In the far distant primeval past human beings were extremely primitive. They moved around the world in small groups, hunting for food and defending themselves against their enemies. They could barely communicate with each other, and there was no question of names for anyone or anything.
Gradually, after the passage of many thousands of years, mankind became more intelligent and the people could converse in a simple manner. They learned how to make fire, and they produced rough tools to help them in their daily work. Civilisation began when men found they could maintain a constant supply of food by keeping farm animals and by growing their own cereals. Nomadic family groups came together to form small settlements, followed by larger townships, leading to cities, and finally to kingdoms and empires.
An Egyptian empire certainly existed five thousand years ago, and there were other groups in various stages of development all across the occupied world. Over the years, large movements of population took place, resulting in substantial increase in violence when separate racial groups met one another. The human brain had developed very considerably, and a full scale vocabulary came into use. The art of drawing and counting was being mastered and early forms of writing were invented, so that information could be passed on from one generation to the next. The leaders in each section were given names or titles, and so were the gods and spirits.
Soon there were many empires that flourished and declined, including the Persians, the Syrians, and various biblical groups. From their writings and other evidence it is clear that personal names were then in common use, especially among the upper classes. A large number of these names have continued, right up to the present time. Examples are Christopher and Peter from the Greeks, Claud (Claudius) and Paul (Paulus) from the Romans, and many names with biblical connections such as David, James, John, Matthew and Samuel.
Most of Europe was occupied by warrior tribes, that were tough, brave and extremely numerous. These Celtic races spread westwards from the Danube area about the 5th century B.C. and eventually reached Britain, where they mingled with the ancient people already there, people who had been capable of building the monument of Stonehenge in about 1500 B.C. Together they constructed defensive hill-top settlements, such as the Trundle (north of Chichester). Later, when iron tools became available, the people in Southern England were able to clear the more wooded areas at lower levels and along river banks. Farming became steadily more important and efficient.
At about the same time as the Romans first came to Britain, a Belgic tribe from Gaul (France), called the Atrebates, landed in the Isle of White area, and then spread eastwards. The Romans meanwhile conquered the whole country, except for the Celtic strongholds of Cornwall, Wales and Scotland. As a result the languages of those districts still have certain original features, and there are several personal names from the Celtic that are well-known in Scottish history, such as Donald and Duncan.
In Sussex the local Belgic leader was called Cogidubnus, who became an ally of the Romans, with the result that there was little friction between the two peoples. It is said that he lived like a king at the magnificent Roman palace, the ruins of which can still be seen at Fishbourne, near Chichester. No doubt he was responsible for the original foundation of the town of Chichester which was built astride the east-west line of communication along the coastal plain. The Romans named it Noviomagus (New Market), and it has always been an important place.
The Romans occupied Britain for some four hundred years, with alternate periods of trouble and good-fortune, but in Sussex the situation was comparatively stable. The local people were engaged on extensive farming activity and there was a marked growth in trade and employment including the building of Stane Street, the Roman road that ran straight from Chichester to London, via Bignor and Pulborough. The Roman towns and leaders all had their own Latin names, but with very few exceptions none of them survived after the evacuation in the early part of the 5th century A.D. The remaining population simply carried on with their own original language, although Latin did continue in use on official documents and in religion for very many centuries.
The Roman villas were abandoned, the towns were deserted and the roads started to decay. The natives reverted to their old ways, with the result that British civilisation came to a standstill and the Dark Ages had begun.
From 400 A.D. onwards for several centuries there is very little definite information about events in Britain, yet it was during this period that the English nation and language was born. In an attempt to unravel the mysteries of the age, many scholars have examined all the available evidence and have been able to produce a probable history of the period. However, this is general in character, and relies very much upon various authorities who were writing at a much later date.
The first authority was a British ecclesiastic named Gildas who in about 550 A.D. wrote a religious document to demonstrate the evils of the day. In it he included some items of information about earlier historical events, but while his remarks may possibly be true, they do not inspire much factual confidence.
In 674 A.D. a Monastery was founded at Wearmouth in northern England, followed by a second one eight years later at Jarrow. One of the monks who was educated at Wearmouth was Bede (Beada), and in 691 he took Deacon’s orders at Jarrow. He was the most learned man of his day and while living in studious seclusion he wrote many hymns, and about the lives of Saints. His most famous work was an ecclesiastical history of England, which was later translated into Anglo-Saxon by King Alfred. In general, the Venerable Bede repeated the comments of Gildas but added details regarding the various invading tribes of Angles and Saxons.
