Ewan J. Innes, MA(Hons Scot. Hist.) FSA Scot
Synopsis: This essay describes the origins and development of the shire, thane, sheriff and sheriffdom in Scotland in the early middle ages.
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Detailing the origins and development of the shire, the thane, the
sheriff, and the sheriffdom in Scotland from their earliest instances into the beginning
of the thirteenth century is a difficult task due to the unclear nature of much of the
evidence. While work has been done on the thane and the thanage and to a lesser extent the
shire, little is known in depth about the early sheriff and sheriffdoms beyond the names
of the early sheriffs and their sheriffdoms. The aim here is to try and bring together the
evidence relating to the various institutions, and see where and why they developed in
Scotland. To understand the ultimate development in Scotland of these institutions, we
have to look to their origins in England and in particular the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of
Wessex and Mercia.
By the beginning of the eleventh century, England south of the Tees had
been divided into shires, each of which formed a unit in the national administrative
system. Except where Danish influences still prevailed, each shire was divided into
smaller units called hundreds, for the setting of taxation, the maintenance of peace and
order and the settlement of local pleas (see map I). This system had originated in the
kingdom of Wessex, which by the end of the eighth century had been divided into shires.
These shires were organised in dependence upon a particular town or royal estate which was
defensible, and from which the name derived.1
A corresponding system is not known to exist in the independent kingdom
of Mercia. The Mercian evidence points to a later introduction of the Wessex system there,
with the the eastern half having shires representing the areas controlled by individual
Danish armies between which it had been divided, with subdivisions known as wapentakes
(vápnatak), while the western half operated a system similar to Wessex, which was in
existence by 980, although whether imposed during the reigns of Edward the Elder or his
grandson Edgar the Elder is open to question.
The dominance of Wessex made the establishment of a uniform pattern of
local administration throughout southern England possible generally without respect for
ancient divisions. The midland shires in particular, have an air of artificiality about
them. Many of these shires were formed by dividing lands long held by different tribes.
Shropshire, for example, was formed from the lands of the Magonsćtan and the
Wreocensćtan. Warwickshire represented the eastern part of the Hwicce kingdom and the
Mercian lands south of the Arden. That these divisions occurred bears witness to a strong
king indifferent to local tradition. It was Stentons opinion that Edward the Elder
was the most probable candidate for the creation of the midland shires.2
With the gradual unification of England, the shire system spread north.
The establishment of Yorkshire, the largest and last shire, brought the advance to a halt
and a north/south split in systems with England south of the Tees divided into shires
while the counties north of the Tees, Durham, Northumberland, Westmorland, Cumberland and
the northern part of Lancashire contained no hundreds, wapentakes or shires of the
While the recorded history of most of the manorial estates of southern
and western England does not begin until after 1066, we can infer from what we know that
their character had not changed much in the century or so before the conquest. The custom
of granting land out by kings or other great nobles to their household and in particular
the retainer of noble birth - the thegn - as a reward for service was of long standing by
the time of the conquest and had resulted in the creation of the first private lordships.
The position of thane originates in the society of Anglo-Saxon England.
In the seventh century, the holder of this position was known as a gesith,
literally the kings companion, with a rank above that of the peasant or ceorl, and with a
wereguild of 1,200 shillings. The later change in name did not mean an alteration in
status or in the relationship to the lord, with the wereguild remaining at 1,200
shillings, and with the rank becoming hereditary.
