The Origin of the Name
“Chevy Chase” may have been derived from the French word “chevauchee” used in medieval Scotland and England to describe the horseback raids made into the ancient borderlands between the two countries. Or, since the Cheviot Hills run along the middle of the border country, which was partly under cultivation, and the hills’ “chases” (unenclosed hunting grounds reserved for their owners’ use) were popular hiding and hunting areas for both sides, perhaps “Cheviot” and “chase” were combined to create the name “Chevy Chase.”
Whatever its derivation, the name became the title of the English version of a ballad memorializing the famous Battle of Otterbourne which took place at Otterburn, in the Cheviot Hills, Northumberland, England, in August 1388, between the Scottish troops of James, Earl of Douglas and Englishmen led by Lord Harry “Hotspur” Percy, who challenged Douglas by mounting a deer hunt in the hills. The battle was stubborn and bloody, fought hand to hand in the dark -- and may have been fought hand to hand through the night. The Scots prevailed, but many troops were lost, and Douglas died.
The Ballads “Popularizing” the Name
The battle became part of Scottish and English folklore, moving from oral to written tradition, first in the form of the Scottish ballad, “Battle of Otterbourne,” then in the English version, “Chevy Chase.” These were sung well into the 19thcentury in America as well as in Britain. The different perspectives of the Scottish and the English people are apparent, although nuanced, in their ballads. [See notes 1 and 2 below.]
There are substantive differences as well – for example, the Scottish version is correct that Percy survived the battle. (Indeed, the Scots held Percy and his brother Ralph for ransom.) Yet it is unclear whether the Scottish version is correct that the battle continued through the night, or whether it ended earlier as the English version has it. The Scottish version apparently is correct that Douglas was wounded in personal combat with Percy, and not struck by an English arrow as the English ballad relates.3 But was it actually Douglas’ nephew Sir Hugh Montgomery who took Percy hostage, as the Scottish version recounts? For those who are interested in exploring the battle between the great Scottish and English chieftains Douglas and Percy in more detail, compare the Scottish and English ballads, by clicking on these PDFs: Battle of Otterbourne and Chevy Chase.
The Naming of our Community
The Chevy Chase Land Company took the name "Chevy Chase" from a 200-plus acre tract of land that the Land Company purchased to include in its planned street car suburb. The tract was identified in its 1751 proprietary patent as "Cheivy Chace." It was part of an earlier, larger grant also named Cheivy Chace, from Lord Baltimore to Colonel Joseph Belt. The Belt estate gradually was broken up. The owner of one part was Abraham Bradley, who was Assistant Postmaster General of the United States in 1814, and is rumored to have sheltered several cabinet members (and the valuable government documents they were carrying) at "Bradley Farm" when the British burned the White House. After the Land Company purchased the farm, it became home to the Chevy Chase Hunt - appropriately enough, given the origin of the name. The hunt later became the Chevy Chase Club.
In 1892, John Frank Ellis purchased 14 ½ acres of farm land along Brookville Road from J.M.C. Williams. Ellis plotted 69 house lots and put them up for sale in 1894, "spinning off" of the Chevy Chase name by calling his development "Otterbourne" on Connecticut Avenue "at Chevy Chase." The development depended on the same Connecticut Avenue street car line that served the Land Company's new development of Chevy Chase Section 2; Ellis gave its streets the battle-related names of Melrose Street (now Thornapple Court), Dalkeith Street, Douglas Street (now Underwood Street), and Percy Street (now Thornapple Street); and it became Section 6 of the Village of Chevy Chase, then part of Section 5. The southern row of the Otterbourne lots now is the boundary between Sections 3 and 5. It blocks Delaware, Florida, Fulton, and Georgia Street from going through to Thornapple Street.
Much of the original research on which this article is based was performed by CCHS Board Member-at-Large Julie Thomas, and Photographic Archivist Eleanor Ford, in the course of creating society exhibits on “The Naming of Chevy Chase” and “A Tale of Battles and Ballads” (see the bibliography, below). The society’s oral history of Chevy Chase resident Edith Claude Jarvis, and “A ‘History’ of Chevy Chase” written by resident Fred Perkins in observance of Chevy Chase Section 4’s 50th anniversary, also provided information for the article.
- A related series of ballads called “The Hunting of the Cheviot” or “The Battle of Chevy Chase,” about a private duel between Douglas and Percy rather than a border raid, also developed following the battle.
- Pictorial representations of the battle vary as much as do the ballads.
- According to Jean Froissart, one of the great writers of medieval Europe, who based his 1390 written account of the Battle of Otterbourne on interviews with participants, Douglas died from a blow from an axe. Surrounded by knights and squires, including some cousins, and a priest, Douglas exhorted the group not to reveal his condition to his troops, but to take up his banner and proceed against the English. The men did so, crying “Douglas!”, and rallied the Scots to victory. From Vol. III, Harvard Classics (C.W. Elliot, Ed.) 1938.
- Adams, Katherine Beall, Maryland Heritage: A Family History.
- Addison, Joseph, Spectator, Vol. I. (A. Chalmers, Ed.) Appleton & Co., New York 1864.
- Singing Tradition of Child’s Popular Ballads (B.H. Bonson, Ed.) Princeton 1976.
- Fraser, George M., The Steel Bonnets, Collins Harvill, London 1989.
- Froissart, Jean, Chronicles (Geoffrey Brereton, Ed. and Trans.) Penguin 1978.
- Froissart, Sir John, Chronicles of England, France and Spain. (Based on Thomas Johns’ Trans. of 1803, Dutton 1961).
- British Poetry and Prose, (Ludes, Lovett, and Root, Eds.) Houghton Mifflin 1938.
- Mackie, J.D., A History of Scotland, Penguin 1964.
- Complete Plays and Poems of Shakespeare(W.A. Neilson and G. Hill, Eds.) Houghton Mifflin 1942.
- Percy, Thomas, Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, Vol. I (W.P. Nimms, Ed.) Edinburgh.
- Prebble, John, The Lion in the North, Penguin 1973.
- Reed, James, The Border Ballads (Stocksfield, Ed.) Spredden Press 1991.
- Sadler, John, Battle for Northumbria, Bridge Studios, Northumberland 1988.
- H.C. Sargent and G.L. Kittredge, English and Scottish Popular Ballads, Riverside Press, Cambridge 1932.
- Scott, Sir Walter, Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border.
Some of the text describing the prologue to and battle of Otterbourne is adapted from information posted at the Battlefield Memorial Plantation.