Reconstructing seventh-century place names in the North York Moors area

I've posted elsewhere about the relative merits of using modern place names in historical fiction (more recognisable to a modern reader) or period names (less likely to produce an incongruous modern image in the mind's eye). The subsequent discussion came down firmly in favour of period names, with the addition of a map and/or glossary so that readers can look up the locations.

My novel Paths of Exile is set in seventh-century Britain, and raised a further issue over place names. A large part of the story is set on and around the North York Moors (north-east of the city of York). This area, like much of northern and eastern England, was extensively settled by Danes in the 9th-11th centuries and many of the current place names are of Norse origin. Now, the Norse names cannot have been in use in the seventh century, as the Norse settlers did not arrive in substantial numbers until two hundred years later. How best to reconstruct/interpolate/imagine/invent place names that will fit the seventh-century setting and give a convincing feel to the story, without confusing the reader?

Here are some examples of how I addressed this.


The modern name is Norse, with the characteristic Danish element -by (meaning village or farmstead) and means 'Hviti's village' (Room 1993). The early English ('Anglo-Saxon') name of the settlement was Streanashalch, which translates as Bay of the Beacon or Bay of the Lighthouse. This name was recorded in Bede's Ecclesiastical History (Book III, chapter 25)written in 731 AD, and so is about as authentic as one can get*.

Clearly, the name 'Whitby' doesn't suit a seventh-century setting. To anyone who knows that -by is a Norse place name element it conveys a date that's wrong by two centuries. I could use Streanashalch on Bede's authority. But I think that doesn't capture the right feel. To a modern reader, Streanashalch is a proper name with no meaning of its own. But to the characters in the story, speaking Old English as a living language, 'Streanashalch' would have carried the meaning 'Bay of the Beacon' and would thus have conveyed something about the place beyond the mere name, much as names like 'North Sea' do today. I didn't want to lose that sense of meaning in the name. So I translated it into modern English and used 'Beacon Bay' or 'Bay of the Beacon' as the place name.

Lilla Howe

This is a Bronze Age burial mound topped by a stone cross of early medieval date. The cross is traditionally said to mark the grave of Lilla, thane to King Eadwine of Northumbria, who died in 626 AD protecting his king from an assassin. (The story is in Bede, Book II Ch. 9 if you want to look it up). My story is set in 605 AD and Lilla is still very much alive, so it is unlikely that the mound was called Lilla Howe at the time. The cross would not have been there, but the mound would have been. What might its name have been? Probably Something Howe, as 'howe' is a common element in early English place names and means 'mound', often a burial mound. The mound commands a far-reaching view across the moors and stands near a junction of two important moorland tracks. My conjecture is that it was probably an important place in the district, perhaps a landmark for travellers and/or a meeting place. This would be consistent with its re-use for the secondary burial of an important man, particularly if he had connections with the area (perhaps he was the local thane?). Re-use of ancient burial mounds for high-status early English graves is attested elsewhere in England, for example at Roundway Down in Wiltshire. So I wanted a name that conveyed a sense of importance for the mound before Lilla was buried there. I chose Guardian Howe.

Malton Roman Fort

This Roman fort stood on the river Derwent 17 miles north-east of York. Its Roman name, attested in the Antonine Itinerary, was Derventio, derived from the river name. The name 'Malton' is Norse (Room 1993), and so cannot have been in use in the seventh century. Several examples are known of early English place names that have been formed by adding -caster or its variant -chester (an Old English loan word from Latin meaning 'fort', especially a Roman fort or Roman walled town) to a recognisable variant of the Roman name. For example, Londinium (modern London) was recorded as Lundencaester in 890 AD, Isca Dumnoniorum (modern Exeter) as Exanceaster in 894 AD, Danum (modern Doncaster) as Donecastre in 1002 and Venta Belgarum (modern Winchester) as Wintancaster by Bede in 731 AD. I applied the same pattern and (re)constructed 'Derwentcaster' as a plausible seventh-century name for Malton Roman Fort.


Room A. Dictionary of Place Names. Bloomsbury, London, 1993. ISBN 0-7475-1511-5.

*Some scholars argue that 'Streanashalch' is actually the modern village of Strensall a few miles outside York. I am not clear why an inland settlement would have acquired a name that can be translated as Lighthouse Bay, but perhaps there are alternative translations of the name elements, or perhaps it was a figurative name and referred to the monastery there as a 'spiritual beacon'. I am not convinced by this argument, as early English place names are commonly descriptive, usually in a form that indicates ownership - 'Fred's farm' - or topography - 'hill farm'. So I shall stick to the identification of Streanashalch with Whitby. But it illustrates how nothing in this period ever seems really certain