How English Cities Got Their Names

By M@ Last edited 9 months ago
How English Cities Got Their Names

Which is the only English city named after a woman? What city gets its name from a breast-shaped hill? And what was Newcastle called before it got its new castle? With the recent additions of Colchester, Doncaster, Milton Keynes and Southend-on-Sea, England now contains 55 cities, many of which have fascinating etymologies. Here they are, alphabetically, with the leading theories on how they got their names.


Bath... named after the baths. Image M@.

Bath is, quite simply, named for its baths. The Romans first established a settlement here, called Aquae Sulis, around 60 CE. The next wave of invaders, the Anglo-Saxons, knew the place as Baðum, meaning 'at the baths'. Coins minted here in the 10th century are stamped with BAD — an old form for Bath rather than a comment on the coins' purity.


The Beormingas tribe, probably named after a leader called Beorma, settled the area in the 6th or 7th century. The 'ham' bit loosely means 'settlement' in Old English.


One of five English cities to end in -ford. All denote a fording place over a river. In this case, it's an evolution of broad-ford, a crossing of a now-buried river (Bradford Beck) near the cathedral.

Brighton & Hove

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An East Sussex city of two names, and England's most populous seaside resort. Brighton comes from the Old English Beorhthelmes tun, meaning the farmstead of someone by that name. It's taken many tongue turns over the centuries, straying to Bristelmestune in Domesday Book, and later Brighthelmston. The latter name survived as an alternative to Brighton well into the 1830s. Hove, meanwhile, is more mysterious. Some sources guess that it comes from the Old English word Hofe, meaning the courtyard of a farm; others that it derives from Hoo, a term for marshy land.


Bristol is both a city and a county. It has many possible etymologies, and nobody is certain which is correct. The word may come from the Old English Brycgstow, the 'place at the bridge'. Or — and this feels more satisfying to anyone who's overlooked the Avon from Clifton — it might go back further to Celtic times, drawing on the words braos and tuile to describe a stream through a chasm.


Bridge over the Cam. Image M@.

Once you know that Cambridge grew up on the River Cam, then its etymology seems pretty obvious. It's not quite that simple, though. The river was originally known as the Granta (still is in some sections), and the town as Grantabrycge. Over time, this got twisted to the modern Cambridge, and the river name changed to match.


Canterbury's name is directly related to the county in which it sits: Kent. The title was already recognisable in Roman days, when known as Durovernum Cantiacorum. The first part builds on an earlier British place name, while Cantiacorum refers to the Cantii, or people of Kent. Once the Romans had cleared off, the invading Jutes shored up the defenses and turned it into a burh (fortified settlement). Hence Cantwareburh signified a 'stronghold of the Kentish', which later became Canterbury.


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The second-most northerly city gained its present appellation in the 'dark ages' following Roman retreat, when it was known as Caer Luel. The origins of this name are debatable. Caer may simply mean city, while Luel could be a contraction of the Roman name for the place, Luguvallum.


England's newest city (2012) was originally Ceolmaer's ford, a crossing over the River Chelmer. The river's etymology is obscure, but this site suggests it may have something to do with deer hunting.


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As with other place names ending in -chester, -cester or -caster, the beautiful walled town of Chester stands on the site of a Roman fort. The Roman word 'castrum' changed pronunciation in the Middle Ages to give first -ceaster, and then the modern forms. Chester was originally known as Legechester, but adopted the lazier name around the time of the Norman Conquest.


And here's another -chester, again denoting a Roman fort. The added Chi- supposedly comes from an Anglo-Saxon invader of the the late fifth century, who captured the city and touchingly named it after his son Cissa. The only evidence for this comes from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, several centuries later.

City of London

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Curiously, neither London nor Greater London is, of itself, a city. The ancient heart of the capital — the City of London or Square Mile — is, though. The name London was first definitively used by the Romans in the settlement of Londinium, but it was probably based on an existing name. Plowonida, meaning fast-flowing river in Celtic, is one possibility. We discuss London's origins in more detail in this article.

