St Alkelda

Michael Slater
 North Craven 
 Heritage Trust 

Interest in St Alkelda, patron saint of Giggleswick Church, was recently re-awakened on finding two place-names on the Snaefellsnes peninsula in western Iceland. The names Ölkelda and Raudamelsölkelda occur at farmsteads with springs of mineral-laden water, cold and hot respectively. Öl is pronounced approximately as ‘erl’, ð as ‘th’. Ölkelda means mineral spring or bubbling well; raudamel means red gravel. There is also a place Raudamelr in Iceland - possibly the origin of Rathmell?

There was sufficient contact between the Scandinavian countries, Iceland, Scotland, Ireland, Northern Britain and Saxons in pre-conquest times to make it reasonable to accept that the origins of the name Alkelda lie in the similar languages of these countries. The Icelandic sagas tell of many journeys between these places. Is it tenable to suppose that the name of St Alkelda was adopted locally at this time in view of springs in Giggleswick referred to as Ölkelda?

The detailed research of Heather Edwards (2004) into the origins of St Alkelda needs to be the starting point. Victorian theory was that Old English ‘halig’ and Old Norse ‘kelda’ were combined as ‘holy spring’. Modern theory of place-names refutes that ‘halig’ or Icelandic ‘heilagur’ became contracted to ‘Al’, which is more likely to be the first syllable of an Anglo-Saxon personal name. The spelling of the name in late medieval days was more often Alkilde (in Latin) than Alkelde (Alkild, Alkylde, Alkyld in English texts). On these grounds the derivation from ‘kelda’ is not supported. Further, the final ‘a’ of Alkelda might be a more modern addition to make a word feminine. (But a final syllable ‘a’ or ‘æ’ or ‘eá’ can mean flowing water, as in many river names). Heather Edwards therefore proposes the female name Alchhild with the elements ‘Alch’ and ‘hild’ separately well-attested - with no reference at all to holiness or water.

Alchhild was probably a Saxon high-born lady, perhaps abbess of a monastery at Middleham, the church there having a holy well. Maybe there was a daughter community of Middleham monastery at Giggleswick established in the 7th C when Craven was taken over by Northumbrian kings. The close links of Giggleswick (a Saxon name - ‘Gikels wic’) with Northumberland in Tudor times are seen in various wills of the Carr family, particularly James Carr 1528 but also William and the two Leonard Carrs who were Merchant Adventurers of Newcastle upon Tyne.

Despite this scholarly conclusion one cannot help wondering about a non-personal name connection or allusion. Springs in Giggleswick would have been important in early settlement days, but would not necessarily have had holy attributes. There is a spa source near Wigglesworth still visible today (although the water tastes like - water!). The pronunciation difference between Alchhild, Alkilde, Alkelde and Alkelda is surely very slight and spelling in medieval documents is not consistent enough to be sure about the name elements. A direct connection between the word Ölkelda and Alkelda as spelled today still seems possible.

The Icelandic farmer at Ölkelda said that the separate word ‘öl’ now means beer and ‘kelda’ meant wet land to him. ‘Kelda’ means well, spring or quagmire according to various dictionaries of modern and old Icelandic. The thought of a beer spring is intoxicating. However, perhaps there is also a possible association of ‘öl’ with oil or the process of annointing. Currently the surface water of the Ölkelda spring is stagnant and the water for the farmstead comes from a 30m deep borehole. It definitely tastes mineral-laden but not as strongly as water from the spa at Harrogate.

Maybe the truth lies in the adoption of St Alkelda or Alchhild as the patron saint of Giggleswick Church in Saxon times when residents of Giggleswick first heard of her at Middleham and were pleased to associate the name with the local spring or bubbling well which they knew as Ölkelda. Much speculation can be involved in name research, as has to be admitted here.

Ölkelda in Iceland

Ölkelda in Iceland