From Eliopoleos to Sunbury-on-Thames, and the mystery of ‘sunnan hyg’

A couple of years ago, in my first flush of excitement at doing a Master’s degree involving a substantial slice of Old English, I wrote two blog posts linking the Surrey place-names Wanborough and Clandon with hitherto-unacknowledged literary references from a charm and OE Herbarium respectively. I was on the look out for a third such name-literature pairing, because trios of things are somehow especially satisfying to me. Not sure exactly why this is, but, whether you see it positively (like De La Soul) or negatively (every time there’s a major air disaster my father remarks that these tragedies come in threes), I’m clearly not alone in imbuing the number three with a particular significance. Anyway, I didn’t come across another example at the time and my attentions moved on to other things (coursework, mainly).

My discovery of the third (but in the grander scheme of things hopefully not final!) reference had to wait until Christmas Day last year. Among the presents I received was Towns & Topography: Essays in Memory of David Hill, an if I’m honest slightly-disappointing collection of papers on various topics united by their affinities to the research interests of the book’s late, great dedicatee. One of its more interesting contributions is that authored by Mark Atherton, entitled ‘”Sudden Wonder”: Urban Perspectives in Late Anglo-Saxon Literature’. In the course of a mere nine pages he quotes from and analyses a wide variety of Old English-period texts, some of which were familiar from reading other bits of scholarship within this field (The Ruin, Legend of the Seven Sleepers), others more or less brand new to me.

Detail from the illustrated Old English Hexateuch; not sure which folio, but it's one of those images related to royal justice that gets reproduced in loads of works so it shouldn't be hard to find out (photo via Wikimedia Commons, you know the score)

Detail from the illustrated Old English Hexateuch; not sure which folio, but it’s one of those images related to royal justice that gets reproduced in loads of works so it shouldn’t be hard to find out for yourself (photo via Wikimedia Commons, you know the score)

Falling into the latter category was the illustrated Old English Hexateuch (a.k.a. BL Cotton Claudius B. iv), an eleventh-century work produced at Canterbury (or else by one or more person with a Canterburian connection). Atherton highlights a depiction on folio 60v. – click here to see it for yourself in all its digitised glory – of the Pharoah’s presentation of a wife to Joseph, who had not long before been appointed ‘reeve over all Egypt’, which is accompanied by the following text etymologising the name of the city of which her father was priest (quoted here along with Atherton’s translation):

of þære byrig þe is genemned Eliopoleos, þæt is on Englisc, ‘Sunnan buruh’

‘of the city that is called Eliopoleos, that is in English, “Sunbury”‘ (Atherton 2014, 80)

Thanks to Atherton’s rather literal translation (the Old English glossing might be read as spelling out the meaning of “city of the sun” to the reader), it didn’t require a great leap of the imagination to make the connection with Sunbury-on-Thames. An estate of Westminster Abbey from the late tenth century (until 1222), there is a run of genuine Old English spellings of the place-name which can be equated with Sunnan buruh: (æt, to) Sunnan byrig 962 (S 702), (æt, into) Sunnanbyrg c.968 (S 1447). Sunbury also appears in a number of other Westminster charters that purport to date from before the Norman Conquest but in reality are later forgeries. The spellings – Sunnabyri (S 1293, S 1043), Sunnanburig (S 894), Sunnabury (S 1039), Sunnabyrig (S 1040) – are fairly reasonable attempts at replicating the OE form(s). Domesday Book renders it as Sun[n]eberie.

The heart of historic Eliopoleos, sorry, Sunbury

The heart of historic Eliopoleos, I mean, Sunbury-on-Thames

Despite the philological similarities, the most credible etymology for the place-name Sunbury is unfortunately not the same as for Eliopoleos, rather “*Sunna‘s stronghold or manor” (hence CDEPN, 589, here adjusted to reflect the understanding of the second element proposed in VEPN, 74). The specific would be the genitive singular inflection of a weak masculine personal name *Sunna (the equivalent female form *Sunne is possible, too), the generic the genitive or dative singular of the very common noun burh (of which the Heaxteuch’s buruh is a reflex). The personal name is unattested (note should be taken of the late-recorded dithematic man’s name Sunngifu, however), but would credibly stand for a byname arising from the masculine noun sunna, ‘the sun’ (cf. the more common feminine version sunne). In origin, it was perhaps a reference to the colour of the hair or complexion of the person in question – hence, when travelling in China, my blonde-haired girlfriend was told on at least one occasion that her hair was “bright like the sun”.

