All back to Bassishaw (work in progress)

(As the title indicates, this is a raw and currently very longform piece of draft work that is being offered for comments as well as for general reader interest. Responses can be made in the comments field at the end of the piece, or sent via email to surrey

Bassishaw is a ward-cum-parish in the environs of the Guildhall in the centre of the City of London. Its name shares the same derivation as its original axis, Basinghall Street (and now Basinghall Avenue at its north end), the difference being explicable through an injection of late-medieval folk etymology, possibly at the institution of the legendary London topographer, John Stow. This held sway for centuries after, and has muddied the waters in terms of received understanding of the names repeated in even very recent publications, exemplified by the opening of Christine Fox’s A History of Bassishaw Ward:

‘The proper name of the ward is Basing Hall, named after the mansion house of the family of Basing; which probably gained its name from Solomon of Basing, alderman of London and Mayor in 1217. The Basing family also gave their name to the parish church, St. Michael Bassishaw, and to the street where it was situated, Basinghall Street.’ (Fox 2014, unpaginated)

A much more onomastically-adept version of this interpretation currently holds sway in some quarters of place-names scholarship; I’ll introduce this and discuss both in due course. Meanwhile, the most widely-encountered modern etymology of Bassishaw and Basinghall is OE *Basingahaga, “the haga of the Basingas“, in which the *Basingas are a folk-group who seem to have lived in or otherwise been most closely associated with the Old Basing and Basingstoke region of north-east Hampshire, and haga is a term for some kind of enclosed urban property (more on both elements later). As a sidelight to the latter, Bassishaw is often noted as being the one instance in the City where ecclesiastical parish and administrative ward boundaries are coterminous (an imaginative explanation of its evolution from haga to ward is proffered by Brooke and Keir 1975, 154).

The link between the *Basingas and *Basingahaga is inferred to be early on the basis that no London property is recorded in the Domesday Book entries for Old Basing or Basingstoke (or any other places in their vicinity), nor in any of the relevant Anglo-Saxon-period charters of the 9th-century and later. Many have suggested that the name underlying Basinghall/Bassishaw is a direct analogue of the nearby parish of St Mary Staining, whence Staining Lane (it should not be confused, as I have done before now, with All Hallows Staining further east in the City of London). St Mary Staining appears earlier as ecclesia de Stanningehage 1189×90 (13th) and the second half of its name is first attested in an OE writ text of 1053×65 as þæt cotlif Stana mid þam landa Stæningahaga wiðinnon Lundone, “the estate of Staines with the property of Stæningahaga within London” (S 1142). Bassishaw/Basinghall and Stæningahaga/Staining are highly unusual; nevermind -ingahaga, they are the only two extant haga place-names I’ve been able to identify in the City of London (as per Dyson and Schofield 1984, 307, and with reference to Mills 2010, 286).

In spite of a notably dearth of relevant archaeology (see Cowie 2004, 203-204), an orthodoxy has grown up that these names stand for enclosures of some sort associated with the commercial interests of two earlier Anglo-Saxon social groups: the *Basingas, and the *Stāningas of Staines and its hinterland (e.g. Dyson and Schofield 1984, 306-307; Hinton 1986, 163; Biddle 1989, 23). Bruce Eagles has published perhaps the most recent statement of this line of thinking specific to Basinghall/Bassishaw:

‘An early and close connection between Basing and London is suggested by Basinghall Street, whose name relates to a fortifiable enclosure (‘the haga of the Basings’) within the city’s Roman walls. It has been postulated that the enclosure’s most probable function was to protect the commercial interests of the Basingas at Lundenwic, and that it may date to the time of Cædwalla or Ine, for those West Saxon kings were able to exercise authority in Surrey and Kent and the latter claimed that the Bishop of London was his bishop.’ (Eagles 2015, 131)

I’m not sure I’d entirely agree with some of the history behind the above, but it must be said that Eagles was largely summarising the earlier arguments of others, such as this more evocative description by Christopher Brooke and Gillian Keir:

‘If one walks south across the bridge over the new freeway called London Wall, one comes upon a modern terrace surrounded by a group of buildings of the 1960s. Here one meets the legend Basinghall Street, adorning a modern pavement; yet the name harks back to the Hall or Haga of the men of Basing, probably a pre-Conquest enclosure and town house of the folk of Basingstoke.’ (Brooke and Keir 1975, 13)

What I want to focus on in this piece is the name evidence and what it actually signifies. Because, looking at the historic name spellings that have been made available for study through publication, there are significant issues with the prevailing interpretations and the arguments required to explain away the inconsistencies have the effect of making the whole thing seem less credible, not more so. I wish to introduce some new thinking into the matter. Bassishaw/Basinghall and Staining need not be seen as two essentially-identical institutions in origin – the respective corpora of historic name spellings suggest otherwise. Therefore, in the absence of any surviving OE form of the name(s), I want to focus on trying to get a handle on the derivation of Bassishaw/Basinghall and then see where that leads in terms of fitting it into an historical-archaeological framework for the City of London in the Early Middle Ages.

