What do the English place names Everton, Oxford, Winchester and Whitby have in common? They have all been around for more than a thousand years and their origins and original meanings can shed a unique light on the fascinating early history of England!
Traces of Celts and Romans
If we were to go back some 2500 years in time, Britain was inhabited by people who spoke Celtic languages (present-day Welsh and Cornish are among the linguistic descendants of these languages). These Celtic speakers have left their traces in the toponyms (place names, river names) of present-day England. The place name Dover, for instance, derives from a Celtic word for ‘waters’ and the first part of Carlisle stems from a Celtic word for ‘fort’ (cf. Welsh caer and Cornish ker). In addition, about two-thirds of English rivers today have English names, these include the rivers Avon, Trent, Tyne and the Thames – most of these river names excitingly mean ‘river’.
In the first century AD, Britain was conquered by the Romans and their influence too can be found in English place names. Place names with an element like –chester, for instance, ultimately derive from Roman army camps, denoted by the Latin word castra (though via Old English ceaster). In other words, Winchester, Lancaster, Leicester and Chester all show traces of Roman occupation of what is now England. The Latin word vicus for ‘settlement’ is found at the end of the places Norwich and Sandwich (though via Old English wic). The Latin word for ‘harbour’, portus, can be seen in Portsmouth – mouth of the harbour. Intriguingly, the ninth-century compilers of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle appear to have assumed that the name derived from a man called Port, who landed there in 501 with his sons Bieda and Mægla:
In this year, Port came to Britain along with his two sons Bieda and Mægla in two ships to the place that is called Portsmouth and they killed a young British man, a very noble man.The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, s.a. 501
Anglo-Saxons and their place names
After the Romans left Britain in 410 AD, the remaining Celts eventually had to give way to Germanic invaders from the European Continent: the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, who come over from Northern Germany and Southern Denmark. These Anglo-Saxons, as they are generally referred to, bring Old English to England and its is to them that we owe place names that contain such elements as
- ham (meaning ‘home’, as in Fulham, Westham and Birmingham)
- tun (meaning ‘town’, as Skipton)
- ford (meaning ‘crossing in a river’, as in Oxford)
- burna (meaning ‘stream’ as in Bournemouth and Blackburn)
- burh (meaning ‘fortification’, as in Canterbury; Bury St Edmunds and, simply, Bury)
Sometimes, these Anglo-Saxon settlers named places and regions after themselves. We can find the Angles in East Anglia and, ultimately, in England. The Saxons gave their name to Sussex, Essex, Wessex and Middlesex; that is the Saxons in the South, in the East, in the West and in the middle. Apparently, there we no Saxons in the North – a common pun is that the Northern Saxons only lasted for one generation since they had Nosex. The Jutes do not seem to have lend their names to a place, but other ‘Anglo-Saxon’ people did. The Old English place name element -ingas means something like “the descendants, followers or people of” and, so, Reading used to be the place where the people of Ræda lived; in Hastings lived the descendants of a man called Hæsta.
In come the Vikings!
Another group to make a major contribution to English place names were the Vikings, who not only raided and plundered, but also settled in England and founded villages and towns which they gave Scandinavian names.
Place names ending in -by, for instance, like Whitby and Derby derive from the Old Norse word by ‘settlement’. Another typical Scandinavian place name in England ends in thorpe ‘village’, as in Scunthorpe and the seven places in England simply called Thorpe. The word toft, as in Lowestoft, refers to ‘site of a house’ and is another sign that you are dealing with a Viking place name.
Viking place names are concentrated in the North East of England, as you can tell by the heat map I made above (the map on the right shows a rough representation of the concentration of Viking place names, on the basis of data by Key to English Place Names ). There are good reasons for this geographical distribution: the area in which we typically find Viking place names was known as the Danelaw area, which had been assigned to Scandinavian settlers as part of a peace treaty with King Alfred the Great, following a decisive battle in the year 878. It is for this reason that place names ending in – by or -thorpe tend to be in the North East of England. As we shall see below, Viking place names are not the only ones to show a certain geographical concentration.
