A Hundred Walks

No, not 100 walks, but walks across, around and through an English hundred. This is something I began last summer, source of the flower photos I posted (see also The Confusing Case of the Norman Arches), and intend to resume this year. In fact, I have already begun (see Tipping a Wink at Whitlingham and this walk—From Poringland to Venta Icenorum via Arminghall Woods as in map below). The hundred in question is Henstead.


A hundred, in the sense intended here, is as Wiki puts it, ‘an administrative division, geographically part of a larger region.’

In a country’s administrative hierarchy so . . . Country [or State], County [or Shire], Hundred, Parish. Or at least that’s how it runs in England.

But the hundred can also be found in Wales and parts of the United States and Australia (whence it arrived with English immigrants) as well as in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Southern Schleswig, Finland and Estonia—it would seem there has been a certain amount of borrowing and importation.

But did the English take the word and its administrative meaning from the Scandinavian Norse and Danes who first marauded as Vikings and then settled as migrants in Britain’s eastern parts?

We might be forgiven for thinking so, for the word’s first appearance in the written record, with relevant meaning, dates to the post-Viking period, i.e. in the laws of King Edmund I (939-46) where the ‘hundred court’ is also mentioned.

Yet the hundred as an administrative unit doesn’t appear in the written records of the Scandinavian countries until 1085 (in a gift letter of Cnut the Holy). Of course, that’s not enough to deter the utterly determined. After all, fire, flood or civil unrest could have destroyed the relevant records. But I think not.

It would seem that the borrowing, if borrowing there was, was from west to east, from England to Scandinavia. And if that’s the case, then it can probably be found in the hands of Cnut the Great, King of England, Denmark and Norway, 1016-1035.

But if England didn’t have it from the marauding Vikings and Danes, whence came it? Or was it the indigenous and ingenious invention of an unnamed clerk in the court of King Edmund?

Origins and Meaning of the Hundred

Its source might be easier traced if first we understand the original meaning of this much borrowed term.

Clearly in its founding years the term a hundred referred to one hundred ‘somethings’. But here the historians lock horns in hot dispute. Was the original meaning ‘one hundred hides’ (where a hide denoted the total land required for the upkeep of one man and his family where his ‘family’ included his entire entourage—toadies, huscarls, priests, clerks, servants, slaves, and don’t forget the missus)? Or was it, rather, one hundred warriors—by which one might mean the respected and much-eared leaders of war-bands? Or could it merely denote one hundred all purpose fighting men?

Oh, and let’s not confuse the issue by pointing out that to the Germanic peoples (Anglo-Saxons, Danes, Norse etc) ‘one hundred’ didn’t actually mean 100. But 120!

Mentioning Germanics . . . oddly, or not, the Roman writer Tacitus writing his Germania circa CE 98 described the traditional Germanic system of the centeni, i.e. the hundred.

Chapter 6: Arms Military Manoeuvres and Discipline.

Their number is fixed – a hundred from each district; and from this they take their name among their countrymen, so that what was originally a mere number has now become a title of distinction.

Well that explains everything.

An Anglo-Saxon hundred was a district sufficient in size to provide 100 [or 120] fighting men in times of need. Or at least, that’s what it was when it arrived in England ca. CE 450.

It wasn’t a system invented out of somebody’s head in the tenth century. It had been in use in England since before England was England.

Perhaps the same can be said of the Scandinavian countries? Although there it was mostly superseded by the term herred, a ‘crowd following’ in literal translation—as it was likewise replaced in England when the Local Government Act of 1894 introduced the system of ‘districts’.

Henstead Hundred

Henstead Hundred’s northern boundary ran along the River Yare, from Whitlingham and Trowse eastward to Surlingham and Rockland. Its western boundary was along the River Tas from Trowse to Saxlingham Thorpe and Nethergate passing by Venta Icenorum. To the east the hundred extended to Alpington, Yelverton and Howe. Howe was later assigned to Clavering Hundred despite it doesn’t even abut.

In studying Domesday Book I discovered the Henstead parishes fall into three groups, in 1086 each group paying 1 mark to the pound of geld.

  1. Saxlingham (Thorpe and Nethergate), Grensvill (hamlet, now lost), Shotesham, Stoke Holy Cross and Caistor St Edmund
  2. Poringland, Howe. Arminghall, Bixley, Framlingham (Pigot and Earl), Trowse-cum-Newton, and Whitlingham
  3. Kirby Bedon, Bramerton, Surlingham, Holverston, Rockland, Yelverton and Alpington.

In my walks I shall not keep strictly to these groupings.

The Moot Hill

An interesting fact about the hundreds is that they tended to be named for their ‘meeting place’, the moot hill—which may or may not have coincided with the location of the later hundred court. And so we see in Forehoe Hundred, the ‘moot hill’ was the ‘four hoes’ (barrows) at Carlton Forehoe. At nearby Humbleyard Hundred, the ‘moot hill’ was at a place called ‘humbleyard’ just east of Swardeston.

