The Invaders, 150 BC-AD 1066

The Invaders, 150 BC-AD 1066

The Atrebates: Belgic Kingdom and Roman Civitas

During the late second and early first centuries BC, southern Britain was raided and settled by people from the Belgic areas of Gaul. They were part of a widespread movement of people displaced by Roman activities and the westward migrations of people from central to northern Europe. These newcomers to Britain came from different parts of Gaul, and in their new homeland they retained some of their old allegiances. By the mid-first century BC Britain had a large number of tribal areas, some of which might already be called kingdoms. Of these tribal areas, three were important in the history of the area that became Berkshire—the Dobunni, the Atrebates and the Catuvellauni.

Gaul was now part of the Roman Empire, but as yet Rome knew little about Britain though it was rumoured to have rich sources of precious metals. The desire to plunder almost certainly influenced Caesar’s decision to invade in 55 BC, although the official reason was to stop aid reaching the Gauls from their kinsmen and allies in Britain. Caesar sent a warship to reconnoitre while he set about getting a fleet of warships ready. News of the coming invasion, however, reached Britain and envoys were sent to Rome to negotiate. Caesar sent them back home accompanied by Commius, king of the Atrebates in Gaul and an ally of Caesar. This, however, proved to be a mistake, for several British tribes joined forces to repel the Romans and Commius was taken prisoner.

The tribal areas of late Iron-Age Berkshire

Caesar’s invasion was initially successful and Commius was handed back to the Romans. But storms damaged their ships and Caesar was forced to seek refuge in Gaul. The following year Caesar again invaded Britain. The campaign of 54 BC was longer and the Roman army penetrated as far inland as Hertfordshire where it defeated the British war leader, Cassivellaunus. Hostages were taken and annual tributes demanded, but then, when success seemed within his grasp, Caesar had to abandon any plans of further victories in order to deal with rebellion in Gaul.

Although Caesar’s invasion was an overall failure, the campaigns had succeeded in opening up to Rome the territories of those tribes, such as the Catuvellauni, who had made alliance with Caesar. There was no such trade in wines and other luxuries for those, like the Atrebates, who remained hostile. Meanwhile Commius had changed sides during the Gallic uprising and was forced to flee to Britain where he found refuge with his fellow Atrebates living south of the Thames. Within a short time he had made himself their king and was issuing his own coins—an achievement which attests his strength of leadership and his knowledge of Roman technology. The Belgae had brought to Britain knowledge of the potter’s wheel and the use of coins, but those bearing Commius’ name are amongst the first inscribed coins to be minted in Britain. The majority of those found come from the Silchester area just south of the present Berkshire boundary. Here, on an easily defended spur of gravel, Commius founded Calleva Atrebatum (Silchester), a name which translated from the Celtic means ‘wooded place of the Atrebates’. Exactly what kind of place is not certain, but recent excavations have revealed traces of Iron Age round houses dated from the mid to late first century BC.

Over the next ninety or so years, the Celtic tribes were frequently at war and the evidence from coin finds hints at tribal struggles for power, dynastic upheavals and changes in pro- and anti-Roman feelings. Coins used by the Dobunni tribe have been found in northern Berkshire, some of them depicting a stylised horse, and it is possible that the chalk figure of the White Horse was their tribal emblem and marked a communal meeting place or market area, although the horse itself is now believed to be some 3,000 years old.

About 20 BC Commius was succeeded by his son, Tincommius. Some fifteen years later he became an ally of Rome and around the turn of the century Tincommius was forced to flee to Rome and his brother Eppillus became king. He was so much influenced by the Romans that he styled himself in Latin as REX CALLE, king of Calleva, on his coins. Inter-tribal feuding brought his reign to an end within a few years and Verica then became king. He was probably a grandson of Commius, and by his reign Calleva had been rebuilt. The old round houses had been demolished, new earthwork defences surrounded the settlement, and the place had the look of a planned settlement with rectangular plots and buildings. There is also evidence of imported luxury items such as wine, olive oil, fine pottery, bronze jewellery and metalwork—all the trappings of a petty king growing rich on the tributes of corn, cattle, hides and slaves exacted from his subjects.

