Another Surrey candidate site for the battle of Acleah?

(I had intended to precede this post with one summing up 2016 in terms of this blog, my PhD research etc. Time, alas, is not on my side – I’m typing this preface with a glass of prosecco by my side before I head out to a NYE party – so I’m ditching the idea and instead appreciating the fact that I’ve produced the following on one of the calendar year’s inherently least productive days! Happy New Year, dear reader, and here’s to a great 2017 – let’s strive to make it the antithesis of everything bad about the past year!)

Some of the most consistently popular Surrey Medieval posts (one, two, three) are those in which I examine the evidence for placing the major military confrontation between West Saxon and Danish forces that happened at a place named Acleah in the year 851 in Surrey, specifically in the vicinity of Ockley Wood and Hill near Merstham in the east of the county. Moreover, this location may be one and the same as the famed assembly site of the late eighth and early ninth centuries. My trio of posts follow in a long tradition of speculation over the battle-site, which have ascribed it to various supposedly suitably-named places across the southern half of Surrey. I won’t claim that together they make a watertight case for the battle (and earlier assemblies) having taken place in between modern-day Merstham, Bletchingley and Chaldon, but the combination of evidence is more favourable towards such a conclusion than those that have gone before…


Detail from the 1:10560 OS map, surveyed 1871-82. Ockley Wood is the small, sub-square woodland just below the 777 feet spot height in the centre of the map. Tillingdown Farm is off the map to the north. Things that hint Ockley Wood had early medieval significance are: the adjacent Roman road (on the line of the present A22 Caterham bypass); the name of Winders Hill (just possibly from OE *windels, ‘windlass’?), attached to a spur of land that has the look of a “hanging promontory” typical of early medieval meeting-places; and Marden Castle, a prominently-sited 18th- or early 19th-century house-cum-folly (since demolished).

…or so I thought, until the end of September of this year, when I received an email from a gentleman named Matt Sparkes who wished to draw my attention to ANOTHER Ockley Wood on the Surrey Downs, south of Tillingdown Farm near Caterham, a few miles east of the one I’d written about. I had never heard of the wood, nor suspected there could be an apparently synonymous place so close to Ockley Wood/Hill, but I got out the relevant OS map and there it was! My imagination was sparked. I started looking at the surroundings and, using Matt’s own excellent analysis of the local landscape as a guide, began to piece together what seemed to be a credible case for locating Acleah thereabouts rather than at the southern end of the Merstham Gap (see caption to the above map excerpt for details). But thinking you known the lie of the land from what can be gleaned from a map is very different to actually being there. As it happened, I had a free day and needed to go and collect some wild fruits for jam-making and pickling, so donned by walking boots and travelled to the southern edge of London to go for a walk to Ockley Wood and see it for myself.



I began my walk just outside Caterham, at the foot of Tillingdown Hill, a steep road now fringed by typical 20th-century suburban housing but certainly of much greater antiquity. Tillingdown is an interesting place with an interesting name. Now an isolated farm complex, it is first recorded as a Domesday manor (complete with a church), and its medieval history is summarised in an excellent 1992 article by Mary Saaler. Parochially, Tillingdown was a detached portion of nearby Tandridge until relativley recently, a situation that would seem to have a basis in their common ownership by Richard of Tonbridge, a major East Surrey landowner (although Tillingdown was held from him by a mesne-tenant in 1086), and maybe before.


The old lane towards Tillingdown, near to where it crosses the Caterham bypass. The ground beyond the fence falls away very suddenly, indicating that the lane runs along an artificial terrace.

The place-name Tillingdown is usually understood to derive from Old English (OE) *Tillingadūn, ‘hill of the *Tillingas‘, a social group that based its shared identity on a male figurehead named Tilli or Tilla (PNS, 336). We have no credible OE spellings to confirm this etymology, although there are records of other -ingas group-name + dūn compound place-names that could bear it out, e.g. Annington in Sussex (æt . ANNINGADUNE 956 (S 624)). The medieval attestations that are available to us could admit another interpretation (I’ll skirt around the view espoused in Ekwall 1964, 45, that the place-name Tilmundesdoune 1302 pertains to Tillingdown, as I think this arose from acceptance of a mistaken identification made in the index of the printed edition of the source in question). This alternative involves *Tilling, a possible OE lexical item meaning “useful place/watercourse” (the basis for this is set out in Briggs 2016, 69-70), perhaps here in the locative-dative form *Tillinğe, to give the whole place-name a meaning along the lines of “the hill at Tilling, the useful place”. The 1317 reference to ‘tenements called Tyllynge’ in Tandridge parish (Saaler 1992, 23) certainly accords with this line of interpretation.


Tillingdown farmhouse, a bit of a wreck now but a very handsome edifice when first built, apparently in the years before 1731 (see main text for further details).

