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English Surnames

Updated on August 17, 2014

Surnames

When researching a family tree you are soon able to follow branches of your tree by the surnames alone.Genealogy can be lists of people connected by their family name. Sometimes these names can tell you about the family's jobs or where they came from. Surnames came and went with invaders throughout English history. Some cultures had more influences on the use of surnames in England than others, the Vikings, Romans and Normans, all too some extent left some influence on surnames in England.

A rose by any other name

Duh, I don't know my name
Duh, I don't know my name

Romans

Although here for 400 years the Romans kept the use of their family names among them selves.  The Roman familia was part of a larger unit of social organization that developed very early in Roman history. This unit, which we would call a "clan" the Romans called a gens. As Rome developed, clans often came to include large numbers of familiae. While technically related, over time these familiae grew quite distinct in their social identity. It became important for familiae within gens to be able both to distinguish themselves and to indicate their clan identity. Thus, Romans developed the cognomen, which is the third word in a name. Marcus Tullius Cicero belonged to the family of the Cicerones who were of the Tullian clan. Gaius Julius Caesar belonged to the Caesars who were of the Julian clan. As the Romans were most interested in social climbing the influence of family name on the conquered Britain’s didn’t occur.

 

What have the roman's done for us? not surnames

Here we go, here we go, here we go

If your surname ends in "son" then it is likely your ancestors came from the north
If your surname ends in "son" then it is likely your ancestors came from the north

The Vikings

The next and by far more interesting, in the way of names were the Vikings. Now there influence was by far felt more in the east and north of England.  If you drew a line diagonally down from Chester to London, the Viking influence was on the eastern side of the line. The Vikings did not use surnames as we understand them. They followed the system of using patronymics (or rarely matronymics) and this system is still in use in Iceland today. A patronymic is simply a name that means Son-of-{father's name} or Daughter-of-{father's name}. An interesting thing here is if your surname ends in ‘son’ your family is more likely to have originated in the north of England. For example, Wilkinson from the north and Wilkins from the south. In general Viking parents named their children after a deceased relative or hero. In some way the child was believed to inherit with the name the gifts or personality of their namesake: this belief almost seems to have been one of reincarnation of the named relative in the new child once the name was bestowed. However the Viking’s uses of nick-names were the most interesting surnames.  These nicknames were rarely, if ever, used by the person themselves, and almost never used to the person's face. You were tagged by your friends (or enemies) with a byname. This becomes painfully obvious when you look at the historical bynames I have recorded. They are invariably descriptive, and mostly derogatory in some way, though a few denote desirable traits the person was known for.

Based on personality we have Bad-Luck Olaf, Olaf the Big Mouth, Ragnhjild the Powerful, Erik Bloody axe, Leif the Lucky and who could forget, Halfdan the Generous and Stingy of Food. Then we have names based on physical appearances, Ivan the Boneless, Harold Bluetooth, Kon Smelly-Feet, Ragnar Hairy-Breeches and Gorm the Old to name but a few.

The Norman's wisdom with surnames

The Norman feudal nobility and gentry,were the first to use surnames in England
The Norman feudal nobility and gentry,were the first to use surnames in England

Was your relative at Hastings?

Is your name French in origin?
Is your name French in origin?

The Normans

So the next big thing in the way of surnames happened in 1066 when the Normans from France conquered England. Their leader William the Bastard from Normandy soon changed his last name to the Conquer, much more acceptable. Then he decided to tax all of England and did the first census of England, The Doomsday book. In England, the most accepted theory of the origin of family names is to attribute their introduction to the Normans and the Doomsday Book of 1086. As such, documents indicate that surnames were first adopted among the feudal nobility and gentry, and only slowly spread to the other parts of society. Some of the early Norman nobility arriving in England during the Norman Conquest differentiated themselves by affixing 'de' (of) in front of the name of their village in France.

 

Happy family?

Thanks to tudor england the surname was passed from the father to his children
Thanks to tudor england the surname was passed from the father to his children

So who's your father

Elizabeth gave refuge to the Huguenots
Elizabeth gave refuge to the Huguenots

The middle ages

Being manly agricultural and the ravages of the Black Death culling the population, England remained in most parts remote villages, where everyone knew everyone else. No one traveled much so their was no need for surnames. Every one even royalty was called by their first name only. Slowly however Villages grew, the population increased, so a need to distinguish each other was needed. At first it was simply, ‘that’s Ben, John’s son”. So the names became more descriptive, in order to be distinctive. There might be "John, son of Jacob" and his neighbor "John, the blacksmith." Secondary names such as these still weren’t surnames as we know them, because they were not handed down through generations from father to son. For instance, if "John son of Jacob" had a son, he might be called "Benjamin the carpenter." By 1400, most English people had acquired surnames, but it wasn’t until Henry VIII (1491 - 1547) ordered that marital births be recorded under the surname of the father, that proper family names were beginning to be used.

 

The Huguenots

In the mid 16th century the French Huguenots arrived in England and added their surnames to the mix. The Huguenots were French Protestants who were members of the Reformed Church which was established in 1550 by John Calvin.  These Catholic dissenters were persecuted throughout France.  During the infamous St Bartholomew Massacre of the night of 23/24 August, 1572 more than 8 000 Huguenots lost their lives.  The thousands that lived in France left for prodestant countries such as England and Germany.  Some of these families once here changed their names to ‘fit in’ in England. Such as Beauchamp, becoming Beacham for example.

 

Are we just colours on a sheild?

What are we going to be called in the future?
What are we going to be called in the future?

