A Children's Guide to Shropshire Place-Names
Meet Wulfwynn. She is an Anglo-Saxon wise-woman, and she is here to help you find out more about medieval Shropshire by examining its place-names. She is from Lurkenhope, a tiny place near Clun, close to the Welsh border. The name Lurkenhope was created by the Anglo-Saxons, and it means ‘the hidden valley of the wise-woman’. You are probably now thinking: what was a wise-woman? That would be a very good question! We don’t really know what an Anglo-Saxon wise-woman did, but she was probably very knowledgeable about medicine, especially medical remedies made from plants.
Lurkenhope is an example of a Shropshire place-name. You can see that place-names can be very useful for finding out about medieval Shropshire. Without the name Lurkenhope, we wouldn’t know about our Shropshire wise-woman! As you can guess, Wulfwynn is very clever and she is going to be your guide as you explore medieval Shropshire through its place-names.
What is a place-name?
All of the cities, towns and villages in England have names. But Wulfwynn says: did you know that lots of these names are many hundreds of years old, and that very often, they were generated by the Anglo-Saxons? She tells us that when the Anglo-Saxons arrived in England in the mid-fifth century, lots of them decided to settle here, and they often lived in small settlements consisting of a few houses. So that people could tell the difference between each of the villages and towns, they all had names. Wulfwynn says that some of the names were originally created by the Britons or the Romans – people who lived in Britain before the Anglo-Saxons arrived. You can find a timeline for invasions and immigrations into Britain here. Most of the place-names of England, however, were first used by the Anglo-Saxons.
You already know lots of place-names – they are names like London, Shrewsbury and Ludlow. These are the names of big cities and towns. Smaller places were also given names – these were not just villages and hamlets, but also forests and woods, moorland, hills and mountains, rivers and streams and even fields. Wulfwynn has a test for you! Here is a list of Shropshire names – see if you can match the name to the correct feature (answers at the bottom of the page!):
That was easy, wasn’t it? At first glance, it isn’t too difficult to tell what kind of places these are, especially if you live in Shropshire. But what’s that, Wulfwynn? Each of these names is also hiding secret information about Shropshire’s past! That sounds exciting! Wulfwynn says that the ‘Wyre’ part of the name Wyre Forest comes from a very old name for the city of Worcester, which means ‘Roman town of the Weogoran people’. So, Wyre Forest was the ‘forest of the Weogoran people’. The Weogoran people were Britons who lived in what is now the West Midlands before the Romans arrived. The River Severn is also a very old name, and it was known by the Romans as Sabrina. Again, it is a name that pre-dates the arrival of the Romans. And, says Wulfwynn, the Long Mynd is a name that combines two languages: ‘long’ was originally the Old English word lang. Old English is the language of the Anglo-Saxons; and mynd was an Old Welsh word that meant ‘mountain’. Old Welsh was spoken in Wales more than 900 years ago. So, using just these three place-names, we have travelled about 2,000 years back in time! You can see that it is possible to look back across hundreds of years and catch a glimpse of the people who lived in Shropshire. Wulfwynn says that is why place-names are so valuable – they are like a secret code that can be used to find out about Shropshire’s exciting past!
Why can't we understand place-names as easily today?
Yes, that’s a good question, Wulfwynn – why is that? Wulfwynn explains that because so many of England’s place-names were first thought up hundreds and hundreds of years ago, they have undergone a lot of changes. First of all, we wouldn’t understand the language of the people who created them. The Anglo-Saxons spoke an earlier form of our language called Old English, and both the structure of this language and its vocabulary changed as part of its development into the modern English language that we speak today. Whilst some of the words used by the Anglo-Saxons have survived, like ‘hill’ and ‘brook’, many other words are no longer part of our everyday speech. Some of the place-names were created in other languages, like Welsh, French and Latin. Place-names were also created using an even earlier language, British – spoken by the people who lived in Shropshire before the Anglo-Saxons arrived. This means that place-names ‘hide’ much older words that help us to understand what they mean. Luckily for us, Wulfwynn says that she can help us to decipher the words of all these different ancient languages!
So, place-names can tell us all sorts of exciting things about the ways in which medieval people pictured England. This book concentrates on the place-names of Shropshire. So, are you ready? With Wulfwynn to guide us, let's go and find out all about Shropshire’s past through its place-names!
What shall we look at first?
just click on the links below to go to each chapter!
Wyre Forest = forest Severn = river Long Mynd = mountain