The origins and evolution of surnames in England

It is agreed by the authorities on the etymology of surnames that few if any surnames of a hereditary nature were evident in England before the Norman Conquest in 1066. Second names can be found but they are in the form of bynames and nicknames which were not passed between generations. Such bynames and nicknames developed, it is believed, to differentiate those with the same common personal[1] name living in the same place.

Such bynames and nicknames may have identified the person in many ways including by their occupation, location, topography, personal names (patronymic/matronymic), other family relationships[2], physical appearance, physical characteristics and mental and moral characteristics. I will discuss these in more detail later.

There were three main foreign influences on the English language over the centuries prior to the Norman Conquest:

  • Danish, particularly in the east and north east of England between 793AD and the Norman Conquest, with the influence of the Vikings who brought Danish to the English shores;
  • German, particularly in southern England with the influence of the Anglo-Saxons from the 5th century until the Norman Conquest, who had a Germanic vocabulary and is often referred to an “Old English” being the earliest form of the English language;
  • Latin which of course was the official written language until into the 17th century, and in legal documents until 1733.

By the time of the Norman Conquest, surnames were already in use in some European countries although were certainly not universal. When the Norman Barons became landowners following the Norman Conquest, there were in fact only a few who possessed surnames which had been inherited (often however from only one or two generations back) e.g. de Tosny, Warenes, Mortimer and Vernons[3].

Norman Barons who did not have hereditary surnames soon began to adopt them. More commonly they adopted locative type surnames by reference to their family’s chief residence, which was often still in Normandy, rather than the name of their English manor. Some Norman Barons were content with adopting patronymics (e.g. this may have been the case if their father still lived at their family’s chief resident in France), nicknames such as Walter Giffard[4] and even occupational names such as Haimo the Steward[5].

Having said the above, it is still with some uncertainty as to which, why and how these Norman “newcomers” adopted their surnames. There are no records from the time of the actual invasion to confirm which Barons came over at the time of the conquest and which came over in the immediate aftermath. The first record available is the Doomsday book of 1086, some twenty years after the invasion. It should also be noted that by the 12th and 13th centuries many junior members of the Baronial families began to adopt new surnames!

From the Doomsday book it can be seen that many of the minor Lords and Knights  who came over with the Barons and were rewarded with landholding by way of “tenant-in-chief”, had not yet adopted surnames, at least not hereditary surnames. It is worth noting that the Doomsday book only provides details of those landowners and tenants of land who the King was able to tax, thus the “ordinary” person does not feature and records for those of the lower classes of society do not really begin until the 13th century, such as the Assize Rolls which do include all classes although most are landowners.

The adoption of hereditary surnames was slow; given our fast pace of life today, it could almost be described as “snail pace!” Research conducted indicates that some wealthy English London families had adopted hereditary surnames by the late 12th century, with the majority of the Norman tenants-in-chief in southern England, the Midlands and East Anglia and wealthy English families living in the leading provincial towns, such as Winchester, York, Norwich, Lincoln[6], having adopted hereditary surnames by the early to mid-13th century. It should be noted however this distinction between the Normans and English families becomes clouded in this period when the English began to adopt first names of Norman origin.

Norman tenants-in-chief elsewhere in the country had adopted hereditary surnames by the late 13th to early 14th century as had Burgesses, families from urban areas and the foot soldiers of the Norman Conquest (and later immigrants) whose ancestors became farmers, craftsmen, servants etc.

In the south ordinary Englishmen in rural areas (farmers, craftsmen, servants, merchants etc) had largely adopted hereditary surnames by the mid-14th century, although there were some families still without. In the north it took a whole century longer and by the early to mid-15th century it was rare to find a family to not have a hereditary surname. One reason for this may be due to socio-economic consequences of the “Black Death” which spread throughout England in 1348 and which within 3 years had killed a third to a half of the population, “killing” with it many newly formed surnames, particularly where the whole family died (which was often the case).

