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At the Edge / Bob Trubshaw /

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Danelaw Gods - the place-name evidence

Penny Drayton

In the absence of much other useful data on the viking period the study of place-names assumes surprising significance. Most of the villages in England had formed by the end of the eighth century, although some were to disappear and a few were known to be deliberately re-named by the Scandinavian invaders. Some of these names appear in early land charters or other surviving documents but as such records are very rare for the Midlands, most places in this region are first written down in the Domesday book. Unfortunately the Norman scribes who compiled this survey were not familiar with Scandinavian words and confused or corrupted the spelling of many place-names. The efforts of toponym researchers for the pre-conquest period are based on this limited and frequently doubtful evidence.

Place-name research was pioneered outside the corridors of academia and its early practitioners may have been guilty sometimes of erring on the side of enthusiasm rather than accuracy. When 'serious' historians started taking an interest the back-lash resulted in rigorous re-evaluation and some heated debates. The result is an area of scholarship into which the less-than-expert should tread warily at the risk of vituperative attacks drawing attention to such esoterica as the distinction between the genitive singular and genitive plural in an Old Norse element used in a land charter of Queen thelfld which could, on the basis of orthographic evidence, be a late forgery. Forgive my flippancy but, as angels fear to tread all the interesting places, I will step into this subject at the peril of being awarded mufti and a bladder  . . . 

As our school text books still pass all-too-quickly over the 'Dark Ages' it might be worth reminding you of the area which fell under Danish ('viking') jurisdiction during the ninth century. The Danelaw, otherwise known as the Five Boroughs, fell to the eastern side of Watling Street (the present A5, which continues to demark Leicestershire from Warwickshire). So, we are talking about Leicestershire and Rutland, Nottinghamshire, Northamptonshire, Lincolnshire and parts of Bedfordshire.

There is a remarkable concentration of Scandinavian place-name elements in some parts of the Danelaw area (although there are large gaps). Sometimes the place-name is a combination of Old English (i.e. Anglo-Saxon) and Scandinavian. Intriguingly, the combination of Scandinavian personal names with the Old English tun ('village', later evolving into our word 'town') is common only in Leicestershire, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire - but not in Lincolnshire where Old English-Scandinavian compounds are generally common. Possibly they represent existing settlements taken over by the Danes.

Leicestershire examples are Barkeston (also Barkston Lincs and West Riding), Bilston (also Bildstone Suffolk), Grimston (also East Riding, Norfolk, North Riding, Notts, Suffolk, West Riding), Odstone, Slawston, Snibston, Sproxton, Thringstone, Thrussington, Thurcaston, Thurlaston (also Warks) and Thurmaston. In Rutland there is Glaston.

Interestingly, place-names ending '-thorpe' (meaning 'daughter settlement') are from the pre- viking period but most are in the Danelaw area.

A common place-name element which is purely Scandinavian in origin is '-by' (meaning 'to cultivate'). In Denmark it denotes a single farmstead, but not so in England where it signifies a village. It is still in current use as part of the word 'bye-law', that is laws local to that village or town. The distribution of '-by' endings suggests a massive influx of people in the Danelaw, although it is probably better to think of existing villages being renamed by the new occupiers, rather than being newly formed. Derbyshire, which of course lies just outside the Danelaw, has only 10 '-by' place-name endings (of which two are now lost) whereas there are 21 '-by's in Nottinghamshire, 56 in Leicestershire and 260 in Lincolnshire.

It was not only settlements which changed. Between Melton Mowbray and Leicester runs the River Wreake - and this valley has one of highest concentrations of Scandinavian place- name elements in the whole country. 'Wreake' is Scandinavian for 'to twist and turn', which also gives us the word 'writhe'. It is the only river in England to change from an Anglo-Saxon name (when it was known as the Eye River; the upper reaches are to this day known as the Eye Brook) to a viking one.

From place-name evidence Rutland was not settled by the vikings. This fits in with the county being repeatedly used as the dowry for the Anglo-Saxon queens. Indeed, Rutland remained anomalous as a county (until its 'official' demise in 1974) largely because of this singularity.

Pagan place-name survivals

Although the Anglo-Saxons had been christianised for several generations, the Danes had 0 w agans and brought with them their pantheon of gods and goddesses. Although these have survived in the names for days of the week the Danes quickly adopted the local christian practices, for reasons which are not at all clear, and have left little evidence of their rich pagan heritage,

There are a few places which offer an insight into the pre-christian faiths. Such 'pagan place- names' mostly fall south of an imaginary line from Stafford to Ipswich and east of a similar line drawn from Stafford down to Weymouth. This makes them fairly rare in many parts of the Danelaw area. But there are still a useful number of such names, although what conclusions can be drawn from this distribution is uncertain.

The first well-publicised evaluation of pagan place-name elements was by Stenton in 1943 [1]. His work is still widely quoted although as long ago as 1961 Gelling published a paper re-evaluating all of Stenton's 50-or-so examples and reducing the number to about 40 without adding any of her own [2]. Fortunately there are some experts in this field still willing to suggest and speculate and Cameron [3] has added several useful examples. As he is based in Nottingham it comes as no surprise to find that many of these are additions to the previously sparse Danelaw examples. The writings of Brian Branston, mostly appearing to draw heavily from Stenton, add examples of his own [4]. Although well outside the Danelaw, Lias has done a thorough survey of pagan place-name elements in the Welsh borders [5] which I will also mention where relevant. Stafford [6] has reviewed this literature, although the best book on the subject is Gelling [7]. The examples in this article are all culled from one or other of these sources, without individual credit.

Pagan shrines

First I will skim over the various pagan place-name elements which appear to date from the pre-viking period. The Old English halig, from which our word 'holy' derives, originally had pagan connotations. Weoh (or wih) is another Old English word suggesting a pagan temple - as in Stonton Wyville and Wyfordby (Leics), Wysall (Notts), Weedon (Northants, Oxon) and Weeford (Staffs). Wellington (Shrops; Heref) just may have the same deivation. One interpretation gives wig the sense of 'idol', so Wigston Parva (Leics) (wig stan) could mean 'idol stone'.

'Harrow' is a common place-name element which may simply refer to the agricultural implement. However, the Old English word hearg or hearh means 'heathen shrine'. Harrow on the Hill (Middlesex) and Harrowden (Huntingdonshire) are well-attested to have their origins as pagan religious sites. Harrow Farm, Burton on the Wolds (Leics) is more doubtful but as the medieval great field on which it stands was the 'Arrow field' and the nearby brook is still known as the Arrow this may suggest a greater antiquity for the name and therefore hearg is more likely.

The word stow invariably means a 'holy place' and is found throughout England. Most frequently this Old English element is joined with a saint's name - such as Wistow (Leicestershire) which is a shortening of Wistan or Wigstan's stow and is reputed to be the place of his martyrdom, although Wistanstow (Shrops) makes a less-justifiable claim. Edwinstowe (Nottingham) also takes its name from a chapel erected over the shrine of the king of Northumbria, killed in battle in 632.

The Old English word stoc was sometimes used to mean a 'holy place' as perhaps in Stoke by Nayland (Suffolk) where there was an Anglo- Saxon monastery, Tavistock (Devon) which also had an early abbey, and Hinstock (Salop) which contains the Old English hiwan, meaning 'members of a religious house'. Stoke on Trent is another such contender. There has been some speculation that 'Stockwells' (a common appellation for village water supplies) is synonymous with 'holy well', rather than a place where (live)stock were watered. Examples of Stockwells which are close to churches include Beeby, Wymeswold (Leics) and Cropwell Butler (Notts). I would be interested to know of any other examples.

Stapoll, meaning 'a sacred pillar' survives in Dunstable (Beds) and Stapleford (Leics).

