Burh was originally an Old English name for a fortified dwelling place belonging to a king or noble, it could also be the term for a prehistoric fort.
In the 9th century, raids and invasions by Vikings, prompted Alfred the Great to develop the use of burhs as strongpoints that could be used against an attacker. They could be constructed from scratch, but more often were situated at the site of Iron Age hill forts or old Roman towns where the fortifications could be rebuilt and strengthened. Many were situated on rivers with the intention of stopping an attacker from advancing into the interior of the kingdom.
Although primarily for defence larger burhs had a secondary role as commercial and perhaps administrative centres. They were also a place where the kings moneyers could mint coins for the kingdom.
Many modern boroughs and place names containing ~bury derive their origins from the medieval burh.
The burhs origin was in military defence. According to H. R. Loyn, the burh "represented only a stage, though a vitally important one, in the evolution of the medieval English borough and of the medieval town". The boundaries of ancient burhs can often still be traced to modern urban borough limits. Most of these were founded by Alfred the Great in a consciously planned policy that was continued under his son Edward the Elder and his daughter, Æthelflæd, the 'Lady of the Mercians', and her husband Æthelred, Ealdorman of Mercia. The Mercian Register tells of the building of ten burhs by Æthelflæd, some as important as Tamworth and Stafford, others now unidentifiable.
Some were based upon pre-existing Roman structures, some newly built, though others may have been built at a later date. Æthelstan granted these burhs the right to mint coinage and in the tenth and eleventh centuries the firm rule was that no coin was to be struck outside a burh.
A tenth-century document, now known as the Burghal Hidage so named by Frederic William Maitland in 1897, cites thirty burhs in Wessex and three in Mercia. At the time Mercia was ruled by the West Saxon kings. These burhs were all built to defend the region against Viking raids.
Only eight of the burhs achieved municipal status in the Middle Ages: Chester, Bridgnorth, Tamworth, Stafford, Hertford, Warwick, Buckingham and Maldon. The largest were at Winchester, Wallingford and Warwick, whilst Wallingford and Wareham are the best-preserved examples, with substantial ditches and banks still visible. It has been estimated that construction of Wallingford's 9,000 feet (2,700 m) of bank would have taken more than 120,000 man hours. Burh towns also usually had regular street layouts, some of which are also preserved.
The burhs were made in a variety of different ways, depending on materials available locally, and the size of the settlement or area it was intended to defend.
Frequently, a burh was built on the site of pre-existing fortifications. Sometimes, the Anglo-Saxons would simply repair old roman walls in towns such as Winchester, Exeter, York, Burgh Castle, Portchester and Dover. At other times, they would build on the site of old Iron Age forts, such as Dover, utilising the old ditches and ramparts.
However, the Anglo-Saxons did not just use old fortifications. Many of the burhs built by the Saxons were entirely new fortified sites, built on strategic sites on the coast, near ports or overlooking roads and trade routes. Substantial new towns were built on flat land with a rectangular layout, at for example Oxford, Wallingford, Cricklade and Wareham.
Traditionally, burhs were constructed first with a massive series of banks fronted by a ditch. The bank would typically be timber faced and timber revetted. This was then topped by a wooden palisade of stakes, up to 10 feet (3.0 m) high, with a walkway. At towns such as Tamworth, the ramparts would decay and push outwards over time, meaning that the ditch and bank would deteriorate. To solve this, Anglo-Saxon builders faced banks with stone, thus further reinforcing the defences and improving their life span.
The purpose of the burhs was primarily to provide defence for a port or town, and the surrounding farms, villages and hamlets. According to the Anglo-Saxon chronicle, Alfred constructed a series of burhs, listed in the Burghal Hidage numbering over 30. Apparently, it was Alfred's intention that no English farm or village be any more than 20 miles (32 km) away from a burh. Alfred built this new system of forts and fortified towns to safeguard the local population from Viking raids, and to prevent the Vikings from seizing strategically important towns and ports.
Alfred also built them as economic centres, safe havens in which trade and production could take place. Armouries, blacksmiths, royal mints and trading posts were all located within the burh. These burhs were also fortified towns, and are widely thought to have been the origins of urban life in England. They were also used as supply depot for the Saxon army when it was in the field, thus ensuring that the Anglo-Saxon troops had a continual supply of weapons, fresh horses and food.
- Loyn, Anglo-Saxon England and the Norman Conquest, 2nd ed. 1991:138.
- Loyn 1991:138.
- Loyn 1991:137f.
- Hill/ Rumble. The Defence of Wessex. p. 1
- Loyd 1991:139f, noting Tait
- Welch. Anglo-Saxon England. pp. 125-131
- Lapidge. Anglo-Saxon England. p. 191
- Hill, David; Rumble, Alexander R., eds. (1996). The Defence of Wessex: The Burghal Hidage and Anglo-Saxon Fortifications. Manchester: Manchester University Press. ISBN 0-719-03218-0.
- Lapidge, Michael Ed.; John Blair, Simon Keynes, Donald Scragg (2001). The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England. London: Blackwell. ISBN 0-631-22492-0.
- Loyn, H.R (1991). Anglo-Saxon England and the Norman Conquest. Harlow, Esssex: Longman Group. ISBN 0-582-07297-2.
- Welch, Martin (1992). Anglo-Saxon England. London: English Heritage. ISBN 0-7134-6566-2.