The Black Death hit the lower classes of society in much greater numbers than the higher classes perhaps because they were more able to avoid or escape infected areas or because they have better access to what health care there was at the time. This resulted in a shortage of farmers and farmer labourers with many farms being left vacant. These were often taken over by families moving in from other parts of the country, spreading both their own surname and possibly the “trend” of adopting surnames into the northern areas.

Having stated all the above, with the development of surnames being so slow and varying in different areas of the country, where surnames are first recorded in lay subsidy rolls and poll taxes[7] in the 14th century it is without any certainly that they can all in fact be described as hereditary surnames without the supporting genealogical evidence; some may have simply been bynames which were not passed to their children. One reason for this could be that the “surname” was given to them by an official who drew up the rolls of tax payers.

As already stated, it is not until the 15th century that it is thought most people of English origin had a fixed hereditary surname, even then, perhaps because of the recovering population after devastation of the Black Death, there are new surnames appearing in the Tudor subsidy rolls. It can however be said that the number of new surnames did not grow at the same rate are the growth in population because of the practice of hereditary surnames. Again having said this, there were always exceptions and families could still be found in the 16th and 17th centuries without a surname, particularly in the northern city of York[8] and isolated areas of South Lancashire[9]. Essentially new surnames were being created throughout the centuries following their introduction until the 16th and 17th century when the written records of people became much more prevalent (parish registers, parish records, the array of non-conformist records, legal records, government and official records etc.).

But how were surnames adopted? In a variety of ways.

Many names brought over by the Normans (both at the time of the Conquest and by later immigrants) were anglicised through the centuries. For example “-ville” would be replaced with “-field” so Grenville became Greenfield, Semerville became Somerfield. Some names such as Beauchamp and Guillaume (amongst many) were altered for ease of spelling and pronunciation by the English, again being spelt phonetically. So Beauchamp became Beecham and Guillaume became various forms of William[10].

Further, French-Norman personal names began to be adopted by English families and this was to the decline of earlier Anglo-Saxon personal names. It is interesting therefore to note that many surnames in the 14th century were “formed from [Anglo-Saxon] personal names no longer then in use”[11] thus suggesting these were in the period between c.1150 and c.1470[12] adopted initially as bynames and eventually hereditary names as their use as personal names declined. Reaney[13] states “A number of personal names which are not recorded in Old English[14] after the eighth or ninth centuries reappear in Middle English. Some of these names are evidence only by their occurrence as surnames, others by their first record in the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth century”. He goes on to set out three pages of Anglo-Saxon personal names which survive in modern surnames, e.g. Grente (Grant), Eadweard (Edward), Ealdrœd (Aldred, Allred), Herewearld (Harold). This demonstrates one way in which names have come and gone and been adapted/anglicised through the centuries.

Bynames and resulting hereditary surnames adopted from personal names are usually patronymic, that is, they are from the personal names usually of the father. A much smaller number were matronymic, that is, they are from the personal names of the mother.

There are a variety of patronymic surnames:

