Woodland Terms in Place-Names


Attention to place-name elements – the linguistic building-blocks with which the names of places are constructed – can help the researcher to visualise local, district, and regional landscapes in the past, recover the history of such landscapes (including the process and rate of change), and interpret conditions in the present. Students of forests, and hunting-gathering-grazing areas generally, have particular reason to quarry this rich resource. Elements are listed here by function and character. Sources are listed at the end.


1. General terms, but with some economic functionality or character inferred: wudu, lēah, wald/weald

    Terms adopted from British: *cēto-, nimet/nymet

2. Character of woodland: fyrhth(e), holt

    Wood pasture: bær, denn

3. Management of woodland: copse, græf, hag, spring, hris, tailz

    Other indications of management: (ge)hæg/(ge)heg/hay, hain, lundr, outwood, snād/snæd/snoad

4. Topographical: bearu, feld, hangra, hyrst, rodu, sceaga, skógr, spinetum, thveit, vithr


1. General terms, but with some economic functionality or character inferred


wudu, ‘wood’, cognate with rare Old Norse vithr (e.g. Mewith Forest in Betham, West Yorkshire: mjór, ‘narrow’; Hartwith, West Yorkshire), used for large stretches of woodland, including the forests of Bernwood, Charnwood, Inglewood, Selwood, Sherwood, Whittlewood, and Wychwood (the Wealden forest was the ‘great wood’, micla wudu, of Andred in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry for 893, and also the weald) (Gelling and Cole, p. 257; cf Smith, PNE, 2, pp. 279-81). The recurrent Woodhall and Woodhouse may refer to buildings which housed people who had functions connected with the management of woodland, likely to be mostly post-Conquest, and it is likely that Wootton is a ‘functional’ name, used for settlements close to woodland which played a special role in the handling of timber. Tree-names are rare, perhaps indicating that these woods contained a variety of species. To judge by the scarcity of personal names it was unusual for a wudu to belong to an individual (Gelling and Cole, p. 258).


lēah, ‘forest, wood, glade, clearing’, later ‘pasture, meadow’ (Gelling and Cole, p. 237), anciently ‘wood(land)’ pre-dating arrival of Anglo-Saxons (cf. tūn as ‘enclosure’; n.b. the two terms are geographically mutually exclusive), later quasi-habitative, whose main use taken by Gelling and Cole (p. 220) to be for ‘naming settlements which flourished in a woodland environment’ where places had ‘a different economy’. ‘The resources offered by this environment would influence the pattern of farming and would elevate the standard of living above that available to farmers in treeless countryside. Later, as is revealed by Anglo-Saxon charters and the Domesday Survey, the burden of taxation would be lighter for them than for communities with great expanses of ploughland’.


Smith (PNE, 2, p. 19) points out that the Weald is in Old English called both Andredesweald and Andredesleage, where lēah is clearly used in much the same way as wald, ‘forest’, and that S 403 records a grant at Earnley (Sussex) in 930 cum silva campisque ad eam jacentibus quae Earneleia dicitur, suggesting that the lēah was ‘a wood with its adjacent open ground’. Similarly, Cheveley (Cambridgeshire) was called villam silvosam in 1022 and silva, ‘wood’, from 1086 onwards, and Waltonelega (Lancashire) was described as nemus, ‘grove’(see nimet, below). In S 1597, the boundary of Salwarpe, Worcestershire, goes between two woods called acwudu (‘Oakwood’) and wulle leah’.


Isolated cases likely to refer to woods in generally open country, ‘jealously preserved’ (Gelling and Cole, p. 237). In clusters probably denotes settlement in ‘clearing’; ‘many of the lēah names in the Arden region probably denote settlements which were established before the Anglo-Saxons arrived, but in other areas they may represent the breaking-in of new arable on the edges of ancient forest’ (Gelling and Cole, p. 237, whose reasoning for differentiating Arden is not clear).