Over the years, some (see, for instance, Bailey 1989, 114) have made a connection between Sunbury and the various place-names upstream along the River Thames in Berkshire which derive from OE *Sunningas (Sonning, Sunninghill, Sunningdale), a presumed tribal name going back to a male figurehead named Sunna, and first documented in the earlier 670s as prouincie que apellatur Sunninges (“the province which is called *Sunningas“; the spelling is likely to represent a 13th-century modernisation of the OE original – for a discussion of the name and province, see Kelly 2015, 102). While Sunbury is not so many miles away from the Berkshire name cluster, it strikes me as perverse that the tribe’s eponymous figurehead could have had his stronghold (real or imagined) at a remove from what is safe to assume as being the territorial centre in east Berkshire. While there simply isn’t the evidence with which to discount a direct link altogether, there seems no harm to proceeding by treating Sunbury as a name formation in its own right, potentially one of later formation than the *Sunninga(s) derivatives.

Thames Street in Sunbury, decked out with bunting to celebrate, er, how great bunting is?

Thames Street in Sunbury, decked out with bunting to celebrate, er, how great bunting is?

Historically, Sunbury was part of Middlesex until 1965, when Sunbury-on-Thames and Staines Urban Districts were transferred to the county of Surrey. Nine years later, the urban districts were merged and reconfigured as Spelthorne Borough, which interestingly represents a revival of the local Domesday Hundred name. It’s nothing personal against the area, but I’m always a little cautious about taking Surrey Medieval into matters to do with Spelthorne. In this case, however, I have a very good reason for sticking with Sunbury, as there’s an Old English mystery I believe I can solve.

The mystery of “Sunna‘s hyg

Of the charters mentioned on the previous page, two are definitely genuine and hence of considerable interest: S 1447 (analysed and discussed in great detail by Thompson Smith 2012, 79-107) and S 702. This is a typical royal diploma of the third quarter of the tenth century, which survives in near-contemporary single-sheet form (for a good, primarily palaeographical account, see Korhammer 1973, 182-87). What it lacks in narrative details when compared with S 1447 it more than makes up for by its inclusion of an Old English boundary description of the perimeter of the estate (plus 10 yardlands of the meadow at nearby Halliford and rights to wood and pannage from ‘burhwuda‘). The start and end point of the perambulation catches the eye because of its obvious connection to the first half of the place-name Sunbury:

Ærest on sunnan hyg [] on sunnan hyg

“First to sunnan hyg […] to sunnan hyg” (S 702)

No-one has been able to offer a satisfactory explanation of hyg. Indeed, in recent years the question has been swerved altogether; when the Sunbury bounds were edited for the LangScape database, no translation was suggested in even the most tentative way. (Out of interest, LangScape cautiously glosses sunnan as “sun’s”, although the more probable personal-name alternative is acknowledged in a footnote.)

One might have thought it would be connected with Old English hyge, ‘mind, heart, soul’, although the obvious difficulties in envisaging a topographical application of any of these senses may explain why this has not been pursued. A less well-attested noun hyge, ‘the upper part of the throat’, might be admissible given the use of the likes of ceole, ‘(the) throat’, and tunge, ‘tongue’ in toponymy (whence perhaps the Surrey place-names Chilworth and Tongham, for example). The problem is this would necessitate detailed anatomical knowledge as well as a very distinctively-shaped landform, which arguably serves to rule out this possibility. Moreover, so far as I can determine, hyg is not straightforwardly identifiable as a dialect and/or inflected form of another word.

A remarkable privately-published book on S 702 – or, to use the title given to it by the author, ‘the Sunbury Charter’ – provides two further suggestions for the sense of hyg, as well as the inspiration for my new alternative (Tapp 1951). A significant portion of the book is given over to an analysis of the boundary clause, including several identifications of tenth-century landmarks in the landscape of London’s urban periphery. Concerning sunnan hyg, Tapp wrote the following:

‘Mr. Earle took this to be a mis-spelling for “byrig-byrg” dative of “burg”. The word appears twice and we therefore came to the conclusion that it must have some connection with “hæg-haga” meaning enclosure or fence (stockade)’ (Tapp 1951, 3).

