Exploring the beliefs of English people during the fifth to ninth centuries


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Hohs and hlaws

Where we bury our dead is a special type of sacred site. Most dead Anglo-Saxons are found in cemeteries where bodies with either cremated or buried – and, rarely, sometimes both practices in different parts of the same cemetery. These cemeteries once had burial mounds over some of the graves.

Additionally, a small proportion of people were buried in burial mounds not in cemeteries. Often such graves were inserted into the sides, or around the base, of existing mounds – ones we know to have been built about 2,500 years before in the Bronze Age.

Based on the quality of surviving grave goods, people buried in mounds were sent to the afterlife with more bling than many others. Clearly, in the dry words of academics, such people were 'high-status' in this life as well as the next one.

What if such burials in mounds emulated in some respect the graves of tutelary deities? More specifically, the thyrs or giants? What follows in this section is a mix of fact and speculation. The 'facts' are the place-names and their meanings. The speculation is a possible link between two place-name elements which have hitherto been considered quite distinct.

Hlaw in place-names

The word for burial mound in Old English was hlaw, which is a fairly common in place-names, usually appearing as '-low'. In Derbyshire alone hlaw appears in over seventy place-names. Over thirty of these are known to have been places with burial mounds. At least eleven of the thirty are comprised of a personal name followed by hlaw, for example, Bassa at Baslow, Eatta at Atlow, Hucca at Hucklow and Tidi at Tidelow.

Anglo-Saxon burial mound in the churchyard at Taplow
Taplow drinking horn

(Top:) Tæppa's hlaw in the churchyard at Taplow, Buckinghamshire.
(Bottom:) The silver mount of a drinking horn, one of Tæppa's many 'high-status' grave goods.

Outside Derbyshire there is Taplow, Buckinghamshire, where the church is situated by an Anglo-Saxon burial mound, presumably where Tæppa was laid to rest among many splendid grave goods. Shropshire gives us Beslow, Longslow, Munslow, Onslow, Peplow, Purslow and Whittingslow while in Herefordshire is Wolferlow. All these appear to be named after individuals, presumably early Anglo-Saxon colonisers of this region.

However not all –low place-names incorporate a personal name. In Derbyshire a now-lost burial mound near Bakewell was known as Heathen's Low and there is also a Hurdlow, meaning 'treasure-hoard mound'.

Were hlaws burial mounds or altars?

In a remarkable study of Scandinavian burial practices, Anders Kaliff notes:

Well into the nineteenth century it was the custom in certain parts of Scandinavia to make offerings of buttermilk, butter, beer, and porridge on the farm's burial mound. Even animals could be sacrificed. Especially at Christmas, people would bury food offerings and pour beer on the grave, believing this would give good luck and bountiful harvests to the farm.
(Kaliff 2007: 83)

Kaliff considers that such residual folk customs reflect some of the ideas associated with pre-Christian cemeteries in which rites for the dead were inseparable from beliefs about fertility and new life. More especially, Kaliff considers that burial mounds were the place where animal sacrifices were most likely to have occurred (and archaeological evidence of animals bones supports this suggestion). So, although modern thinking distinguishes sacrificial altars from burial places, pre-conversion worldviews seem not to make that separation. So, when we refer to hlaws as 'burial mounds' be should perhaps also think just as much of hlaws as sacrificial altars.

Ancestors or saints? Or both?

Place-name evidence suggests that a great many Anglo-Saxon settlements are named after their founder, and this name is retained over many generations. Indeed, in a corrupted form, these make up a large proportion of modern day names of English villages and towns. What we seem to be seeing is how Anglo-Saxon culture readily elevated first settlers to 'cult status' after their death. This means the oldest Anglo-Saxon burial mounds were the focus for a cult commemorating the first settler.

Or, something like that! The evidence can also be interpreted to the effect that ancestors were not considered overly important until the seventh century. As any genealogical traditions relied on oral history, the cultic important of founders has been dubbed 'the invention of ancestry'. Presumably some local groups did have an accurate recollection, while others genuinely thought they had it right, while those who needed to 'keep up with the Joneses' down the road might have needed to be a little more creative! Whatever the truth might have been, we can only look at the overall outcome – and that most certainly meant that, concurrently with the active conversion by the Roman church, an 'ancestor cult' was revived and enhanced.

