On trying to be a better medievalist (and make the world a better place)

I spent a large chunk of the first few weeks of the new year away from this blog working on a funding application for my PhD research. Consequently, of late, I have spent a lot of time thinking about what I study, why I study it, and how I go about doing my research. The backdrop to this has been a political climate getting bleaker by the day, with all manner of worrying things being reported in broadcast, print and social media. 2017 may not be even two months old, but a few things are clearer now than ever before. Everyone is entitled to an opinion – nay, has a right to form and hold an opinion – but that does not mean everyone should expect their opinion to be treated as valid when they share it in contexts where its factual veracity is open to be examined objectively.

For me, those opinions that are more well thought-through and take in a broad range of information that tend to be of more value than those with a purposely limited focus. Not that this matters to some people and more importantly to some – how can I phrase this? – sources of what may or may not be news (you know what I’m talking about). Nowadays there’s a platform for every shade of opinion-dolled-up-as-fact, and what seems a lot like a concerted effort from some quarters to erase the distinction between what’s “real” and what’s “fake”. Hence some of the less-edifying aspects of the UK’s referendum on its EU membership (especially from the Leave side) and pretty much everything that’s emanated from the mouths and Twitter accounts of Donald J. Trump, Sean Spicer et al. in recent (and not so recent) times. And as if that wasn’t enough, there’s been a definite infiltration of certain viewpoints and language of the extreme right into some mainstream media and other cultural arenas.


There’s been a lot of disquiet in my neck of the woods of late as a result of the discovery that an obscure local gallery/arts space played host to an alt-right exhibition and ‘conference on Reactionary and Neo-Reactionary thought’. I say discovery because these events were not generally publicised at the time they were held, which fatally undermines the gallery director’s claims that calls to shut the place down fly in the face of principles of free speech and open debate. To say nothing of the disgusting past statements of some of the invited speakers, and the fact press enquiries were directed to a Twitter account featuring some incredibly racist tweets. No platforming sometimes leaves me feeling uneasy, and likewise calls to run something out of town, but in this case I think pressure to remove this pathetic excuse for a gallery from Dalston is entirely justified. For more info, see Shut Down LD50.

My chosen area of research does not have direct resonance with contemporary politics, but in some aspects has the potential to become politicised inasmuch as being capable of misuse for political ends. I don’t pretend this will be in the sphere of parliamentary politics, but quite conceivably could come to pass in the context of the myriad groups, blogs, etc. that are the engine rooms of contemporary popular politics. Scarcely a week goes by without me noticing a spike in views of an old Surrey Medieval post or page, which my dashboard tells me is coming from Facebook, but not which private group or individual user has shared it and so generated the extra traffic. I’m sure that in most cases the source has well-meaning, constructive intentions in linking what I’ve written, but in this day and age you can never know for certain.

With all that in mind, I decided to write a post in which I did some scene-setting before making my case for how I approach what I study; predicting some key aspects of my subject matter that might be subject to misrepresentation; and explaining why they cannot be understood in simplistic, blinkered ways. Two months later, I finally hit the Post button – and then quickly realised that what I’d written was far too “overlongform” for anyone to be expected to read in full, no matter how many pictures I inserted to try and break up the monotony of paragraph upon paragraph. So instead, I’ve split the original post into two still-hefty pieces (but remember, there are images!). Here, I deal with the context: how it’s important in my eyes that practitioners of medieval studies are both aware of and kick back against past and future misuse/misrepresentation of their work by political extremists, and find ways (however minor) to influence non-academic discourse by sharing their knowledge and fruits of their research in wider circles. In the second post, I will identify three aspects of my own chosen area of research that sometimes I struggle to reconcile with my own personal attitudes and outlook on life, and explore the breadth of direct and indirect evidence that demonstrates its complexity – a characteristic that also happens to be the reason why I am so keen to study what I do.

I don’t know if either of the two posts is an especially good idea, but I feel this is a time when people need to be seen to be doing something towards resisting the culture of rejecting complex arguments and explanations in favour of facile half-truths and falsehoods. So, here goes…

Medieval studies’ time is now

If I can be said to have had a New Year’s Resolution going into 2017, it was to step up and play a much more active role in helping to counter some of the deeply-regressive current narratives that have infected political and social discourse in the UK for the past year or so.* Barely had I shaken off my NYE hangover before, as an offshoot from a revival of the Icenian “proto-English” nonsense I blogged about before Christmas, I joined in a tweeted debate to unpack a claim made in a temporally-incongruous context about England being ‘substantially ethno-homogeneous’ for an extended period of time. It will come as little surprise to learn, therefore, that the person who made this claim duly revealed himself to be an Islamophobic nutjob with little interest in engaging in proper debate, and every interest in asserting his own riff on the “England for the English” trope (via a highly tangential cake-based analogy).

Actually, that’s not quite true – the first resolution I hit upon was to do a Baggio 7, only a quarter of a century late…


Here’s a run of early replies to a tweet sent out by Tom Holland (at the request of the fantastic Dr Levi Roach) in which he admonished those of his online followers who were trying to argue for some seriously bigoted readings of early medieval British history. You’d think it would be a more or less universally-acceptable sentiment, but it seems there’s no shortage of arseholes with Twitter accounts ready to state otherwise.

In its own tiny but intensely distasteful way, the spat chimed with a broader current trend in which the medieval period in Europe and the Middle East has come to gain much greater prominence – or even, to borrow a term from the UK political lexicon, become weaponised – through moves in some quarters to raise it up as proof of Europe’s supposedly deep-rooted homogeneity in the face of Islamic aggression. Medieval studies has long been stigmatised in some quarters as an irrelevance and/or extravagance, academia for academia’s sake, so it was quite something to discover that its new-found wider renown as an ideological battleground had been reported in an Economist article. (In fact, another medieval-themed article was published in the same newspaper around the same time, this time on a fairly traditional economic history tip but with a modish ‘Brentry’ title, something I can’t recall happening in recent years – at least outside of a Game of Thrones conjunction.) I won’t belabour this sudden “relevance” here, as there’s a brilliant and important series of essays dealing with some difficult subjects being published on The Public Medievalist at the moment – I implore you to read these for a better understanding of the issues.


Here’s a little vignette of where we’re at right now – one of my favourite British MPs getting trolled by a tweeter with a clearly part-medieval handle (moreover, by someone who is (or claims to be) US-based). Surely no coincidence, and surely not something we’d have seen even a couple of years ago?

I don’t think it’s a gross misrepresentation of the practitioners and products of the various branches of medieval studies to say that eccentricity is a stock-in-trade. Let me be clear: there is absolutely nothing wrong with eccentricity – difference and idiosyncracy are things to be celebrated and encouraged. Nor is there anything wrong with sharing amusing vignettes uncovered in the course of research, be they idiosyncratic manuscript marginalia or funny-sounding place-names – heck, we can all do with some light relief and inspiration in this day and age! Of course, eccentricity is not a trait restricted to academic contexts. As was pointed out to me by a friend and extremely distinguished local historian over lunch just before Christmas, amateur local historical and archaeological studies are crucibles of eccentricity. But eccentricity is not immune from causing harm, through the pursuit of personal and shared agendas.

This is summed up by a news story that was doing the rounds a few weeks ago. Fella uses his life savings to buy a Welsh field on a hunch, digs it up and finds the remains of a “lost medieval city”. Initial reports shared online made it sound like a wholesome, feel-good sort of story. Then I read this Washington Post article and I got some all-too familiar shudders. Said guy (Mr Stuart Wilson, take a bow) self-identifies as a ‘militant archaeologist’, who digs with his ‘militant’ mates. Gleefully, he recounts how they ‘were more than happy to bend a few rules, and break them when no-one was around’ in the course of their excavations – to the point of trespassing on and apparently tampering with another dig site. Meanwhile, in his mind – and in a refrain I’ve seen and heard applied by other non-academics in a variety of archaeological and toponymic connections – the university-associated team digging at that other site were pursuing a narrow and self-serving agenda and ‘could not accept anything else’.

URGH. I’m sure, like grizzled old detectives who refuse to play it by the book, they think they get results, but in archaeology first and foremost results are measured in quality research outputs like books and articles – not clicks, column inches and how many thousands of miles a film crew has flown. What Mr Wilson and chums have done sounds little better than the antiquarian wall-chasing that recovered the ground plans of many Roman villas and medieval monasteries, but little information about phasing and small finds that makes properly-conducted archaeological research so enlightening. Unless they have an as-yet unannounced publication programme up their sleeves, this vital knowledge has been sacrificed in the name of headline-grabbing bunkum about a lost city. Despite this, their approach to investigating whatever lies underneath Mr Wilson’s field is treated as a valid alternative form of archaeology by what, if my social media feeds are any guide, right now must rank among the most prominent news outlets in the world.


Talking of fields, here’s one in Surrey that I’m all but certain covers part of the site of a late 9th-century stronghold (a subject that has taken up another significant chunk of my time over the past few weeks, preparing an article for publication). If by some miracle I was able to afford to buy said field with a view to conducting excavations in it, rest assured I would not get all “militant” and start “bending the rules”. That would be stupid.

The problem with Proto-English

The same public exposure and unwitting endorsement has been accorded in recent years to ‘Proto-English’ – in short, the idea that what would become the English language took substantial root in Britain (as opposed to the temporary presence of individuals or small groups of people speaking an ancestral Germanic language) centuries, even millennia, before the 5th century CE. Subsequent to my post about Tom Holland getting it very wrong (which discussed the merits of a paper that could be said to postulate Proto-English language but in reality is somewhat tangential to the most commonly-encountered version of the idea), people kindly drew my attention to both a piece on Newsnight (a respected BBC current affairs tv show) and a more recent (TH-presented) segment on BBC Radio 4’s flagship history programme in which its advocates get airtime without any counterposing expert response. I’m not in the habit of BBC-bashing, it’s up to its programme makers (in-house or independent) to decide what they give coverage to. Notwithstanding, it is a basic error to give a platform to a non-orthodox theory but not to a proper authority who could provide the viewer/listener with an idea of how it sits with current prevailing theory.

To express it in the parlance of the present day (a turn of phrase that didn’t even exist when I began writing this post, just to give you an idea of how fast things are moving right now), Proto-English = alternative facts. As with any bullshit that can be filed under this banner, it’s not hard to find extensive expositions of the theory and its supposed evidential basis online. A prominent early advocate was Win Scutt, featured in the above Newsnight piece, and apparently still on retainer as BBC Radio 5’s archaeological correspondent. His assertions about a lost lake on the Upper Thames are blinkered, and his re-readings of Romano-British place-names are nothing more than ill-informed – and uniformly incorrect – guesswork. A more recent site in the same mould is proto-english.org, which presents its case in a more forceful and outwardly credible manner (and with less of the Web 1.0 vibes). Several pages set out Germanic readings of Roman-era place-names, throughout which there is at best intermittent recourse to phonology and philology, the cornerstones of onomastic study, and especially important for names formed in ancient dead languages. One word looking or sounding a bit like another is not proof in itself of a theory (and instead probably explains why the theory has never been expounded before). The site’s authors have also found an outlet for their ideas in the journal Archaeologia Cantiana, to similarly unconvincing and methodologically-flawed effect.


A banner by the artist Conrad Shawcross made for the recent Bridges Not Borders protests in London, before being displayed (and tweeted) by the Institute of Contemporary Arts.

Something common to both sites (see respectively here and here) are approving citations of claims made in paediatrician-turned-geneticist Stephen Oppenheimer’s 2006 book The Origins of The British (FYI, I have not read it). In it, as an extension of his various genetical propositions, it is argued that a Germanic language was well-established in Britain long before the centuries of Roman rule. You don’t have to go far online to find expert-authored critiques of Oppenheimer’s work, whether in terms of genetics or linguistics (both links are from the first page of my Google search results, no doubt there’s plenty more where they came from). What’s troubling for me is that the former of the linked responses begins by recounting how Oppenheimer’s work was indirectly cited by Nick Griffin, erstwhile leader of the reprehensible far-right British National Party, on national tv in 2009. That this is not addressed by the authors of proto-english.org (set up in 2005 but last updated in 2014) is a much greater problem than its failure to acknowledge the substantial and substantive critiques of Oppenheimer’s book, especially its reportedly duff treatment of the language. In fact, in my eyes, it’s a very big problem indeed.

To be crystal clear, I’m not saying that I believe those behind proto-english.org have any sympathies with the ideology of Griffin and his repugnant ilk. My criticism is that, because the work of one of their key inspirations has been used and abused in this way, it’s regrettable they have made no attempt to draw a clear distinction in how they view and apply Oppenheimer’s contentions – and ideally how their line of interpretation is incompatible with fascist ethno-nationalism. I’ve shown above how someone used an inadequately thought-through salvo of tweets from Tom Holland as a vehicle to assert just that; who’s to say Proto-English webpages haven’t been shared to the same end in far-right Facebook groups and subreddits? Thus, it’s no longer acceptable to sit on your hands and, if challenged, trot out a trite pseudo-defence of “Well, how was I to know someone would take it and use it in that way?”. Such shit needs to be actively and overtly disrupted.


Every now and again I get emails like this one from Ancestry, a hangover from a bout of family history research a few years ago. What I really want to see is the look on Alex’s face when he finds out he’s not actually a Viking and has been taken for a mug. A mug who’s shelled out a stack of cash to be massively misled. Oh, Alex…

Let’s step back for a second and return the focus to linguistics. I know from email exchanges that the notion of Proto-English has gained traction and acceptance/adherence in some extra-academic quarters, even though it directly conflicts with some of the other viewpoints of my correspondent. It’s seen as a challenge to the starchy orthodoxy, and the works advocating it will seem credible to many. It will not be obvious to many that the authors responsible for those works pick and choose their evidence to fit in with the pre-ordained conclusions of their argument, substituting the trickiest yet most crucial areas of analysis, and the full gamut of current thinking, for some shiny-looking science. Pretty much everyone has heard of DNA, and know its analysis and interpretation is something best left to geneticists, who are clever people, ergo what they say must be correct. How many people, by contrast, are even aware of Celtic and Germanic phonology and philology, and their paramount importance to understanding much of the material behind advocations of Proto-English?

Even more to the point, how many have sufficient grasp of the finer points of both philology and phonology – not to mention any other disciplines that may be pertinent to the name(s) under discussion – to understand fully not just the basis of the arguments being presented, but more importantly the faults therein? I’ll hold my hands up and freely admit that I don’t, at least not (yet) to the levels necessary to understand the issues inside out, but I do know enough to spot when someone is deliberately and unforgivably skirting around the tough stuff. Of course, none of this will matter to the people out there who simply don’t care, if they think they have found something that can act as another plank for their numbskull theories about national “ethno-homogeneity” and such like.

One thing that’s not helping matters right now is the notable lack of published rebuttals of Proto-English from those with the requisite skills. Should they be inclined, anyone can string together a bunch of facts (or things that look like facts) and create what seems to them to be a coherent, credible narrative, particularly when it comes to a topic like place-names that are by there very nature not simply linguistic phenomena. It is only when that narrative is exposed to responses from others with expertise on the subject(s) in hand that, for better or worse, the credibility of that narrative is established. Without such checks and balances, you’re simply making your case into a vacuum, and there’s no honour in winning a one-sided debate. But a culture of experts rolling their eyes or snidely muttering “Where to begin?” is nothing to be celebrated. Actions speak louder than Facebook comments.


Another apposite bit of art I saw somewhere on Twitter recently, this time by Bob and Roberta Smith. While its basic sentiment is hard to begrudge, from an early medievalist’s point of view some of the wording is fraught with complications (British? Culture? What do they really mean?!)

My years working tedious corporate jobs has left me a bit too apt to start talking about “silo mentalities” and how to overcome them, but in this connection there is some merit in contemplating how to initiate constructive dialogues and exchanges across institutional/disciplinary/geographical boundaries. Without a filter (personal or algorithmic), it’s all too easy to find dodgy research online masquerading as robust scholarship and accept it as gospel, because counterpoints are not so readily accessible: the journals are (almost) all behind paywalls, the best books are hyper expensive (as much for cash-strapped libraries as for individuals), and the gatekeeper institutions (I include publication-producing societies here) are lagging behind in making their content more freely available. And if what I was once told about Academia and copyright is true, then that may not be an alternative for much longer; I can tell you that right now it’s the sole thing giving some people working on topics related to early medieval England outside of academic institutions topics access to scholarship more recent than Sir Frank Stenton and John Morris.

Leaving aside the economics of publication (a subject I don’t claim to have a detailed working knowledge of, although certain aspects do make it seem ripe for disruption #freebusinessidea), new channels for the dissemination of high-quality research need to be opened up, and existing ones reinforced and replicated. This Prof Howard Williams blog post on the Pillar of Eliseg and early medieval assembly sites more generally shows how it could/should be done; an invigoratingly thorough yet engaging run-through of a research project and the many angles from which a monument was considered, written by a leading academic in their field. It can’t help but convince, and moreover inspire further interest on the part of the reader (such as reading through the Project Eliseg website). I’ll draw your attention to the fact the Pillar of Eliseg is situated in Wales just like Mr Wilson’s “city-in-a-field”, but otherwise refrain from further comment, as I think it should be obvious enough what I’m trying to get at…

Playing my part

At an individual level, I can try to help challenge certain inaccurate narratives by keep doing what I’ve been doing for over half a decade now and blog about medieval subjects with the main agenda being the careful, objective use of the best scholarship available to me at the time of writing. More than that, however, I can use the modest online platform I’ve built up over the years to be more overt in explaining how I approach what I study, and why it would to be inappropriate to construe it in certain limited ways. In the future – starting with the counterpart to this post – I will endeavour to show the advantages of examining things from multiple viewpoints and, just as importantly, that you cannot hope to make a compelling revisionist case when dealing with certain types of evidence without having a firm grasp of the primary methods for their analysis; arguments founded on a rag-tag assortment of secondary disciplines can never hope to convince to the same extent.

Corollary to the above has to be an awareness that aspects of the material I work on, and the conclusions I draw from it that I choose to make public, could be misused to support particular agendas through their selective presentation. The subject matter of my one published peer-reviewed (and co-authored) article to date, earlier medieval pig husbandry, is fairly inert (unless you are enough of a fascist loon as to really want to foreground the non-proscription of keeping and eating swine as a cornerstone of British identity), but my ongoing PhD research is a different proposition, dealing as it does with the formation of collective identities in a pivotal period in the history and archaeology of Britain. My next post, therefore, is intended as a pre-emptive strike on anyone who thinks they can take what I do and refashion it to suit their own twisted racist/nationalist/sexist agenda.

This is Surrey Medieval v.2017. Who knows what the future holds, but in the shorter-term at least I’ll be continu-ingas as before, and certainly the ongoing existence of this website is not predicated on any active institutional association on my part. In drilling down into the various forms of evidence in the months and years to come, I hope to be able to draw upon the knowledge and opinions of others working in the same field(s), but I want this to be reciprocal, and not just limited to those within academic institutions such as the one I am based at. But how to achieve this?

Firstly, by sharing and sharing alike. It’s important to underscore that there is – or else should not be – a split between an academic elite (did I really get this far without using the e-word?!) and those working outside of academia. There’s a diversity of people undertaking research, and a spectrum of research outputs accessible; regardless of background, some of it is good, and other pieces, well, not so good. Wherever I sit on these scales now and in the future, I will always extend the invitation to anyone to contact me if they’re writing on a topic I’ve covered before, or are simply interested in something or somewhere they think I might know something about. I endeavour to respond to emails as quickly as I can and, because I genuinely love receiving them, will try my best to do so as fully and helpfully as possible. That said, I cannot pretend to be the best person to answer questions on many topics, and in such cases I will make sure to point a contact in the direction of someone I know who is better qualified or experienced than me. (Also, I have my limits! I recently had to cut contact with someone because they were using me as a weekly peer-reviewer and reference-mine without really responding to my suggestions and criticisms, which made a mockery of the time and effort I’d been putting into helping them. Naivety on my part really, and a valuable lesson learned.)


Fascist shutdown goals c/o Towards a Bibliography of Medieval Anglo-Jewry. I hope never to receive any comments or emails as vile as the one that prompted the above, but if I do I’ll be ready to bite back.

