Keith Briggs

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Was Hægelisdun in Essex?

Keith Briggs, Was Hægelisdun in Essex? A new site for the martyrdom of Edmund. Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History volume XLII, part 3 (2011), pages 277–291.

In this paper I argue that Hægelisdun was the hill of Maldon in Essex, and that the battle between Edmund and the Vikings in 869 was thus a precursor to the more famous battle of Maldon in 991. My method is an application of the methods of historical linguistics to the surviving early data concerning the place-name Hægelisdun mentioned in the Passio of Abbo. My conclusions have no bearing on the later history of the Edmund legend or on the history of Bury St. Edmunds.

reply to critics

I have been accused of just finding another place with a similar name to Hægelisdun. This is a misunderstanding of my paper. The place I propose, and Hellesdon in Norfolk, are the only two places known with names provably (by rigorous methods of historical phonology) exactly the same as Hægelisdun. The rest of my paper uses historical information (especially the existence of a royal vill at Maldon, another innovatory suggestion) to argue that of these two places, my candidate is better than Hellesdon as a possible Hægelisdun.

“The town has never been recorded as Haegelisdun”: of course not, and I never said this (I said Haegelisdun was the name of a hill at or near Maldon; there was no town at all in the time of Edmund). “...and the name Mældune appears in the written record just 40 or so years after Edmund's death.”: exactly, and I actually discuss in my paper why the name of the hill changed. There is nothing surprising about such a name changes - there is even a book about them by Klaus Dietz (Ortsnamenwechsel im mittelalterlichen England (Heidelberg 1992)). “at least one of our parish churches would have been dedicated to him”: but they are: East Mersea and Tendring!


  1. Footnote 41 on page 287 should read “SROI HA119/50/3/226 = HA119/3/1/2/3”. (i.e., delete the “42 Hod” at the end).
  2. The author of the reference “Sf 1327” on page 290 should read “H[ervey]”.

citation in bibtex format

  author= "Keith Briggs",
  title="Was \textit{Haegelisdun} in Essex? A new site for the martyrdom of Edmund",
  journal="Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History",
  volume= "XLII", number=3, pages="277--291", year="2011",

in the media

I was interviewed about this story by BBC Radio Suffolk at 1210 on 2011-12-20, BBC TV Look East at 1855 on 2011-12-20, and BBC Radio Essex at 0730 on 2011-12-21.

related work by other people

Another paper on this question is John Ridgard, Hoxne and St. Edmund - the enigma revisited, Suffolk Review, Autumn 2008 (NS51), 19–28. This paper makes many interesting historical points but fails completely on the linguistic side:

  1. On page 22, it is suggested that Abbo wrote Haegelisdun by mistake for Haeligesdun, intending to use a name meaning ‘holy hill’. But this cannot be, because ‘holy hill’ would not have the genitival -es which is found in all sources.
  2. Also on page 22 is the suggestion that ‘Haegel’ might derive from the Old Norse haggva ‘to hack’. This is also impossible, as the ON word has /g/ (so-called “hard g”; in fact more precisely /gg/) which is absent in the place-name Haegelisdun and its subsequent development. Moreover, verbs do not appear as the first element of place-names, and Norse first elements are rare with -dūn names (probably non-existent in East Anglia).
  3. On page 23, it is suggested that a name Heltone recorded in c.1302 might be related to Haegelisdun. This is out of the question for at least three reasons; the first vowel is wrong (at this period it would be written -ay- or -ai-), the -s- is missing, and Heltone is a -tūn name, not a -dūn name as required. Heltone is, without doubt, simply from OE hyll-tūn, meaning ‘hill farm’. The vowel change here is perfectly regular for Suffolk (Gillis Kristensson, A survey of Middle English dialects 1290–1350: the East Midland counties (Lund 1995), pp.63–64).

These errors result from the common misunderstanding that if two words are spelt similarly, they might (or even must) be related. Proper historical linguistics can do much better than this.

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