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Dorset and its surrounding counties

DORSET COUNTY BOUNDARY SURVEY

An inter-disciplinary project looking at the county's ever evolving boundaries

The Old English shires of Wessex (counties to the Normans) were already well established by 1086 and were to remain unchanged until the revisions of the 19th century (SDNQ 1906) and 1974. The shiring of England was "a major feat of government ... an administrative system of formidable and integrated power ... notably systematic ... every shire was divided into hundreds or sub-units, retaining administrative, judicial, tax and even a military significance into the 19th century (Campbell, 1993). The office of Shire Reeve [sheriff] was already in existence by 1000, from OE scieran, "to cut". The shires of the old kingdom of Wessex appear in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in succession between 800 and 860 as units of resistance to the Danes. There are good reasons for supposing that all six shires may be a century or more older. We know that Kent, Sussex and Essex have their origins as one-time independent kingdoms.

The first reference to Dorset is for the year 845 when we read that "Dux Eanwulf with the Somerset men, and Bishop Ealhstan and Ealdorman Osric with the Dorset [Dornsaetum] men, fought against a Danish raiding-army at the mouth of the Parrett, and made great slaughter there and took the victory." In the 10th century we find Dorseteschyre and under the Norman administration, Dorsete and Dorsetscira.

Dorset is [literally] the saete, "inhabitants", of Duro- or Doro- country, that territory centred on Dorchester, the Roman-founded castra/ceaster of the indigenous Iron Age Durotriges. Its partner territory is Somerset --- this pair of shires straddle the peninsular --- "inhabitants of the summerlands"; hints here of seasonal exploitation of the moors and levels over the border; a territory administered well into historical times from Ilchester, Givelchester, the ceaster on the Ivel/Yeovil. Access to the heart of this pair of saete-named territories from the north was up the Parrett and from the south, up the Frome.

Thus the Dorset county boundary [pre-19th cent.] represents many miles of unexplored linear "landscape feature" of considerable topographical and archaeological significance on which, as yet, no systematic work has been undertaken. We know that the Dorset/Devon boundary at Lyme follows a course in existence by 774; that the natural watershed border with Somerset was adjusted --- probably by 670 --- in the setting up of a large episcopal estate at Sherborne; that the northern border limits Wiltshire's Selwudu and that the Hampshire bounds march with Bokerley Dyke.

Borderlands are "secondary" land to the economic geographer but of primary interest to the landscape historian. Comprising many acres of one-time inter-commoning, grazing and woodland, today they preserve not only the imprint characteristic of late Enclosure of the margin, but relics of much earlier natural vegetation. There are opportunities here for Dorset to bring to bear some of the fruits of latest thinking in this field. We need to investigate the physical appearance and character of the boundary itself, bank, ditch and hedgerow, flora and fauna, spatial patterns of land management past and present, terriers, surveys and charters of the communities concerned, field and place-names --- and not least --- potential in selected places for small-scale archaeological investigation. Then there will be a wider picture to be drawn; the world of the Roman civitates and British tribal lordships, Anglo-Saxon defence and Norman taxation. Boundaries are amongst the oldest features in the man-made landscape; vested interests in their maintenance remain very strong. As anyone who remembers 1974 will need no reminding!