Second, I’ll continue to use this site and my Twitter account to draw attention to things I think are worth people knowing about. On the place-names side of things, it may not come as a huge surprise to learn there’s not a superabundance of websites dedicated to English toponymy or otherwise carrying significant amounts of trustworthy content on the subject, but at the same time there’s more than you might imagine. For starters, we have the Institute for Name-Studies at the University of Nottingham, home of the English Place-Name Survey as well as one-off projects like the useful Key to English Place-Names (KEPN). The Society for Name Studies in Britain and Ireland (SNSBI), as its name suggests, has a broader outlook; its journal Nomina is full of relevant works, and so too its website (notably the Gelling-Cole landscape photograph archive). Some county- or local-level place-name projects have a commendable online presence: shout outs to the Essex Place-Names Project and the Archaeox Place Names Group (with the EPNS Staffordshire Place-Name Project in its early phases). Top-drawer place-name analyses are also available on scholarly personal websites – the two that spring to mind are those maintained by Dr Keith Briggs and Dr Caitlin Green. (NB. I will use this paragraph as the basis for a proper page under my Links tab cataloguing all such resources in due course.)

Finally, the past few weeks have got me thinking about other means of creating an inclusive space in which positive discourse from different sides of the debate can happen. To this end, I’m now seriously toying with the idea of trying to organise some kind of conference that takes a long hard look at the origins of Old English in Britain, not just from a linguistic angle but factoring in current perspectives from fields like archaeology, history, and genetics. (Anyone who would like to work with me to make this happen please drop me a line!) Enabling exponents and opponents of ideas around Proto-English to come together, present their research, and discuss it outside of the silos in which things have been taking place over the past few years would be one ambition for it. Another (and for me the most important) would be the opportunity to spur those involved in Old English (place-)name studies to engage with cutting-edge thinking about the Adventus Saxonum, given a lot of pieces of published (top)onomastic research still deals in models and thinking that archaeology and history has long since moved on from. It may not yield any great accords or unanimity over issues, but I think it’s important from a broader standpoint to try and start talking to as many people as possible, regardless of background.

Except fascists. They can fucking do one.

Posted in Anglo-Saxon, Annals, Archaeology, History, internet, Language, Literature, News, Old English, PhD, Place-Names, Politics, Publishing, Soapbox, Twitter | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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 surreymedieval.blog@gmail.com

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)
Posted in Agriculture, Anglo-Saxon, Annals, Field-names, History, Landscape, Old English, Place-Names, Surrey, Topography, Viking, Walking, Wessex | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Inexpertly handled (learning from 2016)

Last weekend I was a bit-part player in a lengthy Twitter back-and-forth about a coin, culture, and the communication of complex concepts in no more than 140 characters at a time. In many ways it was a debate about nothing of any profound consequence, unless what Icenian coins can tell us about parts of East Anglia in the Iron Age is something that really keeps you awake at night. But in some regards it struck me as what 2016’s been all about: the misrepresentation of information by people in a position of influence that is (or runs the risk of being) taken as the truth because it seems to form an authoritative opinion and that is a good deal easier to engage with and accept than a lengthier but more accurate account of the same information.

Let me say now, in case it isn’t as clear to anyone reading this as it is to me writing this, that this post is not in any way, shape or form accusing its primary named subject of anything malevolent or of deliberately misleading people for the purposes of a hidden agenda. Nor is it a redux of the classic academia vs. non-academia debate – I’m a doctoral-level student who’s also been accused (wrongly as it happens) of indulging in academia-bashing during one of my periods out of higher education, so I’m acutely aware of the scant value of the arguments one way or the other. Instead, what I hope to get across is that last weekend really brought home to me how in this supposedly post-factual age, in which “experts” are disparaged for their inaccurate predictions and perceived self-interest, it’s now contingent on those who work on complex issues to counter the narratives offered by certain people touting simple but incorrect explanations/solutions by making their own short, sharp and above all accurate contributions to debates.


Iceni believe a little gold coin can be so contentious! A stater of Norfolk Wolf type, found in Happisburgh parish in Norfolk (PAS Unique ID NMS-C18480). Image used on a CC BY 2.0 licence from ⓒ The Portable Antiquities Scheme / The Trustees of the British Museum

It all began with a tweet in which Twitter powerhouse and from what I gather highly successful writer of books on historical topics Tom Holland announced that he’d bought a particularly interesting Iron Age coin. (Let’s skirt questions of whether the coin was legally discovered and was sold with full and accurate information about its provenance and say that we’ll accept that it was.) There followed soon after two further tweets: one positing that the apparently lupine iconography on the reverse of the coin might be related to the Norse myth of Fenrir, and a second in which it was asserted that many Icenian coins imply that the people ‘may well have been culturally Germanic, not Celtic, speaking proto-English’.


Friends, acquaintances and academics whose work I admire took him to task for various shortcomings around the use of the word ‘culturally’ and whether the iconography of wolf-with-associated-figures was not more likely to relate to the legend of Romulus and Remus. As you can imagine, the debate shot off in all sorts of directions, got a bit heated at times and also encouraged at least one online crazy to briefly enter the fray with some bullshit “contribution”. And that was just the threads of replies I was a participant in, as elsewhere Mr Holland was getting a much easier time of it, allowing him to say some things that were even more sketchy and worthy of challenge (and a few frosty one-word answers for good measure):


Where I weighed in was in order to highlight the problem – and I stand by saying it’s a problem, rather than an issue or whatever as a very positive-minded former colleague of mine once insisted we spin these things as – of oversimplifying and overstating what a scholarly source actually says, and how this wasn’t simply because Twitter’s famous 140-character limit prevents the articulation of nuanced interpretations. The above tweets demonstrate both Mr Holland’s extrapolation of one particular point drawn from what I’ll show below to be a methodical (if controversial) piece of research while simultaneously omitting the finer points of what it has to say about the relevant chronology, as well as the mistaken conclusions some of his followers arrived at as a result. Tongue partly in cheek, I offered the following alternative (but still not problem-free) wording for the first of his tweets shown above to square his interpretation with what the authors of his more critical replies were pointing out – unfortunately it didn’t prompt a response from Mr Holland (I’m sure things would have turned out differently if there was an edit tweet function):


Frankly, none of the above would be such a problem if the tweets came from a weekend warrior tweeting to an audience of his best mate, uncle and some people who support the same sports team, but Mr Holland’s a big deal – he’s got a blue tick, and is followed by over 60,000 Twitter accounts. So if he distorts things or gets things wrong in what he posts, that’s seen by a lot of people. And if I was working on Early Anglian Norfolk, I’d be pretty hacked off right now that for the next couple of years the first question I could most likely expect after giving a paper on my research would be “But didn’t Tom Holland say that all this happened before the Romans came?”

At the time I took the first of the above screenshots, mid-Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on the Sunday afternoon, the above tweet had been liked 38 times and retweeted 10 times, and this remains true at the time of writing. The original tweet, meanwhile, has amassed 157 likes and 41 retweets. Even though from personal experience I know that every retweet doesn’t come with a like, if we focus on the latter then that’s a considerable audience who have presumably actively engaged with the content of the tweet(s) and been moved to register their agreement with it by means of liking it. Moreover, the retweets mean an audience reach in excess of Mr Holland’s already substantial following. Which is why it’s pretty important that what publicly-respected figures, especially those who undertake to publish works of scholarly rigour, communicate in the media is accurate.

Now I don’t profess to be any kind of expert on Pre-Roman Iron Age East Anglia, but I did happen to know the source Mr Holland was using to make this claim about ‘Germanic’/’proto-English’ language. I also happened to know, thanks to a Facebook post, the means by which he most likely discovered that source (and unwittingly or otherwise the inspiration for his referencing of culture). A few months back, a friend posted a link to this short magazine article about a hoard of Icenian coins written by Chris Rudd, the numismatist from whom Mr Holland purchased his example. In it, Rudd mentions ‘the growing belief that Iceni culture was influenced by Germano-Belgic culture’, a position he backs up through reference to his earlier work hypothesising that ‘the wolverine imagery of Norfolk Wolf gold staters was probably related to Norse mythology’, plus another piece of published research offering ‘persuasive evidence of the Iceni’s linguistic links with ancient Germanic names […] formed over 400 years before Angles and Saxons settled in East Anglia’, as well as archaeological studies from the same collection arguing for complementary ‘cultural similarities’ between the Iceni and Germanic and Belgic peoples of the Late Iron Age.

The linguistic study in question is a 2011 chapter by Daphne Nash Briggs (no relation of mine, by the way) entitled ‘The language of inscriptions on Icenian coinage’, which was published in the BAR British Series volume The Iron Age in Northern East Anglia: New Work in the Land of the Iceni. By great fortune, its author has uploaded it to Academia for all to see (or maybe just members – I forget). It’s a really meaty bit of research, one that I’ve seen attract some comments on social media concerning the basis of some of its etymological analyses, but now’s not the time to deliberate on them. (UPDATE: One early comment responding to this piece on social media advised that none of the philological evidence nor Nash Briggs’ treatment of it is sufficient as to back up the study’s basic premise, so you may wish to read the following with this in mind.) The fundamental issue at hand is whether Dr Nash Briggs’ conclusions are equal to the emphasis that Mr Holland placed upon them – namely that they evidence a Germanic, not Celtic language spoken by the Iceni.

A rough and ready search of the Portable Antiquities Scheme database suggests that Dr Nash Briggs’ sample is exhaustive and thus the various terms she identifies are not a subset of a larger corpus. Consequently, in attempting to get a quick handle on the conclusions of her study, a good place to start is the table at the top of the second column on page 95 summarising the results of the linguistic analysis. It lists one name-type found on Icenian coin inscriptions (ANTEÐIO) as Celtic, another (-PRASTO) as a Latin loan-word, four as either Celtic or Germanic, and six as ‘Germanic?’ (with one of these, ESICO, having a question mark entered against it in the Celtic or Germanic column). These results in themselves run counter to Mr Holland’s claim for the Icenian vernacular to have been ‘Germanic, not Celtic’. Indeed, in Dr Nash Briggs’ own words (my emphasis added):

‘The presence in pre-Roman Britain of scraps of a philologically Germanic onomastic vocabulary does not of course mean that its users would necessarily have spoken the language from which they were conscripted […] nor would it necessarily have been the only language of Iron Age Norfolk, which it manifestly was not, since a standard form of Gaulish or Brittonic is recorded on some Icenian and almost all other inscribed ancient British coins and a majority of recorded ancient place-names, so was obviously familiar at least to all of ancient Britain’s political elites.’ (Nash Briggs 2011, 95-96)

The role of place-name evidence in this debate was another thing that interested me. The handful of Roman-era place-names recorded from the greater Icenian region are all of Brittonic rather than Germanic composition (Branodunum, Camboritum, Gariannum, Venta Icenorum: Rivet and Smith 1979, 274-75, 294, 366, 492 – to these can be added Epocuria, an Icenian ‘castellum‘ named in one of the recently-published Walbrook writing tablets (the relevant page reference eludes me sadly)). The record of these names during the Roman period, even as early as the first century CE in the case of Epocuria, does not compel them to be as old as coins produced in the middle years of the previous century (such as the Norfolk Wolf gold staters of the sort purchased and tweeted by Mr Holland), and Dr Nash Briggs’ dataset is derived from coins produced across a period of time perhaps in excess of 100 years, during which the Iceni experienced a number of episodes of stress, culminating in the establishment of Roman rule and with it the introduction of Imperial coinage.

