How did Weston-super-Mare get its name?

PUBLISHED: 12:05 02 March 2006 | UPDATED: 08:58 24 May 2010

We do not know precisely when Weston-super-Mare took upon itself the Latin tag and achieved its delightful, superior-sounding name. Weston, without the Latin addition, is first named as such in the Dean and Chapter of Wells registers for 1226, which give

We do not know precisely when Weston-super-Mare took upon itself the Latin tag and achieved its delightful, superior-sounding name. Weston, without the Latin addition, is first named as such in the Dean and Chapter of Wells registers for 1226, which give an ordinance of Bishop Jocelin setting out the various dues to be rendered to the Treasurer of Wells. Among them is: "Of the Rector of Weston 100 lb. of wax, whereof he shall find the sub Treasurer in the Church of St Andrew, and he shall receive yearly 11s. and puture."By 1234 Weston had become Weston-propre Worle, which of course, means Weston near Worle. In 1311 it was Weston-juxta-Worle, which amounts to the same thing. Then it became Weston-juxta-Mare, Weston-upon-More, Weston-on-the-moor, Weston-supra-Mare, Weston-by-Worle, and so on.The earliest known reference to Weston-super-Mare as such is in the register of another Bath and Wells Bishop, Ralph of Shrewsbury, and is dated 1348.As every schoolboy knows, or should know, "super-Mare" means "on-Sea". The point that puzzles most people is why Weston should want to be so different from places like Southend-on-Sea and Burnham-on-Sea, and should stick to the Latin when there is perfectly good English available. It is, admittedly, somewhat surprising to find such a survival of a dead language still in use as a placename. Most places have been simplified through the centuries. Brighton, for instance, was Brighthelmstone.The explanation so far as Weston-super-Mare is concerned seems to be that for centuries it remained a little one-eyed hole of a fishing village, and no one bothered about its name any more than they would have done with villages like Huish Episcopi and Whitchurch Canonocorum.Then the doctors of Bath, Bristol and Cheltenham "discovered" Weston's air like wine, and started to send their patients here. Almost overnight the village assumed the stature of a town,In next to no time it had its own government, a Town Hall, newspapers, churches, and what not. But in mentioning this I am pushing on a little too fast. The point is, Weston had established its name, there was a touch of class and learned dignity about it, why change it?Weston's unusual name has excited the attention of those inquisitive gentlemen who always try to prove that things are not what they seem. There is, in consequence, a widely held theory that our name "Mare" is not the sea, but moor or mere; in other words the level plain upon which the town has spread itself.It has been difficult to argue against this theory because, as has been pointed out, Weston was anciently described as Weston-upon-More. But against this there is the fact that the ancient village of Weston was clustered around the parish church on the lower slopes of the hill, and did not spread itself over the then undrained marshes.It may be thought that if the place had simply been called Weston it would have saved a lot of bother. But would it? There are about 60 Westons in this country, and nearly 30 in the United States. Even in our own Diocese of Bath and Wells there are at least five. We have plain Weston, a suburb of Bath, Weston-in-Gordano, Weston Zoyland and Weston Bamfylde. What would be more natural than that, in the old days, scribes when writing about our Weston in Latin, the universal language of their day, should refer to it as Weston-super-Mare?Walton-in-Gordano was originally known as Stoke-super-Mare. At that time it was no more than a tiny walled enclosure overlooking the sea. There was no suggestion of it being in a moor. In the Taxation of Pope Nicholas IV is the entry: "Stok sup Mare (Waltone) £5." The date is about 1292, roughly near the same time as the earliest use of Weston-super-Mare.This existence of two super-Mares within a few miles of one another is interesting, since Walton, as you may know, is just a little further up the coast between Clevedon and Portishead. Possibly the same ecclesiastical scribe christened them both, and if he had the sea in mind in one instance, he must certainly have had it in mind with the second.There remains the question of how Weston-super-Mare should be pronounced. A few years ago there was interesting correspondence about this in the Sunday Times. In it Lord Strachie wrote that he was glad to know that there was someone besides himself who had consistently called it Weston-super-Marray.He went on: "As this place was mentioned in broadcasts by the BBC, I wrote to them in 1937 pointing out the incorrectness of the pronunciation. Their reply was to the effect that the Advisory Committee on Spoken English had gone into this matter and that, having taken into account local authority as well as more general opinion, the Committee, after consideration, had recommended