Where exactly was the battle of Acleah?

The place-name evidence

Coates’ treatment of the onomastic evidence in regard to Oakley cannot be criticised, and benefits from being able to draw upon pre-1066 charter testimony (1997, 607-608). Oakley is morphologically and philologically consistent with a place-name from Old English āc-lēah; for whatever reason, Asser’s explanation of the name of the battle-site (in loco, qui dicitur Aclea, id est ‘in campulo quercus’) has not attracted as much scholarly attention as it might in terms of its relevance to the meaning of lēah, seeing as how it supports Della Hooke’s revisionist reading of the term as referential to open woodland rather than “normal” woodland or a clearing as previously held.

Ockley, Ockley Wood and Ockley Hill, with the parish boundary of Merstham and Blechingley running between them, in 1872 – from ‘England – Surrey: 027’, Ordnance Survey 1:10,560 – Epoch 1 (1872). URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/mapsheet.aspx?compid=55139&sheetid=8660&ox=0&oy=0&zm=1&czm=10&x=37&y=205 Date accessed: 14 October 2013

On the other hand, when we turn to consider Ockley Wood, we are faced with a distinct lack of forms, early or late (I should hold my hands up at this point and concede that I haven’t really gone to town on the search for examples, so there may be no shortage of others awaiting rediscovery). The modern map form Ockley Hill is identical to that shown on the 1872 Ordnance Survey 1:10,560 map of the area, a screenshot of which can be seen above. At that date the name was attached to the hill, wood and, some distance away to the south, a house built in 1866, shortly before the publication of the map. The house subsequently became known as Oakley (possibly by 1907) and this remains the case (though the building has seen better days). The only other form I have to hand is one from The Place-Names of Surrey, mistakenly given in reference to the house; Okeley copp, of 1544 (PNS, 302).

The second portion of the 1544 form is probably an abbreivated form of coppice, but the first is not quite so easily interpreted. It bears comparison to spellings, coincidentally both of the year 1607, of Oakley in Buckinghamshire and Oakley Green in Berkshire, two place-names understood to derive from Old English āc-lēah (Okeley and Okeley Greene respectively: CDEPN, 447, where the latter is cited as a possible location for the 851 battle). Unfortunately, the place-name dictionaries do not provide comparable contemporary or near-contemporary forms of the Surrey major place-name Ockley, since this would go a long way towards establishing whether or not Ockley/Oakley in Merstham is of identical formation.

The parish of Ockley, several miles away to the south-west in the Weald, has a recorded history stretching all the way back to Domesday Book and, from 1086 on, scribal renderings of its name are consistent with a compound of Old English lēah and the personal name Occa. This has been understood for many decades (see PNS, 276, where āc being the qualifier is described as ‘improbable’) but has continued to appear in some works as a possible site of the battle of Acleah, perhaps most recently by Smith (2005, 111, who goes on to commit the further sin of advancing Ockley Common near Elstead as another possibility, despite its tenth-century record in Old English as ocan lea in S 382 proving otherwise). It means that, while it seems probable the shift from Okeley > Ockley occurred because of the influence of Ockley as a not-all-that-far-distant place in Surrey, we cannot rule out the possibility they shared a common origin from Old English Occan-lēah. The change of the house name Ockley > Oakley may support the former interpretation, it being a return to the “authentic” local pronunciation of the name, but other explanations are not out of the question (for instance, that it was an accurate but baseless attempt to associate it with the site of the ninth-century battle).

Coates notes also the juxtaposition of the Hampshire Oakley with Battle Down Farm, a suggestive name but one that he finds no reason to accept as stemming from the battle of 851 (Coates 1997, 610, 612 note 8). By neat coincidence, Merstham parish contains a minor place-name Battlebridge (for which there is an identical spelling of 1654: PNS, 302) and inevitably it has caught the eye of those seeking to place the battle of Acleah in its vicinity (e.g. Smith 2005, 111). This falls down for exactly the same reasons as given by Coates. However, rather than being derived from later medieval juridical battles as Coates opts for in relation to Battle Down, Battlebridge might have tenth-century (or earlier) heritage if one accepts the intriguing suggestion made in the second volume of the newly-published Charters of Christ Church Canterbury (Brooks & Kelly 2013, 920 – a short review of this monumental work is on its way!) that it is the reflex of badewoldes hagan, a point in the Merstham estate boundary description contained in S 528 of the year 947. The Old English translates along the lines of “Beaduwald’s hedge”, and its postulated development into the name Battlebridge may be compared to that of Battersea (Badriches ege in 693, “Beaduric’s island”).

It’s worth making the point too that the Merstham boundary clause (if it records a situation in the tenth century more or less identical to the one mapped in the nineteenth) makes no reference to an Acleah, despite it describing a line which skirted Ockley Hill and passed right through Ockley Wood (the terminal points are Tunlesweorþ – represented by modern-day Tollsworth Manor – and an ieg – “island in a marsh” – in the vicinity of Withy Shaw: Brooks & Kelly 2013, 920). Should this count against them being in some way connected to the site of the battle of Acleah? Or are there other explanations which keep the possibility alive? Charter boundary descriptions often had to be frugal in their record of boundary points, so a line (perhaps undefined on the ground, as it was in the nineteenth century) passing through open woodland did not merit precise definition, despite its prior notoriety. Maybe the “wood called Acleah” no longer existed as a significant landscape feature at the time the Merstham bounds were written down, let alone when Æthelweard described the eponym of the battle-site thus later in the tenth century. Alternatively, perhaps we should not get too carried away with seeking to pin down Acleah to Merstham parish – after all, the OS maps offer more reason to associate the name Ockley with Blechingley (earlier the name of a Domesday manor occupying the western half of the historic parish), for which I know of no equivalent bounds or other early sources of minor toponyms.

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About Robert J S Briggs

Back to being a part-time early medievalist; Surrey born, London based, been known to travel
This entry was posted in Anglo-Saxon, Annals, Archaeology, Charters, Hampshire, History, London, Place-Names, Portable Antiquities Scheme, Surrey, Topography, Viking, Wessex and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Where exactly was the battle of Acleah?

  1. kljolly says:

    I am glad I read to the end because I was about to note the Oakley Down reference to Aldred, not as a possible location but for a linguistic parallel, aclee.
    It does seem that the battle of Acleah presents similar problems of identification as Brunanburh, between place-name evidence, written records, linguistic change,combined with logistics, geographic orientations, physical features and artifacts. The latter would be nice to find for Brunanburgh.

  2. A. Leavey. says:

    Why has not Oakley west of Basingstoke not been considered as a possible location for the battle
    of Aclea .It is adjacent an ancient track way (pilgrims way), plus it is adjacent to an area called
    ‘Battle’. Please advise me why this site has never been mentioned in any historical literature that
    I have read, and would seem to be closer to the interests of kingdom of Wessex than for example
    Bedfordshire.

    • But it has, and is the reason why I wrote this post! (Read all six pages of it if you haven’t already…) Philologist Richard Coates was the progenitor of the suggestion, initially via an essay in an admittedly very obscure publication, but also referenced in his better-known book Hampshire Place-Names. I can’t recall the suggestion being noted by other authors, but I’m no great expert on Hampshire so I may well be unaware of the relevant works. Anyway, I’ve examined the various strands of Coates’ argument in favour of Oakley and overall found them to be unconvincing. Individually, some are no more or less credible for Oakley than for its probable namesake in Surrey, but it’s the contortions he goes through in order to make the brief but fairly unequivocal annalistic evidence that led me to doubt the likelihood of it being the 851 battle site. The historical sources leave no doubt that the Danes crossed the Thames in a southwards direction from London, so a close relationship to the heartlands of the West Saxon kingdom isn’t so important in locating Acleah (plus Surrey had been annexed to Wessex since 825). I also address the matters of the use of key land routes through the region, minor Battle- place-names and more besides. So have a look through and see what you think…

  3. Pingback: Another Surrey candidate site for the battle of Acleah? | Surrey Medieval

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