Frith is a word meaning 'peace', which is 'usually found in connection with woodland, which may be related to the cult of the Earth Mother.' [8]

Sacred groves persisting in place-names deserve an article of their own but Derbyshire examples include Matlock ('speech or assembly oak'), Speetley ('speech grove') and Wakegreave ('wake grove') (near Bakewell). Leicestershire has Framland Wood, the meeting place of the Great Framlands Hundred, surviving above Melton Mowbray. The origin is 'Freyr's lundr ('grove'). Indeed, many '-land' suffixes are derived from Old English lundr.

Pagan place-names seem to survive most frequently in the border areas between Anglo- Saxon kingdoms - Gelling cites examples from the boundary between Kent and Wessex; and Essex with East Anglia.

Anglo-Saxon barrow burials

In Derbyshire, the word hlaw appears in over seventy places as '-low'. Over thirty of these places can be shown to be burial mounds, with a personal name as the first element of at least eleven of the thirty - Bassa at Baslow, Eatta at Atlow, Hucca at Hucklow and Tidi at Tidelow. A lost burial mound near Bakewell was known as Heathen's Low and there is also a Hurdlow, meaning 'treasure-hoard mound' [9]. This is intriguing, as barrow burial is not one of the commoner Anglo-Saxon practices.

Outside Derbyshire there is Taplow (Bucks) where the church is situated by a burial mound; Secklow (Milton Keynes) - a medieval moot site whose name may derive from segs ('warrior's') mound; Challow (Berks) is now lost but was close to Denchworth; Offlow (near Lichfield), also a hundred meeting place, taking its name from a predecessor of the famous (but christian and therefore church-buried) King Offa.

Shropshire gives us Beslow, Longslow, Munslow, Onslow, Peplow, Purslow and Whittingslow and Herefordshire Wolferlow. All these appear to be named after individuals, probably early Anglo-Saxon colonisers of this region.


In the Anglo-Saxon literature dragons were scaly creatures which could fly whilst giving out fiery breath and having a poisonous bite. Their normal occupation was to guard burial mounds and this gives such place-names as Drakelow (Derbys and Worcs), Drakenage Farm (Warks), Drakeholes (Notts) and several other Drake-names in Lancs, Yorks and Wilts. At Alnwick (Lincs) there is a Drake Stone, although the origin of this name has not been firmly attributed to draconian inspiration. Yet Dragonby, further up in Lincolnshire, has a rock outcrop which has been slightly man-modified to give a clear depiction of such a creature.

    [Note from John Boulton, December 2006:

    I live just a few miles from Anwick in Lincolnshire, where resides our famous or infamous 'Drake Stones'. Two lumps (not one) of sandstone that came out of a farmers field at the bottom of 'River Lane'. The legend says that at first the farmer hitched his horse to the stone, but couldn't move it (field clearance for ploughing.) He fetched another horse... etc. (I am sure you know where I am going with this) Finally he fetched his neighbour's team of horses and managed to pull the stone out of the hole. When the stone finally came free, a dragon flew out from beneath the stone – hence it became known as the Dragon Stone. Later, when it was moved to its present position just near the church gate, it broke into two pieces. The stones are still there for inspection.
    Interestingly though the Doomsday entry for Anwick tells us ' ...Ralph, Geofrey's nephew, has 21 Freemen and 4 villagers who have seven plough's. Drogo, his man... ' Who was this Drogo, the name means Dragon.
    In reality the stone is a random or 'eratic' boulder of sandstone left after the ice-age retreat. The sandstone is 'Greenstone' frequently found in the Lincolnshire Wolds about thirty miles away.]

Another frequently-used Old English term for dragons was wyrm (from whence our word 'worm') which gives us Wormwood (near Hassop, Derbys). South Ormesby and Walmsgate (Lincs) both derive from ormr, the Old Norse form of wyrm, also meaning 'dragon'. A legend which describes a twelfth-century dragon 'which venomed men and beast with his aire' is associated with Ormesby [10].


