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Conquest - 19: Naming Heirs, Tracking Thorkill's Bloodline and a Shift in Understanding - Did English Suffer After 1066?

Updated on June 18, 2019
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Alan shows an abiding interest in early mediaeval English history in his pages. Step back in time with him to an often misunderstood era

New lords, new names, new identities...

Think of a name... He might drill you before you can ask... Could he be a Gilbert, a Robert, Geoffroi - a Eustace maybe?
Think of a name... He might drill you before you can ask... Could he be a Gilbert, a Robert, Geoffroi - a Eustace maybe? | Source

It is much easier to trace families - even of lesser landholders - after 1066. Partly this is due to the increasing enrollment of records from the 12th Century onward. It also has its root in naming habits.

One of the most striking, and incontentious, results of the Conquest is the almost wholesale replacement of 'homegrown' name-stock with names of Frankish, Norman, Breton and Flemish origin. Even in the reign of William I among the upper ranks of society and its immediately dependant lower orders the trend was growing, reaching irs peak by about AD1250.

However, not only the name-stock had changed radically. Before 1066 each individual was known by a single distinctive name. This contrasts strongly with the present system of naming, consisting of at least two parts: a first name, perhaps a middle name and a surname denoting the father's family group. There is evidence enough of the use of 'by-names' in pre-Conquest England, but not in consistent use, nor were they passed on. After the Conquest by-names became ever more common, used regularly until finally developing into true surnames such as we would recognise today.

Within kindreds it was likely there were more compact lineages with prior rights of inheritance. It is hard to say how this worked in pre-Conquest days as it was generally ruled by custom as opposed to being written down. English nobles' wills give little guidance, as it is never clear whether lands included in wills were all the property of the testator, or whether other land handed down according to habit. The secular code of Knut (Canute) includes a revealing clause on intestacy: If a man died without leaving a will, his lord must oversee the sharing out of his property, 'very justly between his widow, his offspring and near kinsmen. Each should be given according to his standing within the kindred'.

From the 11th Century these more restricted families were given greater prominence, in Normandy where the crucial period seems to have been cAD1020-1050, the whole process being one which was fundamentally the change in any one family from a large kindred group (which identified itself with no fixed centre and did not thin in terms of continued possession of a specific estate handed down through generations).

According to the laws of primogeniture or patronimy the eldest son stood to inherit the estate, the younger of the brood receiving lands acquired by the father or 'hold in parage' - dependent for the tenure on the eldest. The chief estate gave its name, thus amongst the Normans the 'toponymic' was title, not name, to be kept by all offspring of the founder of the family's wealth, only to be yielded amongst the youngest if a new title became available as a result of marriage or by accident of succession - or by exercise of royal patronage.

Use of toponymic bynames thus has consequences not only for personal naming, but for family structure and inheritance. The process was a long way from being complete by AD1066, but was far advanced in Normandy compared to England. Though a few examples can be noted of sons carrying their father's by-names, the link seems absent between land and lineage. The outcome of Norman practice can be seen almost straight away. For example the fief of Thorkill of Warwick - also known as Thorkill of Arden - was made up of at least in part of lands which had belonged to his kin before AD1066. The original wealth of the family cannot now be traced back. What they owned in 1086 was what Thorkill and his father the sheriff of Warwickshire, Aethelwin had been able to hold on to or gain through oath to William. Noteworthy is Thorkill's standing among his surviving kin, being two brothers and six uncles. Although some held land from the king or other lords, most of their estates were held of Thorkill. In a case such as this, where most of the family land is held by one member, to whom the others are beholden conforms to Norman custom, not English. The descendants of Aethelmaer of Longdon - Thorkill's uncle, and Guthmund his brother still held land of Thorkill's heirs, the Ardens in the 12th Century.

The Ardens survived by adopting Norman custom, but many were not as lucky. Whatever the exact rules that determine inheritance, it was not just sons and brothers - or daughters and sisters - who gained by the death of a kinsman. Holders of Book Land had the freedom to leave that property to anyone they wished. Thus cousin, uncles and others - maternal as well as paternal - might be left bequests of land. Forfeiture of members of the kindred did not affect only their immediate family. More distant rights of inheritance were over-ridden by Norman settlement, most of them for good, unless heirs could (or would) swear fealty to their new lords.

Aside from the effects the Conquest had on the indigenous population the Normans were being influenced as well. The hierarchy may not have had much contact with the broad mass of the English, being divided between their English and Norman estates, but many of the new settlers were not as secluded.