In terms of the source of the prevailing scholarly orthodoxy regarding the names in question, more or less all roads lead back to one man and one work: Eilert Ekwall and his 1954 study Street-Names of the City of London. In reviewing the philological evidence amassed by Ekwall, it’s become clear to me that London minor place-names seem to have been messed around with more than most in the later medieval centuries (although my recent scrapes with Kentish minor place-names of the same period have been equally traumatic at times!). Therefore, it’s not impossible that the name of what is now Bassishaw/Basinghall succumbed to reanalysis and false analogy in the 12th century and later that has corrupted the evidence and thus what can be reconstructed through careful study of the name spellings. But going too far down that route unpicks the stitching on a lot of Middle English (ME) onomastics, which doesn’t bear thinking about! So I shall persevere, working on the assumption that the situation is not all that bad, and trying to keep Occam’s razor in mind whenever possible.

The name data and problems with their previous interpretation

The earliest forms of Bassishaw/Basinghall on published record (collected in non-chronological order by Ekwall 1954, 94; cf. Mills 2010, 15) are Bassingshage 1160×81, Bassieshaghe 1189×99, Bassingehawe 1218×22, Bassihawe 1218×22, Bassiishag’ 1230, with a number of later 13th century spellings in much the same mould. These led Ekwall to posit the following; ‘the name means “the town house or hostel of the Bas(s)ings” … being probably the people of Basing or Basingstoke’. He saw this specifically urban usage of haga as belonging to OE only and not surviving into ME. For this reason he concluded; ‘the usual opinion that Bassishaw was named from the London family of Basing(es) cannot be correct’, because ‘Members of the family are recorded in London from the late 12th century’ and not earlier (Ekwall 1954, 94).


Looking north along the mid-section of Basinghall Street. Note the curve of the street here; this recalls the curve of the Roman amphitheatre – or rather the earthworks remnants of it that remained upstanding physical features in the Anglo-Saxon period.

Ekwall’s explanation of the name Basinghall/Bassishaw has two issues that are addressed in the briefest of ways – if they can be said to be addressed at all. However, because of his renown as a linguist, it has still become the orthodoxy. The first problem is that he put history before language – a strange choice for a linguist to make! The contemporaneous Bassingehawe and Bassihawe 1218×22 aside, all published early spellings contain a medial -s-, suggestive of an OE genitive singular rather than plural, and so run counter to what would be expected of *Bas(s)ingahaga, i.e. “the haga of (the) Bas(s)ings” involving a social group name.

Ekwall made no meaningful attempt in his 1954 book to account for why the name should deviate from to the expected OE grammar. He would later note in a different book several instances of –ingas names associated with verbal conjugations that suggest they were ‘construed as singulars already in the OE period’ (Ekwall 1962, 81). So far as the historic attestations of (Old) Basing go, it’s true that spellings connoting the dative plural ending -ingum had given way to ones consistent with nominative/accusative -ingas by the end of the OE period (hence Basinges 1086: see Ekwall 1962, 44), but does that mean the latter can be read as a singular, hence *Basingashaga? I don’t find this especially convincing. It’s also worth mentioning that Ekwall argued the spellings of Godalming Hundred in Domesday Book were correctly inflected in the genitive plural, i.e. Godelminge 1086 < OE *Godhelminga hundred (Ekwall 1962, 82), so it’s not because things were done differently in Late OE.

FullSizeRender 9

Here’s Old Basing, specifically the parish church of St Mary and some nearby houses, glimpsed in a really shonky photo I took a couple of months ago from the window of a passing train.

A. D. Mills got around this problem by advocating, in direct contradiction of Ekwall’s argument (and part-emulation of Stow etc.), that the name was a ME-period formation something along the lines of *Basingeshage, denoting the ‘messuage or enclosure of the Basing family’ (Mills 2010, 15). It’s true that the first record of an individual in London with the byname/family name de Basinges appears very soon after the earliest attestation of Bassishaw (Robert de Basinges ante 1188: Ekwall 1947, 120), and instances of the byname go back much further, to Cola de Basinga in Domesday Book (ODFNBI, 158). However, Bassishaw’s first appearance in written records is as a parish. Surely a family coming from outside London, who apparently left no trace in the written record prior to the final quarter of the 12th century, could not have had such an immediate impact on the parochial name?

What is more, I’m inclined to side with Ekwall insofar as I think that names in haga are more likely to be of OE coinage. Although the word occurs in sufficient Domesday Book entries in relation to urban properties of rural manors as to suggest it could have survived the 11th century as an active name-forming element (so far as the Surrey Domesday folios go, this is true of Guildford and Southwark but not London; cf. Gautier 2007, 59, on Chichester/West Sussex, and Ballard 1913, lvii-lviii, for a brief national-level perspective), in terms of actual London place-names the balance of the admittedly-scant historical evidence is in favour of an earlier height in currency (two recorded in the OE period, i.e. before 1100, and one after).


