James Lloyd tours some of the abandoned assembly sites of Anglo-Saxon England and muses on a lost but economically prudent tradition.
On the peninsula of Frosta in the Trondheimfjord in Norway is a little sugarloaf hill, crowned by a circle of stones inscribed with runes. This is Frostatinghaugen, literally the mound of the court of Frosta. Since time immemorial (but not, alas, within time memorial) the inhabitants of Frosta would meet at this mound to settle their disputes. Each of the stones bears the name of one of the districts into which the peninsula was divided and the number of jurors whom it sent to the assembly. In the centre of the circle is the tallest stone, bearing an inscription in Old Norse: “With good laws will the land be built up, rather than with bad laws destroyed.”
Despite their ancient appearance, the stones were in fact erected only in 1914, when the mound was already a site of purely historical interest. Last week, The Rural Voice’s loyal readers were treated to a visit to Tynwald Hill on the Isle of Man and to Tingwall Loch on Shetland, whither the Vikings implanted this legal procedure. Although the custom of thing-mounds, artificial or natural hills where courts met in public to hear disputes and try crimes, are associated principally with Scandinavian culture, the custom was by no means limited thereto. The Anglo-Saxons were also practitioners of the open-air court tradition and, although they lack the tell-tale “thing” element, there are many places in England where local tribunals once met to adjudicate under the sun (or in the rain). Let us take a gander at a few.
In 636, King Cwichelm of Wessex was killed in battle by King Edwin of Northumbria, reputedly at a mound in what is now Oxfordshire but was (until 1974) in Berkshire. The site became known as Cwichelm’s Hlæw (an Old English word for a mound), which over the years was corrupted into Cuckhamsley Hill (which, since the original “hlæw” is represented by the “-ley” suffix, is in fact a tautology). Somehow the hill has also managed to acquire the name Scutchamer Knob, which has in turn mutated into the unintentionally hilarious Scotsman’s Knob.
It seems a pretty unprepossessing site now but in the tenth century this was the meeting place of the shire court. Though they had probably been in development for some time, shire courts were regularized by King Edgar the Peaceable (959–75), who ordered that they should be held twice a year and that the ealdorman of the shire and the bishop of the diocese should preside jointly. Cuckhamsley Hill was the venue for the shire court of Berkshire, which met there in 990 to settle a dispute over certain properties in Berkshire and Buckinghamshire between Wynflæd and Leofwine (a woman and a man respectively – English names are a lot less adventurous these days than they used to be). The bishop presided but the ealdorman, as a matter of fact, did not bother to turn up, being instead represented by Ælfgar, described in the record as “the king’s reeve”, i.e. one of the earliest to bear the office that we would now call sheriff (shire-reeve).
Cuckhamsley Hill was not built by the Anglo-Saxons. It is an Iron-Age round barrow and comfortably pre-dates the English invasion of Britain. It did, however, provide a conveniently recognisable landmark and that may be why the people of Berkshire chose it as their meeting place. Another Iron-Age relic that found itself being recycled in this fashion was Wandlebury Ring in Cambridgeshire, which The Rural Voice’s regular readers will remember was the haunt of a spectral knight. Around the same time as Wynflæd and Leofwine were fighting it out at Cuckhamsley Hill, Ramsey Abbey and mendacious layman Ælfnoth haggled over another estate in front of the shire court of Cambridge, meeting at the Ring, under the auspices of both the ealdorman and the king’s reeve.
One of the earliest sheriffs on record actually using that title was Bryning of Herefordshire, who, during the reign of Cnut (1016–35) took a back seat at a shire court that met at Ægelnoth’s Stone, a lost location now represented by Aylestone Hill in the suburbs of Hereford.
Kent boasts several sites that were, or may have been, used for assemblies. The most important is Penenden Heath, outside Maidstone. Though now encroached upon by housing developments and levelled to provide a playground, Penenden Heath was once shaped like a natural amphitheatre and boasted a hill on its western side that was used for public hangings. After he had conquered England, Duke William of Normandy appointed his half-brother, Odo, Bishop of Bayeaux, as Earl of Kent but Odo abused his office to steal estates belonging the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Rochester. In 1076, the usurper, having received petitions against his half-brother, ordered that Odo be tried in the shire court, which was held, in accordance with custom, on Penenden Heath.
The trial lasted for three days. Its star witness was Æthelric, former bishop of Selsey, a respected authority on England’s traditional laws, who was so aged by this time that he had to be carried to the court in a wagon. Such was Odo’s notoriety that spectators came from the surrounding counties to watch the debate and their exertions were rewarded with the judgement that Odo had indeed exceeded his authority. The estates were returned, the respective rights of king, earl and archbishop clarified and the miffed prelate would go on to disgrace himself with an attempted coup against the Pope in 1082, which would see him imprisoned for the rest of William’s life.
Penenden Heath was used for other gatherings, too. In 1381, Wat Tyler gathered his mob there and in 1554 it was one of the mustering places for Sir Thomas Wyatt’s rebellion against Queen Mary. The witches of Cranbrook (who cast their spell over a previous blog) were hanged in Penenden Heath and in 1828 the staunchly Protestant freeholders of Kent assembled there to debate the looming enfranchisement of Roman Catholics. The Protestants won the debate by a comfortable majority in the shire court but not, as it transpired, in Parliament.
Shire courts’ functions would be shaved off by justices of the peace from the fourteenth century onwards and they were rendered obsolete altogether by county courts and county councils in the nineteenth century. Until the beginning of that century, however, the shire court of Kent did continue to meet on Penenden Heath. Business was now conducted in what Edward Hasted, historian of Kent in 1798, described as “a poor low shed” but large meetings, including the aforementioned Popery debate, continued to be held in the open. One of the last administrative acts performed on Penenden Heath was a grisly one: The execution in 1830 of John Dyke for burning a haystack (he was subsequently found to have been innocent).
Children now play football on Penenden Heath, Cuckhamsley Hill and Wandlebury Ring are obscure tourist attractions and Aylestone Hill is just the name of a street. Today, M.P.s are discussing the merit of moving out of the Palace at Westminster (an edifice that has been falling down ever since it was built) while it undergoes yet another round of renovations. There is a sad irony that the meeting house of the legislature, which is not even two hundred years old yet, is constantly disintegrating, while the Anglo-Saxons chose meeting places that had already stood for millennia and continued to stand and to be used until the very century that the crumbling Palace was built.