Name of the Month: Rother

The district council ROTHER in Sussex, England

The name of the Sussex district council is taken from the name of the river that flows through it from its sources near Five Ashes and south-east of Rotherfield village to the sea at Rye. The river-name is taken from the name of Rotherfield, and that is a puzzle in itself because Five Ashes has never been in Rotherfield and the village of Rotherfield is not actually on the river at all - nor is it in Rother District.

The name Rother for the river first appears on Christopher Saxton's map including Sussex published in 1576. Before that, it had been known as the Lymene. In this Tudor period, there was a fad for making river-names up from the names of places that stood on their banks, whatever they had been called before, so that in Sussex we get the Arun from Arundel, the Uck from Uckfield, and even in all probability the Ouse from Lewes. That is certainly what has happened in the case of the Rother, and in a fit of passion for tidiness Saxton also makes Robertsbridge into Rotherbridge because it is on what he now calls the Rother. Saxton may well have given the idea of how to name a river to William Harrison, whose Description of England was published in the first edition of Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles in 1577. Either Saxton or Harrison (or both) was a real whiz at these inventions. Rotherfield itself is recorded in Anglo-Saxon times, in fact in King Alfred's will, as æt Hryðeranfelda, a slightly mistaken form which in the most scholarly Old English would have been æt Hrýðerafelde. This means 'at the open land associated with cattle'.

Such a form would be expected to become Retherfield or Ritherfield in the regional English of Sussex. But in medieval English the word for 'cattle' became specialized as rother in the language of the law - lawyers wrote and spoke of rother-beasts. This spelling, which seems to have been a West Midland dialect form originally, gradually supplanted Rether- in the place-name in documents from the 13th century onwards, since most documents of the Middle Ages which mention the place are legal or administrative ones. So when Saxton was trying to work out what the river might logically be called (and not what it was called), he must have discovered that Rotherfield was the usual name of the village, at least among any legally-trained friends he may have had, and he named the river accordingly on his map.

Richard Coates