The second shortcoming of Ekwall’s interpretation (and likewise that of Mills) is the failure to note and explain that almost all of the collected spellings start Bass- as opposed to Bas-Basingeshawe 1277 is the solitary exception I’ve come across thus far. Consonantal gemination seems to be a minor feature of ME spellings of Stæningahaga/Staining Lane (viz. the aforementioned Stanningehage plus Stannyngelane 1272×73: Ekwall 1954, 124) but for non-geminated spellings of Bassishaw/Basinghall to be so rare suggests something else might be going on. Furthermore, early attestations of Basing never contain -ss-, and the same is the case for its near-neighbour Basingstoke (Ekwall 1962, 44). This also appears to hold true for the two places in Lincolnshire named Bassingham (< OE *Basingahām: Ekwall 1962, 141, 143) and, Bassingham 1286 aside, their Norfolk namesake Bessingham; the latter is particularly significant as there is a much larger number of published forms available for analysis.

The one spanner in the works is Bassingbourn in Cambridgeshire, for which at least 20 different historic spellings and their dates are available online. Of these, the earliest are in Bas- (hence BasingeburnaBasingborne 1086) but from the middle of the 12th century forms starting Bass- come to dominate (e.g. Bassingeb(o)urn(a) 1158-). The balance of evidence favours an etymology of OE *Basingaburna, “the stream of the *Basingas“, with consonantal gemination being an increasingly-prevalent phenomenon of the ME period. The chronology of the equivalent name data available for Bassishaw/Basinghall would accommodate the same explanation, so perhaps a phonological reason might be posited whereby -ss- formed before -ing(a)- and a final element beginning with a cluster of consonant + short vowel (anyone?). But this does not explain the medial -s- of the sizeable majority of the available spellings (which are entirely absent for Bassingbourn).


Groveland Court, in the knot of lanes and alleys south of Cheapside, is certainly on the same east-west orientation as Basing Lane, and may even partly overlie its site.

We might usefully compare the above with the name of Basing Lane, a lost thoroughfare which apparently once ran between Bread Street and Bow Lane south of Cheapside. Here we have strong historical evidence with which to connect the name to the de Basinges family, as one of their number, Peter, certainly had a house on Basing Lane in 1275 (Ekwall 1954, 133), and the association may have gone back decades earlier. Only three contain a medial -s- versus five which do not (I’m playing it safe by omitting the somewhat-aberrant Basingestrete 1303). By the final quarter of the 13th century, Basing and other forms lacking a final -es were well attested (Ekwall 1947, 120), so does not preclude the straightforward compounding of family name + ME lāne.

Accepting the link between the family name and Basing Lane allows the available spellings to be considered in another way. Of the nine variants supplied by Ekwall (1954, 133), forms with single -s- (earliest Basinglane 1275, Basingelane 1279×80) outnumber those in -ss- (e.g. Bassingeslane 1310, Bassynglane 1361) by six to three, with none of the latter pre-dating the 14th century. Does this allow us to distance the etymology of Basing Lane from that of Bassishaw/Basinghall? Perhaps; none of the byame/family name forms collected by Ekwall (1947, 120) contains a -ss- cluster. But a really rough-and-ready bit of onomastics turns up something of a link between the -ss- spellings of Basing Lane on the one hand and Bassishaw/Basinghall (and Bassingbourn) on the other. A series of simple searches made via the National Archives Discovery portal (one of the best ways of gauging the representativeness of published place-name forms) turned up a 1251 reference to Robert de Bassinges (Corporation of London Record Office, CLA/007/EM/02/F/006) – I’m going to assume this and other spellings reported in the online summaries are accurate. So, the case for a link could be argued one way or the other.

(Two asides…

  1. There’s a temptation to connect Peter de Basinges’ house on Basing Lane with the ‘hostelry called Gerrard’s Hall’, recorded as the home of a giant (!) by John Stow and associated with a fabulous stone-vaulted undercroft depicted in a number of 18th- and 19th-century engravings, but this – or any link to another scion of the Basing(es) family – is unlikely, especially given the property is said to have derived its name from erstwhile possession by the Gisors family.
  2. A possibility with a greater likelihood of being true is that Basing Lane extended further west, and thereby accounts for the gloriously-named lost Pissynglane 1425×26. Ekwall (1954, 166) struggled to locate it and seems to have been embarrassed to proffer a translation, instead calling it ‘self-explaining’. Bless. Luckily, the so-called Agas map of London, first printed in 1561, shows Basing la[ne] due east of Pissing la[ne]. Spatial proximity does not necessarily confirm that the two names to share a common origin, but I do fancy it might be significant. Quite why the latter name came about is a matter I’ll leave for others to speculate upon…)

I wonder how the operator of One New Change, the super-shiny shopping centre due east of St Paul’s, would react if it found out that their signature Instagram-worthy main axis shared the same orientation as Pyssinglane?..

