Early administrative units

England has been called 'an old country', and much of it was already old at the time of Domesday Book, including the essential framework of central and local government. Though there were anomalies, they were few and comparatively insignificant. The deep roots of English government, and the unusual degree of uniformity in its administrative structures, was a significant factor in the strength of the Crown and of national cohesiveness.

By the tenth century most of the country had already been divided into counties, each of which was subdivided into Hundreds, which in turn were subdivided into vills. Counties and Hundreds each had their courts which met at fixed intervals, the county courts meeting in the county towns from where the sheriff and his officials ran the county, or shire as it was more commonly known at this date. County, Hundred, and vill were all assessed for taxation and military service in units called hides or carucates in most counties.

The West Saxon counties were several centuries older than those of Mercia and the Danelaw, which were created after being absorbed by Wessex in the tenth century. The newer counties of Mercia and the Danelaw therefore afford a better idea of the workings of the Anglo-Saxon administrative system in its heyday.

At the centre of each shire was the county town, invariably fortified, from which the shire took its name, as in Nottinghamshire, etc. The only apparent exceptions - Chester and Shropshire - are deceptive: their names in Domesday are actually Chestershire and Shrewsburyshire.

The shire was allocated an assessment for taxation and military service which was divided among the Hundreds, the allocation for each Hundred then being further divided among its constituent vills. The number of Hundreds in the shire was determined by how many hundred hides it had been allocated. According to the latest theory of this process, the assessment allocated to the shire was determined by the length of the walls of the county town, calculated according to the formulae laid down in a tenth-century document known as the Burghal Hidage. According to this formulae, for instance, the recently excavated walls of Worcester would have needed the manpower from approximately 1160 tax units (hides) to build, maintain and defend them. The Burghal Hidage actually allocates 1200 hides to Worcester, almost precisely the total assessment in Domesday Book, a century and a half later. It seems likely that there was a similar degree of continuity elsewhere in Mercia and the Danelaw.

The much older West Saxon counties do not have such a tidy appearance. During the course of the early ninth century, Wessex had absorbed several once-independent kingdoms. These kingdoms became counties within Greater Wessex: thus the East Saxons became Essex, the South Saxons Sussex; and East Anglia - divided between a North and a South folk - became Norfolk and Suffolk respectively. The counties of old Wessex had a more varied ancestry. Some took their name from the county town, or an important town. Thus Hampshire was named after Southampton, and Wiltshire after Wilton. Others, like Devon, Dorset and Somerset, derived from 'tribal' names. Because these counties were older than those of Mercia and the Danelaw, their ancient assessments are not so clearly visible in the Domesday totals for those counties. Even so, there are enough correlations between the figures in the Burghal Hidage and Domesday Book to justify the belief that their administration had evolved in much the same way as that of the newer counties.

Angus J.L. Winchester, Discovering parish boundaries (second edition, 2000), provides a brief account of the major administrative units and their distribution; and James Campbell, The Anglo-Saxon state (2000), and The defence of Wessex: the Burghal Hidage and Anglo-Saxon fortification, edited by David Hill and A.R. Rumble (1996), more detail on the roots of English government.