Everyday Life

Anglo-Saxon Place Names in Britain

Have you ever driven through a town and found yourself curiously pondering the story behind its name? Or perhaps you’ve chuckled at the seemingly peculiar phonetics of a signpost welcoming you to a new village? Well, it turns out that there is a tale behind place names, and we’re here to help you uncover what that might be.

The birth of Britain’s place names is a complex meshing of languages, including Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Norman French. These languages reflect the waves of invasion and settlement that have occurred in Britain throughout the ages.


Place Names of Britain

The place names of England boast diverse origins, largely due to historical shifts in language and culture which impacted different regions at various times and to differing extents. The precise nature of these linguistic and cultural transformations is often a topic of debate.

During the Stone and Bronze Ages, the British Isles were home to populations whose languages remain unidentified. By the Iron Age, the inhabitants of Great Britain shared a cultural bond with the Celtic peoples of Western Europe.

Place names in Dorset
Shitterton literally means “farmstead/town on the stream used as an open sewer”. The hamlet of Shitterton in Dorset is at least 1000 years old.

The patterns of land use did not significantly change from the Bronze Age, implying that the population remained largely the same. Evidence from this era, particularly in the form of place names and personal names, clearly indicates that a Celtic language known as Common Brittonic was spoken throughout what is now England by the Late Iron Age.

The timeline for the spread or development of these languages in the region is subject to debate, with most estimates placing it within the Bronze Age.

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Thus, the primary foundation of British toponyms is Celtic, specifically Brittonic (relating to the ancient Britons), which is an ancestor to modern Welsh and distantly related to the Goidelic languages of Ireland and Scotland.

Place names in Bredfield
The first mention of Bredfield is in Little Domesday in 1086, as Brēde Felda (or various permutations thereof) in Old English, meaning “broad clearing”.

The oldest place names in England are typically river names, many of which are believed to be Brittonic in origin. In regions like Cumbria and Cornwall, where Brittonic languages persisted until relatively recently, many settlement names are fundamentally Brittonic.

Military Settlements

Following the Roman conquest, a number of Latinate place names emerged, particularly those linked with military settlements. Often, these were mere Latinisations of existing names, such as Verulamium for Verlamion (St Albans) and Derventio for Derwent (Malton). After the fall of Roman Britain, few of these names endured.

Place names in Hertfordshire
The village sign for Tyttenhanger Green, Hertfordshire.
The name Tyttenhanger – or Tydenhangre – was first recorded in 1248. It is thought to mean the “wooden slope belonging to Tilda”.

These sites often continued to be occupied, later known by names incorporating the suffix chester/cester/caster (derived from the Latin ‘castra’, meaning camp), which rarely referenced the Roman or Romano-Celtic names. Consequently, the Latin influence on British place names is relatively minor.

Place names in Chislehurst
The name “Chislehurst” is derived from the Saxon words cisel, “gravel”, and hyrst, “wooded hill”.

Post-Roman era, several Germanic tribes from the North Sea coast began migrating to Britain, variously displacing, intermarrying with, or ruling the local populations.

The language of these settlers, which evolved into Old English, became dominant across much of lowland Britain. As a result, most modern English settlement names are discernibly Old English in origin, with many incorporating personal names of these settlers and their descendants.

Burstall is a village and civil parish dating back to the Domesday Book of 1086, where it was recorded as Burgestala and literally meant “site of a fort or stronghold,” from the Old English word “burh-stall.”

Some English place names reflect non-Christian beliefs, specifically the old Germanic religion—examples can be found in the list of non-Christian religious place names in Britain.

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Old Norse Origin

Between AD 850 and 1050, the north and east of England saw settlements by Danish and Norwegian Vikings. Many toponyms in these areas are therefore of Old Norse origin.

Given the similarities between Old Norse and Old English, numerous hybrid English/Norse place names also exist in the Danelaw, the region under Danish control for a period. Norse toponyms often include personal names, indicating they were likely named after local leaders.

This image depicts the dialects of Old English as they existed just before the Viking incursions (which significantly altered the speech of the East Midlands and North). Most written works in Old English are in the West Saxon dialect; however, modern standard English is largely derived from the Mercian dialect. The modern descendant of the West Saxon dialect can still be observed in places like Wiltshire, Somerset, and Bristol. Credit – CelticBrain 

Following the Norman conquest in 1066, some Norman French influences became apparent in place names, such as the simplification of ⟨ch⟩ to ⟨c⟩ in names like Cerne and in the -cester suffix, as well as in names that include titles of feudal lords, such as Stoke Mandeville, or in ecclesiastical designations like Church/Kirk/Bishop(s).

Since the early Norman period, the toponymy of England has remained relatively stable, though names have generally been simplified and adjusted to modern pronunciations and forms.

Celtic Place Names

Before the Roman conquest, Celtic languages predominated in Britain. Many places, especially in Wales and Scotland, retain their ancient Celtic names, which often describe physical features of the landscape.

For instance, names ending in “-dun” or “-don” (from the Celtic word for fort, as in Dundee or London) point to early fortified structures. Similarly, river names like Avon and Exe derive from the Celtic word “abona,” meaning river.

Latin Place Names

Very few Roman names survived the end of Roman Britain in their original form, although many Roman settlements were reoccupied. These were generally renamed, often incorporating the suffix -caster/-chester, derived from the Latin ‘castra’ (camp).

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A number of Latin names persisted through Celtic adaptations, such as Carlisle (from the Welsh ‘caer’ for Latin ‘castra’), Porthleven (akin to Latin ‘portus’ for ‘harbour’), and some linked with Christianity like Eccles (related to Latin from Greek ‘ecclesia’, meaning ‘church’).

