First principals, the original Dentons

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Denton – a Roman name?

During my research I found one American amateur genealogist who claimed that Denton derived from a Roman called Julius Dentatus who had come with Gnaeus Julius Agricola to Britain. He went on to claim that Dentatus built a tower on the Picts’ Wall that became Denton Hall. However, Agricola was the general who led the conquest of Britannia in the 60s/70s CE and Hadrian’s Wall was not built until the 120s CE so Dentatus would have to have been very long-lived.

The only trace I could find was a Manius Curius Dentatus who had three times been a consul and whom Pliny hailed as a plebeian hero. However, he was in the Republican period and died in 270 BCE, two centuries before Rome showed any interest in Britain. Here’s the kicker, the reason he had the cognomen Dentatus is that he was born with teeth already grown and it meant ‘toothy’. He was by all accounts a success, conquering the Samnites and putting down a revolt of the Sabines. In 275 BCE in the Battle of Beneventum he defeated Pyrrhus but it proved to be the original Pyrrhic victory. A tale, perhaps apocryphal, is told of him to underline his simple frugality. When the Samnites visited him in an attempt to bribe him to turn away they found him roasting a simple meal of turnips. He refused their gifts of gold saying earthen dishes were good enough for him […] he preferred ruling those who possessed gold to possessing it himself. Aside – as a commissioner in 27O BCE he oversaw construction of the original Aqua Anio Vetus, Rome’s second aqueduct.

Lucius Siccius Dentatus

There is an even older Roman, Lucius Siccius Dentatus (514 -450 BCE), who sounds ferocious. Pliny the Elder described that:

over his lifetime Siccius had fought in 120 battles, received 45 honorable [sic] wounds and several civic crowns; in addition, he won the Grass Crown [the highest accolade that a Roman officer could receive from a legion]. Siccius was eight times champion in single combat, with forty five scars on the front of his body and none on the rear, he is reported to have been awarded no less than eighteen hastae purae [awarded a spear], twenty-five phalerae [metal or glass disks used as medals], 83 torques [a neck ring as a badge of honour], more than 160 armillae, and twenty six coronae [crowns] of which fourteen were coronae civicae awarded for saving the life of a Roman citizen, eight coronae aureae, three coronae murales, and one corona obsidionalis or corona graminea, the highest honour for valour awarded for the deliverer of a besieged army. Clearly no-one called Siccius names, such as Cissy or Toothy – and got away with it. 

I found no trace of a Julius Dentatus but I was entertained by the two tales above. I prefer to believe Burke’s Landed Peerage (1856) that states Denton is Saxon in origin – see below.

Lucius Siccius Dentatus

Denton places

In Bristol where I had my upbringing there were very few Dentons other than those in my close family – I recall there were just six Dentons listed in the Bristol telephone directory in my childhood; we weren’t one of them.  However, years later living in Bedford it proved quite a common name. Our daughter Sarah had another Denton in her school. So from where did my surname originate?

The word Denton appears to be a topographical term, derived from a place not a person. Our descendants can be traced back to Cumberland and to a farm or settlement, which in Old English was a tun, located in a valley or denu – thus denu-tun, which was later anglicised to Denton.

The original family Denton simply took its name from a place. As a qualifier to their first name they added ‘de Denton’, which was later anglicised to ‘of Denton’ and later still the ‘of’ was dropped.

Unsurprisingly England has numerous settlements in valleys and quite a number have thus been named as Denton. To date I have identified seventeen places called Denton in England: 

The largest is a town within the Tameside Metropolitan Borough of Greater Manchester¹  

Tameside Borough

Tameside Borough’s coat of arms combines those of the townships of Denton and Haughton – with the strapline ‘Persevere’. See below that the Denton family coat of arms predates and has resonance with this – note the three devices at the top of the shield.

R D Wingfield’s series of Frost novels that inspired the TV series Touch of Frost starring David Jason is set in the fictional town of Denton that is not intended to be any of the seventeen listed above. Applying references and images from the TV series, both Reading and Oxford are mentioned, maps of Reading and Swindon are displayed in the control room and early sequences feature the M4 and A417. This all adds up to suggest it is intended to be in Berkshire or Oxfordshire, although the series was filmed in Leeds and outside locations were usually in West Yorkshire.

Denton, Greater Manchester

There are nine Denton villages:

  • one near Darlington in County Durham
Denton, Durham
  • one between Belvoir Castle and Grantham in Lincolnshire
Denton, Lincs
  • one between Bedford and Northampton
Denton, Northants

This location in Northamptonshire is the odd one out in that it did not derive from the Old English topographical denu-tun but instead from the settlement of a character named Dodda, the town being called Dodintone in the Domesday Book, later transmogrified into Denton. The nearby Great Doddington shares a connection with Dodda but lies nine miles away on the other side of the Castle Ashby estate (owned by a late-16thcentury Johnny-come-lately family!).

