On Shakespeare, place-names, and the Battle of Stamford Bridge

Published 17th Jul 2008

Elsewhere on these pages you can read about how a 360-ship strong Viking army landed in Yorkshire in September 1066. But where can you keep such a large fleet on standby? Who named the place? And what has that got to do with Shakespeare?

If there is an English place-name that has a particular resonance for Danish readers it is ne is Elsinore, the home of Shakespeare's gloomy Dane, Hamlet.

The Danish form of this name is, of course Helsingør, the harbour at the shortest crossing-point to Sweden (Hælsingør 1175) and the name means 'the gravelly beach of the dwellers at the neck of land'. The final element in this name is the word ør, earlier eyrr 'gravelly sandbank'. This word does not occur very frequently in English place-names but one of the recorded instances is of a name that played a role in connection with the defeat of King Harald Hardrada in 1066. This is Ravenser in Yorkshire, first recorded as Odd juxta Ravenserre 1235-49 'the headland called Odd near Hrafn's gravel-bank'. Both the headland and Ravenser itself were washed away in the medieval period. They originally stood between the sea and the Humber a little to the south-west of Kilnsea, near Spurn Head. Ravenser began life as a small island. It is mentioned in the famous thirteenth-century Icelandic source known as Heimskringla in the phrase afHrafnseyri, with reference to the sailing away by Olaf Haraldson from the Battle of Stamford Bridge. Olaf had been left to guard the Norwegian ships at the mouth of the Humber and he was eventually allowed to sail home with the remnant of the defeated army. Hardrada had himself been killed in the battle against the English king, Harold Godwinson, who was in turn killed shortly afterwards at the Battle of Hastings, fought against William the Conqueror in the same year.

Such was the fame of the place-name Ravenser that, in combination with the Modern English element spurn meaning 'sharp projection', it occurs twice in another play by Shakespeare, namely in Richard II (Act II, Scene1, line 298), where the Earl of Northumberland cries, 'Away with me in post to Ravenspurgh', to await the arrival in England of the banished Bolingbroke (the later Henry IV). Ravenspurgh is said to have been the most considerable port on the Humber around 1300. The spit of land there, which builds up gradually from sand and gravel washed away from the Yorkshire coast, drops off cyclically about every 250 years.

Almost all of the other instances of the word eyrr in English place-names are found across the Pennines, many of them referring to sandbanks in the River Lune. It might, therefore, have been thought that the names in England were ultimately of Norwegian origin, had it not been that the example of Ravenser shows that the word was also used in the Danelaw. What is really significant, however, is that the element eyrr, like so many other words of Nordic origin, survived much longer in use in north-western England than in the Danelaw and that many of the names containing Ayre are English formations compounded with English words, Salt Ayre, Green Ayre, Rabbit Ayre.

The word eyrr has left its mark most substantially in the Isle of Man, where the sheading of Ayre, for example, takes its name from the Ayre, now Ayres, a sandy, gravelly bank at the north-east of the Island. This is a very prominent topographical feature and it seems reasonable to assume that it was the Vikings who first bestowed the name on the place. Since the word eyrr was adopted into Manx not only in the form of several place-names, in some of which it is declined as a Manx word, but also as part of the general Manx vocabulary, a name such as Ayre is not automatically to be considered to be a Scandinavian formation. Some of the relevant names in Man were coined by Manx-speakers and others by English speakers, just as the Ayre names in north-west England were coined by English speakers using a Scandinavian loanword.

Created by Gillian Fellows-Jensen, ret. linguist and name-researcher, Copenhagen University