Harrow on the Hill is perhaps Harrow’s most defining landmark – the home of its famous school; the location of the church whose steeple can be seen across the borough. For many, if not most, Harrow is its hill, and the hill is Harrow.
Yet, as it turns out, the hill may have also importance for those outside of Harrow too.
Anyone that has performed a quick Google search of Harrow, and has had a browse of its Wikipedia page, will likely know that the origins of the borough’s name ties back to the Anglo-Saxon pagan tradition. For those who haven’t, Harrow’s famous hill was not known by its contemporary name until the late fourteenth century – in 1398 being known as ‘Harrow atte Hille,’ and then later becoming ‘Harrowe on Hill’ in 1426. Prior to that, it had a string of different names dating back to 767 at the earliest with ‘Gumeninga hergae.’ This mouthful of a name is medieval Anglo-Saxon language that translates roughly to a ‘heathen shrine’ for a tribe called the ‘Gmeningas.’ The hill, we can then suppose, was once of ritualistic, if not religious, importance to this tribe – a tribe of which nothing more is known.
However, this isn’t what makes Harrow special. Place names derived from Anglo-Saxon language is scarcely uncommon. From Uxbridge to Stratford, most places, in London and without, stem from the language of these ancient peoples. At the same time, pagan sites of importance being attached to natural landmarks is also very common. Temples, when built in medieval pagan cultures, were regularly built on natural features of the landscape – be it sacred trees, wells, or, in this case, hilltops – with pagan cultures having commonly emphasised nature in their worship. What makes Harrow on the Hill special is twofold.
First, Harrow on the Hill’s original name ‘Gumeninga hergae’ suggests that the pagan practises may have still been taking place on the hill – despite increasing conversion to Christianity at the time. At the same time, and more significantly, Harrow on the Hill and St. Mary’s that now stands on it, also serves as an example of something that may have been widespread at the time of its construction – namely the replacement of a pagan temple by a Christian church. This practice, in rhetoric at least, is not unheard of. In the sixth and seventh centuries, Pope Gregory the Great called in his pursuit of pagan conversion churches to be built on previously pagan sites. However, St. Mary’s could well be an artefact of this practice – one of the few that explicitly link back to this conversion period and Christianity’s approach to pagan cultures.
Harrow’s famous hill, then, has significance well beyond the borders of the borough, and indeed, well beyond the borders of London. The hill, and its church, are access points – potential access points albeit – to the ancient people that are the roots and origin of the nation today, and to a time when this people underwent a considerable transformation, one that’s impact continues to be seen in the present. It’s something to think about, at least – not only that our old hill may have national importance, but that, when we walk its steep pastures, we tread on the site of a by-gone, medieval culture, on raw history buried in the soil, a history of which so little is known.
If you’d like to know more about some of Harrow’s medieval past, as well as the past of London and what contemporary place names can tell us, there are two books worth checking out that this article is indebted to. First, A. D. Mills’ A Dictionary of London Place Names, and second, Nicholas Higham’s and Martin Ryan’s The Anglo-Saxon World – which can both be found online.
Of course, perhaps the best way to engage with this history is to visit the famous hill itself, and walk the land that, hundreds of years ago, had been of such great importance, and the site of such great change.
Written by Harry Turner.
Image Credit: http://studiotolet.co.uk/