Eashing (or more accurately the two hamlets of Lower and Upper Eashing), just off the southbound carriageway of the A3 heading towards the Hindhead tunnel and on to the south coast, can stake a claim to be well known in medieval circles for two reasons. First, the pair of thirteenth-century bridges across two channels of the River Wey (now in the custody of the National Trust, who created a dedicated WordPress blog to document their recent restoration). Second, for being named in the so-called Burghal Hidage as the site of a Viking-Age fortification. My title’s a giveaway for which one I’m interested in here, and stems from my chancing upon a piece of evidence last weekend which may help to confirm the site of the Eashing burh.
The first detailed argument for locating the burh at Eashing was authored by Fred Aldsworth and David Hill, and appeared in Volume 68 of the Surrey Archaeological Collections (they reference this 1964 article by Nicholas Brooks in which Eashing gets a mention [page 78], though doesn’t receive an extended discussion encompassing an attempt to locate its site on the ground). In it, they put forward the case for the burh being sited on an area of high, flattish ground between Lower and Upper Eashing, bounded on the north-west by the valley of the River Wey, on the north-east and south west by dry side valleys, and on the south-east by Eashing Lane. The hypothesis has gained general acceptance, in spite of it never being tested archaeologically.
I first became aware of Aldsworth and Hill’s argument through the reproduction of their plan of the postulated burh in Rob Poulton’s ‘Saxon Surrey’ chapter in The Archaeology of Surrey to 1540. One of the many little reasons why I embarked on this funny old journey which led to Surrey Medieval and a whole lot more besides, I remember persuading my mother to walk with me up and down Eashing Lane looking for signs of the “spread bank” which Aldsworth and Hill held up as one of the main pieces of diagnostic evidence for this being the site of the fortification. For those tempted to pay a visit to look for themselves, be aware that an optimistic eye is needed…
The main problem I have with accepting what I’ll admit is a perfectly-credible suggestion is the fact that casting one’s net a little wider in the Eashing locality turns up at least two other candidate sites: a crop mark on the other side of the River Wey from Lower Eashing, centred on OS grid reference SU4942914389, described in its Historic Environment Record entry as ‘possibly a rectangular double-ditched enclosure of about 1 hectare’, and a trio of mid-nineteenth-century field-names (Castle Field, Castle Field Mead, Castlefield Row – see pages S29 and 31 of this appendix to a 2011 article by Mark Service) a short distance south of Oxenford Grange about a mile south-west of Eashing. Until these are subjected to at least the same level of scrutiny as Aldsworth and Hill gave to their candidate site, these will remain possibilities, albeit outside ones.
As if that wasn’t enough, there’s another issue to contend with; the poor fit between the circumference of the supposed defensive perimeter and the figure of 600 hides attributed to Eashing in the Nowell transcript, considered the most reliable versions of the Burghal Hidage text. I’m not the first to query this – it was the subject of a short and at first sight scientific 1983 article by Marion Gower, who accepted the basic identification but queried how the hidage attributed to Eashing matched up with the hypothesised defences. Using the formula of eighty hides to maintain twenty poles of defensive wall, at 600 hides Eashing burh would have had a circumference of 150 poles. With a pole being 16.5 feet (or in metric money a smidge over five metres), this produces a length of approximately 2475 feet or around 755 metres. Aldsworth and Hill, Gower and myself all arrive at this figure independently.
Towards the end of their article, Aldsworth and Hill (1971, 201) entered a second calculation into the debate; 2130 feet (or 649 metres), the length of the burghal perimeter which they believed would have required artificial reinforcement rather than relying on the natural topography to deter attack. This excluded the stretch along the top of a very steep slope overlooking the Wey (incidentally, round about where the trees in the above photo stand). For reasons which are unclear to me, Gower (1983, 225) adopted this distance as the best yardstick for checking the hidage figure assigned to Eashing, and duly ends up arguing for an emendation of Eashing’s assessment to 500 hides, a figure found in most other versions of the Burghal Hidage text (Gower 1983, 226, using Hill 1969, 87 Table 2).
Gower may have taken a detour from the most common sensical approach to interpreting the numerical and topographical evidence, but was right on the money when it came to querying particular aspects of Aldsworth and Hill’s maths skills. Regarding the assessment of Eashing’s hidage, they admitted a “medieval” margin of error of fifty hides (equivalent to 12.5 poles, or about 63 metres) either way, but came up with resultant defensive circuits that were wildly different from the correct figures of 2269 feet/692 metres for 550 hides, and 2682 feet/817 metres for 650 hides (see Gower 1983, 225 for comparison). Thus doubt is cast on their contention that the topography of their suggested site ‘comfortably’ accommodated all possibilities deriving from these figures (Aldsworth and Hill 1971, 200). But should we go the other way and accept Gower’s following reading of the situation?
‘If the length of the natural defences is included, the total circuit of the site is about 3300 feet [1006 metres] requiring 800 hides, which is clearly far in excess of the hideage recorded in any version of the Burghal Hidage.’ (Gower 1983, 225)
The authors of both articles cited the possibility that there was not a full circuit of artificial ramparts, with part of the river-facing side being sufficiently naturally defensible as to not warrant additional fortification. My own knowledge of the lie of the land leaves me a little uncomfortable with what is included and excluded in such contentions. I don’t recognise the 1000+ metre length Gower claimed for a full circuit; I arrived at 2965 feet (approximately 904 metres) by doing a quick tracing of the approximate course of a complete defensive circuit. This works out as a shade under 180 poles in length, equivalent to 719 hides – a full fifth greater than the Nowell figure of 600 hides and likewise well outside the 50-hide margin of error admitted by Aldsworth and Hill. For what it’s worth (which may well be nothing at all), this “maximum” hidage for Eashing is very close to those attributed to Burpham in Sussex (720 hides) and Exeter (734 hides).
