Byriġ: The Early Medieval Anglo-Saxon Fortified Settlements

The Byrig (singular form in Old English: Burh/Burg; pronunciation: [‘burx]) were a series of Anglo-Saxon fortified settlements of the 9th century built as defensive strongholds against the incursions of the Norsemen (mainly Danish Vikings) who had been recurrently raiding and plundering the Anglian kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia. The vast majority of these early medieval forts were built during King Alfred the Great’s reign, according to the Anglo-Saxon chronicle and another Anglo-Saxon document known as the Burghal Hidage.

Artist’s impression of an early medieval Anglo-Saxon fortress known as ‘burh’. Image source:

Some of these were constructed from scratch, others were erected on the site of former Iron Age circular hill forts or Roman era castra. Many of them were strategically placed on the course of some rivers. The aim of these fortresses was to prevent further inward invasions on behalf of various Norse war bands embarked on longships.

It is also important to mention the fact that aside from their military scope, the byrig were also used as regional trade centres, with some of them even minting coins. Their walls were either made of timber or stone (partly based on previous Roman walls in several cases). Several riverside fortifications of this sort eventually achieved urban status during the High Middle Ages.

Below are listed several noteworthy byrig:

  • Oxford, Oxfordshire (built entirely by Anglo-Saxons);
  • Wallingford, Oxfordshire (built entirely by Anglo-Saxons);
  • Crikdale, Wiltshire (built entirely by Anglo-Saxons);
  • Wareham, Dorset (built entirely by Anglo-Saxons);
  • Winchester, Hampshire (based on a previous Roman fort);
  • Exeter, Devon (based on a previous Roman fort);
  • York, North Yorkshire (based on a previous Roman fort);
  • Burgh Castle, Norfolk (based on a previous Roman fort);
  • Portchester, Portsmouth, Hampshire (based on a previous Roman fort);
  • Dover, Kent (based on a previous Roman fort).

Engraving dating to the 19th century depicting the walls of Burgh Castle, Norfolk, England. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Subsequently, the term ‘burh’ evolved as part of such toponyms ending in ‘-bourough’, ‘-berry’/’-bury’, or ‘-burg’. Furthermore, in Old English the term ‘burh’ was cognate with the German ‘burg’ and the North Germanic ‘borg’. The following brief video presentation below explains why the byrig were built in England throughout the Viking Age.

Documentation sources and external links:

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