A History of Preston in Hertfordshire
Discoveries about the origins of Preston and its name
The first known historical reference to the place-name Preston in Hertfordshire was during an inquest of the Knights Templar in 1185: ‘In Villa de Prestune sunt quatuor caracatae in dominio ex dono Bernardi Balliol et partim ex dono Oliveri de Malvoier, etc.’ Translated, this says, ‘In the village of Prestune are four carucates (approximately the equivalent of 480 acres) given by Bernard de Balliol and Oliver de Malvoier.’ To give an idea of the extent of this gift, below is an area around present-day Preston which measures about 480 acres. But please note, this is certainly not intended to represent the actual dimensions of the gift - although it does roughly conform to what many would regard as today’s Preston and its environs.
Several authorities agree that ‘Prestune’ was an Old English word. They infer from this that the village in Hertfordshire predates the Domesday Book of 1086. Thus, Prof. Tom Williamson writes that as Preston is derived from an Old English word, then the hamlet existed at the time of Domesday: ‘The parish of Hitchin contains four subsidiary hamlets (including Preston) and these to judge from their names (which are of Old English type), were almost certainly in existence in the time of Domesday although not mentioned in it’. He added, ‘the priest tun suggests that it was originally the portion of the estate (of Hitchin) reserved for the sustenance of the minister priests’. Reginald Hine concurred. He wrote that ‘Preston’ was ‘derived from the genitive plural of the O(ld) E(nglish) word, preost’. This, unsurprisingly, means ‘a priest’. He went on to state that it may refer to (1) a ‘tun’ where there was a resident priest (which was such an unusual situation as to justify the place-name, ‘Preston’ being adopted) or (2) a community of priests dwelling beside a church (which was afterwards formed into the Preceptory of the Knights Templar) or (3) an outlying portion of the two hides belonging to the minister of Hitchin referred to in the Domesday Book. Thus, one may say that, historically, the village of Preston probably had a religious presence. As to why a community became established at this location, perhaps there were two fundamental reasons. Firstly, there was an unusual local preponderance of ponds because of the chalk and clay geology of the district and so there was easy access to water for households, farmers and travellers. Secondly, the village was perched on the edge of the Chilterns and was therefore at one of the highest locations in Hertfordshire. The 150-metre contour line passes through the present-day Castle Farmhouse.
A pond near Castle Farm, Preston
However, the assumption that Preston, Herts predated 1086 because of its Old English origins was challenged in 2010 by a locally-sourced document which stated:
“Subsequent gifts from King Stephen, who confirmed the Baliol grant, and others in Kings Walden and Charlton created a substantial estate, and a Preceptory was established at Dinsley, hence Temple Dinsley, by 1185, at which date the adjacent place-name Preston (the Priest’s farm) is first mentioned. There is no discrepancy in Preston being a Post-Conquest foundation despite the Saxon name (it is not mentioned in Domesday, though Wedelee and Dinsley are); there are many Prestons in England, and most have been shown to be Post-Conquest foundations (pers comm Tom Pickles) (ie from personal communication with Tom Pickles).”
The assertion that most Prestons in England had post-Conquest foundations despite having an Old English place name is at odds with the comments noted earlier. I decided to check whether it was accurate. Wikipedia notes thirty-eight Prestons in England - from Sussex to Somerset to Northumberland. Bearing in mind that many of these were small villages, how many were noted in Domesday? When I searched ‘Preston’ on the Domesday Book on-line page of the National Archives, there were sixty-three ‘hits’, and although several of these were duplicated, there were thirty-eight Prestons mentioned in Domesday (the same number is a coincidence as the second set of Prestons didn’t correspond with the ‘Wikipedia thirty-eight’). This contradicts the statement made above.I tried to contact Dr Tom Pickles (then Senior Lecturer in Medieval History at the University of Cheshire) in 2014 to clarify his ‘personal communication’. I referred to the document noted above and added, ‘I would be most grateful for your further comments on this subject and any sources to which you would direct me, please.’ He was kind enough to reply. These were his verbatim comments:
1. Coining: I think a lot of the place-names Preston (preosta-tun, 'the estate of the priests') were coined in the later-eighth, ninth, tenth or early-eleventh centuries, i.e. pre-Conquest in the Anglo-Saxon period. I think this was so because it was common for abbots/abbesses of religious communities to hold all the land before the later eighth century, when we start to see groups of priests holding some of the community's land for their own use; because the majority of these names existed by Domesday Book (1086x1088); and because very few applied to estates in the hands of priests after 1066. So they seem likely to belong to the period between the mid eighth century and the mid eleventh century. But some may be post 1066, of course. 2. Meaning: I think they referred to land set aside for the use of priests - I explore some possibilities for their use in the paper. 3. Social Context: I think the land was set aside and the names were coined for it when an existing religious community was taken over and reorganised, often by a king or bishop. 4. Hitchin: Though I did not consider Hitchin as a case study, it may be a pre-1066 community of clergy, part of whose land (the preosta-tun) was set aside for the priests for a specific purpose. I seem to recall off the top of my head that Hitchin was a small community of priests in Domesday Book?