There is no shortage of equivalent speculation published for Bassishaw/Basinghall Street: Al Smith (1970, 20) stated it was ‘Named after a rich city family called Basing, whose mansion stood at the southern end of the street’, perhaps perpetuating Louis Zetterman’s earlier claim that ‘the mansion of Solomon Bassing, Lord Mayor, stood here. The street took its name from the Hall of the Bassings’ (Zetterman 1926, 24). Whether such speculations are credible is another matter. We can trace a lot of the basic details back to the account written by John Stow at the end of the 16th century (bold formatting is my addition):

‘Bassings hall warde, a small thing, and consisteth of one streete called Bassings hall streete, of Bassings hall, the most principall house, wherof the ward taketh name […] On the west side almost at the south end thereof is Bakewell hall, corruptly called Blackewell hall: concerning the originall whereof I haue heard diuerse opinions, which I ouerpasse as fables, without colour of truth, for though the same seemed a building of great antiquitie, […] the best opinion in my iudgement is that it was of olde time belonging to the family of the Bassings, which was in this realme a name of great antiquitie and renowne, and that it bare also the name of that familie, & was called therefore Bassings Haugh, or Hall: whereunto I am the rather induced, for that the Armes of that family were of olde time so abundantly placed in sundry parts of that house, euen in the stone worke, but more especially on the wals of the hall, which carried a continuall painting of them on euerie side so close togither, as one escutcheon could be placed by another, which I my selfe haue often seene and noted before the olde building was taken downe: these armes were a Gerond of twelue poynts, Gold, and Azure.’ (Stow 1912, 255, 257)

Later antiquarians fleshed out Stow’s largely ahistorical account by citing medieval documentary sources, relevant or otherwise. A particularly fertile point of reference seems to have been John Noorthouck’s short chapter on Bassishaw in the second book of his 1773-published A New History of London Including Westminster and Southwark, which begins thus (again, bold = my addition):

‘The proper name of this ward is Basinghall, from the mansion house of the family of Bassing, where Blackwell-hall now stands; several of whom served the chief offices of this city in the 13th century. Henry III. granted Adam de Bassing certain houses in Aldermanbury and in Milk-street; the advowson of the church at Bassings hall; with other liberties and privileges. The family also spread in Cambridgeshire and gave name to a place called Bassingbourn.’ (Noorthouck 1773, 549)

The last sentence is complete rubbish, another unquestioning reiteration of what Stow had posited, but what of the rest? Blackwell Hall certainly existed into the 19th century. ‘Adam de Bassing’ was *deep breath* a mercer, sheriff, alderman, and Mayor of London 1251-52; he seems to have been the son of the above-mentioned Solomon (see Ekwall 1947, 120). If the details of Noorthouk’s account are to be believed, the parochial name ‘Bassings hall’ was already in existence at the time of the royal grant to Adam, so it cannot be that the houses were demolished to make way for the hall. And all this before a reminder that the name of Bassishaw/Basinghall is on record long before the reign of Henry III (1216-72; Stow states that the grant was made in the 31st year of Henrys reign, i.e. 1247). While there is every chance that members of one or more family of the name (de) Bas(s)ing(es) owned, perhaps even resided in, property on Basinghall Street, this is not probative of their being the source of the ward/parish/street name. There’s a distinct whiff of folk etymology and misunderstanding (or misuse) of genuine historical fact about this, yet I can’t completely rule out that there is a greater factual basis behind it than I have been able to ascertain thus far.

Considering the alternatives

Very little is absolutely certain in historical place-name studies; the evidence can only be analysed and suggestions of greater or lesser probability be advanced off the back of it. I would suggest the published attestations admit the very real possibility of the first element in Bassishaw/Basinghall being different from that of Basing Lane, and likewise of Basing, Basingstoke, etc. To explain it as ME *Basingeshage (either as a byname/family name or as a direct transfer of the place-name) requires the persistence of OE haga as an active item in the London place-naming lexicon into the 12th century, for which there is no direct evidence, and the formation of the name significantly earlier than anyone with the byname/family name Basinges is recorded in London. Deriving it instead from OE *Basingahaga runs into the opposite problem of the recorded forms being inconsistent with the inflection of the specific.

This is not to say there aren’t explanations that could help overcome these issues. For example, there could have been subsequent early ME-period reanalysis as/false analogy with the name Basinges. However, for this to occur with respect to its toponymic attribution would require conjecturing something akin to a folk etymology in order to explain why a place without any direct connection with London should be used as the eponym. The idea of influence coming from Basinges as a byname/family name necessitates it operating at an earlier time than anyone of this name is attested as being present in London – let alone already in a position to lend their name to a parish. It is conceivable that there was simultaneous or quickly successive false analogy and consonantal gemination to generate a spelling Bassingshage by 1181. But there are also other, arguably simpler, explanations available which I think merit a public airing.


