English Place-name Society

Survey of English Place-Names

A county-by-county guide to the linguistic origins of England’s place-names – a project of the English Place-Name Society, founded 1923.


Major Settlement in the Parish of Halifax

Historical Forms

  • Halifax, Halyfax 1091–7 YChviii 1147,1180–1202 13 Lewes296 1242,1251(1301) Ebor c.1260 Bodl152 1274–1316 WCR 1275 Ebor 1276 RH 1291 Tax 1300 Ebor 14 Sawl194 1303 Pat 1822 Langd
  • Halyfaxe 1462 YDxvii,101 1483 Bodl304a 1562 PRHfx
  • Haliflex' 1170–86 YChviii,144
  • Hallifax(e), Hallyfax(e) 1316 Abbr 1317 DodsN 1522 FF 1537 Testvi 1545,1548 WillY 1546 YChant 1561 PRHfx 1574 YDii 1745 Arm
  • Halefax(e) 1535 VE 1564 Visit
  • Halifaxleie Ed6 Watson
  • Haylyffax 1552 YDi
  • Hollifax 1591 FF 1596 PRLds 1668 Watson


The p.n. Halifax has provoked as much romantic speculation as most, beginning with Camden's interpretation of 'holy hair' (from OE  hālig -feax ) and his story of the maiden of Horton whose refusal to comply with the desires of a lustful priest led to her death at his hands; a tree on which her head was suspended became a holy resort of pilgrims; when the tree was finally stripped of its bark for relics, it was commonly believed that the fibres beneath the bark were the maiden's holy hair, and so Horton [for the existence of which there is no vestige of evidence] grew into a great town and was then called Halifax . Another story based on the same etymology supposes that Halifax was the final resting-place of the head of St John the Baptist (another variant being that there was here a hermitage of great antiquity dedicated to this saint), and this legend is perpetuated in the corporate seal of the Borough; for an account of these various tales v. H. P. Kendal in HAS 35, 21, J. Stansfeld in Thoresby ii, iii ff.

A further difficulty has also led to other explanations. In Domesday Book fol. 299b reference is made to Wakefield with nine berewicks, Sandal, Sowerby, Werla feslei , Midgley, Wadsworth, Cruttonstall, Langfield and Stansfield. It will be noticed that if Wakefield itself is excluded only 8 berewicks are named and for that reason Werlafeslei (which in the MS has Werla at the end of one line and feslei at the beginning of the next) has been taken to represent two places, Werla for Warley 122infra and feslei for Halifax, which other- wise has no place in DB. This together with the unique spelling Haliflex (and one could add Halifaxleie ) has led Ekwall to derive the name from OE  fleax -lēah 'flax field' with hālig 'holy' prefixed after the time of DB, the loss of -l - in -flax being due to dissimilation; it also supposes a loss of the final el. The voluminous evidence is indeed heavily weighted against -flex being anything but an error (especially as the deed has an almost contemporary endorsement with the normal form Halifax ) and Watson's Halifaxleie is taken from a demonstrably erratic document, which has spellings like Scelfetone for Shelf 85, Thoac for Tong 31supra , or Medene for Midgley 132infra .The principal objection to this theory is that the later medieval spellings of Warley are from some such form as Werlafeslei and not Werla ; the DB miscounting of the berewicks is paralleled on the next folio (300a, col. 1), where Knaresborough is credited with 11 berewicks, of which only 10 are named. Unfortunately there is no reference to the berewicks of Wakefield in the DB recapitulation.

Although Halifax is to be accepted as the oldest extant form of the p.n. in the twelfth century, difficulty arises in its interpretation, and analogues are not easy to find. Formally a compound of OE  hālig 'holy' with OE  feax 'hair' is possible and Goodall 154–5 has adduced some parallels to the use of cognates of feax to describe 'coarse grass' (Norw  faks 'broom-grass' Swed  dial. faxe 'coarse grass', a South German fachs 'poor mountain grass', and Swiss  German fach 'short stiff grass'). ON  has a poetic usage of fax 'horse's mane' in vallar-fax 'the field's mane, i.e. the wood'; a word of the form and meaning of Norw  faks is thought also to occur in the Norw  p.n. Faxfalle (NG iv, 138). A few other English p.ns. like OE  to feaxum BCS 880, Vox End Sx 337, Faxfleet YE 224 also contain the word feax in some botanical sense, which the cognates suggest to be 'coarse grass' or the like (cf. EPN i, 166), but Bellyfax YN 84, formerly adduced as a parallel, is probably now to be excluded, as an earlier form 'Beliualscote in the marsh below Pykering' (1329 Edmunds 5) shows that -fax is there a later spelling of OFr  vals 'valley'. If the first el. is hālig 'holy', the reference is completely lost; the allusion cannot be to the possession of the place by Lewes priory in Sussex for it already bore the name at the time of the original grant to the abbey. There is, however, another possibility, namely that the name contains OE  halh 'nook of land' or possibly hall 'rock' (as in Hallam i, 194supra ) rather than hālig , and that the proper form of the final el. was gefe (a )xe , where the prefix ge- (v. EPN i, 197) had a collective function; when it remains this suffix normally appears as ME i - (as in Follifoot pt. v infra ). In this case the name would describe 'an area of coarse grass in a nook of land or amongst rocks'. Other p.ns. like Stammers (NCPN 106) 'rock furze', How Broom (i, 310) or Hoobram (ii, 264) are similar formations. v. Addenda.

Places in the same Parish

Early-attested site

Other OS name