From these conclusions it is clear that the quote attributed to Dr. Pickles in the document was in fact not his view - indeed, it contradicted his thinking. Therefore, in the absence of any other supporting evidence, I suggest that the document’s comment should be disregarded. Dr Pickles also sent a copy of his 2009 academic paper (which ran to 107 pages), “Biscopes-tūn, muneca-tūn and prēosta-tūn: dating, significance and distribution”, for which I was very grateful. Several of his in-depth comments make for significant reading as we seek to understand the history of Preston village. For reasons which will become obvious, I will now summarise Reginald Hine’s words in History of Hitchin which were based on fourteenth century manuscripts. In 758 AD, Offa fought three battles around Hitchin. Following his final victory, he had a monastry built at Hitchin which was founded according to the rule of St Benedict. Much of the monastry (and of Hitchin) was destroyed by fire in 910 AD. Little is known about what happened to the monks after the blaze and it is possible that St Mary’s was built on the site of the monastry. The Domesday Book refers to the ‘monasterium’ (or minister) of Hitchin which Hine says may refer to 1) the monastry, or 2) a college of secular priests who served the spiritual needs of neighbouring churches, or 3) a large parish church. In any case, Hitchin together with the Wymondleys, Ippollitts and Dinsley formed a deanery which was still in existence in 1291 when a tax was collected to pay for a crusade. So, from around 758 AD until at least 1291, there was a local community/communities of priests around Hitchin - to which Dr Pickles was probably referring. There was, for example, a religious house at Minsden, because it was mentioned in Domesday. The thrust of Dr Pickles paper was to examine the hypothesis of Margaret Gelling that place-names which ended in tun (such as Bishopstun, Monkstun and Prieststun) came into being in the later Anglo-Saxon period - a belief that he declared he ‘ultimately’ supported. She suggests that these types of place names were coined in the later Anglo Saxon period replacing earlier names for the places to which they refer. She also asserts that a large proportion of these names were coined in the late eighth, ninth, tenth or eleventh century as a result of the reorganisation of estates to provide a separate endowment for bishops or for parts of a religious community. Dr Pickles produced historical evidence that some places were named preosta-tun as early as the seventh century. These communities might have been used for a range of purposes by the local clergy. It might be used for food and clothing; or to provide income that would then be split into portions for individual clerks; or it might be used as a source of communal land from which individual clerks could hold portions whilst they were active members of the community. Dr Pickles concluded that, ‘a significant proportion of these places (which came to be known as ‘Preston’) is known to have been owned by a religious community or is likely to have been owned by a religious community; such associations make an original name in the genitive plural very likely’. In view of what we was set out above as regards the religious history of the locality, it seems likely that Preston, Herts was so called before Domesday and was a reflection of religious activity in and/or around the village.
This article is not only about the place-name of Preston but also when the village came into being It may have been in existence for years before it was so christened - hence Margaret Gelling’s comment that place-names like Prestune replaced ‘earlier names for the places to which they refer’. Preston may have existed for centuries before Domesday. the statement in Wikipedia’s that, “The village grew up around the Templar holdings at Temple Dinsley” is probably incorrect.