“Lordynges, there is in Yorkshire, as I gesse, A mersshy contree called Holdernesse..."
Although Tolkien’s 18 months in East Yorkshire have been examined before, it is my contention that there are reasons why previous accounts provide only a partial picture. Carpenter seems very sketchy on Tolkien’s time in the area, and has since been proved to have made some errors of dating. John Garth, author of Tolkien and the Great War, undertook considerable original research when he was looking into Tolkien’s period in Holderness, but I’m sure he won’t mind me saying that he has admitted that he only spent one day on the ground visiting East Yorkshire’s Tolkien locations. Of course his work was also more broadly focussed on the whole of Tolkien’s World War period than a specific look at Tolkien’s time in Yorkshire. In contrast, Phil Mathison, who wrote Tolkien in East Yorkshire, knows Holderness extremely well, but he confided that he has not read any fiction written by Tolkien. This account comes from the viewpoint of a reader with a deeper knowledge of Tolkien’s fiction than Mathison, coupled with an attempt to follow Tolkien’s actual footsteps in more detail than was possible for John Garth. This is a work-in-progress, so it isn’t meant to be the final word on the subject. Hopefully, it will shed a little new light on Tolkien’s period in Holderness.
Holderness is still a forgotten, hidden and neglected part of the country now, as it was when Tolkien was stationed there almost 100 years go, but he would have been aware of its existence before he arrived. Tolkien had studied Chaucer at both school and university, so he would have known the above lines, which are the first two from “The Summoner’s Tale” in Chaucer’s epic work, The Canterbury Tales. So far as I’ve been able to ascertain they are the earliest reference to Holderness in English Literature. Since Chaucer’s time extensive drainage of Holderness has been undertaken, so when Tolkien arrived it was no longer quite the “mersshy contree” of Chaucer’s time. Many people who have read about Tolkien’s life probably have a fairly accurate image of Oxford in their minds, and Birmingham is also quite a well-known English city. However, East Yorkshire is virtually unknown in comparison.
Once Tolkien was stationed in East Yorkshire he was living for the first time in his life in an area in which an extremely high proportion of the surviving place-names are Scandinavian or Anglian in origin. This would have appealed to the philologist in Tolkien.Locations with which Tolkien became acquainted in East Yorkshire include Thirtle Bridge, the army camp in which he was based. Thirtle derives from the Old Norse of Thorkell, which is a shortened form of Thorketil. The first element comes from the Norse God Thor, and the second, “ketill”, is from cauldron. Danthorpe, which is a few miles north-west of Roos, means village of the Danes, and Hilston, which is even closer to Roos, means Hildof’s farm. Hildof is believed to be a Scandinavian and Anglian hybrid. Finally, Frodingham south of Roos is derived from “the settlement of Frodo’s people”, sorry I mean “the settlement of Froda’s people”! This section was originally written as a hopefully amusing throwaway line, but it has recently been pointed out to me that Tom Shippey shows in The Road to Middle-earth that ‘Frodo’ is an English form of [the] original Froda.” Shippey goes on to point out the parallels between Froda, a character mentioned in passing in Beowulf, and Tolkien’s protagonist. However, the proximity of Frodingham to Roos, and Tolkien’s known interest in place-names, indicates that he may well have also been thinking about this name associated with an historical Froda and a place he knew during WW1 when he was writing The Lord of the Rings. It is well-known that many things in Tolkien are multi-layered, and this may well be another example. The name Roos itself is unusual in that it has Celtic origins, but more of that later.
Of course, Tolkien originated in the West Midlands where smaller divisions of counties were referred to as hundreds, which date from the late Saxon period. However, Holderness was a division of East Yorkshire that was known as a wapentake until quite late into the 19th-century. This is a term used in several other northern counties. It was this word Tolkien appropriated for his “weapontake”, which he transformed from its original meaning to refer to the mustering of armed warriors in Rohan.
Background In 1916 Tolkien participated in the Battle of the Somme, but contracted trench fever, and was invalided home on 9th November. He was hospitalised at Edgbaston from which he travelled on occasion to Great Haywood to see Edith, but at the end of February 1917 he was transferred to Harrogate, and after a medical examination was sent to join the 3rd Reserve Battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers at Thirtle Bridge, near Withernsea. Tolkien actually arrived in Hornsea by train from Hull on 19th April. Hornsea is 17 miles to the north-west of Withernsea, and Tolkien seems to have spent some time initially at Hornsea Musketry Camp. Edith, with her cousin Jennie Grove, took lodgings in Hornsea, presumably to be close to him.