Thetford, chapter 1: Of the name and Origin of the city

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An Essay Towards A Topographical History of the County of Norfolk: Volume 2. Originally published by W Miller, London, 1805.

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Sitomagus, Deodford, Deodford, Tedford, Tetford, Tefford, Theford, and Thetford, as it is now called, was a place formerly of great renown, and now to be taken notice of for its great antiquity; who were the first wise people that made choice of its commodious situation, whether a colony of the Senones, an ancient people of Gaul, or the Sitones, an ancient people of Germany, I cannot certainly learn; but am apt to conclude that it was a place of note before the coming of the Romans into this isle, and doubt not but the name Sitomagus was given it long before they ever set foot in the place; for I believe it will be found by observation, that they generally continued the ancient names of towns in those countries they conquered, to avoid confusion; for, without doubt, had they altered the names of places in this isle, we should have abounded with towns of the same names with those in Italy, few of which are to be met with, except those places which they themselves were first founders of, and there we may observe they always gave them Roman names; thus Stratum or Stratton, Castrum or Castor, &c. received their names; and indeed if we come to examine the various names this place hath gone by, we shall find that they all are of the same signification. Thus, Sitomagus, I take it, is no more than the city or habitation of the Senones or Sitones, (fn. 1) upon the Ford, which induced the Saxons to keep its old name, only varied in their language into Deodford or Deodford (fn. 2) Now Deod signifies Deod gens, populus, or provincia, (fn. 3) and so the signification is much the same as the old name of Sitomagus, viz. the Ford of the People, that is, the most frequented ford by which people used to enter into Norfolk, and not the ford over the river Thet, Sit, or Deor, as many great men have imagined, (fn. 4) there being no such river in these parts; neither was the river that this town stands on ever known by any other than its present name. From Deod and Deodford, it came to Tedford, and Tetford, which last name it had in the Conqueror's time, ted being the natural abbreviation of deod and tet of deor About Henry the First's time, it was commonly written Tefford, and about Henry the Third's, generally Theford, and so continued till about Henry the Eighth's time, and indeed I much question if this might not be its proper name, without any further search; divide the word, and you will find it The-Ford, (fn. 5) by way of eminence, the inlet into Norfolk; as it always was. Indeed, the present name hath prevailed for some time, occasioned, I suppose, by the invention of the new name of the river, from which they would have the place called. But upon the whole, I am of opinion, whether you will have it the city of the Sitones on the Ford, or the Ford of the People, or The-Ford, by way of eminence, it is much the same thing; and thus far as to my thoughts of its present and ancient names.

But least I should be thought to have explained the word Sitomagus in my own way, without any authority, I could not omit inserting a letter wrote to the Earl of Arlington, by the learned Dr. Plot, upon this subject, which, I believe, will not be thought impertinent by my judicious readers.

To the Right Honourable Henry Earl of Arlington, Viscount Thetford, Baron Arlington of Arlington, Lord Chamberlain, &c.

My Lord,
It being your pleasure to intimate, when I had first the honour to wait on your Lordship, that you would gladly know somewhat of the ancient Sitomagus, now Thetford, near your magnificent seat at Euston, I thought it my duty to interpret your Lordship's desire as no less than a command, that I should search not only the ancient but modern writers, concerning it, and then to give your Lordship the best account I could.

Not, therefore, to trouble your Lordship with the fopperies of Annius Viterbiensis, (fn. 6) and, out of him, of Count Palatine, White of Basingstoke, (fn. 7) that not only the towns here in Britain ending in magus or magum, but all those also of the same termination beyond the seas, were so denominated by I know not what Magus, the second king of the Celtœ, son of Samothes, who, forsooth, first taught this western part of the world to build them houses and cities, which might deservedly, therefore, receive their names from him.