City of Westminster

The other city within London's bounds is that of Westminster. Were you to guess at its etymology, you'd probably be correct. It refers to the Abbey, which is the minster west of the City. (The Abbey's website suggests it also distinguishes Westminster from the slightly older 'eastminster' of St Paul's, but there are problems with this theory.)


One of the three new cities in England created for the Queen's Platinum Jubilee, Colchester is also one of the oldest conurbations on the list. As you'll by now guess from the -chester part of its name, Colchester was a significant Roman town, but it existed long before the legions arrived as a centre of Celtic power. The Celts called the place Camuloduno, so the origins of the modern name are a little mysterious. It may simply refer to the Roman colonia, or outpost, which the fortified town (-chester) grew up around. Another explanation is that it stands on the River Colne (though it's not clear whether town or river was named first).


This sizeable Warwickshire city seems to have had the humblest origins, for it is named after a tree. Specifically, Coffa's tree. Coffa was probably an Anglo-Saxon landholder, with a notable tree — perhaps used as a meeting place — on his estate.


Derby: town of deer... and rams. Image M@.

Derby stands on the River Derwent and was known by the Romans as Derventio. Clearly the three names are linked, but how is the source of some debate. A popular (and fairly obvious) theory links the name to deer — a settlement important for deer hunting — but no one is sure. The -by, incidentally, is a common ending for towns inhabited by the Vikings during the Danelaw settlement. Grimsby and Selby are other examples.


One of three new cities created in 2022 for the Queen's Platinum Jubilee, Donny is simply named after the fortified Roman town (-caster) on the River Don. The river's name comes from Celtic times and means simply 'water'.


We have a mongrel name here, which mixes the Celtic 'dun' (hill fort) with the Norse 'holme' (island). This bewitching city was long known as Dunholm or Dunelm, settling on Durham only in recent centuries.


Speculative eels not pictured. Image Shutterstock.

The city with the shortest name is also one of the smallest, with just 20,000 inhabitants. Its etymology is obscure. The earliest record (8th century, by Bede) calls it Elge, and it is later referred to as Elig. Some have suggested that it might mean 'eel island', though this opens a can of linguistic worms to add to the already slippery history.


Exeter comes to us from the Old English Escanceaster. Yes, it's is another castrum (Roman fort, see Chester), this time built on the River Exe. That name (Exe) is thought to come from the older Celtic word for a river well-stocked with fish.


The 'cester' tells us that Gloucester was once a Roman fort. The first part is probably a personal name such as Gloyw or Gloiu. One old fable puts Gloiu as the grandfather of the 5th century warlord Vortigern, though we'll probably never know.


The 'ford' bit, as elsewhere, denotes a crossing over a river (the Wye). 'Here-' may come from an Anglo-Saxon word for an army, or else the Welsh name for the old Roman road that passed this way.


The name implies a town called Kingston built on the banks of the River Hull, but it's usually known as Hull. The town was founded relatively late — in the 12th century — as Wyke on Hull (a wyke being an inlet). It initially served as a small port for wool export until, in 1293, it attracted royal attention in a most unusual way. According to legend, Edward I was out hunting, when he decided to chase a hare towards the river. Here he came across the village of Wyke. So charmed was he by its strategic advantages that he bought the land from the local abbey. Wyke was (as a matter of historical record, and not legend) renamed as King's Town upon Hull in 1299. The origins of the name 'Hull' seem to be murkier than the waters of the nearby Humber (which, having grown up nearby, we can assure you are very murky indeed).


This one's relatively easy to untangle. Lancaster stands on the River Lune (hence 'Lan'), and was home to a Roman fort or castrum. The word Lune is undoubtedly pre-Roman and may denote a glinting river.


An unusual name when you think about it, and that's because it's neither Roman nor Anglo-Saxon in origin. Leeds traces back to the Celtic word Ladenses, meaning 'people of the fast-flowing river' (the River Aire).


