Early people worked there way up the River Thames and the ancient Ridgeway track, building hill forts on the dunes or downs south of the river. (Celtic/Gaelic dùn and meaning ‘hill or hill fort’). Still visible today are the Neolithic chambered long barrow at Wayland’s Smithy on the Ridgeway along the downs above Woolstone, the Bronze Age ‘White Horse’ and the Iron Age Hill Fort above Uffington. Settlements developed around the freshwater springs at the base of these hills.
Closer to the river along the hilly edge of the ‘Vale of the White Horse’ settlements sprang up that were eventually given descriptive Anglo-Saxon names like ‘Swine dun’ (Swindon), ‘Blunt’s dun’ (Blunsdon) and ‘Fern dun’ (Faringdon). Say the latter like a Scot with a rolling Celtic/Gaelic ‘r’ – ‘fair-ren-dūn‘ and you can see where we are going with this. The final syllable was probably pronounced like a northerner would say ‘gun’ or ‘bun’, and not how we say done, doon, down or dune. This possibly provides the best pronunciation for the original name as it was then spoken, but nothing is as varied and changeable as human speech.
The problem with spellings in modern English is that we don’t use accents on our vowels like the other European languages, from which it developed – through language invasions of mainly Lower German (Saxon), Danish, Norse, and finally Norman French along with its big undercurrent of Roman Latin. This makes for simpler spelling in some ways but we don’t even use a consistent combination of vowels as an alternative to show accurate pronunciation. Also, vowel sounds constantly changed over the centuries, varied in different parts of the country, and early scribes simply made up spellings as they went along. They didn’t even bother being consistent within the same text, as can be seen in the market charter of 1218 below.
The Saxon Chronicles (925)
[Translation of this Saxon Chronicles extract: Yr. 925. This year Edward king died in Mercia at Fearndune. Ælfweard his (2nd) son very soon there died ‘about 16 days later’ in Oxford. Their bodies lie in Winchester. And Æthelstan (his 1st son) there of Mercia was chosen to be king…]
The name ‘Fearndune‘ (written ‘Færndun‘ in some versions) meaning ‘Fern Hill’, first appears written down in the Saxon Chronicles referring to the death of the King of the Anglo-Saxons, Edward the Elder (actually it was in AD 924). This was around the time when England was starting to be united into a single kingdom. It also states that it was in the old Saxon Kingdom of Mercia so probably not actually this town as once believed, it being only just over the border in the Kingdom of Wessex. It is now thought to be referring to Edward’s estate on the Welsh border 12 miles south of Chester, now called Farndon-on-Dee; shortly after putting down a rebellion there. But it does remain as the most likely origin of this and similarly named towns.
The Domesday Book (1086)
The first definitive recording of this town’s name was in the Domesday Book (1086). Ferendone (in the hundred of Wyfolhd and county of Berchescire*) is recorded with 47 households – 17 villagers, 12 smallholders, 16 slaves, 130 acres meadow, 1 mill, 1 fishery, 1 church. (* Faringdon was transferred from Berkshire to Oxfordshire in 1974.)
Faringdon Market Charter (1218 & 1313)
The name next appears, losing the final ‘e’ but with two different spellings in the Market Charter (1218):
On 7th March 1218 during the reign of Henry III, the Shire of Berkshire was ordered to ensure that the market in Ferendon or Ferendun be henceforth held on Mondays so long as this does not cause a nuisance to other markets in the vicinity. Nearly a century later, on 18th February 1313, King Edward II granted that the day of the market in ‘Chepyng (Market) Farendon’ may be changed to Tuesday.
Spellings varied over the years as various scribes just made up their own rules, and as shown in the charter above, consistency was not considered to be that important. It was recorded as ‘Fernedun’ (1203), ‘Farendon’ (1225), ‘Farenduna’ (1233), ‘Farndon’ (1242), ‘Farindon’ (1275), ‘Faryndon’ (1327) and then almost finally ‘Faryngdon’ or ‘Chepyngfaryngdon‘ (1501), also ‘Farington’ (1542). The current spelling ‘Faringdon‘ appears on old maps of the area (1736, 1753 & 1761) although sometimes with a double ‘r’ or ‘ton’ instead of ‘don’. It may be interesting to note that the nearby homestead/hamlet of ‘Fernham’ has remained practically unchanged.
Researched by Ian Lee, November 2018 .
1. Place-Names and Topography in the Upper Thames Country: A Regional Essay by W. J. Arkell, p16/18, http://oxoniensia.org/volumes/1942/arkell.pdf
2. The Gough Map of Great Britain: http://www.goughmap.org/settlements/8052/
3. Old Maps Online – A map of the county of Berks – 1762: : https://www.oldmapsonline.org/map/unibern/000992352
4. Oxford-Fyfield-Faringdon-Purton Road Strip map by J. Owen & E. Bowen – 1753: https://www.amazon.com/Oxford-Fyfield-Faringdon-Purton-road-strip-OWEN-BOWEN/dp/B019P3CJU6
5. National Library of Scotland – Berkshire VIII.SW (includes: Great Coxwell; Great Faringdon; Little Coxwell; Shellingford.): https://maps.nls.uk/view/97772849
6. British History Online – Parishes: Great Faringdon: https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/berks/vol4/pp489-499
7. Open Domesday: https://opendomesday.org/place/SU2895/great-faringdon/