Meanwhile the kingdom of the Catuvellauni which lay to the north of the Thames had begun to expand, engulfing part of the territories of several neighbouring tribes, including the northern Dobunni and the Atrebates. For a short time in the twenties AD, the Atrebates were ruled by the brother of the Catuvellaunian king. Verica, however, fought back and regained his throne, only to lose it again about AD 41 to the new king of the Catuvellauni and his brother who took over the kingdoms of the Cantii and the Atrebates. They were both aggressively anti-Roman. Verica fled to Rome in a last ditch attempt to regain his throne, and there appealed to Claudius, the Roman Emperor, for help. Claudius had only recently been made emperor and he needed an opportunity to gain military glory in order to consolidate his own throne. The army he sent to Britain came not to help Verica, but to make Britain part of the Roman Empire.

The army landed in Kent in the summer of AD 43 and by August Claudius had received submissions from several British tribes. Triumphant, he returned to Rome leaving the army to set about making Britain a new Roman province. Responsibility for the conquest of southern Britain was given to the Second Augustan Legion. During the next four years the legion fought 30 battles, but the Atrebates and northern Dobunni offered no opposition; on the contrary, it is likely that they welcomed the Romans because they had defeated their old enemy, the Catuvellauni. By AD 47 a first military frontier had been established in the west, and southern Britain had become a province of Rome. The Atrebates were not strictly part of it, for their territory had become a ‘client kingdom’. Finds of military metalwork and the evidence of a large timber building suggest that a unit of the army was encamped at Calleva for the first few years, perhaps to ensure the smooth transfer of administrative power to the new ruler of the kingdom. He was not Verica, but Cogidubnus. Little is known about his earlier life, but whatever services he had performed for Claudius had brought him rich rewards. He later took the name Tiberius Claudius Cogidubnus and became a full Roman citizen. It also seems likely that towards the end of his life he built for himself the palace at Fishbourne in Sussex.

Calleva now became one of the two administrative centres of the new kingdom. The concept of a town and urban life was new to Britain and we do not know how much was achieved at Calleva during this early period, but a new grid-like street plan was laid out and a public bath house built before Cogidubnus’ death in AD 80. The town also became an important route centre with metalled roads radiating from its gates in five directions: to Dorchester on Thames and the north, to London, Winchester, Dorchester, and to Gloucester and Bath. For soldiers, merchants and couriers on imperial service, and those journeying on pilgrimages or holidaying in Bath, Calleva was the natural overnight stop.

Roman Berkshire showing the known Roman roads

The countryside had long been criss-crossed by a network of tracks and footpaths, but these Roman roads were unlike anything ever seen in Britain before. They were built by army engineers to facilitate the movement of soldiers and the baggage trains carrying food and equipment. The roads, however, were soon more important as trade and communication routes than for military purposes. Built on wide embankments known as aggers, these roads were an imposing new feature of the landscape. Their metalled and cambered surfaces were a striking contrast to the native roads which had been formed simply by the feet of men and livestock.

After the death of Cogidubnus, his kingdom was dissolved and split into three parts, each of which was a civitas, a self-governing district of non-Roman citizens within the Roman Province. The most northerly was Civitas Atrebatum with a territory which covered the whole of pre-1974 Berkshire and adjacent parts of Wiltshire and Hampshire. Calleva as its administrative capital soon gained several public buildings. In the centre were the forum, basilica and piazza, the three main civic buildings of any Roman town. Here the council met, public meetings were held and the law administered. The first-century public buildings were built of timber; they were replaced by imposing stone in the middle of the second century. The town also had several temples, two bath houses, an amphitheatre and an inn for the use of the cursus publicus, or official courier service. There were also at least sixteen large courtyard houses, as well as many smaller houses which also had mosaic floors, painted walls and courtyards. The main shopping area would appear to have been the east-west street to the north of the forum, but evidence of industrial activities has been found in many other parts of the town. These include a tannery, silversmith’s, bronze and blacksmiths’ and coopers’ workshops.

Calleva was the only large town within Civitas Atrebatum, but an official itinerary, drawn up in the second century when Antonius was emperor, lists ‘Spinis’ as a staging post between Calleva and Cunetio (at Marlborough), the next town on the Roman road to Bath and Gloucester. The site of Spinis has not been discovered, but it lay to the west of Newbury, somewhere near one of the two villages which have inherited its name—Speen and Woodspeen.

Like Calleva, Spinis would have been expected to provide accommodation where couriers, highway inspectors, and tax collectors could find refreshment, a change of horses and perhaps a bed for the night.