  • Those which are taken exactly from the personal name such as Thomas, Owen, Duncan, and usually formed prior to the 13th century;
  • Those where a personal name has been suffixed, most commonly with “-son” as in my maiden name of Richardson. These type of surnames were mostly commonly found in northern regions of England (such as Yorkshire (my native county)) and could also be formed from hypocoristic personal names, that is short forms of names such as Dick (for Richard) becoming Dickson or Dixon. It is said they were formed between the late 13th and mid-14th century largely amongst small free tenants or unfree tenants who were in the greater numbers in the norther regions;
  • Those where a possessive “-s” was added to a personal name such as Richards. These type of surnames were most commonly found in southern regions of England (such as the South East Midlands, East Anglia, Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire and Herefordshire) and their history and growth parallels that of “-son” in the northern regions. Kinley goes so far as to suggest “There was in fact something in the nature of a boundary running across the north Midlands, to the north of which surnames ending in ‘-son’ became numerous, and to the south of which surnames in ‘-s’ became common”[15];
  • From those with a possessive “-s” we also get names ending in “-x” when such names have become written, e.g. Dix, Rix;
  • Those where personal names such as Ellis and Henry, Will and Adam with the suffixes “-cock” and “-kin” added to hypocoristic version of them i.e. Elcock and Hancock, Wilcock, Wilkin, and Adcock, Atkin. Such suffixes were found in all regions from the mid-13th century usually in those of the lower classes as with the cases of “-son” and “-s” above;
  • Those where a personal name has been prefixed with “Fitz-” (from the French fils de) “Mac-”/”Mc-” (Ireland (prefixed to father’s name), Gaelic parts of Scotland, Isle of Man) , “O-” (Ireland prefixed to grandfather’s name);
  • Those personal names originating in Wales, although having now spread throughout Britain, which were originally prefixed with “Ap-” (where the name began with a consonant) or “Ab-” (were the name began with a vowel) meaning “son of” e.g. Ap Roger (son of Roger), Ab Adam (son of Adam). Such names were common in Wales until the 16th century after which many ‘dropped’ the “A” leaving surnames beginning with “P” or “B” such as Price/Pryce/Pryse from Ap Rhys and Bowen from Ab Owen;

Patronymic surnames, in the early years as I have stated above were more likely to be bynames not inherited thus John may have been known as Richardson because he was the son of Richard, but his own sons were more likely to have been known as Johnson, son of John. Clearly this poses some difficulty for the genealogist in trying to trace this family back beyond the first ancestor with the known hereditary surname. Unfortunately, as yet I have not traced my Richardson ancestors beyond the mid-19th century, although not through the lack of records, through the lack of time to conduct my own family research! Interestingly though the Richardson ancestors I have traced to date are in the northern counties of Lincolnshire and Yorkshire where it appears the surnames is most likely to have originated.

The way in which patronymic surnames evolved does mean that when studying the origins of such names, there is highly unlikely to be one origin and it is almost certain that not all families with the same patronymic surname will be related no matter how far the surname can be traced back even where the families were from the same area. This is largely the result of the decreasing number of personal names in the early years of the development of bynames into hereditary names as discussed above.

Matronymic names should also be mentioned, albeit they were adopted as bynames and surnames in much fewer numbers and most likely where the mother was an heiress; or possibly where the child was illegitimate (although until the 18th century it was more likely that fathers would acknowledge such children with the child taking the father’s name). Matronymics were also ‘adapted’ by the addition of suffixes and prefixes in the same was as patronymics, e.g. “Emmot” from Emma, “Fitzmeriet” from Meriet[16] and “Margisson” from Margery.

Bynames and Surnames also developed from place-names (locative surnames), most of which have developed since the Norman Conquest. Perhaps the most obvious names in this category are those ending in “-ham”, “-ton”, “-by”, “-thorpe”, “-ford”, “-holme”, “-mouth” etc which are frequently endings of place-names. However not all are so obvious:

  • Spelling of place-names themselves have changed, in much the same way as language and surnames have changed through pronunciation and spelling as discussed elsewhere in this assignment, particularly given many of these types of surnames were adopted from pace-names in the 12th to the 14th centuries;
  • Place-names have come and gone – many locative name originate from villages, hamlets and small homesteads which no longer exists, particularly following “the conversion of arable to pasture and the enclosure of open fields, mostly in the period from about 1450 to 1550”[17].
  • There maybe/may have been more than one place with the same name.

Care therefore needs to be taken when researching locative surnames, in particular consulting old maps from as close to the period in which the earliest form of the surname is known. Locative surnames do not appear to have been more popular in one area or another, although different areas may have had their own characteristics. For example, the ending “-thwaite”  is most often found in West Yorkshire, Lancashire and the Lake District (of Norwegian influence) whilst “-thorpe” is most often found in areas to the East of the Pennines[18] (of Danish influence).

