Etymology & Origins
As a surname, the first documented use of Threlkeld was in 1292.
What can the etymology of the name tell us about its early history?
thraell keld
Old Norse dithematic combining forms of "Threlkeld."
Click image to view full size.

We have a luxury many other One-Name Studies do not: we know precisely where, if not exactly when, the surname originated.

In the scheme of things, the concept of a surname—an extra name that signified alliance by the bearer with a specific family, tribe or clan, community, occupation or guild, etc.—is quite recent in Western culture. Although it began to gain popularity during the rule of the Roman Empire, and spread through parts of the Mediterranean and Western Europe as a result, after the fall of Rome in the 5th century and the start of the Middle Ages, Germanic, Frankish, Persian, and Scandinavian influences took hold and the practice of a surname waned.

During the late Middle Ages, the use of surnames in Western Europe began gradually to re-emerge. At first, this took the form of a "byname": a modifier or adjectival name useful to distinguish one individual from another when neither was present. These often took the form of an occupational descriptor (a smith, hunter, or miller), or a personal descriptor (like younger, swift, or whitehead).

In Britannia, true surnames—meaning a family name adopted and passed down unchanged to subsequent generations—were seldom used at all prior to 1100. In part this was due to the patronymic naming traditions in Wales, Ireland, and Scotland, traditions that persisted into the 1500s, and in part by the occupation of the Saxons, Angles, and Jutes on the heels of the Romans' 5th century departure, and then the Norse invasion of 865. At the time, Neither the Angles, Saxons, nor the Scandinavians used fixed surnames.

Europe in 476
A map of Europe and the Near East in 476
at the fall of the Western Roman Empire.
Click image to view full size.

Britain has been nothing if not a melting pot of occupiers. To put this into a perspective of linguistics, today's speakers of English would have been facing a completely foreign language had we tried to communicate with the founders of the Village of Threlkeld.

When Claudius dispatched four legions to invade Britain in 43 AD, that the period of Roman occupation began. Despite a rule of 500 years, spoken and written Classical and Late Latin had less immediate influence on what we know as English than did the Anglo-Saxon occupiers that moved in after the Romans left.

That demarcation was the mid-5th century, and English has developed dynamically over the course of the intervening 1,500 years. Acceptable usage and vocabulary still changes annually; whether William Shakespeare would cheer or bemoan some of the developments, we'll never know.

The earliest forms of the language, Old English, were a set of Anglo-Frisian dialects brought to Britain by the Anglo-Saxon occupiers. Per the taxonomy of linguistic families, the parent of Anglo-Frisian is West Germanic, whose parent is Germanic, which stems from the very broad base of Indo-European. By comparison, the lineage of Classical Latin is Indo-European > Italic > Latino-Faliscan > Latin.

Of note is that areas of the islands considered to be Pictish by the Romans—specifically much of what today we know as Ireland, Scotland, and Wales—were never fully subjugated by the Roman Empire and, likewise, resisted encroachment of the Anglo-Saxons. Over the course of centuries, invaders become no longer invaders but neighbors. In time, West Germanic/Old English/Middle English cross-pollinated some word forms with the families of Insular Celtic languages: the Goidelic (Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Manx) and the Brittonic (Welsh, Cornish, Breton). In keeping with our language genealogy: Indo-European > Celtic > Insular Celtic > Goidelic. But the commingling was never as impactful to English as were the Germanic influences from Northern Europe.

Danelaw in 878
Circa 878, the Danelaw in England and the relative location of the village of Threlkeld. Click image to view full size.

The Anglo-Saxons held sway over the area that would be England for over 300 years. Norse kingdoms in Scandinavia had developed trade routes across southern Europe and the Mediterranean, and trade links extended westward into Britain and Ireland. In 793, the year that typically denotes the era of Norse activity in Britain, Viking raiders sacked multiple Christian monasteries along the east coast of England. These were not anti-Christian raids. As historian Peter Hunter Blair put it, Vikings would have been amazed "at finding so many communities which housed considerable wealth and whose inhabitants carried no arms." In other words, they were simply easy targets. These coastal raids repeated in the two subsequent years and, for much tale-telling today, the image of the Norse in England is one only of cut-and-burn violence.

