An Origin Shrouded In Myth & Mystery

Illustration: Orme The Viking by Maxine Lee-Mackie

Illustration: Orme The Viking by Maxine Lee-Mackie

At first glance the origin of Ormskirk would seem to be a rather simple story to tell. The place name is Norse in origin, coming from the Viking personal name Orme and Kirk, the Norse word for church. So that is it then, a Viking named Orme built a church and Ormskirk was born.

However, if we take a closer look, like with most things, the story is not that simple and there are a lot of questions that must be answered if we are to unlock the true secrets of the origins of the town.

A Norse origin would suggest that the town was founded prior to the Norman invasion of 1066. Why then is it not listed in the Domesday book, a survey of all of the land holdings in England that took place in 1086? Is the town not as old as we might think?

Numerous theories abound as to why there is a lack of an entry for Ormskirk in the Domesday book, including that it may have been land held by the church and therefore not listed, but there is one obvious theory that stands up better than any other. If Ormskirk at the time was nothing more than a small holding, perhaps with it’s original church still standing, then it is likely that it actually formed part of the manor of Lathune (Lathom). What is certain however is that a lack of Domesday entry does not preclude the town from being Early Medieval in origin.

Lathom was held by Uchtred, along with large portions of the North West of England and would remain the most important seat of power in the area until the English Civil War, being latterly the seat of the Earls of Derby. Ormskirk on the other hand would only come into its own as a market town after 1286, when a market charter was granted to the Abbot of Burscough Priory.

Just who was Orme? Where did he come from and why did he end up at Ormskirk?

Local historians in the past have told a story of Orme being expelled from his lands around Halton in Cheshire. Moving North with his family and followers he came across the high ground at Ormskirk and made a decision to establish himself there. At the time the region was sparsely populated and this theory makes a lot of sense, especially when we consider the very fluid boundaries that existed at the time between the Norse lands in the North of England and the kingdom of Mercia to the immediate South. This theory seems to be highly plausible, but there is one alternative story that would fit at least equally well, if not better.

In around 902 the Vikings, originally of Norwegian origin, who had for a number of decades settled in the area around Dublin were expelled by the Irish. Setting out across the Irish Sea they landed at Crossens and began to settle new lands in the North West. At this time links were established along the Ribble Valley with the Danish Vikings whose lands in the North of England were centred around a large settlement at York. Large numbers of new settlements were founded at this time, indeed many of the Viking place names of our local area can trace their origins to this event, so why not Ormskirk?

Both of the stories you have just read may well hold the key to the origin of Ormskirk and we may never know the whole truth, but there is more evidence for the mass movement of Norse people from Ireland than for any specific event relating to Halton, making this theory, potentially, the slightly more plausible of the two.

Lastly there is the church itself. Current thinking suggests that there is no standing structure older than about 1170 in date, so it certainly isn’t Orme’s Church. Of course it is perfectly possible that an earlier church stood on the site, but where is the evidence for that?

Well it is twofold and actually, in part at least, more directly evident than you may at first think. Within the East wall of the church there are a number of carved stones, set within one of the oldest surviving areas of the church. Several of them look crudely carved, almost like graffiti, but two in particular could potentially be Early Medieval in origin and therefore possibly from an original church built on the site.

One, which now sits on its side within a wall, depicts two figures. Who exactly they represent is up for debate, but the style of carving, along with the fact that the stone is obviously re-used, would indicate that it pre-dates the current church. The second depicts a raven, a symbol often associated with Norse mythology. Could this be a symbol of Orme or one of his followers?

Much less obvious, in fact completely hidden from the modern observer, are the supposed foundations of an earlier church which are said to lie underneath the more recent building. Evidence for this being the case is provided by antiquarians who were, it is assumed, allowed to view the building during renovation in the 1880s. It must be said that these reports cannot be considered completely reliable, but more research is being undertaken even as you read this, in the hope of uncovering the true origins of the church.

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