Tag Archives: Anglo-Saxons

Sundered Land, New Castle, Goat’s Head : What’s in a North East Place Name?

North East place-names and their origins. DAVID SIMPSON explores the sometimes surprising meanings of place-names in the North East region.

Wearmouth Bridge
Wearmouth Bridge, Sunderland : Photo © David Simpson.

Sunderland was the sundered or separated land, Newcastle was simply a ‘New’ Castle and Gateshead was, quite strangely, the ‘head of the she-goat’. We take place-names for granted but all have an origin and meaning that is often long forgotten or sometimes lost in time.  No one actually knows how London got its name, for example.

I’ve always been fascinated by place-name origins. It’s an unusual hobby perhaps, though I find it rather strange that few people share my curiosity for such everyday features of our world. Peculiar place-names like Pity Me arouse much interest – and are often rather plainly explained as ‘poor farmland’ although there’s a wealth of more popular if rather dubious theories. In truth I think that everyday names can be just as interesting.

Some place-names give clues to the origins of the early settlers who founded the place. For example in the south of our region around Middlesbrough there are many place-names ending in the element ‘by’: Thornaby, Ormesby, Tollesby, Normanby, Danby, Lackenby, Lazenby, Maltby and so on. These are all Viking – and usually Danish in origin (though Normanby points to Norwegian ‘northmen’). Such names are numerous just south of the Tees in the once intensively Viking settled area of North Yorkshire. They are quite rare north of the Tees – Aislaby near Yarm and Raby (Castle) near Darlington are exceptions not  that far north of the river.

Transporter Bridge from Port Clarence looking towards Middlesbrough
The Transporter Bridge, Middlesbrough. Viking place-names are numerous in the Middlesbrough area.. Photo © David Simpson 2018

These ‘by’ ending names can also be found in Viking settled Cumbria particularly along the Eden valley all the way up towards Carlisle and there are a fair few in the Merseyside area in the North West of England. In Old Danish a ‘by’ was a Viking farm or village and even today a quick scan of a map of Denmark and you’ll find dozens and dozens of little villages with names like Norby, Kaerby, Staby, Balleby, Foldby, Karlby, Draby, Voldby, Rakkeby and Mejby. Many of these wouldn’t seem at all out of place in North Yorkshire.

Most place-names in England, including the North East England usually of Anglo-Saxon origin. The Angles and Saxons were a Germanic people closely related to the later Vikings. The original Anglo-Saxon coastal homelands stretched from Frisia and the Netherlands up to the present day border of Germany and Denmark.

The Angles, for example, who gave their name to England (the Angle Land) settled extensively in Northumbria and originated from Angeln near the border of those two countries and settled in our islands as invading warriors some three centuries before the Vikings arrived on our shores. Just about anything ending in ‘ton’ or ‘ham’ is Anglo-Saxon including most of those ‘ingtons’ and ‘inghams: Darlington, Bedlington, Billingham, Bellingham and so on. A ‘ham’ was a homestead and a ‘ton’ an enclosed settlement. Ton or ‘tun’ to give the old spelling was, incidentally originally pronounced ‘toon’ and is at the root of our modern word ‘town’. Sound familiar?

Nathaniel Buck's view of Newcastle 1745
Newcastle – an historic view of the ‘toon’ or should that be ‘tun’? Pictured in 1745..

I’m really into place-names for fun but with a quest for true knowledge about the place-names as part of our region’s history. I’m an amateur enthusiast when it comes to place-names to be honest. It is in fact a serious scholarly study and often a complicated one at that.

You can’t simply look at a place-name and guess what it might mean. You have to go back to the earliest known recorded spelling from perhaps a thousand years ago or more and work back from there.

Most place-name experts are skilled linguists with knowledge of several languages that are no longer spoken today like Old English (the language of the Anglo-Saxons), or the Old Norse of the Vikings as well as old Celtic languages like Brythonic. The experts will have knowledge of how these languages evolved and changed over time and in the case of Old English and Old Norse, how they fused together along with the later Norman French to form the basis of the English language as we know it today.

A good knowledge of local dialect, local history and local topography is also very useful to the scholar of place-names. In fact its essential right down to a knowledge of local soil types, drainage (at that time) and the suitability of land for early farming and settlement.

So, what about familiar names like Sunderland, Newcastle and Gateshead? Well the ‘separateness’ of Sunderland dates to Anglo-Saxon times and refers to land detached or ‘sundered’ from an estate by the King of Northumbria for the use of the Wearmouth monastery.

The ‘New’ Castle of Newcastle dates to Norman times, the first castle being built by William the Conqueror’s eldest son Robert Curthose in 1080 on the site of a Roman fort. At that time the long-since ruined and redundant Roman fort and its associated surviving settlement was called Monkchester, and although this might be considered the ‘old castle’, it seems the rebuilding of the Norman castle by Henry II in the twelfth century was the origin of the true ‘New Castle’.