When we start looking specifically for Danish pagan survivals the examples become fairly few- and-far-between. The commonest are invocations of the gods. Woden gives his name to Wednesbury and Wednesfield (Staffs) and several similar examples in Kent, Wessex and Bedford. Wensley (Derbys) is probably another example, meaning 'Woden's grove'.

A nick-name of Woden, Grimr, is more common, especially in relation to linear earthworks such as Grim's Ditch (Herts, Middx, Oxon, Wilts), Grims Dyke (Hants), Gryme's Dyke (Essex) and the thirteenth century reference to Grimesditch, now known as Woden's Dyke (Hants). Grimsburyburgh (Oxon) also refers to an older earthwork; while Grimsworth (Heref) is thought to be the old name for the hill fort at Credenhill. Clearly, when the origin of large boundary or defensive ditches had been forgotten, the attribution to deities such as Grimr (or, even more frequently, the Devil) is commonplace. It is consistent in mythology that the gods of one era become the devils of the subsequent belief system. So 'Grimr' became entirely synonymous with the Devil, at least in the context of place-names!

Intriguingly, there is a clear reference to a Celtic god in a similar context, in north-east Leicestershire. King Ludd's Entrenchments (near Saltby) is the sole-surviving fragment of a Saxon boundary earthwork that may, on the basis of crop-mark evidence, have stretched from Daventry to the Humber. While we are on this tack, Ludd also gives his name to Lud's well (near Stainton le Vale, Lincs) [11] and Ludborough (Lincs).

Returning to Grimr for a moment, there are a number of Grimston(e) places in Britain - which may simply mean that personal names including the god's name were common. Although in her discussion on the topic Gelling [12] does not make the suggestion, it may be that such settlements were (initially, at least) distinguished by their worship of this deity. After all, settlement names are usually given by outsiders rather than occupants and so the surrounding christian Anglo-Saxons would regard the worship of Grimr as a suitably distinctive appellation for their new neighbours. This would neatly account for the Scandinavian name 'Grimr' being compounded with the Old English tun (rather than the Scandinavian by) and also fit the fact that most Grimstons are situated on inferior sites to the neighbouring Anglo-Saxon settlements and, presumably, are from a later phase of occupation, consistent with the Danish colonisation.

Just to add confusion, the Old English grima means 'ghost' which lies behind Grimley (Worcs) and Greenhill (Worcs) (this 'Greenhill' being known as Grimanhyll in 957, although other 'Green Hills' may have different origins). Perhaps other Grim- place-names have spectral rather than godly origins.

Woden was also known as Odin (Odin) and, although contested, Onesacre and Onesmoor (Yorks) may bear his name. In the Danelaw area there is a splendid example of a magnificent landmark named after this god. Roseberry Topping (Cleveland) was known until the twelfth century as Othenesberg (Odin's Hill) and the present name is a corruption of Newton under Oseberry, where the 'r' has joined to the following word. 'Topping' merely means 'hill top'.

Tiw and Thor

Woden's companion, Tiw, gives his name to some places, but with the exception of Tysoe (Warks), only outside the Danelaw, such as Tuesnoad (Kent), Tuesley (Surrey), Tifield (an obsolete Sussex district); Great Tew and Duns Tew (Oxon);and Dewerstone Cliff on Dartmoor. Tewin (Herts) is a contentious example.

Thorr (Thor or Thunor) does rather better. All Thor place-names are from Saxon areas and none from Anglian areas in the midlands and north. Most are associated with -leah, meaning a woodland clearing, strongly suggesting that this was his characteristic place of worship. Probable examples are Thundersley and Thunderley Hall (Essex); Thursley (Surrey); and three obsolete names - on thunres lea (Hants), on thunorslege (Sussex) and Thunerleaw (Kent). More doubtful are Thundridge (Herts) and Thurstable. In a different area, overlooking the Dee estuary on the Wirral, is a Thor's Stone on Thurlaston Hill.