Consequently, I want to present and evaluate three “new” possibilities. In each case, the hypothetical OE name-form behind Bassishaw/Basinghall and its Modern English translation is presented first, and the discussion ends with an assessment of the pros and cons (you’ll see I’m not exactly reinventing the wheel in my emphatic use of bold text).

*Basingeshaga, “the haga of a person named Basing“. This suggestion is possible provided the -ss- spellings are non-original – about which you have probably formed your own opinion by now! OE Basing (genitive singular *Basinges) has been explained as a hypocoristic form of a byname derived from OE basu, “scarlet, crimson, purple” (Insley and Rollason 2007, 168), or else as an OE ‘pet-form’ of either Old Scandinavian BassiBessi < bjorn, ‘bear’, or OE Bassa – about which more shortly (ODFNBI, 158-59). Another possibility might be a byname taken from the OE noun basing, ‘(short) cloakmantle‘. Certainly, dithematic names in Bas- that might be shortened in place-name formations as well as other contexts seem to be quite rare; Baswin is the only obvious instance in the PASE database.

Whatever its precise derivation, Basing as a personal name is well attested in texts belonging/pertaining to the 11th and 12th centuries: once in the Chronicle of Evesham (as Basingus, in the period 1046×66), several times in Domesday Book (as Basinc), once in the early 12th-century section of the Durham Liber Vitae (as Basing), and a couple of times in the period c.1160-1200 in Lincolnshire (Insley and Rollason 2007, 168). The byname of the well-regarded Canterbury monk and scribe Eadwig Basan (Latin Eaduuius cognomento Basan) might be cited as further evidence that basu enjoyed something of a purple patch (#sorrynotsorry) in the 11th century anthroponymicon. Of course, this does not negate the likelihood that it was in earlier personal-naming use, as indicated by the apparent presence of an original byname *Basa as the first element of OE-attested Basing and Basingstoke (and seemingly their other analogues in England). PROS: Attested personal name, genitive singular in -es. CONS: Lacks -ss- cluster.

Screen Shot 2017-04-21 at 09.54.20

The record of the anchorite named Basing (Latin Basingus) active in the period 1046×66, from the ‘Translation and Miracles of St Odulf’ printed as an appendix to the published edition of the Chronicon Abbatiae de Evesham (Macray 1863, 322)

Screen Shot 2017-04-21 at 21.40.44

The screenshot may be grainy, but the name Basing is clear enough in this detail from the early 12th-century additions to the Durham Liber Vitae (London, British Library MS Cotton Domitian A VII, f. 17v)

*Bassingeshaga, “the haga of a person named *Bassing“. Outwardly very similar to the above, and taking better account of the majority of the available historic spellings, would be a male personal name *Bassing (genitive singular *Bassinges). It is unattested, however, and as such still requires some explanation. Indeed, how it is interpreted may have some bearing on the date of the place-name formation as, formally, it could be one of two things: an -ing variant of the personal name Bass, or a Late OE extended short-form of a name in Bas-, specifically a geminated version of Basing.

The interpretation of *Bassing as an -ing variant rather than hypocorism benefits from a significant number of Early to Mid Anglo-Saxon correlates. Bass was the name borne by two important men in the 7th century: a Northumbrian “gallant warrior”, and the mass-priest founder of Reculver minster. The weak form Bassa is attested as that of a Mercian royal ancestor in genealogical texts from the 8th/9th century onwards, as well as in the Shropshire place-name Baschurch, recorded as Eglwysseu Bassa, “churches of Bassa“, in a mid-9th century Welsh text (CDEPN, 40). The precise derivation of these names is open to question. The Bedan name Bass has been linked with Old Norse bessi, ‘bear’, apparently cognate to Old Swedish/Danish basse, ‘boar’, but a loan from Latin of the byname Bassus, ‘of short stature’, has also been suggested (Ström 1939, 63-64). It’s also quite possible that Bass and Bassa represent hypocorisms of early personal names that can no longer be determined. (Those of you thinking of sea bass will be disappointed; the Middle English Dictionary headword form may be bās, but it stands for OE and early ME bærs.)

Screen Shot 2017-04-21 at 18.44.49

See the middle word on the first line, the one that looks like barre or bappe? Well actually, that’s Basse, the dative inflection of Bass, and this is the 669 annal from the late 10th-century B-text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle; “Here king Ecgberht gave Reculver to Bass, the mass-priest, in which to build a monastery” (London, British Library MS Cotton Tiberius A VI f. 8v)

A quick scan through the PASE database reveals surprisingly few personal names in -ing with which *Bassing might be compared. Faced with this, I’m turning to the more practicable published list of monothematic names in the Durham Liber Vitae (Insley and Rollason 2007). This boasts five examples from the earlier 9th-century core, versus seven (plus a further instance, Hwætling, with the ?diminutive ending -ling) drawn from the additions made from the 12th century. Of the former, two – Hearding and Leofing – are transparently short-forms of names in Heard- and Lēof- respectively (Insley and Rollason 2007, 170, 177; note Hearding, along with the equivalent name Bruning, is found in the witness list of a later 11th-century vernacular agreement from the St Paul’s, London archive: S 1481b). A third, Adding, is considered to be a geminated hypocoristic form of a name starting Ald- (Insley and Rollason 2007, 166; if only there was a similarly obvious explanation for Bass-!)

