Articles from the Thoroton Society Newsletter

Who put the Saxons in Saxondale?

By Nick Molyneux

The Roman Army had long used the manpower of allies to create auxiliary army units. Towards the end of the Roman period in Britain, a less formal approach towards the use of federate allies saw groups known as laetii or foederati given land in exchange for military duties(1). The relationship between some Roman settlements, Roman roads and nearby places with Germanic folk-names may be suggestive of the deliberate planting of groups of federate troops to provide a defensive screen against barbarian raids. Could such relationships have existed in Nottinghamshire?

Tealby, Lincolnshire

It may seem unlikely that evidence of Late Roman military postings could survive today as comparatively minor names in the English landscape. Yet this is precisely what has been suggested for the Lincolnshire village of Tealby, the ethnonym of the Taifali surviving not only the transfer of power from Roman to Anglian control but also the subsequent influence of Danish, to leave it with a “-by” suffix (2). As an ethnic group, the Taifali seem to have been associated with the Goths. According to the Late Roman military dispositions recorded in the Notitia Dignitatum, there was a cavalry unit of the Taifali present in Britain at the end of the Roman period called the Equites Honoriari Taifali seniores(3).

Tealby is located on the River Rase, south of the Roman town of Caistor and to the west of the Roman Caistor to Horncastle road (B1225), known as “Caistor High Street”. Tealby itself lies on the old Lincoln to Grimsby drove road and both these routes are postulated as prehistoric trackways. The place-name would seem to be based upon an otherwise unattested Anglo-Saxon ethnonym for the Taifali, such as *Taflas or *Toeflas. The English Place-name Society (EPNS) records the earliest surviving record of Tealby as being Tavelesbi in Domesday (1086). As late as 1806 it was being referred to as “Tealby alias Teavilby”(4).

Vandals in English place-names?

The suggestion that the tribal name Vandal might appear in an English place-name is not new. As early as the 13th century, Gervase of Tilbury suggested that the name of the hillfort Wandlebury Ring near Cambridge was so-called because of the Vandals(5). Similarly, the 17th century Yorkshire antiquarian Ralph Throsby attributed the name of the univallate hillfort known as Wendel Hill in the village of Barwick-in-Elmet to the Vandals(6). These are two of a number of fortifications which have a “Wendel” element. Others include Wendlebury (Oxon), Wellingborough (Northants) and possibly the site of Rutland Castle (Leics) (7). There are also a number of what appear to be “Waendelingas” folk-names in Wendling (Norf); Wallington (Herts) and in Wellingborough again. Do these represent the tribal group Vandal or people who were thought of, or self-identified, as such?

The Vandals and the Swaefe

Mr David Windell, in research stimulated by the origins of his own surname, has pointed out a number of interesting place-name patterns around several Roman settlements and Roman roads in Central and Eastern England. His observation is that a number of these place-name elements may be ethnonyms with links to Germanic folk-groups(8). Two of the principal tribal groupings Mr Windell considers are the Vandals and the Swaefe. The Swaefe element in Early English place-names represents the Germanic tribal confederation of the Suebi, peoples also associated with the confederation known as the Alemanni. This tribal name forms the basis for many modern European language words for “Germany”, including the French “Allemagne” and Welsh “Yr Almaen”. The dialect of German spoken

today in south west Germany, including modern Swabia (from Suebi / Swaefe), is known as Alemannic German.

The Roman settlement Duroliponte which preceded Cambridge sits at a junction of several major Roman roads, including Akeman Street (Ermine Street to Brancaster) and the Via Devana (Colchester to Chester). As well as the possibility of Vandals being associated with Wandlebury Ring, the area to the north east of the town on the east side of the River Cam has Swaefe place-names in Swaffham Bulbeck and Swaffham Prior. Susan Oosthuizen also notes the nearby references to Germanic ethnicity in Anglesey (Isle of the Angles) and Saxon Street and Saxton Hall south of Exening and the importance of the Cam as boundary between Mercia and East Anglia(9). EPNS notes another lost Saxon name in Saxbriggemore (1391) at Bottisham(10). The village of Swavesey (*Swaefe's Landing Place) lies to the north west of Cambridge(11). Interestingly, the nearby place-name “Grantchester” is not derived from the site of a Roman settlement. It is another folk-name, Granta-saete, meaning the settlers on the River Granta, the earliest recorded examples being Granteseta and Grantesete in Domesday (1086)(12). Perhaps the Granta-saete consisted of a significant Swabian element?

Saxondale and Margidunum

Saxondale is located to the south west of the fortified Roman town of Margidunum, which is well-placed to block both movement along the Fosse Way and to interrupt river traffic on the Trent.

The EPNS records the first written reference to Saxondale as Saxeden in Domesday (1086) and as Saxenden in 1316, which is explained as the Old English Seaxna denu meaning “Saxon’s Valley”. Saxendala appears in 1130, Saxindale and Saxendall several times during the 13 Century. Margaret Gelling notes although dael is a common suffix in minor Nottinghamshire names, Saxondale is the only major dael settlement in the county. The use of denu to denote “valley” in Nottinghamshire is rare compared to the Anglian term dael, and EPNS suggests that this oddity might be accounted for by an isolated Saxon settlement in Anglian territory. This may mirror the Saxon place-names to the north east of Cambridge. Saxondale and Margidunum are also both located centrally in an area of administrative importance for the Early English, which by Domesday had become the Bingham Wapentake (Bingameshou Wap). According to EPNS the wapentake moot site “is marked by a shallow depression, like a miniature amphitheatre, in the rising ground on the north-west side of the Fosse Way at the top of the hill above the Saxondale cross-roads.” It is also a significant area of Early English cremation burial with several cemeteries in the immediate area. It would be interesting to know whether or not any local archaeological evidence has been found suggesting the early presence of Saxon rather than Anglian cultural associations.

