Pictured - A tributary of the river Nene

In this month’s feature Laura Malpas examines how history over the millennia has helped form the names of towns and villages which are so familiar to us today.

A few years ago I learned a new word that continues to please me, both in how it sounds, and what it means. A palimpsest is an old manuscript that has been reused, often several times, leaving traces of the earlier writing still discernible. Driving around our county it occurred to me that a map of Northamptonshire is like one of those ancient documents. On the surface we are all living in the 21st Century, but everywhere are clues to our past. History is revealed through the place names of the towns and villages we live in. Our county has been settled by many peoples over the millennia, and we know that many places named as long ago as the Iron Age, 3000 years ago still bear the same name today.

17th Century map of Northampton Shire England

Many hills and rivers have the earliest names often with Celtic Brittonic origins. The Ise, and Ouse whose similar names simply mean ‘water’ or ‘river’ and the Celtic named Nene would have helped ancient populations to navigate the county. The Romans and subsequent settlers adapted the names and used them to orient their settlements. For example, Isham is the name evolved from Old English given by the Anglo-Saxons, meaning the settlement at the water meadow by the river Ise. 

The Romans who conquered Britain in 43 AD, stayed for nearly 400 years, and probably saw our county simply as an outpost of Empire, with resources to be exploited. Few names they gave have remained. Place names they influenced are often a reference to their fortifications, -caster -cester with the names given not by the Romans themselves, but by subsequent settlers. For example, the Roman town named Lactodorum, was later called Towcester by the Anglo Saxons, referring to ‘the Roman fortifications on the River Tove’. Irchester probably got its name from a man named Ira or Yra who lived in an old Roman stronghold. There must have been plenty of intriguing remains left from the Roman occupation, which were falling into disrepair. The village of Flore for example, is not named after flowers, but almost certainly after an actual floor surface of note still to be seen, most likely an impressively tessellated mosaic, indicating a high-status Roman settlement. 

The departure of the Romans left the county open for the Anglo-Saxon peoples who wanted somewhere to settle and farm. They have left a strong presence in our Northamptonshire place names, often reflecting matters of importance to them. Geographical features are described, often connected with the name of the person who owned or farmed them. 

An example of this is ‘Cosgrove’ recorded in the Domesday book of 1086 as ‘Covesgrave’, referring to a grove belonging to a man named Cof. Or Corteenhall, understood to refer to ‘Corta’s nook of land’. Daventry gets its name from ‘a place by the tree belonging to Dafa’. Plenty of places are named after the inhabitants. For example, Billing was named after the family and followers of Billa who lived there. Helmdon was once Helmendene, or Helma’s valley.

Northamptonshire is full of places whose names include ‘Ashby’, containing the quintessential mark of a Danish place name: -by, meaning ‘farmhouse’ or ‘village’, so Ashby simply refers to a ‘village by ash trees’ so they needed to be distinguished by features, Cold Ashby, Canons Ashby, Castle Ashby or even by the local saint, Ashby St Ledgers. If the geographical feature was significant then additional 

Fotheringhay Church

names were not always needed, such as the name of Fotheringhay, whose name has evolved from fodring, a Saxon term referring to an island of dry land in a marshy area, which is still to be seen in the landscape today. 

Northampton our county town, is an ancient settlement of significance, which certainly predates its Saxon name. That name could hardly be more domestic. Hamtun means simply, the homestead of the farm. The ‘North’ was added later to distinguish it, possibly from Southampton.

Place names ending in -thorp, referring to an ‘outlying farmstead’ in Old Scandanavian clearly show that the later Viking invasions have left their influence on our place names too. Early records of Ravensthorpe show that the farmstead once belonged to a Norwegian man named Hrafn. Corby was once Corebi, a village belonging to a Viking named Kori. Sibbertoft was once known as Sigbjorn’s homestead.

The French arrived in 1066, causing a massive upheaval in the governance of the County. William and subsequent monarchs rewarded their knights with gifts of land and property. Very few Northamptonshire place names seem to be wholly French. Instead we find noble French family names attached to the Old English place names, such as ‘Collyweston’. Earliest records simply record the Saxon place name of west-tun, meaning the western farmstead. It was given to Nicholas De Seagrave, whose pet name of Colin was used to distinguish his property, hence Collyweston. One purely French name refers to the Royal Forest of Salcey, first recorded in Old French as bosco de Sasceya, meaning the place abounding in willows, and pleasingly, it still does! Although French remained the language of government for a while, in time the English language re-established itself and new towns and villages took the old names and adapted them to suit their needs.

In the 913 square miles of our county, we can travel through hills and by rivers named by the Ancient British Celts, visit and live in homesteads and settlements named by Anglo-Saxons, occasionally influenced by the remains of the Roman invaders. We can speak the names of Vikings who came to settle here, and those of the conquering French nobility. And be proud of the richness and strength that the migrations and settlements of our ancestors continue to give to us in the 21st Century. Long may it continue.

If you would like to learn more, read ‘Northamptonshire Place Names’ 

by Anthony Poulton-Smith 

ISBN 978 84868 718 9

Some place name clues – Old English unless specified other 

berg – hill – Old Scandinavian 

burh, bury, borough – fortified place 

by – farmstead – Old Scandinavian

ceaster, chester, cester – Roman stronghold 

cot, cote, cott – cottage 

dun – hill 

ham – homestead 

hamm – river meadow 

hoh – hill spur 

langr, langer – long – Old Scandanavian

leah – woodland clearing 

mere – lake 

penn – rocky hill 

pol – pool 

stow – assembly or holy place

straet, street – Roman road

torr – rocky outcrop

thorpe – outlying farmstead – Old Scandanavian

tun, ton – farmstead

wald – woodland

wella – spring or stream

wic, wick – dairy farm

withig, withy – willow tree

worth – enclosure


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