But what of Henstead Hundred?

The name ‘Henstead’ is formed on hen and stead. No prizes for guessing that stead means ‘place’. But what of hen?

My dictionary—which isn’t the Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Dictionary but you can check it against that, online—tells me that heanis = ‘height’, while hean, heanne, from heah = ‘high’, ‘aloft’. So, Henstead, the High Place.

And where might we find this ‘High Place’ in the hundred of Henstead?

To quote from the Norfolk Heritage Explorer site (run by Norfolk County Council):

It is recorded that a site referred to as ‘Modberge’ is known to have existed in the parish of Stoke Holy Cross, and was a barrow used as a moot hill for the Hundred of Henstead. The exact location of this site is unknown.

Tithe map gives no comparable name in parish.

My guess is that ‘Modberge’ was sited towards the eastern bounds of Stoke Holy Cross, what today is better known as Upper Stoke. Here, in an area measuring fractions of a square mile, is found the joining of no less than six of Henstead’s parishes: Framingham (Earl and Pigot counted as one), Poringland, Arminghall, Bixley, Caister St Edmund and Stoke Holy Cross.) See map above

Here the land rises to over 70 meters above sea level (hey, don’t scoff, this is high in the flat-ish county of Norfolk; second only to that glacial deposit, the North Norfolk Ridge)

It was here, on 14th February, that I began my walk. And the first thing encountered was the massively tall stepped radio mast, a piercing landmark visible even through the clutter that’s the southeastern outskirts of Norwich.

RAF Stoke Holy Cross

Between 1937 and 1939 the Ministry of Defence erected eight radio towers as part of its Chain Home project—the codename for a ring of coastal Early Warning radar stations built by the Royal Air Force before and during the Second World War to detect and track aircraft. At RAF Stoke Holy Cross there were four wooden receiving towers and four steel sending towers.

Radar Towers at Stoke Holy Cross

Radar Towers at Stoke Holy Cross . . . photo kindly loaned me by joemasonspage.wordpress

(Joe Mason’s blog is worth a visit, not only for firsthand information about RAF Stoke Holy Cross, but also for his memories of the region)

While the four towers built of wood were demolished when the station closed in 1956, two of the steel towers were pressed into other uses—to carry police messages, British Telecom radio communications and to relay the Anglia TV signal.

MOD Radio Mast at SHX

MOD Radio Mast at Upper Stoke/Poringland

BT Radio mast at Upper Stoke/Poringland

BT Radio mast at Upper Stoke/Poringland, easily seen on the skyline immediately upon leaving Norwich on A140 to Ipswich

While the radio towers occupy Henstead’s ‘high place’, and offer a reminder of WWII’s place in the development of modern technology, a reminder of the hundred’s pre-Anglo-Saxon administrative history sits at its ‘low place’.

Arminghall Woods

Descending into a shallow valley I then had to decide whether to keep to the roads or to go cross country. The footpath looked dry. Deceptive. Water lay deeply hidden amongst the grasses. Squelching through the slippery grasses I climbed back out of the valley, over the road, onto a extremely churned and muddy footpath—and descended again, passing by some gnarly old trees.

Gnarly Tree 14 Feb 2017

A gnarly old tree on the way to Arminghall

Again, uphilling, and skirting a field of inquisitive sheep, I made their acquaintance.

Sheep near Armighall

Well, at least one of us is keeping warm in her woolly winter coat

And soon came to Arminghall Woods where I encountered several characterful trees.

Characterful tree at Arminghall

A characterful tree at Arminghall Woods. I think he’s smiling.

A surprisingly mudless track runs alongside it.

Backhall Lane, Arminghall

Backhall Lane as it nudges around Arminghall Woods

This track used to be a vehicular lane from Arminghall to Caistor St Edmunds. It’s now a footpath that soon disappears into a field—where the weeks of winter rain combined with the free-range pigs upon the hill created a sloppy mud that more resembled slurry. Having done my best to clean that off my shoes, I headed off to Venta Icenorum. But I took the long route, which took me uphill again.

Hilly Henstead

Hilly Henstead . . . and the sun beams down

And then, again, I had to come down . . .

Tas Valley

Looking across to the Tas Valley with the mist-shrouded power-lines and railway beyond

Venta Icenorum

Map venta-icenorum-walk-1

Venta Icenorum as seen on Ordnance Survey map of 1881

The ‘market-place of the Eceni’, serving as the Roman administrative centre for Norfolk, north Suffolk and eastern Cambridgeshire—i.e. the former lands of Queen Boudica’s Iron Age tribe, the Eceni/Iceni—Venta Icenorum was founded during the CE 60s, after Boudica’s rebellion of CE 61.