Chester Le Street sign

Several places include the element ‘street’, stemming from the Latin ‘strata’ (paved road); these typically lie along the route of a Roman road, for example, Chester-le-Street and Stratton-on-the-Fosse.

This term was almost certainly adopted into the Germanic languages before the Anglo-Saxon migration to Britain, and it might have been used natively by Germanic-speaking settlers.

Linstead Parva sign on the B1123 Harleston Road

Other Latin elements in British place-names were adopted in the medieval period as stylistic choices. This includes the use of ‘magna’ and ‘parva’ instead of the more common ‘Great’/’Little’; for instance, Chew Magna, Linstead Magna, and Linstead Parva. Some Latin elements are even more recent: Bognor Regis, for example, received its regal suffix (meaning ‘of the King’) from George V after his recuperation there.

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Anglo-Saxon Place Names

The arrival of the Anglo-Saxons began a new chapter in the naming of British locales. Their place names frequently included elements that described physical landmarks or the uses of the land.

For example, endings such as “-ham” (homestead), “-bury” (fortified place), and “-ford” (river crossing), as seen in Birmingham, Canterbury, and Oxford, illustrate this tendency. These descriptors were practical, serving as navigational aids in the Anglo-Saxon landscape.

Canal signpost: Fazeley Junction

Viking Influence on Place Names

The Vikings, arriving from Scandinavia, also left a significant linguistic legacy, particularly in the north of England and parts of Scotland. Norse names often include components like “-by” (farm or village, found in Grimsby or Whitby) and “-thorpe” (secondary settlement, as in Scunthorpe). These elements reveal the agricultural and social structures of Norse settlements in Britain.

Wintercroft Lane in Thorpe village

Norman Additions

Following the Norman Conquest in 1066, French became the language of the elite, and many French terms entered the English lexicon, including in place names. The Normans introduced elements like “-mont” (hill) and “-ville” (town), albeit less commonly than the Germanic roots.

However, their primary impact was not in creating new names but in altering the governance and recorded titles of existing places, thus influencing their subsequent development and historical records.

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Old English, a West Germanic language, was introduced to England and southeastern Scotland by Germanic tribes such as the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes. This language is typically categorised into the Northumbrian, Mercian, West Saxon, and Kentish dialects.

It evolved into Middle English, which came into use around 100 years after the Norman Conquest and continued through the end of the Middle Ages. Modern English has evolved directly from Middle English.

The village of Blanchland on the County Durham / Northumberland border.

The vast majority of place names in England, particularly in the southeast, originate from Old English. Many of these names are derived from the names of specific Anglo-Saxon settlers.

Documentation and Cartography

The medieval period also saw the emergence of more systematic approaches to documenting place names, most notably in the Domesday Book of 1086.

Commissioned by William the Conqueror, this extensive survey recorded over two thousand places, providing invaluable insights into the nomenclature and administrative divisions of Norman England. The Domesday Book is a pivotal resource for historians studying the etymology and evolution of British place names.

Regional Variations

Regional variations in place naming also reflect the diverse cultural influences across different parts of Britain. For instance, in Cornwall, many names retain their Cornish language roots, with prefixes like “Tre-” (settlement) and suffixes like “-coombe” (valley). In contrast, the influence of Norse settlers is strongly evident in the Orkney and Shetland Islands, where Norse gods and natural features are common in place names.

Old English Place-name Elements

-bury (e.g. Wendlebury) from Old English burh (castle, fortification)
-cot (e.g. Didcot) from Old English cott (cottage)
-don (e.g. Swindon) from Old English dun (hill)
-ey (e.g. Godney) from Old English ieg (island)
-ham (e.g. Birmingham) from Old English ham (home, homestead)
-hithe (e.g. Rotherhithe) from Old English hyþ (wharf)
-hurst (e.g. Staplehurst) from Old English hyrst (wooded hill)
-ing (e.g. Reading) from Old English -ingas (people of, followers of)
-ley (e.g. Crawley) from Old English leah (woodland clearing, meadow)
-low (e.g. Hounslow) from Old English hlæw (hill, grave mound)
-stead, sted (e.g. Stansted) from Old English stede (place)
-stow (e.g. Chepstow) from Old English stow (place)
-ton (e.g. Castleton) from Old English tun (enclosure, farmstead, town)
-wich (e.g. Ipswich) from Old English wic (settlement)
-wold (e.g. Southwold) from Old English weald (high woodland)
-worth (e.g. Knebworth) from Old English worþ (enclosure, habitation, place)

Giggling, Blubbering, Long and Dull

Some towns in the UK have names that might seem bizarre at first, yet when placed in a historical context, they make perfect sense, even if they might not appear to today.

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Blubberhouses in North Yorkshire can trace its origins back to the Anglo-Saxon period and signifies ‘houses by a bubbling spring’. Giggleswick, also in Yorkshire, originally referred to a farm (with ‘wic’ or ‘wich’ historically meaning farm) owned by a man possibly named Gigel, or a similar variant of this name.

Forge Cottage, Somerset, 1950
Credit: David M Murray-Rust

The town of Dull in Perthshire has rather humble beginnings, deriving its name from an old term for ‘field’ or ‘meadow’. Embracing its unique name, in 2012, Dull twinned with the town of Boring in Oregon, USA.

Nestled on the Isle of Anglesey in Wales is a town boasting the longest town name in Britain, and one of the longest in the world.

Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, comprising a staggering fifty-eight letters, is believed to have been adopted in the nineteenth century as part of a publicity stunt to draw attention to the area.

The name translates as ‘The church of St Mary in the hollow of white hazel near the rapid whirlpool and the church of St Tysilio with a red cave.’