If it’s not clear already, hyg shouldn’t be read as an elision of either of the two word pairings, for these represent Tapp providing two forms of the same Old English term. Both are credible on at least a basic level, as we seem to be dealing with a word arising from scribal error. But I believe true understanding of the Old English root-word comes from Tapp’s mapping of the Sunbury estate boundary (1951, 9). He placed what is labelled ‘Sunna’s Haw’ at the south-eastern corner of the estate (but not the parish; it has long been recognised that the estate boundary was not coterminous with the parochial boundary), beside the Thames in the immediate vicinity of the present parish church (approximate OS grid reference TQ 10656855).

Tales of the riverbank

My feeling is this riverside location is important, and as a result my hypothesis is that the final letter in hyg represent a misreading (or mis-reproduction) of the glyph þ (thorn) or ð (eth/ðæt) in the Old English noun hȳþ, “landing-place (on a river)” (my spelling follows the head form used in the Old English Thesaurus; the term is given the full Gelling and Cole treatment in LPN, 83-89). Both letters occur elsewhere in words in the boundary description (e.g. þanonþonenorðeƿeardreoðre, etc.), but only once in a terminal position: hyrð (“belong”); this might indicate the scribe of the extant charter had trouble correctly identifying thorn at the end of sunnan hyþ. Trouble is, the two identical forms of the name occur in grammatical contexts both requiring the dative singular inflected form hyþe (or hyðe), which therefore would imply misunderstanding of not one but two characters.

A possible explanation for the apparently erroneous hyg is that the scribe was working from a boundary description written down on a separate sheet by another individual whose handwriting was not entirely legible and/or who failed to provide the correctly-inflected ending (most likely by accident in view of other nouns in the bounds having the correct endings). Elsewhere in the Westminster archive is a set of bounds for Battersea, associated with an entirely unrelated diploma text of 957 (S 645; glossed bounds here). It may have been common for boundary descriptions to have been composed on parchment which was then attached to the respective diploma, or transcribed into the latter before being discarded (see Keynes 1990, 255 footnote 114). It’s beyond my scholarly capabilities to adjudge whether the Sunbury boundary clause is written in the same hand as the rest of the diploma – all I’ll say is that it looks very alike to me. (If you can get your hands on a copy of the book, draw your own conclusion by consulting the image of the charter on Tapp 1951, 2.)

The riverfront at Sunbury-on-Thames

Hereabouts was sunnan hyg? The riverfront at Sunbury-on-Thames

Another way of testing my hypothesis was to visit its presumed location, something I did last weekend. The weakness in this approach is that it’s reliant on Tapp’s suggestion being correct – being a first-time visitor to Sunbury with only limited prior knowledge of the place culled from books, journals, and websites, I’m proceeding in the expectation/hope that it is! Anyway, I found the riverbank below Sunbury church – and hence in the postulated environs of sunnan hyg – is now a pleasant, sort-of landscaped linear garden. Appropriately, all along the water’s edge are moorings for boats. I’ve no idea if the current river wall is a structure with a long history or a modern development, but at its western limit is George Wilson & Sons boatbuilders, based in Ferry House. A ferry at Sunbury is on record from at least 1604, which is of course but a hop and a skip from the medieval period.

This photo shows the curvature of the river and north bank despite being taken a few metres back from the water's edge

This photo shows the curvature of the river and north bank despite being taken a few metres back from the water’s edge

Sunbury mooring

Sunbury boatbuilders

The riverside premises of Wilson & Sons, the nearest thing to a landing-place at Sunbury these days

Sunbury Ferry House

Whatever its current status and appearance, pretty much any piece of riverbank could be postulated to have been an early medieval landing-place. Making a convincing case for a landing-place below Sunbury church can be aided by comparing its situation with the other places both downstream and upstream of Sunbury on the lower Thames which bear (or bore) names containing OE hȳþ. The suggested site of *Sunnanhȳþ lies on the outside of a gentle bend in the river. Previously, I’ve discussed at length the ones further down the river in what was once Surrey (even going so far as to make a poster for the Thames Discovery Programme to illustrate my point).

