Articles from the Thoroton Society Newsletter

Willow Worship in Willoughby on the Wolds?

By Nick Molyneux

Willoughby on the Wolds sits just inside the southern border of Nottinghamshire with Leicestershire. Before local government boundary changes took place, the parish and county boundary ended in a sharp south-facing gore, giving Willoughby and Nottinghamshire access to Six Hills. Quite why this boundary should make such a striking southward detour is uncertain but clearly at some point it was important for both counties to have access to Six Hills.

Roman Vernemetum

Running just to the east of the modern village of Willoughby on the Wolds is the major Roman road, the Fosse Way, still in use today as the A46 dual-carriageway. The Roman station at Willoughby was called Vernemetum, a name derived from the British, the prefix *uer- with nemeton, meaning either “very sacred grove” or “great sacred grove” (1).

The nemet, or nemeton, occurs frequently across the Celtic world and refers to both natural sacred groves and artificial constructions. The term may also refer to the entity which personifies the grove, be they male or female. Other known examples from our immediate region include the Roman name for Buxton Aquae Arnemetiae, the “Waters of Arnemetia”, who is a female deity personifying the nemeton. A dedication slab from Nettleham, Lincolnshire refers to the male deity Mars Rigonemetos, the “King of the Sanctuary”. The Buxton example may also point to a broader connection with water and the Rivers Mole and Yeo in Devon were once known as Nymet / Nemet (2), which survives in the place-names Nymet Rowland, Nymet Tracey and Broadnymett. 

Willoughby and the Willow

Whilst the term “wold” had come to mean open, uncultivated upland by C13 (3), its origins are cognate with the German wald for large woodland and the southern English woodland name, the Weald. If trees played a significant role in the nemeton, perhaps the use of “wold” in its original sense around Willoughby confirms that the ritual area was then more heavily wooded than today and was likely to have covered a large area.

Willoughby on the Wolds is first recorded as the name Willebi in Domesday (1086), the “Willow farm” (4). The importance of the willow, a tree often associated with water, to the area around Six Hills is reflected in its appearance in a number of recorded place-names, which include Sallowes  (1617) and Willow Pool Plot (1685) [Old Dalby] (5), Willow Row (1808) [Nether Broughton] (6), The Sallow Watering (1759) and the Willow Tree (1971) [Wymeswold] (7). The Willows (Wilges,1086) was a Domesday village (between Ragdale and Hoby, surviving in a C19 estate name) (8). Della Hooke notes that references to Willow and Sallow together represent 9.3% of the trees mentioned in pre-1100 place-names and locations in Anglo-Saxon charters nationally, whereas thorn represents 25% (9). Yet around Six Hills, village and minor place-names associated with willow have a much higher frequency than Hooke’s national figure and are on a par with those referring to the thorn. Assuming the Roman station was on, or very close to, the ritual space (and without going too Wicker Man (10)), perhaps the sacred grove was devoted to the willow tree?

The Anglo-Saxon Temple Sites

The area to the north and west of the Fosse Way at Six Hills is also unusual in that it appears to have had three different Anglo-Saxon terms for a “temple site” surviving in close proximity to one another and in the general area of the Romano-British nemeton.

Cameron (11) and Gelling (12) both suggest that Wysall (Wisoc, 1086) may contain the Anglo-Saxon elements weoh, meaning pagan shrine or temple and hoh to give “shrine on the hill-spur”. The English Place-name Survey (EPNS) is less certain and prefers to remain non-committal “This name is perhaps best left unexplained in view of the difficulty of the early forms.” (13)

The presence of an Anglo-Saxon “harrow” (hearg) temple site is suggested by Harrow Farm (1944) and Arrow Leas Close (1625) (Burton on the Wolds) (14) and Arrow Field as Horrou and Horrousiche (1212) in Wymeswold (15). Cameron explains that the term hearg usually referred to a communal religious site, whereas the weoh was more likely to be akin to a wayside shrine, perhaps personally owned by an individual (16).