The real story, however, is more complicated. Around 865, the Norse began to view Britain as a place to colonize rather than simply raid. In 866, Norse armies captured York which, with London, was a major city in Anglo-Saxon England. As a result, larger excursions began arriving on Britain's shores, with the intention of conquering land and constructing settlements. In the translated words of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the year 876, the Norse "proceeded to plough and support themselves."

In 878, the West-Saxon king, Alfred the Great, defeated the Danish warlord, Guthrum, at the Battle of Edington. Some eight years later the Danelaw was established by the formalization of the Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum. This defined the boundaries of their kingdoms with provisos for peaceful relations between the English and the Norse.

The first page of Beowulf in Cotton Vitellius A. xv. Click image to view full size.

The relationship was never truly a peaceable one among the ruling classes—as is emblematic of almost all of England's history until the 18th century—but the area defined by the Danelaw didn't constrain the Scandinavian influence. Though a run of less than 200 years, the presence of the Norse had a lasting affect through most of England and the Border Region with Scotland. No small part of this affect was on the spoken language in England.

To understand why, consider the lineage of the language the Vikings brought with them: Indo-European > Germanic > North Germanic > Old Norse > Old East Norse. Then compare that to the hybridized Anglo-Saxon Old English: Indo-European > Germanic > West Germanic > Anglo-Frisian > Anglic.

Believed to be the oldest surviving long poem in Old English, Beowulf was written by an anonymous author in a West Saxon dialect of Old English sometime around 700 to 900 AD, approximately contemporary with the Viking incursions into England. The story takes place in Scandinavia. Beowulf, a hero of the Geats (Swedes), comes to the aid of Hrothgar, the king of the Danes, who has been beset by the monster Grendel.

Old East Norse and Old English stemmed from the same Germanic roots and were, to a degree, mutually comprehensible. A Danish occupier in 950 AD would have a far, far easier time understanding Beowulf as originally written than any native English speaker today. In part, this linguistic similarity is what allowed a large volume of words and combining forms to be incorporated from Old East Norse into English just prior to the Norman conquest of England in the late 11th century, the point at which Middle English is said to have begun with influence from the French.

We don't have to look far to find impact from the period of the Danelaw in the English we speak today. In fact, the word "law" itself. Our modern English would be unrecognizable without these words adopted from Old Norse (the list is only an example, not exhaustive):

Nouns: sale cut likely
anger scrap die loose
bag seat gasp low
bait sister get meek
band skill give odd
bark skin glitter rotten
birth skirt hit scant
dirt sky lift sly
dregs slaughter raise weak
egg snare ransack wrong
fellow steak rid Prepositions:
gap thrall run till
husband thrift scare fro
cake tidings scrape Conjunction:
keel trust seem though
kid window sprint Interjections:
knife wing take hail
law Verbs: thrive wassail
leg are thrust Pronouns:
link blend want they (þæiʀ)
loan call Adjectives: their (þæiʀa)
mistake cast flat them (þæim)
race clip happy
root crawl ill

To wrap-up the linguistics history, the period referred to as Early Modern English began in the late 15th century and continued until the English Interregnum and Restoration in the late 17th century. To put the timeframe into perspective, Romeo and Juliet was first published in quarto in 1597; the King James Bible was completed and first printed in 1611, and William Shakespeare died 23 April 1616.

It was a period of rapid change, thanks largely to the printing press and to Shakespeare himself, and readers of English today are able to understand texts written late in the Early Modern English period. Items from earlier in the period, like Le Morte d'Arthur (1485), are recognizable as having Modern English roots, but may take a bit more work to comprehend.