Wensor Bridge and Margidunum

Issue 106 considered the possibility that the earliest record of Wensor Bridge across the River Devon (as Wendelforthbrigge 1330) had a connection with the name Wandilberwdike in the Leicestershire village of Eaton, where the Devon rises. The EPNS suggests that the Wendel in Wendelforth (Wendel’s Ford) is the name of an individual. For the purposes of this article, let us follow the argument that this Wendel might instead be an ethnonym connected to a folk-group identified or identifying as Vandals. In the context of billeting foederati in a position to block access to what may have been an easy river crossing at the “Vandal’s ford”, this might have been a sensible disposition. As with Saxondale, an armed force to the north-east of Margidunum would also be able to control movement along the Fosse Way to the north and across the Trent at Hazelford, on the presumed ancient trackway Longhedge Lane from the river to Bottesford and beyond. It may be coincidental but it is interesting that Bottisham’s lost Saxbriggemore and our Wendelforthbrigge may link military assets such as bridges with foederati positioned to defend them.

Saxons in the North & the Humbrenses

Writing in the 1980s, J.N.L. Myres observed that a significant Saxon element appears in the population of early Northumbria(13).The large cremation cemetery at Sancton in Yorkshire contains urns which have strong similarities to those found in areas associated with the continental Saxons and those of south western Germany, such as Frankish and Alemannic-styles, which brings us back to the Swaefe. Myres notes that prior to Bede, the Humber and its tributaries linked communities which identified with the common term Humbrenses. He also argues that the name “Humber” once had a much wider application across the river system as a whole(14). In this context it is interesting that the village of East Stoke has a Humber Lane running between and parallel to both the River Trent and the Fosse Way.

Is it possible that the name Saxondale may also preserve the memory of a very early settlement of Saxons across the Humber basin and who were contributors to the Humbrenses before the Angles dominated the area?

The Wars of Consolidation

In Bingham / Margidunum we may also have a case for later foederati. In the 7th Century, the expanding kingdoms of Northumbria and Mercia consolidated their power by absorbing neighbouring states around the Humber, such as Lindsey and Elmet. Three of the major recorded battles of the period were fought in or near what is now Nottinghamshire. The circumstances surrounding the battles of the Idle (616), Hatfield (632) and the Trent (679) may well have placed a premium on securing the Fosse Way and the east bank of the Trent. Following the Battle of the Trent, the Archbishop of Canterbury (Theodore) brokered a peace which defined the border between Northumbria and Mercia. Part of this line became the northern border of the County of Nottinghamshire until the local government reorganisation of 1974, which made the Humber a north-south boundary rather than a unifying radial highway(15).

This period also saw the collapse of Suebic and Vandal kingdoms in Spain and the Mediterranean, as well as on-going pressure on the Continental Saxons. Such factors may well have encouraged dispossessed groups of warriors to seek employment elsewhere. With kings and warlords in need of experienced troops, 7th century Britain may well have seemed an attractive land of opportunity.


The name Saxondale would seem to be a name directly associated with the Saxons as a tribal group. The case for Wensor Bridge Vandals is perhaps less strong, with alternative mythological or personal naming possibilities. The location of both sites near Margidunum may have been part of a defensive screen of federate settlers established by Late Roman or sub-Roman authorities.

The presence of early Saxon settlers at Saxondale may be associated with a strong Saxon element in wider Humbrensian settlement along the tributaries of the Humber. They and a group of Vandals could also have been established as garrison troops in the 7th century, securing the area for one of the then dominant kingdoms.

Of course, the Saxon settlers who gave Saxondale its name may simply have decided on a prime location for themselves!


(1) The English Settlements, J.N.L. Myres, Oxford, 1986.

(2) EPNS On-line survey: Tealby, North Walshcroft Wapentake, North Riding, Lindsey, Lincolnshire.

(3) Tealby, the Taifali and the end of Roman Lincolnshire, Caitlin R. Green, writing as Thomas Green, Lincolnshire History & Archaeology Vol. 46, 2011.

(4) EPNS On-line survey: Tealby, North Walshcroft Wapentake, North Riding, Lindsey, Lincolnshire.

(5) Gervaise of Tilbury (Otia Imperialia); EPNS On-line survey; Vandlebury, Stapleford, Thriplow Hundred, Cambridgeshire.

(6) Ducatus Leodiensis, Ralph Thoresby, 1715.

(7) Thoroton Society Quarterly Newsletter No. 106, N.Molyneux, 2021.

(8) Ethnonyms as Toponyms: The Case of Vandals in Late Antique Britain A.D. 350 to 700, D.J. Windell,, 2018.

(9) The Origins of Cambridgeshire, S. Oosthuizen, The Antiquaries Journal, Vol.78, No. 1, 1998.

(10) EPNS On-line Survey: Saxon Street & Saxon Hall, Woodditton, Cheveley Hundred, Cambridgeshire.

(11) EPNS On-line Survey: Swavesey, Papworth Hundred, Cambridgeshire;

(12) EPNS On-line survey: Grantchester, Wetherley Hundred, Cambridgeshire. (13) & (14) The English Settlements, J.N.L. Myres, Oxford, 1986.

(15) Anglo-Saxon England, Sir Frank Stenton (3rd Edn.), Oxford, 1971.