One aspect of historical study involves words and
their meanings. As I am fascinated by words and their meanings let's
take a closer look at one name that has puzzled and annoyed me: that
of the Hwicce.
The apparent meaning of the word 'hwicce' in
Anglo-Saxon (AS) is locker, chest, or trunk.
I'm sorry, but I do not see a group of aggressive
Saxons calling themselves that deliberately. It neither proclaims
them to be powerful (for example, Goth, ie. the gods, or allemanni,
'all men'), nor does it attempt to belittle them (for example, wiking or viking, a waterborne thief who hides in inlets).
But there may be a solution to this oddity. What if
Hwicce is a degenerate form of Gewissae (AS: the certain, knowing or
The Gewissae were laeti who were embedded among Britons, and
who knows what liberties they and their neighbours took with
mispronouncing the name? It's easy enough for the 'G' of Gewissae to
shift into a 'K', and the Saxon habit was to pronounce a 'K' as
'CH', then soften it more into an 'H'. And the 'SS' of Gewissae might
well have been spoken as an 'SH', which the Welsh/Britons
automatically pronounced as a 'CH'. This could produce Hwicce.
Another intriguing possibility is that their name
is a British pronunciation of 'guest' (AS: gaest, giest) which is 'gwestai'
in modern Welsh. The Britons might have taken the second
pronunciation of 'giest', added their habitual 'W' after the 'G' and
dropped the 'T'; and with an ending vowel added by the Saxons. This
would produce the name Gwiesa or Gwiese, just add the Latin plural
(nouns ending in -a, plural is -ae) and you have Gwissae. One must
always keep in mind that though the Britons spoke their Old Welsh,
they wrote in Latin.
As stated, it's easy enough for the 'G' of
Gewissae to shift
into a 'K', then to a 'CH', and then
to soften into an 'H'. Similarly, the 'SS' of Gewissae could have
become 'SH' and then 'CH' with the Britons. This could produce Hwicce or something close to
it. Once it had mutated that far, the Saxons would have
tried to justify it or make it sensible again by using the nearest
word which sounded approximately the same, one which means 'chest' or
In a culture with no written records at the time, there would have
been no references for going back to the original meaning.
When I look at a modern conjectural map of kingdoms
of Britons and Saxons during the Dark Ages, I am struck by the neat,
even tidy lines drawn between kingdoms. That there were many exact
boundaries I have no doubt. That there were many inexact borders
between kingdoms I am equally certain.
The River Dee, Deva to the Romans, or Afon Dyfrdwy to the Welsh, forms part of the
modern border between England and Wales, but in the sixth century it may have formed
another border, that between Powys to the west and Rheged to the east