Dorset County Boundary SurveyProject Description & Development
Introduction and rationale of the project
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 peninsula --- "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.