Church of St Mary, Gateshead and Tyne Bridge
Gateshead – ‘Head of the She Goat’ : Photo © David Simpson

Just as intriguing, Gateshead across the Tyne lies at the head of the road or way dating back to Roman times and perhaps earlier. Roads were sometimes called ‘gates’ in times past but this term was more commonly used for old streets in towns. ‘Head of the gate’ seems a plausible explanation for Gateshead, however, the Venerable Bede, writing in the seventh century describes Gateshead in Latin as ‘Ad Caprae Caput’ – meaning ‘the head of the she goat’ so perhaps there was some form of totem or symbol of a goat’s head overlooking the ancient bridge across the Tyne.

 

More place-names explained

Ashington: ‘Ing’ usually means a kinship or tribal group and ‘ton’ usually means an enclosed settlement. On the surface Ashington looks like ‘the place belonging to the people of a person called Ash’ or something similar. However the earliest spelling in old records is  Aescen-denu’ and this is an Anglo-Saxon place-name that means ‘valley (dene) overgrown with ash trees’. It shows how important it is to find the oldest spellings.

Bamburgh: From Bebba’s Burgh, a burgh or fortified place named from a Northumbrian queen called Bebba who was the wife of King Æthelfrith. Before Æthelfrith’s time it was known by the Celtic name Din Guayroi.

Beautiful Bamburgh.
Beautiful Bamburgh. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Bishop Auckland: A complicated one this. The old name was Alcuith – a Celtic name referring to a river. Later it became the home of a castle and palace belonging to the Bishops of Durham hence the ‘Bishop’ part of the name. The old name came to be changed to Auckland (perhaps meaning ‘oakland’).

Chester-le-Street: Places containing the word ‘Chester’ are usually Anglo-Saxon in origin even though they refer to the earlier site of a Roman fort. ‘Street’ usually refers to a Roman road. ‘Le’ was added by the Normans as part of a suffix to distinguish places with similar names Le-Street distinguishes it from other places called Chester. Other ‘le’ places with potentially confusing similar names are Houghton-le-Spring, Houghton-le-Side, Haughton-le-Skerne, Hetton-le-Hill, Hetton-le-Hole and in North Yorkshire we have  Hutton-le-Hole.

Darlington : Originally something like Deornoth’s People’s enclosure. You’d never guess this unless you could see early spellings.

Durham : Originally Dun Holm, ‘the hill island’. In Norman French it was Duresme and in Latin it was Dunelm.

Hartlepool : Means ‘Stag Island Pool’. Le-Pool was added by the Normans to distinguish it from the nearby village of Hart. Unlike other ‘le’ place-names it doesn’t use hyphens but it could have become Hart-le-Pool.

Middlesbrough: Means middle manor or perhaps middle fortified place. One theory is that it is named from its middle location between the historic Christian centres of Whitby and Durham.

Stanhope: Means ‘stony side valley’. Hope meaning land in a ‘side valley’ is a common element in North Eats place names, especially in the hilly country of the west.

Warkworth: Wark comes from ‘weorc’ – an earthwork or castle and ‘worth’, an enclosed settlement. The villages of Wark on Tyne and Wark on Tweed were both the site of castles built on earthworks.

 

Cathedral’s Treasures are the ‘Tutankhamun of the North-East’

JONATHAN JONES  visits the wonderful Treasures of St Cuthbert that are finally back on display at Durham Cathedral in a superb new setting that drew audible gasps at the official unveiling.

St Cuthbert's Cross: Treasures of St Cuthbert, Durham Cathedral
St Cuthbert’s Cross: Treasures of St Cuthbert, Durham Cathedral

Anglo-Saxon artefacts, dating back more than 1,300 years, and belonging to monk, bishop and hermit, St Cuthbert, have gone back on display in Durham Cathedral. The relics, including the coffin in which St Cuthbert’s body was carried from Lindisfarne, to its final resting place on the site of Durham Cathedral, and the gold cross he wore around his neck, are the centrepiece of The Treasures of St Cuthbert, which opened to the public at the weekend.

The relics were described as the “Tutankhamun” of the North-East, by cultural historian and Anglo-Saxon specialist, Dr Janina Ramirez at the official launch of the exhibition.

Dr Janina Ramirez and an of Durham, The Very Reverend Andrew Tremlett
Dr Janina Ramirez and the Dean of Durham, The Very Reverend Andrew Tremlett

She admitted that the excitement of seeing the relics, back in their rightful home, in a purpose-built exhibition inside Durham Cathedral, had made her unable to sleep the previous night.