Not having been 'landed' where they came from they were quickly immersed in their English fiefs. There was some intermarriage and there were those English families, who for reasons of their own who drew in the Normans to their bosoms through their daughters. Some hints at this are provided by the teponymic by-names such as Aelvred of Marlborough and Hrothgar (Roger) of Berkeley. They were 'staking out their possessions', identifying with their new lands. One other pointer to the Normans 'going native' was in their choice of burial sites. The newly-enriched settlers donated generously to the Church, but by and large not to the Benedictine houses that flourished in pre-Conquest England. Grants of property in England - in the form of tithes or fabric rather than manors or greater tracts of land - were made to orders in Normandy and Frankia. Two new abbeys dating back to the time of the Conquest or immediately afterward were William's own house at Battle and the Cluniac priory at Lewes founded by William de Warenne and his wife Gundrada. To these should be added the transformation of the old minsters such as St. Peter's at Shrewsbury into Benedictine abbeys. Increasingly throughout 12th Century there were also Augustinian priories and even some scular colleges. Most (in-coming) families patronised more than one church, making their choice of burial site even more significant. Burial consolidates the relationship between the chosen church and the family whose members are entombed there. It ensures future donations to that church and countless memorial services for the bereaved. Although a number of the earlier generation of Normans chosen chose burial in their native churches many, like de Warenne - were interred in England. That so many Norman or Frankish lords chose to rest in English monasteries points to them feeling at one in their adopted land.

The large-scale replacement of the indigenous by Continental personal names - my own is Breton by origin, a number of my classmates at school were Geoffreys (four in one year, and one whose surname was Beaumont) and my father and my son are called Robert - was not mirrored in the place names they settled in. Here Frankish-Norman.influence is minimal. More common are place-names with Frankish suffixes , usede to highlight settlements which shared the same basic parish boundaries - such as Theydon Bois and Theydon Garnon in Essex, Seaton Delaval in County Durham, Higham Ferrers in Nottinghamshire or Askham Bryan near York. Such forms, however, belong rather to the thirteenth century than the twelfth. The Englishness of post-Conquest place names mirrors the strength of English as the mother-tongue of most of the inhabitants.


The year of the Conquest marks the transition of English from Old to Middle.English owes much to Danish influence in the loss of inflections and the use of propositions. From earliest Middle English texts of the late 11th and early 12th Centuries it is plainly a result of Norman settlement. However this is too easy an inference to make. The changes into Middle English were already on-going from from the earlier 11th Century, due more to Scandinavian settlement in the Danelaw, eastern England and Yorkshire where the Aengle (Angles) spoke a tongue more akin to their northern neighbours in Denmark. What the conquest did was to displace the written standard developed in 10th Century Winchester to which scholars apply the name 'Standard Old English'. This was based on the west Saxon but - even in Wessex - a spoken norm. It was a standard of literary English which went as far the the authority of the west Saxon Cerdicingas as opposed to Mercian, Northumbrian, East Anglian or Kentish dynasties which the descendants of Aelfred 'the Great' superseded. It is the language of most surviving Old English folios or texts, regrdless of dialects spoken by their authors. Standard Old English was akin to a foreign tongue in many parts of the kingdom and its upkeep needed something like the political control of the West Saxons' dynasty, and an on-going educational regime for training scribes in monastic centres. The fall of the English hierarchy after AD1070 - when William's household priest Lanfranc was elevated to Archbishop of Canterbury at the expense of Stigand - meant Standard Old English could not be maintained as a court tongue. Latin replaced English in royal writs although some local courts kept up the use of the vernacular and produced writs in both languages well into the reign of Henry I ('Beauclerc'). The Northamptonshire Geld Roll of the 1070's is in English, the south-western rolls of AD 1086 in Latin. The decline of English as a language of recording legal activity could be seen in post-Conquest vernacular texts from the late 11th and early 12th Centuries.

Those put together after AD1135 are more an appreciation of a literary tradition than a spoken one. The breakdown of Standard Old English ended a continuum which had taught scribes to follow distinctions in writing not followed in the vernacular, freeing them to begin new written forms from spoken dialects. The progress of this new written form can be seen in the Saxon Chronicle ('E' version written at Peterborough - now Cambridgeshire) the surviving text of which was set down at Peterborough until around the mid-12th Century. for the records up to and including AD 1121 it is a copy of a manuscript laid down somewhere in south-eastern England, possibly Kent, with divers additions pertaining to the history of Peterborough (originally Medehamstede, then 'Burh' and finally Peerborough after the Norman Conquest). The copyist then set down the entries for AD1122-31; finally in AD1155 another writer brought the record up to date to AD1154. When copying the scribe wrote in Standard Old English, but for AD1121-31 (first continuation) there is a marked use of the dialect of the eastern shires. In both continuations the vernacular and style are 'alive'. It was already a literary language [much later the vernacular became the accepted standard known as 'King's English', from King's College].