Frankly, from the persepctive of 'material culture' then the hurial of 'first settlers' and their families in hlaws is little different from Christian churches where the altar – originally with relics of the founding saint – is surrounded by human burials. Clealry the 'non-material culture (in this case Christian doctrines) is very different. Firstly, the sacrifice commemorated at the altar into a one-off, historic event. Secondly, the sharing of bread and wine consecrated at the altar is not considered to be a sacrifice. But trying to understand Christian churches from the archaeological evidence alone, without knowing the detailed – and ever-shifting – doctrines would be most likely to miss most aspects of the meaning and significance of Christian practices. We should similarly assume that archaeology fails to reveal the full meaning and significances of pre-conversion practices. Nevertheless, one of the leading specialists in this field of study, Sarah Semple, has reviewed all the relevant evidence and is happy to conclude that ancestors evolved into early saints (Semple 2013: 235). Semple also notes that Christian converts may have deliberately attempted to 'sanctify' deceased ancestors to save them from damnation. There is no direct evidence of this from Anglo-Saxon times but this matches contemporary concerns by members of the Mormon Church.

In Wales and Cornwall, the name of the place is more likely to be derived from a local saint who founded the church. While there seems to be a difference between apparently secular founders of English settlements and the Christian founders of Welsh and Cornish settlements, this distinction may not be that sound. I would suggest that 'first settlers' – whether seen as secular or not from the prespective of modern worldviews – generally became the tutelary deities of the settlement. Christian hagiographers devoted their attention to the founders who could be comfortably accomodated by the ideologies of the time, while earlier generations of pre-conversion founders are now known only by their names.

The overlap between burials in prehistoric mounds and early saints could sometimes be quite literal. For example, in 1199 the monks at Ludlow (Shropshire) removed a large barrow prior to enlarging the church. Not surprisingly they discovered three human burials. The were considered to the remains of Irish saints and reinterred in the church. Interestingly this mound may have been the one which gave the town its name (although the first part of the name is not a personal name but the word hlude, meaning a 'rapid'). Similarly, around 1148 monks disturbed barrows near Redbourn (Hertfordshire) and the human remains were brought to St Albans Abbey where they were venerated as the relics of St Amphilbalus (amphibalus is Latin for 'cloak'). (Semple 2013: 127)

A part taken for the whole

Bear in mind also that the cult of saints – and more specifically the potentia ('potency') attributed to the remains of these founders develops into the doctrine of pars pro toto , that is 'a part taken for the whole'. Which means that a small relic of the saint – just a fragment of a bone, for example – is considered to have just as much potentia as the whole skeleton.

Where did this doctrine of pars pro toto derive from? There is certainly no biblical precedent for any of this. But there is plenty of evidence for fragments of human skeletons being placed in a variety of 'ritual contexts' all the way back to the Neolithic. Simply put, pars pro toto is a pre-conversion practice of considerable antiquity which continues little changed after the conversion. (See Kaliff 2007: 156–163) for a more detailed argument; the extensive medicinal uses of human bone in sixteenth to nineteenth century Britian and Europe can also be considered a continuation of the same underlying worldview, see Sugg 2011).

Not all hlaws were burial mounds

Not all hlaws were burial mounds – the name was also given to mounds specifically constructed at meeting places or moot sites. A good example is Secklow, which once stood near where the library in Milton Keynes is now. The name may derive from segs ('warrior's') mound. Challow, Berkshire, (now lost but close to Denchworth) and Offlow (near Lichfield in Staffordshire) are and also hundred meeting places.

Furthermore, at least in north-eastern England, the use of hlaw in place-names also seems to refer to hills, hill-spurs and slopes where – seemingly – there was never a burial mound (Nurminen 2011: 65).

Not all burial mounds were hlaws

Burial mounds were not always called hlaw. They were also called beorg, the origin of the modern words 'barrow' and 'bury' (the 'g' was pronounced like 'y'). And the Old Norse word haugr – as in Maes Howe on Orkney – appears in areas settled by Scandinavians.

Haugr often becomes Horg- or -horg in modern Scandinavian place-names. In Norway horg seems to refer to outdoor 'cult sites' Bagge and Nordeide 2007: 125). Whether such sites had a hlaw-like mound is now uncertain. But words do slip and slid – another example would be the modern English word 'mound', as in 'burial mound' and many other uses. But in Anglo-Saxon times the sense of mund starts out as meaning 'protection'. Clearly a 'burial mound' is a mound protecting the burials. And so the meaning of mund shifted from the function (protection) to the description (the modern sense of mound). So there would be no surprise if a word refering to a mound used for cult activity (as Anders Kaliff considers we should think of 'burial mounds') becomes a word used to refer to outdoor 'cult sites' where there may or may not have been a mound. This is just the normal way languages evolve.

To add further confusion, not all hlaws, beorgs and haugrs are man-made. Some are natural small hills or hillocks. Some of these natural features have, nevertheless, revealed evidence of burials – although in most cases the mounds were damaged long before archaeologists had a chance to examine them. Furthermore, some natural hillocks seem to have been used as meeting places, with no evidence of burials – although usually such natural 'moot mounds' are larger than man-made barrows.