Norman domination and the resultant prestige that came with communicating in French left us with few manuscripts written in Middle English. Most notable are the works of John Wycliffe and Geoffrey Chaucer; the first of the Canterbury Talys was published in 1387. Earlier, and written texts may be indecipherable to the average Modern English speaker, though we can find recognizable words if a document is read aloud:

"The Christmas Story" Recited in Old English: Luke Chapter 2

The influence of Scandinavian settlement and the Norse language is seen in place-names throughout England, and particularly in the north and the Midlands. Norse place-names are—as are Germanic and early Celtic names—often dithematic, meaning they consist of two otherwise unrelated stem-words or themes. So we not only see place-names comprised of two Old Norse forms, but also Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon combined. Some of the most common examples:

Example Distribution of Norse Place Names
An example of modern place names in Yorkshire of
Anglo-Saxon, Old Norse, and combined etymologies.
Click image to view full size.
  • Names ending in -by, an Old Norse stem meaning "village"; e.g., Ashby, Grimsby, Selby, Whitby. There are 210 -by place names in Yorkshire alone.
  • Names ending in -thorp, an Old Norse stem meaning "hamlet"; e.g., Cleethorpes, Mablethorpe, Moorthorpe, Scunthorpe. There are 155 -thorp place names in Yorkshire.
  • Names with a Norse first part and ending in -ton, an Anglo-Saxon stem meaning "town" or "village"; e.g., Alfreton, Braunstone, Helston, Skipton. There are 50 -ton hybrid place names in Yorkshire.

The surname Threlkeld is of definite place-name origin, and is an Old Norse dithematic form:

  • Old Norse þrǽll, "thraell"; from the Proto-Germanic þrāhilaR; from an Old Teutonic root þreh–, to run. Meaning: serfdom, a serf, or slave.
  • Old Norse kelda; cognate with Middle High German qual (German Quelle); Danish kilde. Meaning: a spring, wellspring, or fountain.

Blencathra is one of the northernmost fells in England's Lake District. Strictly speaking, Blencathra might be considered a small range rather than a single fell, constituting a few summits along a curving, three-mile ridgeline. It has comfortable, easy slopes popular with hikers on the west and north, and to the east and south a more challenging, complex array of scree and rocky crests.

An aside is that the term fell is also from Old Norse: it existed in the forms of both fell and fjall. The term generally refers to the mountains and hills of the Lake District and the Pennine Dales of northern England, in the border area of southern Scotland, the Isle of Man, and Fennoscandia, the Scandinavian peninsula. While geographers often distinguish mountains from hills at a demarcation of 2,000 feet (610 meters), there is no such distinction between fells.

Threlkeld and Blencathra
The village of Threlkeld at the base of Blencathra.
The course of Kilnhow Beck is clearly seen through the mountain.

The tallest point on Blencathra is Halls Fell Top which, at 2,848 feet (868 meters), is the third highest point in England (the others being Scafell Pike, 978 meters, and Cross Fell, 893 meters).

Several rivulets and streams (becks) originate on Blencathra which, in addition to normal rain run-off, sees snow accumulation in the winter and the resultant spring melting. The village of Threlkeld sits at the southern base of Blencathra. Kilnhow Beck runs almost through the center of town, directly past St. Mary's, the Threlkeld Church, and feeds into the River Glenderamackin a quarter-mile later, just past the A66. A third of a mile west of town is Riddings Beck, and less than that distance east is Gategill Beck. A half mile to the southwest of Threlkeld, the Glenderamackin is joined by St. John's Beck to become the River Greta, which meanders west past Keswick to feed into Derwent Water from the north.

A source of fresh water was always a determinant site selector for our early ancestors. Though steep slopes to the north limited land for agriculture, the streams, rivers, and lakes of the area around Threlkeld certainly provided ready access to water. It would also seem to explain the kelda portion of the name.

The þrǽll portion of the name is less clear. In 2013, Robert Gambles (Lake District Place Names. Kirkby Stephen, Cumbria: Hayloft Publishing Ltd. ISBN 1-904524-92-3) posited that it was likely that "thraell" was the term by which Norse settlers generally referred to the native Britons.