The remaining duo from the 9th-century core are more directly relevant to *Bassing. Lutting is treated as a geminated -ing variant of a byname *Lȳt(el) (cf. lȳt, ‘little’: Insley and Rollason 2007, 180, who describe Lutting as having a ‘late Old English -ing-suffix’), which would admit the idea that *Bassing is a geminated form of Basing if derived from basu. By contrast, the fifth name, Billing, seems to be an non-geminated variant of a byname *Bill < bill, ‘sword’ (Insley and Rollason 2007, 169; long-term readers may recognise bill as being a word I’ve written about before). Billing is independently attested in line 25 of the OE catalogue poem known as Widsith, frequently held up as a repository of early personal-name forms. It also appears to lie behind the London place-name Billingsgate, earliest Billingesgate in the Customs of London of c.1000 (Mills 2010, 24; cf. Ekwall 1947, 21). In fact, in terms of attested forms, it’s more or less the opposite of Bass, –a and *Bassing, with no standalone occurrences of *Bill or a hypocoristic form *Billa – although they can probably be perceived in several OE place-names (e.g. the lost (to) billinga byrig in the boundary clause of S 43). PROS: Fits with -ss- spellings of first syllable, genitive singular in -es. CONS: Unattested personal name.

Screen Shot 2017-04-21 at 22.08.15

Double Billing! The two occurrences of the name Billing in the deluxe black-and-gold original core of the Durham Liber Vitae (London, British Library MS Cotton Domitian A VII f. 20r)

*Bassinghaga, “the haga called after a person named Bass(a)“. Another means of piecing together the evidence is to see it as a combination of a personal name Bass or Bassa + the connective particle known in the business as -ing4 (the precise meaning of which has yet to be explained satisfactorily to my mind; the above is the translation used in CDEPN) + haga, and subject to later false analogy with the personal name Basing and/or the place-/family name Basinges. In formation, this possibility would be directly analogous to the oft-cited property named Ceolmundingchaga, “the haga called after Ceolmund”, sited not in the City but in Lundenwic (in uico Lundoniae: note an incorrect spelling Ceolmundingachaga is supplied by Dyson and Schofield 1984, 306). That name is recorded in a charter of 857, not extant in the original but as a credible 11th-century copy, which effectively proves its pre-Alfredian origin and admits the possibility of the same being the case for Bassishaw/Basinghall (S 208; the property is fascinatingly described as qui est non longe from Uuestgetum positus, “which is positioned not far from the Westgate” = later Ludgate?).

Screen Shot 2017-04-21 at 22.25.53

Excerpt from the diploma which names (and grants) ceolmundingchaga (name = first word of second full line of text), copied into the so-called Hemming’s Cartulary of the late 11th century (London, British Library MS Cotton Tiberius A XIII, f. 19v)

Although I myself am not particularly convinced that it constitutes a relevant explanation, it’s worth mentioning that there are several unequivocal instances where OE place-names with early attestations embodying what has the look of an -ing4 particle have variant spellings consistent with a regular genitive singular inflection of the specific (hence (æt) Beortwaldinȝtune 939 and Bristoldestune 1086, both containing the personal name Beorhtweald and generic tūn, and pertaining to Brightwalton in Berkshire: see Insley 2005, 330). This might help account for the smattering of early attestations without an -ing- cluster but with an -s- in the “right” place, thereby admitting the notion of the specific being a more straightforward genitive of a strong-form name like Bass or *Bassi. However, I’ve dealt with enough of this sort of late-recorded place-name by now to get a feeling that if it starts off with -ing-spellings then they’re the original and trustworthy ones! Note too the form Stanigeslane 1278 for Staining Lane, related to the OE-period attested Stæningahaga (Ekwall 1954, 124). PROS: Attested personal name, recorded local parallel for -ing4 + haga. CONS: Trouble accounting for -(e)s- spellings.

Discussion: names vs. archaeology

I don’t want to stray too far into evaluating other City of London place-names before drawing some conclusions, but do wish to talk a little about one name first in order to reinforce my point that a lot of what’s been published before on the historical implications of certain names has been based on some very inadequate onomastics. The place-name I have in my sights is Lothbury, which on the face of it is more interesting than I’d given it credit for previously. Several late 13th-century spellings (e.g. Lodingeberi 1285-86: see Ekwall 1954, 196) appear to indicate derivation from OE *Hlōthingaburh, i.e. another -ingas group, only this time one without obvious parallel outside of London. I’d wager therefore that these forms are examples of the annoying “ghost” -inga- names that crop up in the ME period when people embellished names by introducing –ing- for no good semantic reason!

