Thorpe and the changing landscape of place-name studies

After months of prevarication (mainly in the hope that I might scoop up a bargain in Amazon Marketplace – I didn’t), a couple of weeks ago I bought a copy of Thorps in a Changing Landscape by philologists Paul Cullen and David N. Parsons and archaeologist Richard Jones. As I intimated in the introduction to my essay on Hebbeshamm (based upon reading a limited preview available via Google Books – you can do the same here) this book represents the first major work of a new, thoroughly interdisciplinary approach to the study of place-names – in essence a new form of historical geography. Since I intend to write a critique of the continued failure of much past and current place-name scholarship to adequately integrate archaeological evidence I’ll hold back from lauding the achievements of the book and its authors in doing just that. Instead, seeing how this blog is named Surrey Medieval, I want to concentrate on how some of the key findings of the study can be applied to the county, and in turn maybe to offer one or two new slants on the new interpretations of place-names in Old English throp / Old Norse thorp.

Surrey can boast two examples of place-names derived from throp, or less likely thorp: Thorpe, the small parish and village in the north-west of the county best known nowadays for the eponymous theme park, and a lost ?field-name le Thrope recorded circa 1420 at one of the Moleseys (PNS, 366). It may seem perverse to argue for an Old English origin for the former given the majority of its documented early forms (PNS, 134) but the switching places of the o and r is straightforwardly explained as an example of metathesis, a common phenomenon in Old English place-names (and indeed in Modern English generally – at work I sit across from a guy who’s always telling people to “aks” so-and-so for such-and-such).

One of the key conclusions of the study (which I will abbreviate to TiaCL for the rest of this piece) is that such place-names originated after circa 800, with many arising in the tenth and eleventh centuries. Historically, this is of immediate interest to Surrey since Thorpe appears as in loco qui dicitur Thorpe in S 1165, the well-known Chertsey endowment charter believed to date from the first half of the 670s (you can read the full text of the charter here). If genuine, this would represent the earliest recorded instance of a place-name in Old English throp. Unfortunately, the book’s discussion of the charter (pages 69-70) falls short in a couple of respects. First, the authors overlook the fact that Thorpe is mentioned a second time in the body of the charter (in the form Torpe) and again in the preamble to the first of three boundary clauses, purportedly delimiting the “land boundary” of Chertsey and Thorpe (þorpe) but in reality excluding the latter (see mapping of bounds by Williams 2002, 44). This is a minor gripe, but one which links in to a second, more serious shortcoming of the analysis; the treatment of the authenticity of the charter text. Stenton’s neatly worded judgement that the extant text is “distended with spurious matter” (Stenton 1955, 29) is quoted, but this could apply as much to the trio of boundary descriptions (the others being of Egham and Chobham) as the supposedly seventh-century core of the charter. Helpfully, reference is made to part of Susan Kelly’s analysis of the charter as part of her forthcoming-but-not-for-a-long-long-time The Charters of Chertsey Abbey (TiaCL, 69 note 34). In her opinion the clause in which Thorpe first appears exhibits “clumsy” phrasing and an “anachronistic” areal quantification in mansae, which points to it being a later interpolation (and by association the subsequent references to the place in the text).

It is curious that the authors of TiaCL did not cite Thorpe’s appearance in other Chertsey charters: S 353 (supposedly of 871×99, as Thorp and þorpe), 420 (supposedly of 933, as Thorp), S 752 (supposedly of 967, as Thorp), S 1093 and 1094 (both supposedly of 1053×66, as þorpe and Torp) and S 1035 (supposedly of 1062, as Torpe). This may well be a consequence of the poor reputation of the pre-Norman elements of the Chertsey archive; Kelly (2004, 163) has identified Abbot Wulfwold (circa 1058 – 1084) as the commissioner of a number of these muniments. Nevertheless, Thorpe’s appearance (as Torp) in Domesday Book acts as independent confirmation that it was in existence before 1066. With this knowledge we can begin to assess how, when and why Thorpe came into being.

