An error in Domesday Book translations?


I talked about the etymology of the names Welwyn and Willian in an earlier post (here). I apologize in advance for the length of this post.

The earliest reference to Welwyn that is given in the English Place Name Society volume on Hertfordshire (1938), is ultimately from AD 944-6, in a copy of the 13th century, published by Birch in his Cartularium Saxonicum in the late 19th century. There it appears as “Welingum”, a form that goes back to the Old English dative of welig, with the -n- inserted by analogy with the many other names that regularly ended in -ingum. In Domesday (1086) the name appears six times – according to the published translations. Willian’s earliest appearance in the record seems to be in Domesday, where it is given the spelling “Wilie”, and, apparently, is mentioned once only. However, I think that some of these seven mentions have been mis-attributed, and that at least three more of them refer to Willian, which is one of the three ancient parishes that make up Letchworth Garden City.

Here are the entries as translated in the Phillimore edition of Domesday, which includes the Latin text as well as an English version:

1. “In Welwyn [spelled ‘Wilge’ in the Latin] the Bishop [Robert Bishop of Chester] also holds ½ hide. Land for ½ plough. The value is and always was 3s. This land lies in (the lands of) Bygrave, the Bishop’s manor. Archbishop Stigand held it.” [but Bygrave borders on Willian, not Welwyn.]

2. “In Welwyn [Welga] Robert of Pont-Chardon holds 1½ hides and 20 acres from Robert [Gernon]. Land for 3 ploughs; in lordship 1; another possible. 3 villagers with 6 smallholders have 1 plough. 1 cottager; 2 slaves. Meadow for 2 oxen; pasture for the livestock. The value is and was 30s; before 1066, 40s. Godric, Aelmer of Bennington’s man, held this land; he could sell.”

3. “In Welwyn [Wilga] William of Eu holds ½ hide. Land for ½ plough, but it is not there. The value of this land is and always was 3s. Alstan of Boscombe held it; it lay in (the lands of) Weston. In the same village, William Delamere holds 2 hides from William of Eu. Land for 3 ploughs. In lordship 1; 5 villagers have another; a third possible. 2 cottagers. Pasture for the livestock. The value of this land is and was 32s; before 1066 £4. Alstan of Boscombe held 1 hide of this land; it lay in (the lands of) Weston. Alfgeat, his man, held 1 hide; either could sell.” [but Weston borders on Willian, not Welwyn.]

4. “In Welwyn [Welge] Roger holds 2 hides from Geoffrey (of Bec). Land for 7 ploughs. In lordship 1; another possible. 6 villagers with 4 smallholders have 4 ploughs; a fifth possible. 4 cottagers; 1 slave. 1 mill at 8s; meadow for 2 ploughs; pasture for the livestock; woodland, 20 pigs. In total, value 50s; when acquired 20s; before 1066 £6. Gode and her son held this land from Queen Edith; they could sell.”

5. “In Willian [Wilie] Geoffrey of Bec holds 5 hides and 1 virgate himself. Land for 9 ploughs. In lordship 2 hides; 2 ploughs there; another 2 possible. 10 villagers with 1 man-at-arms and 4 smallholders have 5 ploughs. Meadow for ½ plough; pasture for the livestock; wood for fences. In total, value £10 14s; when acquired £4; before 1066 £12. Leofric, one of Earl Leofwin’s Guards, held this manor; he could sell. A Freeman, Aelmer of Bennington’s man, had ½ hide; he could sell. A widow had ½ hide less 10 acres; she could not sell without Godwin of Letchworth’s permission.”

6. “In Chells Godfrey holds 1½ hides from Peter [of Valognes]. Land for 1 plough; it is there, with 2 smallholders and 1 slave. Value 30s; when acquired 20s; before 1066, 40s. Alwin held 1½ hides of this land. Apart from 10 acres and 1 plot, which Alwin Dod [son], Aelfric Little’s man, holds; they lay in (the lands of) Welwyn [Wilga]; he could not sell outside.” [but Chells lies much closer to Willian than to Welwyn.]

7. “In Welwyn [Welge] a priest holds 1 hide, in alms from the King. Land for 3 ploughs. In lordship 1; another possible. 6 smallholders have 1 plough. 2 cottagers. Meadow for 1 plough; pasture for the livestock; woodland, 50 pigs. In total, the value is and always was 25s. He held it himself from King Edward in alms. It lies in the (lands of the) church of this village. William Black, the Bishop of Bayeux’s man, annexed 12 acres of this alms land in the King’s despite, as the Hundred testifies.”

It looks to me as if the earlier translators have simply seen a ‘g’ in the spelling, and automatically thought “Welwyn”, without considering the geography. Neither have they  taken into consideration the modern spellings: each time there is an ‘i’ in the original, the land in question lies much closer to Willian than to Welwyn. If the two names have always differed in their first vowel, as seems likely, why not take this evidence at face value?

There is another point: in ordering the various estates, the Domesday compilers tend to group them according to their location within the hundred, so that adjoining estates are listed next to each other. William of Eu’s holding in ‘Wilga’ is listed between Graveley and Weston (these two places are close to Willian, but not to Welwyn). Geoffrey of Bec’s first holding (‘Welge’) comes between Datchworth and Langley (near to Welwyn); his second (Wilie) between Chells and ‘Rodhanger’ (exact location unknown, but near to Norton in North Hertfordshire, another part of Letchworth Garden City). This would also imply that ‘Wilga’ referred to Willian, and ‘Welge’ to Welwyn.

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