Nennius was a Welsh scholar of the 9th century, and he produced a composite collection of earlier works, including the ancient Britons and the Romans. His effort seems rather fictional in style, and he mentions King Arthur as a leader of the local natives against the Saxon invaders. He ascribes to Arthur a victory at Mons Badonicus around the year 500 A.D., after which there was comparative peace for forty to fifty years. The site of ‘Mount Baden’ is unknown, but it might be Badbury Rings in Dorset.
Finally there are several versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the earliest of which was completed between 895 and 900 A.D., which incorporates most of the previous material. They are written in diary form, with yearly dates assigned to the various events, but there are not many early entries and the dates may not be reliable. Nevertheless, the Chronicle is a most important document, and is the main basis of Anglo-Saxon history right up to the Norman Conquest.
In southern England, there were repeated raids and migrations by Saxons from North Germany. These were men of aggressive and adventurous natures who had moved westward across Europe until they reached the North Sea around the mouths of the Rivers Elbe and Weser. They were courageous and loyal, but they were pagans and had deities named Tiw, Woden, Thor and Frig (words which still survive as days of the week).
Armed with spears and wooden shields, they came ashore in small groups, and fought their way into the district until small settlements were secured, usually near rivers and creeks. Over the centuries, the remaining Celtic natives were driven into the mountainous regions of Wales and Scotland, or else they fell in battle. There is no evidence that they intermingled with the Saxons, who brought their own families with them.
The first Anglo-Saxon leaders to be mentioned in old records were the brothers Hengist and Horsa who landed near the mouth of the Thames in 449 A.D., and whose family founded the Kingdom of Kent. Another important warrior was named Aelle (sometimes spelt Aella) who landed near Selsey in 477 A.D. with his three sons.
Aelle succeeded in taking over the whole of the south coast area, and much more besides. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle refers to Aelle as being King of Sussex (South Saxons), but his influence and power covered a much wider area and he was the first leader to be described by the title of Bretwalda or ‘Ruler of all Britain’. This title should not be taken too literally, and the exact extent of Aelle’s authority is unknown. Nevertheless, it is significant that he is mentioned as the first in a list of Bretwaldas, the last being the great King Egbert, of Wessex, who did indeed rule over the whole of England in the 9th century.
In the year 495 A.D., a prince named Cerdic landed in the Southampton area, and since by then the Aelle family must have been in a powerful position it is likely that the Cerdic family was related to them or at least allied with them. In any event Cerdic went on to found a dynasty which produced the long line of Anglo-Saxon kings, who ruled until the Norman Conquest some five hundred years later.
The Saxons brought their own language with them. It was Teutonic in origin and had many inflections, but it soon became established as the only language for the whole of England, although there were several different dialects. Modern English is directly descended from it, but over the years it was subject to several outside influences, arising especially from the Scandinavian and Norman-French invasions.
The Anglo-Saxon, or Old English alphabet had a character for ‘ae’ which was in frequent use, but subsequently it became either an ‘a’ or an ‘e’. The alphabet also had a separate character to represent the sound ‘th’ which was not retained in later English. In appearance it was rather like a letter ‘y’ and sometimes it changed to this (thus Ye becomes The). The old letter ‘c’ could be sounded as a ‘k’, so for example Cyng becomes King. The letter ‘g’ was often sounded rather as the modern ‘y’, so Weg becomes Way (road), Stigel becomes Stile (step), Gea becomes Yea (Yes), and Geard becomes Yard (enclosure).
About two-thirds of all the place-names in England seem to have Anglo-Saxon origins of from the 5th to 10th centuries, but some are comparatively modern names which were given a Saxon appearance. Naturally, the oldest names occur where the Saxon tribes first established themselves, especially in Sussex and the eastern counties. Almost always they consist of two parts of which the first element is descriptive, or the name of a person, or a family. The second element is usually one of several Saxon words, which must now be considered separately.
The ending ‘-ham’ is from the earliest Saxon periods, and this word developed later into the English ‘home’. Thus words such as Longham, or Westham, explain themselves. ‘Ham’ endings are common in South and East England – Fareham, Horsham, Chatham, Faversham.
A Saxon word belonging to a rather later period is ‘tun’ or ‘ton’, and this means an enclosure. It later became the English word ‘town’, but its original meaning was nothing as large or grand as the present word indicates. To some extent the ending ‘-ton’ took over from ‘-ham’, and it does occur in areas where ‘-ham’ is rare , often towards the north and west – Tiverton, Taunton, Preston, Bolton.