The use of the local vernacular.produces the diversity of language, the most striking characteristic of Middle English. The only essay into uniformity (AB Language) i localised in the western Midlands, whose Benedictine houses were an important storehouse of English tradition. In Herefordshire the Ancrene Wisse (Anchorites' Guide) was set down in the early 13th Century. The language and spelling are like that of the thirteenth century gloss to the Vespasian Psalter written by a scribe trained in a Mercian scriptorium and therefore consistently in a Mercian dialect. Moreover the same traditions are followed in another thirteenth century manuscript written in a different hand containing a collection of saints' lives known as the 'Katherine' group. Taken as a whole these manuscripts follow a continuous written style not broken by the Norman Conquest to the same degree as elsewhere.

Although English gave way largely to Latin in official documentation, preaching and teaching - long the custom in Anglo-Saxon England - outlived the Norman dynasty. Abbot Samson of Bury St Edmunds, a Norfolk man, deemed sermons should be delivered in the Frankish (French) tongue - but better yet in English - so as to be understood rather than learnt by rote. This was also the point of view of Aelfric of Cerne (in Dorset) whose work might have been known by Samson. Although Old English was no longer used in creative writing, pre-Conquest pieces were still being copied in the twelfth century and beyond, the works of Aelfric were still high in popularity. Both Aelfric and Archbishop Wulfstan wrote rhythmic prose, using many of the techniques - including alliteration - that were found in Old English poetry (witness the 'Dream of the Rood' and 'Beowulf'). As there appears to have been diminishing interest in Old English verse - certainly no longer in the heroic narrative style - in post-Conquest English, it may be the alliterative poetry of the Middle English era was developed from the rhythmic prose tradition. Very little of the heroic verse has come down to us from the 11th Century and the form seems to have been in decline even before then. Latin superseded English as a written medium long before the Norman Conquest (from the time of Eadward 'the Confessor' due to his exile in Normandy), but twelfth century Continental writers viewed the Latin prose of their English counterparts as 'rambling' and even 'bombastic', as William of Malmesbury wrote disparagingly of Aethelweard's style.

Before AD1066 learned Englishmen lived in a bi-lingual environment, which became tri-lingual with the advent of a Frankish-speaking elite drawn around King Eadward. English scholars, many of whom had been educated across the Channel, were competent in all three languages. Their chosen language tended to be dictated by the subject matter and intended leadership. Latin was mostly the first chice, nevertheless increasingly challenged by the Frankish tongue in romance writing. Sometimes English was used for homilitic work (used for preaching). Latin and English had co-existed within the English Church for hundreds of years. The addition of Frankish works was inevitable after AD1066, but little was written in the vernacular beyond that. However, by the 13th Century the language that became French was the dominant culture in Northwestern Europe, and its literary forms were copied not only in England but also in German-speaking northern Europe. This has little to do with the Norman Conquest in England as such. The Normans had no aims in Scandinavia - after all they had severed links in that direction by the early 11th Century - but some of the finest Icelandic Sagas - including the epic 'Laxdaela Saga' - were influenced both in content and style by the Frankish chivalric legends, such as 'Chanson de Rolande' and 'Roman de Rou'. Even had we not been invaded in AD1066 England would have been influenced by the culture of her neighbour to the east. by the 13th Century, but the stamp of a Frankish-speaking upper class and subsequent elite status of French as a medium of 'polite society' made the acceptance of that culture so much simpler, if not inevitable.

Masters of their demesne (domain)...

My lords and ladies..." Enjoying the fruits of success, although ostentation was really 'the Anglo-Saxon game'. The Normans had simpler tastes
My lords and ladies..." Enjoying the fruits of success, although ostentation was really 'the Anglo-Saxon game'. The Normans had simpler tastes | Source
Domesday open on a central section of one shire's content. The western shires were included in Exon Domesday, separate from the rest of the kingdom
Domesday open on a central section of one shire's content. The western shires were included in Exon Domesday, separate from the rest of the kingdom
See description below
See description below | Source

Trevor Rowley introduces us to Norman England, "how we worked, how we played, how we lived" ... once the dust settled. By 1086 AD William I was history. William II, 'Rufus" was not long in following him. Peace reigned with the English-born Henry I 'Beauclerc', an Anglophile who got on with everyone. So things settled down, Norman magnates, their underlings and fellow travellers learned English from their English servants as children, Normans in general adopted English appearance to the extent of wearing their hair longer, and English folk began to give their children names such as 'Stephen' or 'Geoffrey', 'Matilda' and 'Judith'. Of course English names were still used and some have still not died out such as Edmund and Harold (an adaptation of a Danish name)...

Which 'modern' names we think as English originated from the time of the Conquest?

