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Six Hills, Leicestershire -
a possible Anglo-Saxon moot site

Bob Trubshaw

Six Hills, on the Fosse Way at the historic boundary of Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire, offers tantalising and confusing hints of Anglo-Saxon activities.

The confusion commences with the name 'Six Hills'. There are no hills here, rather a plateau-like area just over 350 feet above sea level. On early maps the name is shown as 'Seggs (or Segs) Hill' (note singular). Various antiquarian commentators have proposed that 'seggs' is a corruption of a supposed dialect word for 'sheep'.

H.S.A. Fox drew attention to the unusual spoke-like pattern of parish boundaries which have their hub at Six Hills, with the area in the immediate vicinity of Six Hills being extra-parochial (until parish boundaries were 'tidied up' at the end of the nineteenth century) [1]. Willoughby on the Wolds is in Nottinghamshire, the other seven parishes are in Leicestershire. Kingston Brook, which forms the boundary between Willoughby and Wymeswold, is also the county boundary; although of indirect interest the boundary between the present-day Sees of Canterbury and York. Before the boundary changes of 1974 the situation was slightly different to the present arrangement, as a finger of Nottinghamshire (the land between the Fosse Way and Kingston Brook) stretched down to Six Hills.

Six Hills with local place-names

Not a lot to see now

Today at Six Hills there is a small wood extending into an area of scrub regenerating into woodland; a modern hotel, The Six Hills Hotel, which replaces earlier inns on the site; a road interchange linking the dual-carriageway A46 (Fosse Way) with the B676, and a lane running south-west to Barrow on Soar. There is no village at Six Hills, only isolated farms, and the villages associated with the eight parishes are all situated towards the 'rim' of the wheel-like arrangement.

The lane to Barrow, together with the continuation of the B676 running north-east and on, as an unclassified road, to the Belvoir escarpment, follows the route of an ancient trackway, known as the Saltway, which was almost certainly used as a Roman road. The present-day Fosse Way was definitely a major Roman road from Leicester to Newark on Trent and occupies the high ground of the ridge to the south of Six Hills and is also a probable prehistoric track, later engineered into a Roman highway [2]. The B676 running west to Burton on the Wolds may be comparatively recent.

Six Hills, therefore, is at the crossroads of two tracks, both almost certainly pre-Roman in origin and in use during the Roman occupation. Although not systematically maintained as they would have been during the Roman period, these routes remained in use during the Anglo-Saxon and Viking periods through to the medieval period and beyond, although we know that by the eighteenth century the Fosse Way had become severely neglected along much of its length. It is reasonable to suppose that the east-west route, and perhaps also the Fosse Way, remained in use as drovers' routes in the post-medieval period. The presence of a substantial area of extra-parochial land would allow animals to be grazed overnight, with the Kingston Brook meeting the needs for water. The nineteenth century inn at Six Hills was known until recent years as the Durham Ox, a name which might reflect its earlier use by drovers.

Parishes radiating from Six Hills

Six Hills with local place-names and 350 feet contour line.

Anglo-Saxon moot mounds

The radial arrangement of parishes around Six Hills strongly suggests that the centre had particular significance and was perhaps the moot site for administration. Unfortunately there is no other evidence for regarding the parishes as a 'unit' and we must assume that the present arrangement came into existence no earlier than the seventh or eighth century. This could be interpreted as a continuation of a Roman or even pre-Roman land unit but there is no other evidence in north Leicestershire or south Nottinghamshire for such continuity (although between Newark and Lincoln the Fosse Way cuts through a series of parish land units, suggesting that the road post-dates the unit(s) that later became parishes.

The presence of a mound at the meeting place is not surprising. As observed by Margaret Gelling, 'It now appears that the Anglo-Saxons were accustomed to construct artificial mounds which would serve as markers for meeting-places' [4]. The best evidence for this comes from Buckinghamshire, where a known medieval moot mound was excavated, in advance of the construction of central Milton Keynes. According to the excavation report [5] there was no direct or indirect evidence of burials and the only purpose could have been as a meeting place for the court of the hundred. Eleven other Anglo-Saxon mounds without burials have been excavated, seven of these have names ending in '-low'.

Many hundred names end in '-low' (from the Old English hlaw meaning 'mound'), suggesting that their original meeting places (now lost) were at a special hlaw or mound [6] – just as even more hundred names end in '-tre' or '-tree', also suggesting a significant landmark as the customary meeting place.

The moot site for the local Anglo-Saxon administration, Goscote Hundred, has never been satisfactorily located [7]. Goscote Hundred included, with other parishes, all the Leicestershire parishes focused on Six Hills. It later split into separate East and West Goscote Hundreds.