Nor groundlessly with Isacius Pontanus, to run up so high as the first ages of the world, and derive it from the Hebrew magon, (fn. 8) which (says he) signifies habitationem vel habitationis locum, or with Goropius Becanus (fn. 9) and Skinner, (fn. 10) to fetch it from the German mac, whence the word machen, facere, and whence the things made were called magen, all which seems to refer to the building of houses; with whom agrees Beatus Rhenanus, "Magum, priscis Gallis, domum significasse." (fn. 11)

To avoid and pass by, I say, all such trifling etymologies, and proceed upon surer grounds than such mere fancies of the brain, without foundation in the things themselves, I thought fit, my Lord, to search out all, or most of, the cities and towns, as well in the neighbouring nations to us, as here at home, whose ancient names did terminate in magus or magum, and then consider their antiquities, situations, whether fortified or no, their initial differential titles, preceding the common one of magus, and other accidents attending, from which I thought might be raised much more probable conjectures.

First then for the cities whose ancient names did terminate in magus, I find in and about


Noviomagus Batavorum, nowNieumagen, in Gelderland.

Noviomagus Trevirorum, now Neumagen.

Noviomagus Nevetum, now Oldenheim, or Diiren, in the Palatinate.

Marcomagus, now Diiren, between Triers and Cologne.

Rigomagus, now Rimagen. LLoydo. Rinc.

Durnomagus, now Dursmagen.

Drusomagus, now Kempten Ptolom. Memmigen.

Juliomagus, now Pfullendorf Rhenano.

Brivomagus, Brucomat Rhenano, near Strasburgh.

In France.

Augustomagus Silvanectum, now Senlis.

Cœsaromagus Bellovacorum, now Beaubais, in the dukedom and country of Valois, in the isle of France.

Juliomagus, now Angiers, in Anjou.

Caturigomagus, now Chorges, in the Upper Delphinate.

Rotomagus Vellocussiorum, now Roan,

Noviomagus Lexoviorum, now Lisieor, in Normandy.

Noviomagus Tricastinorum, now Noyon, in Picardy.

In Britain.

Sitomagus, now Chetford, in Norfolk.

Casaromagus, now Chelmesford, in Essex.

Noviomagus, now Crayford, in Kent.

In The Alpine Countries And Entrance of Italy.

Scingomagus, now Sesans, at the foot of the Alps.

Bodincomagus, Plin. Industria, Camillomagus ad Padum.

Secondly, as to the antiquity of the places, that had these terminations, I find them, to have been long before the coming of the Romans into these western parts of the world, though it be also true, that the Romans did make use of them afterwards, as will appear anon.

For had this termination been brought in by them, or at all used by them, before their coming this way, we should certainly have had towns in the heart of Italy of the same name in great plenty, whereas we find but two, and those in Gallia Italica, (Bodincomagus and Camillomagus) that ever enjoyed it.

Thirdly, for the situations, I find them all upon rivers, and most, if not all, upon the most fordable places, as indeed it seems but necessary, that all cities should be, before the building of bridges and boats, all passengers being absolutely obliged to flock to such places, where they might either wade through themselves, or upon the backs of cattle. And

Fourthly, to have been fenced for the most part, with ancient works cast up, and to have had the reputation of strong holds.

From which considerations I take leave to infer in all probability,

First, that the people of Germany, Gaul, the Alpine countries, and part, at least, of Britain, were originally but one nation, of one language, (viz.) the old Celtœ or Kelts, brought hither after the flood and confusion of Babel, by Ashkenaz, great grandchild of Noah, as is concluded by Cluverius, (fn. 12) not only for naming their cities after the same manner, but from very many words signifying the very same things, in all these nations, as is copiously made out by the same Philip Cluverius, in his Germania Antiqua.

Secondly, that the colonies of the Celtœ of Germany and Gaul, as they arrived in Britain, gave the same names to the cities they built here, that the cities had from whence they came, whereof Cœsar gives us ample testimony: "Britanniœ pars interior" (says he) "ab iis incolitur, quos natos, in insula ipsa, memoria proditum dicunt: maritima pars, ab iis, qui, predæ ac belli inferendi caussa, ex Belgio (forte Galliâ Belgicâ) transierant; qui omnes, fere iis nominibus civitatem appellantur, quibus orti ex civitatibus eo pervenerunt." (fn. 13) So that all our British cities terminating in magus, being not far from the sea coasts, over against Gaul or Germany, in all probability they did receive their names from other cities, of the same denomination, in those countries; thus our Cœsaromagus peradventure, received its name from a colony that came from Cœsaromagus, now Beaubais, in the isle of France, and our Noviomagus from another, that came from Noviomagus, now Lisieur, in Normandy, or Noviomagus, now Nieumagen in Gelderland; as for Sitomagus, of that in the conclusion. And

