Pre-Conquest Nottingham

The documentary sources for the pre-Conquest history of Nottingham are limited to half a dozen chronicle references and two charters. Nevertheless, historians have been content to conclude that the town was a typical Danelaw borough. It was supposedly garrisoned by a Danish army in the late ninth century, and from that time onwards was a member of the Confederacy of the Five Boroughs which formed a discrete political force between the Humber and the Welland characterized by a vital urban economy. It is here argued that all of these assumptions are misconceived. Recent research, drawing on a wider body of evidence, has shown that the Confederacy was an English innovation, dating no earlier than the late tenth century, and that Nottingham never was a Danish borough. The Danish army did indeed fortify the settlement in 868, but it left the following year, and it would seem that it remained ungarrisoned until 918 when the West Saxon king Edward the Elder repaired the defences and manned it with English and Danes. A borough was only instituted after 920, but even then there is little evidence that Nottingham was anything more than a fortress with a command economy in the tenth and early eleventh centuries. It was only after the Norman Conquest that the borough began to develop the society and economy that is more characteristic of urban life.


'In this year the [Danish] army went into Mercia to Nottingham and took up winter quarters there. And Burgred, the king of the Mercians, and his councillors asked Ethelred, the king of the West Saxons, and his brother Alfred to help him to fight against the army. They then went with the army of the West Saxons into Mercia to Nottingham, and came upon the enemy in that fortress, and besieged them there. There occurred no serious battle there, and the Mercians made peace with the enemy. In the following year the raiding army returned to York'.

The year was 868 and the source the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Between this, the first reference, and 1066 there are only a further five notices of Nottingham in the historical record: chronicle references for the years 918, 920, and 942, and two charters of 934 and 973.

As you can imagine, it was with some trepidation that, with such resources, I accepted the invitation to write the pre-Conquest chapter of the Centenary History of Nottingham. How does one write a history from a handful of references? Previous historians have experienced little difficulty. All have agreed that Nottingham was a typical Danelaw borough. It was supposedly garrisoned by a Danish army in the late ninth century. From that time onwards it was a member of the Confederacy of the Five Boroughs which formed a discrete political force between the Humber and the Welland and it was characterized by a vital urban economy.

I shall argue tonight that all of these assumptions are misconceived. My researches, based on a wider body of evidence, have led me to believe that:-

1. the Danes did not establish a borough
2. but that it was founded after the English conquest in 920.
3. the Confederacy of the 5 Boroughs was again an English institution, here of the late C10
4. and from 920 to 1066 Nottingham was primarily a fortress
5. A truly urban economy did not emerge until after the Norman Conquest.

The foundation of the borough
Nottingham enters the historical record at a crucial moment in the history of the East Midlands. Vikings had raided the coast for over a century or more before 868, but from the mid ninth century they began to overwinter in England and extend their raids inland. Their arrival in Nottingham marked the first recorded threat to the heartlands of Mercia.

The nature of Nottingham at this time is largely a matter of speculation. According to Asser it was called Tig Guocobauc in British, meaning 'cavy dwelling'. This, however is an unlikely place-name and may be an invention. The name Nottingham itself is English and means 'the settlement of Snot's people'. Something of the territory of this people can be reconstructed from later evidence. It seems to have included a number of settlements on both sides of the Trent. Nevertheless, the estate does not seem to have occupied any great regional role. The regio of Hatfield in North Nottinghamshire was probably more important.

Nottingham's primary attraction to the Danes was more its defensive position. Occupying high ground above the Trent at the lowest point at which it could be easily forded, it commanded two of the major routes between Mercia and Northumbria. But there may have also have been political factors. The East Midlands was the power base of a rival Mercian dynasty headed by Ceolwulf and his elevation to the throne with the help of the Danes in 874 may suggest that they were invited to Nottingham in the first place to counter the power of Burgred.

Be that as it may, there was no Danish settlement in Nottingham in 868, as indeed in the East Midlands generally. It was not until almost a decade later that the Danes gave up raiding for land and began to settle. The nature of the colonization is still disputed. Nevertheless, it is clear that the Danes took over the main centres of power. Doubtless, Nottingham was one of them, but it does not seem to have assumed any pre-eminent role, military or otherwise, at this time. Up to the early C10 the East Midlands were subject to the hegemony of Danish York. There were no independent garrisons south of the Humber. The fortification and manning of boroughs was a response to the campaigns of reconquest by Edward the Elder, king of the West Saxons, and Æthelflæda, Lady of the Mercians and followed the destruction of the army of York at Tettenhall in 910. Thereafter the Danes of the East Midlands were forced to look to their own defence. Individual garrisons are noticed for the first time from 913. Nottingham, however, remained undefended until 918 when Edward the Elder, the English king, repaired the defences and manned it with English and Danes.