However, Sarah Semple’s 2007 study of “harrow” place-names in southern England considers the possibility that the Anglo-Saxon term hearg refers to a ritual landscape of considerable antiquity, recognising the continuous nature of ritual use and importance, rather than a specific type of Anglo-Saxon temple. Semple even goes so far as to suggest that the word may have had a very specific Christian context as a word describing a landscape with a known pre-Christian ritual past (17). If that is so, the description of the area to the west of Six Hills as a “harrow” would seem to be a fitting one. 

Perhaps most intriguing is the presence of the term alh in the now lost Alfletford (1292) and Alhthorne (C13) in Wymeswold (18), also meaning temple or shrine (19). If Semple’s view is right, the alh here may describe a specific sanctuary within the wider hearg landscape.

Groves Galore

There are a number of other references to groves in the area which may have had ritual significance for both the nemeton and hearg. The Wolds village-name Seagrave (Setgraue,1086) means the pit or pool (seath) grove  (20), possibly combining the Celtic and Germanic pagan associations of ritual groves and watery places. Seagrave also had a holy well (Haliwell, 1241) and a stream with the British river-name “Severn” recorded in field-names, seuerne wong (C13) (21) and in Severn Acre in neighbouring Walton on the Wolds (22). Other place-name evidence for a significant British survival in the area of the nemeton is strong and hopefully this may be covered in a later article.

The “Barrow” in Barrow-on-Soar is derived from bearu, another Anglo-Saxon term for grove. EPNS notes that in 1314 Barrow had a “willow dale” (le Wyluwes doles) and in 1474 a “willow enclosure” called wilynghaw  (wiligen + haga), a South Willoes and in 1481 a Northwillodole (23). Could these refer to traces of the site of the original bearu? It is also worth noting that Nether Broughton has Le Lund (1316), from the Scandinavian lundr, meaning “grove” (24), adding a later layer of Danish paganism to the ritual mix.

This spread of grove-related names may confirm that the area covered by the original “great grove” of Vernemeton was quite considerable indeed, perhaps from the high ground around Six Hills and the Fosse Way down to the River Soar. The implied continuity of ritual use of the British nemeton landscape to the Anglo-Saxon pagan hearg and the survival of British place-names may also suggest that those with a British cultural identity had retained some of their own pre-Christian beliefs and traditions.

Prestwold and local church dedications

There is currently little, if any, surviving evidence for Roman or sub-Roman Christianity in the area. It may be possible that the place-name Prestwold originally referred to clerics of the British church prior to the conversion of Anglo-Saxon Mercia. If Prestwold has a connection to the British church, perhaps this is indicative of the Anglo-Saxon hearg being a shared ritual space capable of use by different belief systems at the same time.

Graham Jones has suggested that the dedication of St. Bartholomew at Quarndon may be drawing upon the apostle’s reputation as a “legendary appropriator of temples for Christian worship”. As Quarndon was a chapelry of Barrow-on-Soar, the dedication may have had particular relevance if the bearu giving rise to Barrow had been the site of heathen worship (25).

Alternatively, if the settlement name of Prestwold (Prestuualde; 1086) (26) originally referred to priests of the fledgeling Merican church, then it may be a recognition that an area of longstanding ritual activity required close supervision during the conversion. The church at Prestwold is dedicated to St. Andrew, a saint associated “with mission and baptism” (27) and a favourite of the energetic conversion-period cleric St. Wilfrid. Wilfrid was in exile in Mercia in the years 691 to 702 and acted as bishop and advisor to the Mercian king Aethelred, perhaps serving as Bishop of Leicester until 706 (28). If this dedication to St. Andrew is an old one, it is tempting to see Wilfred’s hand at Prestwold in seeking to prevent an area with a significant pagan past slipping back into old ways, be they pagan or British Christian.

A Common Land Cursus?

