Respect your elders: thoughts on a brace of under-appreciated Bedan place-names

I get the sense many people who are normally diligent in publishing blog posts at fairly regular intervals are otherwise occupied right now with things related to the impending end of the academic teaching year. I’ve long given up any pretence to regularity in what I put up here, but I still feel duty bound to explain the almost month-long gap between any signs of life on Surrey Medieval. You see, right now I’m writing a big paper on early-recorded Old English place-names that’s been up my sleeve for several years. It goes over some of the same ground as Barrie Cox’s study ‘The Place-Names of the Earliest English Records’ which appeared in the late 1970s and has been one of the most-referenced works on the subject in the years since. My essay narrows the linguistic parameters of Cox’s study to consider just one place-name element, Old English tūn, while simultaneously expanding its timeframe a century beyond the completion of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History in 731 or thereabouts to encompass the entire ‘long eighth century’, a concept which first really came to the fore thanks to an eponymous 2000 volume and which has if anything been gaining in momentum in recent years (Hansen & Wickham 2000; Rippon 2007; Oosthuizen 2013).

I was drawn to the topic having come across a handful of early-recorded place-names in tūn which were not counted by Cox for various reasons. Humantun, a lost Thanet place-name, is known from its inclusion in a 694 charter text whose claim to authenticity was viewed more dimly at the time Cox was writing than it is today (S 15 – note the scholarly comments list culminating with Susan Kelly’s positive reassessment). By contrast, S 65b, the charter text that is the sole witness to Ettunende obre in Essex, was not published until the 1980s and arguably remains not as well known as it ought (see Banscombe 1987).

Is it Dalton or off?

A third tūn-name which had caught my eye (and James Campbell before me – see Campbell 1986, 114) occurs in the context of a reference to a land-grant in loco uillae quae Daltun nuncupatur found in chapter 15 of Bede’s Historia Abbatum (“History of the Abbots”). Re-reading Cox’s article this week, I noticed the Historia Abbatum was not among the historical/hagiographical works he mined for early place-names, despite the reasons for believing it was written in or around the year 716 having been known for quite some time (in fact, Cox overlooked several such texts in compiling his dataset but I’ll willing to let that slide for now). For reasons that are perfectly justifiable from both a linguistic and historical perspective, the place-name is normally equated with Dalton-le-Dale in County Durham, which recurs in the Anglo-Norman Historia de Sancto Cuthberto as Daltun (Johnson South 2002, 64-65).

Dalden Tower ruins, Dalton-le-Dale: The spelling of the name, which I have no reason to doubt is faithful, serves to reinforce how the locality’s place-names can give rise to confusion (photo linked from dommylive’s Flickr stream, where there is plenty more excellent work besides this to be seen)

Wanting to find out a bit more about the original textual context of the reference, I dug a little deeper and was chuffed to find a new edition and parallel translation of the Historia Abbatum had been published only a matter of months ago in a new volume of some of Bede’s lesser known texts by Christopher Grocock and Ian Wood (the latter a one-time tutor of mine at Leeds). It reveals that the spelling Daltun is found in a minority of the surviving medieval manuscripts of the Historia Abbatum; the majority – including the earliest extant versions – give it as Daldun (Grocock & Wood 2013, 60). This would appear to represent Old English Dældūn, “valley hill”, a contradictory but formally possible compound (we may note here Dawdon in Dalton-le-Dale has forms which reveal it to descend from Dældenu, essentially a tautological “valley valley” – see Gelling & Cole 2000, 110, and the caption to the photo above). Early confusion around the composition of a name leading to the reanalysis of dūn as tūn is a common enough phenomenon (Artington just outside Guildford being a relevant Surrey example – PNS, 184-85, and latterly Gelling & Cole 2000, 170), so we are left with no obvious alternative means for ascertaining at the present time whether Dalton is a true toponym in tūn or not.

ad uillam Sambuce

Excitingly, my scanning of the chapters of the Historia Abbatum for further tūn-names turned up a second possibility. I say possibility because Bede doesn’t give the name straightforwardly in its Old English form. Instead he refers to the place in question, stated in chapter 15 to be the site of 20 hides of land, as in loco qui incolarum lingua ad uillam Sambuce uocatur, which Grocock and Wood translate (a little boldly, one might add) as ‘in the place which is called in the local language Elder Farm’ (Grocock & Wood 2013, 58-59). The earlier translation by J. H. Webb, published in the Penguin Classic collection The Age of Bede, proffers the more cautious ‘at a place known locally as the township of Sambuce’ (Webb & Farmer 1998, 203).