We can start with mine, *Alan (see below for a surprise). Originating in Britanny and brought by Alan 'Rufus' (the Red), first Earl of Richmond, the name is Gallic. Nothing to do with Norman, Frankish or Viking - as were many names in Normandy. I shall just scan half our Collins Gem 'Dictionary of First Names', male and female (going through the whole lot would be tedious, to say the least):

Abelard (m)............mediaeval French, derived from old Frankish (OF), means 'noble and resolute';,

Ada (f).............derived from Old German (OG) 'Eda' or 'Etta', means 'happy';

Adalard (m)...........OG Adalhard, means 'noble and resolute';

Adela/Adele(f).........OG, 'noble', common amongst Normans, (a daughter of William's);

Adeline (f).............OG, 'noble', seen in Domesday and common in mediaeval times;

Algernon (m)...........Norman Frankish nickname, 'whiskery';

Alice (f).............orig. Adelise, OG, 'noblity';

Alvin (m)...........OG, 'noble friend'(sim. Ailwin) or 'friend to all';

Archibald (m)...........OG, 'true' and 'bold', OE version used pre-1066 in E Anglia;

Arnold (m)...........OG/OF, 'eagle' and 'strength';

Bardolph (m)...........OG, 'bright wolf';

Belinda (f)............OG, second part of compound, being 'serpent';

Bernard (m)..........OE/OG compound of 'bear' and 'hard', popular in mediaeval days;

Bertrand (m)...........Frankish form of Bertram;

Bevis (m).......... Frankish introduction by Normans;

Blaise (m)...........Frankish, 'from Blois', der. from Latin 'stammerer';

Bonamy (m)...........Frankish, 'good friend';

Bruce (m)...........Norman surname, 'de Brus', from Brieuse in Normandy;

Charles (m)...........Version of 'Carl/Karl' brought by Normans;

Comyn (m)...........Orig. Flemish 'Commines' (Earl of Northumbria slain in Durham 1069);

D'Arcy (m)...........Orig. Norman, 'd'Arecci', comp. of William I;

Elaine (f).............OF form of Helen, seen in mediaeval literature;

Ella (f).............Used by Normans, derived from OG 'Alia' ('Alja' = all);

Emma (f).............Shortened from OG compound meaning 'everywhere' (Norse=Ymme);

Emmeline (f).............OF diminutive of Emilia and Emily, intr. by Normans;

Eustace (m)...........Brother-in-law of Edward 'Confessor', Count of Boulogne, ally of William;

Everard (m)...........OG 'boar' and 'hard', Frankish form br. by Normans;

Geoffrey/Jeffrey (m)....OG 'Gaufrid/ON Godfred', introduced by Normans;

Gerald (m)............OG 'spear rule', intr. by Normans;

Gerard (m)........... OG 'spear hard', intr. to England by Normans;

Gervaise (m)............OG 'spear vassal', first used by Engl. church 12thC;

Gilbert (m).............OG 'oath bright', intr. by Normans;

Giles (m).............Orig. Greek, intr. to England through Church 12thC;

Godfrey (m)............OG/OE 'God's peace', this version intr. by Normans;

Guy (m)............OG 'Wido', this spelling intr. by Normans;

Hamo/Haimo (m)............OG 'home', intr. by Normans;

Harvey (m)............OF 'battle-worthy', intr. by Normans;

Henry (m)............OG 'home ruler', intr as 'Henri' by Normans; understood as 'Heanrig' in Saxon Chronicle in reference to the German emperors of the Hohenstaufen period;

Herbert (m)............OG 'bright army', rare in England before 1066;

Hubert (m)............OG 'heart bright', intr. by Normans;

Hugo (m)............OG 'heart' or 'soul', intr. by Normans;

Ida (f)..............OG 'hard worker', 'intr. by Normans;

Ivo (m).............OG 'yew', common in Brittany as Ives, intr. by Normans;

Jack (m).............Flemish dimin. 'Jankins', common in med. England, syn. for 'man';

Joan (f)...............Came 12thC from Francia (France) as 'Jhone' and 'Johan' or Joanne;

Jocelyn, Jocelin (m/f)........OG, intr. by Normans;

Joyce (f)................Med. form 'Josse/Joisse' (OF), also male to 14thC;

*Surprise, surprise, the Celtic 'Alan' means 'harmony' (some would argue about that)!

Next - 18: Settlers on a Foreign Shore

A lord's place was initially out of reach to those he ruled

Would you like this in your back garden? Often whole neighbourhoods were levelled to make way for a Norman lord's castle
Would you like this in your back garden? Often whole neighbourhoods were levelled to make way for a Norman lord's castle | Source

© 2011 Alan R Lancaster


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