But in what way(s) was Tillingdown useful? If we are to go down this route then for me the best explanation lies in the fact the estate was associated with Tandridge, which in turn can be connected with Beddington because it is named as a wood (silva) of the latter in a charter text of 963 x 975 (S 815 – not original nor necessarily entirely unaltered in its present form, but credible enough as a record of landholding arrangements prevailing in the Late Anglo-Saxon period). Tillingdown lies between Tandridge and Beddington. Tandridge is a place of particular interest in my co-authored article on early-medieval extensive pig husbandry in and around the Surrey Weald (Turner and Briggs 2016, 175, 177, 184). Its long, thin shape resembles that of Ambersham in West Sussex, recorded as a woodland outlier of East Meon in 963 (S 718). In between these places lay a patch of common pasture that Mark Gardiner (1984, 81-82) persuasively interpreted as a ‘staging point’ where livestock could be grazed for a while on their way from or to the estate centre.

Therefore it is possible that Tillingdown was acquired (presumably after the date of the original charter) to serve a similar purpose, and was given a name to attest its status as a “useful” tract of downland pasture on the way between the Wealden denns of Tandridge and the estate centre at Beddington. Or maybe Tillingdown’s name was of longer standing, reflecting how it had served previously as an intermediate pasture for another estate – or a federation of estates – on the North Downs dip-slope? Just as the Beddington estate was to fragment in the decades before 1066, so Tillingdown saw a change in its fortunes, developing into a valuable and populous manor in its own right, as was captured by the Domesday Survey.


Current (and historic) ridge-top pastures south of Tillingdown Farm.


More pastures further south along the Tillingdown ridge. Historic field-names in this vicinity suggest the grazing of cattle and calves, animals that may also have grazed in the Weald for a defined “season”, probably during the summer months.

Ockley Wood

Ockley Wood stands as the southern end of the Tillingdown upland, in the middle of a large field grazed by cattle. Matt had given me the heads-up that the views to the south and west were commanding, and he wasn’t wrong.


Ockley Wood viewed from the south. The depression to the left of frame would seem to be a ploughed-out remnant of an old field pit or pond; it is not picked up on any 18th- or 19th-century maps.


The view looking south-west from Ockley Wood across Holmesdale and beyond.

As discussed in previous posts, the name Aclea(h) represents a combination OE āc + lēah, signifying “oak open woodland/wood-pasture” or similar. Ockley isn’t one of the expected modern forms of the compound, but, as Ockley Wood in Merstham demonstrates, it can result, due in no small part to the influence of the Surrey major place-name Ockley. The wood as it exists today is remarkably close to the meaning of the above OE name, with a number of mature oak trees and a very open nature as a result of cattle having been allowed to penetrate large parts of it.


Inside Ockley Wood, showing the mix of oak and ash, as well as its unusually open character – c/o the cattle that are allowed to roam and graze within.

While the initial impressions of the location were positive (prominent and accessible location, open oak woodland extant), the strength of the case for it to be the battle-site and assembly-place ultimately rested on the place-name evidence. Historic forms of Ockley Wood were needed, and such things cannot be obtained in the field (more’s the pity). Saaler (1992, 21 Fig. 2) provides an excerpt from a 1914 OS map that labels the wood as Ockley Wood, but this 102-year-old testimony is not especially useful for attempting to divine the origin of the name. Instead, I assembled the evidence during two subsequent trips to the Surrey History Centre. While the following name data cannot be said to offer 100% proof of the arguments I make on the back of them, especially given their relative lateness, it does provide some suggestive indications as to the derivation of the place-name.

My first visit yielded discoveries from the Tithe Award for Tandridge, of 1845. In it Ockley Wood appears as Hockley Wood (plot number 543, acreage 2-0-30), and the field to its north, east and south as Hockley field (plot number 544, acreage 26-1-7). These spellings would seem to indicate that they are of different formation to Acleah, deriving instead from either the OE noun hocc, ‘mallow’ (whence Modern English hollyhock), or the personal name Hocca (see explanations of Hockley in Essex and Hockley Heath in the West Midlands respectively in CDEPN, 308). But could these mid-nineteenth-century spellings be treated as any more authoritative than the one used by the Ordnance Survey since at least 1914?

For my second trip to the Surrey History Centre I was armed with a list of earlier (but still firmly post-medieval) documents likely to contain references to Ockley Wood. These included two exquisite books of later 18th-century maps: the earlier depicting and describing the Surrey estates of Sir Kenrick Clayton in 1761 (SHC 8948/1), the latter (essentially a diminutive version of the former) the equivalent properties of his son and heir Sir Robert Clayton in 1781 (SHC 8948/2). Tillingdown is the third property mapped in the 1761 volume, and the second in the one of 1781. In both, Ockley Wood is unnamed (though it is described as a shaw in the latter) but the adjacent field appears as Ockley’s Wood (with a measured acreage of 18-1-20).