In the latter part of her chapter, Dr Nash Briggs provides a fascinating discussion of the background to this period and the vectors by which various influences could have come into play. I harbour a secret crush for British Iron Age studies (don’t tell anyone), but some of what’s postulated in the absence of documentary testimony does terrify me when I compare it to what flies in early medieval studies. So it is with the argument (made by Chris Rudd in a work I must confess have not read) for ‘a series of increasingly unequal treaties’ made between the Iceni and their southerly neighbours the Catuvellauni, apparently during the first half of the 1st century CE, that are seen as the catalyst for the adoption of Catuvellaunian design motifs on many later Icenian coins, and more profoundly ‘the adoption of Brittonic and Latin vocabulary into the language of Icenian governance’ (Nash Briggs 2011, 98-99). Coin inscriptions would be an obvious indicator of this – but place-names? How much were they the products of the “language of governance” as opposed to local characterisations of local landscapes? Might we be better served rejecting such an all-or-nothing reading of a very restricted body of evidence?

Dr Nash Briggs’ concluding remark is measured in a way that Mr Holland’s tweet was not:

‘Unless and until a scrap of connected text is discovered to confirm its linguistic identity, evidence for use of a non-Latin, non-Brittonic, but possibly coastal West Germanic language in late prehistoric and Roman Norfolk must depend upon analysis of personal names, theonyms, and political titles, beginning with Late Iron-Age coin inscriptions.’ (Nash Briggs 2011, 99)

Important questions are posed by the study; I for one will be looking harder at the origin of the name-form DVRO (Nash Briggs 2011, 90-91) in the context of an article about the name of Dorking I’m aiming to write next year. Overall, Dr Nash Briggs makes a stronger case for bi-/multilingualism among the Iceni than for them speaking a wholly Germanic language in the first century BCE. Certainly, her ‘possibly’ is some semantic distance away from Mr Holland’s ‘may very well’, and her other statements similarly never go so far in their endorsement of the likelihood of a Germanic vernacular of the Iceni. Dr Nash Briggs’ paper has been viewed on Academia 166 times to date (two of which can be chalked up to me today), and I can’t imagine the printed version has received many more readers, whereas I’d bet the equivalent figure for Mr Holland’s tweet runs into the thousands. Undue credence has been lent to a well-argued but in some respects speculative theory, and this will serve to undermine the work being produced by those toiling away on research concerning Norfolk in the post-Roman period.

I’ve just seen Mr Holland’s been at in again, in long-form this time, in a Guardian article about cricket of all things, and how the concept of the Heptarchy might usefully be reemployed in a sporting context. No matter that the Heptarchy is not attested by the sorts of contemporary written sources you’d expect such a concept to feature in, and at best described a relatively short-lived reality – we’re talking cricket, dammit! Holland’s sources would appear to be the ambiguous testimony of late-ninth-century traveller Syrian Harun ibn Yahya (whose mention of ‘seven kings’ Holland transforms into ‘seven kingdoms’) and twelfth-century chronicler Henry of Huntingdon. Again, one one level this is completely trivial, but on another it’s the presentation of spurious information as solid fact to a wide audience (and to add insult to injury, Surrey gets made part of East Anglia!).

And so we return to the crux of the matter. Mr Holland’s clearly an accomplished and successful writer, and his most recent book seems to be his biography of King Æthelstan, published a matter of years after Prof Sarah Foot’s magisterial monograph on the same subject. While Prof Foot may not have any strong opinions on English cricket, she may be best placed to apply her tremendous expertise on early medieval subjects to a range of other contemporary issues, yet I can’t find her credited as an author of a single article on The Guardian website (there are a multitude of possible explanations for this, of course – perhaps she prefers The Times?). Fundamentally, how can serious researchers who are minded to make contributions to public debates apply the fruits of their research or their expertise in certain areas to compelling effect? How to turn long-form work into influential short-form content, be it as tweets, comment pieces, or content on other public platforms? And how to make that feeling of having weighed all sorts of possibilities to really get to the heart of a matter the thing people strive for over and above getting a half-baked opinion heard?

I’ve got to tread carefully as I don’t want to come across as advocating for those with expertise in Germanic linguistics or such like having the answers to all of the world’s ills. Give over! But… The contemporary world is an astonishingly complicated place – as 3 weeks travelling across the US back in the summer laid bare to me – yet the historical world was far from simple and so cannot be explained with easy, black-and-white explanations. It’s a huge leap from misrepresentations of Iron Age East Anglia to Brexit or Trump’s election victory, but those things are the end products of a longer trend. The nature of public discourse has changed, and having a command of all the facts doesn’t necessarily win the argument these days. This year we’ve seen and heard too many public figures denigrating experts while claiming “It’s simple really, the problem lies with …”, and however much a large chunk of society may think they need such purported explanations-cum-solutions, we can do so much better. This applies across the board.

There needs to be systemic change to return us to a situation where the facts matter, and presenting them correctly is more important than proffering partial analyses to get in there first or shout the loudest. This needs to start at the grassroots level and work its way upwards. Be good at what you do, what you post and publish, but also call out bullshit when you see it. If something’s wrong, or seems suspect, say so. Underline the reality of a situation, whether in terms of its complexity or the correct facts. But, crucially, do so in a way that’s quick and to the point (and don’t think I haven’t seen the irony in me stressing this after 18 paragraphs and well over 2,500 words). There’s a time and place for worthy read-this-30-tweet-thread-it-really-gets-to-the-nub-of-the-issue recommendations, but it smacks of the echo chamber and limited spaces within which the argument has already been won. We need to play the game of those who are influencing large numbers of people in sub-optimal ways, and win it by providing easily-digested chunks of accurate information upon which rounded opinions and conclusions can be founded. It’s not difficult to condense a lot of factual information into an easily-understood tweet or two with a bit of thought, especially if we know our material well enough. And more than ever, people deserve to be in full possession of the facts.


Nash Briggs, D., ‘The language of inscriptions on Icenian coinage’ in The Iron Age in Northern East Anglia: New Work in the Land of the Iceni, ed. by J. A. Davies, BAR British Series, 549 (Oxford: Archaeopress, 2011), 83-102

Rivet, A. L. F., and C. Smith, The Place-Names of Roman Britain (London: B. T. Batsford, 1979)

Tomlin, R. S. O., Roman London’s first voices: Writing tablets from the Bloomberg excavations, 2010–14, MOLA Monograph Series, 72 (London: Museum Of London Archaeology, 2016)

Posted in Coins, Language, Place-Names, Politics, Soapbox, Twitter | Tagged , , , , , , | 9 Comments

1307 and all that: Puttenham in the Register of Bishop Henry Woodlock

My fourth and final post for Puttenham Church Week (now ticking towards being a fortnight – maybe next time around I should avoid any embarrassment by calling the next instalment a Surrey Medieval … Spectacular?) takes us to the early years of the 14th century, and a series of documentary records detailing a rather parlous situation so far as the living of Puttenham was concerned. The source of this testimony is the Registrum Henrici Woodlock, i.e. the Register of Henry Woodlock, Bishop of Winchester between 1305-1316, edited by A. W. Goodman and published as two volumes in 1940 and 1941. The various register entries reveal a lot about the workings of the later medieval diocese, as well as about the connection between Puttenham church and that of nearby Shalford, which possibly tells us something about the origins of the former, and the early statuses of both.

I picked up the two volumes of the Registrum Henrici Woodlock at this year’s Leeds International Medieval Congress. They’re not the sort of books I’d invest in standardly (though as it happens, the second time in as many years that I’ve bought an edition of a Bishop of Winchester’s register at the Congress and proceeded to write a blog post off the back of it), but a quick consultation of the index revealed that they had entries pertaining to the year, 1307, in which I knew there to have been a rapid succession of rectors at Puttenham (for reasons that’ll become clear very shortly). What I hadn’t appreciated sufficiently up to that point – and which was thus reflected in my list of medieval rectors of Puttenham I put together and uploaded last summer – was the actual sequence of events as documented in Woodlock’s register. In my defence, I’m not the first to have misinterpreted the testimony (the unattributed list of rectors at the back of the 1969 church guide being a case in point), and so to set the story straight, allow me to take you through the various entries and piece together the events of what in some ways must have been a tumultuous few months.

The first register entry is dated 19th May 1307, and its preamble states that its purpose was to order the dean of Guildford (decano de Guldeford) to hold a sworn inquiry as to the health of the rector of Puttenham (DE INFIRMITATE RECTORIS DE POUCHAM – an interesting spelling of the name, by the way). After the usual boilerplate of the opening address to the dean, the entry proceeds thus:

Ex quorumdum relacione recepimus quod magister Robertus rector ecclesie de Poucham iam tam graui corporis debilitate detinetur et morbo vt dicitur incurabili est percussus, quod coadiutore seu custode merito indiget hiis diebus; et ob hoc cupientes super hiis prout pontificali conuenit auctoritati effici certiores, vobis mandamus in virtute sancte obediencie firmiter iniungentes, quatinus super vita potencia et etate ac eciam quo morbo detineatur et quinque sensibus vtatur, et an de ipsius conualescencia speratur, et an curatoris seu custodis ministerio siue adiutorio indigeat, per viros expertos fidedignos et iuratos omni suspicione carentes fideliter et diligenter inquirere studeatis. Et quid per inquisicionem huiusmodi inueneritis, nos distincte et aperte certificetis quam cicius commode poteritis [etc.] Prouiso modis omnibus quod dictus rector premuniatur legitime quod inquisicioni per vos faciende per se vel per alium intersit, si sibi videbitur expedire. In premissis omnibus fideliter peragendis vestram conscienciam coram Altissimo honeramus. Dat’ apud Esshere xiiij kal. Iunii anno Domini millesimo ccc’mo septimo et consecracionis nostre secundo. (Goodman 1940, 177)

“We receive word from certain people that master Robert, rector of the church of Puttenham, is now hindered by so grave a weakness of his body and is struck by disease that is said to be incurable, that he requires an assistant or custodian these days; and for this purpose, desiring to be made more certain on these things, it is agreed by episcopal warrant, joining steadfastly in virtue of holy obedience we commission you, that you dedicate yourself faithfully and carefully to investigate about his life, ability and age and also if the disease is being resisted and the five senses being used, and whether his convalescence is anticipated, and whether a curator or guardian is required for ministry or support, by means of men expert, trustworthy and having been vowed to be lacking all suspicion. And what you will find by such inquiry, lucid and frank you will inform us as quickly as you are conveniently able to [etc.] It is foreseen that the said rector is legitimately protected by all means that the inquiry made by you personally or through another party, if they see fit. In all tasks we honour that your conscience is pierced honestly in the presence of the Highest. Given at Esher 14th day before the kalends of June in the year of the Lord 1307, the second of our consecration.”