In Sawyer, hereafter ‘S’, 40 (grant of land at Buckholt and Hrithra leah, both in Petham, Kent, dated 805), hriðra leah is glossed as Latin campus armentorium, ‘field [GJ: ?ground] of oxen’ (Smith, PNE, 2, p. 18).


wald (Kentish), weald (West Saxon), ‘forest’, later ‘open high ground’, the former sense predominant in English literary sources until circa 1200, though ‘wilderness’ equally well represented in sense of cognates in other Germanic languages (e.g. Old Norse vollr, untilled land, plain’ (Gelling and Cole, p. 253). In the Old English Orosius weald translates Latin saltus, in this case ‘a forest glade, a passage through a forest’; while the Latin in saltibus is glossed on wuduwaldum (Smith, PNE, p. 239). The meaning of saltus developed from ‘a leap’ or ‘crossing’ (cf. Middle English salter, ‘deer leap’) to ‘valley’, then to a valley’s resources, including untilled mountain pasture, and then to ‘uncultivated land’ generally. From this, it has been surmised, came its agrimensorial meaning, ‘a large block of land’ to be divided and assigned for individual development, and later a specific parcel of improved land, equivalent to a fundus, ‘estate’. Attested in the later republic and common in the imperial era was the meaning of saltus as a large tract of land under single ownership which might contain several individual estates (Harvey, ‘Mentula’, pp. 329-30, fn. 3).


It is likely that most forests called wald in England had high situations (Gelling and Cole, p. 253), and it was the ‘high ground’ sense which persisted when the association with woodland had been lost. A word that applies to districts, not localities, e.g. Bede’s Deirewald, though it included low-lying Beverley, and ‘the wold region or Downland’ in Kent defined by Alan Everitt and characterised by wald names (including Waldercain, Waldershare, Womenswold, Sibertswold, Ringwould, Studdal, and Hammill) (n.b., therefore, the ‘extensive estate’ meaning of saltus, above). It was a part of Kent deforested early, contrasting with The Weald, where permanent settlement probably only became common in the tenth century (Gelling and Cole, p. 254).


Wald is associated with hunting in the Middle English ‘St Marherete’: te wilde deor þet on þeos wilde waldes wunieð (Smith, PNE, p. 240), and Waltham is explained as ‘a forest estate centre’ in Watts, CDEPN, p. 647 (‘The name-type seems frequently to have been used of royal administrative centres in forest areas and to have been current during the early Anglo-Saxon period from c. 450 to c. 550’). Functionality and communality is indicated by charter references such as S 30 (grant of pasture rights at Holanspic, at Petteridge in Brenchley, and at Lindridge, Kent, to the church of Rochester, dated 762 for 747), silba quæ appellatus est Cæstruuarouualth, ‘the wood which called the wald of the chester-dwellers’ (i.e. of the men of Rochester), and S 157 (again a grant to the church of Rochester, 801), specifying swine-pastures in comune saltu id est on Cæstersæta walda, ‘in the common wood, that is in the wald of the chester-dwellers’ (Smith, PNE, 2, p. 239).


A puzzling geographical distribution; wald has not been noted in Devon, Wiltshire, Isle of Wight, Lincolnshire, Rutland (Gelling and Cole, pp. 255-6, with extended survey of names on pp. 256-7).


Terms adopted from British


*cēto- (older *caito-), British, ‘a wood’ (Smith, PNE, 1, p. 92), cēd, coid, proto-Welsh, proto-Cornish, proto-Cumbrian, coed, Welsh, and cos, Cornish, cognate with English heath (Gelling and Cole, p. 223). Examples: Chute (Hampshire/Wiltshire), Chidden (Hampshire), Melchet (Wiltshire/Hampshire) (proto-Welsh mēl means ‘bare’, so probably used substantively to mean ‘bare hill’; Culcheth (Lancashire) and Culgaith (Cumberland) variously explained as ‘nook wood’ or ‘narrow wood’; Morchard (Devon) means ‘Great Wood’, and if Morchard Bishop and Cruwys Morchard, ten miles apart, refer to a single wooded area, the appropriate translation is ‘forest’. Selwood was known as Coit Maur, according to Asser. Dassett, earlier Dercet (Warwickshire) is probably ‘oak forest’, referring to the western fringe of an area of ‘wold’ in Northamptonshire, defined in Fox, 1989, p. 79. Orchard (Dorset) is ‘place beside the wood’. Adjective cēdiōg, ‘wooded’, occurs in Chideock (Dorset), Dunchideock (Devon) and Quethiock (Cornwall) (Gelling and Cole, pp. 223-4).