Place-name clues

Interestingly, the Milton Keynes mound was known as Secklow, but also spelt 'Seg(g)low'. From Segg Low to Seggs Hill is but a small step for place-names and would seem to offer indirect support for the presence of a moot mound at Seggs Hill, i.e. Six Hills. The word 'seg' (or 'segg' or 'seggs') is best considered a corruption of an Anglo-Saxon personal names Segga or Secca. Sir Frank Markham states without any supporting argument that Secklow derives from the Old English for 'warrior's low' [8].

The time-honoured place-name authority, Ekwall, offers only three place-names of relevance. Seckington (just over the Leicestershire border in modern Warwickshire but historically Staffordshire) and Seckford (Suffolk) are derived from Secca's (personal name) dun and Secca's ford [9].

In Northumberland there is the close parallel of Seghill, which Ekwall derives from *sige, a possible stream name meaning slow moving [10]. Given the close proximity of Kingston Brook this appears to fit, although there is no conspicuous natural hill.

More interesting still, the Old English secg is a frequently-used word for sword and used in various compounds, such as secg-rof, meaning a host of (sword-bearing) men. The viking term for Hundred was Wapentake, which translates as 'show of weapons'. It is still current practice in the Swiss farming town of Appenzel, at an annual meeting of all townspeople, that only the men may vote – and only then if they are wearing a sword. Is this a shadow of a practice which one appertained at wapentakes?

Given the nature of Anglo-Saxon and Viking moots implied in the word wapentake then Seggs Hill may be a corruption of 'secg hill', implying a moot mound used for meetings of sword-bearing men. Sir Frank Markham may have, unwittingly, been closer to the truth than be supposed at first sight.

Pagan shrines around Six Hills

Place-name evidence brings out some other intriguing aspects to Six Hills. Just along the B676 to the west of Six Hills can be found Harrow Farm (129:616216). Although this could be a recent appellation derived from the common agricultural implement, there seem to be very few examples of farms named after such a common item. An older origin is suggested when it is noted that one of the medieval great fields of Wymeswold is recorded as 'Arrow Field' [11]. The small watercourse known now grandly as the River Mantle has its source close by and the upper reaches were once known as the River Arrow. Harrow Farm is on the edge of the Arrow Field and close to the source of the river (616216).

'Harrow' place-names raise considerable controversy but in a number of instances can be confirmed to derive from the Old English hearg, 'pagan shrine' or 'temple' [12]. David Wilson has argued that a typical hearg site 'occupied a prominent position on high land and was a communal place of worship for a specific group of people, a tribe or a folk group, perhaps at particular times of year.' [13] Although Harrow Farm and the Arrow Field are not 'prominent' from the Six Hills direction they are on a wide spur of land which has good views towards Charnwood and the west. Wilson's suggestion that hearg were communal places of worship fits in well with the notion of Six Hills being a moot site. Harrow Farm is over a mile-and-a-half from Six Hills, but the original hearg which gave its name to the Arrow Field may have been closer to the crossroads – perhaps at the source of the River Arrow/Mantle or on a locally-prominent rise.

The parish adjoining both Wymeswold and Willoughby is Wysall (604272). This has been consistently regarded by place-name scholars as embodying the Old English weoh, also meaning 'pagan shrine' or 'temple'. (A further example of weoh can also be found in north Leicestershire, at Wyfordby; 793189.) Wilson finds differences between heorg and weoh sites. 'Although some [weoh sites] are on high land, it was clearly not obligatory for them to be so. . . . They also differ from hearg sites in that the majority of them are situated very close to ancient routeways, never as much as a mile away, and usually virtually alongside.' [14] Wilson himself notes that Wysall is about three miles from the Fosse Way, although 12 out of 16 examples he discusses fall within a mile of a Roman road.

Wilson considers that some of these weoh sites were in personal ownership, or were an individual's responsibility. 'It seems likely that, in contrast to the hill-top, tribal association of the hearg, the weoh was a small, wayside shrine, accessible to the traveller.' [15]

The church at Wysall sits on a distinct mound in the centre of the small settlement and is the most likely candidate for the site of the weoh. In accordance with Wilson's expectations, it is not on high or prominent ground.

The Great Sacred Grove

There is also have evidence for an important prehistoric sacred site and an Anglo-Saxon successor just at the edge of the 'wheel' of parishes encircling Six Hills. Northwards along the Fosse Way, at the post-1974 county boundary, is another crossroads (649252). This is almost certainly the location of the Roman town of Vernemetum, although no extensive archaeological fieldwork has been so far undertaken. A rescue dig in 1964-68, in advance of the construction of an overbridge, revealed a late-fifth to early-seventh century Anglo-Saxon inhumation cemetery which, in part, both abuts and overlies the original Roman road surface [16]. The Anglo-Saxon burials some high status individuals, with the most prestigious being buried with a horse, a funearary ritual restricted to Anglian areas of middle and eastern England.

