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T E Davies continues his piece on early Medieval Dorset, much of which may also relate to Wiltshire…

Further evidence that British communities continued into the seventh and possibly eighth centuries exists at Lady St.Mary Church in Wareham. There are a group of stones with inscriptions that are Celtic and are cut into Romano-British limestone fragments. The inscriptions seem to postdate the Saxon takeover of Dorset and suggest a strong British Christian community surviving in the Purbeck region. See below…

A cursory look at books on English place-names will show that the vast majority of such place-names outside Cornwall, South-West Hereford and parts of one or two other border counties are of Old English or Later English origin. This is sometimes taken to indicate that Germanic immigration was substantial and that a large degree of continuity of the British population was unlikely. However once the English language became fully established all new place-names would be English and it is known that a degree of place name changes took place altering earlier Old English and British names. In fact there are still many instances of whole or part British place names in Wessex.  For example there are the following : Andover, Chitterne, Dorchester, Pentridge, Idover, Chittoe, Penselwood and Wilton.

The last mentioned is the town on the Wylye. River names tend to survive better than place names and river names of British origin include of course Wylye, Kennet, Frome and Avon. Avon comes from Afon, the British or Welsh name for a river. There is no ‘v’ in Welsh, the letter f has the English v sound. The English f sound requires ff in Welsh. Below is a map of Dorset showing the locations of places with probable or possible British elements in their names.[1] Note that the British language known as Brittonic is the ancestor language of Welsh and Cornish and it is generally accepted that Brittonic was spoken throughout what is now England and Wales prior to the introduction of Anglo-Saxon. However Latin, a written language of course, was also spoken especially by the ruling and wealthier classes. 

From the historical, archaeological and place-name evidence it is safe to assume that there was substantial continuity of the British population into the Anglo-Saxon period. Following the conquest the early English language gradually spread all over the region such that by the time of Alfred, King of Wessex, there was no distinction between the English and Welsh in his laws.  In recent years DNA  studies are being carried out based on Y chromosomes (men, father to son) and micro chondrial genes (women, mother to daughter). Such studies should add to our understanding of possible population movements and continuity in this very interesting period of our history.

[1] Figure 5 Dorset pre-English Place-Names or Elements. MA dissertation ‘The Fate of the British Inhabitants of Dorset in the early middle ages.’ Thomas Eric Davies, Winchester, 2002.

This is a useful place to start on Celtic and British language and here for information on the development of English. Thank you Eric for an informative and thought-provoking piece.