By 1066, many of the thegn holdings had been subdivided amongst sons
into a number of very small holdings, held as manors by thegns who were by
this stage little better off than peasants. On the other hand there were other thegns with
estates valued at five hides, and with specific duties in the kings household and with
particular assets on the land.3 While
many important followers of William were not well endowed, many of Edwards thegns
were still holding inherited estates some indeed holding land on a large scale in many
The thegn was important in Anglo-Saxon society for the role they played
in government. The word thegn originally meant one who serves another,
which like the meaning of gesith, marked a personal rather than social
relationship, the standing of a thegn was based more on who his lord was than anything
else. The leading thegns serving the king himself. These thegns attended court and would
fill its offices in rotation. They kept the king in touch with the goings on in the
country and could be used for many functions should the king desire it.4
The kings thegns were a very important and wealthy class5 as were the thegns of the great earls. These
thegns were seen as vitally important in any political crisis as evidenced by a measure of
Edward the Confessor where the thegns of earl Godwine were to find surety that they would
become the kings own men.6 Thegns
of the king were also allowed to have thegns of their own, and evidence from the Doomsday
book shows that there were also considerable numbers of these lesser thegns with small
holdings. While they might be on a par economically with the peasantry, these thegns were
sharply distinguished socially from even the highest ranks of the peasantry.
That there were two types of thegn is brought out by the Doomsday book,
here were detailed the tenant thegns of both ecclesiastical and lay magnates. They were
however, probably outnumbered by thegns holding inherited land and owing service to
magnates of their own choice. There were many thegns who were declared incapable of either
giving or selling their land without the leave of their lord, while there were others
accorded the right of alienation. It appears that the thegn who could alienate his land
had come to it through inheritance and had placed himself under a lord; while those with
inalienable land had come to it through a gift by a lord.
That many thegns and free men were willing to give themselves to a lord
shows the changing structure of English society even before the conquest. The accumulation
of estates by a small number of powerful families had reduced the role of the lesser
thegns and also widened the gap between the richer and poorer branches of this class. The
new relationship was purely one of personal arrangement in many different forms. Moreover,
there was nothing to stop a man from linking himself with more than one man.7
Turning to government, we can see that public authority in secular
government in the generation or so before the conquest was derived ultimately from the
crown. The earls who filled the political stage were officers of the kings
appointment, although despite this, many of the great houses had risen in power, through
inheritance, to a position which was almost invulnerable to action by the king. Although a
revolt within an earldom or by its holder could enable the king to demonstrate that the
earl was in his position by royal grant.
Within the shires, the earl possessed an authority and influence which
put him above even great local magnates. By virtue of his office, he was entitled to lead
the shire militia and it was also expected that both he and the diocesan bishop would sit
as joint presidents of the shire court, where they were generally addressed by name in
royal writs. The earls fundamental duty was to be the kings representative in
the region under his control, a political rather than an administrative function.
The century before the conquest saw a huge expansion in the provincial
government, and the corresponding increase in the political importance of their holders.
National politics between the accession of King Ćthelred and the death of King Edward
tended to detach the earl from the district under his charge. This meant that a new
officer was required in local government, one who would be more familiar to to individual
landowners than either the ealdorman or the earl had been. This position was filled by the
appointment in each shire of a reeve -the scir gerefa- who was chosen by the king
and responsible to him alone for the administration of local finance, the execution of
justice and the maintenance of the custom which governed the shire (see map II).
It was probably as the guardian of the kings interests that the
sheriff first came to prominence on the shire court. As the financial representative of
the king, he was directly concerned with the collection of the profits of justice, and due
to the relationship between the king and sheriff, his opinion must have had weight when he
spoke in pleas. He would, in the absence of the earl, have a good claim for the joint
presidency of the court, and owing to the probable irregular attendance of the greater
earls would probably have transacted much of the business of the shire court.
We have seen thus far the situation as existed in the south and midlands
of England, we must now look at what was happening in the north of England to get a full
picture from which to judge the development of the various institutions in Scotland. The
situation in the north of England has many parallels for our study of the Scottish
institutions, however understanding society in the north of England is fraught with
The evidence of the Doomsday book is in many areas inadequate as it did
not cover several of the the northern shires and, in those that it did deal with, the
evidence is sketchy. The evidence, as it exists, has been the subject of study both by
local historians and also the more scholarly heavyweights such as Maitland, Jolliffe and
Stenton, in more recent years, Barrow and Roffe have added their weight to the study.
