Pin-pointing the location of original village

The mor-peth where it crossed the Postern Burn
The mor-peth where it crossed the Postern Burn

IN this week’s Morpathia article, Roger Hawkins asks the question ‘Where is Morpeth’?

In previous articles we discussed possible locations for the original village and looked at the earliest documentary references to Morpeth.

Different spellings occur in these old documents, but in all cases we have a two-syllable word of which the first part is ‘Mor’ or ‘Morth’, and the second part ‘path’ or ‘peth’. Two documents, the earliest written c. 1200, have ‘Morthpath’, but most spell it ‘Morpeth’ or ‘Morpath’, in all cases with minor variations.

The first person to suggest an interpretation was William Camden, the Elizabethan antiquary. He suggested that Morpeth might be the Roman station of Corstopitum.

Corstopitum, he thought, got altered to Morstopitum and later to Morpeth. He was a man of great learning and the derivation was not implausible at the time.

A century later, however, John Horsley, Presbyterian minister in this town and author of Britannia Romana, quietly ignored it. It was left to John Hodgson to point out Camden’s mis-identification.

The most ingenious theory was that of G. Kennedy in the Story of Morpeth Grammar School. He proposed the Celtic Mor-Beth – Great Burial Place – referring to a cairn on the ridge to the west of Ha’ Hill excavated by William Woodman in 1830.

‘It consisted,’ wrote Woodman, ‘of a quantity of stones piled together; and appeared to have been one of the rudest description.’

Certain larger stones were obviously the cap-stones, beneath which he found a thin layer of black earth, some fragments of bone and nearby a piece of unglazed coarse pottery – hardly a great burial place.

The ‘path’ or ‘peth’ element is uncontroversial. The two words mean the same thing, but ‘peth’ has a special significance in Northumberland where it often refers to a stretch of road running steeply down to a river, as at the Lion Bridge in Alnwick, at Felton – though actually West Thirston – and Wooler.

Felton has a Peth-foot, Durham City a Peth-bottom, and several places are called Peth-head.

All of these names arise from a landform that is everywhere around us – a river or burn in a deep valley. We are largely unaware of them because of the wonders of civil engineering.

Whorral Bank, for instance, is steep, but would be a lot worse if it were not for the embankment over the Holburn. On a smaller scale, motorists coming into Morpeth from the south are oblivious of the Church Burn as they cross it just before Kendor Grove, yet in ancient times this little ravine must have presented a tricky obstacle to travellers of every kind.

In short, until the days of turnpike roads, you couldn’t go far without encountering a peth.

Mor’ or ‘Morth’, by contrast, are not the same at all. If Allen Mawer, the chief authority on place names in Northumberland and Durham, is right, then Morpeth was originally ‘Morth-peth’, from the Anglo-Saxon morþ – the murder-path or death-path.

The late Harry Rowland proposed a variation on this theory, pointing out that Morpeth is first recorded only after the Norman Conquest and since post-Conquest documents were written by French-speaking clerks, the root could equally be the French mort.

John Hodgson proposed the obvious meaning: the town on the path over the moor. I think – no pun intended – that he was on the right track. With all deference to Mawer’s expertise, the weight of his own evidence favours Mor- (not Morth-) as the first part of the name and the earliest reference to Morpeth, in Gaimar’s Esturie des Engles, spells it Morpathe.

It is true that we only have later copies of Gaimar’s poem, not the original, but those copies, while differing from each other in other ways, consistently spell it Mor-.

Another reason for doubting the murder-path theory is that place-names commemorating a single event are rare. There must be others, but the only one I can think of is Battle in Sussex.

Place-names are more often based on some permanent feature, whether natural or human.

Permanent does not mean everlasting; you might look long for geese at Gosforth or nuns at Nunriding and not find them, but they survived long enough to fix the name. And since moors are more or less permanent features of the landscape, I much prefer Hodgson’s explanation.

But where was the moor and where the path?

To find the answer, we have to take account of both ancient geography and the ancient meanings of the word ‘moor’. When we think of moorland today, we generally think of somewhere bleak, high and windswept, but in Anglo-Saxon times it simply meant land unfit for cultivation; it could equally be fen or marshland.

A moor in the North of England is most often a bleak upland, while in the south it is more likely to denote a low-lying, marshy area. But neither rule is invariable, and both Morwick and Morralee are thought to incorporate the idea of a lowland moor.

There were certainly moors at Morpeth. In 1239, Roger de Merley III gave permission for his burgesses of Morpeth to dig turf in his turbaries at a penny a cartload – a clear indication of the existence of a lowland moor – and in 1389 the men of Mitford and Morpeth both dug turves on a piece of land in dispute between them, known as Threpmore.

We owe Morpeth as a place-name to the military genius of the Normans. My guess is that it was first applied to the castle, and thence to the barony. Whatever the village at St Mary’s was called, it now took the name of Morpeth, as did the later town founded in the 12th century.

To understand how this happened, let us imagine a traveller coming from the south. He follows the old road uphill from St Mary’s, and descends by a dangerous slope to the Postern Burn where it emerges from its steep-sided little valley.

Whereas the burn now disappears into a culvert under the flower park, in those days it widened oozily into a dangerous marsh that extended eastwards to Stobsford Bridge.

Our traveller was between the devil and the deep sea. He had no option but to cross the burn where he stood. It was a classic pinch-point, and the wily Norman – probably William de Merley I – built his castle on Ha’ Hill right above it.

The baron would naturally want to know what the place was called where he had chosen to build his castle, and one can readily imagine that this would be a difficult question for the local Anglo-Saxon peasants to answer.

Think of someone asking where we are on a motorway?

We aren’t anywhere. We’re just on a motorway.

It was the same with this place. The village was half a mile behind, and the ford two hundred yards ahead. His honour’s castle was simply on the path where it skirted round the moor – the Mor-peth.

Acknowledgement: The idea behind this article arose from a lecture given some years ago by Christopher Hudson, when he remarked that property boundaries point to the ancient King’s Highway going along Hill Gate, not through Castle Square.