It’s traditional for me every time I offer my own translation of a Medieval Latin text to offer an apology for the many mistakes it contains, and this time around is no different. Nevertheless, I reckon I’ve got more than the gist of what the above signifies. By whatever channels, reports had reached Bishop Woodlock about the serious ill health of the incumbent rector of Puttenham, Robert. The parish lay within the deanery of Guildford, so it was devolved to its dean to ascertain (logically via parishioners and other ministers in the locality) the level of Robert’s illness and inability to perform the duties of his office, what assistance he may require personally and pastorally as a result, and report back to the Bishop.

The dean of Guildford was quick to respond to the Bishop’s orders, for a matter of weeks later, the following mandate was issued regarding ‘Custody of the rector of Puttenham’ (CUSTODIA RECTORIS DE POTTENHAM):

Frater Henricus [etc.] dilecto filio Waltero de Shaldeford presbitero salutem [etc.]. Cum Robertus rector ecclesie de Pottenham nostre diocesis racione senectutis et debilitatis ad ea que cura sibi commissa requirit debite peragenda non sufficiat hiis diebus, prout per inquisicionem super hoc ad mandatum nostrum factam euidencius est compertum, vtilitati tamen dicte ecclesie et persone prospicere cupientes tibi dicte ecclesie et rectoris eiusdem tutelam siue custodiam concedimus per presentes, quousque dictam tutelam seu custodiam tibi per nos concessam duxerimus reuocandum; districcius iniungentes quod dicto rectori in omnibus que ipsum vel rectoriam predictam respiciunt coadiutor siue tutor existas diligens et fidelis. Et nichilominus sub pena excommunicacionis, quam exnunc te incurrere volumus, si per te vel alium auctoritate tua contra infrascripta quicquam fuerit attemptatum, tibi firmiter precipiendo mandamus quatinus bona ad rectorem et ecclesiam suam pertinencia in vsus ipsius ecclesie licitos et rectoris eiusdem iuxta sanctorum patrum statuta conuertere non omittas neque quocumque colore dicta bona in vsus illicitos conuertendo dilapidare presumas, attendens pro constanti quod super premissis coram Altissimo in districto iudicio conscienciam tuam volumus onerare. Raciocimium vero tue administracionis bonorum predictorum cum nobis placuerit reddendi iuxta iuris exigenciam in hac parte resuramus. Dat’ apud Knoel vij kal. Iulii anno Domini millesimo ccc’mo septimo, consecrationis nostre tercio. (Goodman 1940, 188)

“Brother Henry [etc.] greetings to the esteemed brother Walter of Shalford, priest [etc.]. With Robert rector of the church of Puttenham of our diocese by reasons of old age and debilitation having been committed to those for the care he himself requires that is not supplied these days duly is to be accomplished, just as it is more evidently verified through the inquiry about this made to our command, for expediency however wishing to look out for the said church and parson we concede to you guardianship or custody of the said church and the rector of the same through those present, for how long the said guardianship or custody which it is to be recalled we shall have guided by our permission; more strictly, uniting because of the said rector, they consider that you appear carefully and faithfully as the assistant or guardian in all that he himself or the aforesaid rector needs. And nevertheless, under the penalty of excommunication, how we wish for you henceforth to undertake, whether by you or by another author anything shall be attempted against you the underwritten, it must be firmly perceived that we command you to turn over statutorily to what good extent the rector and his church is near to the holy father in the permitted custom of the church itself and rector of the same, you shall not neglect and not whithersoever shall you presume to squander the colour of the said good thing reversed in illicit uses, waiting for standing together because we wish to honour your conscience in busy judgement on tasks in the presence of the Highest. The reckoning verily will please us that your administration of the aforesaid good things which are to be returned according to the demand of the law, in this part we are reassured. Given at Knowle [Hampshire] on the seventh day before the kalends of July in the year of the Lord 1307, the third of our consecration.”

This second entry was a nightmare for me to translate, so I’m sure a lot of it is wildly off-beam. Even so, what emerges out of all the pleasantries is that Robert had been found to be not just sick, but elderly to boot. We have no independent attestation of Robert, so there is no way of knowing when exactly he was presented to the living, but the fact he is described as being of old age hints he may have been the incumbent for many years before 1307. Potentially, this also goes a long way to explaining his ill health. Walter was therefore enjoined – at pain of excommunication, no less! – to look after both Robert and his church (and by extension his parishioners) for the foreseeable future. It’s curious that no mention is made of the new holders of the advowson, the Hospital of St Mary without Bishopsgate on the edge of London. Surely they should have been looped into the process on some level? Perhaps the Bishop thought that engaging directly with first the dean of Guildford and subsequently Walter de Shalford was a more expedient response to the situation.

The name of Walter de Shalford may stand for more than just the place of his birth or with which he most significantly associated. Domesday Book reveals the manor of Redessolham (precursor to Puttenham, and probably roughly coterminous in area with the present parish) was attached to the much larger and more valuable manor of Bramley in the years prior to the Survey (perhaps in 1082: Morris 1975, Notes 5,3), and Puttenham seems to have been an important but remote member of the latter in later centuries (English and Turner 2004, 112). Bramley was attributed three unnamed churches in 1086: Blair (1991, 119) made a convincing case for these to be a mother church at Shalford and daughters at Wonersh and Hascombe. Subsequently, further subordinate foundations come into view at Bramley and Dunsfold. Could/Should we consider Puttenham church in the same bracket, that is having originated as a chapel of Shalford, with Walter therefore being a priest associated with the mother church? This will be an area of future research for me, but for the time being the following scraps of evidence support the idea of an early mother-daughter link between Shalford and Puttenham (previously posited in cartographical form by Blair 1991, 130 Figure 37).

In 1305, the advowson of Puttenham was granted by Edward I to the Prior and Convent of the Hospital of St Mary without Bishopsgate, along with those of Shalford, Wonersh and Dunsfold. On 23rd March of the following year, the patrons presented Thomas Everard to the vicarage of Shalford, and among the associated rights and payments he was stipulated as not being entitled to in his new role were the ‘annual pensions of Wonersh, Puttenham and Dunsfold’ (annuas pensiones de Wogenhersshe Puttenham et Duntesfold: Goodman 1941, 719-21: partly translated in Manning and Bray 1809, 105). Finally, Manning and Bray highlighted ‘certain lands … belonging to and parcel of the Manor of Puttenham Priory or Bury’, apparently close to Perry Bridge, the ‘proprietors’ of which had been the Hospital of St Mary without Bishopsgate, suggesting the lands were formerly associated with the rectory of Puttenham, not the manor (Manning and Bray 1809, 99). None of the above is conclusive; each is suggestive at best. Perhaps the next piece of testimony that turns up will be more explicit.


I was scratching my head as to what image I could add to this post for to break up all the text, and then it came to me, several feet below street level on the edge of the City of London! On Halloween night I went on the special LAMAS Lates guided tour of the early fourteenth-century charnel house next door to Old Spitalfield Market, built as part of the Hospital of St Mary without Bishopsgate – only the late-medieval holder of the advowson of Puttenham, about which I had been writing earlier that day! Embarrassingly, I hadn’t put two and two together earlier and made the link between the charnel house (which I knew was attached to a hospital in Spitalfields) and the patron of Puttenham church (which I knew was situated outside Bishopsgate). An immensely interesting site and an immensely interesting visit, welcome relief from slogging my way through episcopal Latin in preparing this post!

Returning to Bishop Woodlock’s register, an entry of 22nd July 1307 repeats the text of a certificate to William Testa, collector of the first fruits tax. It lists the benefices within the diocese that had fallen vacant and their respective tax liabilities. Three churches are named and located; the second is ‘the church of Puttenham, deanery of Guildford, for 12 marks’ (ecclesia de Potenham decanatus de Guldeford ad xij marcas: Woodlock 1940, 204; also 336 for its recurrence in an entry of 2nd February 1309 serving broadly the same purpose but with a three-year scope). The conclusion to be drawn from the nature of these certificates is that Robert had died by the 22nd July, a matter of weeks, days indeed, after he was placed in the ward of Walter de Shalford.

The latter part of the summer of 1307 must have been a difficult time liturgically and pastorally for Puttenham parish. Walter de Shalford presumably continued as a stand-in of sorts until, on 23rd September 1307, ‘Henry le Sygher, ac[olyte], of Guldeford’ was presented to the benefice by the prior of the Hospital of St Mary without Bishopsgate, London, the first one it made as patron (Woodlock 1941, 725). This must have happened as part of an ordination service held on that day at Merton (Priory?), as a separate entry in Woodlock’s register records his presence, as ‘Henry of Guildford, rector of the church of Puttenham’ (Henricus de Guldeford rector ecclesie de Puttenham: Woodlock 1941, 797). Interestingly, his name occurs in a list of clergymen classified as subdeacons (Subdiaconi). Henry’s stock may have been rising rapidly in this period, as he is named (this time as ‘Henry Sigher [Henricus Sigher] rector of the church of Puttenham’) among the deacons (Diaconi) in attendance at an ordination service held in Southampton on 8th June 1308 (Woodlock 1941, 808). His ascent up the clerical ranks seems to have continued apace; at a further ordination service held at Farnham on 21st September 1308, he is recorded among the priests (presbiteri) in attendance (Henricus rector ecclesie de Pottenham: Woodlock 1941, 816).

There is a lot more to be said about Henry, and I said most of it in my talk on Friday. Perhaps I’ll share these tales in a post on Surrey Medieval one day (some of them are to be found in Bishop Woodlock’s register if you want to get ahead and find out about his appearances as a debtor), but I think it’s only right that today is all about poor Robert.


