• Imagining History

Anglo-Saxon Place Names - Fun Learning for Students and Teachers

Updated: Oct 5

Many of the place names in Anglo-Saxon Britain are still used by us today. The Anglo-Saxons created their place names using a number of different methods. These included; using the name of a tribe’s leader, using features in the landscape, using the name of a god in their religion or (if all else fails) just calling it a “town”!

Early Place Names

Early Anglo-Saxon villages were often named after the Chieftain (leader) of the tribe that lived there. The first half of the village name was the name of the Chieftain. The second half of the name would be “ing” or “folk” – literally meaning “people”.

For example, if you were in Chieftain Redda’s village, you would be in “Redding” – or in today’s spelling, “Reading”. This translates as “Redda’s People”. This method was a quick and easy way to tell other tribes who the village belonged to.

Later Place Names

Later, the Anglo-Saxons started to name villages after features in the surrounding area and landscape. If there was a river nearby, perhaps a farm, or a port, this feature would appear in the name. They also named places after things that would happen there – such as meetings or certain farm materials that were produced in the area.

Some examples include:

  • Oxford = “oxen-ford” – a shallow part of a river (ford) where oxen (ox) could cross

  • Woolwich = “wool-farm” – an area where wool from sheep (wool) was produced on a farm (wich)

  • Winchester = “witan-city” – a city (ceaster, or later, chester) where the King’s advisors (the Witan) would meet.

We can spot many other Anglo-Saxon words in modern day place names in Britain today. Examples include:

  • “Leigh” or “Ley” – meaning a forest clearing – Henley, Morley, Chorley

  • “Bury” – meaning a fortified place – Bury, Shaftesbury, Newbury

  • “Ton” – meaning a farm or farming village – Luton, Middleton, Preston

  • “Wich” or “Wick” – meaning farm produce – Warwick, Greenwich, Norwich

  • “Caester” or “Chester” – meaning a city – Manchester, Lancaster, Chester

  • “Burh” – meaning a town – Peterborough, Scarborough

  • “Ham” – meaning a village – Hampshire, Southampton, Chippenham, Birmingham (which we can combine with the earlier Anglo-Saxon rules to know it’s meaning as “Beorma’s People’s Village” - birm-ing-ham)

How many place names near you can you add to this list? Can you learn of any tribe’s Chieftains who used to live in towns or villages near you?

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