Place names and migratory patterns?
Using the data of Key to English Place Names along with the Halogen geospatial search facility it is relatively easy to get an idea of where certain place names occur. The maps above are (very) rough representations that I made on the basis of looking for place names of a Celtic origin and two sets of Old English place names. The results are interesting. Place names of Celtic origin tend to be in the South and in the West; that is near Wales and Cornwall – this has been interpreted as representing the gradual displacement of Celtic speaking people towards these areas due to the gradual influx of the Anglo-Saxons.
The two sets of Old English place names also show an interesting distribution: the place names ending in -ingas and -ham tend to be found in the South East, whereas Old English place names ending in -tun tend to be found further West and North. Scholars have argued that this is because the first set of place names were typically used by the earliest Anglo-Saxon settlers, who arrived in Kent and spread their influence West and North from there. The place names based on Old English tun ‘town’ could reflect later settlement patterns, though this is a matter of scholarly debate (see Clark 1992).
Flora and fauna of early medieval England
Of course, place names did not only depend on who inhabited the place at some time, often places were named after the surroundings in which the early settlers found themselves. As such, place names allow us to identify some of the flora and fauna that was around in Anglo-Saxon England.
One of the Old English place name elements that the Angles, Saxons and Jutes brough to England was the word leah, meaning field or clearing in a forest. Today, this element survives at the end of place names like: Ashley,
Stanley, Crawley, Shipley and Sugley. These then must all have been fields or clearings in a forest. The first element in these place names gives us another defining feature of that field. Ashley was probably surrounded by ash-trees (from Old English æsc); there were stones at Stanley (from Old English stan), crows near Crawley (from Old English craw), sheep near Shipley (from Old English sceap) and in Sugley you can see the Old English word for sow, sugu.
We can recognize the Old English words for animals in various other place names as well. In Everton, you can see the Old English eofor ‘boar’; Brock-holes is named after the holes made by a broc, the Old English word for “Badger’; you can see the Old English word bucca ‘goat’ in Buckingham and Swinburn must have been a stream with some pigs (Old English swin) nearby.
In conclusion: place names are fascinating, they reflect the rich cultural and linguistic history of what we now call England. England’s history, as well as the place names on its map, was formed and shaped by various migrations and interactions with different peoples and cultures. These people looked around them and named what they saw: trees, clearings, river-crossings and animals. And if we study their language and history, we can see those things too.
If you liked this post, consider subscribing to this blog for regular updates and/or read the following posts about early medieval English history:
- Kings and Candlesticks in Anglo-Saxon England
- Heads on sticks: Decapitation and impalement in early medieval England
- Reading between the lines in early medieval England: Old English interlinear glosses
Links of interest
Key to English Place-Names (University of Nottingham)
HALOGEN geospatial search facility (University of Leicester)
Clark, Cecily. 1992. “Onomastics”. Cambridge History of the English Language. Vol. 1: The Beginnings to 1066, ed. Richard M. Hogg, 452-489. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
4 thoughts on “What’s in a place name? The toponymy of early medieval England”
Before the Viking raids, Whitby was called Streanæshealh. So, do you know why the synod held in 664 is called the “Synod of Whitby” instead of the “Synod of Streanæshealh”?
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Yes, interesting question to which I don’t really have the answer; I imagine this is because of later historiographical traditions using the modern place name rather than the original one. Similarly, we talk of the Battle of Maldon, not the Battle of Mældun, and Alcuin of York rather than Ealhwine of Eoforwic.
Bizarrely the heat map of concentrations of Celtic place-names seems to suggest their complete absence from western Cornwall.
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Yes! My bad – the maps are rough and my MS Paint skills only amount to so much; there are Celtic place-names there too, obviously! 🙂