These genitival spellings do not mean much by themselves, but other 18th-century deeds pertaining to Tillingdown offer a credible explanation for how the wood came to get its name, even though none of them actually refers to it by name. The earliest of these, an indenture dated 20th October 1731 (SHC 597/27), mentions a number of fields at Tillingdown, including one named Hookham, said to be ‘formerly the land of Thomas Ockly’, and another, Great Smalden, ‘formerly the land also of the s[ai]d Thomas’. (Incidentally, it also refers to Tillingdown farmhouse as being ‘lately new built by S[i]r Robert Clayton’, presumably Sir Kenrick’s father or grandfather.) The same information is repeated in a lease and conveyance of early April 1777 (SHC 61/16/66a-b), only this time Thomas’ surname is spelled Ockley; this is also used in a 1779 attested copy of a 1772 release (SHC 389/11/7). A bit of online digging turns up that Thomas Ockley was ‘of Caterham’, and the father of a landowning son as early as 1716 (SHC 212/27/2 – I didn’t know about this document at the time of my visits to the History Centre).


Looking east from the old Roman road in the valley towards the Tillingdown ridge. Ockley Wood is unfortunately obscured by the trees just above the (very friendly) horse’s head.

The 1761 and 1781 maps, along with descriptive details contained within the deeds, show these fields lay on the western edge of the Tillingdown estate (albeit in Caterham parish). It’s my contention that Ockley Wood takes its name from its association (presumably tenurial) with Thomas Ockl(e)y, or perhaps one of his immediate predecessors – theirs looks to have been a locative byname, surely from Ockley halfway across Surrey. Thomas owned land close by at a date before 1731, and had perhaps acquired the wood, adjoining field, and other portions of Tillingdown around the same time. Of course, it’s not inconceivable there was a wood here with a name similar enough to Ockley that in due course it came to be falsely associated with Thomas’ family. But – on the proviso that all the testimony presented above is late and some does not pertain to the location of Ockley Wood itself – the situation of Thomas Ockley’s former fields close to the wood, along with the implication of the recurrent field-name form Ockley’s Wood, does I believe offer the most persuasive explanation. Acceptance of this would rule out any chance that the name existed as far back as the eighth and ninth centuries, and hence that its location was the site of the battle of Acleah.


What does the above serve to demonstrate? Mostly that place-names are slippery things, suggestive in a way that cannot help but inspire flights of fancy, but which must be critically examined in order to discover whether such conjectures are true or not. In the case of Ockley Wood, the available onomastic evidence has been found wanting, and so the hypothesis I built initially, founded on suggestive topographical characteristics of its location and environs like the far-reaching views that can be obtained from the edge of the wood and the Roman road running along the valley below, in the end amounts to nothing. Or at least it does as things stand; earlier name attestations would be desirable, and I imagine they do exist somewhere out there. Just like my second dip into the archives overturned the results of my first, so future discoveries may disprove much of what I have argued above. This is equally true of Tillingdown, a name I have tried to explain on the linguistic side in what I’ll admit is a slightly forced non-standard way, compensating for this by stressing the geographical practicality of my proposition. Place-name studies can offer vital contributions to the understanding of historical sources and archaeological discoveries, it just so often takes great patience and care to get to the bottom of a name. But then again, that’s half the fun of it!

Many thanks to Matt Sparkes for his initial email and all the points and pointers contained in subsequent messages. If you would like to drop me an email and perhaps even inspire a post like this, I can be contacted at

PUBLISHED REFERENCES (hyperlinked if available for free online)

Briggs, R., A reassessment of the occurrences of Old English -ingas and -ingahāin Surrey place-names, revised version of University of Nottingham MA dissertation (unpublished, 2016)

Ekwall, E., ‘Some cases of variation and change in English place-names’, English Studies, 45 (1964), 44-49

Gardiner, M., ‘Saxon settlement and land division in the western Weald’, Sussex Archaeological Collections, 122 (1984), 75–83

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

Saaler, M., ‘The Manor of Tillingdown: the changing economy of the demesne 1325-71’, Surrey Archaeological Collections [SyAC], 81 (1992), 19-40

Turner, D., and Briggs, R., ‘Testing transhumance: Anglo-Saxon swine pastures and seasonal grazing in the Surrey Weald’, SyAC99 (2016), 165–193

Watts, V., The Cambridge Dictionary of English Place-Names (Cambridge: CUP, 2004)

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 Agriculture, Anglo-Saxon, Annals, Field-names, History, Landscape, Old English, Place-Names, Surrey, Topography, Viking, Walking, Wessex and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Another Surrey candidate site for the battle of Acleah?

  1. mark cowen says:

    Hi – There is an Ockley Common to the west of Thursley common in SW Surrey – could it be a possible contender for battle of Acleah?

    • Thanks for your comment, Mark. Ockley Common has been suggested before (I meant to include references to the various contenders in my post but forgot!), however it falls down because it is mentioned as ‘ocan lea’ in a tenth-century charter boundary clause (Sawyer 382). This is incompatible with the etymology of Acleah, and instead would appear to contain a personal name Oc(c)a in its genitive form – giving a meaning of “Oc(c)a’s lēah”. Without such early evidence and only written forms of similar age to those for the two Ockley Woods, we might consider it to be a candidate, but having it means we can be certain it’s not the battle/assembly site of Acleah.

  2. Pingback: A castle – or a causeway? | Surrey Medieval

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