How many villagers, cottagers and slaves, how many free men and Sokemen?
  • How much woodland, meadow and pasture? How many mills and fishponds?
  • How much has been added and taken away? What the total value was and is?
  • How much each free man or Sokeman had or has? All threefold, before 1066, when King William gave it, and now; and if more can be had than at present?

[Translations taken from the Phillimore series - ISBN 0 85033 388 1 (1981, Cambridgeshire) and ISBN 0 85033 130 7 (1975, Huntingdonshire)]

Cambridgeshire is one of the pivotal counties reported in Domesday. Apart from the record of which questions were asked, two earlier records survive which show the process at work, and which can corroborate and if necessary fill in the gaps in Domesday. These were the Inquisitio Comitatus Cantabrigiensis (ICC - The Cambridgeshire Inquiry), and the Inquisitio Eliensis (IE - The Ely Inquiry). ICC was an early record of the findings of the Commissioners, recorded for each hundred, which provides a useful cross-check against Domesday as this was re-ordered into holdings by person. IE was a record of the holdings of the Abbey of Ely, which included lands in Essex, Hertfordshire, Norfolk and Suffolk as well as Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire.

As an example of the detail in Domesday, the entry for Haddenham reads:

Seven Sokemen hold Haddenham under the Abbot; they could not and cannot withdraw. 3 hides. Land for 5 ploughs; they are there. 8 villagers, 1/2 virgate each; 4 smallholders, 5 acres each. 6 cottagers. Meadow for 5 ploughs; pasture for the village livestock. The value is and was £8; before 1066 £12.

Looking at each of the sections in detail, we have:

  1. Seven Sokemen hold Haddenham under the Abbot;
    Rather than having a manor and a lord controlling it, Haddenham has seven individuals who are all of a class which considers them to be Free Men - they are personally responsible for the tax liability, and have jurisdiction (soke) over their land. Haddenham is held by the Abbot of Ely, and is rented out to the seven as a group, rather than to each individual.

  2. they could not and cannot withdraw.
    Although the seven Sokemen are considered Free, they cannot sell their land or transfer their allegiance to anyone else

  3. 3 hides.
    The seven Sokemen have three hides (approx 360 acres) between them

  4. Land for 5 ploughs; they are there
    The land held by the Sokemen contains an arable portion which would require 5 plough teams to manage them, and five plough teams exist in the village

  5. 8 villagers, 1/2 virgate each; 4 smallholders, 5 acres each. 6 cottagers
    The rest of the land is held by minor landowners, with 8 villagers (villeins) who have small farms of around 15 acres each, and 4 smallholders (bordars) who have five acres each. In addition, there are six cottagers (cottars), who hold no land of their own (except perhaps a cottage garden), and who work on the land of the Sokemen.

  6. Meadow for 5 ploughs; pasture for the village livestock
    Only enough meadow land exists to support the 5 ploughs which are required and present. An unknown area is set aside as pasture land, which is probably seen as common land for grazing.

  7. The value is and was £8; before 1066 £12.
    When granted by William (re-affirming the ownership of the Abbot of Ely), it was worth £8, and has not increased in value over the intervening 20 years. Before 1066, it had been worth 50% more, and so it is tempting to suggest that it was damaged during the rebellion of Hereward and its aftermath.

Almost all of the counties of England were organised in a similar manner in the C10th, although some variation is evident between the measurements and names in the Danelaw and those in the rest of the country.

At the heart of the government system is the hide - a unit variously used to calculate military and civil service, taxation levels, and land values. The hide is something of an oddity, varying in physical size from 20 to 120 acres depending on the area of the country and the type of land being measured. In many ways, this makes perfect sense, as 120 acres of mainly scrub and moorland in one area of the country may support the same number of people, and generate the same wealth, as 20 acres of prime land in another.

The hide has been described as the minimum area of land necessary to support a single family, but as always it is never as clear cut as this - a hide can certainly support more than a few people, and indeed in the C10th a "family" as such should be thought of more as an extended farmstead, with perhaps three generations of a family living there, plus various workers and dependents, with potentially up to 50 people living from the output of the hide.

Above the hide is the hundred - literally one hundred hides. In addition to being an area defined for ease of tax collection and management, the hundred also provided the lowest level of legal framework for the county, with a hundred court where men could be tried before their peers. This court met each month, and took a proportion of all fines levied.