The number of hybrid names, some tautological, e.g. Cheadle (with lēah), Chetwode. NB Chatham, Cheetham (Lancashire), with hām, and Kesteven, with Old Norse stefna in sense of ‘administrative district’, suggests that the British word was taken to be the name of the wood (Gelling and Cole, p. 221).


nimet or nymet (Old Welsh), nyfed (Welsh), ‘shrine, holy place’ derives from Latin nemus, Gaulish nemeton, ‘sacred wood’. The latter sense of nemus developed from its more general sense of ‘wood with glades and pasture land for cattle, grove, forest’ (see bearu, below). Examples include Nympsfield (Gloucestershire) near Uley RB temple, and Nympton and Nymet (Nymed) in Devon, both from Nymet, an old name for the rivers Yeo and Mole (Smith, 2, p. 50) and/or the name of a district perhaps related to Nemetostatio, the place near North Tawton noted in the Ravenna Cosmography (Gelling, ‘Signposts’, p. 60). Gelling interprets the first part of Nemetostatio to mean ‘sacred wood’ ‘and Nymed may have survived as the name of a forest’ (‘Signposts’, pp. 60, 243). Griffith (1986) suggested that a recently discovered henge in the area or ‘the entire numinous area’ may have been the nemeton from which the river and.or district name derived (GJ: cf. Vernemeton on the Leicestershire Wolds).



2. Character of woodland


fyrhth(e), ‘land overgrown with brushwood, scrubland on the edge of forest’ (adjective gefyrhth sometimes found in charter boundaries), most frequently in modern forms as Frith and Thrift. The meaning explains the word’s adoption into Welsh, where in the fourteenth century ffridd meant ‘barren land’ (Gelling and Cole, p. 224). Modern Welsh fridd, plural friddoedd, is used of land at a certain altitude, above the belts of good arable. The mid-eleventh-century document known as Gospatric’s Wriot, which deals with land tenure in Cumberland, refers to rights on weald, on freyth, on heyninga: this could be translated ‘in forest, in heathland, in enclosed arable’ (Gelling and Cole, pp. 224-5; cf Duffield Frith 1332, earlier Forest/Chase, and Chapel en le Frith in Peak Forest).


holt, ‘single species wood’ (largest category of examples refers to tree species), not found north of Cheshire and West Yorkshire (Gelling and Cole, p. 233). NB Eversholt (Bedfordshire), ‘boar’, and Rawerholt between Whittlesey and King’s Delph (Huntingdonshire), hagra, ‘heron’ (Gelling and Cole, p. 234).




bær, ‘pasture’, especially ‘swine-pasture’, usually detached and belonging to an estate. In Middle English indistinguishable from, but probably less frequent than bearu. Examples include Bere forests (Hampshire), Bere Regis (Dorset) (Gelling and Cole, p. 266).


denn, ‘woodland pasture, especially for swine’, chiefly Sussex and Kent (Gelling and Cole, p. 267).



3. Management of woodland


copse, ‘wood managed by coppicing’ (Rackham, ‘Countryside’, p. 97), from Old French copeiz, ‘to cut’, not used in England before thirteenth century (Latham).


græf, grāf, grāfa, grāfe, ‘coppiced wood’, words associated with grafan, ‘to dig’. (Gelling and Cole, p. 226). Perhaps these were managed woods surrounded with ditches to deter browsing animals – n.b. Gelling and Cole, p. 227, note that such names were seldom associated with animals, wild or domestic, or with tree-species. Well-evidenced in major names, e.g. Bromsgrove (Worcestershire), whose large Domesday estate provided large quantities of fuel to the saltworks at Droitwich (Gelling and Cole, p. 227, who also note that Leland described the saltworks fuel as ‘young pole wood, easy to be cloven’); just under a quarter of cases sampled by Gelling and Cole were ancient parishes, while Domesday manors accounted for just over a quarter, suggesting significant economic importance.


hag (North of England), ‘wood managed by coppicing’ (Rackham, ‘Countryside’, p. 97).


spring, ‘wood managed by coppicing’ (Rackham, ‘Countryside’, p. 97).


hris, ‘underwood’, indicates wood managed by coppicing (Rackham, ‘Countryside’, p. 97); gives rise to names such as Royce Wood (Rackham, ‘Countryside’, p. 97).


tailz, Norman French (modern French taillis), ‘wood managed by coppicing’; modern forms include Tails Wood and Taylors Wood (Rackham, ‘Countryside’, p. 97).


