What's in a Name?
The Origins of the Place Name 'Holsworthy'
Of all the questions asked by visitors to the museum, there is one which crops up time after time – Where does the name Holsworthy come from?
Its origins can be traced back over 1,400 years, to the gradual spread into the ancient Kingdom of Dumnonia (present-day Devon, Cornwall and parts of Somerset) by the Anglo Saxons, and is probably a replacement for a much earlier Celtic settlement name.
Made up of two distinct elements it is, in effect, a word picture.
Let’s look at the ending first... Originating as the Anglo-Saxon word ‘worõig’ - meaning an enclosed homestead or farm - it is one of only a few references that occur in the Anglo Saxon law-codes (written by Ine, King of Wessex in 695) where it is recorded that -
“A free man’s worthy must be fenced winter and summer. If it is not fenced and his neighbour’s beast strays in he shall have no claim to that beast: and shall drive it out and suffer the damage“.
Now for the first element. Many early Anglo Saxon settlements included the name of the most important inhabitant, the name of the tribe or of the land owner – and in this case it is the name Hereweald – the Anglo Saxon form of Harold. Today it is often claimed that the Harold in question was our last true native English King, Harold Godwinson (who inherited vast swathes of land between Stratton and Cheddar, including Holsworthy, in 1053), though there is sadly no real evidence to substantiate this claim (and perhaps more evidence available to refute it).
A settlement of some 70 households by the time of the compilation of the Domesday Book in 1086, Hereweald-worõig appears within its pages written as ‘Haldeward’ - the ‘R’ in Hereweald being scarcely audible to the Norman officials.
So, although there have been many spellings of ‘Holsworthy’ throughout the past thousand years the meaning has always remained the same – the enclosed homestead of Harold - an Anglo Saxon substitute for a much earlier settlement name, long since lost to history.
S. P. Dymond
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