Thirdly, if it be demanded what magus should signify in the Keltish (or Cettic) language, upon consideration that all these cities are situate upon rivers, and most of them, if not all, upon the most fordable places, and secondly, it having been customary in ancient times, to give names to cities upon such accounts, (fn. 14) as appears from Oxford, Hereford, Stafford, Bedford, Hartford, Guildford, Dartford, &c. in England, and both the Frankfords, Erford, Shawnford, Hasenford, Klagenford, Steenford, Ochsenford, &c. in Germany, what, if I should guess with Cluverius, (fn. 15) that magus, in the old Keltish (or Celtic) language, should signify the same with vadum a ford? which being understood by the Saxons at their arrival here, they might probably turn all the magi into so many fords, a word then more in use among them: thus Sitomagus turned into Thetford, Cæsaromagus into Chelmsford, and Noviomagus into Crayford; or else,

Fourthly, most of these magi having been fortified places, perhaps magus may signify strong or fortified, from moghen, potestas, potentia, from the verb magan posse, among the Low Dutch, moghan, mighty, hence the old Noviomagus Batavorum, and Noviomagus Trevirorum are called Nieumagen and Neumagen, that is, the new fortresses, to this very day; which in process of time arriving to greatness, and becoming cities, in all likelihood, made the Roman emperors, and other great men, to prefix their names to many of them, as is plain from Juliomagus, Cœsaromagus, Augustomagus, Drusomagus, Camillomagus, &c. which probably also made Paulus Merula think magus signified urbem a city; whence, says he, magen denotes a people of the same city, especially if joined in affinity to one another; (fn. 16) (fn. 17) whence also, by the way, it may not be amiss to take notice, that Mr. Cambden, and after him, Mr. Burton, are of the same opinion, both of them citing Pliny's authority, (fn. 18) which had I found true, I should gladly enough have closed with them: but I appeal to any indifferent judge, whether any such matter, can be gathered from the place cited, that it signifies urbem, or any other place that could yet be met with in him, either by Cluverius, (fn. 19) or others.

Now which of these conjectures concerning the signification of magen comes nearest to truth, is wholly left to your Lordship's judg ment, the magus enquired after answering all the three; first, being situate on a ford, as its present name imports; secondly, there remaining now a high mount, fenced with a double rampier, and as report goeth, fortified in ancient times with walls; and thirdly, having been a large city, and an episcopal see. But as for the city Sitomagus, (fn. 20) I take it either to have received its name from some other foreign city of the same denomination, forgotten and lost, or else from a colony of people themselves, that lived formerly among cities of that termination, who might plant themselves here, and give their city the name of Sitomagus. In the Military Tables of Conrad Pentinger, perhaps more truely written, Sinomagus, or Senomagus, from themselves, being a colony of the ancient Senones of Gaul, whose capital city was Senonorum Civitas, now Sens in Champayne; or that the name Sitomagus should seem more agreeable as to its. orthography, it is easy to deduce it from a colony of the Sitones, an ancient people of Germany bordering on the Sinones, mentioned by Tacitus, (fn. 21) concerning whom, if it be doubted (by reason of the distance) how they should ever come hither, the same Tacitus affords us a great probability they might; for speaking in the same place of the Estyi, a neighbouring nation to them, he says, that though in their manners they agree with the Sinones, yet in their language they were nearer the Britains, which how they should come by, without some communication, will be hardly made out; from all which it is easily deducible, that whether our Sitomagus, Sinomagus, or Senomagus, received either its name from a foreign city or people, yet it imports no more than the fortress or city built by the Senones or Sitones, on the ford, on which the same people thought fit to plant themselves.

And thus, my Lord, I have given you my thoughts concerning your neighbouring town, Sitomagus, and of all others of the same termination, wherein, if I have not satisfied your Lordship's judgment, yet if I have given your Lordship any diversion, or but shewed my readiness to serve your Lordship, either of these will appear abundant satisfaction to your Lordship's most faithful and most obedient servant,
Rob. Plot.