Sarah Semple has discussed hlaw and beorg names in considerably more detail (Semple 2013: 160–5). Victoria Thompson has also discussed how Christian writers (notably Ælfric) seem to avoid the words hlaw and beorg, implying that they retained strong 'pagan' connotations (Thompson 2004: 106).

Hohs as the graves of thyrs

The Old English word hoh appears in a number of place-names, such as Hoton and Houghton, Plymouth Hoe (Devon), Lancing Hoe (Sussex) or Tysoe (Warks). There is even a village in north Leicestershire called Hose, the plural of hoh. Not far away, although just across the boundary in Nottinghamshire, is Wysall which, despite the modern spelling, originates as the weoh hoh – the 'shrine' or 'idol' on the hoh. Hoton in Leicestershire is close by too. The parish chuches at Wysall and Hoton are probably situated on the hoh.

The one thing that such places have in common is that they are situated on a hill that looks like a human heel. Or at least the heel when seen when someone the size of a very large giant is lying face-down – the sketch should make this clearer.

The characteristic 'heel-shape' of a hoh

The characteristic 'heel-shape' of a hoh.

Strictly, the term hoh refers not only to heel-shaped hills but also to hill-spurs which occupy a triangular area of land, and even to very low ridges which do not otherwise conform to these specific shapes (Nurminen 2011: 70–1).

But is hoh only a descriptive name? Was there something about such distinctive hills that made them more suitable for places of worship? Tysoe, Hoton and Wysall certainly were. All are on county boundaries – Oxfordshire-Warwickshire and Nottinghamshire-Leicestershire respectively. Ivinghoe Beacon is near the Buckinghamshire-Hertfordshire boundary. And Plymouth Hoe, Lancing Hoe and Sutton Hoo are also on a 'county boundary' of sorts – the boundary with the sea.

Wysall church – almost certainly a succesor to the weoh hoh.

Wysall in Nottinghamshire is situated between the Leicestershire villages of Hoton and Hose, all on the ridge which forms the topographical demarcation between the counties (and in places where the ridge is not as prominent as elsewhere). This ridge is plausibly the boundary to a massive hearg which was the successor to the Iron Age 'Especially Sacred Grove' which the Romans called Vernemetum (see The Especially Sacred Grove).

Before villages and churches changed things, the rounded profile of a hoh sitting on the skyline would have looked somewhat like a rather large hlaw. It takes only a modicum of imagination – something the Anglo-Saxons certainly had more than a modicum of – to think that that hohs were the burial places of tutelary giants – the thyrs of Old English literature.

Adam's Grave – or Woden's Barrow

There are other parallels. The Neolithic long barrow known today as Adam's Grave which sits prominently about the Vale of Pewsey in Witlshire was known to Anglo-Saxons from at least as far back as the late sixth century as Woden's beorg ('barrow'). Woden was not strictly a giant but this hoh-like promonotory has all the right 'credentials' to the burial place of an important deity or mythological being.

The liminal locations of at least some of the hohs also would have been exactly the sort of places where a tutelary giant – a guardian of the land – might be expected to be buried. The best evidence I can offer so far is the hill called Inghoe in Northumberland, which seemingly is the hoh associated with the deity Ing. Which perhaps makes Shaftoe, also in Northumbria – the 'shaft hoh' – a candidate for a stapol hoh (see Weohs and stapols).

Surviving place-names provide no examples of thyrs hoh or even thyrs hlaw. But the Old Norse counterpart, þurs haugr, comes down to us in the corrupt form Thrushhowe, Cumbria. And there is an entan hlew – which uses the eoten rather than thyrs as the word for giant (see Who were the landwights?) – on an ænta dic, 'giant's ditch' (sadly my source does not state in which county this gigantic earthwork is or was situated).

The absence of a thyrs hoh or eoten hoh surviving in place-names is a strong indication that my suggestions may not hold up to closer inspection. Only after considerably more research should this possible link between hlaws and hohs be taken more seriously.