Outside the towns the wealthy lived in villas, the landed estates of the Romanised inhabitants The houses at the centre of the estates were undoubtedly impressive buildings, built of brick or stone, with tiled roofs, several rooms, painted walls, mosaic courtyards, hyporcausts and baths. One of the most fully excavated Berkshire villas now lies under a housing estate at Cox Green near Maidenhead. It was built in the second century as a relatively modest ‘corridor villa’ with only two rooms; it was enlarged in several phases until there were 18 rooms at its greatest extent in the late fourth century. There were three similar villas at Cranhill in the parish of Letcombe Regis, Eling in the parish of Hampstead Norris, and Frilford, and others at West Challow, Kingston Lisle, Woolstone, and Barton Court. There is evidence of other stone-built houses in Berkshire, but no rich early Roman villas as in neighbouring areas have yet been discovered. This was probably because Civitas Atrebatum was originally a client kingdom whose king lived on the south coast.

As well as the villas and Romanised towns, there was a wide range of Romano-British habitation sites. Some, like the large settlement on the western side of modern Thatcham, were roadside villages, but this village was rather more than that, for its inhabitants were engaged in smelting and the manufacture of items from iron, bronze, and clay, using wood, peat and coal for fuel. Finds of hippo-sandals, the over-shoes worn by horses carrying heavy loads over steep or frozen ground, point to an all-year-round movement of carts and pack horses into the village. Not far away at Colthrop, where the Roman road crosses the Kennet Valley, one carrier ran off the road, and he and his horse and cart were swallowed up in the adjacent marsh. In 1921 workmen digging for gravel found the two skeletons and one of the cart wheels.

There was a small industrial town at Wickham Bushes near the Roman Road through present-day Easthamstead, and substantial villages have been located at Abingdon and near Weycock Hill where an octagonal temple was excavated in the 19th century. Another temple was found at Frilford, close to a junction of two roads on the site of an Iron-Age shrine; both may have been local religious centres. Excavations and aerial photography have located farmsteads at Knowl Hill and Finchampstead adjacent to the Roman road. The great majority of the rural population lived in farmsteads and small hamlets which owed little to Roman influence. The principal structure was still the round house which was used as a dwelling, as a workshop, and for sheltering the livestock. They were often surrounded by rectangular ditches and banks, and many farmhouses and homesteads, such as those at Ufton Nervet, Theale Green and Long Wittenham, appear to have been continuously occupied from Belgic into Roman times. The pattern of rural settlement is densest on the river gravels and the chalk platform between Maidenhead and Wargrave, where there are traces of an occupation site every two square miles. There are fewer sites on the London Clay, the Bagshot Beds and the chalk downs, but it is likely that these areas were farmed, though less intensely. An extensive area of Roman arable fields has been found at Maddle Farm at the head of the Lambourn Valley.

The period of Roman rule lasted almost four hundred years, and inevitably important changes took place during that time. Christianity was added to the list of religions practised in Britain; a church was built near the west gate of Calleva sometime during the fourth century. A font with Christian symbols has been found at Caversham and a Christian cemetery at Newbury. New earthwork defences were built in the second century in response to dissension within the empire, and these were replaced a hundred years later by a three-metre-thick stone wall. It has been estimated that this would have entailed carrying over a hundred-thousand wagon loads of flint and more than forty-thousand loads of bonding stones—a mammoth undertaking which must surely have taken several years. In every part of Roman Britain and the western empire, cities were being provided with new strong defences because of the unrest on the frontiers.

By the late fourth century the Roman Empire was in decline. Archaeological evidence suggests that many large towns in Britain, including Calleva, suffered from a recession. There was little rebuilding or refurbishment, and maintenance work on the public baths and sewage systems was neglected with unpleasant results. At Calleva, the basilica was no longer used for civic purposes; instead the premises were taken over for industrial purposes. No new villas were built, nor were there any extensions to existing ones.

In AD 402 the last issue of bronze coins was sent to Britain from Rome; no coins of any kind were supplied after 411. Many were hoarded, some—like those found at Matthews Green, Wokingham and at Kimber Farm, Oakley Green—never to be used again. In 407 the Roman army (under the British emperor, Constantine III) left Britain to fight in Gaul, never to return. In 410 the Emperor Honorius wrote to the cities of Britain telling them to defend themselves. Britain had ceased to be part of the Roman Empire.

Within a generation many Roman towns in Britain had ceased to function as urban centres; everywhere urban life was breaking down and with it Roman society. The reasons for this are complex. The removal of central government and the loss of the army and the decline of cities as major markets for produce and manufacturdöcxIs, the end of tax collection and the disappearance of a money -based econ&riy are seen by some historians as crucial factors, unrelated to the incursioby new invaders who certainly also played a part in the destruction of Ro’lntnised society. Internecine fighting and the neglect of roads and bridges further weakened the functions of the towns, and plagues and famine added to their downfall. The citizens of Calleva appear to have attempted to defend the town, and the community would seem to have managed to survive for three or four generations, but by the mid-sixth century the site was virtually abandoned.