Other indications of management


(ge)hæg (Old English), (ge)heg (Kent, Mercia), hay (Middle English), ‘fence’, ‘enclosure’, glosses Latin cratis, ‘hurdle’, ‘fence’, but also pratum, ‘meadow’, and from charter names like horsa gehæg and oxena gehæg it seems to have been used already in Old English of ‘fenced-in piece of ground’ and in Middle English as latinised haia, ‘part of a forest fenced off for hunting’ (Smith, PNE, 1, pp. 214-5).


hain (Middle English, presumed to have derived from an unattested Old English hægen, hagen, ‘enclosure’ – see (ge)hæg above) occurs in Layamon in the sense ‘(walled) enclosure, park’ (Smith, PNE, 1, p. 215).


lundr, ‘wood [of economic value]’, mainly in settlement names, but two instances of wapentake meeting places: Aveland (Lincolnshire) and Framland (Leicestershire) (Gelling and Cole, p. 242, who also suggest woodland was scarce at the time of the Viking wars [Did they mean ‘managed woodland’?]). Rackham points out modern spelling Lound and Lawnd (Rackham, ‘Countryside’, p. 97.) In Scandinavia the term is sometimes combined with the name of a deity, as in Swedish Närlunda (Nerthus), Danish Tislund (Tīw) and Torslunde (Þórr); and in Plumland (Cumberland) the lund was nemus paci donatum, ‘a grove given to peace’, according to Reginald of Durham (Smith, PNE, 2, p. 28) [cf. hyrst plus þing, above].


outwood, almost always connected with medieval deer-park (Rackham, ‘Countryside’, p. 97).


snād (chiefly South-East), snæd (Anglian, West Saxon), snoad (?Kent in most cases), ‘something cut off’, ‘a detached piece of land or woodland’ [i.e. in a different place from its parent steading or settlement] (n.b. S 293, Chart, Kent, dated 843, ‘a single wood... which in the vernacular we call a snad’) (Smith, PNE 2, p. 131).


For snade or snoad as a term for silva regalis, royal (i.e. communal) woodland, from which dens were in time granted away, see Witney, ‘Jutish Forest’, pp. 61-65.


wyrtruma, wyrtwala, ‘plant-strength’, ‘plant-wall’, found only in charter bounds, probably technical term for woodbank demarcating area of woodland (Rackham, ‘Countryside’, p. 82).



4. Topographical


bearu (chiefly South-West, especially Devon), ‘a small or limited wood’, considered in literary references to correspond to Latin nemus [‘a wood with glades and pasture for cattle, grove, forest’, citing Cicero agri et nemora, and ‘the grove at Aricia sacred to Diana’ (Marchant and Charles, p. 362), in which case n. b. the borrowing into Old English of nemeton, ‘shrine’ (see nimet, above)]. Generally in Devon bearu is a minor name, but with instances of simplex use, and elsewhere mainly names of parishes or manors. In some names in Dorset and Somerset (e.g. Bere Regis), difficult to distinguish between bearu and bær, ‘swine-pasture’, q.v. (Gelling and Cole, p. 221). The latter point also made by Smith, PNE 1, pp. 22-23, who also notes the difficulty in distinguishing bearu from beorg (esp. Wiltshire, Gelling and Cole, p. 221). Usually combined with personal, animal, and tree names (Smith, PNE 1, p. 23, Gelling and Cole, p. 223).


feld, ‘open country’ (Gelling and Cole, p. 269); ‘open space [in sight of woodland with which to contrast it]’ (Gelling, ‘Place-Names of Berkshire’); ‘open land previously used for pasture’ (Gelling, ‘Place-Names in the Landscape’). Sense developed from ‘open land’ to ‘communally cultivated arable’: Until mid-tenth century used of common pasture, not tillage; encroachment of arable on pasture mostly in the sixth and seventh centuries; aesthetic qualities (e.g. ‘clean’) well evidenced, as are descriptions (‘broad’, ‘heath’, ‘white’); bands of place-names in ‘field’ [several in relation to forests (GJ)] (Gelling and Cole, pp. 271-2, with map, p. 273).


hangra, ‘sloping wood’, not necessarily on steep hillsides, common only in Devon and Gloucestershire and not noted north of Cheshire and East Yorkshire (Gelling and Cole, pp. 230, 233).