Blair, J., Early Medieval Surrey: Landholding, church and settlement before 1300 (Stroud and Guildford: Alan Sutton and Surrey Archaeological Society, 1991)

Dugmore, R., Puttenham Under the Hog’s Back (Chichester: Phillimore, 1972)

English, J., and D. Turner, ‘Medieval settlement in the Blackheath Hundred’ in Aspects of Archaeology & History in Surrey: towards a research framework for the county, ed. by J. Cotton, G. Crocker and A. Graham (Guildford: Surrey Archaeological Society, 2004), 103-118

Goodman, A. W. (ed.), Registrum Henrici Woodlock, Diocesis Wintoniensis A.D. 1305-1316, two volumes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1940-41)

Manning, O., and W. Bray, The History and Antiquities of the County of Surrey, volume 2 (London: John White, 1809)

Morris, J. (ed.), Domesday Book, 3: Surrey (Chichester: Phillimore, 1975)



Posted in Church, Documents, Excuses, Latin, Puttenham, SMPCW, Winchester | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Just how old is Puttenham church?

In March 2015, the Medieval Studies Forum of the Surrey Archaeological Society held a study day of two halves: one part dedicated to moated sites, the other to church sites. I prepared a paper discussing the siting of Puttenham church and what various forms of evidence might have to say about the date and context of its foundation. Unfortunately, it ended up that I couldn’t make it to the meeting to present the paper – I’m very grateful to Brian Creese for agreeing to read it out on my behalf. The script has lain around ever since (if .doc files languish thus), complete but lacking references. Until SMPCW, that is!


An early 20th-century view down The Street towards Puttenham church, as published on page 54 of the parish’s VCH entry.

The church has a locally-prominent position that I’ve really come to appreciate while walking down the village street in recent years, and I’m a particular fan of how this is evoked (perhaps with a dab of artistic licence) in the above illustration, drawn at least 105 years ago, accompanying Puttenham’s entry in the Victoria County History. Churches in elevated sites are not-infrequently read as early foundations, perhaps successors to “pagan” religious structures, although even at some of the most credible suggested examples the circumstances are often more complicated than they appear at first (see my work on Thursley and St Martha’s). But how credible are these conjectures when other types of evidence are brought into play?

This post recycles the paper script and a number of photos of the church in the landscape taken last year, mixes them with other pieces of research, and bakes into the form you’ll find by clicking on the link below. If this exercise (and my research for SMPCW more generally) taught me anything, it’s that answers to church-related questions are only likely to be found by considering non-ecclesiastical evidence. It’s what has kept me going with this series of posts. One more to go, we’re in the home straight now!

Long Sited? A Multi-Disciplinary Approach to Determining the Origins of Puttenham Church November 2016


Posted in Archaeology, Architecture, Barrows, Church, Dating, Folklore, Landscape, Photography, Place, Place-Names, Pottery, Puttenham, SMPCW, Topography | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hidden in plain sight: a fifteenth-century grave-slab rediscovered in Puttenham church

(So, in the end, Puttenham Church Week got away from me! Only one post done and dusted within the week, but stacks of work done on the three – yes, three – others I had planned. They were all more or less on the cusp of being done at the end of the week, but required extra reference chasing or photos to get them across the line. Happy to say this process is now complete for the second of them – look out for the remaining two coming your way very soon!)

This post brings closure to a suggestion I made via a series of tweets a few weeks ago. To recap, I had popped into Puttenham church in the midst of new seating being installed in the western end of the nave. As a result, the back of the church under the belfry was in a bit of a state, with rolled-up old carpets and other furniture piled up hither and thither. For reasons I don’t think I’ll ever truly understand, it was in these impropitious circumstances that my eyes alighted upon a distinctive area of stone paving below the south wall of the tower. Closer inspection revealed it to be a single long rectangular slab of rough stone, dark in colour, and quite distinct from the York Stone slabs that make up the rest of the tower’s ground floor surface (as well as substantial parts of the nave and aisle).


Told you I really know how to pick my moment…

What was this slab? It certainly looked old, older than the paving around it, but could this really be the case? The slab measures 160cm in length and 60.5cm in width, aligned on an east-west axis. Closer inspection showed one half of it was relatively smooth and featureless, whereas the other half had uneven axial pitting, with what has the look of a filled-in fracture more or less separating the two. Here are some better photos from my most recent trips to the church, and after five minutes spent with a dustpan and brush:

A thought came into my mind. Was I looking at an old grave-stone or casement, perhaps one of medieval date? And then it struck me – might this be the slab originally associated with the memorial brass of Edward Cranford, rector of Puttenham from 18th December 1400 until his death on 8th August 1431?


The present position of the Cranford brass relative to the high altar in the chancel, showing the lightness and polish of its present slab.

Today, the Cranford brass is fixed to an off-white marble slab, which is clearly non-original. Ascertaining what it replaced by means of published sources turned out to be a much more frustrating exercise than I’d anticipated. Our earliest witness, John Aubrey in the fourth volume of his The Natural History and Antiquities of the County of Surrey, transcribed Cranford’s memorial inscription, stating it came from ‘a Brass Plate fix’d to a Grave-Stone‘ (Aubrey 1718, 24; bold text = my emphasis, here and in following quotations).

Manning and Bray, in the second volume of their The History and Antiquities of the County of Surrey, add a mite more information than Aubrey by referring to ‘… a brass plate, on a plain stone, with the figure of a man in Priest’s robes’ (1809, 20). That’s still better than later antiquarian works, which mention the brass but not its steading (e.g. Hussey 1852, 340). It’s not until J. G. N. Clift’s short article in the Journal of the British Archaeological Association of 1908 that we find another relevant reference, in this case that the brass was ‘affixed to a plain stone slab, forming part of the flooring between the eastern end of the choir stalls’ (Clift 1908, 263).


The beautiful engraving of Edward Cranford’s brass preceding the first page of Clift’s 1908 article – note the lack of any attempt to depict the slab to which it was fixed.

Much more specific (and so useful) testimony comes in a Surrey Archaeological Collections article by the leading authority on brasses, Mill Stephenson, one of a series cataloguing all extant and recorded memorial brasses in Surrey churches published between 1912 and 1920. It’s not clear in what year Stephenson visited Puttenham church and made his observations on the Cranford brass, but regardless they are valuable for providing the following information: ‘The brass, relaid in a new slab 60 by 24 inches, is on the floor of the chancel’ (Stephenson 1918, 124; reprinted in Stephenson 1926, 422). The tower slab is, in old money, 63 inches x 24 inches – near enough a perfect match in one dimension, but some way off in the other. Hmmm…

It’s clear from the above that many antiquarian eyewitness accounts are brief and ambiguous. The earliest authors, however, also had the advantage of being in an unrestored church in which existed a much larger number of medieval and early post-medieval monuments than survive in the present day. Aubrey’s detailed account of the memorials in the church is particularly important, because it describes four that are not recorded in later works, or else had undergone significant changes in form:

  1. The ‘Altar-Monument of Free-Stone’ of Nicholas Lusher (died 1566), then located ‘on the North Side of the Chancel’ (Aubrey 1718, 24)
  2. The ‘Grave-Stone’ bearing a brass ‘Scrowle’ with the generic motto ‘O Mater Dei memento mei‘, then located in the nave (Aubrey 1718, 24-25; Manning and Bray 1809, 20, add that this was ‘issuing from the mouth of a woman’, but only the scroll remained at the time of their writing)
  3. A ‘Brass Plate, on a Grave-Stone’ commemorating Agnes Manory (died 1445), possibly in the nave (Aubrey 1718, 25)
  4. ‘another Brass Plate fix’d to a Grave-Stone’ memorialising Francis Wyat (died 1634), probably in the Lady Chapel (Aubrey 1718, 25-26)

Of these, the second and third have disappeared completely. The fourth survives in part; the brass is now mounted on a black marble slab fixed to the north wall of the Lady Chapel. Much the same is true of the first, and its story is especially interesting. By Manning and Bray’s time the stone monument had disappeared and only the inscribed brass remained (1809, 20). It may have been irreparably damaged in the great church fire of 1735 (see Dugmore 1972, 74-75), or, if Manning and Bray were correct to modify Aubrey’s account by stating this apparent altar tomb formerly stood ‘on the North side of the North Chancel’ (my emphasis), when the Lady Chapel was patched up in 1770 for use as a private chapel of the owners of neighbouring Puttenham Priory. However, a portion of it, reassembled in what looks to be a credible form, can be seen today inside the porch. It should be noted, however, that the fragments have the appearance of a fine limestone (as per the complete monument’s description by Aubrey as being constructed of ‘Free-Stone‘), quite unlike the darker, coarser tower slab.


Reconstructed portion of Nicholas Lussher’s altar monument, relocated to the inside of the porch from the north wall of the Lady Chapel at an unknown date after 1910.

Working on the testimony of the published descriptions alone left me with a multiplicity of options, but no ready means of determining which was the tower slab’s true origin (and this is not to mention the possibility of it deriving from an unrecorded monument). What I needed was a new source of evidence, and I fancied I knew where I might find it. So the other evening I paid a visit to the Puttenham and Wanborough History Society’s Muniment Room to consult a brace of records, both written by G. B. (Bruce) Gosling, an architect and local historian who was very active in the parish in the first half of the 20th century (indeed, he was a churchwarden for several years).

The first record is a series of documents pertaining to the north chapel (a.k.a. Lady Chapel) of Puttenham church, probably assembled by Gosling (Puttenham and Wanborough History Society 10/13). The most interesting of these are a list, in neat writing on thick card, of ‘Fragments of Medieval Lady Chapel 13th to 16th cent. found in piercing north door 1911’ (Puttenham and Wanborough History Society 10/13b), and a less tidily-written manuscript entitled ‘Corrections on Mr Kerry’s account of the North Chapel as ascertained during the Repairs & Alterations made in the Chapel in the years 1909 & 1910’ (Puttenham and Wanborough History Society 10/13e – ‘Mr Kerry’s account’ is item 10/13d, an earlier series of handwritten sheets but is irrelevant for the purposes of this post).


Gosling’s list of stone fragments, then relegated to the churchyard! Most of the smaller stuff was built into the wall around the east window of the Lady Chapel; the wall has been plastered and nothing can now been seen.