Much of the attention of these historians was taken up with the survival
of institutions after the conquest. Maitland was the first to look at the situation,
although his arguments are not completely accepted. Stenton had, in his look at the
manorial structure of the Northern Danelaw,8 opened up the study of Northumbrian society through his idea of the Yorkshire
moat. Henceforth, Northumbria did not have to be studied in conjunction with the Yorkshire
Domesday records and Yorkshire did not have to be studied in relation to the north and
west. Stenton thus enabled the study of Northumbrian institutions to get underway without
the problems of squaring evidence to Domesday.
Jolliffe took advantage of this and it is to him that we must look for
the first clear picture of northern society. Jolliffes main précis was that the
manor did not exist in Northumbria and Lancashire prior to the conquest,9 the vill being the basis for northern society.
Jolliffe had argued, after an investigation of the obligations borne by the peasants, that
desmesne cultivation was impossible due to the nature of the obligations. On the eastern
coast the main obligation was in renders of grain, malt, and chickens for feasts, pannage
and cornage. These services were classed as forinsec as they were not to a desmesne or
manor house but to a lords hall. Jolliffe called an area where a group of vills
supported a central desmesne with labour services and formed a jurisdictional unit a
"shire" and argued that this system was general throughout the old Northumbrian
kingdom in 1066 except for the areas of Yorkshire destroyed by the Danes.10
Ultimately, Jolliffe, based on his comparison with Welsh and
Northumbrian customs, was to conclude that the Northumbrian institutions had been
influenced by the Celts.11 To bring the
early evidence in line with later material on the shire, Jolliffe combined these Celtic
influences with the notion that the Normans had truncated the original shires after 1066.12
The similarities between Scottish and Northumbrian society have been
brought out by Barrow in various articles.13 He showed that not only in Lothian and the Merse -where we would expect to find
Northumbrian similarities- were there similarities, but in west Lothian, eastern Stirling,
and generally up the east coast, thanes constituted the native nobility below the earls,
holding land called shires in fee-farm from the king.14
The revenues which the king of Scots had the right to collect tended to
support this case, with their parallels in Wales and the North of England. Throughout
Scotia and the lands of the defunct kingdom of Strathclyde, the king received cain either
every year or once every couple of years. This consisted of cows, pigs and cheese in the
west and Barrow drew a comparison to the Northumbrian cornage. Also, the king of Scots
collected coneveth, consisting of feasts owed to the king by the populace, similar to the
feasts owed by the bondage vills in Northumbrian and Lothian under the name of waiting. By
proposing a link between the cain and coneveth of the king of Scots, the cornage and
waiting of the king of England, the commorth and gwestfa of the Welsh
Princes and the pecunia and acconeuez of the king of Man, Barrow was
suggesting a common system of extensive royal lordship, by implication from Scotia to
There is doubt about this for two reasons. Firstly, the comparisons of
customs is extremely overgeneralised and ignores several key problems. There are important
differences between cain (principally grain) and cornage (cattle) and there was in fact a
parallel system of grain render in existence in Northumbria.16 Secondly, the comparisons between the areas are based on Jolliffe, if he was
wrong then the comparison could well be skewed. That is indeed what appears to be the
case. Jolliffe created an artificial, primitive, essentially frozen system with no
mechanism for change by forming his opinions working from the bottom of society up, in the
process, he missed out an important body of people, "the lords of the shire",
the men who actually held the shires.
In this case Kapelle may well be right that the one dimensional nature
of Jolliffe and later writers stemmed from Stentons idea of the Yorkshire moat.17 An idea which is as convenient as it is
artificial, allowing as it does Northumbrian historians to argue their case without
reference to the Yorkshire Domesday and Danelaw Historians to give Danish origins to any
institution without reference to the situation north of the Tees.
The question of the structure of society in the Danelaw has been touched
on earlier in this essay, a few more words are I feel necessary at this juncture to spell
out the situation and the ramifications which it has for studying the Scottish
institutions. The Yorkshire moat idea is based on the précis that Eastern England appears
to be different to the western Midlands and Wessex as described in Domesday, with in the
particular characteristic of the soke and the sokemen. Moreover, the Danish had a huge
impact on place-names, customary law and personal names in the Danelaw. The problem with
this is that there is no evidence what impact the Danes had in their areas before 1066.