Further, some names which appear to be locative may come from a different origin altogether i.e. origins from a personal name or an occupational name (see later). Kinley[19] refers to the surname Arnold which could be from Arnold in Nottinghamshire, Arnold in North Yorkshire or indeed from a personal name; also the surname Stirrop which could be from Styrrup in Nottinghamshire or could be an occupational name.

It must also be remembered that locative names may derive from French place-names, particularly where their origins are in the first century or so following the Norman Conquest as discussed earlier.

Related to locative names are those which originate from topography, that is, from a feature of the land where a person lives, both natural and man-made e.g. hill, bridge, wood etc. Many of these type of names were formed in a similar way to patronymic names, by the use of suffixes. The most common suffixes included“-er” as in “Bridger” and “-man” as in “Bridgeman” both of which could be also be of occupational origin i.e. someone who worked on bridges. Other examples include Brooker/Brookman, Churcher/Churchman, Forder and Hilman[20] etc.

Topographical bynames and surnames may also have the possessive “-s” or the suffix “-son” added again similar to patronymic names. Such variations are more commonly found from the beginning of the 16th century although a small number can be found in the 14th and 15th centuries. It is often the case that earlier versions of the surname for the same family are without the “-s” adding to the complication for genealogists of tracing the earlier ancestors. Such plural endings on names often arose where there were a number of the topographical feature in one area, i.e. more than one bridge close to where a person lived, possibly they lived between two bridges etc.

Prepositions were also often used with topographical names, more so than with any otjher type of surname, although they could be found with locative names too. The most common prepositions is thought to be “atte” as in “atte Bridge” and “atte” Wood. But other examples include “under”, “over”, “by”, “beneath” and “above”. They were often, in the early days, particularly before the 15th century, in the French equivalent, such as “de”, “de la”, “de le” and “del”. Most of these propositions began to be ‘dropped’ or ‘merged’ in the 14th and 15th centuries, thus producing modern versions such as Atbridge/Attbridge and Attwood/Atwood.

Occupations also gave rise to an array of bynames and surnames, including those holding certain state or church office such as Abbot, Constable, Bishop, Sheriff etc. and ranks or status in society such as Freeman, Burgess, Knight, Mayor, Lord etc. Occupational bynames and surnames are perhaps amongst the earliest to become established, an obvious way to distinguish people with the same name if they had different occupations, this is particularly so for the most popular occupations such as smiths (locksmith, blacksmith etc), bakers, taylors, cooks, turners, millers etc. As Kinley states[21] “In most villages there would be only one or two smiths, one or two tailors, and so forth, so that the occupations in question were sufficiently distinctive to mark out a man from his fellow villagers, hence were suitable for use as surnames”.

Occupation names however are often not that obvious:

  • Regional variations – different names were often used for the same occupation in different parts of the country. For example, “Brewer and Brewster, Deemer and Dempster (‘judge’), Dyer and Dyster or Dexter, Fuller and Folster, Kember, Kemster or Kempster (a ‘comber’ of wool or flax), Hollier and Hollister, Lister and Litster, Palliser and Pallister (maker of palings), Sanger and Sangster (‘singer’), Shaper and Shapster (‘tailor’ or ‘seamstress’), or Webber and Webster”[22];
  • Arising from different languages – Latin, Welsh, Gaelic, French;
  • They can be confused with topographical names as in Bridger discussed above, oher examples given by Kinley include “Bedster” more likely to be from a Sussex village now lost, and “Docker” more likely to be from Docker in Cumbria;
  • One could be forgiven for thinking my married name of “Pettyfer” is from the French  “Petit Four”, I must admit this was my first thought, deriving from someone who made them, how wrong I was! It is in fact from the French pied de fer (iron foot) so from a nickname (see below) or occupation (a foot soldier);
  • They could be names of “tools” of a trade rather than the occupation itself. Reaney[23] uses the examples of a metal worker who “could be called both Seintier or Bellyeter” from the type of bells he made and “William le Pinour ‘maker of combs’ was also called le Horner from the horn he used”. Also included are names such as “Kitchen”, “Kitchener”, “Buttery” and “Hallman”.