Three stone fragments, mentioned by Gosling as lying in the churchyard circa 1910, might be commensurate with the tower slab: either of ‘Two Large double chamfered slabs’ or a ‘Dark hard stone with moulded order side’ (Puttenham and Wanborough History Society 10/13b). No information about their dimensions is provided. Gosling posited the former were ‘probably top slab of lower part of altar tomb of Nicholas Lussher 1566’ – see his reconstruction below, showing them to be much smaller than the tower slab – whereas the latter was ‘possibly slab at Lady Altar’, and there seems to be no reason to doubt these identifications. So nothing doing here.


Gosling’s 1911 reconstruction of Nicholas Lussher’s later 16th-century altar tomb (from 10/13e). Red crosses and labels identify stonework found in 1910. Compare the form and details of the pointed central panel in the illustration with the photograph of the reassembled fragments in the porch above.

The second source was Gosling’s ‘Notes on the history of the parish of Puttenham Surrey’, an unpublished parochial history-cum-miscellany, possibly written in 1939 (Puttenham and Wanborough History Society 5/6). Gosling’s architectural background really comes to the fore in his detailed analysis of the church and the changes made to the building over the centuries. He provides a half a page account of the Cranford brass, including the information that it was:

‘moved to present position at Restoration of Church or before and set on York stone slab. Remounted 1927 on Roman stone.’ (Gosling, ‘Notes’, 48)

On the back of the previous page are two successive notes that add further details, yet on first reading they seem to contradict one another:

‘This brass formerly lay about the east end of the south stalls near the S. Wall but it may have been moved there out of the way. The flaked York stone on which it was mounted when found was inappropriate and ill protected the edges. The brass was fixed with screws.’

‘Mr. Gawthorp F.S.A. reset it in 1927 with rivets on a slab of Roman Marble. The Purbeck stone matrix of this brass found in 1929 under the S. Choir Stall was much damaged taking the brass out. It is now under the Tower.’

(Gosling, ‘Notes’, facing 48)

Having read and re-read these statements several times, I understand now what Gosling was trying to convey through them. The first describes the ‘new slab’ seen by Stephenson, which probably dated from work done in the chancel in 1861 – his reference to the brass ‘when found’ is nothing more than a case of poor choice of words given it never seems to have been lost or hidden. The second note is key. In Gosling’s understanding, the original casement was placed out of sight under the chancel floor (it is after all a sizeable piece of stone and so must weigh a lot) until further work in 1929 uncovered it once more. The mention of damage hence pertains to the time of the work done in 1861, not 1927 or 1929. Gosling records that the improvements to the church effected in the latter year included the relaying of the chancel floor ‘with York stone in 2 colours’ (‘Notes’, page 38). Annoyingly, he fails to mention equivalent replacement of flooring elsewhere in the church, but the presumption must be this was carried out around the same time. There’s an obvious logic to reusing such a large slab instead of new paving stones, albeit that it was too pitted to be used in a location with heavy footfall.

The question is, can we accept Gosling’s equation of the slab found in 1929 with the original casement of Cranford’s brass? Given its concealment and rediscovery happened not so far apart, moreover during the period when we know Gosling was closely associated with the church, it would appear he was drawing on his own memory in making the connection. Inspecting the features of the tower slab can help to secure this link. The brass, 62cm in length and a maximum 40cm in width, would fit within the pitting at one end of the slab. Indeed, the extremity of this pitting is contained within a shallow round-headed recess, regularly spaced 22cm away from the edge of the slab. It’s unclear why not far shy of half of the slab (68cm) is featureless with what was probably a smooth (polished?) finish, but at least this portion provides positive evidence for the outer 10cm of the stone being slightly bevelled, as if is central portions – and the brass – were raised up slightly above floor level.


Detail showing the indentation where Edward Cranford’s memorial brass was formerly situated; the curving white-ish line at the top of the image marks its limit, within which the head of the figural brass would have been housed.

Therefore, I think it’s certain that the slab in the tower is the original casement for the brass of Edward Cranford. It’s a rough piece of sculpture – if it even counts as sculpture! – but as an earlier fifteenth-century work it is undeniably ancient. Working off Stephenson’s list, the memorial brass formerly affixed to it is the 25th oldest extant or recorded in Surrey (I’ve bumped it up a place ahead of the memorial brass in Okewood chapel of Edward de la Hale, as he died a month after Cranford: Stephenson 1926, 397, 550). We know comparatively little about Edward Cranford. His brass supplies his status as rector and date of death. The register of Bishop Wykeham provides his date of presentation to Puttenham, and moreover the fact that he came from West Clandon in an exchange of rectories with Roger Paternoster (Kirby 1896, 230). He had not been rector of West Clandon for long; an earlier register gives entry the date of his presentation – confusingly under the name ‘Edmund Cranfolde’ – as 28th December 1397 (Kirby 1896, 214). (Paternoster had been instituted as rector of Puttenham on 17th June of the same year (Kirby 1896, 209).)

I have also just rediscovered a note concerning an indenture of 1442, seemingly now lost but not before it was translated by the great Godalming historian Percy Woods, in which two of the four grantors of a messuage on the south side of The Street in Puttenham village are named as ‘Sir Thomas Craneford Clerk’ (given the context I’d wager his title is probably better rendered as ‘Master’) and ‘John Craneford’ (Woods, 17, 247-48). Initial searches have failed to turn any additional references to either man, but their blood relationship to Edward seems a virtual certainty. As such, the Cranfords may have been a important family in the parish and wider locality in the first half of the 15th century.

All things considered, it’s a wonder that the slab has come through the last 150 years or so and is visible today. Gosling mentions other grave slabs found in Puttenham church that were reburied (or weren’t moved from their below-floor-level locations owing to their immense weight) – it’s possible some of these may have been the “grave-stones” on open display in Aubrey’s day. We should also be grateful that the slab was placed the right way up when it was relocated and reset, else there would have been no way of proving this was Cranford’s casement! In fact, its current arrangement may replicate the original orientation of the grave, with the head of the figural portion of the brass at its western end facing east, just as this faces towards the high altar on its present stone mounting.

Excitingly, this may not be the only medieval stone from Puttenham church that has been awaiting rediscovery. As mentioned above, some of the stones listed by Gosling in 1910 – both from the Lussher table-tomb and other, possibly earlier fragments, are last heard of as lying in the churchyard, where (if they weren’t tidied away by a grave digger or nabbed by a parishioner for their rockery) they may still remain. Thus, in the coming months, I’m hoping to get permission to clear some of the ivy that covers the surface of the churchyard around some of its margins. I’ve found a fair few bits of medieval pottery in the churchyard over the years, but medieval stonework – wow, that would be amazing.


Aubrey, W., The Natural History and Antiquities of the County of Surrey, Volume 4 (London: E. Curll, 1718)

Clift, J. G. N., ‘The brass of Edward Cranford’, Journal of the British Archaeological Association, New Series, 14 (1908), 263-65

Dugmore, R., Puttenham Under the Hog’s Back (Chichester: Phillimore, 1972)

Hussey, A., Notes on the Churches in the Counties of Kent, Sussex, and Surrey (London: John Russell Smith, 1852)

Kirby, T. F., ed., Wykeham’s register, volume 1 (London and Winchester: Simpkin & Co. and Warren & Son, 1896)

Manning, O., and W. Bray, The History and Antiquities of the County of Surrey, Volume 2 (London: John White, 1809)

Stephenson, M., ‘A List of Monumental Brasses in Surrey’, Surrey Archaeological Collections, 31 (1918), 85-128

Stephenson, M., A List of Monumental Brasses in the British Isles (London: Headley Brothers, 1926)

Woods, P., ‘Godalming Hundred’, Volume 17 (unpublished manuscript in Godalming Museum Local Studies Library)



Posted in Archaeology, Architecture, Church, Puttenham, SMPCW | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

It’s Surrey Medieval’s Puttenham Church Week! An introduction to the parish church of St John Baptist

Every so often, I elect to make my life a little bit difficult by devising and binge-writing a week’s worth of posts under the banner of a “Surrey Medieval … Week”. So far I’ve done some of the simplest statistical analyses known to Man under the umbrella of Surrey Medieval Stats Week, and discussed a trio of 14th-century field-names from a copy of a Puttenham charter for the purposes of the snappily-titled Surrey Medieval Middle English Field-Names Week. This time around, as the title of this post does more than hint at, I’m keeping my focus on Puttenham but moving away from some unidentifiable fields to the parish’s most recognisable medieval building – the parish church of St John Baptist.


The memorial brass of Edward Cranford, rector of Puttenham from 1400 until his death on 8th August 1431. I’ll say more about Edward and his brass later in SMPCW!

Why have I chosen Puttenham church as the subject of a theme week? Two reasons. Most immediately, this coming Friday (28th October) I am talking to the Puttenham and Wanborough History Society on the subject ‘Lost Rectors of Medieval Puttenham’, following the Society’s AGM. The meeting kicks off at 8pm at the Marwick Hall, School Lane, Puttenham; if you’re in the area why not come along? Non-members will probably have to pay a couple of quid on the door (or spend a fiver and join up for the year!) but I promise you I have soon good tales to tell – and not just about previously-unknown rectors…

The second reason why I’m doing this is because, though I’m not a person of Christian or any other religious faith, I have a lifelong connection with the church building. I was baptised in its font as a baby (the first of two times in my life I have worn a dress), and have a variety of subsequent memories attached to the building: not looking in the right direction when several congregation members claimed to have seen a ghost in the chancel during a Christmas Day service as a young child; freaking out while descending the spiral staircase of the tower during a school visit aged 7 or 8; and most recently rejoicing at seeing the church full of people for my Dad’s memorial service in April this year. Furthermore, it would be impossible for me to be meaningfully interested in the history and archaeology of medieval Puttenham without paying keen attention to its parish church, still for the most part a high to late medieval building.

I thought the best place to begin SMPCW would be with a photo-heavy post giving the reader a taste of the church and some of its medieval (and early modern) features. I mean no disrespect when I say Puttenham’s is an unremarkable church and so not as well known as those of neighbouring Compton or Thursley, for example. In many ways it is typical of the thousands of medieval parish churches across Britain that were substantially restored in the 19th century, with little sensitivity to the preservation of medieval fabric rather than its replacement. What I hope to demonstrate to the reader is that with optimism and patience, scraps of overlooked medieval fabric reveal themselves afresh, and show even “heavy” restorations do not obliterate some of the accumulated patina of centuries of activity within churches. A couple of times, I will give examples of very recent changes to the church interior that have obscured medieval features, and not for reasons of protection and preservation. This has lessened the overall interest of the church; not to a serious extent, but enough as to make suggest to all who care for churches like Puttenham to have a closer look at what’s in front of them when planning alterations.