In the countryside, the inhabitants fared only a little better, and farmstead and hamlets reverted to a mainly subsistence economy. Bridges which were not repaired collapsed, and unmaintained road surfaces deteriorated under the attack of weather and vegetation. With the loss of the bridge across the Thames at Pontes (Staines) and no major town at Calleva, the great Roman road west across Berkshire no longer had a purpose and fell out of use.

The century after the Romans left was a terrible period, neither Roman Britain, nor yet Saxon England. It was a dangerous time to live, but one which also gave birth to one of our best loved legends, that of King Arthur defending Britain against the invading Saxons. But of the part played by Berkshire in these struggles, the records are silent.

Saxon Berrocshire: The Coming of the Saxons

Unlike the Roman legions, the Anglo-Saxons did not come to Britain as soldiers in the pay of a mighty empire but as small groups of men intent on taking what they could in riches and land. They came at first as raiders or as mercenaries hired by a British leader to fight against other Saxons. No one decisive event comparable with the Roman invasion marked their coming, and it took almost two hundred years before Roman Britain could be called Saxon England.

Our knowledge of these early years comes from three main sources—archaeological excavations, the interpretation of place names, and oral traditions as recorded later by Gildas, Bede and the authors of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle. The evidence is fragmentary, difficult to interpret and conflicting, but something of the story of the colonisation of the area known as Berkshire and its formation as an administrative unit known as Berrocshfre can be pieced together—though not all historians tell the same story!

The story begins in the Upper Thames Valley where archaeological evidence has been found of Germanic, or Saxon, people living there before the Roman army left Britain. They are thought to have been mercenaries employed to defend the northern boundaries of the Atrebates territory from Saxon invaders. Although presumably dependant upon the nearby Roman town of Dorchester on Thames, and ultimately upon Calleva, the soldiers would appear to have been stationed in various British villages. According to Gildas, describing events about AD 430 in an unnamed part of Britain, when supplies and money ran out the mercenaries devastated with fire cities and lands ‘until it [the fire] burnt nearly the whole surface of the islands, and licked the western Ocean with its red and savage tongue’. There is no evidence of any such devastation at Dorchester or Calleva, but by the mid-fifth century the situation had changed: the mercenaries had become farmers and had been joined by waves of new settlers.

We do not know why these people chose to settle here, so far inland, or by what route they came, though finds of distinctive types of urns and brooches suggest that some had earlier settled in eastern Britain and made their way to the Upper Thames along the ancient track known as the Icknield Way. Others came from the south east, following the Thames Valley. Early Saxon buildings and other habitation features have been uncovered at Abingdon, Sutton Courtenay, Dorchester and several other places in nearby Oxfordshire. Anglo-Saxon cemeteries which were in use over several generations have been found on both sides of the Thames, including East Shefford, Long Wittenham, Reading, Wallingford and Aston in Berkshire. A remarkable concentration of topographical names suggests that the Saxons had soon expanded into the fertile valley of the Ock, establishing villages there with names which testify to the importance of rivers and streams to these farming people. This Upper Thames Valley region was perhaps the most important of the inland areas of early Saxon colonisation, and the emergence of Wessex, the greatest of all the Saxon kingdoms.

Numerous battles took place between Britons and Saxons in the turbulent years of the fifth and sixth centuries. Although none is known to have taken place in the region which was to become Berkshire, the Anglo Saxon Chronicle tells the story of two men, Cerdic and Cynric, war lords who landed on the coast in Hampshire and who made their way inland by a series of battles. It was they who, according to tradition, welded the settlers in the Upper Thames Valley into a kingdom and in the early years of the sixth century founded the royal house of Wessex.

The Formation of the Shire

For much of the fifth century southern Berkshire (the area which in 1995, more or less, constituted the county) was still occupied mainly by Britons, and Calleva Atrebatum functioned as a town. Earthworks were constructed which blocked the roads leading northwards to Dorchester, perhaps in an attempt to prevent the expansion of the Saxons. But the tide of new settlers could not be stopped. Many Britons fled westwards to Wales and Cornwall or northwards to find refuge in less favourable areas such as the Chilterns. Calleva Atrebatum was finally abandoned sometime in the sixth century and the rest of the old Roman province of the Atrebates was gradually colonised by the Saxons. Topographical place names and those containing the Saxon word ‘ham’, meaning village, or ‘ingas’ or ‘ingham’, which incorporates a word meaning people, indicate some of the areas which were relatively early settled. The Britons who remained learned to co-exist with the newcomers, passing on their names for the hills and rivers and some of their villages. The names Thames, Kennet and Loddon are all names derived from the British, or Celtic, language: Datchet, Pinge, Altwood (in Maidenhead) and Crutchfield in Bray are also at least partly British. There is also a sprinkling of names which are thought to have a Latin origin, such as Speen which apparently comes from the Roman town of Spinis. The Latin word for a small town, vicus, gave rise to two place names not far from Roman roads, Wickham in the parish of Welford and Wickham Bushes, an area of heathiand on the line of the Roman road in Easthampstead parish. There are a few other names. The most intriguing survival from these centuries is the legend of Herne the Hunter, who it is believed was the Celtic god, Cernunnos. Shakespeare immortalised him in The Merry Wives of Windsor with Sir John Falstaff meeting the merry wives under Herne’s oak.

The final conquest of the midlands and southern Britain by the Saxons took place in the second half of the sixth century. By the end of the century the kingdom of Wessex encompassed the whole of northern and western Berkshire and extended as far south as Devon. Britain, the land of the Britons, had now become England, but it was not one country, but a conglomeration of rival Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. The most important for the history of Berkshire were Wessex, Mercia, and Essex with its subsidiary ‘districts’ of Middlesex and Surrey.

At this date the Upper Thames basin would appear to have been at the heart of Wessex for here, at Dorchester on Thames, Birinius was established as the first bishop of Wessex in 634, just two years after he had converted Cynegils, King of Wessex, to Christianity. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle records that Birinius had been sent by Pope Honorarius, but little else. There is a tradition, however, that the King’s baptism took place at Taplow, just across the present county boundary, by a pool that has been known as Bapsey Pond for many years. The truth of this legend we may never know, but in the seventh century Taplow was a place of some importance, for only some yards away to the north is the pagan burial mound of a very rich Saxon who gave his name to the village—Tappa’s hiaw.

As yet there was no such place as Berkshire, nor an administrative unit with a different name which covered more or less the same area. During the seventh and eighth centuries northern and western Berkshire was disputed territory between the kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia. Mercia had begun as a small kingdom near the River Trent, which under King Penda, a powerful ruler, expanded to cover the greater part of the Midlands. In 643 King Cynegils of Wessex died and was succeeded by his son Cenwalh who married one of Penda’s sisters. When Cenwalh repudiated her, Penda invaded Wessex and Cenwalh was forced to flee. On his return three years later, he made a grant to a kinsman of ‘3,000 hides of land by Ashdown’. Historians are agreed that this was an unusually large tract of land for such a gift and have argued that it established a frontier province to act as a bulwark against further Mercian hostilities. Ashdown was the old name for the Berkshire Downs and 3,000 hides was large enough to have included the whole of northern and western Berkshire. A few years later Cenwalh moved the seat of the Wessex bishopric from Dorchester on Thames to a safer location at Winchester. Soon after his death, the Wessex territory north of the Thames was taken into Mercia.

Eastern Berkshire was not part of this frontier province. It was not within either Wessex or Mercia, but was part of the neighbouring kingdom of Middlesex. In the early years of the Saxon invasion, Middlesex encompassed London and a southern region—Surrey. Place-name evidence suggests that this southern region included the middle Thames Valley of present-day eastern Berkshire, north and south of the Thames, with the sparsely populated wooded area (later known as Windsor Forest) forming its western boundary. By the seventh century, however, Middlesex had been absorbed into the more powerful kingdom of Essex. In 672-4 the overlordship of Surrey, however, was claimed by Mercia, and a grant by its sub-king refers to a province called Sonning after a tribal group who gave their name not only to the village of Sonning, but also to Sunninghill and Sunningdale on the Berkshire/Surrey boundary. Wokingham, a town once part of Sonning parish, also had Surrey connections for it was probably settled by people from Woking.

The frontier province of northern and western Berkshire was now governed by a sub-king named Cissa who, in 675, gave 20 hides near Abingdon to his nephew Hean, on condition that he built an abbey on the land. Little transpired for several years, but eventually, after King me of Wessex had made further grants of land, an abbey was built at Abingdon sometime before 699. In 709 Hean entered the religious life and became its first abbot.

After Ine’s abdication in 726, the fortunes of war once again swung against Wessex, and Aethelbald of Mercia became the dominant king in southern England. There is little evidence of battles taking place in ‘Berkshire’, but the chronicle of Abingdon Abbey shows that during this period the monks regarded King Aethelbald as their protector, and in 731 he gave a monastery at Cookham to the Archbishop of Canterbury. Little is known about this religious house, the only known Saxon monastery in the Sonning province of eastern Berkshire. We have no date for its foundation, and, although it was important enough to be the venue of a synod in the eighth century, it did not survive the Danish invasions.

The records of these two abbeys would seem to suggest that both parts of Berkshire—the old buffer zone of the north and west, and Sonning province—were once again under the rule of Mercia, but only for a few years. They were recaptured during the early years of the reign of Cynewulf of Wessex (757-788), only to be taken again by King Offa of Mercia in 799. The chronicle of Abingdon Abbey records that Offa added to his rule all the country from the Icknield Way and the Thames, from Wallingford to Ashdown. A charter tells us that Offa also took the monastery at Cookham and other towns from Cynewuif and added them to Mercia.

Offa of Mercia campaigned against every part of Britain, extending his influence over the whole of England south of the Humber. Not all of the rival kingdoms became part of Mercia, although they paid tribute to him. Mercia itself was divided into provinces governed by ealdormen. Almost certainly the ‘Berkshire’ buffer zone formed one of these provinces, and it may not have mattered too much to its inhabitants in which kingdom they lived. More important were the character of the ealdorman and the amount of taxes that was demanded by him.

Berkshire remained part of Mercia for some fifty years through the reigns of Cenwuif and Ceolwulf. In 823 Ceolwulf was deposed, and with him the dynasty which had given Mercia its supremacy came to an end. Wessex was now ruled by Egbert, and in 825 he met and defeated the Mercian army at Wroughton, near Swindon. The men of Surrey (including one might presume the province of Sonning), Sussex and Essex submitted to Egbert because, according to the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, ‘they had been wrongly forced from their loyalty to his kinsmen’. In 829 Egbert conquered Mercia; both parts of ‘Berkshire’ were now part of Wessex. But within a year the king of Mercia had regained his kingdom, and a grant made in 844 by the Bishop of Leicester to Beorhtwulf of Mercia of an estate at Pangbourne in exchange for several monasteries, including Abingdon, suggests that northern and western ‘Berkshire’ (if not the whole ‘county’) now belonged to Mercia and was part of the Mercian diocese of Leicester. Almost immediately Beorhtwulf gave the Pangbourne estate to the ealdorman named Aethelwulf who governed the buffer province.

Sometime after this the province was recovered by Egbert’s son, King Aethelwulf of Wessex. Five years later, however, it was still being governed by the Mercian ealdorman. Perhaps he had changed loyalties, but it is more likely that this time the transfer of Berkshire from Mercia to Wessex was not accomplished by fighting but by negotiated exchange. Mercia had requested help from Wessex in the fight against their common enemy—the Vikings; Berkshire was perhaps the price paid by Mercia. A unique coin with the name Beorhtwulf of Mercia on one side and that of Ethelwulf of Wessex on the other, may commemorate this event. In 849 Prince Alfred, Ethelwulf’s fourth son, was born at Wantage, a royal estate, and in 853 a marriage between the royal households cemented the alliance between Wessex and Mercia.

Both parts of Berkshire—the ancient buffer zone of northern and western Berkshire and the Sonning Province of eastern Berkshire—were now within Wessex, but how and when the two parts became one shire and the Sonning province separated from Surrey is uncertain. The only clues come from the place names and the relationship of an old Roman road to the county and parish boundaries. The juxtaposition of eight parishes all with names ending in feld (meaning open land)Arborfield, Bradfield, Burghfield, Englefield, Shinfield, Stratfield, Swallowfield and Wokefield- suggests the existence of a belt of heathland on the edge of Windsor Forest. Within the area of the ancient forest there are other feld names (such as Binfield), and several place names which incorporate the word legh (meaning a woodland clearing) and hyrst (meaning a wood). Such a concentration of these types of names suggests that this area was colonised long after the rest of the county, perhaps in the late Saxon period. Until this took place, any boundary between the Sonning Province and the rest of Surrey would have been ill-defined. However, although long out of use, the old Roman road (now known as the Devil’s Highway) was still a prominent feature and a convenient one which could be used as a boundary when at last the province was detached from Surrey. Today the county boundary follows the old highway for several miles.

Ninth century Berkshire

It seems likely that at about the same time the two parts became one shire it took on a new name – Berrocshire. The earliest record of the name occurs in 860. Berkshire appears to have become a shire long after the rest of Wessex and the choice of name is a strange one, for it relates neither to a group of people nor to the most important town, as do most of the other shires. Instead, according to Asser, a Welsh monk who wrote a biography of King Alfred, it is called after the Berroc Wood, a Celtic name which commemorated the abundance of trees. Rather sumrisinly, the wood was not in the northern part of the county, the heart of the ancient buffer zone, but in the south west of the county and many miles from the meeting place of the shire court, a mound known as Scutchamer Knob in the parish of East Hendred, high up on the Berkshire Downs.

The Viking Invasion

Scandinavian raiders began plundering coastal settlements of Britain in the late eighth century, but until the 830s such raids were infrequent. In 835 Danish Vikings overran the Isle of Sheppey at the mouth of the Thames, and from then on for many decades they were an ever-present and terrifying threat. Responsibility for local defence rested on the ealdormen of each threatened shire. The first known contact with this region took place in 860 when a ‘great host landed and stormed Winchester’, and the men of Berkshire joined with men from Hampshire and fought together under their respective ealdormen, Etheiwuif and Osric.

Five years later, a huge army under several Danish kings and earls landed in East Anglia. This time the Danes came not merely to raid and return home but to stay—to seize defendable sites, to fortify them, and then systematically to ravage the countryside until its inhabitants were willing to pay for peace. In 871 the Danes marched into Wessex and set up camp at Reading, on the east side of the Saxon settlement. Three days after their arrival they sent out a raiding party led by two earls. At Englefield they were met and defeated by Saxons led by ealdorman Etheiwuif. A few days later the West Saxon army attacked the Danish camp but with disastrous results; they were defeated and ealdorman Ethelwulf was amongst those killed.

Four days later the two armies met on Ashdown, the ancient name for the Berkshire Downs. Although the Danes had the higher position on the hillside, it was the Saxons who won the day under the leadership of King Aetheired and his young brother Alfred. One Danish king, five earls and many other Vikings were slain, their bodies scattered far and wide ‘over the whole broad expanse of Ashdown’. The remnants of the Danish army fled back to their stronghold at Reading where they were reinforced by a great ‘summer army’ from Scandinavia led by Guthrum. The Danes fought and defeated the West Saxons in seven more battles and numerous skirmishes. Abingdon Abbey was destroyed, the Saxon army depleted and King Aetheired died. His younger brother Alfred became king and was forced to buy peace—and time.

Well satisfied, perhaps, the Danes left Reading the following year to plunder and fight elsewhere. By 877 the other Saxon kingdoms of Mercia, East Anglia and Northumbria had all been defeated by the Danes. In the winter of 878 King Guthrum led his army into Wessex and Alfred fled to the Isle of Athelney. The story of Alfred’s guerrilla tactics and eventual success at the battle of Edington and the treaty which divided the country into Saxon and Danish territories lies outside the story of Berkshire. But Alfred’s dramatic reversal of events ensured the survival of Wessex as a Saxon kingdom and Berkshire as a Saxon shire. It was no longer a frontier district.

Peace, however, needed to be maintained and Alfred now initiated the construction of a series of fortresses, known as burhs, at strategic points throughout Wessex. Two were in Berkshire, at Wallingford and a place named Sceafteige. The Wallingford fortifications consisted of a hundred-acre enclosure surrounded by a high bank and ditch. Sceafteige was built on an island in the Thames at Cookham, known today as Sashes. Like Wallingford it was probably chosen to give command of movement along the Thames and to guard an important road crossing, be it ford, ferry or bridge. No archaeological evidence has yet been found to prove where the Thames was crossed in this stretch of the river before Maidenhead existed, but the circumstantial evidence of a monastery, burh and late Saxon market suggests it might well have been at Cookham.

Arrangements for the repair and manning of the burhs by the men from villages in the surrounding districts are given in a document known as the Burghal Hidage. According to this, in time of danger four men were needed to hold each perch (16.5 feet) of wall, and each village was expected to provide one man for every hide [a measurement of land used for tax purposes] for which it was assessed.