There is another feature of the Wolds area which may have some connection to the ritual landscape. Burton Common is a wide and impressive strip of common land which straddles the Six Hills to Burton road, now apparently ending on the ridge by Harrow Farm. This feature may be a mediaeval drove road but if laid out in earlier times, was it part of a planned landscape linking Six Hills with the focus of the hearg site? It may be a step too far to claim Burton Common as a “processional way” but its layout is at least an intriguing coincidence.

Supernatural Features

Burton on the Wolds also has an interesting supernatural reference in the “Dragon Stone” (Drakestan, 1212) (29). The lime pits of Barrow on Soar became a centre for reptile fossil discovery in the second half of C19, including the plesiosaur Rhomaleosaurus megacephalus (“strong lizard with big head”), so is it possible that Burton’s Drakestan may have been a stone “dragon” in fossil form? In Burton too was the Tralleswellehul (1212) (30), which may mean “troll’s (or slave’s?) stream hill”. Perhaps these supernatural places had a direct connection to the nemeton or the hearg, or perhaps formed part of later folk-memory associated with the old ritual landscape.


The Wolds place-name evidence spanning the Roman to the Mercian conversion period is highly suggestive of a ritual landscape with a continuing significance for local people for at least 600 years. In 2016 an archaeological dig in Rothley confirmed the ongoing re-use of a Bronze Age barrow, perhaps dating to 2,000 BC, through the Iron Age and Roman periods to become the focus of an Anglo-Saxon cemetery (31). So, we have recent archaeological evidence nearby which confirms the reuse and repurposing of local ritual spaces. 

The presence of place-names referring to the willow in the area around Vernemetum may suggest a connection between the tree and a succession of British, Roman, Anglo-Saxon and Danish ritual groves.

Did they worship the willow in Willoughby on the Wolds?   

Bibliography & References

Anglo-Saxon England, 3rd Edn. 1971, Sir Frank Stenton, The Oxford History of England (28);

Bosworth Toller’s Anglo-Saxon Dictionary Online, (19);

Bronze Age barrow and Anglo-Saxon cemetery discovered at Rothley, University of Leicester News, 21st July 2016, (31);

Defining the Old English “hearg”, Sarah Semple, 2007, Early Medieval Europe 2007 15 (4), (17);

EPNS On-line Survey, Rushcliffe Wapentake, South Division, Nottinghamshire, Willoughby on the Wolds (4);

EPNS On-line Survey, Framland Hundred, Leicestershire, Old Dalby, Broughton and Old Dalby, (5);  Nether Broughton, Broughton & Old Dalby (6) & (24);

EPNS On-line Survey, Wymeswold, East Goscote Hundred, Leicestershire, Wymeswold (7) & (15) & (18); Ragdale, Hoby with Rotherby, (8); Burton on the Wolds (14); Seagrave (20) & (21); Walton on the Wolds (22); Barrow on Soar (23); Prestwold (26)

English Place Names, Kenneth Cameron, 1996, B.T. Batsford Ltd, London, (3) & (11) & (16);

Signposts to the Past, Margaret Gelling, 1978 reprint 2005, Phillimore & Co., Chichester, (12);

Trees in Anglo-Saxon England, Della Hooke, 2013, The Boydell Press (9);

The Origins of Leicestershire: churches, territories and landscape, Graham Jones (25) & (27);

The Place-names of Nottinghamshire, J.E.B. Gover, Allen Mawer & F.M. Stenton, 1940 reprinted 1999, EPNS, Nottingham, (13);

The Place-names of Roman Britain, A.L.F. Rivet & Colin Smith, 1979, University Press, Cambridge, (1) & (2);

The Wicker Man (1973); film directed by Robin Hardy; British Lion Films, (10).

Note 1: As well as the willow presumably used to make the sacrificial “wicker man”, the character played by actress Britt Ekland was Willow MacGregor);

Note 2: for those looking for an easy but informative read regarding the Six Hills area, former Wymeswold resident Bob Trubshaw covers much of the above and more in his online offering The Especially Sacred Grove; Six Hills and Vernemetum, Leicestershire, 2020, Heart of Albion, Wymeswold.