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Tuesday, 31 December 2013

The rise of the surname in Medieval England.

Surnames fall into four main categories: occupational, patronymic and matronymic; bynames; locative.
Almost all surnames were established by the year 1400, and in general were being passed from generation to generation regardless of whether the occupation recorded in the name was held by the owner of the surname, or whether their mother or father was named according to the name they bore, or whether they had any resemblance to the nickname which had singled out an ancestor.
One exception to the rule of names being established by 1400  is the surname ‘Pargetter’ and its other spellings, which did not really enter common use until pargetting in its modern sense, the decorative moulding of plaster on a wall, was invented in the first half of the 16th century.  Before that Dauber or Dealbator would have been the names of someone who applied daub to the wattle of a house wall, though rarely the term pargetting was used in earlier times for the application of a smooth layer of plaster over the rough daub. 
A note should be made about the excrescent ‘s’ at the end of some names.  This is generally as a result of the genitive form of Old English, the ‘of’ form, which tended to end in –es, -is, -ys or –s.  This leads to Jones, Parsons, Roberts etc, the offspring OR servant of John, the parson, Robert etc.  It also leads to Birks or Nokes, the place of the birches or at the place of the oaks [which surnames see below].  Further excrescent ‘s’ may be found in the English interpretation of French names for places; Danvers from d’Anvers, where the ‘s’ became part of the pronunciation under the English tongue.

Occupational names

These originally derive from the job done by the bearer of the name, many of which ran initially in families, recorded by clerks in Latin as, for example, Iohnus le faber, who would be known by his neighbours as John Wright, or later, John Carpenter, and in general it is the vernacular version that stuck. 
Note: if a female is the one whose occupation is taken as a surname, the name will end –ster, not –er, eg, Webster, Spinster, Baxter, Huckster/Huxter [a special case since the male version of an itinerant peddler of goods was a chapman] etc.

In England the most common were, in approximate order:

  • Smith
  • Clark[e]
  • Taylor/Tailyor [Also associated,  Sewer, Seamer/Simester
  • Miller/Milner/Milne/Mill/Mills/Millward/Millard
  • Baker/Bakester/ Baxter/Backhouse/Bacchus [who baked the bread made by each housewife]
  • Webb[e]/Webber/Webster/Weaver [if all names associated with cloth finishing were added together, the whole group would be close in number to the smiths; such names as Fuller,[see also Walker] Shearer/Thunder, T[h]rower, Tassellar/Tesler, Taycell, Flaxman, Woolman/Wolman, Dyer, Wooller, Woolhouse/Wollas[s]/Wholehouse [NOT Wooll/Woll etc which is a placement name, or Wolward which derives from wolf-guard or Wolsey which derives from the personal name Wulfsige, wolf-victory] Silk, Sendall, Mercer
  • Wright [established before the name carpenter was in use, being a manufacturer]
  • Turner
  • Cooper/Coope/Coupe/Copper/Cowper/Cupper/Couper
  • Walker [either a fuller, or an unpleasant job involving walking on wet flax to break up the fibres]
  • Cook[e]/Cookes/Coke [also other servants like Butler, Spencer, Page, Chamberlain/Chambers, Porter, Footman, Sewer[ a sewer was a server though the name may also derive from Sawyer; Souer, a shoemaker;  or from one who sews] Seneschal, Sellars/Cellier/Zeller, Ostler/Hostler/Horseler/Hustler[which may also be from one who keeps a hostelry].
  • Hunt[e]/Hunter/Huntlow/Huntman [and other hunt/hawking associated names like Forster/Forrester, Parker, Vener/Fenner, Varder/Verdier, Veutrey/Vewtrey Falconer/Falkner/Fawkes/Fauconer, Ostringer/Oslar.Astringer, Muskett/Mushet, Falke, Fowler/Fuler/Vowler, Muer/Mewer/Muer –note, Mew[s] can also come from a personal name, or from being from Meaux
  • Bailey/Baillie/Baylis[s]/Bailess/Bailiff[e]
  • Ward [and the derivatives of a name meaning ‘guard’ or’watchman’ such as Hayward, Wolward, Gatward etc]