Another Anglo-Saxon ending in common use is Wyrth (a farm) which appears in place names such as ‘-worth’. Others are Burg of Burh (a fortified place) which became ‘-bury’ or ‘-borough’, and Hyrst (a copse) which became ‘-hurst’, and Wic (a farm-stead) which became ‘-wick’ or ‘-wich’.
A special explanation is required for those common place names which end in ‘-chester’ or ‘-cester’. This ending was originally derived from the latin Castra (a camp), but the word had been taken over by the Saxons even before they invaded England. Chichester for example, was believed to have been called Cissa-cester, the town being named after the man who conquered it (Cissa, the son of King Aelle of Sussex).
One Anglo-Saxon ending of great importance has not been mentioned so far. It is ‘-ing’, and it occurs at the end of a great many words in both old, and in current use. It can be used in several different ways, but in general it means to be ‘connected with, or following on from’. It was very important in a patronymic sense – that is, the use of the suffix ‘ing’ indicated that it had been derived from the name of a father, or ancestor, or person of a higher authority. Thus the Anglo-Saxon ‘cyning’ was the son of a king, and ‘aetheling’ was the descendent of a noble. The followers of King Aelle would have been called ‘Aelle-ings’.
Place names ending in ‘ing’ are very common in the South and East, and Sussex in particular. Hastings, for example, indicates that it was the place where the tribe of Haesta lived. Similarly, Reading comes from Reada-ing and Angmering from Angenmaer-ing. There is also Cocking (Cocca), Ferring (Ferra), Iping (Ipa), Didling (Dyddel), and many more.
It is very striking that ‘ing’ place names are most prevalent in West Sussex, where Aelle lived in 477 A.D. and from where he built up his kingdom. It is not possible to list all the towns and villages concerned, but a few examples will be of interest, and all of them were mentioned years later in the Domesday Book:- Wortling, Tarring, Harting, Tillington, Stedham, Pagham, Petworth and Pulborough. In addition the following villages are among those where the existing church has remains of Saxon work, although this would belong to the later Saxon era, after the pagan invaders had been converted to Christianity:- Cocking, Sompting, Woolbeding, Singleton, Stoughton, and Burpham.
Personal names of Anglo-Saxon times can now be considered, and they, too, often consisted of two elements. Each separate part had a meaning of its own, but the combined word did not necessarily make a phrase of any consequence. Many experts have devoted a great deal of time to a study of these matters, and the following are possible explanations put forward for some of the more common Anglo-Saxon names.
‘Ead’ is an old word for Rich, or Happy (Rich in mind). It combines with other words to give Edwin (Happy friend), also Edith, Edmund, Edward and Edgar, and there were two Anglo-Saxon kings named Edred and Edwig (Edwy).
‘Beorht’ is a word meaning Bright and it combines with other words to produce names such as Egbert (the first great King of England) and the better known Albert, Herbert, Gilbert, Robert and Bertram.
It is clear that words with a pleasant or helpful meaning were popular among the Anglo-Saxons for use in names, and a good example is ‘Win’, meaning Friend. This has produced such names as Baldwin, Edwin, Godwin, Winston and Winifred.
‘Aelf’ was Anglo-Saxon for Elf, and in combination with ‘Ree’ (meaning Counsel) it gave the name Alfred, and the first famous King Alfred the Great. Later, the name lapsed completely, and was not revived until the 18th century.
Finally in this brief survey, the very important Anglo-Saxon word ‘Aethel’ must be mentioned. It appears to have six letters, but it should be remembered that ‘ae’ was a single character originally, and so was ‘th’. Names beginning with Athel and Ethel are obviously derived from it. ‘Th’ has sometimes been changed into a ‘y’ and so prefixes such as Ayel, Ayl and Ail are descended from the original ‘aethel’.
‘Aethel’ means Noble, in the sense of being noble in character, or noble in birth, and in consequence it was a word much favoured for the names of royalty or other persons of high rank. In a slightly different sense, it may have come to have had a meaning somewhat similar to the modern ‘Prince’.
The brothers of King Alfred the Great had been Kings of England in their turn, and their names were Ethelbald, Ethelbert and Ethelred. Their father was called Ethelwulf. There was also a later king names Athelstan. Names of this type appear on many ancient Anglo-Saxon charters and other documents.
So far as modern names are concerned, great care is necessary in their interpretation, and even though a word may appear to have the ‘aethel’ connection, not all of them will have such an origin. For example Albert, Alice and Ethel are all considered to be ‘noble’, but not Aileen or Eileen (a form of Helen) nor Alan (of early Breton origin).