Bynames and surnames were also ‘created’ from “nicknames” or “pet names”. These are generally said to be amongst the fewest in surnames today as many of the medieval nicknames ‘died out’. Amongst them today are:

  • Those deriving from physical appearance include surnames today such as Little, Short, Small, Little and colours such as Brown, Black, White, Grey, Gray and Reed, Reid and Read (from red) (colours of hair or complexion)[24] but not Green which is more likely of a locative or topographical origin;
  • Those deriving from personal habits, mental and moral characteristics, e.g. “Blessed”, “Curtis” (from Courteous), “Good”, “Goodchild”, “Treadwell” and “Proud”. Many such names are originally derived from their French counterpart such as “Bonifant” (bon enfant – good infant).

Amongst nicknames are also those deriving from:

  • nature i.e. from mammals, birds and fish such as “Lamb”, “Finch” and “Gurnard”;
  • Seasons and festivals i.e. “Summer”, “Christmas”
  • “oaths, greetings, or similar expressions”[25]

With an increasingly widespread use of hereditary surnames, one would be forgiven to think that tracing a family would be made easier. But this may not the case. Why? Because surnames were adopted and changed in a variety of ways over time, many of which have already been discussed above. However the tracing of surnames becomes even more complicated if we consider the impact of pronunciation and the spelling of surnames before spelling became standardised.  I will discuss this further in assignment 4.

Two other reasons why names changed or varied also need to be considered by the genealogist:

  1. Families themselves may have changed the spelling and pronunciation to either distinguish them amongst others with a popular name (Smith/Smythe, Taylor/Tayleure) or in the lower classes to make them sound a more distinguished family. It may also be the case that families chose to change their own surname completely choosing a pleasanter name, this is particularly so if the origins of the surname was as a nickname. For example, Charles Bardsley provides an array of examples under the heading “Nicknames from Peculiarities of Disposition— Objectionable”[26], including:
  2. “‘ribaldry’ …. that which is foul- mouthed in expression….. A ‘ribaud’ or ‘ribaut’ belonged to the very scum of society. He was a man who hung on to the skirts of the nobility by doing all their more infamous work for them”;
  3. “‘Robert le Lewed,’ or ‘William le Lewed,’ is also lost to our directories, and certainly would be an unpleasant appellation in the nineteenth century”;
  4. “‘Robert le Sot,’ or ‘Maurice Drun-card,’ or ‘Jakes Drynk-ale,’ or ‘Geoffrey Dringke- dregges,’ or ‘Thomas Sourale’.
  • A more unorthodox reason but not unknown was for an individual in a Will to make it a condition of inheritance that the legatee take on the testator’s surname. This may often be the case if the testator has no direct descendants to carry on the family name and a more distant relative is to inherit. John Titford refers to two well-known families:

“Florence Nightingale’s father, William Edward Shore, who abandoned his own surname and became Nightingale in 1815 on inheriting the Derbyshire estates of his mother’s uncle, Peter Nightingale, and that of Jane Austen’s brother Edward, who took the surname of Knight by Royal Licence in 1812 when he inherited and estate from his father’s cousin, Thomas Knight.”[27]

Lastly surname aliases can cause much confusion and could result in the individual being recorded under different surnames. For example, Smith alias Jones could be recorded as Smith or Jones or Smith-Jones with any one of the three names being used in different documents/records to identify the same person. This was often the case where a landowner held land in more than one location, he may be named after one of the locations alias the other and vice versa in the second location e.g. James York alias Pickering/John Pickering alias York.

An alias may also result from different spellings of the surname, e.g. “James Roides alias Rodes; Simon Woodhouse alias Wydis, and John Clegge otherwise Clagge”[28].