Other associated occupations:

 to do with leather working like Tanner, Tawyer/Tower, Glover, Souter/Souer/Sewer, Cordwainer, Cobbler, Furel[l]/Sheather, Furr

to do with building: Mason, Slater, Tyler, Carpenter, Stonehewer/Stanier/Stonier, Stoneman. [no early brickmakers!  Brick was not used until later in the 15th century and any name like Brick will have derived from the personal name ‘Bric’ or ‘Brihtric’]

to do with labouring: Shepherd, Hayward, Cotman, Coultas/Coultish/Cowtas, Coward/Cowherd, Avner, Fosser, Carter, Gooseman, Goater/Gater, Ploughman/Plowman/Plewman, Reaper/Reper, Readman/Redman, Hoggard


These names are derived from parental names.  If derived from a mother’s name, this might mean that the original bearer of the name was illegitimate; or that the mother was socially superior to her husband; or that the mother was in some wise more memorable than her husband. 

The most common patronymics derive from those names which were most commonly in use.  These are probably the most common:
  • Johns/Johnson/Jones/Jenkins/Jenks/Jenkinson/Jennings
  • Williams/Williamson/Wilson/Wilkinson/Wilkes/Wilcock/ Fitzwilliam/Gillam
  • Roberts/Robertson/Dobbs/Dobson/ Hobb/Hobson/Dobbin/Dobing etc
  • Thomas/Thompson/Tomlinson/Tomlin/Tamblyn/Thom[s]
  • Rogers/Hodges/Hodgeson/Hogg/Hotchkiss/Hodgkin etc
  • Jamison/Jackson/Jacobi/Jacobs/Jakes/Jeakins

There are also those patronymics which are less obvious, and which originate from names no longer in current use, like Aston, deriving from OE Athelstan,  or Haskins, from ON Asketill

The most common matronymics with the originating name:

  • Julian[Gillian]:  Jowett/Jewitt/Jouett/Gillot/Gillian/Jellings/ Jillings/Gillions/Jelyon
  • Isabel: Ibbot/Hibbit/Ibbs/Hibbs/Ibberson/Ibbotson/Hipperson/Ibell/ Hibble/Ibson/ Isabel/Isbill
  • Emma Emblem/Embling/Emeline/ Emlyn/Amblin/ Emblott/Emm[s]/ Emmett/Hemmett/ Amelot
  • Ismenia Emmony/ Emmans/ Emmence/ Immink
  • Alice: Alin/Alis/Allies/Allish/ Alais/Hallis /Alison/Hallison/ Ellison [which might also be from the male name Ellis/Eliot/Elias]


Also called nicknames, these were names given to a man – or sometimes a woman – by way of a descriptive, whether of their appearance or their manner.   Prior to what is commonly called the Medieval period [apologies to any archaeologist out there muttering that Saxon is classified as Early Medieval] such nicknames were the rule and tended to be person specific, not passed on down the family.  Eric Hairybreeches was a singular sort of person, and did not leave a tribe of little Hairybreeches. 
Below I give a fairly random list or possible nicknames:

  • Blase/Blaze/Bleys/Blaise – a firebrand [from either temper or hair]
  • Blank/Blanch/Blaunch – white, fair, probably hair or complexion
  • Bellamy   good friend
  • Carl[e]/Karl – man,  by the 13th century with distinct overtones of ‘churl’ a lowborn, brutish man.
  • Chin[n] – one with a peculiarity of the chin, maybe a prognathic jaw, or unusual beard
  • Dere – from OE and could be beloved, bold or swift depending on the root.
  • Fairfax/Fayrfex – fair hair
  • Garnishe/Garnis – moustache
  • Gimmer – a ewe lamb, precious [ironic]
  • Hareberd – greybeard
  • Jolif[fe]/Jolly/Joly/Jolyman – gay, lively.
  • Lytel/Little/Littell – little; may be added to other word eg Littlefot, Liteljohn.  May very well be used literally or ironically, but with the Medieval mentality probably more often ironically.
  • Midsumer – probably referring to time of birth.
  • Nogood – what is says on the packet.
  • Old/Olds/Ould[e] – not necessarily implying old age but to distinguish an elder of the same name from the younger.
  • Payn[e]/Payen/Pagan/Pagenel etc – from Latin paganus originally meaning rustic but later heathen.  Often given as a name to one whose baptism had been delayed, also bestowed as a byname on someone dilatory at worship.  Found as a given name, especially Payn, without apparent reference to its meaning.
  • Queen – from cwene, OE, meaning woman, but as its derivative ‘quean’ was also used widely in the middle ages as a synonym for prostitute, there is some further inference to draw.  Quena/Cwena and its variants was occasionally used as a female given name before 1300 [when possibly it fell out of fashion because of other overtones even as Pernel lost currency in the 16th Century because of its implications as the mistress of a priest]
  • Redbeard etc –  Red beard, Redeknappe, red head
  • Sowden, Sodan, Soltan – from soudan OFr for sultan, may be a rebuke nickname for being top-lofty but more likely a nickname for the part of the Sultan of the Saracens in a pageant play.
  • Thin/Thynne etc – lean or slender
  • Unready – unwise, poorly advised, without rede
  • Vaisey/Veasy/Voizey/Facey/Phasey etc – from OFr enveisé, possessed, in old documents also often with the addition of ‘lascivus’, wanton. 
  • Wasp[e] – from OE Waeps, a wasp. 
  • Yellow – from hair or complexion colour