Bede’s wording raises some important issues. His reputation as a skilled Latinist precedes him, and enough academic ink has been expended discussing this that I’ll refrain from adding my ignorant two pennies’ worth. But should we read his above-quoted statement as meaning the language of the “locals” (whoever Bede meant by them) was Latin? Webb seemed to be of the opinion that is was, whereas Grocock and Wood do not. That there is not one known Romano-British place-name of equivalent derivation (and I do appreciate our sources of knowledge in this regard are far from comprehensive), plus the sizeable number of other place-names found in Bede’s works that are rendered in Latin but for which a credible Old English form can be suggested, makes me think he was translating a non-Latinate place-name. If the language in question was Old English then we would expect Sambuce to stand for Elle(n), “elder-tree(s)”, or possibly Ellern “stand of elders”, but it is quite an if. The region is not short of Brittonic place-names (think Ad Gefrin = Yeavering, Mælmin = Milfield) and, casting our net further, we encounter the Cornish toponyms Boscawen (‘house of elder’: Rackham 2000, 209) and Trescowe (“elder-tree farmstead”: Hooke 2010, 236). As for villa, the most likely (but by no means the only possible) Old English gloss would be – you’ve guessed it – tūn (that is, if you follow Smith 1956b, 189 – compare with the less place-names-centric discussion of Campbell 1986, 108-112).

A. H. Smith (1956a, 150) noted how the above-mentioned terms for elder-trees can be easily confused for Old English elren (‘overgrown with or near alder-trees’) or Old Norse elri (‘alder-tree, wood’), so picking out genuine elder-related place-names is not an easy business. A few candidates have been proposed with justification, yet not one of these has tūn as the generic (Smith 1956b, 196 – compounds with elri are noted as frequent – and now Coates 2012, 218-22). Most early-recorded elder place-names are minor and/or refer to lone trees or stands of trees; Hooke notes a remarkably high number of  “elder-stubs” in pre-1066 vernacular boundary descriptions, but only one habitative-type name, elleƿurðie (Hooke 2010, 235-36; note the latter may not even be habitative, for here worðig might merely denote an enclosed piece of ground). A more certain place-name of the latter type is Elwicks in Yorkshire (the generic being Old English wīc: Smith 1956a, 150). We might also consider Elsted in Sussex and Elstead in Surrey, both from Old English stede (PNS, 167). Hooke fancies these to be referential to settlement sites, whereas others are happy to view them as being places characterised by stands of elder-trees (Hooke 2010, 236, and CDEPN, 213, respectively).

(As an aside, for a period after I left school I worked at the convenience store in Elstead. One evening, after we had locked up and were starting to make our way home, a car pulled up and a couple asked us for directions to a pub that did not exist in the village. Cue confusion all round until one of my colleagues asked “Are you sure you don’t mean the Elsted in Sussex?”, followed by some wry laughter and what I can only surmise was a long, dark trip to the foot of the South Downs.)

I’m happy reserve judgement on the original significance of stede in the names of Elstead and Elsted (and simply note the possibility so as to justify including the photo below) in order to attach more weight on the observation that we have surprisingly few elder-tree terms used in combination with habitative place-name generics but, nonetheless, we do have a few. Therefore, an Old English place-name Elle(n)tūn is perfectly feasible, particularly if we consider the wealth of Bromptons (brōm, ‘broom’) and Thorntons (þorn, ‘(haw)thorn-tree’) to represent types of tūn associated with similarly inauspicious trees/bushes (as well as folding bikes and fancy chocolates – cf. Coates 2012, 220).

An alder-tree beside the River Wey at Elstead, with not an elder-tree in sight

An alder-tree beside the River Wey at Elstead, with not an elder-tree in sight

A trap the recent editors of the Historia Abbatum fell into (as did I initially) was to conflate the elder with the alder – at least that’s the impression I get from their claim that ‘The presence of elder implies a wet or marshy location’ (Grocock & Wood 2013, 59 note 144). Now, I’m no expert in matters botanical but this didn’t seem right to me. I remember alders lining the banks or rivers (see above), whereas elders seem to be characteristic of dry-ish, scrubby places. Whenever I find myself confronted with a plant-related place-name and happen to be back at my parents’ house, I consult Richard Mabey’s unsurpassed Flora Britannica. Sure enough it confirmed my suspicions. While it comes as no surprise to find he does not mention Bede’s toponymic record of the elder (scientific name Sambucus negra – among the vernacular names he lists is Ellern), he provides his customary wealth of relevant anecdotes and lore, before concluding with the following:

‘Elder grows prolifically in hedgerows, woods (especially secondary woods), chalk downs, waste ground on enriched soils and abandoned cultivated land across Britain… It also has thousands of years of magical belief and peasant ingenuity behind it.’ (Mabey 1996, 345)

Della Hooke picks up this last theme in her assessment of the Anglo-Saxon elder, noting its use in various salves and potions recorded in the Leechdoms (Hooke 2010, 234-35). She also highlights Wulfstan’s dramatic singling out of the elder-tree as the sort of place where, even in the early eleventh century, pagan “nonsense” was performed (on friðsplottum and on ellenum, ‘in sanctuaries… and at elder-trees’: Hooke 2010, 32). Bede offers no hint that ad uillam Sambuce had pagan associations – rather, Ceolfrith acquisition of the land for Wearmouth-Jarrow is stated to have been ‘because it seemed nearer to that monastery’ (Grocock & Wood 2013, 59) – so there need not be any reason to suspect any deliberate sanctification of a place characterised by “pagan” trees.