Leicester was here before the Romans, probably founded a century or two before the conquest. It is named after the Ligore, a Celtic tribe about which little is known, along with the now-familiar -cester, denoting a place fortified by the Romans.


The small city north of Birmingham traces its origins back to Lyccidfeld. The name can be broken down into Old English for grey trees (lyccid) and field (feld). Thus, it's the city built in an area of ash and elm and open landscape. A widely held belief that the name means 'field of the dead' (lich being an old word for corpse) is probably bunkum.


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As anyone who's visited will attest, the heart of Lincoln lies on top of a very steep hill (it's officially called Steep Hill). Needless to say, humans have lived on the top since time immemorial for ease of defence. Curiously, though, the town seems to have been named after the natural lake which still lurks beneath the hill, Brayford Pool. The Celts probably called it Lindon (the pool), which the Romans changed to Lindum Colonia, and later residents skewed to Lincoln.


"Ferry, 'cross the Mersey... it's a thick and muddy creek." Image M@.

More obvious watery nameplay is at work in Liverpool. The city has one of the less glamorous etymologies, stemming from the Old English for a thick, muddy creek.


If you've read this far, then you'll guess that Manchester is an old Roman town, as attested by the '-chester' (from a Roman fortification called a castrum). The Romans called the place Mancunium, probably from an older Celtic name. This may have been Mamm- (breast-shaped hill), or Mamma- (river goddess).

Milton Keynes

A red pyramid with glass boxes inside
MK's 'The Point' entertainment complex, which sadly faces demolition. Image by Matt Brown

One of the three new cities created for the Queen's Platinum Jubilee. While the other two (Colchester and Doncaster) have Celtic roots, MK is a new town, largely created from the 1950s onwards. It's sometimes joked that the town was named after the poet Milton and the economist Keynes. The fact that it sprung up beside a medieval village of the same name kind of dumps on this idea, though.

The original village was first recorded simply as Middelton — presumably because it was the middle settlement in a group of three or more villages. The Keynes part is named after the former landowners, the de Cahaines family who came over with the Conqueror (and probable ancestors of John Maynard Keynes... so there is a tenuous link).


During the Anglo-Saxon period, Newcastle went by the name of Monkchester. The eponymous 'new castle' came along in 1080, when a son of William the Conqueror erected a wooden, and later stone, fortress. As with many river names, the Tyne is ancient and we can only guess at its original meaning.


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The UK's easternmost city, Norwich carries a good-old Anglo-Saxon name meaning north-town. Similar endings can be seen in Harwich, Ipswich and Sandwich.


Readers of a certain vintage may remember a 1980s Tunes advert in which a bunged-up gent asks for a 'second class return to dottingham'. The campaign was unwittingly appropriate, for Nottingham probably does have a connection to snot. A chieftain of that unlikely name controlled the region in Anglo-Saxon times. The hamlet of snot became Snottingham and later Nottingham.


Originally known as Oxenaforda, the city that would later boast dreaming spires was founded around 900 CE beside a ford used by oxen. It's as simple as that.


Who was the Peter of Peterborough? None other than St Peter, dedicatee of an important monastery around which the settlement grew. The 'burgh' was appended in the 11th century after a defensive wall was built around the town. It all came together as Petersborough soon after.


A settlement at the mouth of the River Plym. The city only got its name around 1200, before which it was called Sutton. The 'Plym' bit probably derives from an Old English word for plum trees.


The obvious explanation here is that Portsmouth was simply a port or haven at the mouth of a large river. A folkloric alternative, given in the Anglo-Saxon chronicles, suggests the city was founded by a fellow named Port.


The Lancashire town is recorded in Domesday Book as Prestune. Its thought to derive from the Old English for 'village or manor of the priest', perhaps a reference to a priory set up there by St Wilfrid.


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England's third smallest city, Ripon in North Yorkshire may get its name from the bank of a river — the same root that gives us the word 'riparian'. The city was built at the confluence of two rivers, the Laver and the Skell, which form the Ure. It is first recorded as Inhrypum.