Locative Names

The obvious locative names are those deriving from the place where someone came from if they moved, or the name of the village by which they were known in the nearest town if they did business, eg Gilbert de Shimpling, as Gilbert from the village of Shimpling might be known if he came to market in the big town of Lavenham.  For choosing such names, a map is probably the best friend of any author or re-enactor, bearing in mind that it was rare for anyone to travel more than a dozen or so miles from where they were born until after the Industrial Revolution.  It should also be born in mind that place names change!  For example, Brighton was Brighthelmstone before the long Regency, and Erwarton [Suffolk] was known as often as not as Arwerton, has been called Arwenton in some documents and was Eurewardestuna and Alwartuna in the Domesday book.  The Domesday book [available online and in local libraries] will give examples that may be of use for early locative surnames; Edwin of Alwartun  might have later had descendants who changed their names to meet the change of the village name, or for other reasons; there are no Alwartons at all today that I can discover. 

Also bear in mind the effect of local pronunciation on names – Norridge derives from Norwich, being the local pronunciation; equally Stopford from Stockport.  Stuckey and Stukey bear no apparent resemblance to the town of Stiff Key in Norfolk until one is aware that  Stukey was the pronunciation of the village until incomers for modern day holidays started pronouncing the town the way it was spelled.  Notably an early version of the name as a surname was Stivekey.
It should also not be forgotten that surnames extant today may derive from abandoned villages, who lost population due to plague or other factors, such as the extinct village of Lashbrook though that was already lost by the Domesday book.  The name, however, survives. Originally it was Lachebroc.

County names are also used but tend to arise either in the well-travelled or on the borders of counties.  Note: the use of the preposition de- before a placename largely disappears by about 1300, and some placenames appear without the preposition as early as Domesday.

There are of course plenty of post-conquest locative names deriving from French place names,  including Normandy itself, but should not be confused with the names of French origin brought by the Hugenots.   Examples of Norman-brought surnames include Bull[e]y, from Bouillé, Ravel[l] from Ravel, a common place name in France, Mew from Meaux etc.  A special note should be made regarding the name Bridges which was the English pronunciation of the port of Bruges.  One cannot help comparison with the much later mangling of Ypres into ‘Wipers’ by the troops in World War 1. 

The more localised locative names are those like ‘Attwood’ or ‘Byfield’ or ‘Underhill’ which are self explanatory.  Less obvious are where the very old names that began with a preposition, that developed from OE  ‘æt þæm ace’ [at the oak] to ME Atten Ake to Atten Oke to Atte Noke – to Noke or Nokes.  Similarly Atter Oke becomes Roke or Rook, so that Rookwood may be seen to be as likely to be ‘at the oak wood’ as to be ‘at the wood where rooks dwell’.   Where there is an ash not an oak, the names Nash and Rash are formed.  Nolder from Alder is formed in the same way. 
To continue on the subject of trees – and distinctive trees were important in order to describe and navigate the landscape – Holly gives rise to Hollens, Hollings, Hollay, Hollis etc. Withy, Withey are dwellers by the willow and early may include names like Widege, being the interpretation of the letters ‘eth’ or ‘thorn’ and ‘yoch’ from ‘wiðig’.  Birks and Burks are from birches, with Birkett, Birkhead and Brickett from ‘dweller on a birch-covered headland’.  Beecher, Becher and Beechey come from the beech tree, but Beeching may equally derive from either ‘dweller by the beck’ or ‘son of the man named Becca’, and indeed Beech, Beach and Bech may also refer to a beck not a beech.  But just to be confusing, not usually a beach at the seaside.  Hazel gives Hazel, Hessel, Hesselden[e], Hazelgrove, Haselhurst, Hazlett and many others.  Also Hawthorn[e], Blackthorn[e], Elm/Elmes/Nelmes,  
It is worth noting that the trees whose names survive in surnames are often those generally considered important or sacred from pagan times, though I have been unable to find a version of Yew, the most magical of all.  I would postulate that this was because churches tended to be founded on previous places of worship, and yews are mostly found in churchyards, which would lead to surnames of Attcherch, Bychurch, Churchill or Churchley.
Other tree names are Bygraves, by the grove, and Imp[e]y, ‘dweller near an enclosure of saplings’