As to this town's not being the ancient Sitomagus, as some authors have lately advanced, one placing it at Wulpit in Suffolk, (fn. 22) another (fn. 23) at Wymondham in Norfolk, and another, (fn. 24) (as I am informed, never having seen the work,) not so much as mentioning the name of Thetford at all in his whole book, I must observe the reasons that convince me that this was the Sitomagus, and no other. And first, the unanimous consent of most, if not all writers, (till these appeared,) is to me no small argument; next, the natural deduction of its name, which I have spoken of before. In the third place, the coins and Roman fortifications which are still visible. And in the last place, the agreement in the Itinerary, as to the distance, being so exact, it being from Thetford to Norwich 30 measured miles, wanting one quarter, by the wheel, and I presume, carry your road, as in this case must be done, down to Castor by Norwich, (as it is now called for distinction sake,) and you will find it not half a mile over or under the complement of the Itinerary, which says, that Sitomagus is 31 miles distant from the Venta Icenorum, which all mankind formerly placed at this Castor, and not at Castor by Yarmouth, which, in my opinion, is altogether impossible, as I hope to make out when I come to treat of that place. Neither am I certainly convinced that this Castor was the Venta Icenorum, though there are several reasons, I own, to induce me to think so, but there are also as many to incline me to imagine it might be at another place in this county: but let it be at either of them, the distance is so agreeable, that still Thetford, and that only, must be the Sitomagus.


  • 1. Dr. Plot.
  • 2. Gibson's Explanation of the names of Places, at the end of the Sax. Cron. p. 45, besides many others.
  • 3. Somner, in his Index of the old German words, printed at the end of Casaubon's Comment on the Hebrew and Saxon Languages, Lond. 1650.
  • 4. Mr. Cambden. Gibson, in the aforecited place. The Atlas, &c.
  • 5. Another reason to induce me to think it called The-Ford, by way of eminence, is, because I meet with Thetford in the Isle of Ely, wrote and called anciently Thetford, or The-Ford, as this was, and that town's situation is exactly answerable, viz. upon the great ford, or most frequented inlet into the eastern part of the isle.
  • 6. Joh. An. Viterbiens. lib. xv. fol. 125.
  • 7. Rich. Viti Basingstochij Hist. Brittan. li. i. N. 19.
  • 8. Isacij Pontani Gloss. Prisco-Gallic. in Verbo.
  • 9. Gorop. Becani Gallicor. lib. i. p. 21.
  • 10. In Etymologico Onomastico, in Verbo.
  • 11. Beati Rhenani Rerum Germanicarum lib. iii. cap. Mogunciacum.
  • 12. Phil. Cluverij Germ. Antiquæ Lib. cap. 4, 5, 6, 7.
  • 13. Julij Cæsaris Commentarior. de Bollo Gallico, lib. v.
  • 14. I believe take any county, and half or more of the towns and villages will appear to have taken their names from their situations.
  • 15. Phil. Cluverij Germ. Antiq. lib. i. cap. 7.
  • 16. Whence some deduce the word Magazine. Vide Isacij Pontani Glos. Prisco-Gal. in verbo Magus.
  • 17. P. Merulæ Cosmogr. part. 2. lib. iii. cap. 30.
  • 18. Plin. Nat. Hist. lib. iii. cap. 16.
  • 19. Phil. Cluverij Germ. Antiq. lib. i. cap. 7.
  • 20. Vid. Cambden Brit. in com. Norff.
  • 21. C. Corn. Taciti lib. de Scitu, Moribus, et Populis Germanic. cap. 45.
  • 22. Dr. Gale in his learned Commentary upon Antoninus, (p. 119,) is of opinion, that Sitomagus is not Thetford, but Wulpit in Suffolk; his chief reason being, the distance of miles from Castor, which, he saith, must be altered from 31 to 21. But the Doctor, I fear, was not well apprised of the difference of our computed miles in Norfolk, and measured miles, for by measure, he will find it very near, if not exact, 31 measured miles from Thetford to Norwich Castor, though it is called by some 21 only; and I have made a general observation in this county that the computed miles are a full third longer than measured miles; I mean, that if it be commonly called 10 miles to a place, upon measure it will be found 15.
  • 23. Mr. Salmon.
  • 24. Mr. Hunter.