The “-sex” in some British place names

The United Kingdom has some interesting place names. From names that could sound rather vulgar, like Bitchfield in Lincolnshire, Penistone, and Scunthorpe in South Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire respectively, to some outright ridiculous names like Braintree and Splatt. Many of these names are scattered throughout England, and to a smaller extent, Scotland. But today, we have here, a little dive into the county names that end in a peculiar suffix, “-sex”.

Look around south England and you would find three or four counties that generally carry this suffix — Essex, Sussex, Wessex, and Middlesex. If you do in fact get Among Us memes, probably Sussex would stand out to you. Middlesex is however, largely absorbed into Greater London, Hertfordshire, and Surrey. Sussex is split into East and West Sussex, and Wessex ceased to exist since 1066 after the reunification of the earldom with the crown by Harold Godwinson. So, in a way, only two of the original “-sexes” exist to this day.

Prior to the historic Battle of Hastings in 1066, England was ruled as smaller kingdoms and other denominations by the Anglo-Saxons, who rose after the Roman Empire declined in the British Isles. The Angles initially controlled what would be East England, and also contributed to what would be called England (from Angle-land), while the Saxons would maintain settlements and territory in the South and Southeast England. The Saxons would be the focus of today’s post, as their territory would correspond to the counties and historic counties in question.

The Saxons are Germanic people groups, whose demonym could have derived from a type of knife known as a seax in Old English, sachs in Old German, and sax in Old Norse. This people group would originate in the coast of what is today North Germany, hence also giving the name Saxony to three German states, as Saxony (Sachsen), Saxony-Anhalt (Sachsen-Anhalt), and Lower Saxony (Niedersachsen). The Saxons would spread to South England during the 5th and 6th centuries CE, and together with the Angles and other people groups that migrated, form the Anglo-Saxon period in England.

The suffix “-sex” would correspond to the kingdom ruled by the Saxons during this period. Essex originated as Δ’astseaxe, as East Saxons, Wessex would mean West Saxons, Sussex would mean South Saxons, and Middlesex would be Middle Saxons.

But hold on a second. The suffix “-sex” is used for three of the four cardinal directions of Saxon kingdoms, and the middle. What happened to the north counterpart? Did that ever exist? Would it have been called “Nossex”?

We must recall that the Angles settle what would be further north of the territory controlled by the Saxons. The powerful kingdom of Mercia and the smaller kingdom of East Anglia would be among the most notable kingdoms of the region during that time. These would be located in the areas almost immediately north of Middlesex, but this might not necessarily be the reason why Nossex did not exist.

Theories surrounding the absence of Nossex could range from identity to creation myths, depending on which evidence is weighed and put forward by historians. However, what is agreed is that the Anglian region was not North Saxons, or Nossex. Cultural influences and identity in the settlements north of Middlesex could have influenced this absence of such a name, which was one that could have completed the “-sex” set like the Exodia the Forbidden One card set in Yu-Gi-Oh.

In short, the “-sex” in these British place names indicate the kingdoms once ruled by the Saxons, who migrated from northern Germany, and whose name derived from a specific type of knife unique to these peoples.

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