Counting hohs

So far my list of place-names ending in hoh includes:

  • Aynho (Northamptonshire) – Ega's hoh
  • Belsay (Northumberland) – Bill's hoh
  • Bengeo (Hertfordshire) – the hoh of the dwellers of the River Beane
  • Flecknoe (Warwickshire) – ?Flecca's hoh
  • Hose (Leicestershire) – two (or more?) hohs
  • Hough (two in Cheshire) – hoh
  • Ivinghoe (Buckinghamshire) – the hoh of Ifa's people
  • Lancing Hoe (Sussex) – – the hoh of Wlanc's people
  • Langenhoe (Essex) – the long hoh
  • Piddinghoe (Sussex) – the hoh of Pydda's people
  • Plymouth Hoe – the hoh on the Plym estuary
  • Sharpenhow (Bedfordshire) – the sharp hoh
  • Sharrow (West Yorkshire) – the boundary hoh
  • Sutton Hoo (Suffolk) – the hoh of the southern settlement (i.e. on the south side of the Deben estuary)
  • Tysoe (one each in Warkwickshire and Leicestershire) – the hoh of the god Tiw
  • Watnall (Nottinghamshire) – Wata's hoh
  • Wellow (Lincolnshire) – the hoh with a spring
  • Wivenhoe (Essex) – Wifa's hoh
  • Wysall (Nottinghamshire) – the 'shrine or idol' hoh
To these we can add the Hootons (one in Cheshire and three in South Yorkshire) and the various Houghtons (two in Bedfordshire and one a peice in Cambridgeshire, County Durham, Cumbria, Hampshire, Leicestershire, Norfolk, Northamptonshire, Tyne and Wear, and West Sussex. Houghton le Spring, Tyne and Wear, is not a hoh with a spring – 'le Spring' is the surname of a thirteenth century landowner. Note that Great and Little Houghton (South Yorkshire) are from halh ('hall') not hoh . Hough on the Hill, Lincolnshire, is derived from haga ('enclosure').

Although not a settlement name, Sparkenhoe Hundred in Leicestershire is another example. The hoh ending is not disputed but the 'sparken-' part could be a corruption of either 'brushwood', 'brown' or 'speech'. A hundred at the 'speech hoh' seems most probable! Interestingly there is a Cattow Farm in the hundred. This seems to be from 'cat' rather than a personal name, and early forms are indistinguishable from the Scandinavian word haugr, in other words a hlaw. However Barry Cox acknowledges that in the Danelaw the spellings hlaw, haugr and hoh seems to be used almost interchangeably, creating confusion about the original meaning (Cox 2014: 233; 366). So Cattow Farm is possibly on the site of Catta's hlaw (or burial mound), although Cox prefers a hoh frequented by cats (presumably wild, or at least feral, rather than domestic).

Also in Sparkenhoe Hundred is a Tysoe Hill, a hohnamed after the god Tiw). In medieval times the distinctive promonotory marked the boundary of the New Park to the west of Leicester (which became a housing estate in the 1950s) and the parish of Glenfield. About 1960 Tysoe Hill also became part of a housing estate, although a modern street name still marks the summit of the hoh. (Curiously, between the ages of 7 and 12 I lived in a house situated below the steep slope of Tysoe Hill – indeed, this dominated the view from the back rooms. However, not until the age of 59 did I realise that the street name 'Tysoe Hill' commemorated a local place-name, as surrounding street names include Clovelly, Salcombe, Tredington and Wellesbourne, implying that Tysoe was also a reference to more distant places.)

Neither Cattlow or Tysoe Hill were the places where Sparkenhoe Hundred met. Barrie Cox has identified this as Upton – even though modern names no longer refer to a hoh (Cox 2014: 261).

Surrey speculations

In his book Surrey Place-names Gavin Smith has written:

Personally I suspect hoh may relate not (as Gelling and Cole suggest) simply to 'heel-shaped (hills)', but perhaps to the lop-sided profile of the typical ancestral long barrow (though few survive in Surrey), or to a ramped moot mound (one possible candidate being 'The Mount' at Barrow Green in Tandridge Hundred). My reason? The stand-alone name Hoe (hoh) occurs in Surrey only in the ingas parishes of Godalming (where there is also a Munstead, which could be a related name 'mount place'), Woking and Dorking and near Gomshall (for all of which see below) but elsewhere at Hoo in Kent (see below) and more famously at the Germanic burial site of Sutton Hoo in Raedwald territory. Was hoh, with ingas, the first Germanic term applied to hundred foci in west Surrey?
(Smith 2005)

However Smith's association between hohs and hundreds may be specific to Surrey as the hundreds there are formed much later than in most other counties. Certainly the shape and arrangement of Surrey's hundred are far more neat and tidy than elsewhere, suggesting that traditioanl administrative land units were deliberately 'suppressed' by either eastwards expansion of Sussex or westwards expansion of Kent. My own knowledge of Leicestershire and several other counties provides no obvious links between hohs and the the foci of hundreds. Indeed, as suggested for the hohs on the Leicestershire-Nottinghamshire borders, their location seems to be periphral to hundreds rather than central. More research should reveal whether hohs are typically associated with the centre, the periphery, or neither.


copyright © Bob Trubshaw 2013–14


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