Anglo-Saxon Place Names

Anglo-Saxon Place Names

When the Anglo-Saxon invaders began widely to settle in Britain in the Fifth to Seventh Centuries they generally displayed that same tendency towards domestic exclusiveness, privacy, and independence which has remained a national characteristic ever since, and which is now exemplified in the saying that an Englishman`s home is his castle. Each man of standing, at the head of conjunction with others of his tribe, seized a piece of land, built his homestead, and fenced himself in; and though he might be kindly and neighbourly, he showed little inclination towards a communal life, and had no wish to be herded with his fellows in crowded tribal settlements. Indeed it is noticeable that very few such homesteads were built near the great Roman roads.

In this he was similar to the Celt and unlike the German, for more than half the Celtic place-names in Britain and Ireland contain the words llan, kil or bally, all of which mean a fenced enclosure of some sort; and it has been influenced to some extent by a habit of exclusiveness which was a British characteristic of long standing in our country. The majority of Anglo-Saxon place-names contain some word meaning a fenced or fortified enclosure; and yet so thorough was the conquest of the British that the erection of such defences can hardly be attributed to fear of attack. It was due rather to this exclusiveness, and to a strong sense of possession, a desire to call a piece of land his own and to regard it as his home, shared by nobody but his own family and his depandents.

The most common termination in Anglo-Saxon place-names is the old tun, the modern ton, as in Sutton, Bolton and so forth; and this word tun does not mean “town” but simply a hedged or fenced dwelling. The termination –ham is also of extremely frequent occurance (Clapham, Balham, etc.), and this means “home” in its exclusive family sense. The common termination sted or stead, the olde stede, also means an enclosed place, as in Stansted and Wanstead; and this is sometimes combined with ham, as in Hampstead (“homestead”) and Berkhamstead. The word worth, meaning a defined possession or estate, is found in many place-names such as Tamworth and Kenilworth; and the termination worthy, the Anglo-Saxon weorthig, means a protected or “warded” place. So, too, stoke, stock, stow, stowe, and stol, as in Basingstoke, Tavistock, Chepstow, Edwinstowe, and Bristol, all mean a fenced or stockade enclosure.

The word croft, meaning an enclosed field or small farm, is often used though perhaps not in the earliest times; and the word barton or burton, derived from bere, “barley,” and tun, “enclosure,” and meaning the rickyard or granary of a private estate, is common; while the word staple or stable, as in Stapleford and Whitstable means the storehouse of a property. So, also, names like Swinton represent the tun, or “enclosure,” for the swine belonging to somebody`s farm; and names such as Shepton mean the sheep-enclosure, as do those ending in –fold.

Haigh, hey, or hay means a hedged enclosure, and is found in names such as Rothwell Haigh, near Leeds, and Horsehay, near Coalbrookdale; and the word park, and old pearroc, an enclosed estate, is later combined with this hay in Haye Park, near Knaseborough, and occurs in other place-names. Haw, as in Hawes in Yorkshire, means an enclosed house; and hale, hall, and all, as in Halesowen, Eccleshall, and Walsall, mean either a house or building or an enclosed meadow. The word sal or sale, as in Monsal or Sale means a nobleman`s house. The termination –side, as in Ambleside, sometimes written –set, means again a homestead, a place where somebody has settled.

These words indicate in each case the existence originally of but a single family`s house or homestead, farm or estate; and the same implication is to be seen in the number of places called after a single individual, as Escombe (Eda`s Combe), or Evesham (Eofa`s Home), or after a single family, as in the numberless names containing the word –ing. This termination –ing corresponds to the –son in family names such as Robertson, i.e., the descendants of Robert, or to the Fitz in FitzGerald, i.e., the descendants of Gerald. Thus the royal house of Oiscing in Kent was that of the descendant of Oisc; and hence place-names such as Warrington, Uppingham, and Wallingford represent the Warring family enclosure, the Upping family home, the Walling family ford over the river, and so forth; and the hundreds of such names show that individual families and not tribes are meant.

Then again a great many place-names are derived from words descriptive of the situation of the homestead, and this, too, rather indicates that the farm or estate stood by itself in country surroundings and was not a large settlement. Thus shaw, holt and hot, as in the case of Birkenshaw, Shaw, Holt, and Aldershot, represent Anglo-Saxon words meaning a wood or thicket; and hurst, as in Chislehurst, means a clearing in a wood or sylvan glade. The old word for forest has come down to us in forms such as weald, wald, and wold, as in the Cotswolds; and thus Waltham means “the home in the forest,” and Walden “the valley in the forest.” The Anglo-Saxon treo, a “tree,” occurs in place-names such as Manningtree, and Oswestry (Oswald`s Tree).

The frequent ford and the less common lade, as in Lechlade, indicate a homestead beside a river-crossing; but the use of the word “bridge,” the old bryeg, is usually of later date. Other names are derived from words denoting natural features such as hills, valleys, and so forth, where settlements of one or more houses may have sprung up. The word low, as in Hounslow and Ludlow, is the Anglo-Saxon hlaw, meaning a rise or low hill. Dean, or den, means a valley, as in Rottingdean, (the valley of the Rotting family), Dean, Marsden, and Denton; and combe may be either Anglo-Saxon or Celtic, meaning a hollow in the hills – for instance Wycombe and Compton.