hyrst, ‘wooded hill’, cognate with Welsh prys, ‘brushwood’ (Gelling and Cole, p. 234). In Huntingdon there appears to have been a district called Hyrst. Old [wald] Hurst and Woodhurst are adjacent parishes, and on their common boundary is a rough stone seat, now known as the Abbot’s Chair, but earlier the Hustingestone, ‘stone of the hyrst people’, meeting place of Hurstingstone Hundred (Gelling and Cole, p. 235); cf. Dinghurst (Somerset) and Fingest (Buckinghamshire), both with þing, ‘assembly’ (Smith, PNE, 1, p. 277) [cf. lundr, below].


rodu (common only in Lincolnshire and West Yorkshire), *roth, ‘clearing’; cf. *ryding, *ryden (Essex, Surrey)/*reden (Kent), *ryd, *rīed, *rēod, *ryde, *rede (South-East England). NB Brandred and Coldred (Kent), ‘burnt’ and ‘charcoal clearing’ (Gelling and Cole, p. 244; Smith, PNE, 2, pp. 86-7, 88, 89-91).


sceaga, ‘small wood’, probably a strip or projecting (shaw used from sixteenth to nineteenth centuries as ‘strip of wood or underwood forming the border of a field’ (Gelling and Cole, p. 245; Smith, PNE, 2, pp, 99-100). Cognate with Old Norse skógr best represented in minor names in North-West England (Gelling and Cole, pp. 248-9; Smith, PNE, pp. 125-6). Cluster of major names in sceaga on Lancashire/Yorkshire border (Gelling and Cole, pp. 246). Two related forest-reminiscent references are Bickershaw (Lancashire), ‘bee-keeper’, and Huntshaw (Devon), ‘honey’; n.b. also Catshaw (Lancashire), Earnshaw in Bradfield (Yorkshire) (‘eagle’), Evershaw in Biddlesden (Buckinghamshire) (‘boar’), Marshaw near Lancaster (‘marten’), and Ottershaw (Surrey) (Gelling and Cole, pp. 246-7).


skógr, see sceaga.


spinetum, Medieval Latin from spina, ‘thorn’, gives rise to modern Spinney (Rackham, ‘Countryside’, p. 97).


thveit, Old Norse ‘clearing, meadow, paddock’ from group of words sharing a general sense of cutting or being cut; particularly common in Cumberland (Gelling and Cole, p. 249).


vithr, see wudu.



Abbreviations (other than bibliographic references)


GJ    Graham Jones (comments by)

RB    Romano-British




H[arold] S. A. Fox, ‘The people of the Wolds in English settlement history’, in Michael Aston, David Austin, and Christopher Dyer (eds), The Rural Settlements of Medieval England: Studies dedicated to Maurice Beresford and John Hurst (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1989), pp. 77-101.


Margaret Gelling, The Place-Names of Berkshire, English Place-Name Society (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1973-6).


Margaret Gelling, Place-Names in the Landscape (London, 1984).


Margaret Gelling and Ann Cole, The Landscape of Place-Names (Stamford, Shaun Tyas, 2000), hereafter ‘Gelling and Cole’.


F. M. Griffith, ‘burh and beorg in Devon’, Nomina 10 (1986), pp. 93-103.


Paul Harvey, ‘Catullus 114-115: Mentula, bonus agricola’, Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte 28, No. 3 (3rd Qtr., 1979), pp. 329-45.


R. E. Latham, Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources (London, Oxford University Press for the British Academy, 1981).


J. R. V. Marchant and Joseph F. Charles, Cassell’s Latin Dictionary (1887; rev. edn, London, Cassell and Company, 1928), hereafter ‘Marchant and Charles’.


Oliver Rackham, The History of the Countryside (London, J. M. Dent & Sons, 1986).


P[eter] H. Sawyer, Anglo-Saxon Charters: An annotated list and bibliography, Royal Historical Society Guides and Handbooks 8 (London, Royal Historical Society, 1968), now supplemented on-line at ‘The Electronic Sawyer’.


A. H. Smith, The Place-Name Elements, 1, Á-IW, English Place-Name Society 25  (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1970), hereafter ‘Smith, PNE 1’.


A. H. Smith, The Place-Name Elements, 2, JAFN-YTRI, English Place-Name Society 26 (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1970), hereafter ‘Smith, PNE 2’.


Victor Watts, The Cambridge Dictionary of English Place-Names: Based on the collections of the English Place-Name Society (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2004).


K. P. Witney, The Jutish Forest: A Study of the Weald of Kent from 450 to 1380 A.D. (London, University of London, The Athlone Press, 1976).