The future

So what about the future of the Surname? There is already a trend to hyphenate surnames, leading us back to names resembling the names the Romans used. Also some couples are taking the woman’s surname as the family name. Genealogy in the future in a lot of ways will be easier because of the paper trail we leave, but more difficult to follow a family by its surname. But image if we were to start again, naming people after our professions or physical appearances.  How many Mr. and Mrs. Retail Assistant would there be, or how about The Bankers or How about poor old Mr. and Mrs. Unemployed, would these names take over from the Smiths and the Jones. What would these names say about life today? Physical appearances and traits would mean my co-workers would be Miss Grumpy, Mrs. Short and Mr. Pompous. Leaving them to work with me, Mrs. Jelly Belly.  Perhaps it’s just as well to leave surnames well enough alone.

Who's on first?

Tracing the surnames in your tree

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    • jayjay40 profile imageAUTHOR

      jayjay40 

      7 years ago from Bristol England

      Thanks very much IN2Deep for your very kind comment. I really enjoyed writing this hub and it came together very easily, so I appriciate the comment. Thank you

    • IN2Deep profile image

      IN2Deep 

      7 years ago from USA

      Great article -very informative.I really enjoyed reading alll the way through interesting.

    • Norfolk Tours profile image

      Glynn Burrows 

      8 years ago from Norfolk England

      I love to learn about the origins of surnames as they are often nothing to do with what we think. Lots of people around with posh sounding hyphenated names, with a little research will often find that the hyphenated name was inserted because of illegitimacy, many people who like to protest that their surname is spelled "Smythe" and not "Smith" perhaps don't realise that spelling of surnames was only regulated in the C19th, even then not very strictly. The people who wrote down the names wrote what they heard and often spelled it how they liked!

      Excellent subject. Great hub. If you have family history links to Norfolk, take a look at my website.

      norfolk-tours.co.uk

      Tour Norfolk how YOU want to tour Norfolk.

    • bayoulady profile image

      bayoulady 

      8 years ago from Northern Louisiana,USA

      I found this quite interesting and at times funny!

    • jayjay40 profile imageAUTHOR

      jayjay40 

      8 years ago from Bristol England

      Very cool indeed Origin, we will have to call you 'Sir'. Glad you enjoyed the hub and thanks for the comment.

    • Origin profile image

      Origin 

      8 years ago from Minneapolis

      Very interesting read, I learned that I was related to knights on both sides of the family, which is kinda cool. :)

    • jayjay40 profile imageAUTHOR

      jayjay40 

      8 years ago from Bristol England

      Thanks ethel, The Life Of Brian is one of my favorites too

    • ethel smith profile image

      Ethel Smith 

      8 years ago from Kingston-Upon-Hull

      Very interesting. Ps I love Life of Brian

    • jayjay40 profile imageAUTHOR

      jayjay40 

      8 years ago from Bristol England

      You are a star 2uesday, I love hearing from you. Thanks for reading

    • 2uesday profile image

      2uesday 

      8 years ago

      Thanks for this jayjay, I've bookmarked the find your Viking name it is so funny. You make all of it so interesting love how you've put it together. I remembered to press the green button to vote it up.

    • jayjay40 profile imageAUTHOR

      jayjay40 

      8 years ago from Bristol England

      Thanks drbj, I enjoyed writing this hub, It just flowed so well.

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 

      8 years ago from south Florida

      Marvelous hub. Learned much I didn't know. As a "professional" student, I appreciate your research. Thanks.

    • jayjay40 profile imageAUTHOR

      jayjay40 

      8 years ago from Bristol England

      Yes I agree with you Nicks the future of the surname is going to be very interesting I think. Thanks for the comment

    • profile image

      Nicks 

      8 years ago

      An excellent hub. It will be interesting to see how names change now that world immigration is so extensive.

    • janiek13 profile image

      Mary Krenz 

      8 years ago from Florida's Space Coast

      very interesting hub, I would have a hard time figuring out mine, since I am 75% roman and 25% english.

    • jayjay40 profile imageAUTHOR

      jayjay40 

      9 years ago from Bristol England

      Thanks Zampano, glad you enjoyed it

    • profile image

      zampano 

      9 years ago

      Hi ! Most instructive and amusing.

      Thank you. Naturally...

    • jayjay40 profile imageAUTHOR

      jayjay40 

      9 years ago from Bristol England

      Thanks for the comments, Tony and sytor, I,m glad you both found it interesting. I enjoyed writing the ending so I appreciate the comment

    • profile image

      sytor 

      9 years ago

      Very interesting hub, thanks for the good work!

    • tonymac04 profile image

      Tony McGregor 

      9 years ago from South Africa

      Thanks for an interesting Hub and a giggle at the end.

      Love and peace

      Tony

    • jayjay40 profile imageAUTHOR

      jayjay40 

      9 years ago from Bristol England

      Thanks Amanda, I love genealogy it's a passion of mine.

    • Amanda Severn profile image

      Amanda Severn 

      9 years ago from UK

      Interesting hub JayJay. I'm fascinated by genealogy

    • jayjay40 profile imageAUTHOR

      jayjay40 

      9 years ago from Bristol England

      Brilliant idea Ethel, I'm thrilled

    • ethel smith profile image

      Ethel Smith 

      9 years ago from Kingston-Upon-Hull

      Great information jayjay. I will link this to my genealogy hub if that's ok

    • jayjay40 profile imageAUTHOR

      jayjay40 

      9 years ago from Bristol England

      Thanks Tammy. I've added another video to this hub Abbott and Costello's 'Who's on First'

    • profile image

      Tammy Lochmann 

      9 years ago

      Very interesting and I got a chuckle at that last bit. Thanks

    • jayjay40 profile imageAUTHOR

      jayjay40 

      9 years ago from Bristol England

      thanks mate thanks for the comment

    • scarytaff profile image

      Derek James 

      9 years ago from South Wales

      A very informative and interesting hub, jayjay. I think you're right. leave well enough alone. Good hub . Thanks.

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