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In the museum in the old school-house by the churchyard at West Kirby you may see a stone, which, from its shape, antiquaries call a 'hog-back'. The hog-back was a tombstone or grave-slab that marked the burial-place of some Scandinavian chief. The carved ornamentation as well as its shape is like that of other similar stones that have been found in the parts of Britain where the Northmen settled. The stone gives you some idea of the homes from which these pirates came, for the carved oval shapes represent little wooden tiles; and the interlaced lines are the wattles or osiers of which their huts were made. The heathen Scandinavian liked his place of burial to be as much like home as possible, which may be taken as a proof that he did not think that his soul would perish along with his body. In the same museum is another stone with a head shaped like a wheel, which is also the work of the Vikings.
We are, fortunately, able to tell almost the exact time at which the settlements in the Wirral were made. We read in an old chronicle that in the year 900 A.D. Alfred's daughter Ethelfleda, Lady of the Mercians, granted lands in Wirral to one Ingimund who had been driven out of 54 Ireland. This lady, Ethelfleda, fortified Chester and rebuilt the walls which had lain in ruins since the departure of the Romans. Perhaps Ingimund and his followers had already become Christians during their stay in Ireland. If they had not, we may be sure that Ethelfleda did as her father had done in his treaty with the Danes, and insisted on their becoming Christians in return for being allowed to settle in Cheshire.
It was in the reign of Alfred that many English counties or shires first received their modern names. Cheshire or Chester-shire, like Staffordshire and Warwickshire, took its name from the chief city or fortress which dominated the district and protected it from the ravages of the Danes.
Alfred also ordered an English history to be written, in which the chief events of each year were recorded. This Old English Chronicle, as it is called, was kept up in the reigns of the successors of Alfred, and is the principal source of our knowledge of England under the Anglo-Saxon kings.
The Chronicle tells us that, in order to prevent any fresh landing of Danes, Ethelfleda built a castle or 'burh' at Runcorn at the head of the estuary of the Mersey. The very site of her castle has now disappeared, for 'Castle Rock', upon which it was built, was destroyed when the Ship Canal was made.
Another fortress was erected by Ethelfleda on Eddisbury Hill, the highest point of Delamere Forest, where, probably, there was a large camp in British times. Her brother Edward, who succeeded Alfred as King of England, also fortified Thelwall on the Mersey, as an inscription on the gable of an inn at Thelwall tells us. For the next twenty years he carried on a vigorous war against the Danes of the 'Five Boroughs', Nottingham, Leicester, Derby, Stamford, and Lincoln. But in many parts Saxon and Dane had already settled down side by side, the Danes abandoned the worship of their heathen gods Odin and Thor, and received the Gospel of Christ, and in the next century a Danish king was 55 destined to rule over all the land and to advance greatly the cause of Christianity.
Edward's work was done when he received the homage of the chief kings of Britain, and made the royal house of Wessex supreme. In the year 924, as you may read in the English Chronicle, 'then chose him for father and lord the King of Scots ... and all those who dwell in Northumbria whether English or Danes, and also the King of the Strathclyde Welsh.'
Chester appears to have rapidly risen in importance, largely no doubt owing to its central position, and to have become a great and populous city. The walls were extended beyond the limits of the ancient Roman city, and a new fortress built where the present 'Castle' of Chester now stands, to guard the road over the river.
Henceforth, the city was kept in a state of defence by a custom which bound every 'hide' in the shire to provide a man at the town-reeve's call to keep its walls and bridge in repair. A considerable trade with the seaports of Ireland followed, largely it is to be feared in connexion with the slave traffic, and the city became a favourite resort of the English kings. Coins were minted here in the reign of Athelstan.
Athelstan must often have been in Cheshire, for this favourite grandson of King Alfred was brought up by the Lady of Mercia, and no doubt learned from her the ways of a strong and wise ruler. When Athelstan became king he was attacked by the King of the Scots and the Danes of Ireland. A great battle was fought, perhaps on Cheshire soil, and the English Chronicle breaks out into a wonderful song of victory
Birkenhead: "Headland growing with birch trees". Early forms include Byrkeheveht (1259) and Birkheued (1260).
Caldy: Kald-eyjar "Cold-islands".
Claughton: Klakkr-tun "Hamlet on a hillock".
Frankby: Frankisbyr "Franki's (or Frakki's) village or settlement".
Gayton: Geit-tun "Goat farmstead".
Heswall: "Hazel spring" from Old English hasel, reinforced by Norse hesli with OE walla (spring).
Irby: Ira-byr "Settlement of the Irish", or possibly "Settlement of Scandinavians from Ireland".
Meols, Great and Little: From melr meaning sandbank, sandhills. A place-name of identical origin exists in Iceland (Melar).
Ness: From Nes meaning "Promontory".
Neston: Nes-tun "Farmstead at or near the promontory".
Noctorum: Cnocc-tirim "Hill that's dry" or "Dry Hill". Old forms include Cnoctyrum (1119).
Raby: Ra-byr "Village at a boundary".
Thingwall: Ping-vollr "Assembly field".
Thurstaston: Porsteinns-tun "porstein's farmstead". Old forms include Thurstantona (1119), Thorstanton (1202).
Tranmere: Trani-melr, "Cranes' sandback".
West Kirby: Vestri-kirkjubyr, "The west village of the church".
Whitby: "The white manor or village". From hviti (white) and byr (settlement).