Heading the other way along the river on a walk, I passed two extant “hythes” with probable pre-1066 origins (see captions to the photos below for details). The place from which Egham Hythe takes its name is on the south bank of the Thames but is likewise on the outside of a meander, whereas The Hythe opposite Staines (sorry, Staines-upon-Thames) is on the inside. Both resemble Sunbury in having the capability for boats to moor up – but I must concede this could be said of most of the stretch of river I walked alongside. I dimly recall from my GCSE Geography syllabus that the river channel is deepest and flow fastest on the outside of a bend or meander in a river, but one as large as the Thames I’m not sure if the differences would be sufficiently pronounced as to dissuade the siting of landing-places if there were other factors (e.g. proximity to estate centres or other settlements) in operation.

This is Egham Hythe, first recorded as Huþe in the boundary description appended to S 1165, perhaps in the second half of the 11th or early 12th century; it was substantially revised in the mid-13th century (see Kelly 2015, 108-111).

The part of Egham Hythe (and a Mute Swan) closest to the site of “Wealh‘s or Briton’s landing-place” which features in not one but two of S 1165’s three estate boundary descriptions: as Ƿeales huþe in the one for Chertsey and Thorpe, and wheles huþe in the one for Egham (discussed sequentially in Kelly 2015, 104-111).

The Hythe, first recorded as Huþe in the boundary description for Egham. The text was perhaps created and in the second half of the 11th or early 12th century, and substantially revised in the mid-13th century (see Kelly 2015, 108-111).

The Hythe, first recorded as Huþe in the boundary description for Egham, viewed from Staines Bridge. The bounds were perhaps surveyed and written down in the second half of the 11th or early 12th century, and substantially revised in the mid-13th century (see Kelly 2015, 108-111).

Returning to the language, it must be noted that there’s an outside possibility S 702’s sunnan hyg could stand for a shortening of an original compound *Sunnanbyrig-hȳþ. The phenomenon of the middle element being dropped from a tripartite name formation in late Old English is well-evidenced but so far as I am aware has not been the subject of a dedicated survey (the reference I’ve seen trotted out most often is the brief yet influential comment by Gelling 2005, 244). This would implicitly place the coinage of name at a considerable period of time before 962, although by how much is unclear (and likewise the notion gives no means of determining the date of Sunbury as a name formation).

A piece of evidence which casts doubt on this scenario is to be found miles downstream on the opposite, Surrey bank of the river (though no longer in the administrative county – keep up!). The place-name Putney is first attested in a corrupt Domesday form Putelei, but later spellings (e.g. Puttenhyth 1350) confirm the generic is hȳþ. Like Sunbury and Egham Hythe, the historic settlement of Putney lies on the outside of a river bend. Opinions on the specific this vary between the early-attested weak masculine personal name Putta (e.g. CDEPN, 486) and the related noun putta, “hawk” (e.g. LPN, 88). Unless we see the name being a secondary formation from a lost *Puttanburh, -byrig nearby (and never say never), the evidence from the Sunbury bounds encourages its interpretation as OE *Puttanhȳþ, “Putta‘s landing-place”. In return, the philological data for Putney supports the judgement that sunnan hyg is not a shortened form of a once-longer name compound.

Thematically and geographically, this is nearest thing I have to a photo of Putney

Thematically and geographically, the nearest thing I have to a photo of Putney


Given the connection of our putative *Sunna with the nearby fortified manorial centre (or whatever burh, byrig was meant to signify in the place-name), it must be assumed the nature of his association with the Thames-side landing-place was one of ownership/proprietorship. At a microtopgraphical level, it looks as if landing-places meriting the use of the term hȳþ were positioned so as to be proximate to deeper parts of the river channel, perhaps a inevitable consequence of the navigability of the Thames above its tidal limit.

