Forty years ago I published an essay called ‘Initial h in Old English’. The title was a misnomer, because I dealt only with initial h before vowels, whereas in Old English initial h also occurs before consonants. I did indicate, however, that a later essay would deal with consonantal groups, and although the sequel has never been written, this paper, dedicated to an acknowledged Ælfric scholar, will touch on one aspect of h in that position, particularly in writings by that consummate writer of Old English prose.
The difference between initial h before a vowel in English and one before a consonant which caused me to concentrate on the former is that whereas h before a vowel survives in the spoken variety of the standard language as well as in the written language (except in the generally unstressed pronoun ‘it’, Old English hit), the sound represented by h before a consonant has disappeared in most varieties of speech. I stress most varieties because words with Old English h before w are still pronounced differently from w-words (e.g. wheel and weal) in some dialects, and the historic spelling has invariably survived, although the hw has been inverted to fit in with other non-Germanic h groups (ch, ph, sh, th). The loss of initial h in the written language is thus confined to the groups hl, hn and hr, and this paper will look only at late Old English loss of h in these three consonant combinations.