However, the main point I wish to address is the not-infrequent insinuation that the first element of Lothbury represents a contraction of the name of the lawcode-promulgating Kentish joint-king Hlothhere. Much like with Bassishaw/Basinghall, there has been an element of Chinese whispers in the transmission of Ekwall’s interpretation of Lothbury (along with those of other earlier 20th-century commentators). This can be demonstrated by comparing the following passage…

‘Of similar age [to Bassishaw] is Lothbury, the burh or fortified enclosure of Lotha’s folk. Lotha is a form of Hlothere, the name of an early Kentish king (673-85), but is not recorded in later times; evidently, again, we have here a name of high antiquity.’ (Brooke and Keir 1975, 154)

…with one published scarcely ten years later, that draws heavily upon the above;

‘Lothbury, the burh of Lotha, thought to be a corruption of the name of Hlothere, king of Kent 673-85, an important king in his day but one unlikely to have been remembered subsequently.’ (Hinton 1986, 163)

We can see the inevitable slippage from a by-and-large accurate recognition of the failure of a name borne by a famous figure to recur later in the Anglo-Saxon period, to an inaccurate postulation that Lothbury was King Hlothere’s burh on the basis of an absence of any recorded analogous names. While there are no instances of a byname *Hlōth (< OE hlōþ, “companion; war-band; war-booty”) or hypocorism *Hlōtha, I have been able to find one correlate for of a longer name starting Hlōth-; Hlothewig, a port-reeve (of Canterbury?) attested as a charter witness in Kent in 968 (Sawyer 1215, which survives in the original or as a near-contemporary copy). So, for what it’s worth, the element was still “live” in the personal name-forming lexicon well into the 10th century, meaning Lothbury as a name could have been formed in the Late Anglo-Saxon period, long after the 7th century.

I’ve deliberately skirted around the questions of what a haga was and how it differed from a burh in the urban topography of early medieval London up to this point, and I’m going to kick them into the long grass rather than tackle them here. What I will say here is that the dates of the sources in which haga is attested in connection to London do suggest a floruit in Late OE – e.g. circa 990×1001 in the bilingual text of the will of Æthelgifu (þone healfne hagan on lundanne, “the half (of a) haga in London”: S 1497) and in 1023×38 in the OE will of Bishop Ælfric of Elmham (ic gean þan hage into sancta Petre binnon Lunden, “I give the haga to St Peter’s within London”: S 1489; Sweet 1978, 237) – but Ceolmundingchaga 857 points to a longer toponymic currency. OE burh/byrig had an even longer lease of life as a toponymic element within the City of London, arguably continuing well into ME. This much seems clear from another burh-name in the City, Bucklersbury (earliest Bokerelesbury 1275: Ekwall 1954, 195-96), which is doubtless derived from the name of the Bukerel family who seem to have been big-hitters in London ever since they appear in city records at the start of the 12th century.


Looking east from the southern end of Basinghall Street towards Lothbury, which begins at the building with the Chinese flag (being Bank of China, no less) and runs behind the Bank of England building visible beyond.

A note of caution all the same. Bucklersbury is the find-spot of a hoard of over 60 Alfredian pennies, probably deposited circa 890 (Brooke and Keir 1975, 377), so it is not inconceivable the burh was a pre-existing, Alfredian or earlier institution that changed its name after being acquired by the Bukerels. Similarly, Lothbury is the recorded provenance of an 8th-century object, perhaps an embroidery tool, with a ‘head formed from a “sceatta-like” disc bearing a (?royal) bust’ (Biddle 1989, 23 footnote 35). The Bucklersbury hoard could be an isolated deposition, and the Lothbury whatever-it-is a casual loss, made in abandoned bits of the intramural area, yet it is also possible that they are each somehow representative of the existence of a burh-named focus. Thus, the ability of a name-specific to date an urban feature identified by the associated generic element may in some, maybe even in many, cases be questionable – a state of affairs that of course could be extended to haga place-names…


There is a whole heap more I could say about the precise significance of the name(s) Stæningahaga/Staining, but I’ll save that for another time and place (hopefully a journal article). So, getting back to Bassishaw – and Basinghall – finally, what can we conclude about the origin of the names? My first break with what has been written before is to stress that there is no compulsion to see them and Stæningahaga/Staining as being of a piece, two -ingahagas cheek by jowl with one another. The vast majority of early spellings of Bassishaw/Basinghall are not consistent with an original *Basingahaga, while the subtly yet significantly different Ceolmundingchaga proves that London haga-names could be formed in at least one other way. Therefore, I’d urge that the notion we must seek a common explanation for how they came to be should be abandoned; after all, Staines is not an -ingas place-name, a fact to which people should perhaps have paid more heed before now.