In support of Mr. Gambles' position, slavery in Britain was common when the Roman occupiers arrived, and remained so--depending on the strictness of your definition--until the early 19th century. The Romans found about 12% of the Briton population in slavery, and did nothing to mitigate the practice. A significant portion of the population continued in slavery through the Saxon and Norse occupations, as well.

Chattel slavery, owning humans as property, as "walking money" no different than sheep or cattle, was discontinued in the 12th century following the Norman conquest. The manorialism of England was essentially complete in the 11th century, still during the time of the Danelaw, and continued through feudalism under the Normans. The then thegn (thane or thayn in Shakespearean English, from Old English þegn, ðegn), later to be called Lord of the Manor, held serfs under conditional bondage to the manor. In exchange for fully dedicated and unquestioning labor for the thegn—typically about a third of their time, and including not just agricultural duties but toil in quarries, mines, deforestation, whatever was ordered—the serf was granted the manor's protection and the right to cultivate a small parcel of the manor's land for subsistence farming. It was not a pleasant life, but still it was a vast improvement over chattel slavery.

Once established, under William the Conqueror's England former slaves were merged into what had become the larger population of serfs and were no longer legally recognized as property. Indentured servitude was how many from England and Ireland found themselves in the colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries, serving penance for commission of sometimes major but often petty crimes. And until the Slave Trade Act of 1807, British merchants were among the most prolific participants in the Atlantic slave trade.

During the Saxon era, the term walh (derived from the same Germanic root; plural, walha) was a carryover from the Roman term volcae, their name for a Celtic tribe. The term came to be used to refer to all Celts indiscriminately. The earliest Old English speaking Anglo-Saxons came to use, from the root walh, the term wælisc when referring to all native Britons, and wēalas when referring to their lands. The term also carried the connotation of "slave" or "serf," and is the origin of the country name Wales (pre-Roman self-designated Cymru by it's own people; from the Brythonic word combrogi, meaning "fellow-countrymen," a far different etymology than wēalas). We also see the root walh in numerous English place-names, like the towns Wallasey, Wallingford, Walsall, Waltham Abbey, Waltham Cross, Walton on Thames, Walton on the Naze, and Walworth.

Considering the inculcation of Old Norse into the English vocabulary and geography, if thraell had been in common use like walh and wælisc, it might be reasonable to expect to see iterations of the term used more widely in existing place-names. A search of the UK in Google Maps using the partial strings "threl," "thral," and "thrae" return—excluding our own Threlkeld—only the following:

  • Threlfall Road, Blackpool, England, UK
  • Threlfalls Lane, Southport, England, UK
  • Thrales Close, Luton, England, UK
  • Thrales End Lane, Harpenden, England, UK
  • Thrale Road, London, England, UK
  • Thrale Street, London, England, UK

There are no matches in Scotland, Wales, or Ireland, and no matches to the "thrae" string.

A research project in progress to analyze the many variant spellings often associated with Threlkeld, groups the various names into five categories:

  • Threlkeld/Thrailkill/Threlkel
  • Threlfall/Threlfell/Threfall
  • Thirkell/Thirkettle/Thirkill
  • Threadgill/Threadgold/Treadgold
  • Surnames Not Determined Classifiable

The most closely related etymologically is Threlfall: the first component, þrǽll, is identical, and "fall" is from the aforementioned fell or fjall. Threlfall seems to have originated in what is today near Kirkham, Lancashire, about 60 miles south of Threlkeld, Cumbria. Thrale may stem from "thrall," but there seems no direct evidence of that.

Thrale is used as a surname, but is rare and is not included as a possible variant in the research project. The Thirkell/Thirkettle/Thirkill and Threadgill/Threadgold/Treadgold groupings have dissimilar etymologies and, while we welcome people with interest in those surnames to participate here, the project will show that they are not variants of Threlkeld but are separate and distinct.

