Did murder pave the way for town’s unusual name?

History article 'Morpeth, the origin of the name'' Was this the 'murder path'?
History article 'Morpeth, the origin of the name'' Was this the 'murder path'?

PLACE-name studies are dry things. Here is the entry for Morpeth in Allen Mawer’s The Place-Names of Northumberland and Durham: “Morpeth. c. 1200 Joh. Hex. Morthpath; 1199 R.C. Morpeth; 1210-2 R.B.E. Morpat’, c. 1250 T.N. Morpath; 1346 F.A. id., Morepeth, 1428 Morepath.”

Mawer concludes that the original form of Morpeth was the Old English morð-pæð, murder-path, ‘from some forgotten crime’. This rendering, despite sounding like a tabloid newspaper headline, is the generally accepted one.

But the staccato style of a place-name dictionary belies the interest of the documents themselves.

One such, and a rather curious source, is the poem, Esturie des Engles (History of the English) by Maistre Geffrei Gaimar, written about 1150. This is 50 years earlier than Mawer’s earliest source, though the four extant copies are all later. Gaimar was Norman-French, probably a priest, probably in Lincolnshire, and wrote it for a lady called Dame Constance. Here, Robert Mowbray, Earl of Northumberland, has rebelled against William II:

Li reis od son ost i alad,

Le Nouel chastel idonc fermad;

Puis prist Morpathe, vn fort chastel

Ki iert asis sur vn muncel;

Desur Wenspiz assis estait,

Willame de Morlei laueit.

E quant il out cel chastel pris,

Auant alat en cel pais;

This means: “The king with his host went thither. The new castle then he built (this was Malvoisin, not Newcastle). Then he took Morpeth, a strong castle, which stood on a hill; above Wansbeck it stood, William de Merley held it. And when he had taken it, he advanced into the country.”

This is from the British Museum’s manuscript, which the editor regarded as nearest to the original. The Lincoln manuscript has Morpade, and Durham Morpape, but he confidently saw in this a misreading of Morpaþe, i.e. Morpathe.

Here is an extract from Mawer’s first source, the Chronicle of John, Prior of Hexham, written c. 1200: “In the same year (1138) on January 5th, a certain powerful man in Northumbria admitted into his property near the fortress called Morpeth (apud castrum quod dicitur Morthpath) eight monks from Fountains, who built a convent, called, as is well-known, Newminster (Novum-monasterium)”.

Hexham was not in the Bishopric of Durham, but was a peculiar of the Archbishop of York.

In November 1313, Archbishop Greenfield wrote to the prior of Hexham. He has been examining the prior’s fellow-canon, Brother William de Morpeth (Fratrem Willelmum de Morthpath, concanonicum vestrum). We do not know what William stood accused of. It must have been serious if it could not be dealt with at Hexham, but whatever it was, he denied it. The Archbishop sent him back to Hexham with orders to keep him safe until he could prove his innocence, but William was a desperate man; he escaped and went on the run, and on December 16 the archbishop wrote to the bishop of Durham to say that he has excommunicated Brother William de Morpath. He asks the bishop to do the same in his diocese, but especially around Morpeth (et specialiter apud Morpath).

William was at large for over six months, but was caught and taken to Bridlington Priory, where he was kept for six months before being sent back to Hexham. The Archbishop took care, after this second offence, to make William swear not to harm him or any of his people.

There is a rental of the lands belonging to the priory, called the Black Book of Hexham. It contains a much later reference to Morpeth, of 1470. In it, English and Latin are so mixed that you can almost read parts of it straight off, as in this account of Temple Thornton:

“Et super lez Smal-half-acre, quia in medio, ex parte austr. (south) del Morpeth-way, ij acrae et di (2½ acres). Et apud le Propp, ex parte austr. de Morpeth-way, iij rodae (3 rods).”

The entry for Neuton in Cookdale (Coquetdale) juxta Harbottel also has, incidentally, “ex parte le lonyng ibidem, inter toft’ et croft’ Johannis de Berehalgh”. John may have been a Morpeth man; Berehalgh was a field where Bridge Street is now.

In the Red Book of the Exchequer, Mawer’s R.B.E, the references to Morpeth are in long lists of scutages. Scutage was a money payment to the king in lieu of a knight’s service. On page 563, for the years 1210 to 1212, we have: “Norhumberlande. ... Rogerus de Merlay, baroniam de Morpat[h], per iiij milites.”

In other words, Roger was obliged to provide the king with four fully-equipped knights, to serve for forty days in the year, or a sum of money in lieu, as a condition of holding his barony of Morpeth.

On page 713, in a summary of the amounts due to the exchequer for 1264-65, we have: “De baronia de Morpathe, xxvs. vjd.” That is, the knights’ services have been commuted for 25s. 6d.

Mawer’s T.N. of c. 1250 is the Testa de Nevill — the name means Nevill’s head and comes from a caricature of one of the exchequer clerks on the box that held the documents. It gives much the same information as R.B.E, but Mawer had only the 1807 edition, which is bad for dates.

If you look in Hodgson’s History of Morpeth, page 7, you will notice that he dates these two entries to 1219 and 1240. There was a new edition of the Testa in 1920, in which the entries for ‘Morpath’ are dated 1212 and 1242-43, so Hodgson was very near the mark.

The register of Bishop Kellawe of Durham dates from 1311 to 1316. It has a number of references to Morpeth, always spelt Morpath’. I suppose the apostrophe is instead of proper Latin endings.

The earliest is for October 1311, when there was an inquisition into the church at Morpeth. Soon after that, on January 12, 1311-12 (1312 to us, but 1311 until the end of March to them), a man called William de Bereford was collated to the rectory of the parish. William was ambitious, and in February 1312-13, the bishop gave him permission to take time off to attend the Schools.

‘Morpath’ also occurs in the register as a surname.

On March 2, 1312-13, Peter de Morpath was excommunicated for contumacy. More satisfactorily, on May 19, 1313, Ricardo de Morpath, rector of Graystok, was a commissioner to try a petition of Master William, vicar of Felton. Also in 1313, we have: “domino Reginaldo de Morpath, cappelano, de sex marcis receptio ab eodem de sequestro ecclesiae de Morpath’.” Master Reginald the chaplain, apparently acting as agent for William de Bereford, has paid six marks to the bishop. Then, on August 3, 1314, we meet an old acquaintance; the Bishop has finally excommunicated ‘frater Willelmus de Morpath’, canonicus monasterii de Hextildesham’ for contumacy.

Where to look: Hodgson’s History of Morpeth is widely available. Gaimar, the Book of Fees or Testa de Nevill (Part 1, page 201), and odd volumes of the Red Book of the Exchequer and the Register of Richard de Kellawe, are available on the Open Library website. The Black Book of Hexham is available at Woodhorn, ref. LR271. The late Harry Rowland gave me a number of hints on sources.