Moreover, it began life not as a town, but as a military centre; perhaps one reason it never really ‘took off’ in the way of other Roman centres. The gridiron of roads were laid in preparation, yet in the infilling remained sparse at best. However, during its later life as a civilian centre, it was equipped with all the usual Roman niceties: a forum, basilica and public baths. True, at first all buildings at Venta Icenorum were built of wood. But by the time of Emperor Hadrian (CE 117-38) some stone buildings did appear. The town even had the luxury of running water, brought in by aqueduct, probably from the high land to the west (Henstead’s ‘high place’). Wooden water pipes and drains were found during excavation and survey work.

Venta Icenorum

‘Venta Icenorum’

Map: Norfolk Archeaological Trust

Beyond the walls were other Roman novelties. Several temples to the Romanised versions of the Celtic gods (or should that be the British versions of the Roman gods?). An oval outline identified on aerial photographs may have been an amphitheatre. Though it may have served as a military facility, for exercising and training.

North wall Venta Icenorum

Atop the north wall at Venta Icenorum

The defensive walls and ditches—origin of the Anglo-Saxon place-name ‘Caistor’, a castle—are a remarkable survival from this period, possible only because, as with Silchester (Hants) and Wroxeter (Shropshire), Venta Icenorum did not become the foundation of a later town. However, they have been heavily ‘quarried’ for building material and roadstone. Dating to mid-through-late third century CE, they were raised in response to the increasing raids by Germanic peoples. Originally, tower-like bastions were attached to the outside of the walls at regular intervals—as can be seen at Burgh Castle.

Bastion at Burgh Castle

A bastion at Burgh Castle. Photo taken October 2014

Enter the Anglo-Saxons

Anyone with an interest in Late Romano-Early Anglo-Saxon Period in England will know the date 410 CE, when Emperor Honorius withdrew his Roman forces. But that was merely the final shutting of the gate. Roman authority and Roman influence had been waning since the 340s CE. A new power was in the ascendancy, and like the hydra it, too, had a ‘hundred’ heads. Now at least one of those ‘hundreds’ settled around the old Roman town—around it, not in it.

Evidence of two large Early Saxon cemeteries have been found exceedingly close to the town. Dating to the fifth and sixth centuries, they are amongst the earliest definitive evidence of the incoming Germanic peoples. Nearby, a group of sub-rectangular pits, believed to be the Saxon sunken floored buildings or grubenhauser, typical of the early years of settlement.

But evidence of their early settlement in this corner of England isn’t restricted to the Venta Icenorum environs. Other early Saxon cremation and inhumation cemeteries have been found at nearby Howe, Framingham (Earl-Pigot), Stoke Holy Cross and Alpington—all within the Henstead Hundred.

What attracted these Germanic incomers to this particular corner of the former Roman colony—apart from accessibility (the Tas gives onto the Yare, the Yare gives onto the North Sea)?

They were drawn by the same features that drew the Iron Age Celts, the same considerations that persuaded the Roman authorities to site Venta Icenorum along a small tributary, the Tas, instead of alongside the much bigger River Yare.

This corner of Britain, which soon would be tagged with the name of Henstead, was a sacred landscape with a history as ancient as the human occupation of Britain itself.

Skipping over the more ephemeral remains of the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic, there is an abundance of Bronze Age round-barrows, some laid out in linear cemeteries, in the Henstead parishes of Saxlingham, Stoke Holy Cross, Caistor St Edmunds, Bixley & Arminghall, and Howe. There are mortuary enclosures and long barrows from the Neolithic. And a henge at Arminghall (alas, not much to be seen by today’s visitor)

As an area rich in sacred sites it stands as equal to Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire. But unlike that southern chalkland, Henstead was, and is, a fertile region inviting the plough. Those remains that elsewhere stand above ground in proud display, here reveal themselves only to C21st technology. But that wouldn’t have been so for our ancestors, Celtic, Roman, and Saxon.

About crispina kemp

Spinner of Asaric and Mythic tales
This entry was posted in History, Photos and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to A Hundred Walks

  1. Brian Bixby says:

    [End multi-task: now on “Hundred Walk.]
    I’m envious: a Roman ruin. And the countryside.

    Liked by 1 person

    • crimsonprose says:

      Yea, such a shame we couldn’t get out to Burgh Castle while you were here. And to make you really envious of course, there’s also Roman ruins at Caister-on-Sea (next to GY). Here the footings for the barrack remain as well as (minimal) walls.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Judy says:

    Yeah I really like these images!! I love stoney ruins of all kinds most anywhere!! Kind of enjoy that sheep checking you out too!! Most animals are really more curious than dangerous.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: A Hundred Walks — crimsonprose | Wiltshire Local History Forum

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