With an English assault from the south and west, Nottingham was well to the rear, and the events leading up to its conquest by Edward the Elder in 920 suggest that it remained subject to Viking York until the very end of the campaign. Up to 917 when Derby was taken, the English had given no quarter to the Danes. But in that year Æthelflæda began negotiations with York to form an alliance against Norsemen invading from the west. A treaty was about to be concluded when Æthelflæda died in 918. Edward the Elder, then at Stamford, appears to have picked up the strands of her policy of rapprochement. The garrisoning of Nottingham with English and Danes was an accommodation with York which allowed him to secure Mercia for the West Saxon dynasty. The subjugation of Nottingham only followed a change of regime at York. In 919 Ragnald entered the City with a Norse army and took control of Northumbria. The North was now hostile and Edward had to take measures to secure the East Midlands. In 920 he returned to N and built a borough south of the Trent and linked the two forts with a bridge. Nottingham was incorporated into a united kingdom of England south of the Humber.

The borough of Nottingham
It is from this time that Nottingham became a borough. The reconquest of the East Midlands transformed the settlement from a backwater with no significant military function into a frontier town. It was a role which it was to retain throughout the medieval period. The reconstruction of the burghal system that was set up after 920 is a complex matter. The only tangible vestige of the system is coins minted for King Athelstan in Nottingham as elsewhere. The territory assigned to Nottingham, its 'shire', however, can be worked out from the toll boundaries of the later Middle Ages. It seems to have encompassed about three quarters of the present county of Nottinghamshire with south Derbyshire including Derby itself.

In the event the system only proved effective until 939. In that year Olaf Guthfrithson, Ragnald's successor, conquered the East Midlands and the burghal system fell apart. In 942 King Edmund, Athelstan's half-brother, retook the area. The Confederacy of the Five Boroughs was instituted in the next 20 years to stabilize the region and create a march against the North. It is clear from the legal principles that it embodied, notably the maintenance of the peace by the community rather than the kin, that it was an English innovation of the late tenth century. It was from this time that Nottingham assumed responsibility for the wapentakes that made up medieval Nottinghamshire. The shire itself in its final form emerged in the early C11.

Economy and society
From its foundation in 920 through until 1066, Nottingham was undoubtedly the key stronghold in the East Midlands. There is no time here to rehearse its role in detail. But throughout the period it was the lynch pin of the crown's relations with the always volatile Northerners. Unlike the other boroughs of the Danelaw, however, it never developed a vibrant economy. Its coin production was always modest. Furthermore, the archaeological record shows that there was little industrial activity of any scale. Pottery, for example, was produced sometime in the C10, but it seems to have been a one-off effort, probably exclusively for the high status site with which it was associated. There is no evidence for the industrial and commercial activity which was so typical of Lincoln and Stamford. In short, Nottingham seems to have been primarily a fortress with a command economy.

The social and tenurial structure of the settlement in 1066 reflects this experience. Domesday Book reveals that Nottingham was dominated by two great interests. The English Borough was in the sole lordship of the king and the burgesses were little different in status from sokemen of the countryside. To the west, in what was to become the French Borough, the earl had his principal residence in the county, and it was there that his thegns settled around the borough rendered their services. There were no other interests in Nottingham. The tenurial hetergeneity so typical of most boroughs in 1066 was completely absent.

By 1086 all that had changed. Numerous fees had been created for the Norman tenants-in-chief of Nottinghamshire and the French Borough had been founded with advantageous terms of tenure for merchants. Both measures opened up access to the markets of Nottingham to an unprecedented degree.

The transformation had been brought about by the construction of the castle. The English Borough ceased to be the main focus of royal interest and the exigencies of castle guard introduced the diversity of lordship and tenure that was conducive to trade. For the first time in its history, Nottingham exhibited characteristics that were truly urban. From 1086 it was to take a new course as a community with its own interests and history.

©David Roffe, December 2000.