So when in the Anglo-Saxon period was *Sunnanhȳþ established and at its height? Frankly, other than pre-dating the documentary historical horizon of circa 950, it’s all but impossible to tell. At Putney, there is considerable evidence for Romano-British activity on the shoreline as well as seventh-/eighth-century proto-pennies and other early medieval finds. A very rare coin of the West Saxon King Beorhtric (786-802) was found in Sunbury parish in 1865 (e.g. Bonser 1998, 216), but there’s nothing to say it came from the water’s edge rather than in a location set well away from the Thames. Nor is it obvious from the Sunbury estate boundary description whether the landing-place was still operating to any significant degree in 962 (or whenever the S 702 bounds were surveyed). And maybe therein lies the most important lesson to be learned from this exercise: a topographically as well as philologically credible explanation for the identity of sunnan hyg has been advanced, but this only prompts new questions about its place in time, and likewise of its relationship with the similarly-named estate centre.


Atherton, Mark, ‘”Sudden Wonder”: Urban Perspectives in Late Anglo-Saxon Literature’ in Towns & Topography: Essays in Memory of David H. Hill, ed. by G. R. Owen-Crocker & S. D. Thompson (Oxford & Philadelphia: Oxbow Books, 2014), 74-82

Bailey, Keith, ‘The Middle Saxons’ in The Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, ed. by S. Bassett (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1989), 108-122

Bonser, Michael, ‘Single finds of ninth-century coins from southern England: a listing’ in Kings, Currency and Alliances: History and Coinage of Southern England in the Ninth Century, ed. by M. A. S. Blackburn & D. N. Dumville (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1998), 199-240

Gelling, Margaret, Signposts to the Past, third edition (Chichester: Phillimore, 2005)

Gelling, Margaret, and Ann Cole, The Landscape of Place-Names, new edition (Donington: Shaun Tyas, 2014) [= LPN]

Kelly, S. E., ed., Charters of Chertsey Abbey (Oxford: Oxford University Press for The British Academy, 2015)

Keynes, Simon, ‘Royal government and the written word in late Anglo-Saxon England’, in The uses of literacy in early medieval Europe, ed. by Rosamond McKitterick (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), pp. 226-57

Korhammer, P. E., ‘The origin of the Bosworth Psalter’, Anglo-Saxon England, 2 (1973), 173–87

Parsons, David N., and Tania Styles, The Vocabulary of English Place-Names (Brace-Cæster) (Nottingham: Centre for English Name Studies, 2000) [= VEPN]

Tapp, W. H., The Sunbury Charter (Sunbury-on-Thames: Major W. H. Tapp, 1951)

Thompson Smith, Scott, Land and Book: Literature and Land Tenure in Anglo-Saxon England (Toronto, Buffalo & London: University of Toronto Press, 2012)

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

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, Archaeology, Charters, Church, History, Landscape, Language, Old English, Spelthorne, Sunbury, Surrey, Thames, Walking and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to From Eliopoleos to Sunbury-on-Thames, and the mystery of ‘sunnan hyg’

  1. phil jones says:

    interesting, your doubts as to the connections between Sunbury and similar names in east Berks. But how about Basingas- once named for Ankerwyke along the Thames from Staines (PLEASE NOT -on Thames!), or even Staines itself, with a staningahaga in the City.

    • Hi Phil, thanks for the comment. When (and for how long) was Ankerwyke known as/referred to as Basing? I’d be cautious pushing it back too far in time. I seem to recall the Basing(es) family were pretty powerful and so presumably had interests in property scattered all over (didn’t they have something to do with Woking Palace?). The scenario of a latr medieval “manorial” name application is perhaps something to think about. Staningahaga is an interesting issue, ditto Basinghall in the City of London. Again, it seems to me the tendency is to push them right back in time, which becomes less and less credible given the scarcity of activity within the city walls between the 5th and later 9th centuries. I believe there may be some significance in the fact both places were minsters operating in the late Anglo-Saxon period and so, like Chertsey, could have had urban possessions (“hagae” if you will) there. OE -ingas seems to have developed a secondary sense of “religious community” by 800, though for how long this endured (as opposed to the more general sense of “inhabitants of a place” evident from later charter boundary marks) is difficult to say – it’s part of what my PhD will look at! It could be added after the (minster) name Staines to form an easily-understood triple compound name, but would have been a confusing duplication in the case of Basing (*Basingaingahaga!)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s