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Casters And Chesters
by [?]

Everybody knows, of course, that up and down over the face of England a whole crop of places may be found with such terminations as Lancaster, Doncaster, Manchester, Leicester, Gloucester, or Exeter; and everybody also knows that these words are various corruptions or alterations of the Latin castra, or perhaps we ought rather to say of the singular form, castrum. So much we have all been told from our childhood upward; and for the most part we have been quite ready to acquiesce in the statement without any further troublesome inquiry on our own account. But in reality the explanation thus vouchsafed us does not help us much towards explaining the real origin and nature of these ancient names. It is true enough as far as it goes, but it does not go nearly far enough. It reminds one a little of Charles Kingsley’s accomplished pupil-teacher, with his glib derivation of amphibious, ‘from two Greek words, amphi, the land, and bios, the water.’ A detailed history of the root ‘Chester’ in its various British usages may serve to show how far such a rough-and-ready solution as the pupil-teacher’s falls short of complete accuracy and comprehensiveness.

In the first place, without troubling ourselves for the time being with the diverse forms of the word as now existing, a difficulty meets us at the very outset as to how it ever got into the English language at all. ‘It was left behind by the Romans,’ says the pupil teacher unhesitatingly. No doubt; but if so, the only language in which it could be left would be Welsh; for when the Romans quitted Britain there were probably as yet no English settlements on any part of the eastern coast. Now the Welsh form of the word, even as given us in the very ancient Latin Welsh tract ascribed to Nennius, is ‘Caer’ or ‘Kair;’ and there is every reason to believe that the Celtic cathir or the Latin castrum had been already worn down into this corrupt form at least as early as the days of the first English colonisation of Britain. Indeed I shall show ground hereafter for believing that that form survives even now in one or two parts of Teutonic England. But if this be so, it is quite clear that the earliest English conquerors could not have acquired the use of the word from the vanquished Welsh whom they spared as slaves or tributaries. The newcomers could not have learned to speak of a Ceaster or Chester from Welshmen who called it a Caer; nor could they have adopted the names of Leicester or Gloucester from Welshmen who knew those towns only as Kair Legion or Kair Gloui. It is clear that this easy off-hand theory shirks all the real difficulties of the question, and that we must look a little closer into the matter in order to understand the true history of these interesting philological fossils.

Already we have got one clear and distinct principle to begin with, which is too often overlooked by amateur philologists. The Latin language, as spoken by Romans in Britain during their occupation of the island, has left and can have left absolutely no directs marks upon our English tongue, for the simple reason that English (or Anglo-Saxon as we call it in its earlier stages) did not begin to be spoken in any part of Britain for twenty or thirty years after the Romans retired. Whatever Latin words have come down to us in unbroken succession from the Roman times–and they are but a few–must have come down from Welsh sources. The Britons may have learnt them from their Italian masters, and may then have imparted them, after the brief period of precarious independence, to their Teutonic masters; but of direct intercourse between Roman and Englishman there was probably little or none.

Three ways out of this difficulty might possibly be suggested by any humble imitator of Mr. Gladstone. First, the early English pirates may have learnt the word castrum (they always used it as a singular) years before they ever came to Britain as settlers at all. For during the long decay of the empire, the corsairs of the flat banks and islets of Sleswick and Friesland made many a light-hearted plundering expedition upon the unlucky coasts of the maritime Roman provinces; and it was to repel their dreaded attacks that the Count of the Saxon Shore was appointed to the charge of the long exposed tract from the fenland of the Wash to the estuary of the Rother in Sussex. On one occasion they even sacked London itself, already the chief trading town of the whole island. During some such excursions, the pirates would be certain to pick up a few Latin words, especially such as related to new objects, unseen in the rude society of their own native heather-clad wastes; and amongst these we may be sure that the great Roman fortresses would rank first and highest in their barbaric eyes. Indeed, modern comparative philologists have shown beyond doubt that a few southern forms of speech had already penetrated to the primitive English marshland by the shores of the Baltic and the mouth of the Elbe before the great exodus of the fifth century; and we know that Roman or Byzantine coins, and other objects belonging to the Mediterranean civilisation, are found abundantly in barrows of the first Christian centuries in Sleswick–the primitive England of the colonists who conquered Britain. But if the word castrum did not get into early English by some such means, then we must fall back either upon our second alternative explanation, that the townspeople of the south-eastern plains in England had become thoroughly Latinised in speech during the Roman occupation; or upon our third, that they spoke a Celtic dialect more akin to Gaulish than the modern Welsh of Wales, which may be descended from the ruder and older tongue of the western aborigines. This last opinion would fit in very well with the views of Mr. Rhys, the Celtic professor at Oxford, who thinks that all south-eastern Britain was conquered and colonised by the Gauls before the Roman invasion. If so, it maybe only the western Welsh who said Caer; the eastern may have said castrum, as the Romans did. In either of the latter two cases, we must suppose that the early English learnt the word from the conquered Britons of the districts they overran. But I myself have very little doubt that they had borrowed it long before their settlement in our island at all.