Other names are less obvious.
 Chessil may indicate someone from Chesil Beach in Dorset but may also be a Dorset man who dwelt near or on a gravel bank, which is the dialect meaning of Chesil.  Ness[e] is a man from a headland. 
Statheman is the dweller by a staithe, or landing place, and will only be found where Viking influence was sufficient to leave behind Old Norse words – such as the East Coast. 
Holter is ‘dweller by the wood’. 
Hook/Huck/Hooker/Hookes/Huke etc were ‘dwellers by a hill spur or bend’
Avann/Fann/Fenne ‘dweller by the fen’.


  1. Fascinating and so many of them no longer common; presumably they have been modernised and will be revisited as you bring us up to the present over time?

  2. Funnily enough, all the names except Dealbator and Stivekey are names held by someone, somewhere today... but I will hope to do research to find out the most common ones in later periods too.

  3. This was really interesting..kept looking for my family names and only found Cooper... In doing family research I found many variations of the spellings of the same family name.. that has caused quite a few headaches trying to figure it all out.. thanks for sharing this...Carmalee

  4. Glad it was interesting! The spellings of Cooper are legion from Coupe to Cuppere... I have the same trouble with Wyatt/Wiat/Wiet/Wyat/Whyart/Whyard/Whyatt in various illegible hands on parish records. I have of course only put up the most common and a random selection of the rest.
    I've found the best way to figure out how things might be spelled is to say it out loud in local dialect... and to try to track down the same person with each of their children being born, because you can have the family name spelled a different way for every child, and that gives a starting point for other attemps.

  5. Thank you! I hope it will prove helpful!
    A very useful work of reference is the Oxford dictionary of surnames.

  6. Great post, Sarah. Makes my blog post look most paltry!

  7. Not at all, Cheryl, you bring a good list of names for those writers wanting names and not wanting a hefty essay on the subject! please do post the link to it here as well!

  8. Hi there, drawing from some early research on place names (but applicable to surnames) when I was an American student at the U of Leicester in the 80's: 'ing' means 'the people of'; 'ton' means an enclosure (think settlement of people ='town'). So, for example, the place name 'Peatling' means 'Peotla's people'. And most of the time when you see the suffix'ton', it derives from identification with a group of people, a village, thus from a place-name.
    Love this stuff!

  9. Generally, yes, thanks for adding to this! and the -ing is a Saxon suffix [such as the Wuffings of my own area]. If not a suffix, however, it is usually Viking and is a name for Frey, such as the placename Ingatestone which is Ing's street town, the ton] added later. Ton is the more recent spelling, it's often 'tuna' in Domesday. Place names are a good standby to use as surnames, though it's worth consulting a map, to check they are not too far from the setting of the story, or for general names, use Henry Guppy's book of family names, as some names occur only in some counties, or are spread over just a few counties. Not true nowadays, when we all travel more, but Guppy was writing in the last decade of the 19th century, when even the advent of the railway had not spread all the names abroad.
    I confess, I do also tend to use local name construction to make up both place names and surnames, like Hasely which I used in Emma's Education and Grace's Gift for a family based at a fictitious village called Queen's Hasely. hasel- is part of a name construction from the area around Bath. Gaet/Gate as part of a name is only going to be found where Old Norse was once spoken, meaning street. This tends to be confined to Eastern England north of the Thames estuary. Staithe, a landing place, the same, where as hithe, a landing place, being Saxon, is more widespread. I'm going to have to do a post on place names, aren't I?