Inside Puttenham church, 27th December 2015. This is the view through the tower arch looking east. The four bays of the Romanesque nave arcade can be seen on the left, and the rere-arch of the slightly later (but still round-headed) south door on the right. In the centre of the picture is the chancel arch, with the chancel chamber beyond.

Because I’m going to look at the origins of the church in detail in a forthcoming SMPCW post, for now I’ll merely note the earliest fabric belongs to a single-celled structure incorporating nave and chancel without any structural internal divisions, coterminous with the present nave. This was probably built on a previously-undeveloped site at the end of the 11th century or early in the 12th. The first (extant) addition to the church building was the north aisle, usually dated to the second half of the 12th century, perhaps circa 1160, making it one of the earliest such extensions to a Surrey church (which may partly explain the simple and unaccomplished decoration of the capitals of the arcade between nave and aisle).


Compare the shallow and clumsily-executed scalloping on the eastern two full capitals (and the half-capital of the arcade’s east respond)…


…with the westernmost full capital and western half capital; far from the highest quality work, but much more competently designed and executed – as if the latter were carved later when the masons had “got their eye in”.

Walking around the exterior of the church during my most recent visit to Puttenham, I noticed a small number of dressed chalk blocks at the junction between the east end of the aisle north wall, perhaps relocated when the Lady Chapel was added around the dawn of the 13th century. The wall has the look of medieval masonry repointed (most probably during the major 1861 restoration of the church) but not refaced at a later date, which raises the likelihood these blocks – perhaps former quoins – comprise previously-unnoticed later 12th-century fabric.


Dressed stone blocks (former quoins?) at the junction of the nave north aisle (right side of image) and later north/Lady chapel (left side).

The next surviving additions to the church were the present chancel and north/Lady chapel, usually ascribed to the late 12th century or (more often) the early 13th – the two-bay arcade between the two certainly has the look of work built in the 1200s. (Intriguingly, the chapel has a larger floor area than the chancel.) So far as we can tell, both were built at the same time – they share the same alignment, a few degrees different from the axis of the nave – although there are few features to help support the concept of a common date of construction. One thing that suggests they were coeval is the record of fragments of stone string-course being found in the north wall of the chapel during its restoration in 1910 that were comparable to the anonymous, rather bashed-about round string-course on the south wall of the chancel.


In March 2015, I climbed a ladder to put new candles in the candelabra lighting the high altar, and took the opportunity to take this photo looking west through the chancel arch to the nave and tower. On the right is the two-bay chancel arcade (partly infilled by ornate modern woodwork); on the extreme left can be seen the noted 15th-century “low side” window.


String-course section on the south wall of the chancel. Another comparable course runs across the wall behind the high altar, but this was rebuilt in the 1861 restoration and may be a 19th-century introduction.


Close up of the string-course; note the roughness of its central section, surely the damage sustained over centuries, not decades.

It’s quite likely there was an earlier chancel cell, built in response to the addition of the nave aisle (as it runs the entire length of the postulated original church, thereby overlapping with the eastern extremity logically reserved for the high altar). This may have been part and parcel of the aisle project, or a delayed resolution to the internal spatial complications caused by the new aisle. The latter eventuality might be preferred if weight is attached to the postulation, made by Philip Mainwaring Johnston in his account of the architectural history of the church printed in the Victoria History of the County of Surrey, that the style of the chancel arch is sufficiently distinctive as to intimate it pre-dates all that stands east of it. Indeed, its sequence of mouldings is broadly comparable to those of the nave south door (sorry, no photo for you!), which has been dated by various authorities to the period between circa 1170 and 1200. Together, they just might comprise a second phase of later 12th-century investment in the church fabric.


The more I look at the chancel arch, the more I notice the little details – such as these little roll mouldings at the top of the chamfers underneath the imposts – that affirm its interest and relative accomplishment.


One of the less obvious characteristics of the chancel arch is that it juts out at an angle into the nave, presumably an unintended product of its construction. This is readily apparent in this view looking through the 19th-century lectern arch on the north side of the chancel arch.

Th chancel contains a number of the church’s most interesting later medieval features. I’ve included a detail of the mid-15th-century Cranford brass above, which was fortunate to not be covered over when the chancel was re-carpeted in recent years, a fate that befell a medieval encaustic tile (whose zoomorphic design is believed to represent a goat) just inside the altar rail. Set into the floor behind the high altar (and mercifully not masked by carpet) is the major part of a medieval altar stone, found beneath the chancel floor during one of the restorations of the earlier 20th centuries. I’d love to know if there is any published scholarship that may help to date this unusual survival. Perhaps the form of the three incised crosses it bears – two of which are shown in the photos below – may hold the key? I wonder if it might date from the period when the church underwent significant remodelling in the earlier 14th century, embodied by the south chapel (now housing the organ and choir room), most of the surviving roofs, a number of (heavily-restored) windows, and perhaps the aforementioned hidden encaustic tile. This would tie in with documentary evidence that shows pre-Black Death Puttenham was populous and the scene of a dynamic land economy at the time.

Much as I love the wonky details of the nave arcade and chancel arch, architecturally speaking the finest medieval feature of Puttenham church is its chancel south-west “low side” window. This is quality early 15th-century work, with corbels at the ends of the external drip course in the forms of an angel and a bishop – or at least a man in a pointed cap! Its western third includes the “low side” light, with possible original ironwork on its external face. This feature is curiously absent in 18th- and early 19th-century depictions of the church, though its stonework is not noticeably different from the rest of the window and it is hard to see why such a feature would be created during a 19th-century restoration. Accepting it to be an original feature, however, makes explaining its intended purpose no less easy. A valuable article by Paul Barnwell in issue 36 of Ecclesiology Today (thanks to English Parish for bringing this to my attention) runs through the various suggestions made over the decades about the function(s) of low side windows, before introducing a new hypothesis of their being for ventilation. The argument is well-reasoned, but I do feel in the case of Puttenham’s window that form goes far beyond function, and that ventilation of the west end of the chancel could have been achieved in a much less ostentatious manner. Maybe we’ll never know for certain its original function.

The final medieval addition to Puttenham church was the west tower (I will add that I harbour suspicions the pre-1400 church building was too large and comparatively complex for it not to have had a tower, perhaps one made of timber?). This was added in 15th century (although to me it bears more than a passing resemblance to the century-earlier west tower of Frensham church). Some local historians have attributed its commencement to Edward Cranford, in which case it was begun before 1431, and claimed that it was not completed until the early years of the 16th century. I don’t know the medieval textual basis of such claims, and feel these are assertions trying to match up vague architectural dating with very specific but very scarce historical testimony. The tower’s construction is remembered by the series of external putlog holes on its three main faces. These used to be home to nesting/roosting doves and jackdaws until (regrettably in my opinion) they were blocked off by grilles in the recent restoration of the tower and belfry. On my last visit, a swarm of bees had moved defiantly into two adjoining putlog holes.


South face of Puttenham church tower, showing series of putlog holes (the bees nest was in the second hole up on the left).

Inside the tower, on the arch communicating with the nave, are a number of incised graffiti that have never been noted in any previous study of the church. The combination of extensive replacement of stonework as part of 19th-century restoration and subsequent whitewashing of the church’s internal walls and arches means these may well stand for a much larger number of original examples. Certainly, many medieval churches are filled with graffiti. The study of medieval graffiti is enjoying a heyday, with a well-received book published last year and several county surveys now underway in English counties (including Surrey, although it appears to have been on hiatus for a couple of years). Puttenham’s possible medieval graffiti are modest, but nevertheless of interest at a local level.

Most of the visible examples are to be found on the north jamb of the tower arch. Among those to be found on the western chamfer, the most conspicuous is a coupled cross – or a cross superimposed on a triangle. For what it’s worth, I’m confident it’s total coincidence that Puttenham’s war memorial also takes the form of a coupled cross. The adjacent bookcase abutting the western face of the arch has caused two other graffiti to become obscured from view: a “tailed lozenge” (or possibly an angular, vertical fish!) and the letters “A H”. Fortunately I took rubbings of both a few years ago, which I reproduce for posterity below.

A little lower down on the main face of the north jamb are a couple of faintly-incised gridded patterns. One of these appears to have an arched head, and looks rather like a traceried window of the so-called Perpendicular style. Just possibly is an evocation of the tower’s original west window, which was blocked by the early 19th century and reopened with all new tracery in the 1861 restoration. The date of the tower arch means that all graffiti can be no earlier than the late 15th century: the possible window etching could be post-medieval, but I would argue the cross, by dint of its subject matter, is more likely to be 16th century or earlier (allowing for a slow shift from Catholic to Protestant influences among parishioners-cum-graffiti carvers).

The designs on the tower arch are not the only graffiti evident inside the church. In the chancel are some interesting incised letters, probably of early modern origin. The most conspicuous example, on the east face of the northern respond of the chancel arch, is also the most explicable; “HB 1625” must be associated with one of the two men named Henry Beedell, father and son, who were rectors for a remarkable 96 consecutive years between 1598 and 1694. In 1625, the elder Henry was rector, but it’s conceivable his son was literate (and naughty) enough to carve his initials on the chancel wall by that date. Much less apparent is a second carving a little higher on the same. It consists of an “H” and the fainter remains of a second letter to its right, perhaps a “P” – or possibly “B”? If so, maybe we have a case of “like father, like son”!

Near to these graffiti, on the western respond of the chancel arcade, the letters “RM” are carved into the masonry in a simplistic style not dissimilar to the fainter of the two initials mentioned in the previous paragraph. No incumbent with these initials is known; it has been posited that they stand for Richard Marlyn, a man associated with Rodsall in the parish during the Elizabethan period. If true, this would make the graffito earlier than the 1625-dated one close by. As for the other letter-like etchings at the western end of the chancel arcade, it certainly looks like we have an “A” and perhaps another “H”, but they’re not obviously associated in the same way as the “A H” on the tower arch, and they may be nothing more than meaningless juvenile doodles.

So there you have it, a whizz through of just a few of the less obvious features of the medieval church. In the coming days I’ll upload a paper on the place of the church within the local landscape and what this might say about its origins, present extracts from episcopal registers recording a fraught few months in the life of the church and parish in 1307, and try to identify the original function of a stone grave slab that’s lain unnoticed on the floor of the tower for many years. All that and give my talk on the Friday night. Oof, this week’s gonna be a busy one.



Posted in Architecture, Church, History, Puttenham, SMPCW, Talk | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment