Monday, August 30, 2010

Name Quest, Part II

L.G.C. Smith

Two weeks ago, I wrote about my search to discover where my last name, Coddington, came from. What I expected to be a fairly straightforward answer, that it’s an English place name of a common Anglo-Saxon type, got more interesting when I realized that most of the Coddington/Cuddington parishes in England had church foundations in the seventh century. That’s early, even in a country where plenty of villages date back to Roman times, and no small few are older than that.

Picking up the tale again, on GPT1 (Gene Pool Tour #1) we stayed in a time share in Staffordshire, of all places, because it was almost equidistant between so many of the Coddingtons. After a week spent sussing them out and reading their parish church brochures, my sister, Sarah, had had enough poking about. She insisted we spend a day doing normal sightseeing: a ruined castle and Sherwood Forest. I did manage to stick the priory church at Breedon-on-the-Hill on the itinerary because I wanted to see the Saxon stone carvings there.

After slogging around in the rain at the castle ruins at Ashby-de-la-Zouche (there are better castle ruins, but that was the closest), we turned up at Breedon around noon. In the car park, the first thing we saw was a couple in a Fiat Panda making a go of breeding on the hill without quite enough steam on the windows to ensure complete privacy. My father still thinks this is one of the punniest coincidences he’s ever witnessed.

We poked through the churchyard, then went in to see the carvings. Dad and Sarah zipped around and left Mom and me trapped by an old codger from Leicester who proceeded on a low-key rant (we were in a church, after all) about how Leicester had hardly any English people left in it, and how sick he was of all the immigrants. Uncomfortable, but not wanting to be rude, I read the church history brochure while my mother disengaged as gracefully as possible. One line in the brochure, however, nearly obscured this unvarnished view of English social tensions. It said that Hugh Candidus, a monk of Peterborough, noted in the 12th century that in the Priory Church of St. Mary and St. Hardulf at Breedon, there was a shrine to a St. Cotta in Anglo-Saxon times.
St. Cotta? Who was he? When did he live? How’d he get to be a saint? Might he have something to do with the Coddingtons?

The difference between the –tt- and the –dd- isn’t necessarily substantive. Medieval spellings make this quite clear. Even in the 21st century, I can’t tell you how many times my last name has been misspelled with –tt- instead of the double d. (We are not fairy squashers!) The long /d/ is often articulated in everyday speech as an alveolar flap, which is, strictly speaking, neither a /t/ nor a /d/. Many people pronounce ‘later’ and ‘ladder’ with the identical sound for the middle. It’s not phonemic, but exists as an allophone of both intervocalic /t/ and /d/ in American English. There’s an IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) symbol for it, a kind of small r-shaped thing. The original –dd- in Coddingtont has sometimes been spelled as –rr-. There’s an entire branch of the family, confirmed through DNA analysis, that spells their name Corrington.

It was possible that St. Cotta might have been St. Codda when written by someone else’s hand. Or even St. Cudda. The original vowel wasn’t pronounced as it is in either Standard American English or Standard British English pronunciations of /o/ and /u/. It was a bit more fronted and rounded, and when followed by the suffix –ington, the /i/ further fronted in a process called i-umlaut. It’s a sound change thing in Old English. By the 16th century, in the southeast of England, mostly Surrey and Kent, the rounded vowel eventually influenced the perception of the initial consonant producing the spelling ‘Quiddington.’ There are other geographical/social contexts where it looks like the rounding and fronting was lost very early, perhaps by the eighth century, and possibly due to influence from local British dialects (this may be a stretch; I’m still working on it) producing Cadda or Catta. That’s another story, though, and I’ve probably already delved too far into phonology for most folks as it is (and not enough for linguists -- sorry!).

After the trip, I began running down all the obscure Anglo-Saxon saints I could find. No other mentions of St. Cotta. Drat. But I didn’t give up. I went back to my maps.

I couldn’t help noticing that the Coddingtons, (shorthand for all the various spellings), appear in a ring around the Midlands of England. The answer to what this might signify might seem obvious to those of you who know even a little about the Anglo-Saxon period. It wasn’t clear to me because I didn’t know much more than that there had been Anglo-Saxons at some point. I’d been boning up on Roman Britain for a few years, but past 5oo AD, I was lost until the 15th century, and I was on shaky ground there.

Nonetheless, that ring of names kept niggling at me. It couldn't be a random distribution, but I don't do math, so I couldn't really prove that. I started checking on other common –ington names to see how they were distributed. Doddington, Billington, Addington, Ellington, Eddington and more. Sometimes I saw a suggestion of a regional focus to the distribution, as with Piddingtons in Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, and Northamptonshire. Others ranged north to south and east to west. As one example, there are Doddington place names from Kent to Northumberland with lots in between. No other fairy rings jumped out at me. There might be some, but I didn’t find them.
[Image]Mercia in the 8th Century or so

Eventually, I learned enough to recognize that the Coddingtons formed a ring that roughly followed the bounds of the Kingdom of Mercia in the mid-seventh to eighth centuries. Boundaries were pretty changeable then, so it was a bit hard to tell given my lack of Early Medieval Britain expertise. The Surrey Cuddington where my family most likely came from was perhaps too far to the south and east, though the Chertsey Abbey charter from around 674 AD that first mentions that lands in Cuddington were granted to the abbey by Frithuwold, a sub-king under Wulfhere of Mercia. At least some of the time, then, Mercian interests held sway in the area.
Next I wondered what the link between these sites might be. The simplest reason appeared to be that they represented a monastic network. I learned that the growth of minsters, the Old English word for monasteries, exploded in the mid to later seventh century. As the Anglo-Saxon kings converted to Christianity, they endowed the Church with extensive lands. Members of royal households often became abbesses and abbots in control of these lands. The practice gradually worked its way down the social ladder so that many landed families established their own minsters. Certainly many of these foundations were piously motivated, but the tax advantages of converting family land to Church land under family control seems to have been at least as big a factor.
I examined the Coddington sites more closely. I availed myself of the wondrous Ordnance Survey Explorer Series Maps, and pondered the many Coddingtons for hours. And hours. I stuck the maps up on the wall in my hallway and stared at them some more. To my delight, place name and geographic patterns emerged.

Most of the sites were within a couple of miles of a major Roman road. There seem to be Roman Roads everywhere you look in Britain, so that might not mean a great deal, but these included some of the Really Big Roads. The Dee Valley sites in Cheshire are close to the extension of Watling Street north of Wroxeter (Viroconium) to Chester (Deva). The Surrey site is on Stane Street from London to Chichester. The Nottinghamshire site is close to the Fosse Way between Leicester (Ratae) and Lincoln (Lindum). The Derbyshire site near Crich was close to the road from Derby (Derventio) to Rotherbury, and the ones in Herefordshire and Buckinghamshire are also close to major routes. The Vale Royal site in Cheshire is along a supposed Roman road from Chester to the saltworks at Northwich.

Most of these sites are also close to a major river crossing or bridge. The Cheshire sites are close to the Dee, the Derbyshire site to the Derwent, and the Nottinghamshire site lies slightly to the east of the River Trent. Three of these along the northern arc of the circle share some surprising place name clusters, as well.


Coddington, Cheshire sits next to Aldersey Parish and a couple of miles west of the crossing of the River Dee at Farndon. Coddington, Derbyshire sits across the River Derwent from Alderwasley Parish. Coddington, Notts, is a few miles east of an ancient crossing of the Trent near the Roman Ad Pontem, now Thorpe Parish, which sits immediately south of another Farndon.

It’s possible that 'Farndon' derives from an Old English fern root, but given the presence of the alder names, I think it’s more likely to come from the old Celtic root fearn, which also means alder. Alder trees grow well in damp soil, and once cut, their wood doesn’t rot in damp ground as quickly as most. It was often used for bridges in pre-industrial times. There’s a certain sense to riverside settlements using alder or fearn in their names, but why would these three Coddington parishes occur next to them? Once again, that doesn’t appear random. But why alders?

[Image]
Fearn is also one of the Ogham letters, the Celtic alphabet used primarily in inscriptions in the sub-Roman and early medieval periods in Britain and Ireland. The letters have tree and plant names. They’ve been associated with both Druidic practice and the early Celtic Church. I assumed a lot of this to be faux folklore manufactured during Victorian times when anything Celtic was fair game for highly romanticized treatment. However, studying these place names made me willing to reconsider that. Particularly when it struck me that the first syllable of Coddington sounds fairly similar to Welsh coed, which means a wood, timber, or trees. Even more so when I finally noticed that the Cheshire Coddington and Cuddington west of Malpas are quite close to the site of what Bede describes as a major British monastery at Bangor Monachorum, and which is called Bangor-ys-y-Coed today. (First Breedon on the hill, and now Bangor under the wood. We poor Coddballs are doomed to indignity.)

Supposedly, the Celtic Church’s liturgical year may have been influenced by the Ogham tree names, which were also used as a calendar, with a month for each tree. The trees each had a spiritual significance passed down from druid times that the early Celtic Church may have incorporated. The Alder month was the month in spring in which Easter fell. The alder represented resurrection and the teaching of the tenets of Christianity. The cross has long been referred to as a tree. I think the Coed in Bangor’s modern name may have arisen out of an older symbolic use of ‘wood’ as the Cross.

Here’s Bede’s account of the monastery at Bangor:
For afterwards the warlike king of the English, Æthelfrith, of whom we have spoken, having raised a mighty army, made a very great slaughter of that heretical nation, at the city of Legions, (Chester) which by the English is called Legacaestir, but by the Britons more rightly Car-legion. Being about to give battle, he observed their priests, who were come together to offer up their prayers to God for the combatants, standing apart in a place of greater safety; he inquired who they were, and what they came together to do in that place. Most of them were of the monastery of Bangor, in which, it is said, there was so great a number of monks, that the monastery being divided into seven parts, with a superior set over each, none of those parts contained less than three hundred men, who all lived by the labour of their hands. Many of these, having observed a fast of three days, had come together along with others to pray at the aforesaid battle, having one Brocmail for their protector, to defend them, whilst they were intent upon their prayers, against the swords of the barbarians. King Æthelfrith being informed of the occasion of their coming, said; "If then they cry to their God against us, in truth, though they do not bear arms, yet they fight against us, because they assail us with their curses." He, therefore, commanded them to be attacked first, and then destroyed the rest of the impious army, not without great loss of his own forces. About twelve hundred of those that came to pray are said to have been killed, and only fifty to have escaped by flight. Brocmail, turning his back with his men, at the first approach of the enemy, left those whom he ought to have defended unarmed and exposed to the swords of the assailants. Thus was fulfilled the prophecy of the holy Bishop Augustine, though he himself had been long before taken up into the heavenly kingdom, that the heretics should feel the vengeance of temporal death also, because they had despised the offer of eternal salvation. (from Bede, Ecclesiastical History of England, Book II, Ch. II)


I don’t think the Bangor monasteries were all at Bangor, though that’s been the common assumption. I think they were spread out over a wide range of British territory before the Angles and Saxons appeared, and that they had centers of teaching that served a wider community of farms and settlements. I think they kept up roads and bridges in the post-Roman period, as well as providing other services. They were central points for social and economic organization as well as religion.

The Coddingtons existed as part of this monastic network for a long while before they were called Coddington. After Æthelfrith’s massacre of so many of the Bangor monks, I think the network was crippled for many years. Around 625 AD, I believe Hugh Candidus’s St. Cotta began to rebuild the Bangor monasteries, establishing new teaching centers next to the old Alder-named locations of the old houses.


All that was left was to figure out who he might have been. Next up: The Secret Saint.

7 comments:

Adrienne Miller said...

Ohh, I love these posts, LGC. I get all lost reading them. Can't wait for your secret saint.

L.G.C. Smith said...

Thanks, Adrienne! Sorry about losing the maps. Weird things happened with the post this time.

Sophie Littlefield said...

I must say that I love how you were able to work in (ahem) a little eroticism with the car park.... :)

Juliet Blackwell said...

I'm going to re-read this and find all the erotic parts ;-) Great to read about your investigations -- I feel as though I'm along for the ride! Looking forward the the Secret Saint!

Lisa Hughey said...

listening to theorize or reading it here is always so much fun and a fascinating look at the development of language. :)

L.G.C. Smith said...

Erotic. Yeah. I sort of blew that one off, but not because I don't have things to say about erotica. This particular bit of research about names has had its baser moments along with lots of excitement of a more cerebral sort. However, I've undertaken OTHER research projects that were, erm, a bit more carnal. All in the name of becoming a better writer. Honest. :)

Rachael Herron said...

I read your posts at work in the middle of the night, and my brain is fried, and all I can think is: she's so SMART. :)