What’s in a Name?
Wistow, like the majority of place-names in England today, is an Anglo Saxon place-name and means ‘the dwelling place’ in Old English (the language spoken by the Anglo Saxons).
It would seem from that simple description that Wistow was not a very important or notable place, but it is the very simplicity of the description that indicates how important Wistow was. The Anglo Saxons were very specific in their descriptions of places and the fact that Wistow was simply called the place meant it was very significant indeed in the local area. It did not need to be explicitly defined as the ‘woodland clearing frequented by ravens’ (Raveley) or the ‘farmstead by a strip of land’ (Ripton). It was just ‘the dwelling place’ and everyone around would know exactly where that place was.
Wistow (spelt Wicstoue in a document of 974) is derived from two words:
Wic – Adopted from the Latin vicus, wic is a British word which could mean a number of things e.g. a place which had earlier been a Romano-British settlement; a dwelling, a specialised farm or building like a dairy farm; a trading or industrial settlement or a harbour
Stow – An Old English word indicating a special place e.g. an assembly place or a holy place
A vicus was a provincial civilian settlement that grew close to a nearby Roman military base. A spontaneous, opportunist endeavour with the purpose of catering to the needs of the soldiers and profiting from the troops who had little else to distract them when off duty. Unplanned, and originally lacking any public administrative buildings, these settlements started off with the lowest legal status accorded to built-up areas, but developed into communities and later into permanent towns.
If Wistow was once a settlement like this, we need to find out if there could have been a Roman base nearby. Bury is the likely candidate. The name Bury comes from burh meaning ‘fortified place’ or ‘stronghold’ and is often the indicator of Roman or prehistoric fortifications.
There is further physical evidence of Roman and/or Romano-British occupation at Wistow itself. The Archsearch website has in its catalogue the following entries for Wistow:
- Crop marks of a complex of rectilinear and curvilinear enclosures, probably of Prehistoric or Roman date
- A number of Romano British cist burials from the Roman period were found at Wistow Hill Farm between 1840 and 1860. Each grave contained a skeleton, a vessel and sometimes an Iron Object inside
- A Romano British settlement with pits, possible hut sites and coins
The Romano-British started off as a diverse group of tribes in Britain who were conquered and then assimilated into the Roman Empire. Roman businessmen and officials came to Britannia to settle and troops from all across the Empire were garrisoned in Roman towns. Some of these Romans brought their families with them. Some, however, intermarried with the local Britons creating a hybrid culture. The Romano-British are Romanised Britons, living under the rule of the Roman Empire, exposed to its culture and way-of-life, both during its occupation and in the years after the Roman departure. So what starts off as Roman or British becomes Romano-British as time goes on.
Taking all this into account it seems safe to conclude that the wic in Wicstoue did indeed refer to a Romano-British settlement, which may formerly have been a Roman vicus. The distinctive crop marks point again to Roman occupation and give a tantalising suggestion that maybe there were even people living here in a pre-historic version of Wistow.
In the 10th century Wistow was also known as Kingstune. Tun, the root of tune and ton, is the most common Old English term used to describe habitation and originally meant ‘enclosure’ or ‘farmstead’. Later it came to mean ‘village’ and ‘hamlet’ as well. Prefixing the name with Kings merely notes that the farm belonged to the King as opposed to any other landowner; in the same way as Kings Ripton and Abbots Ripton indicate ownership by the King or the Abbot at Ramsey Abbey. The Ramsey Chronicle or Cartulery mentions that in 974 Oswald, Archbishop of York and friend of Aylwin, founder of Ramsey Abbey, purchased Kingstune id est Wicstoue (id est means ‘that is’ in Latin) from King Edgar and then presented it to the abbey. This could simply be telling us that the King’s farm at Wistow was gifted to the Abbot and implies that perhaps Kingstune was a description as opposed to the actual name for Wistow. Either way the name did not stick and Wistow prevailed, despite a brief reappearance as Kingston in the 13th Century.
“What’s in a name?” you might ask and the answer would have to be “Quite a lot actually”.
The fact that Wistow is derived from Old English tells us that there was an Anglo Saxon settlement here. Part of the name suggests that there may well previously have been a settlement in Roman times that grew in order to cater for the needs of the troops at the local fortified base at Bury. We also have irrefutable archaeological evidence, in the form of Romano-British burial finds, which proves that there was occupation here in Roman times. The Romano-British lived side-by-side with the Romans and remained here even after the Romans had left our shores. All this knowledge means we can safely say that there has been a community in Wistow living off the land for many unbroken centuries. The Anglo Saxon name clearly tells us that Wistow was an important centre, a special place so well known that it did not need a specific descriptive name to set it apart from the others.
- Oxford Dictionary of Place Names by A.D. Mills (Oxford University Press)
- A History of Huntingdonshire by Michael Wickes (1985 revised 1995 – Published by Phillimore)
- Leaflet on Wistow by Mac Simpson
- Archsearch website