First Use of Thraell
Per the Oxford English Dictionary, the first written uses of þrǽl ("thraell"; Old Norse þrǽll) in England.
Click image to view full size.

The explanation for why þrǽll ("thraell") was used as the root for the Threlkeld/Thrailkill/Threlkel and Threlfall/Threlfell/Threfall surname groupings remains a mystery.

The Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford University Press; Oxford 1978; Volume XI, p. 344) indicates that first known use of þrǽll/þrǽl in writing in England appeared about 950 AD. This corresponds with the period of the Danelaw (886 through 1066), and the assumption that the name Threlkeld was first used in or near that timeframe.

There have been human settlements around the area of Threlkeld for about 5,000 years. Below what's called Threlkeld Knotts are the remnants of a substantial Early Bronze Age settlement with some 40 hut circles, as well as the enclosures above the old, now closed quarry. The "Knotts" portion of the name is another Old Norse derivation: knǫttr, meaning a ball, or hard round mass.

Panorama of Castlerigg Stone Circle. Click image to view full size.

Even older is the stone circle at Castlerigg, two miles southwest of the village of Threlkeld (54.60281 Latitude, -3.098415 Longitude), on the way to Keswick. Part of a megalithic tradition of such circles that lasted from 3300 to 900 BC, the Castlerigg Stone Circle is believed to have been built around 3200 BC, making it centuries older than Stonehenge and one of the earliest stone circles in Britain.

The first written use of the name Threlkeld—held at the British Museum—is reference to a priest called Randulf at Threlkeld in 1220. Referring to it as a church or chapelry at that time have been generous: the area was never very populous and the original structure was no doubt quite modest. Threlkeld seems to have been be the oldest chapelry in the Diocese of Carlisle. In its early years it was part of the parish of Greystoke, which served ten hamlets, only four of which had chapels: Threlkeld, Matterdale, Mungrisdale, and Watermillock.

Whether or not the original was on the same site, there has been a chapel at the current location beside Kilnhow Beck since at least 1341. It was demolished in 1776 and a new building erected on the site in 1777. In 1911 the church, St. Mary's, was restored, notably the flooring and interior woodwork. Local materials from Threlkeld Quarry were used for the tiling and font. Church registries date from 1572, and can offer a glimpse into life in Threlkeld over the centuries, including records of marriage contracts.

The first documented use of Threlkeld as a surname was in 1292 by a Henry de Threlkeld. He was described as being Sheriff of Westmorland however, as clarified by William Jackson in his July 1887 presentation to the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian Society (available in our Assets & Archives area), he was probably Under-Sheriff. The office was hereditary and, at that time, would have been held jointly by Isabella de Clifford and Idonea de Leybourn, as co-heiresses of their father Robert de Veteripont.

We will never know if that Henry de Threlkeld was the first to adopt the surname.

In 1085, King William the Conqueror ordered the "Great Survey" of most of England and parts of Wales that came to be known as the Domesday Book. At the time, much of the northwest area of England, home to Blencathra and the village of Threlkeld, was still part of Scotland and, unfortunately for family historians, not included in the survey.

Following the Norman conquest, possession of the region moved back and forth between Scotland and England. Henry II regained claim in 1157, and made it into two counties, Westmorland and Carliol. Sometime shortly before 1177, the name "Carliol" was dropped and it became County Cumberland. In 1237, with the Treaty of York, the border between Scotland and England became permanent.

With the first known written use in England of þrǽll/þrǽl appearing in 950, the first documentation of Threlkeld as a place-name in 1220, and its first recorded use as a surname in 1292, we at least can be reasonably confident we have narrowed it to a 300-year span of time.

As the Threlkeld One-Name Study's DNA Project advances—hopefully with the inclusion of multiple testers of yDNA next-generation sequencing—it will be fascinating to see if our ancestors, pre-surname adoption, still trace to this rugged and scenic region of the England/Scotland borderlands where people erected stone circles in alignment with solar and lunar astronomical events 5,000 years ago.

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