That Totnes is a place of extreme antiquity as a British town cannot be doubted; first, from the site and character of its venerable hill fortress; secondly, from the fact that the chief of the four great British and Roman roads, the Fosse-way, commenced there—“The ferthe of thisse is most of alle that tilleth from Toteneis ... From the south-west to north-east into Englonde’s end;” and, thirdly, from the mention of it, and the antiquity assigned to it by our earliest annals and chronicles. Without entering into the question of the full authenticity of Brute and the Saxon Chronicle, or the implicit adoption of the legendry tales of Havillan and Geoffry of Monmouth, the concurring testimony of those records, with the voice of tradition, the stone of the landing, and the fact that the town is seated at the head of an estuary the most accessible, the most sheltered, and the best suited of any on the south-western coast for the invasion of such a class of vessels as were those of the early navigators, abundantly warrant the admission that it was the landing-place of some mighty leader at a very early period of our history.
And now to the point of the etymology of Totenais, as it stands in Domesday Book. We may, I think, safely dismiss the derivation suggested by Westcote, on the authority of Leland, and every thing like it derived from the French, as well as the unknown tongue which he adopts in “Dodonesse.” That we are warranted in seeking to the Anglo-Saxon for etymology in this instance is shown by the fact, that the names of places in Devon are very generally derived from that language; e.g. taking a few only in the neighbourhood of Totnes—Berry, Buckyatt, Dartington, Halwell, Harberton, Hamstead, Hempstin, Stancombe.
First, of the termination ais or eis. The names of many places of inferior consequence in Devon end in hays, from the Ang.-Saxon heag, a hedge or inclosure; but this rarely, if ever, designates a town or a place beyond a farmstead, and seems to have been of later application as to a new location or subinfeudation; for it is never found in Domesday Book. In that ancient record the word aisse is often found alone, and often as a prefix and as a terminal; e.g., Aisbertone, Niresse, Aisseford, Aisselie, &c. This is the Ang.-Saxon Aesc, an ash; and it is uniformly so rendered in English: but it also means a ship or boat, as built of ash. Toten, the major of the name, is, I have no doubt, the genitive of Tohta, “dux, herzog,” a leader or commander. Thus we have Tohtanoesc, the vessel of the leader, or the commander’s ship,—commemorating the fact that the boat of some great invader was brought to land at this place.
AEdricus qui Signa fundebat (Vol. ii., p. 199), must surely have been a bell-founder: signum is a very common word, in mediaeval writings, for a “bell.”