So, even if eastern England appears different in 1066, we dont really know if this
area was distinctive in any way before the arrival of the Danes, especially as Northumbria
is not described in Domesday.18
Key then, is the degree to which the soke was a Danish creation or a
native institution which survived the Danish invasions. Sokes were essentially estates
consisting of a main village with dependent pieces of land called berewicks and sokelands.
The larger sokes covered wide areas and berewicks and sokelands could be either whole or
parts of a village. Clear parallels can be drawn between the soke and the Northumbrian
shire, yet they were not made because, according to Stenton, the soke was Danish. Stenton
believed in a widespread settlement of the men of large Danish armies as:
"It was almost inevitable that the rank and file of this army, who
are known to have kept their military organisation long after they had turned from war to
agriculture, should group themselves upon the soil under the leaders who had brought them
to England. There is every probability in a view which sees in such grouping the origin of
the sokes characteristic of the Danish shires."19
Domesday could therefore be taken at face value as describing a society
fundamentally altered by the Danish invasions, despite the lack of evidence.
This view was accepted by most people, including Jolliffe,20 although he was later to change his mind
concluding that sokes and Northumbrian shires were analogous institutions based on ancient
royal dues.21 Curiously, a view to be
subsequently ignored by most people. Recent work has tended to support the idea that the
territorial soke was either an Anglo-Saxon or Anglo-Celtic institution. Sawyer has shown
that the Danish armies numbered hundreds rather than thousands of men and also how they
could influence place-names and the law as the Danes did.22 Davis thought that the soke was probably much like the Northumbrian shires, the
Kentish lathes or Welsh commotes but blurred due to commutation of renders and royal
Using Daviss definition of soke, Barrow postulated that there was
no difference between the soke of East Anglia and those in the northern Danelaw.
Therefore, the Danes could not have created them as they represented localised examples of
a once common system throughout eastern England and Scotland.24 Clearly then, on recent evidence we should regard Northumbria and Yorkshire as
having similar institutions and can therefore make analogies between the two.
The Northumbrian shire therefore, was nothing more than the arbitrary
administrative district for the support of the Northumbrian kingdom.It acted as the
mechanism for the extraction, for the king, of food and later labour from the peasants.
Meanwhile, a similar system in origin operated below the Tees before replacement by either
hundreds or wapentakes.
To recap the evidence, we have seen that from Kent to Northumbria and
into Scotland, there was a common system of royal lordship based upon a unit of land known
variously as lathe, soke, shire and also manerium cum appendiciis25 which survived long enough into the eleventh
and twelfth centuries to be traceable. Associated with the management of the soke and
shire was a class of freemen also with a wide variety of descriptors including sokemen,
drengs and thegns.26 In Scottish
Northumbria, the free population were addressed as both thegns and drengs in the first
half of the twelfth century as were their counterparts in English Northumbria.27
Looking to Scotland then, it is possible, in the light of the English
evidence, for us to trace and examine the shires. Unsurprisingly, there is evidence of
shires in Scottish Northumbria and into Lothian. There is evidence that Tynninghame in
East Lothian was a shire by 1094. Shires were also based on Ecclesmachan (West Lothian),
Cadzow, Carluke and Renfrew and Mearns.28 In the southwest, the term shire was not used, although as we have seen there is
evidence of a system where tribute was brought to centres of power.
North of the Forth, a similar situation existed. When Alexander I died
in 1124, he founded a new chapel in Stirling endowing it with teinds from his desmesne in
the soke (also known as shire) of Stirling.29 Within the shire of Stirling were recorded tenants classified as hiredmen,
bonders, and gresmen- all familiar terms from the north of England.30 The shire of Stirling was later to become the basis of the later sheriffdom-
much as the other shires would do.
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