The Origins of the Name, “Woodbury”

As a nice Saxon name, ‘Woodbury’ has its origins in the old English word byrig, dative of burh ‘fortified place’. While in it’s current form, it is not native to Britain (as in, not Welsh), it’s roots are Saxon, and thus the place-name ‘Woodbury’ in Devonshire and Woodbury Castle above Woodbury Common predates the Norman conquest of 1066. The name was recorded “as ‘Wodeberie’ in the Domesday Book of 1086, and the latter ‘Ve(s)burg’. The derivation of both placenames is from the Olde English pre 7th Century . . . The first recorded spelling of the family name is shown to be that of David de Wodebir, which was dated 1273, Hundred Rolls Devon, during the reign of King Edward I.”

An ancestor of mine, writing about the origin of the name, puts forth the theory in “An Old Planter in New England: John Woodbury“: ” … the first syllable of the name ‘Wode’ means ‘mad’ or furious and is not a synonym of ‘forest’ or equivalent. “Wudu” is the Saxon for ‘wood’ but this surname never appears in that form in early English. My first authority for this derivation of the name was the late Hon. Robert Rantoul, Jr. “Wode and “woden” both appear in early English as adjectives with the same signification. Verstigan p. 80: “The name Woden signifies fierce or furious, and in like sense we yet retain it, saying, when one is in a great rage, that he is wood, or taketh on as if he were wood.” But Wood, Wode, and Woden alike come from the name of the Danish and Saxon ‘Alfader’ god Woden. Hence the name of this place (Woodbury Castle in Devon) may be the noun, and signify ‘Wodensfort’ (Verstigan pp 235, 265).”

This reading is supported by my standard etymological dictionary:

wood (n.):  Old English wudu, earlier widu “tree, trees collectively, forest, grove; the substance of which trees are made,” from Proto-Germanic *widu- (source also of Old Norse viðr, Danish and Swedish ved “tree, wood,” Old High German witu “wood”), from PIE *widhu- “tree, wood” (source also of Welsh gwydd “trees,” Gaelic fiodh- “wood, timber,” Old Irish fid “tree, wood”).

Compare this to:

wood (adj.): “violently insane” (now obsolete), from Old English wod “mad, frenzied,” from Proto-Germanic *woda- (source also of Gothic woþs “possessed, mad,” Compare Old English woþ “sound, melody, song,” Old Norse oðr “poetry,” and the god-name Odin.

At the same time, my ancestor, William Woodbury, self identified as a Welshman when he joined the church in Salem, Massachusetts in 1630. We may never know that connection.

In 1848, there were three locations in England with the name ‘Woodbury’ (and lots in the US, but that’s another story):

“WOODBURY, a hamlet, in the parish of Gamlingay, poor-law union of Caxton and Arrington, hundred of Longstow, county of Cambridge; containing 34 inhabitants.

WOODBURY (St. Swithin), a parish, and formerly a market-town, in the union of St. Thomas, hundred of East Budleigh, Woodbury and S. divisions of Devon, 3 miles (E. by S.) from Topsham; containing 1933 inhabitants. The parish comprises 7304 acres, of which 734 are common or waste: the navigable river Exe bounds it on the west. The living is a perpetual curacy; net income, £150; patrons, the Custos and College of Vicars Choral in the Cathedral of Exeter. The church contains some ancient monuments, among which is one to Chief Justice Sir Edmund Pollexfen. At Salterton, in the parish, to the north of the village of Woodbury, is a district church dedicated to the Holy Trinity, built and endowed by Miss Marianne Pidsley, who holds the patronage. A school, in connexion with the National Society, is endowed with £37 per annum. On the edge of a lofty hill commanding a beautiful prospect, is an ancient earthwork called Woodbury Castle, an inclosure of irregular form, deeply intrenched.

WOODBURY, a tything, in the parish of RomseyExtra, union of Romsey, hundred of King’s-Sombourn, Romsey and S. divisions of the county of Southampton; containing 293 inhabitants.”

From: ‘Wombleton – Woodbury’, A Topographical Dictionary of England (1848), pp. 649-652.

Woodbury Castle  ( has been the subject of a series of excavations over the years:

“A conspicuous hill-top fort, on the crest (175m) of a ridge of the Bunter Pebble Beds on Woodbury Common, two kilometres east of Woodbury village. The B3180 runs through the fort, passing through the two entrances.The main enclosure of 2 hectares is defended by a massive steep rampart and deep ditch, supplemented on the north and east sides by a substantial counter-scarp bank. On the west side the defences are doubled and the end of the second rampart is expanded to create a fighting platform beside the northern entrance. The main rampart turns inwards to flank the southern entrance, now under the road. Other gaps are modern.

60m to the north there is another smaller rampart and ditch across the ridge, extending to Soldiers’ Well, a spring on the western side, which probably served as the water supply for the hillfort. On the southern and western sides there are intermittent earthworks that are earlier than the main hillfort.

Limited excavation of a narrow strip alongside the road in 1971 by Henrietta Quinnell showed that a palisaded enclosure pre-dated the defences. The inner rampart was found to have a turf revetment at the back and was topped by a timber breastwork; subsequently it was heightened and the breastwork renewed. At the northern entrance, the rampart ends were revetted with timber and later strengthened with stone, whilst in the interior there were post-holes indicating rectangular timber buildings, possibly granaries. Finds were very few but the pottery suggested that the defences were completed before 300 BC.”
There are, in fact, several more ‘Woodbury’ place names, all ancient, all dating to the iron age or Roman times.  Also in Devon, on my map of Roman Britain, is Axminster, located at ‘Woodbury farm’.  It was a Roman site which sits at the crossroads of two Roman roads.

And then three more iron age hill forts:  ‘Woodbury Hill’ located northwest of Worcester and apparently the site of the worst defeat of the Welsh leader Owain Glyndwr to English forces, ‘Great Woodbury’, and ‘Little Woodbury’, the latter two excavations near Salisbury.   There is even a ‘Little Woodbury culture’:  Middle Iron Age communities living in central southern England in the 3rd and 2nd centuries bc. The culture was named by Frank Hodson in 1964 on the basis of material from Gerhard Bersu, Gerhard 1938–9 excavations at Little Woodbury near Salisbury, Wiltshire.

Larry Wert has done heroic and exhaustive research of the thousands of Woodbury descendents.  For more stories and more information than you could possibly comprehend, see his web page: