Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Anglo-Saxon Democracy

A more light-hearted post today.

During a bit of spring-cleaning, I came across some notes I made several years ago (for an aborted article) about early Anglo-Saxon local democracy, and given the level of discussion at the moment about devolving responsibilites to local communities, or improving the system for how we elect our representatives, it is interesting to see how local democracy worked a thousand years ago and to compare how we’ve progressed – or not.

Essentially the notes looked at how local administration worked via "local authorities" known as “hundreds” each consisting of a hundred households (it’s a bit more complex than that but that will do for the purpose of this post). Those households were sub-divided into groups of ten (a tithe) who then selected a representative to attend a “hundred-moot”, where they would meet up every four weeks with the representatives of the other tithes and the king’s financial officers to settle matters of taxation, law and order and legal disputes within the hundred. The representative of the king could offer advice but the decisions were made by the local people.

The neck of land that would see the birth of the Saxon town of Brigstowe was part of the hundred of Swinehead, which had its hundred moot on a small hill just outside Bitton and formed a triangle with Clifton and Winterbourne at the other corners. Other hundreds in the area included Brenty to the north west, Brislington* to the south east, and the hundred of Hartcliffe and Bedminster (which held its court on a hillside called Hareclive at the end of Dundry Hill overlooking Ashton Vale).

For matters of greater import, groups of hundreds were collected into shires and a shire-moot was held once or twice a year where representatives from the hundreds met with higher level representatives of the king such as the earldorman (from whence Alderman) and the shire reeve (from whence Sheriff). North of the Avon, this was held at Gloucester, whilst southerners had to go to Somerton.

This surprising level of local democracy was soon undermined, first by the rise of towns and their merchants, and later increasingly by the Norman aristocracy, aided and abetted by the church.

The rising town of Bristol, or rather its merchants or burgesses (literally city-dwellers), were unhappy with the restrictions placed upon them by this system and thus began their long campaign for increasing independence from the surrounding hundred so it could set its own rules independent of the local democratic process and for the benefit of business. The story of Bristol from its origins up until at least 1835, is that of an oligarchy consisting of the burgesses (from the same root as bourgeoisie) establishing greater and greater control in order to promote their commercial interests.

The Bristol merchants were aided in their objectives by the new Norman rulers keen for money to aid their extraterritorial ambitions – first to conquer Wales and Ireland, and later to finance wars of aggression with Scotland and France. The wealthy Bristol merchants provided the finance, and the Norman nobles returned the favour by providing the merchants with the legal rights to run their businesses as they saw fit, free of outside influence – it is no coincidence that the longest running non-Royal English dynastic line is that of the Saxon Bristol merchant Robert fitz Harding, who was awarded the lands and title of the Norman Berkeleys (including the manor of Bedminster, where he promoted and invested in a speculative mixed use development now known as Redcliffe) in return for his financial aid to Henry II. Examples of the privileges gained include, in 1172, the merchants of Bristol being given the rights to control Dublin turning it into Bristol’s very own medieval version of Hong Kong, and the 1373 grant by Edward III that freed Bristol’s merchants from the worries of the county courts that were beyond their influence by the simple expedient of making Bristol a county in its own right, and thus entitled to its own county court.

Meanwhile, for the Bristol peasantry, the only available source of protection from the worst deprivations was the church. Unfortunately despite repeated declarations that they were there to represent the needs of the poor, the church instead increasingly radiated towards establishing commercial relationships with the merchants, especially as the merchants saw donations to religion as a way of offsetting any sins they committed in the present against any future reckoning - one example of this is Robert fitz Harding founding a major development on green field land just outside the city known as St Augustine's. As a result the church became very wealthy indeed (in the end too wealthy, and having betrayed its natural consituents, the poor, was effectively privatised for the benefit of the very richest, with St Augustine's becoming Bristol's Cathedral).  National government was also jealous of the power of the Bristol merchants, at one point establishing a separate development corporation in the east of the city outside the control of the local merchants. Temple Fee, as the area was called, was controlled by an unaccountable body with few connections to the city itself, the Knights Templar.

So, in the end a system that allowed local communities to have a decisive say in the decision-making that affected their own neighbourhoods was transformed into one where business interests had the decisive say on local events, supported by a wealthy elite who controlled most of the decision-making bodies at national level, whilst those who purported to represent the general public were more interested in establishing good relations with business and feathering their own nest eventually leading to their own demise.

Aren’t you glad we don’t live in a system like that anymore?

*Edit: Oops, they say write in haste, repent at leisure.  The hundred that covered what is now south east Bristol was, of course, the hundred of Keynsham not Brislington.


  1. I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


  2. Tony

    This is great stuff. Bristol Radical History Group are holding a series of events on election and democrary in April. Are you interested in turning this into either a short talk or a pamphlet ?

    Dan B

  3. Tony

    Seer goot Yah. (I can't spell in Saxon either)


  4. Very good. Most wry humour. Enjoyed the read.