During the next hundred years, hostilities continued intermittently though little is known of events in Berkshire until Viking sea raids began again towards the end of the tenth century. In 994 the first of the danegeld payments—E16,000 on this occasion—was paid to gain a temporary peace. In the winter of 1006 an invading Danish army set out on a raid across Hampshire and Berkshire to Reading, and then north to Wallingford where they set fire to the town. The Danes then struck westwards along the line of the downs, defiantly halting at the shire’s meeting place, and then onwards to Winchester and back to their ships. Berkshire was invaded again in 1009 and 1010; in 1011 the Danes overran most of Wessex including Berkshire. By 1013 Swein had become the first of the Danish kings of England. His reign was very short, but his son Cnut (or Canute) reigned for 25 years and brought Danish and Saxon England under one rule. It was a period of peace, albeit one of a conquered country. Danish men who had followed their king were awarded with Saxon lands. Tovi the Proud was granted an estate at Reading.

Towns and villages, estates and parishes

Six centuries of raiding and colonisation by Saxons and Danes had wrought great changes on the landscape, the patterns of settlement and the organisation of the people and government. Although the broad outline of these changes is known, evidence for the detailed picture is hard to find. The names of Berkshire’s parishes and towns are almost all Saxon, yet no more than a handful are mentioned in documents written before the Norman Conquest or have produced archaeological evidence of their Saxon beginnings. The Saxons were not town dwellers and only slowly did some villages become towns, by stages which are not yet fully understood. How many towns there were in 10th century Berkshire is a matter of conjecture.

More than a dozen places would appear to have possessed some of the attributes which together made a settlement a town rather than a village. Some, like Kintbury, Thatcham and Lambourne, were administrative and judicial centres for divisions of the shire known as Hundreds. Royal estates were also often centres because of the king’s use of the place and his encouragement of trade. There were a considerable number of royal estates, including Wantage, Cookham, and Sutton Courtenay; the king’s council, or Witan, met at these in 995, 997 and 1042 respectively. It also met at Abingdon in 989, and here King Atheistan held court. There were also religious centres: monasteries and minster churches which served an area known as a parochiae. The word has come to mean parish, but in Saxon England it covered a much larger area where as yet there might not be other churches but only preaching crosses. Research suggests that Abingdon, Cookham, Kintbury, Lambourne, Reading, Thatcham and Waltham were all minster churches. Only after estate owners had built churches for their villages could parishes be formed, each with its incumbent responsible for the spiritual care of its parishioners. There was a quickening of religious interest in the 10th century, Abingdon Abbey was rebuilt, and it is likely that many parish churches were built at this time, though few Saxon buildings survive. Occasionally traces of the church have been found, and in a few instances, such as St Swithun’s of Wickham, the 10th-century church still serves its parish. At Old Windsor, a royal estate, the original church was used for the consecration of the abbot of St Augustine’s of Canterbury in 1061.

By the mid-11th century, at least twenty Berkshire settlements were centres of some kind, but only two would appear to have become fully fledged towns—Wallingford and Reading. Wallingford was situated, as its name implies, at a crossing of the Thames. It was the second largest burh in Wessex and the grid-plan of its oldest streets may date from the construction of the fortification. By the 10th century it had a mint and a market though evidence for the latter is meagre. It was a free borough, the only one in Berkshire in the 10th century. Reading was much smaller and probably later in development; there is no evidence of a mint before 1040. It has no burh, except for the Danish fortifications. It was a royal vill, and the presence of the mint suggests the development of a market and other trading functions.

The pattern of settlement which grew during the Saxon period appears to bear little relationship with that of the Roman province, but many historians are convinced that there was at least some continuity of field and estate boundaries, even though villas and towns were destroyed. Sometime in the late Saxon period, farming practices began to change and the numerous small fields began to be replaced by a lesser number of large fields that were divided into un-hedged strips of land worked by the people of the village. These large fields, which became such a distinctive feature of the countryside, almost certainly came into being as a result of the community working together to enlarge their arable land. There was still much land—forest, heath and marsh – that was unused and not all parish boundaries were clearly defined. Estates did not always match with parishes or the field systems worked by the villages, large units had been divided and new systems imposed on old. The bounds of the older Saxon land holdings, however have sometimes been preserved as parish boundaries Pioneer research in this field has been carried out in Shellingford, Blewbury and the Uffington area. Uffington and the adjacent parish of Woolstone were once part of a Saxon land unit known as Aescesbyrig (from the nearby hill fort) which was divided in the second half of the 10th century, the two parts being named after the new owners—Uffa and Wulfric. There were thus many local changes during these centuries. But the Norman Conquest in the mid-11th century brought the greatest change of land ownership since the Roman invasion a thousand years before.