Wich or wych, as in Droitwich, means a salt-spring, or some sort of cleft in the hills; but there are also the wich or wick derived from wic, the word for a settlement, as in Greenwich and Warwick, and the Danish wick derived from wik, a creek. Then we have ly, ley, lea, and leigh, the old leah, meaning an area of pasture land, as in Hellingly, Chorley, Lea, Leaton, Leigh, and Hadleigh; and the many names incorporating field or moor, the Anglo-Saxon mor.

Some of the place-names ending in well are of the Anglo-Saxon period, derived from wella, a “well”; but the use of the word burn or bourne, meaning “a stream,” is not usually as early. The word holm which occurs in many place-names, originally meant a mound, but was afterwards used for any raised ground.

The old word mere, “marsh,” as in Ellesmere (Ella`s Mere) often occurs; and the many inhabited islands in the fens, rivers, or sea, retain the Anglo-Saxon word ig, meaning isle, in such forms as ey, ea, ay, or e, as in the cases of Selsey, Swansea, Rothsay, and Eton. The eth in Lambeth means a haven, and we have it also in its form hithe or hythe, as in Rotherhithe and Hythe.

Sometimes when an Anglo-Saxon house was built in or near the ruins of some Roman or British stone structure, or beside a stone-paved Roman road, the word stan was used, meaning “stone”; and this comes down to us in such forms as stan, stam, stain, or stone. The word wall was also used to denote ruined buildings, an example of which is Wall, near Lichfield, where the ruins of Letocetum cover the ground.

Names of places on the Roman roads sometimes, too, include the word straet, “street” or “road,” in its forms strat, straet, etc., as in the case of Stratford and Streatham. The word port was similarly used, as in Stockport and Portway. The Anglo-Saxon geat, meaning a “way,” is also found in the form of gate in the case of settlements on a highway, as for example Reigate which really means the Ridge Way.

The walled cities or fortresses of Roman-British times were given the name caster, cester, caister or chester, as in Lancaster, Cirencester, Caister, Chester and Manchester; and in many such cases the old Roman-British name was retained, indicating that in such cities the original population still continued to live. Thus Glev(um) became Glou-cester, Venta became Win-chester, Man(ucium) became Man-chester, and so forth.

Many of the old strongholds, and many of the new, were called by the name burh or burg, which has come down to us in forms such as borough, burgh and bury, for example Boroughbridge, Edinburgh, Salisbury and Bury St. Edmunds.

Markets or market-towns were sometimes called by the old word ceap, “barter,” which now has various forms suc has chap, cheap, and chip, as in Chepstow, Cheapside and Chipstead.

There are many places throughout the country which derive their names from pagan deities whose shrines must have been situated there, or whose property the lane had become. Tewesley, in Surrey, means Tew`s ley or pasture-land, Tew being the god of war whose name has come down into modern language in the form of the Deuce. There are also Great Tew and Dunstew in Oxfordshire.

The goddess Frig or Freya has left her name in Frathorpe in Yorkshire and Freasley in Warwickshire. The great god Woden is remembered in Wednesbury in Staffordshire, Woodnesborough in Kent and Wiltshire, and in other names derived from Woden`s beorh, or hill. Thunor, the Thunder-god, has left his name at Thundersfield in Surrey and Thundersleigh in Essex; and the name of Thor is to be seen in Thurleigh in Bedfordshire, Thursford in Norfolk, and Kirby Thore in Westmorland.

The god Saeter, too, comes down to us in Satterleigh in Devon and Satterthwaite in Lancashire. Easterleake in Nottinghamshire, preserves the name of Eostre, the goddess of Spring, whose festival has given its name to our Easter; and there is a place called Good Easter in Essex. Hel, goddess of the underworld, is still remembered in Hellifield and other place-names in Yorkshire.

But when Christianity came and churches were erected, the villages growing up around the sacred buildings were called by names based on such words as Kirk (the old circe), or minster or ecclesia (as in Eccles); and the dwelling of the preost, or priest, gave its name to places such as Preston.

In a later chapter dealing with Danes and the terminations of Danish place-names in Britain, such as –by, -thorpe, -thwaite, -toft and –beck; and there are many others of Scandinavian origin, such as –dale, -fleet, -gill, -ness, and –ster, while many Viking heroes have left their names, such as Grim, Orm, Hakon, Asgar, and so forth, in places such as Grimsby, Ormsby, Haconby, Asgarby, and the like. But here we must confine ourselves to the Anglo-Saxon names; and in reviewing those being mentioned above it will be seen that the great majority represent originally isolated farms and properties each held by a single individual or family.

Our Anglo-Saxon ancestors were essentially farmers, city life having little attraction for them; and there on their farm-lands, or behind the fences of their homes, they developed that independence and that power to mind their own business, which is one of the strongest characteristics of our race.