What is the ‘hundred’ and where did the name come from? It is fair to say that there is no definitive consensus among historians.
Essex, with natural borders of the rivers Lea in the west, Stour in the north, Thames in the south and to the east the North Sea, is one of the oldest English counties. Unchanged for nearly 1500 years until local government reorganisation in 1965, its name is derived from the sixth century Kingdom of the East Saxons. It is from this period that use of the ‘hundred’ and the ‘hide’, as measurements of land comes.
The ‘hundred’ grew out of a tribal organisation of land holdings where the ‘hide’ was a piece of land capable of supporting a family, which might mean an extended family of fifty people or so. The ‘hundred’ was a natural progression to a larger administrative area consisting of 100 hides. In time it came to be a subdivision of a county or shire, having its own court and the power to settle local disputes. The ‘hundred’ lasted from Saxon times until it was replaced by the modern urban, borough and district councils from the early twentieth century onwards.
The ‘hundred’ was formalised as a fiscal unit in the eleventh century by William the Conqueror following the Battle of Hastings in 1066. By 1086 Norman England was stable enough for William to be able to send out Royal Commissioners to overhaul the system of ‘hundreds’. This resulted in the Domesday Book; the first national asset register – used to settle property disputes, usually in favour of the ruling Normans. This register was also used more importantly for William, as a basis for the efficient collection of taxes. It could be said that the Normans were the first to introduce taxation on an organised basis.
There is a view that ‘hundred’ in Saxon England was just a translation from the Roman (Latin) centurion. The centurion was the officer supposedly commanding one hundred men known as the Centuria. This however was rarely the case, the Centuria frequently consisted of only eighty men. Consequently the term ‘hundred’ could have been the land area that, in times of trouble, was required to raise a force of a hundred men bearing arms. Alternatively areas of land termed ‘hundreds’ may have incorporated several villages or settlements controlled simply by councils of 100 men.
There is little consensus as to how the word ‘hundred’ came into use. The English word ‘hundred’ has German origins although England may even have exported the term ‘hundred’, as a land area, to Scandinavia and northern Germany where the ‘hundred’ was also an administrative land area. In Sweden it was known as the ‘harad’, in Denmark the ‘herred’ and in Germany as the ‘harde’. On the other hand it may be that the ‘hundred’ arrived in England from Germany via Scandinavia sometime during the Viking or Saxon incursions but this must remain conjecture.
© The Essex Hundred 2010
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