Thorpe is a small parish, so the population figures Domesday Book gives for the estate in 1086 seem surprisingly high: 12 villans and 24 bordars. Using the generally-accepted rule of thumb that population statistics should be multiplied by between 4 and 5 to represent the respective family units means as many as 180 people may have lived within the boundaries of the Thorpe estate at the time of the Survey. Dennis Turner (2004, 136) observed that there were “five or more small hamlets” within the parish, and it is conceivable that the Domesday population was distributed between some or all them. He based this assessment upon work by Jill William and the Egham-by-Runnymede Historical Society, published in 2002 as part of the Surrey Archaeological Society’s Villages Project. In that study it was mooted some may have lived “in the three hamlets” (probably equivalent to Thorpe Green, Thorpe Lea and Eastley End) but a figure of between 25 and 30 households was left unattributed, the suggestion being that “the area around the church” – i.e. the core of the historic village – is the most credible site for their habitation. This would represent a nucleated settlement of quite some magnitude (Domesday Book records the town of Guildford consisted of 75 “sites” in 1086) and is almost certainly an overestimate. A settlement of half that size – say 10 to 15 houses – would still be counted as a village by practically all of the agreed measures used by archaeologists, yet Turner states there is scant evidence for nucleation at Thorpe (although it does not necessarily follow that large numbers of houses could only be constituted in a village of nucleated form).

Recent archaeological work by the Surrey County Archaeological Unit (SCAU) in Thorpe village, subject of a brief note by Tom Munnery published in Surrey Archaeological Society Bulletin 426 (and verbatim on the SCAU pages of the Surrey County Council website), has thrown some new light on the matter, raising some interesting new questions in the process. A section of early medieval road, argued to form part of the “King’s Highway” through Thorpe, was found along with artefactual evidence of adjacent occupation which suggests activity became “more intensive” in the 12th/13th century, waning in the 14th before increasing once more towards the end of the medieval period. What is more, three pits of late Anglo-Saxon or slightly later date “seemingly do not respect the boundary formed by the King’s Highway, and therefore pre-date it” (Munnery 2011, 14). The most logical interpretation of this evidence must be that the settlement at Thorpe (or at least the portion of it subject to excavation) was remodeled in the 12th or 13th century, challenging the interpretation that it “shows every sign of having grown organically” (Williams 2002, 43). Moreover, clearly it was the site of some form of occupation before then, quite possibly in the later Anglo-Saxon period – the very era in which throp/thorp place-names are argued to date from.

Thorpe constitutes a particularly good case study for investigating the origin of throp place-names because, if its appearances in S 1165 are dismissed as later embellishments of an original text, then the combined documentary evidence points to its creation being the work of the important Anglo-Saxon monastery at Chertsey. Taking the year 800 as a point in time after which all (or almost all) throp-names came into being, we can use the few scraps of testimony for its existence and character over the course of the following three centuries to suggest when the term was deployed on Chertsey demesne. The first relevant information comes from the final third of the ninth century (and this is in a much later and rather questionable Chertsey cartulary) when, circa 871, a Viking raid caused the deaths of as many as 92 of the monastic community, which implies it had been a monastery of considerable size. John Blair (1989, 235-36) suggested that the same narrative passage hints that Chertsey was revived as a secular minster in 884; bequests from Ealdorman Alfred of Surrey in his will of 871×99 (S 1508) do not indicate it was anything other than business as usual at the time, whether it was home to monks or clerics (the annual monetary render intended “as a contribution to their provisions” is most unhelpful in attempting to determine which). It was not until 964 that full monastic rule was restored to Chertsey under an abbot named Ordberht. He came from St Æthelwold’s monastery at Abingdon, one of the crucibles of the monastic reform movement of the late Anglo-Saxon period. Could throps have been one of the new ideas emanating from this period?

The element makes a decent if unspectacular showing in Berkshire and Oxfordshire (where the distribution shows no correlation with the Thames valley) and similarly in Hampshire and Wiltshire, home to several major monastic houses. It occurs once in Somerset (TiaCL, 201), site of Glastonbury Abbey where St Dunstan began the English monastic reform movement in the 940s; a number of authors have suggested that this sparked a process of landscape reorganisation and settlement nucleation on some of its estates. Dunstan’s name has also been invoked by Pamela Taylor as the creator of an archiepiscopal residence at Mortlake, an estate encompassing Putney which Keith Bailey interpreted as a planned two-row village. (All of these are discussed at greater length in my study of the “Surrey Fens” causeways.) There is no evidence that any of the above involved the introduction of new place-name terminology, but it is well within the bounds of possibility that this could have occurred elsewhere. The connection between Thorpe and Chertsey is assured, so it is encouraging to find Molesey likewise has a documented connection to the monastery. As well as an early appearance in S 1165, Molesey (prior to its fragmentation into East and West) is recorded in S 752 as having been recently restored to Chertsey thanks to the action of St Æthelwold. This opens up the possibility of le Thrope remembering a place-name coined in the post-refoundation period. However, we do not know for how long Chertsey had been deprived of the Molesey estate; what we do know is that had passed out of Chertsey hands by 1066 (hence its absence from S 1035?). Both points make it trickier to confirm the inception of the throp-name at Molesey was of Chertsey’s doing.

