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What does 'Avebury' mean? In a separate article I discuss what the 'bury' part signifies. But what – or who – was 'Ave'.
The first time that 'Avebury' appears in writing is in the Domesday Book of 1086 when it is shown as de Aureberie. But Domesday Book is often a poor guide as to what the name actually was. We have to imagine Norman-French scribes struggling to understand Old English spoken in a strong local dialect. Furthermore, in the style of writing used in Domesday Book, 'u' and 'v' are indistinguishable. So 'Aureberie/Avreberie' is more a 'best guess' as to what was said than anything reliable.
In the eleventh century there are written references to 'Avesbiria' (1114) and Aveberia (1189). By 1227 the more recognisable 'Avebure' appears. Only at the end of the fifteenth century does the variant 'Aubury' appear, although it was commonly used until well into the nineteenth century (presumably because of the association with the pioneer antiquarian John Aubury).
There have been two broad interpretations of the 'Ave' part. One is that it is a corruption of the Celtic ('Welsh') word avon, meaning river – presumably a reference to the Winterbourne. The same sources also follow the earliest spellings and read this as the Old English word berie, meaning 'open field'. At first glance the 'open field by the river' seems sensible. But a moment's further thought reveals that this is simply not distinctive enough. There are masses of open fields by rivers. Neither does it seem like a likely name for a settlement. Experts in Celtic place-names totally trash the suggestion, as the use of avon with an Old English word like berie is entirely anachronistic – avon wasn't used when berie was current. The berie spelling is just the way 'bury' was heard by the Norman scribes. One thing we can be all-but certain about is that Avebury was a burh (see What was a bury?.)
What about avon burh as a compound? This would mean the 'river(side) burh'. Chronologically this is less anachronistic (although still somewhat so). But it too fails the 'distinctiveness' test. Burhs are always at the side of rivers. Telling your friends you were setting off for the 'riverside burh' would have had a reliable response: 'Which riverside burh do you mean?'
A plan of Avebury's burh. (After Reynolds 2001.)
Before we move on, although the word burh refers to earthworks, it does not – as has been suggested rather too often – refer to the prehistoric henge. The burh of Avebury was a distinctive earthwork outside the henge bank. The Anglo-Saxons had a name for the henge: 'Walditch'. Just as it sounds, it's the ditch with wall-like sides. They used the same sense of 'wall' to describe another mega-henge, Durrington Walls.
Which leaves the other broad interpretation of 'Ave': it's someone's name. This is entirely consistent with all but one of the other burhs in Wiltshire (the exception is Westbury) and with a high proportion of place-names generally.
Who was Ave?Most probably the 1186 spelling is inaccurate. The person themselves would, if literate, have written their name as Afa or Æva. They may even have thought of themselves as Ælfa, as there are several place-names based on this name. The better-known examples are Alvechuch (Worcestershire), Alveley (Shropshire) and Alverstoke (Hampshire) now part of Gosport. Plenty of farms in southern England once had names starting in Alve. The loss of a 'medial consonant' (in this case an 'l') is perfectly normal as languages and names 'evolve' over the centuries.
'Alve' in these names is a shortened form of Ælfgyth, Ælfwaru orÆthelwaru, all of which are female personal names. However West Alvington, north of Salcombe in Devon, takes its name from Alva, the male 'founder' of the 'clan' known as the Alvingas. West Alvington may be somewhat obscure today but was seemingly chosen as the site of the earliest church in the vicinity by Æthelwulf.
But we also need to bear in mind St Avbur, an obscure saint known only in Lincolnshire (Thacker and Sharpe 2003: 513). And St Ava, a female saint who had a minor cult in France.
Sadly there is no direct evidence for Avebury being founded by the same St Ava. However Channel-crossing missionaries are entirely in keeping with the seventh and eighth centuries – the time when the first church and burh at Avebury would have been founded – so this is far from implausible. But the name could be a contraction of several longer names, so more probably these would have been two different people. But, although the much later spellings of the name are unreliable evidence, there is no reason to discount the possibility of Avebury being named after a female founder.
It's a very bad pun, but there had to be a staff of St Afa…
There is no way of knowing anything about Afa or Æva. Historical records only begin about two or three hundred years after their death. But this does not mean that we cannot be reasonably confident that someone – most probably a woman – was once remembered as the founder of the church at Avebury. Whether she also travelled to Lincolnshire or France is unknowable, but is not implausible.
Sadly as no one wrote down her 'life' in the century or two after her death then little or nothing would have been known about her. During the great rebuilding of parish churches in the twelfth century these 'founding saints' were dropped (the Norman lords regarded them as 'throw backs' to the Anglo-Saxon culture they tried hard to erase) and churches were rededicated to one or more of the internationally-known 'celebrity saints', a practice which continued well past the Reformation. Avebury is no exception as, sometime before the mid-thirteenth century, the church had been re-dedicated to St James (see St James dedications in Wiltshire).
SourcesJones, Richard, and Sarah Semple (eds), Sense of Place in Anglo-Saxon England, Shaun Tyas, 2011.
Reynolds, Andrew, 2001, 'Avebury: a late Anglo-Saxon burh?', Antiquity, Vol.75, p29–30.
Thacker, A.T. and R. Sharpe (eds), 2003, Local Saints and Local Churches in the Early Medieval West, Oxford UP. p513
Articles about Anglo-Saxons in and around Avebury
Other articles by Bob Trubshaw relevant to Anglo-Saxon Avebury:
Weohs and stapols why Waden Hill is so named.
Anglo-Saxon inauguration sites and rites a possible origin for the King Sil legend associated with Silbury.
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Articles about the prehistory of Avebury and environs
Articles about Anglo-Saxons in and around Avebury
Articles about Medieval life in and around Avebury
Articles about aspects of Avebury's twentieth century history