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


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In the name of the wood…

Early Anglo-Saxons worshipped in woodland groves – although this does not mean that all woodland was regarded as sacred. We can ascertain this with reasonable confidence because there are about a dozen words in Old English for woods and clearings. While the meaning of each word is not always clear to us – not least because the meanings may have sifted over time – each word refers to a distinctly different type of woodland, and some more words for clearings in woods.

Names for the whole wood

Some of these names almost bring Anglo-Saxon places back to life. For example, the word sceaga (pronounced more like 'shaw') denotes a small wood on a boundary ('shore') so was presumably usually fairly long and not very wide. Most place-names deriving from sceaga are on the on Lancashire/Yorkshire border, although my patronym – Trubshaw – originates in place-names around Mow Cop and Burslem areas of Staffordshire, where the eponymous Trubba seems to have once lived.

However not all –shaw place-names involve people. Bickershaw, Lancashire, is the sceaga of the bee-keeper. Similarly Huntshaw, Devon, takes its name from 'honey'. Wild bees are woodland creatures, and many modern hives are placed in small woods. Other creatures associated with woods are commemorated in Catshaw, Lancashire; Earnshaw near Bradfield, Yorkshire ('eagle wood'); Evershaw near Biddlesden, Buckinghamshire ('boar wood'); Marshaw near Lancaster ('marten wood'); and Ottershaw, Surrey.

Despite their liminal locations, sceaga do not seem to have been sacred groves. At first glance the most likely word to denote a 'sacred grove' is the Old English word graf. After all this is the origin of the modern English word 'grove'. Actually graf seems to have something much more prosaic: coppiced woodland – the literal meaning of 'copse' in modern English. The place-name Grafton is mostly associated with places providing firewood for salt-drying at Droitwich in Worcestershire and Middlewich, Nantwich, Northwich and Leftwich, all in Cheshire.

Holt seems to denote a wood make up of a single-species tree. However the differences between bearu, dean, fryhth, graf, wald and wudu (the origin of the modern word 'wood') are less clear. Later the Scandinavian words lundr and skogr were used too – skógr has the same sense as sceaga.

Dean seemingly denotes wood pasture – not something commonly encountered nowadays. Fryhth is overgrown scrubland, perhaps on the edge of other woodland. Wald denotes large areas of woodland, such as the Cotswolds and the Lincolnshire and Leicestershire Wolds. It is also the origin of the name 'Weald', an even more substantial region of woodland.

Names for the hole in the wood

Similarly leah, roth and the Scandinavian word thveit (which is usually spelt 'thwait' in modern place-names) describe different clearings. The word leah ends up referring to woodland rather than the clearing – perhaps denoting a wood with a clearing. The shift of meaning from clearing to wood is perhaps inevitable given that there can't be a clearing in a wood without the wood, anymore than there can be a hole in a doughnut with the doughnut…

And we can be fairly sure that at least some of these clearings would have been used as cultic groves. There are fourteen English place-names where the name of a god is followed by –leah – Thundersley in Essex and Thursley in Sussex are good examples, revealing the former association with Thunnor or Thor. Tuesley, also in Sussex, is a clearing where Tiw was once venerated.

Interesting all the surviving place-names which include the name of a deity are located in only part of England. This area is defined on a map by a line from Stafford to Ipswich on the east coast and another line southwards to Wymouth on the south coast. There could be many reasons for this difference. An actual difference in cultic practices is perhaps the least likely. Other possible reasons include:

  • individual groves were not dedicated to an individual deity
  • groves were named after topographical features not deities
  • there were so many such groves they were not distinctive enough to survive as place-names
Perhaps least likely is that post-conversion kings eradicated names of pre-conversion sacred sites.

Names for a sacred wood

Lundr is the one place-name most often associated with important meeting places, such as the still-extant woodland known as Great Framlands which sits dramatically on a ridge overlooking the Wreake valley and Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire. This was the moot site for the Framland Hundred and takes it's name from a chap called Fraena.

Great Framland

Great Framland, Scalford, Leicestershire

At Plumland, Cumberland, the word lundr has corrupted to 'land'. Reginald of Durham, who died around 1190, referred to this as nemus paci donatum, 'a grove given to peace'.

While lundr does seem to denote a sacred wood, there is a minor problem. Lundr is a word which enters Old English from Scandinavian, so was unlikely to have been in use before the ninth or even tenth centuries. So these are 'sacred groves' which seemingly are named long after England has nominally been converted to Christianity. So they provide little evidence for when Anglo-Saxons had been worshipping in woodland before the conversion.

Intriguingly, none of the Old English words – other than the Scandinavian loan-word lundr – have clear associations with sacred sites.

An extensive discussion of woodland terms in English place-names is online at:
Forest place-name elements.
This was compiled as part of a multi-disciplinary project to document the
Forests and Chases of England and Wales c.1000 to c.1850.


copyright © Bob Trubshaw 2013


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