Another of the key findings of TiaCL is the degree to which throps and thorps show a significant connection with the creation of open-field systems. Surrey’s Thorpe had up to three open fields, but the one that is of most interest is Thorpe Field/Thorpefield (the others were Westfield and Northlands/Norlands Field, a curious name given its situation in the eastern corner of the parish – see Williams 2002, 28-29, 38-39). It covered a significant portion of a gravel terrace at whose southern edge stands Thorpe village. There is every reason to believe that this must represent some of the estate’s arable land in 1086; the amount of arable land was not reproduced in Domesday Book, but ploughing duties were shared between eight plough teams. The fact that the settlement and open field share the same name makes it all the more likely that they also had interlinked origins (see TiaCL, 149 for a discussion of this correlation – it is worth highlighting that le Thrope at Molesey was a field-name).

Having established the basis of an argument for Thorpe being a place-name and by inference a phase of settlement whose origins belong to the late Anglo-Saxon period, a chronological framework tracing its pre-history and early history can now be sketched out. The first thing to say is that the area of Thorpe parish was almost certainly not devoid of settlement and/or human activity in the earlier Anglo-Saxon centuries. There are a number of recorded findspots of Anglo-Saxon grass-tempered pottery (HER 5290HER 5313 and HER 5349 to the north-east of the village – the last of which mentions pits of Anglo-Saxon date in the same vicinity – and HER 2402 to its south-east). Leaving aside the fact that grass-tempered pottery persisted in production and use for most of the Anglo-Saxon period in Surrey, thereby making precise dating in the absence of other artefacts or palaeoenvironmental evidence all but impossible, these findspots may be no more than the remnants of arable manuring scatters. On the other hand, it is just as possible that they may pertain to dispersed sites of habitation or non-domestic occupation.

The settlement pattern probably remained dispersed throughout the Anglo-Saxon centuries and on to the time of Domesday and beyond. This does not conflict with the idea that Thorpe village could have begun life as a new “central” settlement within a recently-defined land unit, albeit one that was still very much secondary to Chertsey; indeed, the various key conclusions given in TiaCL suggest we should not envisage a throp being a sizeable focal point for population in the manner of a “classic” nucleated village. Nor should this exclude the possibility of it overlying a site of earlier Anglo-Saxon settlement (even if archaeology within other throp/thorp-named settlements to date has yielded next to no such evidence: TiaCL, 96). Thorpe in the phase to which it owes its name should be understood as a settlement created in order to fulfil the arable potential of a section of fertile gravel terrace, achieving far greater levels of productivity and efficiency than had been managed before through the establishment of an open field. In terms of the age of the place-name (and the same goes for its lost namesake at the Moleseys), assuming it post-dates the reestablishment of monastic rule at Chertsey under Ordberht in 964 then it must have originated in the late-tenth or early to mid-eleventh century; this is entirely in keeping with the identified height of the throp/thorp naming period.

At this point it is worth returning to TiaCL and quote another of its key contentions. Concerning the morphology of the settlements which bear the name, it is concluded that “thorps tended to be small, compact places, exhibiting clear signs of planning” (page 108). Here, however, Thorpe looks to be a case apart with its largely irregular form (although the report of three “regular planned plots” in the western half of the village perhaps should not be dismissed as quickly as it was by Williams 2002, 43). Despite being unable to elicit the morphology of the settlement remembered by the pre-Kings Highway pits (assuming they were a product of permanent occupation), their location and approximate date permits the suggestion that they might have belonged to somewhere of a function and/or character appropriate in the eyes of its commissioners to be categorised as a throp. (It is worth retaining the idea that the term may have been applied in good faith to a settlement of agrarian function as per the fashion of the time, but that it would not have been classed as such by name-coining agents in other parts of England.) The problem is that we cannot say this for certain because, if the results of the recent SCAU excavations are applicable to the wider settlement, it would appear to have undergone a major reconstitution in the twelfth or thirteenth century. Accurate dating of when this happened is not easy given the endurance of certain pottery types but it might be permissible to posit a link between this re-planning and the date of the earliest surviving fabric in Thorpe parish church, namely the twelfth-century chancel arch (I have been unable to find a more accurate dating but the nature of the references consulted point to it not being especially early).