The conurbation in Greater Manchester clearly recalls a ford in a river. The 'Sal-' is a reference to willow trees, which are sometimes called sallows from the Latin name salix. Salford: the ford beside the willows.


Salisbury from Old Sarum. Image Shutterstock.

As with Canterbury, the suffix suggests a fortified town, which alludes to the nearby abandoned (except by tourists) site of Old Sarum. The Salis- prefix is more obscure and may be Celtic (pre-Roman) in origin, and of the same root as Sarum.


Sheffield's etymology is more clear-cut than most cities. And cut is the right word — 'Shef' refers to the River Sheaf whose name means to divide or separate. The 'field' comes from 'feld', meaning a clearing in the woods. Hence, Sheffield was first settled in a clearing beside the River Sheaf.


Originally called Hampton, a common name meaning a settlement or home. The 'South' was added in the late 10th century to distinguish it from other Hamptons.


Southend's epic pier stretches out into the sea, as seen from a hill

In October 2021, it was announced that Southend would be granted city status, as a memorial to Sir David Amess, a local Member of Parliament who was fatally stabbed while performing his constituency duties. Amess had campaigned for the civic upgrade to be part of the Queen's 2022 Platinum Jubilee celebrations.

Southend has very humble beginnings for a city. Its name denotes that it was merely the south end of the village of Prittlewell, when it was little more than fishing huts. The conurbation grew rapidly from the 1790s. The use of '-on-Sea' is often dropped, but is a helpful label to distinguish the town from other Southends (including one in the London Borough of Lewisham).

St Albans

St Alban (right) and friends. Image M@.

The closest city to London is, quite evidently, named after St Alban, the first British saint. Alban was martyred in the city — then called Verulamium — in the 3rd or 4th century. You can see his effigy, which gets paraded around the city annually, inside the cathedral.


'Stoke' was a common name meaning 'place' or 'settlement'. So common that the words 'on Trent' have been added to distinguish the city. The Trent is, of course, a river. Like many rivers, its name is pre-Roman and possibly means a waterway prone to flooding.


You've heard the phrase 'torn asunder'. Sunderland's name has similar origins. In the 7th century, the king of Northumberland granted land to a monastery on the south bank of the River Wear. Because the monks usually dwelt on the north bank, their new territory was described as 'sunder-land' — land that is detached or sundered from the monastery.  


Truro's name is something of a mystery. The best guess, disputed by many, is a derivation from the Cornish tri-veru, meaning three rivers.


Recorded in Domesday Books as Wachefeld, two possible origins of this West Yorkshire name have been posited. It clearly relates to some kind of field, but whether it is a field of wakes and festivals, or a field belonging to someone called Wacca is uncertain.


England's second-smallest city (after the City of London) also has the most straight-forward name derivation. The city contains three wells dedicated to St Andrew, which are also present on the city arms.


As ever, the '-chester' denotes a city built on the site of a fortified Roman town. The 'Win' part predates the Romans. It's a hand-me-down from the Celtic name for the area, which was probably Venta or Wenta, meaning a town or meeting place.


Wolverhampton is a rarity among English cities in taking its name from a documented historical person. Uniquely, this was a woman. Wulfrun, who lived in the late 10th century, was granted lands by Ethelred the Unready. Wulfrun's heaton (meaning a principal farm or enclosure), became Wolveren Hampton, which gave us Wolverhampton.


The final 'cester' or 'chester' in our list was also a former Roman stronghold. The first part comes from the local Angl0-Saxon tribe of the Weogoran, which may mean 'people of the winding river'.


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This magnificent city has tumbled through several name changes over the centuries. The Romans founded it as Eboracum. The Anglo-Saxons revived the town as Eoforwic. The invading Danes massaged this to Jorvik, and from there it became York. Where the Romans got 'Eboracum' from is something of a mystery, but it may be based on a Celtic dialect phrase meaning 'place of the yew trees'.

Last Updated 22 June 2022