It is now convenient to consider the development of English surnames, and the name ‘Ayling’ in particular. The Normans, during the 11th century, introduced many family names into England, but for a long while these were confined to the upper classes. The common folk did not have family names, but even so the ancient clan and tribe names persisted from very early times.
For a long while there was little need for surnames, because it was unlikely that the John who lived in one village would be confused with another John who lived in the neighbouring village. Contact between the two communities did not often occur, and in any event the two men were probably of different ages and occupations. As the centuries moved by however, the population increased, and it became more difficult to distinguish one from another, especially when lists were prepared for purposes of taxation and the like.
Gradually, therefore, individual families began to assume a surname, partly as a means of identification or description, but also with a feeling of pride in their ancient origins.
Some people decided on simple descriptive names, such as Butcher, Baker, Farmer, Longfellow, Whitehead, Castle, Greenfield and many more obvious derivations. Others took over their father’s name, such as Johnson, or Robertson, and others adopted their original clan or tribal names. Names ending in ‘ing’ were mostly in the latter class, as in the case of the Aylings.
The name ‘Ayling’ is very rare, and in the first place it is necessary to make quite clear that it has no connection with the words ‘ailing’ or ‘ailment’. The verb, to ail (meaning to feel unwell) is an old word with an Anglo-Saxon origin, but it has an independent derivation, and has no link whatever with any surname.
The fact that ‘Ayling’ has the ending of ‘ing’ means that it is patronymic in form, and represents the descendants of some ancient ancestor of Saxon times. It only remains, therefore, to decide the origin and meaning of the first part of the name, the ‘Ayl-‘. There are two possibilities (both somewhat similar), both quite exciting and romantic, in some degree.
The first alternative refers back to King Aelle of Sussex, the Saxon warrior who landed near Selsey in 477 A.D. and who became the ‘Ruler of all Britain’. His son, Cissa, had Chichester (Cissa-cester) named after him, and another son, Wlencing is said to have had Lancing (near Worthing) named after him. Also it seems certain that many of his followers were commemorated in a similar manner by villages and townships throughout West Sussex. King Aelle himself is thought to have been associated with Hayling Island, and this deserves consideration in more detail.
In olden times the island was bigger than it is today, but over the centuries large sections were washed away by the sea, especially along the southern shore. The part now known as Eastoke must have been far more extensive fifteen hundred years ago. There were Roman buildings on both sides of the narrow channel which separated the island from the mainland, and in the centre of the island was a fortified place, or stronghold, now known as Tourner Bury. This was possibly of Roman construction, but may be even older.
The name ‘Hayling’ has the ‘-ing’ ending, and is clearly of Saxon origin. The experts in such matters state that it has been derived from Haegling, or the place where followers or tribe of Haegel lived, and the island was referred to as Haeglinga in a document which has survived from 905 A.D. Since ‘ae’ is one character, and since ‘g’ is pronounced as a ‘y’, it is obvious that Haegel (or Hayel) could be a later version of Ayel or Aelle.
Following his landing on or near the Selsey peninsula, Aelle eventually ruled over the whole of Sussex. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states that in 491 A.D. he and his son Cissa ‘besieged Andredcester (the Roman fort of Anderida, Pevensey) and slew all the inhabitants; there was not even one Briton left there’. But before these conquests, it is certain Aelle and his sea-faring tribe of Aelle-ings would have swarmed all over the sheltered waterways of Chichester harbour, and up the inlets leading to Emsworth, Bosham, and to Fishbourne. No doubt he would have come to the island, where he would have discovered the old overgrown fortress of earlier times. He might very well have made his headquarters at this stronghold which he could easily defend, and here he might have settled his tribe, while he gathered his strength and his resources before setting out on his warlike campaigns.
Obviously, there is no proof of any of these suggestions, but they are reasonable deductions, and they are at least as valid as all the other fragments of history assigned to the 5th century A.D. King Aelle of Hayling Island may be hidden in the shadows of the past, but at least he is a romantic figure to all those who may claim to be descended from him.
It is quite probable, and by no means a flight of fancy, to imagine that the tribal name of Aelle-ing continued to be known and used in the West Sussex area for many, many centuries, and that when people in that area needed a surname for themselves, some of them chose to use the name of their ancient forbears. Indeed, it may have been an automatic and natural transmission, rather than a deliberate selection of a name.
Research has shown that the ancestors of present day Aylings invariably come from the border area of Sussex and Hampshire, from the 16th to the 18th centuries, and even at the latter end of the 20th century most Aylings are still living in that district. Surely, it is not a mere coincidence that it is the same district as that over which the mighty King Aelle held sway fifteen hundred years ago!