Quite why the throp phase, if it did comprise a regular-planned hamlet-cum-small village (and the authors of TiaCL readily admit their conclusion is based on an incomplete sample) was replaced with one of irregular morphology is hard to understand and further contextual research would be useful. At a more general level, as with Glastonbury Abbey in the tenth century, Chertsey seems to have effected the physical reorganisation of the settlements on some of its estates in a number of different ways in the twelfth century (see Turner 2004, 136-37 – David Taylor informed me last year that the published interpretation of the village at Church Cobham is substantially incorrect). The most eye-catching products of this process are the regularly-planned double-row nucleated villages at Egham, Chobham and elsewhere. Thorpe shows how the combination of place-name studies, history and archaeology can reveal signs of an earlier episode of settlement and landscape (re)planning undertaken by Chertsey. Did this result in multiple settlement forms too?

A recent article opened with the contention that, in the pre-Domesday archaeological terms, “the nucleated village of the middle to late Anglo-Saxon period appears both an exception and a novelty” (Gosden & Ten Harkel 2011, 1). I have often wondered how the population figures given by Domesday Book related to the contemporary settlement patterns, and whether 1086 represents a period in which population was nucleated to a far greater degree than is perceptible in the historic landscape. Could it be that on certain proto-manorial estates in Surrey population was gathered in nucleations during the later Anglo-Saxon period – in particular under the auspices of ecclesiastical landlords – in order to exploit the surrounding landscape in a more efficient way, only for the novelty to wear off and the exceptional become objectionable? Might this in turn have led to the settlement pattern being reorganised once again, effectively returning it to its “default” dispersed pattern, a form more acceptable to and workable for the inhabitants of the locality? The effect would have been not only a diffusion of the population of an estate, but also an increase in the number of discrete settlement locations within its bounds such as is found at Thorpe (in Puttenham parish the picture is rather more complex, as in the twelfth to fourteenth centuries settlement profusion ran alongside successful ?lordship-led “primary” nucleation at the estate centre). Future research, whether it be in the form of fresh excavations or the reconsideration of existing archaeological data, should remain alive to the possibility of settlement trajectories different to those found thus far in other parts of England. It is for this reason that the evidence from Thorpe presented and discussed above may have unexpected wider resonance for Surrey and beyond.

REFERENCES (excluding websites and those which are listed in other works available from this blog)

Cullen, Paul, Richard Jones & David N. Parsons, Thorps in a Changing Landscape, Explorations in Local and Regional History, 4 (Hatfield: University of Hertfordshire Press, 2011)

Blair, John, ‘The Chertsey resting-place list and the enshrinement of Frithuwold’ in The Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, ed. by Steven Bassett (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1989), 231-36

Gosden, Chris & Letty Ten Harkel, ‘English landscapes and identities. The early medieval landscape: a perspective from the past’, Journal of the Medieval Settlement Research Group, 26 (2011), 1-10

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

Kelly, Susan, Charters of St Paul’s, London, Anglo-Saxon Charters, 10 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004)

Munnery, Tom, ‘Excavations in Thorpe’, SyAS Bulletin, 426 (2011), 13-14

Stenton, F. M., The Latin Charters of the Anglo-Saxon Period (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1955)

Turner, Dennis, ‘Manors and other settlements’ in Aspects of Archaeology & History in Surrey: towards a research framework for the county, ed. by Jonathan Cotton, Glenys Crocker & Audrey Graham (Guildford: SyAS, 2004), 133-46

Williams, Jill & Egham-by-Runnymede Historical Society, Thorpe: a Surrey village in maps (Guildford: SyAS, 2002)

One Response to Thorpe and the changing landscape of place-name studies

  1. Susan Dean says:

    A roan cinerary urn, dated to 120 -150 AD was discovered in the churchyard of Thorpe Parish church, following a storm which brought down a tree in 1963

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