In Cambridgeshire, there were seventeen hundreds at the time of Domesday, with the town of Cambridge being assessed as a hundred on its own, and the Isle of Ely assessed as a double hundred.

In social terms, the lowest levels of society were the villani or villeins, who held no land on their own account, cottars (literally cottagers, i.e. someone with a house), and bordars (small holders, who worked their own land but were also required to do work for their lord on set days, perhaps up to two days per week). The exact definition of these terms varies across time and across the country, but as a sweeping generalisation this is probably not too far from the facts.

Above these was the Thegn, originally a man of considerable power and wealth, but by the time of Domesday the system of inheritance had resulted in a breakup of many estates, and a corresponding dilution in the status of many Thegns. In theory, a Thegn possessed a church and a kitchen, a bell-tower, a fortified dwelling place, and an estate of at least five hides. In some cases, Thegns owned large tracts of land in several counties, while in many cases the holding had fallen below five hides by the time of Domesday. The worth of a Thegn was reflected in his weregild, or death compensation, of 1200 shillings, compared to perhaps up to 200 shillings for a lesser man, dependent on his status.

The Shire Reeve (later Sheriff) was the ultimate authority for the county, acting as the administrative co-ordinator in all matters, and hearing legal cases which were outside of the remit of the hundred courts. The Reeve would be expected to arrange the military levy, and would normally lead it in person.  

Working across counties, or at the head of the larger counties was the Ealdorman (such as Byrthnoth, Earldorman of Essex who fell at the Battle of Maldon in 991) who by the early C11th possibly under Danish influence had become Earls (from the Norse Jarl), who effectively took on the roles which had earlier fallen to the kings of the separate kingdoms within England. The most prominent Earls, of Mercia, Northumbria, East Anglia and Wessex, were the backbone of the royal system, and were major regional forces in their own right.  

In levying taxes and in raising military forces, the five hide unit has been proposed by some academics as a common measure. Many examples exist where taxes were imposed in values which are easily divisible by 5, 20 or 100, suggesting that the amount to be collected was allocated to each hide individually, and that each Thegn was required to collect the correct amount from among his holdings. Typically, Danegeld collection was levied at 2 shillings per hide. Similarly, the requirement for military service was that one man should be provided from each five hides, i.e. that every Thegn should provide a warrior for the levy, or fyrd. Given the neat match between the size required to attained Thegn rank, and the requirement to provide a warrior, it is a simple step to assume that the Thegn performed the military service himself under normal circumstances as a consequence of his holding, although this is not necessarily always the case. The Church was a major landowner, and so delegation of the military duty was common in some areas.

Taking the five hide unit, each hundred would be required to provide 20 warriors. The level of equipment of these warriors is laid down in several texts, with some variation between 850 and 1050, but in general the warrior was required to present himself with a horse, spear, shield, helmet, and enough food and fodder for 30 days service. To enable him to do so, the five hide unit was required to find 20 shillings to support him while he was away, which was paid to him on departure. Later, this was changed to 10 shillings on departure, and a further ten on his return.

Scaling these figures to Cambridgeshire, we can see that the full call-out of the Shire would be expected to produce 340 fully-equipped men, capable of sustaining themselves for the required 60 day period, and with transport to allow them to travel quickly over distances of perhaps up to 150 miles when required. For Huntingdonshire, with four hundreds plus Huntingdon itself answering for half a hundred, 90 men would be expected. Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex would produce 680, 480, and 480 respectively. In total, East Anglia would produce 1980 men for service.


1. Frank Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, Oxford 1943 - revised 1947, 1971 - this is still very much the core text book for the period, and although new research has challenged some parts of his work, Stenton remains the key authority for England in the Anglo-Saxon period.

2. C Warren Hollister, Anglo-Saxon Military Institutions on the Eve of the Conquest, Oxford 1962 - this provides a very good summary of the organisation of the Fyrd, and despite its age, has not been challenged to any great extent.

3. Cyril Hart, The Danelaw, Hambledon 1992 - a very detailed work with numerous maps and tables, this goes into too much depth for the casual enquirer, but provides a wealth of local information and a detailed description of the management of lanholding and taxes.

Go to top
JSN Boot template designed by