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What’s in a place name?

PUBLISHED: 13:04 21 October 2014 | UPDATED: 13:04 21 October 2014

The Norman Berkhamsted Castle shows the changing political nature of the county, while the town gets its name from the earlier Anglo-Saxon 'hamstede' - homestead.

The Norman Berkhamsted Castle shows the changing political nature of the county, while the town gets its name from the earlier Anglo-Saxon 'hamstede' - homestead.


The names of Hertfordshire’s towns, villages and natural features shine a light into the deep past, reflecting ancient religious beliefs, invasions and new settlers. Campaign to Protect Rural England Hertfordshire chairman Liz Hamilton explores

Hertfordshire Way WalkHertfordshire Way Walk

The variety of place names in Hertfordshire begs the question: ‘How did they all originate?’ Investigations reveal a complex subject, constantly being updated by research. Start to unravel some of the clues, and a fascinating picture emerges of the county’s history.


Sacred rivers and hills.

Arriving in England in AD 43, the Romans found a country inhabited by Iron Age tribes, known variously as Britons or Celts, speaking the language we now call Welsh. A few place names survive from the pre-Roman period, mainly of natural features such as rivers, which the Britons regarded as sacred, and hills. In Herts, the River Beane is thought to originate from ‘ben’, the Welsh word for goddess, while early forms of the River Lea – ‘Lygean’, ‘Ligean’ – suggest a dedication to the Celtic god Lugus. The Chiltern, hills in the west of the county, possibly incorporates the Welsh ‘celto’, meaning high. In St Albans, pre-Roman coins bearing the name Verlamio suggest the Romans adopted this Iron Age settlement name, making it into their Verulamium.

Sun Street, Hitchin. The town gets it's name from the pre-Roman Hicci tribe that colonised the area.Sun Street, Hitchin. The town gets it's name from the pre-Roman Hicci tribe that colonised the area.


Anglo-Saxon settlements.

Soon after the retreat of the Roman Empire from Britain in the early fifth century, new people started to arrive in England from areas around the North and Baltic seas. These included Saxons and Angeln from the region in what is now Germany. From these people we get the words Anglo-Saxon, England and English. It used to be thought that the incomers swept away the native Romano-British inhabitants, but the consensus today is that they probably settled alongside or among them.

Two centuries after the first arrivals, the Anglo-Saxons had become dominant, with territories ruled by their tribes and eventually by their kings. In Hertfordshire, a tribe called the Hicce occupied the area around modern Hitchin, while the Waeclingas, with a territory close to what is now St Albans, were associated with the old Roman Road which came to be known as Watling Street. In the east of the county, from the Brahingas came the name Braughing – the village of Breahha’s tribe or people. The very common Old English element ‘-ing’ (plural ‘ingas’) means people or tribe.
Other Old English place-name elements include ‘leah’ meaning either wood or clearing, ‘tun’: farm, ‘dun’: hill, ‘denu’: valley and ‘ham’ or ‘hamstede’: settlement or homestead. Many place names combine one of these elements with a personal or group name, or with a natural feature.

The River Beane at the ford in Walkern. It's name has its roots in 'Ben' - Welsh for goddess.The River Beane at the ford in Walkern. It's name has its roots in 'Ben' - Welsh for goddess.

So in Hertfordshire we get Langley, meaning a long clearing or wood, and Offley – (King) Offa’s clearing or wood. Many places including variations of ‘tun’ – Kimpton: Cyma’s farm, Pirton: pear tree farm, and Preston: Priests’ farm. ‘Dun’ features in Sandon: sandy hill, and Hoddesdon: Hodd’s down or hill, while Gaddesden derives from Gaete’s valley, and Walden from the valley of the Welsh.
‘Ham’ elements, found in Pelham and Aldenham, are uncommon. As this element is typical of early Anglo-Saxon settlements, this suggests, and is borne out by archaeological evidence, that these people came relatively late to much of the county, only in the mid sixth century. This was possibly because the heavily-wooded landscape was uninviting, or perhaps most immigrants, after crossing the North Sea, ventured first up the many rivers draining East Anglia and the East Midlands.


Viking Dacorum.

In the ninth century another people, the Danes or Vikings, invaded and occupied much of England. In Hertfordshire, though there are few place names with a Danish element, an exception is Danais, meaning ‘the Hundred of the Danes’, located in today’s Dacorum district. ‘Hundreds’ were Anglo-Saxon administrative units. Confusingly the many ‘Dane’ names in the county have no connections with the new arrivals but come from the Old English ‘denu’, associated with a steep-sided valley.


The French influence.

The majority of our place names were already in existence when William the Conqueror ordered the great census of his new country, recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086. The Normans also established a new land-owning class, which took over many of the lands held by Saxons. Surprisingly, there are relatively few Norman place names in the county. Some incorporate the element ‘beau’ (good/fine) such as Beaumont near Cheshunt and Beauchamps near Wyddial. Norman family names were also added to earlier village names: thus the prefix in Furneux Pelham derives from the family name ‘de Furneals’.

Two late town names are worth a mention: Baldock, established by Knights Templar in the 12th century, comes from the French name for Baghdad (a Crusader conquest), while Potters Bar was first recorded in 1509, possibly deriving from the land-owning le Poter family.

Other latecomers were names given to settlements created from the 12th century onwards as land was taken in for agriculture, notably at the extremities of parishes, to feed a growing population. In East Herts, former common grazing lands or ‘waste’ on the high plateaux were enclosed, typically with a few farms clustered around a surviving green, resulting in names like Roe Green and Moor Green. Throughout the county many ‘end’, ‘bottom’ and ‘row’ names originated in a similar way from previously uncultivated land.


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