Where did Derbyshire get it's names?

Hello. Or WES ǷŪ HĀL, I may have said a little over 10 centuries ago.

Have you ever wondered about the origins of the names of the places where we live?

Indeed: does it matter? Having grown up in the East Midlands, although admittedly across the border, in a settlement where - after his final & fateful battle - the body of the last pagan King of Northumbria was kept before his funerary return to his capital in the North; roaming local woodlands with names and earthworks hinting at a hidden past; building dams in the local river which gave its name to the nearest town. I was always interested in piecing these puzzles together, and retelling those stories to whosoever was willing to listen..


“If you knew your history: you would know where you’re coming from”, as the song goes.

Place names are a piece of that story, an indicator of what the landscape once was. They are a shadow cast from a past when the British Isles were not only home to now extinct fauna, but also things unseen in a world interpreted by people who had little comprehension of even where the sun went at night. For these people, woodlands may be the homes of spirits both fair & foul, the weather was the will of the gods, and mountains were the homes of trolls and other creatures lurking in the mist.

Some history:

The ancient Britons shared elements of culture and language with similar groups of Celts elsewhere in continental Europe. Northern Derbyshire was the southern extent of the Brigante Celts who occupied the Pennines, with the south of the county being the land of the Coritani - or more correctly the Corietauvi - people: but little direct evidence is left of them in place names in the landscape.  

This is probably the most well known, running through the county like a spine. Maybe the size of this feature meant it was too difficult to erase the memory of its oldest known name.


1: Derwent

Derwent valley

Derwent valley

Derventio “Valley of oaks” is a British Celtic, or, Brythonic name. Although a lack of oaks in the valley is maybe be an issue which needs to be addressed.

Another Celtic name in the landscape is Crich (crug) meaning “hill”.

What is left of the Romans, beside archaeology? They kept part of the Briton’s name in Derventio Coritanorum at Little Chester on the edge of what is now Derby. The Romans were in Derbyshire, with grain grown in the Trent Valley, the attraction of lead ore in the uplands, and Ryknield Street forming the line of the A38 from Lichfield before diverting up the Amber Valley and onwards to the fort at Chesterfield. But is this Castra, the Latin for fort, or the OE Ceastra-feld: meaning a Roman settlement and a field? 

After four centuries, the Roman Empire withdrew from the province of Britannia, and from the C5th Germanic settlers either forced the Britons into the far north, the west, and the south west of the British Isles, or the Britons simply took on this new Anglo Saxon culture. For a period, Derbyshire was probably under the influence of the post-Roman Brittonic kingdom of Elmet.

From the C6th, for almost 300 years, Derbyshire sat in the Saxon Kingdom of Mercia, with Repton at one point being the centre of power; whilst the Anglian Kingdom of Northumbria sat off to the north. Over the Early Medieval period - the Dark Ages - these two kingdoms along with Wessex vied for hegemony over the what would eventually become England.

The Jutes, Angles, Frisians, and Saxons spoke a western Germanic language now termed Old English (OE), each with their own dialect. Old English shares similarities with both modern English and modern German, although it is easier for speakers of the latter to comprehend. 

And anyone viewing the written form may be confused by the use of additional combined characters: dipthongs, and the use of macrons over vowels.

So to start. Most - but not all - place names have two components: the name of either a person, a plant, or an animal; the second part will often be a landscape feature, although these are subject to interpretation, as we will see later.

2: Ashbourne Æsc burna

The first component is OE Anglian dialect. The æ letter is a dipthong called ash, but pronounced as a short a; whilst s and c when together are a “sh”.

Trees appearing in place names can relate to either individual trees of significance or tree groupings. Such as Æthelheard’s tree at Allestree.

The second part “bourne” is derived from the OE “burna”; meaning stream. In the Domesday Book there are, for the East Midlands, an exceptional 10 mentions of settlements in the county containing burna: possibly indicating a retained influence of Anglian OE in the Saxon Kingdom of Mercia. Elsewhere in the east Midlands, the Saxon OE “brōc”, & “bæc” or - confusingly indicative - Old Norse (ON) “bekkr”, giving us beck, is more common: but more on that later.

In OE, “Rs” are rolled..

3: Dethick. Deað āc

The macron over the vowels in Old English changes the sound. A is changed from arr to aah. E changes from eh to ay.

