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Late A S Urban Growth Essay

History Notes > Anglo-Saxon History (Britain c. AD400-1100) Notes

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What factors promoted urban growth in the late Anglo-Saxon period?
A permanent and concentrated non-agricultural settlement, supported by agricultural production located elsewhere and maintaining a sense of social separateness from the countryside: this definition of a town offered by Susan Reynolds in 1977 hints at the complexity of the urban landscape that might have existed in England during the AngloSaxon period. Urbanisation was by no means a new or unknown phenomenon in England in the later part of the period: apart from the inescapable spectre of Roman settlement in Britain, the period up to the eighth century had seen the growth of 'ports' and 'wics' on the south and south-east coast, supported economically not by local production but by the growing trade with western Europe, and especially Frisia, for prestige goods used by the aristocracy. These emporia were largely abandoned in the early ninth century, however, probably as a result of Viking raiders disrupting the trade routes on which they relied. The emergence of settlements that were more than trading posts was a matter for the late Anglo-Saxon period: historiography in the last halfcentury has generally painted the picture of the emergence of towns as a lengthy and disjointed process, spanning several centuries, and encompassing the development, not always in equal measure, of the administrative, economic and social functions that were to define urban settlement in the later medieval period. Although the causes of this development were diverse and varied according to time and region, from the ninth century onwards it is possible to identify three underlying trends: first, the growth of royal authority, leading to the consolidation of the apparatus of state power within local centres; second, the expansion of the economy and productive capacity, both within England and throughout Western Europe, which increased demand and facilitated exchange; and third, the increasing power of religious institutions and the building-up in particular of monastic sites. In addition to these, military threat, and especially the realities of Scandinavian invasion and settlement from the eighth century provided a more transient impetus to the creation of fortified sites across England. Urbanisation has been described as a product of political unification, towns being necessary bastions of royal control in kingdoms of increasing size and diversity. Larger polities had begun to emerge in the seventh century, with the disappearance as political entities of the smaller Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, however it was Alfred's ninth century reign, according to Hodges, that made acute the need for centralised centres of authority. West Saxon expansion under Alfred, Edward the Elder and Athelstan resulted in an Anglo-Saxon polity that was not only of unprecedented size, but also encompassed areas of Scandinavian settlement requiring political and social integration. Furthermore, all of these rulers went some way towards aggrandising the concept of kingship itself, their respective self-styling as 'king of the Anglo-Saxons', 'king of the English', and 'king of all Britain' speaking for itself. That we cannot dismiss these titles as empty propaganda or the product of vanity is evident from an examination of the law codes of the period, which see kings also apparently taking on increased responsibility for the maintenance of good order amongst the people: Athelstan's Grately code imposes punishments for thieves, and insists on proper controls on trade, particularly on the witnessing of significant transactions by a royal official - tellingly, this is to take place only at 'towns'. It would be possible to argue, because previous law codes had unambiguously stated that 'all
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