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Foy: Behind the Name

Taking its name from the river, which in ancient times (as far back as 1200) was known in the old Cornish language as Fawi, the parish of Fowey has had a few different names over the years.

The Oxford Dictionary of English Place Names (1936) suggests Fowey may mean 'beech river', a derivative of the Old Cornish equivalent of Old Breton fau, fou, foy, Welsh ffawydd - 'beeches' (from Latin fagus). Faou also occurs as the name of a brook in Brittany. Until the end of the sixteenth century the usual spelling was the previously mentioned Fawi or Fauwy - a very good sound picture of water running over shallows, which given the literal translation is rather apt.

In Henry III's reign, the men of Fowey rescued ships from Rye, an English town near the coast in Sussex. Fowey was then honoured by Henry with arms and privileges. In the time of Edward III, Fowey supplied more ships to the King's Navy than any other port in England. In 1347, it must have been quite a sight as 47 ships set sail from the harbour to cross The Channel and take part in Edwards siege of Calais. In 1457, French marauders sought revenge and attacked Fowey, sailing up the river, when: “A sound as from a cloud of sails/ Came with the flowing tide”. A legendary six-week stand ensued in which the Gallants of Fowey were aided by the redoubtable Lady Elizabeth Treffry of Place House in defending the town.

"Three cheers, then, for the Fowey gallants! For the Lady three times three! And, if the French should come again, May our wives as fearless be!” The Lady of Place, Henry Sewell Stokes, 1871.

It is perhaps because of Fowey's rich naval and maritime history that it appears in so many ancient maps. The section below is a reproduction of a chart of Fowey Harbour, drawn in Henry VIII's time, it now resides in the British Museum. This reproduction is taken from Lysons' Magna Britannica. Spellings on ancient maps range from Ffowey, seen below, to Foye, Foy and Fowydh.

The seal of the borough of Fowey, seen below (4), is a shield which shows a ship of three masts on the sea, with her topsail furled. The legend is inscribed "Sigillum oppidi de Fowy Anno Dom. 1702". Roughly translated this is, "A seal of the town of Fowey". Fowy being the Latin spelling.

Image taken from 'General history: Market and borough towns and fairs', in Magna Britannia: Volume 3, Cornwall, pp. xxxvi-xlii. Originally published by T Cadell and W Davies, London, 1814.

Foy as a given name can be found in Scotland, England, Germany, and North America, but is most likely derived from the old French meaning Faith. Another potential origin is the Irish name Foy/Fee which translates as Hunter, often incorrectly translated as raven according to historians. The Foy family were forced to change their names to this translation when Cromwell conquered Ireland in 1610. They are known in several localities, first found in County Cavan, north Connacht, and Fermanagh where they held a family seat from very ancient times, and now primarily in Roscommon. Other Irish Foy families originated in the Ulster settlement, having been transported from Scotland. Scottish Foys are occasionally descended from French Foys, sometimes from Yorkshire Foys, and sometimes from Irish Foys.

If Fawi, Fau, Fou, Ffawydd, Fagus, Faou, Fauwy, Ffowey, Foye, Foy, Fowyd, Fee and Fowy weren't enough, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch introduced Troy in 1892. According to Quiller-Couch, each night there was plenty of news in the little Cornish town of Troy, a thinly disguised Fowey. Quiller-Couch wrote his stories using his experience of the living in Fowey for some 54 years.

While writing this blog post we have discovered many different theories and explanations behind the name Foy and where it came from, but to us it is simply an ode to this wonderful estuary, port, summer holiday destination, parish, town, postcard cover, home, Fowey.

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