The curious symbol ð at the end of the second word is called “eth” and is pronounced as in f-eath-er or h-eath-er.

This is Dethick, meaning death oak.

4 Youlgreave. Geolu grǣfe

Geolu is simply “yellow” and could possibly relate to the limestone, or the sulphate in the lead ore mined in the area. However, it could also be the name of an unknown individual.

Old English grǣfa refers to a thicket. This is the source of the word “grove”. There are a number of similar words in OE, graf, grafe, which relate to ditches, trenches, earthworks, and embankments; are the origin of the word “grave”, are simliar to the OE word for digging, and may be related to the modern use of “graft” as in: to do physical work. Oliver Rackham in the 1970s suggested that the habitat and earthwork words were somehow interchangable, as surviving woodlands in lowland England over 100 years old were most likely to have an associated earthwork.

Woodlands had more than one word in OE, much as they do today. ON used the word lundr from which a second component “land” may be derived, giving us, for example the hazelwood that is Hasland.

5: Bonsall. Brunt halh

This area of land is believed to have belonged to a Saxon named Brunt, and is therefore named after him; were he to introduce himself in Saxon OE, he could say “Ic hāte Brunt”. Brunt could also say “Min nama is”. German speakers can see the existing similarity in Ich heisse and Mien name ist. Like modern German, OE is also gendered, with masculine, feminine, and neuters.

Anglian OE “halh” means a nook. How nooks are interpreted varies across Anglo-Saxon Britain. In Derbyshire the word is associated with out of the way valleys, or side valleys. Monsal, for example, being a side valley of the Wye. A nook is an area of land which somehow stands apart in the landscape.

There can be some confusion when the OE halh has become “hall”.

Another example of confusion occurs with the use of OE eg, more commonly used to refer to an island, giving Derbyshire: Edale, Eyam, Abney, and the Eatons. These settlements somehow all standing apart from the surrounding landscape, and so therefore were islands, of a sort.

6: Lea. Lēah

This is a very common element in Derbyshire place names.

From the OE: …”lēah can relate to woodlands, but also clearings within woodlands. 

Lēah is similar to the Old English leoht, which is “light”. Adding further weight to the use of the term meaning a clearing in a woodland.  

Over time, as these clearings become larger, enclosed, and formalised, “lea” came to mean a pasture.

The component “lea”, is also found as the second part of a place name as L..E..Y.

Remembering that s and c is a “SH” sound, have a look at the next example.

7: Shipley. Scēp lēah

Yes indeed, Shipley.

It was horses for Horsley; a stony origin for Stanley; and woodland products from Staveley.

Old English as a spoken language gave way to Middle English after 1066, but not before the East Midlands became part of the C9th Danelaw lands. The Danish settlers spoke a northern Germanic language, Old Norse - the origin of the modern Scandinavian language group, but there are fewer marks left of this period in Derbyshire compared to neighbouring counties. 

8: Derby Djur by

Old Norse “djur” means beast and/or animal, similarly, the OE for wild animal is “deor”; and the element “by” means a farmstead or settlement. So Denby, a combination of the OE “Dene” meaning Dane, and the Old Norse “by” is “the Dane’s farmstead”.  


This is just a brief introduction that may whet some people’s appetites. A final thing worth considering is that, although these names are predominantly Old English in origin, and, as is thought these days that conquest of these British Isles was as much if not more cultural than by the sword, the settlements possibly predate the names. Therefore, the names could easily be Old English versions of something older.

Ic Þancie ēow

(I thank you).

Written By Alex Morley, Living Landscapes Officer.


Suggested reading and useful links:

“Place-names in the Landscape: the geographical roots of Britain’s place-names”, by Margaret Gelling.

“The History of the Countryside: the classic history of Britain’s landscape, flora and fauna”, by Oliver Rackham.

http://kepn.nottingham.ac.uk/ The University of Nottingham has a free resource of 14,000 place names.

https://open.spotify.com/show/2kGGFnyItgqD0umgXKnoTK?si=-QfSxSoeTy2gVxgOuCsZmg The podcast details the Anglo-Saxon history from before the three main kingdoms, the Danish incursions, and the ascension of Athelstan to the throne of a unified England.