It is clear from the above discussion that the origins and evolution of surnames is far from straight forward and the genealogist should always bear in mind how a surname may have changed through the centuries. The further back in time the research the more variants the Genealogists needs to be aware there may be and be prepared to search all known/possible variables in an attempt to continue the ancestral line, including potential alternative surnames bearing in mind any other history of the family. It is also important to remember that where a surname has varied particular care will need to be taken to ensure it is the correct family line and not another family with a similar/same name. The more and varied records which are researched, checked and compared, the more accurate the research will be.

Sometimes it can be difficult to work out what variants there may be and useful resources to help are Dialect dictionaries[29] and Surname dictionaries[30].


[1] First name/Baptismal name/Christian name/given name

[2] e.g. Bastard, Cousin, Husband, Kinsman, Widowson D. Kennett “The History of Surnames” page 42

[3] D. Hey “Family Names and Family History” pages 31 to 32

[4] (meaning chubby cheeks in French) which he in fact inherited from his father’s nickname: D. Hey “Family Names and Family History” page 41

[5] Sheriff of Kent 1077 to c.1100: D. Hey “Family Names and Family History” page 41

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_towns_and_cities_in_England_by_historical_population  (14May 2019)

[7] Which in theory covered all households except the itinerant and paupers

[8] R. A. McKinley “A History of British Surnames” page 36

[9] R. A. McKinley “A History of British Surnames” page 8

[10] E.g. William, Williams, Williamson

[11] P. H. Reaney and R. M. Wilson “A Dictionary of English Surnames” page xxiii

[12] The period of Middle English

[13] P. H. Reaney and R. M. Wilson “A Dictionary of English Surnames” page xxiii

[14] Anglo-Saxon

[15] R. A. McKinley “A History of British Surnames” page 113

[16] An heiress who married a minor landowner, Peter Picot,

[17] R. A. McKinley “A History of British Surnames” page 56

[18] D. Kennett “The History of Surnames” page 35

[19] R. A. McKinley “A History of British Surnames” page 53

[20] R. A. McKinley “A History of British Surnames” pages 80 – 81

[21] R. A. McKinley “A History of British Surnames” page 133

[22] R. A. McKinley “A History of British Surnames” page 140

[23] P. H. Reaney and R. M. Wilson “A Dictionary of English Surnames” page xlii

[24] R. A. McKinley “A History of British Surnames” page 156

[25] R. A. McKinley “A History of British Surnames” page 161

[26] C. W. Bardsley “English Surnames: Their Sources and Significance” page 478 – 481

[27] J. Titford “Searching for Surnames” page 20

[28] D. Kennett “The History of Surnames” page 51

[29] E.g. J. Wright “The English Dialect Dictionary” Volumes 1 – 6 and R. C. Hope “A Glossary of Dialectical Place Nomenclature”

[30] E.g P. H. Reaney and R. M. Wilson “A Dictionary of English Surnames” and C. W. Bardsley “A Dictionary of English and Welsh Surnames”

Bibliography

Hey, D                        Family Names and Family History (Hambledon and London 2000)

Roger, C. D.                The Surname Detective (Manchester University Press 1995)

Titford, J                     Searching for Surnames (Countryside Books 2002)

Kennett, D                  The Surnames Handbook (The History Press 2012)

McKinley, R. A          A History of British Surnames (Longman 1995)

Bardsley, C. W.          English Surnames: Their Sources and Significance (Chatto & Windus 1906)

Anderson, W              Genealogy and Surnames: with some Heraldic and Biographical Notes (William Ritchie Edinburgh 1865)

Weekly, E                   Surnames (John Murray 1917)

Bardsley, C. W           A Dictionary of English and Welsh Surnames (Oxford University Press 1901)

Reaney, P. H and Wilson, R. M         A Dictionary of English Surnames (Oxford University Press 2005)

Hope, R. C                  A Glossary of Dialectical Place Nomenclature (Simpkin, Marshall & Co 1883)

Wright, J                     English Dialect Dictionary Volumes 1 – 6 (Oxford University Press 1898 – 1905)

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