Concluding remarks

If we dispense with the assertion that ad uillam Sambuce occupied a wet site, then identifying its location if anything becomes even harder. It has proved beyond the capabilities of previous authors, and this humble blogger, whose visits to the north-east can be counted on the fingers of one hand, is not even going to begin to attempt to embark on such an exercise here or elsewhere. What I will say is that we have a reliable eighth-century record of a place-name that was certainly attached to a 20-hide landholding and moreover was very likely to have been of Old English composition and of habitative type. One could point to a welter of “major” place-names coined and recorded during the Anglo-Saxon period but which did not endure long enough for their precise geographical locations to be known today. However, in some cases (perhaps many – I’m a born optimist) the reason for this is the documents containing later spellings have not been examined – or else not fully appreciated – by place-name scholars.

I feel there’s a fighting chance that diligent research in the hinterland of Monkwearmouth and Jarrow may turn up an Old English or Old Norse (or Anglo-Norse hybrid) place-name with a meaning equivalent to ad uillam Sambuce. I’m aware that a major study of the landscape context of the double monastery, Wearmouth & Jarrow: Northumbrian monasteries in a landscape context has been published recently (Northumbrian monastic studies is being very well served by new publications right now), but, as far as I can determine from searching for Dalton/Daltun/Daldun/Sambuce using the function on the title’s Google Book preview, neither of the possible tūnas discussed above is mentioned. If anyone with a hard-copy of the book knows that the faith I’m having to put in technology is misplaced and there are such references, please let me know so I can amend this and so spare my blushes! For now at least, staying Mr Positive, I will continue to hold the expectation that additional early forms which offer a strong linguistic basis for connecting them with one or other of the two place-names will come to light one day. Until then, well, I have quite enough other indisputable names in tūn to be getting to grips with – what you can see in the photo below isn’t even the half of it…

Sneak peak of work in progress - charter authenticity is the bane of my life currently

Sneak peak of work in progress – charter authenticity is the bane of my life currently


Bascombe, K., ‘Two Charters of King Suebred of Essex’, in An Essex Tribute: Essays presented to Frederick G. Emmison, ed. by K. Neale (London: Leopard’s Head Press, 1987), pp. 85–96

Campbell, James, ‘Bede’s Words for Places’ in his Essays in Anglo-Saxon History (London & Ronceverte, WV: Hambledon Press, 1986), 99-119

Coates, Richard, ‘”Agricultural” compound terms and names in tūn like Acton and Barton’ in Sense of Place in Anglo-Saxon England, ed. by Richard Jones and Sarah Semple (Donington: Shaun Tyas, 2012), 211-37

Cox, Barrie, ‘The place-names of the earliest English records’, Journal of the English Place-Name Society, 8 (1975-76), 12-66

Gelling, Margaret, and Ann Cole, The Landscape of Place-Names (Stamford: Shaun Tyas, 2000)

Gover, J. E. B., A. Mawer and F. M. Stenton, The Place-Names of Surrey (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1934) [= PNS]

Abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow, ed. and trans. by Christopher Grocock and I. N. Wood (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 2013)

The Long Eighth Century, ed. by Inge Lyse Hansen and Chris Wickham (Leiden, Boston & Köln: Brill, 2000)

Hooke, Della, Trees in Anglo-Saxon England: Literature, Lore and Landscape, Anglo-Saxon Studies, 13 (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2010)

Historia de Sancto Cuthberto: A History of Saint Cuthbert and a Record of His Patrimony, ed. by Ted Johnson Smith, Anglo-Saxon Texts, 3 (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2002)

Mabey, Richard, Flora Britannica (London: Sinclair Stevenson, 1996)

Oosthuizen, Susan, Tradition and Transformation in Anglo-Saxon England: Archaeology, Common Rights and Landscape (London: Bloomsbury, 2013)

Rackham, Oliver, The History of the Countryside (London: Phoenix Press, 2000)

Rippon, Stephen, ‘Emerging Regional Variation in Historic Landscape Character: The Possible Significance of the “Long Eighth Century”‘ in Medieval Landscapes, ed. by Mark Gardiner and Stephen Rippon, Landscape History After Hoskins, 2 (Macclesfield: Windgather, 2007), 105-121

Smith, A. H. English Place-Name Elements, Part 1. A-Iw and Part 2. Jafn-Ytri, English Place-Name Society, 25 and 26 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1956) [= Smith 1956a and 1956b respectively]

Watts, Victor, The Cambridge Dictionary of English Place-Names (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004) [= CDEPN]

The Age of Bede, trans. by J. F. Webb, ed. by D. H. Farmer (London: Penguin, 1996)


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, Bede, Books, Charters, Church, Dating, Folklore, History, Landscape, Latin, Monasteries, Northumbria, Old English, Place-Names, Religion and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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