I have recently discovered Domesday England, edited by Professor Henry Clifford Darby, with contributions from I.B. Terrett, Eila M.J. Campbell, I.S. Maxwell, R. Welldon Finn and G.R. Versey, first published by the Cambridge University Press in 1977. This was the outcome of 50 years geographical and historical analysis of the 1086 Domesday Book and it is a treasure trove of data – however incomplete the original survey may have been and however dubious its accuracy. The authors present the data with full recognition of these inadequacies and this, of course, only serves to strengthen the validity of the overall conclusions that may be gleaned from the analysis.
The work shocked me, particularly the extent of devastation in the land described in Chapter VIII. Until reading the book, I had always viewed the cultural outlook of the ‘Normans’ as being not much different to that of modern day English people – give or take a measure of callousness and cruelty. But the plot of ‘wasted’ estates (the black dots) on Figure 83 permits no such misconception. This is the extent of William’s reprisals against the Anglo-Danish people of mainly Yorkshire who remained antagonistic towards him in the twenty years or so following 1066. He also wasted areas of the Welsh Marches and Mercia, where the Welsh joined forces with the Mercians against Norman rule. It seems that the battle of Hastings was far from the decisive event that we have come to imagine it was – except, perhaps, in the old Saxon kingdoms of Wessex, Sussex and Middlesex – which had been subjected to the circuitous route by which he swept his army from Hastings to Wallingford and to Berkhamstead around London, leaving a trail of destruction.
The picture painted by the analysis is truly one of ruthless conquest. The most recent equivalent being something like the Russian invasion of East Germany in 1945, or the Allies invasion of Italy in 1944.
So what has this to do with the influx of Danes two hundred years earlier? Elsewhere in the book are population estimates and I have been able to assess the populations each side of the ninth century Danelaw boundary. They turn out to be pretty well equal – 50/50. But, of course, that may not have been the case two hundred years earlier; it being entirely possible that large numbers of Scandinavian peoples migrated to the Danelaw area after 868, likely during the reign of Canute.
The conclusion I come to, having seen this data, is in two parts: firstly, it is highly unlikely that the inhabitants of pre-Norman England viewed the occupation of their estates and farms as anything like as permanent as I had previously understood. There would have been little point in building anything grand – in stone for example – because of the distinct possibility that it would attract the attention of a raiding army – of which there were many. Possessions and wealth would be far better stored in some sort of transportable form – hence the numerous hoards of coin and precious metals we are now finding.
The second conclusion is that the area that came under the control of Guthrum in 878 likely contained a population that was probably close to that of the expanded Wessex, and that it possessed a great deal of wealth. It included East Anglia, the Five Boroughs, Yorkshire and, initially, London. If Alfred had vanquished Guthrum so thoroughly at Ethandune as the Chronicles relate, does it make strategic sense for him to have given it all away, with nothing more than a few lines of text to define and guarantee the Danelaw boundary?