The ornately carved coffin, featuring runic and Latin inscriptions, is rightfully, the centrepiece of the exhibition, and is regarded as the most important surviving relic from before the time of the Norman Conquest.

Images of Christ, the Virgin Mary, apostles and archangels are still visible on the incredibly preserved oak fragments, and brought audible gasps from the clergy, scholars, officials and journalists gathered to witness them for the first time in their new home, in a specially developed exhibition space inside the cathedral.

The coffin of St Cuthbert forms the centrepiece of the permanent exhibition in the cathedral's great kitchen
The coffin of St Cuthbert forms the centrepiece of the permanent exhibition in Durham Cathedral’s Great Kitchen.

Dr Ramirez said: “Some people think that there is a time in the history of Western Europe when the lights went out – when the civilisation and refinement of the Roman Empire was replaced by a Dark Age, visible to us only through a glass darkly; through scraps of archaeology, fragments of enigmatic text, and the bones of early medieval people, who walked a thousand four hundred years before us.

“But the Cuthbert Treasures fly in the face of this theory: from the complex, visual riddles engraved across the oldest surviving example of wood carving on Cuthbert’s coffin, to the gold and garnet splendour of his pectoral cross; from the continental elegance of the ceremonial comb, to the remarkable examples of Opus Anglicanum, recognised at the time as the best embroidery in the known world, the Cuthbert Treasures bring colour, depth and drama to the so-called Dark Ages.”

She continued: “At their very heart lies a unique individual who was both Anglo-Saxon warrior, and early Christian Bishop. His connection to the North East means we can walk in the footsteps of arguably England’s most important saint.”

The exhibits are housed in the Great Kitchen, which has been transformed into a world-class exhibition space, following a year of environmental monitoring, to ensure the relics are kept in the right conditions to ensure their continued longevity.

Comb, thought to have belonged to St Cuthbert
Anglo-Saxon comb, thought to have belonged to St Cuthbert

The project has seen the construction of purpose built exhibition and gallery space in the Cathedral, with access to the treasures themselves being monitored at all times. Indeed, access to the space itself, felt more like entering the Star Ship Enterprise, than the stone walls of the Cathedral.

Visitors were beckoned into a chamber, through which they could see the artefacts beyond another door. Once the environment was stabilised, the inner door opened, granting access to view the fabulous treasures, in glass cases that only enhance their true beauty.

The relics of St Cuthbert, previously on display in the Cathedral’s undercroft, have been in storage for the past six years, during the main phase of the project.

The creation of this space, marks the completion of the Cathedral’s £10.9million investment in the Open Treasure project. The project has been generously supported by a £3.9 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Speaking at the launch, Jim Cokill, Member of the North-East Committee for the Heritage Lottery Fund, said: “A place of worship for thousands and a spectacular attraction drawing visitor from near and far to the city, Durham Cathedral is a heritage treasure in the North East. The Treasures of St Cuthbert and the Open Treasures Exhibition will not only boost the Cathedral’s continuing popularity but will also keep its visitors at the heart of heritage.”

The Conyers flachion, a medieval sword used in a ceremony for newly appointed Bishops of Durham is another highlight of the exhibition.
The Conyers Falchion, a medieval sword, used in a ceremony for newly appointed Bishops of Durham, is another highlight of the exhibition.

But perhaps the final word should go to the Dean of Durham, The Very Reverend Andrew Tremlett. He said: “It is very fitting that the final jewel in the crown of Open Treasure is centred on St Cuthbert, in whose honour Durham Cathedral was built.

“The launch of the Treasures of St Cuthbert on permanent display in their new home marks a new phase in the life of Durham Cathedral and its exhibition experience Open Treasure.”

Among the Treasures of St Cuthbert on display are:

  • St Cuthbert’s wooden coffin, widely regarded as the most important example of Pre-Conquest woodwork, and finely engraved with linear images, Latin lettering and Anglo-Saxon runes
  • St Cuthbert’s pectoral cross, a 7th century gold and garnet cross designed to be worn on a chain around his neck.
  • St Cuthbert’s portable altar, used to support his missionary work in the North East. It is believed to be the oldest surviving portable altar, dating from 660AD.
  • The original Sanctuary door knocker, dating from the 12th Century, and one of Durham’s most enduring symbols. Originally attached to the North Door of Durham Cathedral, those who had committed a crime could rap on the door knocker and be given 37 days of sanctuary, during which time they could reconcile with their enemies, or plan their escape.

The Treasures of St Cuthbert are now on permanent display within Open Treasure in the Great Kitchen, one of only two surviving medieval monastic kitchens in the UK. Tickets cost from £2.50 – £7.50, and are available online and from the visitor desk at Durham Cathedral. For more information visit www.durhamcathedral.co.uk, or telephone 0191 386 4266.