Evidence of Roman occupation was present but it is very doubtful if the area excavated represents the main settlement. There was a small burial mound, the Crosshill tumulus (now under the overbridge). Dating was difficult but probably the mound is also Anglo-Saxon. Although clear evidence of secondary burials were present at this mound, they could be the remains of medieval felons executed on the gallows which is known to have stood on the mound. If this is indeed the case, then the original mound would seem to have been non-sepulchral, as with Secklow.

Some significance should be given to the liminal nature of the this cemetery. This seems to be two-fold. Firstly, the Roman Fosse Way seems to be acting as a boundary for the cemetery on the west; secondly, the site is on the northern 'rim' of the 'wheel' of parishes encircling Six Hills. In the pagan Anglo-Saxon period, indeed also in the iron age, burials and religious sites are normally found in the border areas between tribes or communities. Those individuals buried at Vernemetum may, therefore, have lived in settlements within the Six Hills 'wheel'. However, apart from three burials to the west of the present village of Wymeswold, there is little or no evidence of other Anglo-Saxon burial or settlement in this area.

What is more interesting is the derivation of the name Vernemetum. This translates as 'great (or especially) sacred grove' and must refer to an iron age sacred site in the vicinity. Again, no other evidence of iron age activity is known in the vicinity. However, studies of iron age shrines elsewhere have revealed that these tend to be located on boundaries between tribal areas [17].

Nichols informs us that the ruins of an Anglo-Saxon church had been visible near here, at a place known as 'The Wells' [18]. Recent discoveries of a substantial number of decorated Anglo-Saxon strap ends, from a frequently-damp part of the field, appear to point to the probable location of the burials associated with this church. The fairly-regular spacing of known early Anglo-Saxon minster churches in Leicestershire leaves a gap in the north of the county – it has already been suggested that the church at Vernemetum fulfilled the function of the 'missing' minster [18].

It is unclear whether the Anglo-Saxon church site continues the sanctity of the iron age grove. There seems no compelling reason to suppose any break and, given the association with a natural spring, the recent finds of Anglo-Saxon strap ends may be sufficient evidence for supposing this to be also the iron age Great Sacred Grove.

Despite all these tantalising clues of interesting activities in the 'wheel' of parishes around Six Hills, there is no direct evidence that it was used as a moot site.

Acknowledgements

Jill Bourne has requested not be credited as co-author of this article, although many of the ideas emerged during a lecture given by her to the Wolds Historical Organisation in 1991 and have been developed during several subsequent discussions. I am particularly grateful for her comments on an earlier draft of this article. Nevertheless, we may not be in full agreement over some of the more speculative ideas presented here!

Bob Jarrett also played a helpful part in initial discussions on this topic. Gavin Kingsley, Peter Liddle and Alec Moretti provided valuable unpublished information.

References

1: H.S.A. Fox, 'The people of the wolds in English settlement history' in M. Aston, D. Austin and C. Dyer (eds), The rural settlements of medieval England, Blackwell, 1989
2: P. Russell, 'Roads' in Victoria County History: Leicester, Vol.3, Oxford University Press, 1955
3: W. Stukeley, Itinerarium curiosum, London, 1724
4: M. Gelling, The West Midlands in the early middle ages, Leicester University Press, 1992
5: R.A. Adkins and M.R. Petchey, 'Secklow hundred mound and other meeting place mounds in England', in Archaeological Journal, 141, 243-51, 1984
6: Gelling op. cit.
7: B. Cox, B., 'Leicestershire moot sites: the place-name evidence', Transactions of the Leicestershire Archaeological and Historical Society Vol.XLVII, 1971-2, p14-21.
8: F. Markham, A history of Milton Keynes and district, Vol.1, White Crescent Press, Luton, 1972; A history of Milton Keynes and district, Vol.2, White Crescent Press, Luton, 1975.
9: E. Ekwall, The concise Oxford dictionary of English place-names, 4th Edn, OUP, 1960
10: ibid.
11: A. Moretti pers. comm
12: M. Gelling, Signposts to the past, (2nd edn), Phillimore, 1988; and Gelling op. cit.
13: D. Wilson, Anglo-Saxon paganism, Routledge, 1992
14: ibid.
15: ibid.
16: A.G. Kingsley, Broughton Lodge. Excavations on the Romano-British settlement and Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Broughton Lodge, Willoughby-on-the-Wolds, Nottinghamshire, 1964-8, Nottingham Archaeological Monographs No.4, University of Nottingham, 1993
17: A. Ross, Pagan celtic Britain, RKP, 1967
18: J. Nichols, The history and antiquities of the county of Leicester, Vol.II Pt 1, London, 1795
19: Peter Liddle pers. comm.

Originally published in Mercian Mysteries No.23 May 1995.
A shorter version appeared in the WHO Newsletter 2000.

Copyright the author.

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