The most local example of Thunor names is Thursley Brook, south- west of Ayston in Rutland. This brook takes its name from 'Thunor's grove' and, where it joins the River Eye, forms the boundary with Leicestershire.

Further evidence of the veneration of Thor, even in Anglian areas, can be seen in the number of personal names which start thorr. For instance, near Leicester there are the villages of Thrussington (Thorstein's tun), Thurcaston (Thorketil's tun), Thurlaston (Thorleif's tun) and Thurmaston (Thormoth's tun). Similar examples abound in the Danelaw area [13].

However, 'Thur' place-names may have an alternative, but still interesting, derivation, as the Old English for giant or demon was thyrs. This survives as Thursden (Lancs), Tusmore (Oxon, from thyrs-mere) and the obsolete thyrs pyt (Warks). From the Danelaw we have several thyrs - Thursford (Norfolk), Thyrspittes (Lincs) and the obsolete Thirsqueche (Northants, from thyrs-thicket).

Frigg and demons

On the distaff side, only Frigg is represented with 'Friday' place-names such as Frobury and Froyle (Hants); maybe Fretherne (Glos) which links the goddess with a thorn bush; Fridaythorpe (Yorks); and the obsolete names Frigedaeges tr(e)ow and Frigedaeges east. But Cameron [14] rejects all Frig/Friday place-names although adds Friden (Derbys), which he derives from Frigedene, 'the valley of Frig'.


(Norfolk) may come from the Old Norse collective name for the pagan gods, vanir. Other aspects of the northern lore include the Germanic elves who were hostile creatures bringing disease and nightmares, quite unlike the whimsical beings of modern fairy-stories. There are several 'elf' place-names, including the obsolete Elvenfen from Lincs, which means an elves' fen. Dwarfs were also unfriendly creatures preserved in place-names such as Dwarfholes (Warks).

Another demon, scucca, is associated with hills or mounds in Shacklow (Derbys), Shuckburgh (Warks), Shucklow Warren (Bucks) and Shucknall (Heref) It is linked with two towns in Staffordshire, Shuckborough and Shugborough and with a thorn in Shuckton Manor (Derbys).

This brief article can only skim over the surface of this fascinating topic. If readers can provide further examples of any of these toponyms I would be interested to hear from them.


1: Anglo-Saxon England, Frank Stenton, Oxford University Press, 3rd edn 1971.
2: 'Place-names and Anglo-Saxon paganism', Margaret Gelling, University of Birmingham Historical Journal, Vol.VIII, 1961
3: English place names, Kenneth Cameron, Batsford, rev. edn 1988.
4: Gods of the north, Brian Branston, Thames and Hudson, 2nd edn 1980.
5: Place names of the Welsh Borderlands Anthony Lias, Palmers Press, 1991.
6: The east midlands in the early middle ages, Pauline Stafford, Leicester University Press, 1985.
7: Signposts to the past, Margaret Gelling, Phillimore, 2nd edn 1988
8: 'Ritual landscapes', Alby Stone, Terrestrial Zodiacs Journal No.3, 1990
9: 'The place-names of Derbyshire', F.S. Scott, Journal of the Derbyshire archaeological and natural history society, No.LXXIX, 1959.
10: 'The serpent in Lincolnshire', anon., Licnolnshire dragon, No.2, 1980.
11: 'Lud's well, Stainton le Vale', Bob Dickinson, Markstone No.3, 1990
12: Gelling op. cit.
13: Place-names of Leicestershire and Rutland, Jill Bourne, Leicestershire Libraries and Information, 2nd edn, 1981
14: Cameron op. cit.

Originally published in Mercian Mysteries No.16 August 1993.

This article was written before the author had seen David Wilson's Anglo-Saxon Paganism (Routledge 1992). Wilson provides an up-to-date and more rigorous assessment of many of these place-name elements.

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