that the anglicised form of "Mare" should be retained.Sir George Leveson Gower, another correspondent, wrote that he agreed that Mare should not be pronounced like the name of a female horse."But surely," he commented, "the version Marray is equally incorrect? As a Latin word with the "a" short (as it is shown in the pronunciation of maritime), it should surely be pronounced in the same way as the word "marry"?Yet another correspondent wrote: "Your correspondent submits that there is no justification for pronouncing the Latin word Mare like the English female horse. But is not the French word for sea derived from the Latin, and may we not be justified in pronouncing Mare like Mer? Admittedly, however, Super ought to be come Sur, but we are not a logical people."It is interesting to have these various opinions, but surely the last word on the pronunciation of the town's name should rest with its inhabitants"Not one resident in a thousand prefers to say "Marray," "Marry," or "Mary." Those who do are regarded as either pedantic or ignorant. So much then for the origin of Weston-super-Mare's name, and its pronunciation. Although we do not know who originated it, it has been in use for over 600 years.In the north choir aisle of Wells Cathedral there is an alabaster effigy of Bishop Ralph, of Shrewsbury, who called the men of Weston "sons of iniquity". In those days the wreck of the sea - and in sailing ship days there was a fair amount of it - belonged to the Bishops of Bath and Wells. But the fishing folk of Weston apparently did not agree, and had been in the habit of helping themselves to anything useful that was washed up.In 1353 he sent a mandate to the "Dean of Axebrudge, and the Rectors and Vicars of Weston-super-Mare, Upphulle and Custoke". It read as follows:"Although by the statutes of the scared canons and the holy fathers, all those who presume maliciously to deprive the churches of their rights or through malice strive to infringe or disturb their liberties, or those who attempt to seize the property of the church and do their best to deprive the church of its possession or liberties, and ipso facto liable to the sentence of greater excommunication, and evildoers of this class ought to be denounced as guilty of sacrilege and excommunicate by the ordinaries of the localities until they make full and formal satisfactions and restitution, as it their due..."Nevertheless, certain men, sons of iniquity, regardless of their own salvation and pursuing their own gain, do not hesitate maliciously to disturb, attack, and infringe our rights, liberties, immunities, possessions and customs, and those of our churches, exercised peaceably in times past in our hundred of Wynterstoke, both in the matter of the wreckage of the sea, and in other privileges granted to our predecessors the Bishops of Bath and Wells by our most excellent Prince and Lord, Edward, by the grace of God, the illustrious King of England, and his ancestors .... It cannot be a matter of doubt that these persons have to the danger of their souls fallen under the above sentence of greater excommunication ....""Desiring then that these evil-doers should turn from presumptuous errors as far as it is possible for us to recall them, and to win them to deeds worthy of repentance, we lay a strict injunction upon you, jointly and severally, in virtue of your obedience and commission, and charge you that in the Churches of Uphulle, Custoke, and Weston-super-Mare, and other places where it shall seem most expedient, on the Sunday next of the next ensuing festival of the Conversion of St Paul, and on the other Sundays and festivals then following, with bells ringing and candles burning, etc., you do publicly, solemnly, and in due form denounce that, all and severally, those disturbers, usurpers, despoilers, and as aforesaid, violators of the rights, liberties, possessions, and immunities of the Churches, and other evildoers above-mentioned have been and are ipso facto liable, to the danger of their souls, to the said sentence of greater excommunication, and have it announced in a similar manner by the other clergy, and see that all those injunctions are distinctly and clearly explained to the Christian people there present in the vulgar tongue; not ceasing from the aforementioned denunciations until you have received further orders from us, making especial and diligent enquiry of names of such evildoers, and those whom you shall find guilty either by report or by deed, you shall summon or cause to be summoned peremptorily to appear before us or our commissioner in this diocese in the parish church of Banwell on Friday next after the aforesaid festival of the Conversion of St Paul.By all this it seems that the clergy were to point out to the local people the errors of their ways in removing sea wreckage from the beach, threaten them with excommunication, and also bring any alleged offenders before a special court in Banwell church.This article, edited by Jill Bailey, was originally published on July 28, 1966

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