The second alternative origin of ‘Ayling’ is the one favoured by several authorities, who claim that the prefix ‘Ayl-‘ is derived from the Anglo-Saxon ‘Aethel’, which has been referred to several times previously. It is said that a whole group of surnames has descended from this one word, in addition to the various Christian names which have already been mentioned. It is easy to understand that names beginning with athel or Ethel may have this origin, but it would also include such present names as Aylmer (Noble/Famous), and Aylward (Noble/Guard), and Aylwin (Noble/Friend).
The name Ayling is in this group, but is slightly different because the second element ‘ing’ is not a simple word in it;s own right, but is a suffix indicating a follower or descendent. Thus ‘Ayling’ means the son of a noble person, or the descendent of someone of noble birth, and it could apply to a whole family or clan and not merely to a single relation. This derivation of Ayling from ‘Aethel-ing’ gives rise to some important comments, as the term Atheling did not appear in Anglo-Saxon records until a fairly late date, and then it was mostly used to denote the rightful heir to the royal throne of England.
The Saxon King, Ethelred (The Unready) ruled over England from 978 A.D. onwards, but his power was severely curtailed by repeated raids and invasions from Denmark. From his first marriage he had several sons, including Edmund (Ironside). His second marriage was in 1002 to Emma, who was a sister of the Duke of Normandy (the grandfather of William the Conqueror). The eldest son of this second marriage was Edward (the Confessor), but he spent the first part of his life in Normandy.
When King Ethelred died on 23rd April 1016, he was succeeded by Edmund, but he too died soon afterwards, on 30th November, 1016, and the throne of England was passed into the hands of the Danes in the person of King Canute and his sons. Edmund had only one surviving brother, (from Ethelred’s first marriage) but he was driven out by Canute, and later killed. No doubt the same fate awaited Edmund’s young son (the Atheling), but he was helped to escape to Hungary, where he lived in exile.
When the Danish era came to an end in 1042, Edward the Confessor (from Ethelred’s second marriage) came to England from Normandy, and took over the Crown, thus restoring the Anglo-Saxon line of kings (even though he had a Norman mother). Edward did not have any children, nor any surviving male relatives, so when he died in January 1066, the problem of succession was difficult. However, the throne was taken over by Harold, who was the powerful Earl of Wessex, and the brother of Edward’s wife.
Meanwhile in Hungary, the exiled Atheling himself had children – a son Edgar, and a daughter Margaret, and these two were the only true descendants of the ancient Anglo-Saxon line. Edgar was always known as Edgar Atheling, but in January 1066 he was considered too young and inexperienced (he was only aged 15 or 16) to occupy the throne of England, so King Harold was accepted in his place.
After King Harold and his brothers were killed at the Battle of Hastings, the crown was then officially offered to Edgar Atheling in order to continue the struggle against William the Conqueror, but Edgar wisely swore loyalty to William, and retired from any full scale conflict. Nevertheless, he did combine from time to time with those forces which continued in opposition to William. This was particularly so, during the years from 1068 to 1074, when he was mostly living in Scotland at the Court of King Malcolm. However, peace was eventually established between the two men, and thereafter Edgar Atheling was no trouble or threat to the Norman Kings of England. Indeed, he was honourably treated, as befitted the last direct heir of Anglo-Saxon royalty.
Edgar Atheling did remain at the scene of all important events, but as a ‘noble prince’ rather than as an active politician. In this he was wiser than many other more militant figures among the Anglo-Saxons. At least he assured himself a long and interesting life, and he was well over 75 years of age before he died.
It is quite likely that Edgar’s family and descendants were all known as Athelings, and although there is no documentary evidence, they could well have been the founders of the Ayling clan which thrived in the West Sussex area from the 15th century onwards. There was an Edward Atheling recorded as being in Surrey in 1176, but otherwise no early records of the name have yet been traced.
Edgar Atheling’s sister married King Malcolm of Scotland, and she was a well-loved and respected Queen. Later she became Saint Margaret, and three of her children became Kings of Scotland during Edgar’s lifetime. Her daughter Matilda married King Henry I of England and they founded the royal line which has continued through to the present day.
If indeed Edgar Atheling and his sister were among the early ancestors of the Ayling’s then their present-day descendants can rightly claim that it was their forbears who provided the only important hereditary link between the ancient Anglo-Saxon kings and the Norman dynasty which followed. The fact that this has led on to the royal family of the 20th century may seem rather surprising to a present day Ayling, but at least it is in accordance with the ‘noble’ traditions attached to their family name.