  • one near Huntingdon in Cambridgeshire:
Ruins of All Saints, Denton Cambs

one near Bungay in Norfolk

Denton House, Norfolk
  • another near Newhaven in East Sussex (absorbed)
Denton East Sussex – Earl Godwin’s Manor
  • another north of Folkestone in East Kent
Denton East Kent, Jackdaw pub
  • one absorbed into Gravesend in West Kent
Denton West Kent

There are two Denton hamlets

  • one near Ilkley in North Yorkshire;
Denton Hall. Ilkley
  • another near Oxford.
Denton, Oxfordshire

There are two Denton districts – in Carlisle (Denton Holme) and in St Helens (Denton’s Green)

  • in Carlisle (Denton Holme)
Denton Holme, Carlisle
  • in St Helens (Denton’s Green)
Denton’s Green, St Helens

There are two Denton electoral wards :

  • one in Newcastle-upon-Tyne
Denton ward, Newcastle-upon-Tyne
  • one in King’s Lynn in West Norfolk.

There are two very small places in Cumbria to the east of Carlisle (Nether and Upper Denton) – it is these that prove to be the Denton family ‘ground zero’.

Site of Roman fort in Nether Denton
Upper Denton, St Cuthbert’s Church

My family research was much more successful than I could have dreamed, taking me back twenty-nine generations to those two small places in Cumbria. This was because ‘our’ particular denu was formed by the River Irthing which for fifteen miles describes today’s Cumbria-Northumberland border. It is a very beautiful and unspoilt spot, despite the fact that the valley sits hard up against Hadrian’s Wall. The Romans built the Birdoswald Roman Fort nearby with a bridge to reach it at Willowford. Today the river has changed course leaving the bridge some forty-four metres from the river.

Hadrian’s Wall and the site of Willowford Bridge

It is a journey that will take us into almost every part of England and elsewhere and it uncovers a number of surprising Denton folk along the way.

Discovering the original ‘Denton country’

The earliest person who used the name Denton appears to be an Aelfward (or Ælfweard) aet (of) Dentune. To confuse matters he had a brother called Ælfwald.   Aelfward was mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (circa 972 CE) in reference to an agreement made with the Abbot Ealdwulf. In this deal Aelfward gave up an estate in Warmington (between Oundle and Peterborough) that it was judged he had annexed unlawfully, but his ownership of land at Ashton, Bainton, Benefield, Castor, Longthorp, Maxey, Oxney, Walton and Wittering was reconfirmed. These places are all located in the East Midlands yet in history Aelfward was more often associated with Northumbria. Thus he may therefore have had some connection to our family, but if this is so I have yet to find it. His dene-tun may of course have been for one of the Denton places in the Midlands. But this usage does not appear to have been sustained. A character named Aelfward appears in various forms in a number of modern computer games such as World of Warcraft.

‘Our’ first Dentons appeared in the 12thcentury along the troubled borders of England and Scotland, close to what they called the Picts’ Wall which we know as Hadrian’s Wall (Roman, 2ndcentury CE). This Roman frontier wall is thought to have been originally built from turf, with stone added later. Our area of interest is specifically Cumberland, though at various times this area was considered to be part of Northumbria. 

Section of Hadrian’s Wall near Birdoswald in Gilsland
©Bob Denton 2016

It is worth pausing to consider the realities of this wall. It was not merely to keep the Picts out but also to control movements between Britannia and Caledonia in order to extract taxes. The people manning the wall were ‘Romans’ but the material evidence shows that many of them were in fact originally Germanic. One artefact found recently (2003) was a 2ndcentury CE bronze. Named the Staffordshire Moors pan or trulla, it bears an inscription showing the name of four forts on the western end of the wall and the name of an individual, presumably the purchaser/commissioner. This was Aurelius Draco. The second name reveals him as Greek, the first that he became a Roman citizen during Hadrian’s rule. These multi-ethnic ‘Romans’ were not allowed to bring wives with them so took local ‘wives’ leading to this area becoming something of a human melting pot.

Northumbria was one of the four main Anglo-Saxon kingdoms with East Anglia, Mercia and Wessex, With Essex, Kent and Sussex these formed the Heptarchy, or seven nations which emerged after the Roman rule of Britain had whimpered out and the Romans finally withdrew back into the continent following the Visigoth sacking of Rome in 410 CE. There were more than a dozen other minor kingdoms and together they rose to confront invasions from the Vikings from 793 CE onwards, rallying around Alfred the Great of Wessex and later Æthelred. This early Northumbria encompassed regions we today consider to be parts of Cumbria and Yorkshire and its then occupants are described as largely Anglo-Scandinavian, its aristocracy primarily Danish. This status quo was shaken up by William the Conqueror though of course the Normans were derived from Vikings too.

Bayeux tapestry of Battle of Hastings

It was not in fact at the Battle of Hastings (14 Oct 1066) where William seized control of England but a little later in December 1066 when many Saxon leaders submitted to William at Berkhamstead. However, there remained rebellions around the margins of his control.

In the north William paid the Danish fleet to leave York but he was frustrated when the other rebels in the region would not engage him in formal battle. A period termed by modern historians as the Harrowing or Harrying of the North saw a time of savage fighting, burning, looting and famine. The Domesday Book in 1086 recorded the devastation reporting many estates in the borders area as hoc est vast, or ‘it is wasted’. Historians of the time suggested 100,000 were killed, although this figure sounds more rhetoric than statistic.

Having depleted the land the Normans were able to allocate regions to their own people who established estates for tenants and workers to make it productive. But the Normans soon found, as did the Romans before them, that the borderlands were quite wild, lawless and difficult to rule.

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