This is a Low

‘Hundreds’ were introduced by the Saxons as a form of local government, and so-called because each one was supposedly made up of enough land to sustain one hundred families (although if the land had to sustain families with sons who had an appetite like mine does, they’d have probably been called fifties). Often they took their name from the place where the men (inevitably?) of the hundred met to discuss local matters and to carry out judicial trials for petty crimes. This was often a local landmark, a little away from the madding crowd, where the business of the Hundred Court could be carried on undisturbed each month.

Here in Staffordshire, there are five hundreds (instinctively I want to say were, but they have never actually formally been abolished, although their significance dwindled to nothing during the 19th century). In the south of the county is Seisdon, its name said to derive from OE for ‘the hill of the Saxons‘, with a likely place for the moot suggested as  being Penn Hill.  Up in the north-west is Pirehill, taking its name from a landscape feature two miles south of Stone and 462 ft above sea level. Its name may refer to ME piren ‘to peer’, OE pirige ‘pear tree‘ or Latin ‘pyra’ bonfire/pyre. Totmonslow, up in the Moorlands, is thought to be named after a hill near to the present-day hamlet. The name appears to be made up of ‘tote’ relating to a watchman or look-out combined with the -hlaw suffix meaning a hill or burial mound to translate as something like ‘look-out hill’. Cuttlestone Hundred, with Penkridge at its centre, suggests that the meeting place here was marked by a significant, well, stone although all that now seems to carry the name is a bridge across the River Penk.

River Penk upstream at Cuttlestone Bridge
cc-by-sa/2.0 – © John M – geograph.org.uk/p/1443879

For now though, the locus on which I want to focus is Offlow, the hundred to which Lichfield belonged. In February 1937, Percy Laithwaite wrote an article for the Mercury in which he described how Offlow is marked on an ordnance survey map (and indeed Mark from the much missed Tamworth Time Hikes did a great cartography centred post around this), and is in a field near Swinfen by the old road from Lichfield to Birmingham, on the farm of Mr Percy Stubbs. He goes on to describe how there is little evidence of the hill to be seen but it is just traceable and blames a thousand years of agriculture for lowering the low to almost the same height of the field.

Never one to believe that there is nothing there until I have witnessed nothing with my own eyes, I went to have a look for myself.  I’m going to level with you, a further 81 years of agriculture have completely flattened it and yes, on face value, there is nothing there.

All that now seems to remain of Offlow is its name.  More on where that name may have come from in a moment but first, let’s join in Percy Laithwaite’s excitement at finding out the surrounding field also had a name.

While walking over that field some years ago with Mr Foden of Shenstone, I was considerably astonished, and not a little excited to learn that the field was known to him by the name of ‘Hundred Hill Field’. This is a most astonishing survival. Here is a name which has been preserved for possibly twelve centuries with its original form and meaning, and it still tells us that at this spot was the hill on which the local Hundred Moot held its council meetings

What about the name Offlow then? Well, the story behind that has turned into more of a saga. I was aware that there was a local tradition that it was the burial place of King Offa of Mercia (d. 796 AD) but until about two weeks ago, I was under the impression that this was impossible as King Offa of Mercia was definitely buried in a chapel just outside of Bedford.  The tradition of Offa’s Bedfordshire burial was recorded by Matthew Paris, a monk and chronicler of English history, writing in the 13th century. In it, Paris describes how the chapel where the king was buried was destroyed by the River Ouse and that there were claims from some who bathed in the river that from time to time they had seen Offa’s sarcophagus deep beneath the water, but Paris recorded that, despite it being sought with the greatest of diligence, like a thing of fate, it had never been found. On reflection, the evidence for Bedford is hardly water tight and given that Mathew Paris was responsible, at least in part, for the Lichfield ‘field of the dead’ and the massacre of Christian martyrs legend, I’m not sure he’s the most reliable source….

In his book, ‘In Search of the Dark Ages’, Michael Wood, the King of Anglo-Saxon history, admits that there is uncertainty over where King Offa was buried but that Bedford is the most likely possibility, although, ‘Why Bedford was chosen in a mystery’ (the early Christian kings Wulfhere and Ceolred had been buried at Lichfield itself, and by the 9th century, Repton was the preferred spot).

Whether it’s been lost to the river at Bedford, or to the plough at Swinfen, any physical evidence for Offa’s burial place appears to have disappeared.  I’ll leave whoever writes the Bedford Lore blog to dive into their side of things but I think until something tangible turns up, its a bit of a moot point whether our Offlow has any connection to the Mercian king. In the meantime, I don’t want us lose sight of the fact that what is not in doubt is that it was the place where our local hundred court met and as such, I think we should do it justice by valuing it as an important historical site in its own right, royal burial place or not*

*in my humble opinion, probably not 😉

Sources:

‘Lichfield: History to c.1500’, in A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 14, Lichfield, ed. M W Greenslade (London, 1990), pp. 4-14. British History Onlinehttp://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/staffs/vol14/pp4-14 [accessed 23 June 2018].

https://www.ucl.ac.uk/archaeology/research/projects/assembly/Checklist

‘A Survey and Analysis of the Place-Names of Staffordshire’ by David Horovitz

Lichfield Mercury Archive

The English Hundred Names Olof S Anderson

http://www.pastscape.org.uk/hob.aspx?hob_id=306519

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2 thoughts on “This is a Low

  1. Alfred the Greats great contribution to local government, as many became the basis for District and Borough councils…I wonder how close the hundred was to the Lichfield district council boundary or more interesting the old County which Lichfield was before the 1974 changes.

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  2. Hi Kate,
    Thank you for yet another excellent article. An old tale, not sure if it is true is that the ancient Kings of Mercia were buried on Borrowcop Hill near to where the gazebo is located. Never really found out the truth of whether this is correct or not, but a great local legend all the same.

    Not sure either about the burial place of “Offa”, but the class houses of the old Friary school were named after the Kings of Mercia.

    The legend the “field of the dead” is interesting. Saint Amphibalus was a cleric of Saint Alban. Amphibalus led a pilgrimage of Christians until they were martyred. I was led to believe that the burial of the martyrs was on the west side of Lichfield, not Christian fields. Amphibalus has a specific feast day. It is interesting to consider that the “Abnalls” Lane if reconfigured could be written “S Allban”. Again is this local rumour or significance??? Thank you.

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