No further detailed research on the topic of the Eashing burh has been published in over a generation. That said, it has long been recognised as ripe for a proper research project to be carried out on it, but the combination of a lack of any local academic archaeology department and reportedly less-than-keen landowners of the postulated burghal site means it’s never got further than the wish-list stage. I am firmly of the belief that there’s so much imperfectly-understood archaeological data in circulation that breaking the turf to uncover new artefacts in the hope of answering particular research questions should be a last resort. With this in mind, I’m interested in how other, already available indices might be used to inch closer towards proving or disproving the hypothesis of Eashing burh having been on the site suggested by Aldsworth and Hill.
I happened upon the nugget of evidence I wish to add into the mix on the excellent village website of Shackleford, the nineteenth-century parish in which Eashing lies. It boasts many pages of local historical interest, including one about the Eashing burh consisting of Aldsworth and Hill’s 1971 article reproduced verbatim save for the original footnote and references (and due authorial attribution – naughty!) Another page presents high-quality photographic images of the pages of a facsimile of a 1773 survey of the lands and other property of William Gill (I’m unclear if the manuscript is privately owned or lodged in a publicly-accessible archive). Beginning with the wonderfully-named patriarch Ezra, the Gills accumulated more or less all the land around Eashing and many of the buildings in the two hamlets by the end of the eighteenth century, and the so-called estate book captures a snapshot of this process in an advanced stage.
The digitised manuscript is a fantastic source of early field-name spellings, and combing through these in fact reaped its rewards for me not once but twice. By far the more remarkable discovery is the name of the field which coincides with almost the entirety of the interior of the postulated burh was The Berries, which could be of apposite Old English origin and implication in terms of Aldsworth and Hill’s proposition. Here is the field-name written in the estate book…
…and here is the field itself shown (but not named) on the accompanying map, in combination with Aldsworth and Hill’s plan of the site produced almost 200 years later:
I must underscore that the name The Berries cannot be etymologised conclusively on the basis of a single late eighteenth-century spelling. But beyond that, and putting archaeological conjecture to one side for the present moment, one of the most credible explanations is that it derives from Old English burh, ‘stronghold’, in the genitive or dative singular form byrig (Parsons and Styles 2000, 79). The Gills owned more or less all of the surrounding land, yet none of the field-names outside the postulated burghal enceinte duplicates the theme in a way which might suggest it had broader relevance and thus possibly an alternative origin (animal burrows, for example, from ME burgh: Parsons and Styles 2000, 74).
The plural form may be an inorganic addition with no genuine semantic relevance, or else stem from the late eighteenth-century field being a composite of two or more earlier plots known by names based on singular *Berry or *Bury. I have encountered several instances of this phenomenon when comparing the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century forms of certain Puttenham field-names, and in this regard it’s interesting to note the sliver of ‘Mr Thomas Halls Land’ on the north-western margin of The Berries in the 1773 map excerpt above. The inclusion of the definite article might be a hangover from an Old English eliptical phrase like æt þære byrig, but could just as easily be a particular tick of the Gills when it came to referring to their own lands; the next field listed, The Goars, need not derive from anything more than a singular form of OE gāra or ME gōr(e), “triangular piece of land”, which is a pretty accurate description of its 1773 shape.
As if coming across The Berries wasn’t enough cause for excitement, a second field-name in Gills’ estate lists lends valuable support to a suggestion I made at the start of the year about Middle English *purtok, *portuk, a dialect term which seems to have been used in field-name coinages locally. The name is ‘Bean puttick’, and it appears in the manuscript twice on the same page. Located towards the foot of the river cliff to the north of The Berries, it is classified as coppice in 1773 and is now mature woodland (through which a public footpath runs, in case I’ve inspired you to pay Eashing a visit).
I don’t think too much should be read into the initial of the second element not being capitalised, since the same page features ‘Acre field’, ‘Hill field’ and ‘Mill moor’; if anything this hints at ‘puttick’ being a commonplace in the local agricultural vernacular. Judging by the preceding element, legumes were cultivated here before the 1770s. It would be interesting to discover if the field-name was recorded in earlier (ideally medieval) sources, which might reinforce the idea of a *purtok, *portuk being an enclosure sat upon less-than-great soils, made in the later thirteenth or early fourteenth century when there was demographic and economic pressures for new land to be brought into cultivation.
Identifying any forms of The Berries and Bean puttick in the mid-nineenth-century tithe award for Godalming (of which Eashing was a tithing) would be a considerably easier task, one that would certainly help to provide more clarity around the etymologies I have suggested above. For the time being, the case first set out by Aldsworth and Hill for locating the burh of Eashing on a promontory site between the two hamlets which now bear the name does seem to have a significant new piece of toponymical evidence in its favour.
Aldsworth, Fred, & David Hill, ‘The Burghal Hidage-Eashing’, Surrey Archaeological Collections [SyAC], 68 (1971), 198-201
Gower, Marion, ‘The Late Saxon Burh at Eashing’, SyAC, 74 (1983), 225-26
Parsons, David N., and Tania Styles, The Vocabulary of English Place-Names (Brace-Cæster) (Nottingham: Centre for English Name Studies, 2000)