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Place-names help to illuminate the early medieval period in north-west England. It is, however, necessary to use such evidence with caution.

One difficulty is that it can be hard to ascertain the etymology of the name (the meaning of its elements) from its modern form. It can also be difficult to ascertain when a name was coined (created and applied for the first time).

The Domesday survey of 1086 provides a considerable number of early name-forms for Lancaster and the surrounding area. The references to Earl Tostig indicate that the information derives from 1065 (when Tostig was removed from the Northumbrian earldom). We have encountered the Domesday record of Loncastre and Chercaloncastre (Lancaster and ‘Kirklancaster’) in the video in step 1.3.

Now look at Tostig’s manor of Hougun, which appears on the same folio of Great Domesday (301v). This group of lands was located in and around the Furness peninsula, which lies across Morecambe Bay from Lancaster.

Excerpt of place names from the Domesday Book

Great Domesday, fol. 301 v (excerpt). Photograph courtesy of The National Archives

This image shows one manor and an associated group of ‘vills’. The vill was an administrative unit encompassing a specific area of land.

Examine the image and then see if you can identify any two place-names that still exist in the modern day. Use Googlemaps to see place-names on and near the Furness peninsula.

If you have problems opening this link search for Barrow-in-Furness.

View larger image as jpg file or PDF document.

A few of the names of vills are no longer applied to settlements, and so the place-names are lost. One example may be the name Hougun itself. This is a Norse name that means ‘at the mounds’ or ‘at the hills’. The location of Hougun remains a source of debate.

If you are struggling to identify the placenames from the image, you can see them highlighted on either a jpg file or a PDF document. You may also find it helpful to look at a transcript of the text on this additional PDF document.

Once you have matched the early form to the modern place-name, research the etymology of the name and the language in which it was coined using Eilert Ekwall’s Place-Names of Lancashire (1922). You can start by searching for the modern place-name in the index.

The mixture of languages reflected in these place-names complements the picture of historical developments in the video.

  • The Brittonic place-names are likely to have been coined before the westwards expansion of the Anglo-Saxons, and therefore prior to the seventh century.

  • The Old English names will have been coined at some point between the late seventh and the ninth century.

  • Finally, the Norse (Scandinavian) names relate to the tenth or eleventh centuries and some hint at particular connections with Ireland. This is a reminder that Irish-Sea links underpinned Viking activity in north-west England.

Consider how the place-names that you have investigated fit into this historical picture and post a comment if you wish.

Share your own interesting place-name

Have you encountered any interesting place-names on your travels or in your region? If so, you could post a picture of a sign or a map on the Padlet wall. Please do not post pictures of house or street names, to avoid divulging personal information.

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This article is from the free online course:

Lancaster Castle and Northern English History: The View from the Stronghold

Lancaster University