Philologically and historically, the traditional interpretation of OE *Basingahaga has turned out to be a less credible explanation of the name formation behind Bassishaw/Basinghall than its frequent repetition (and the historical extrapolations based upon them) may suggest. The same is true of Mills’ advocation of ME *Basingeshage. This piece has highlighted some of the weaknesses of those two published etymologies, but also offered some potential means of explaining their inconsistencies, so cannot be said to have delivered the knockout blow to either of them. Instead, I have introduced further options for people to consider, ones whose dates of origin most probably lie somewhere in between the previous postulations.

Some chronological narrowing may be achievable through looking at the periods in which the various alternative specifics are recorded. So far as the documentary sources tell us, the personal name Basing seems to have been in use in the 11th and 12th centuries, whereas Bass and Bassa are restricted to 7th- to 9th-century sources (regarding the latter, I’ve floated the idea before that the -ing4 particle might be an 8th-century innovation emerging from Mercia). Unfortunately, *Bassing, the candidate that is most consistent with the available attestations, sits rather awkwardly in onomastic terms between the aforementioned alternatives, and likewise is less amenable to being pinned down in time. Thus, Bassishaw/Basinghall as a place and a name may pre-date the usually-understood date of intramural London’s reurbanisation of the very late 9th century, but could very well be a creation of the 10th or 11th century. I guess it’s over to archaeology (and maybe further historical research) to see if an answer can be found. Paging Prof. Reynolds…

REFERENCES (hyperlinked when available for free online)

Ballard, A. (ed.), 1913  British Borough Charters 1042-1216 (Oxford: University Press)

Biddle, M., 1989  ‘A City in Transition, 400-800’, in M. D. Lobel (ed.), The City of London from Prehistoric Times to c.1520 (Oxford: University Press), 20-29

Brooke, C. N. L., and Keir, G., 1975  London 800-1216: The Shaping of a City (London: Secker & Warburg)

Cowie, R., 2004  ‘The evidence for royal sites in Middle Anglo-Saxon London’, Medieval Archaeology, 48, 201-209

Dyson, T., and Schofield, J., 1984  ‘Saxon London’ in J. Haslam (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Towns In Southern England (Chichester: Phillimore), 285-313

Eagles, B., 2015  ‘”Small shires” and regiones in Hampshire and the formation of the shires of eastern Wessex’, Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History, 19, 122-52

Ekwall, E., 1947  Early London Personal Names (Lund: C. W. K. Gleerup) 

Ekwall, E., 1954  Street-Names of the City of London (Oxford: The Clarendon Press)

Ekwall, E., 1962  English Place-Names in -ing, second edition (Lund: C. W. K. Gleerup)

Fox, C. M., 2014  A History of Bassishaw Ward c. 1200 – c. 1600 (Unknown:

Gautier, A., 2007  ‘Game Parks in Sussex and the Godwinesons’, Anglo-Norman Studies, 29, 51-64

Hanks, P., Coates, R., and McClure, P., 2016  The Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland, Volume 1: Aaron-Cushing (Oxford: University Press) [= ODFNBI]

Hinton, D. A., 1986  ‘The place of Basing in Mid Saxon history’, Proceedings of the Hampshire Field Club and Archaeological Society, 42, 162-64

Insley, J., 2005  ‘Siedlungsnamen § 2. Englische‘ in R. Müller (ed.), Reallexikon der Germanischen Altertumskunde, 28 (Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter), 344-53

Insley, J., and Rollason, D., 2007  ‘English Monothematic Names’ in D. Rollason and L. Rollason (eds.), The Durham Liber Vitae, Volume 2: Linguistic Commentary (London: British Library), 165-87

Macray, W. D. (ed.), 1863  Chronicon Abbatiae de Evesham, ad annum 1418 (London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, and Green)

Mills, A. D., 2010  A Dictionary of London Place-Names, second edition (Oxford: University Press)

Noorthouk, J., 1773  ‘Bassishaw ward’ in Ibid., A New History of London Including Westminster and Southwark, 2 (London: R. Baldwin), 549-51

Smith, A., 1970  Dictionary of City of London Street Names (Newton Abbot: David & Charles)

Stow, J., 1912  The Survey of London (London and New York: J. M. Dent & Sons and E. P. Dutton & Co.)

Ström, H., 1939  Old English Personal Names in Bede’s History: An Etymological-Phonological Investigation, Lund Studies in English, 8 (Lund: C. W. K. Gleerup)

Sweet, H. (ed.), with Hoad, T. H. (rev.), 1978  A Second Anglo-Saxon Reader: Archaic and Dialectal, revised second edition (Oxford: University Press)

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

Zettersten, L., 1926  City Street Names, 3rd edition (London: Selwyn & Blount)

Leave a Reply

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

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

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s