The Origin of Surnames
To check your family name go to Index then back here for a discussion on surnames and their origins.
Nobody can claim to have all the answers. The historic records are too flimsy, whimsy even. The subject of surname origins, our very beginnings,where it all started, is so daunting most have avoided it, and like Popeye, they shrug their shoulders and assume the "I am what I yam" posture, which is very akin to the philosopher Sartre proposal of "I think, therefore I am( or exist, if you wish)" and a whole flock of other platitudes. But in this world of growing awareness of the profound and complex DNA controls within our body function, that simple rationale may not be enough to carry the day. Much preferred is Ralph Waldo Emerson's "we are the sum total of our ancestors" and I would add "and will continue to be.
Since man arrived here at this place, our body particular has been the subject of intense scrutiny, philosophizing, probing and introspection, and we still don't understand it. Perhaps the same is true of our surname, yet this very intimate tag is our only traceable historical link to the unique performance of our most cherished possession, our body particular, no matter which way you go. Fact is, this name tag is far more important to you than computer records, social security numbers, credit cards or pin numbers. Your surname is where it all starts, and where it all ends. .
Our heritage has to be tied up with our surname. It is up to us to acquire a better understanding of this murky subject of how we arrived at this place, using the only key, a name tag which sometimes may promote man's puffery, or alternatively, his modesty, false or otherwise, but always with sketchy assumptions adapted to his best needs and comfort.
From the very first "Hey, you" grunts in the cave of man's dwelling, proudly admiring in a flickering half light his tribal symbols on the cave wall, the name tag has been the prime candidate in support of man's posterity, his entitlements, his security, his sexual relationships, his future, his greed. On the other hand, it has also been the source of his pride, his life posture, and his legacy. And he will use it to generate, and to venerate his 'being here', his existence in this place in this time and for the future. That's a heck of a big responsibility for a little old surname.
Generally, it is agreed and conceded that the organization of the surname, as we know it today, can be ascribed to the Norman race about 1120. The inspiration for this monumental event was not a whimsical cultural or spiritual happening, is was an economic necessity.And if you're going to consider "surnames"THIS IS WHERE IT ALL BEGAN, throughout most of Europe. This is not an attempt to justify, excuse, criticize, praise or condemn the Norman race. It is a study of surname origins.
The Normans were primarily of Viking origin, descended from Duke Rollo and his Viking pirates, Rollo being a one time Jarl or Earl of Orkney who had been kicked out of northern Norway by the King. Rollo landed in northern France and claimed a chunk. From the mid 10th century, this new and ambitious race ravaged all Europe down to the tip of Sicily, quickly. thoroughly and effectively, despite (or because of) having been converted to Christianity. The powerful land hungry Normans spread themselves thinly but with great determination and ruthlessness. This was a feudal society. Family possessions, land acquisitions, required and acquired an urgently needed identity tag for posterity, a little more sophisticated than Tyson the Terrible, an actual Norman name of great renown, as we shall see. Heritable family ownership and dynasty continuity was paramount, and became the prime motivation for the surname, a tag which followed its own set of crude rules from its inception, and the protocols changed, became more refined, adapted on the fly. These emerging social, quasi legal rules were vital to domain ownership in this exploding feudal empire.
The Normans started seeding the British Isles about 1002, way before the Battle of Hastings, but the Anglo records are scanty. They're busy justifying a rather ordinary Saxon race with it's chronicles. A much more comfortable, albeit wimpy ancestry. Norman chronicles reveal much more. The islands to the north had already been devastated by the invading ripples of Danish and Norwegian Vikings who now held much of the land, particularly in the north of England. The Orkneys, Hebrides and the Isle of Man which had been well settled by the Vikings. Weak Saxon kings had found it more convenient to pay bounties and to demand hostages from the Viking marauders, buying short lived peace for the islands. But King Cnut was smart, in his own way. He also had Denmark and Norway to look after, and the Swedes were pounding on his back door. This King of Denmark and Norway left government in England to the Saxon Witan, the ruling body. suitably seeded with Danish Earls from the north. He milked the Saxons with kindness, and left them and the Witan, more or less, to their own devices, but very, very poor.
Now, the Normans of mainland France also cast their beady eyes on this island paradise so full of promise, an island base often envied and sullied by the Vikings. But, not wanting a direct confrontation with Cnut, a fellow Viking, they bided their time, and infiltrated with friendly implants. The surnaming system was already under way in Normandy. For instance, Robert Guiscard, the Norman who had conquered practically all of Italy, used the simple surname of Guiscard in 1045, this in addition to all his many other later titles, including Duke of Sicily. Other Norman houses followed suit in this simple identification of their patrimony, and though the prefix "de" frequently preceded the locative domain name, it would be eventually and attritionally be dropped as clumsy by most families. Some few even retained it until the 14th and 15th centuries but mostly for affectation and distinction. Some just blended the 'de' or 'd'' into the surname, as in Defoe.
The table was set for the Norman invasion of England. The justifications, sometimes hotly argued, are not as important to surnames as the fact of it. One must wonder whether the Battle of Hastings was just a formality, a showcase of power. The Pope, recently having been saved from almost extinction by Norman Robert Guiscard in Rome, heartily favoured a re-statement of the extension of the Holy Roman Empire northward and gave Duke William his blessing, and his papal ring. The Pope owed the Normans one.
The compact relationship between the Normans to the north and the Normans to the south in Italy has never really been fully explored. We do know that Duke William made several visits to Rome. Whether he met Guiscard, this dynamic Lord of all southern Italy, whose status was almost equal to that of Duke William, is not known but all signs point to a very close and friendly liaison. Guiscard actively recruited Barons from the north with very generous offers of land to help him control southern Italy and individual family relationships were strong. Amongst others, Roger Bigod's brother went south with the Riddels to Apulia and fought alongside Guiscard. Another Norman, Ansold de Maule of the Vexin, the seignor of Maul outside Paris and a rich Parisian magnate, also fought with Guiscard in Greece in 1081, possibly along with his two brothers, Theobald and William. The close relationship continued when Prince Tarentum ( Guiscard/s son, known as Mark Bohemond in the 1st Crusade) left his nephew Tancred in charge of Jeruselam, in 1100, under King Baldwin. Trancred, in turn, delegated command of Jerusalem to Bigod d'Ige, nephew of Roger Bigod, the great northern Earl who was at the Conquest and received grants of 123 lordships in Essex and whose descendants played such a prominent role in the later Magna Carta at Runnemede. Similarly, some of the knights at the Conquest undoubtedly moved up from Italy to seize the opportunity for the land grab in England during or after the Conquest at Hastings although it must be admitted that Guiscard was creating lots of opportunities to the south.
The timing of the invasion was impeccable. The long summer defense of the south coast by the shire fyrd (militia), was such that they had to depart their defensive positions to return to reap their autumn harvest. Strangely, the Norman monks of Fecamp had been parked on the cliffs near Hastings for some time. Nobody seemed to notice them. And significantly, Harold was otherwise preoccupied in a major action to the north at Stamford Bridge. Whether there was any grand Viking scheme, was anybody's guess. Handshakes are not usually recorded in history.
In essence, the Normans took over from Cnut, and the later King Edward the Confessor, himself half Norman, was a 26 year product of the Norman court at Rouen, carefully schooled in the Norman culture (son of Emma daughter of Duke Richard 1st Duke of Normandy). In the overall scheme of things, in the post-Conquest period, this intrusion left the Normans with almost as big an empire as the Romans 1000 years before, not controlled by insular, non fraternizing legions of well trained and disciplined warriors and walled cities, but by a system of 'hands on' feudal domain ownership, and, since King Malcolm Canmore of Scotland finally declared himself to be Duke William the Conqueror's man in 1072 after the Duke had ravaged as far north as the Forth, the Norman empire would stretch from the Orkneys to the tip of Sicily, later to Greece and Jerusalem.
In 1172, the same Norman conquest and ownership would also be so of Ireland when Strongbow, the Earl of Pemroke engineered the occupation of Leinster for Henry II. The seeding of lowland Scotland followed the same pre-Conquest Norman pattern. It would be 150 years after the Conquest before England would experience its first resident Norman King, the unfortunate King John, who lost his castle home and his rule over Normandy to the French and departed to England. So, during this crucial period which coincided with surname development, the Norman influence on surnames, ownership and title in Britain and throughout Europe ( by 1072 they'd also beaten up the Fresians, the Germans (Emperor Otto of Germany was a nephew of the Norman King John in 1215) and even their friends and kin the Flemings) and surname became an organizational necessity in an emerging world of domain possessions, posterities and their hard fought physical and legal entitlements.
For most surname research we are "indebted" to the many overly simplistic books written in the 19th century when the British class society reached its zenith. Even some of the Scottish chiefs abandoned their castles and built town residences in London, joining the galas and festivities of the worldly rich and famous. This was an era of great pomp and prestige. Britannia ruled the waves. The class society prevailed, and was pursued to almost absurd and ridiculous extremes. The search for surname identity followed class lines which perpetuated the establishment, the aristocracy, rank and position. Commoners were Saxons and Boozers, literally, which, of course, the latter surname had nothing to do with the Norman name Beuzie. Not wishing to follow the example of France, Britain almost idolized the Victorian monarchy, and wars were fought valiantly on her behalf, even, some say, WWI, long after she was dead. Meanwhile, the German aristocracy, the Russian, Hungarian, Spanish and Polish monarchies were a network of royal intermarriage. Even Italy, hitherto a conglomerate of city states, doges and nations, became unified under one King around 1870. France was an island republic enjoying a less stratified, but bloodied democratic administration after the revolution along with her very distant neighbour, the United States of America.
In this European environment, then, small wonder that authors and researchers of surname origins set out to be self serving and Saxon. It was difficult to explain that the Duke of Norfolk might have the surname Howard, along with his chauffeur in the same car and no discernible relationship at all. Not only difficult to explain, because probably both had a common Norman heritage from D'Acres, they didn't even look alike, mostly because observers preferred the differences rather than the similarities. So, except for the aristocracy and the titled, many of whom ironically claimed 800 year Norman pedigrees, surnames were more or less rationalized as a random gift to the commoner, a coincidence, an assumption, or a wild misinterpretation of some ancient ritualistic activity, many of which were explained with some very imaginative creations. The major anomaly of course, was the aristocracy's great delight in proving a Norman heritage.
It was more important during this Victorian period to keep the rank and file guessing, or to be misleading, than to examine historic reasons for surname development, whether they be racial, demographic, linguistic, economic or social. The upper class, and anyone who aspired thereto, needed to distance themselves from the cannon fodder. The playing field(s of Eton and Harrow) was/were not very level/ They were tilted in favour of the ennobled, and the wannabees, whoever they were, and, Lord knows, there are a lot of us. Additional to the class thing, other factors entered into the algorithm of surname analysis and research. National psyche played a big role. Continuing this denial of early Norman influence, what right minded commoner Brit would be proud to have a surname in England that was anything but WASP, Scot or Irish in origin. After 800 years feuding with those dastardly Frenchman across the Channel, including a 'hundred year war', who wanted to have a surname which could be remotely considered as being of Norman origin. Yet the best assumption is that so many are.
For instance, the surname Cartwright. On the surface, this name seems to be as basic Anglo trade-type-person as you could get. Yet at least two, possibly up to seven of the invaders of Britain in 1066 and later, were Norman nobles of the house of Carteret, Lords of Carteret in Normandy. Read it quickly, and it's not very far away, even now. Despite the fact that, then, it was probably pronounced Carterai. On paper, on a deed or charter, however, it could be read as Cartwright, or very close thereto. Coming full circle, descendants of early Boston settlers of the name around the turn of this century still pronounced the name Carteret, and some still do. Twopenny was ascribed to a trade name for a money changer, rather than the Norman Tupigne, and so also Magnapeigne, Norman surnames which settled in England and Scotland. And who could associate Taylor as a big Norman name, a hero at Hastings, Taillefer, instead of the obvious Saxon tradesperson? While a Norman origin is arguable, up to this point in time the Norman side of the argument has not been fully presented because of the fixation on a need for a Saxon origin, somehow remotely connected by distant mind-set to "King Arthur?", a person who receives scant mention in the Saxon Chronicle, (not that this many versioned document can be commended for its impeccable accuracy) and who found fame with early historian Geoffrey of Monmouth, and the Welsh Triads, legends of the Welsh race.
Unthinkable that a commoner name such as Cartwright or Carter could be associated with Norman nobility. Perish the thought. It was obviously a trade name, and Saxon to boot. However, if it was a trade name there are a few arguments "au contrair". We are reasonably agreed that surnames took shape progressively between 1020 and 1300. In England, trade occupations such as carters and cartwrights, were largely associated with the delivery of stone and other materials for the erection of Norman castles during that period. These castles were being demolished almost as fast as they were erected. This was by far the biggest 'industry' of the time if we remove agriculture and ship building. Wales is known for the highest saturation of castles (and their ruins) per square mile in the world. And the re-construction exercise provided the Normans with advanced architectural skills, in a big hurry. These many minor Saxon entrepreneurs, carters, etc., were mostly one man, one ox or, (unusually) horse operators, and generally landless, usually penniless, little above a slave. The Saxons of this time had a long way to go before any real recovery of lands was effected. Taxation caused a need for surname identification, but land rights, fishing rights, and their produce were much more tangible as taxable assets to the King. Taxation on services was much more complex and entrepreneurial, and an administrative problem which crossed many boundaries. The tax collector had not yet learned to effectively deal with the complexities of profit and loss. The Domesday Book of 1086, the prime basis for taxation, was solely domain oriented and very focused on which Norman (90%) noble held English lands and other rights other than the King himself, or the Church.
Other goods being hauled by carters (under escort) at the time were the luxuries demanded by the wealthy Norman settlers, thus creating a new society in London, the importer/businessman, many of them Jewish, people who would scour the world for anything from spices to swords, tapestries to fexcotic wines, furnishings for the fine new Norman domains and arms for their personnel. Some say this expanding trade was the real inspiration for the first Crusade, largely a Norman effort. It is most likely that most of these 'carting' operators in this distribution network throughout England were still on a 'font' (first) name basis, and also most likely for them to have been lost in history as a genealogical chain. The larger businesses of haulage contractors did not arrive until centuries later. Perhaps, the only exception might be that when a cartage operator was brought before the courts, he might be described by his trade, but this was not usually the custom, since a trade was a poor identification, easily forged. In the absence of a surname, far better to describe the person as being from a town or village, but this identification would most usually only be used for court purposes. It would not have any relationship to a domain name, a jealously guarded entitlement of the Norman settler and his blood line, and any unauthorized use of that name may diminish his entitlement, both to himself and his successors, and result in putting the offender to the gallows. And in 1170, according to the Justicair of England, 'every little knight in England had his seal" which protected those domain rights. See Heraldry Today, this web site.
In reality, it is difficult to accept the simplistic explanation that services or trades played a very important role in the creation of surnames, if surnames went hand in glove with domain ownership for the King's taxation purposes. Of course, we cannot discount the later copy-cat evolution of surnames as a social custom but the acid test at this time was ownership of land, largely Norman, including a sizable contingent of Breton, Flemish and French. The very few nominal Saxons who retained their lands, usually had a strong Viking or Danish heritage, and had become allied to the Norman way of life in one way or another.
However, it should be remembered the seeding of England by Normans since the year 1000 could give many records a distortion by describing Domesday(1086) holdings as being held by the 'the pre-Conquest holder" and actually still be Norman, or even Danish, rather than Saxon. But some of this carefully planned, what is now believed to be extensive pre-Conquest Norman recruitment backfired. .
Here we find the beginning of a crude Norman surnaming protocol. This protocol, by a quantum space/time leap, would be adopted by upper class North Americans in the 19th century. The immediate descendent was never allowed to use the scion's surname during his life time. This might jeopardize the old man's rights to his crown jewels and estates. So, Ralph Tesson must have been alive at the Conquest and shortly thereafter, but he must have been a very old man. His son added the numeric II. The grandson, the III. All with the continuity of the same surname but distinguishable one from another. This was a far better procedure than the Fitz protocol which we will discuss later, and which was also used by some Norman families of the time. The Normans even introduced the Sr. and Jr. suffix to distinguish father and son but it was not popular.
Many have questioned the disproportionate distribution of surnames. So how, you might ask, and why, did there get to be so many Carters or Cartwrights in this present day world of ours? Why shouldn't the Plunks, and many other 'one-off surnames' be right up there with them? Why the disproportionate representation? And this is the 64K question everybody wants to avoid. We can call it inexplicable, accidental human evolution, and leave it at that. In the interests of the equality of the human race, and the complete anonymity of humanity, perhaps we should leave it right there. On the other hand, the differentials might be important to our genetic composition. Theoretically, one person living at the time of the Conquest, over thirty generations, could produce millions of descendants of the same surname and, although we are not suggesting this happened in any ordered fashion, the possibility exists.
On the other hand, it is equally preposterous to claim a single source origin for all surnames. Two of the first identifiable relics of surname association was the family seal (the knight's legal bank card) and the Coat of Arms. The latter was recorded for posterity much more than the former. For the sake of simplicity, let's consider the surviving Coat of Arms for the family name Stapleton, for instance, a reasonably common surname which reveals over 30 Coat of Arms registered to different people of that surname, different branches of the family name throughout history. All but two carry the main theme device, a silver field charged with a black lion rampant. This 800 year historical time span of the surname records would have been a huge demographic phenomena of random coincidence if purely accidental. Foreign intruders into the surname over this 800 year period would surely have been expected to have a been strongly represented by "foreigners", who changed their name to Stapleton. So let's consider this surname Stapleton. Nowadays it seems like a very ordinary surname which thousands enjoy. It was big in the 14th and 15th centuries, Barons, Lords, knights, and the like, but all that's passed into history. Few remember, or care to. Nevertheless, maybe there is a much stronger augument for kinship within a family surname than we care to acknowledge.
Anyway, back to the subject at hand. If these Normans handed us the surnaming protocols and played such a prominent role in our surviving Anglo and European races, we'd better understand a bit more about them, the Normans, that is, even at the risk of repetition. Unlike the previous Viking bounty hungry marauders who flitted around the oceans with fleets of up to one hundred ships, stinging here, ravaging there, wintering, gathering treasures which would help them gain power in their home domains, the Normans had achieved a new territory, converted Vikings who had firmly planted their roots in northern France. They became skilled military commanders who did not confine themselves to naval warfare and allied strategies, although these basic skills never left them. . They developed a hierarchical network of top down intermarriage, betrothals and cross pollination which always seemed to work to their advantage.
In Normandy, well before the Conquest of England, the surnaming protocol had been born of the feudal system. In Saxon England, surnames had not entered the social scheme of ownership and title and first (font) names only were used, with some very rare exceptions. In Normandy, the scion of the family generally adopted his domain name as his own surname. The de (of) prefix was being dropped by attrition, although, by exception, some notable families would retain the prefix through until the 14th and 15th centuries.
There could only ever be one person identifying himself (sometimes, but rarely, herself) with entitlement to the Norman domain. Along with that entitlement of domain, he was also the custodian of the family seal, the banner which represented the family in battle, the Coat of Arms, and any other family heirlooms which were carried with his dynasty. None of his progeny were ever allowed to use or copy those family relics during his lifetime. However, this created a problem, perhaps more of a problem than it was worth. If the old man lived to a ripe old age, and many did, there might be sons, even grandsons, requiring to be identified with their posterity and probable hereditary rights of their own new domains at some time in the future. What name would they use? The first answer was Fitz, meaning the 'son of'. This did not mean, as was commonly supposed in earlier times, an illegitimate son. The Viking society rarely made any distinction between descendants in or out of wedlock. And if this argument held, why didn't the Duke call himself FitzWilliam. Duke William himself was a bastard who had achieved the Duchy of Normandy. And already the Danish Vikings were adopting the tag 'son' on the end of font names for distinction such as Ericson, Estrithson and others to overcome the problem of the continuity of the posterity. Hence, 'son' names are to be found mostly in northern England. Similarly, at this time or later, the prefix Mac was adopted by the Scottish, the "O" by the Irish, and the Ap or Ab by the Welsh. But no such prefix or suffix was adopted in the Saxon naming protocol as far as can be determined.
Curiously, in the Norman culture, it meant that a man, Robert de Mortimer, for instance, might have two names during his own lifetime, a confusing headache no historian should need. If the eldest son, by primogeniture, the beneficiary of his father's estates, hung around for his inheritance he might assume the name, say, Robert FitzHugh, if his father's name was Hugh de Mortimer. On his father's death Robert would then revert to and inherit the old domain name Robert de Mortimer, and all its entitlements. In other words, Robert FitzHugh and Robert de Mortimer were one and the same person. This was very confusing to the record books. And most Fitz names were of a temporary nature until such time as they were changed to a new heritable domain name, or one was acquired from the main hereditary family estates. Younger sons might be given a place name, a domain within the father's domain, which in turn would become their own lifetime domain/surnames. This made the establishment of a genealogical link from the younger sons to their father very difficult, and each of the younger sons grew within their own orbit with a different surname from the father. If they moved, to say, Norman settlements in England, tracing back, linking the younger son relationship to the main stem became an assumption, or was almost impossible. However, it shouldn't be assumed that this was a rigid procedure by any means. It was the beginning of a naming custom, and subject to personal interpretation or family convenience. Sometimes the suffix I, II, or III was used and the eldest son's name could be the same as that of the father, so long as the suffix followed. But it was still domain driven, particularly for the younger sons, of which there were usually many.
There were many loopholes in this early system, nor was the procedure followed assiduously. The Norman ranking of titles, was not as clearly defined as it was in the late middle ages, or is today. William generally assumed the heritable title of Duke, most likely in deference to the French King, to whom there was a vague suzerainty relationship. But there was no question of his absolute monarchical rule. Lesser nobles could be styled counts, countesses, bishops, seigniors, sires, lords, masters, constables, sheriffs, even princes, and the laws of precedence seemed to evolve more on the size of a noble's estates, and his influence in the royal court, rather than any precise ranking protocol. Duke William made an attempt to straighten this mess out in England when he elected just one controlling and administrative head, an Earl, to each county. Other lesser officers such as Sheriffs, tax men, the King' stewards and Reeves administered the King's (very ill-defined) Law. Lordships were granted for domains, large or small, and each carried variable rights and powers in his local court and justice system, powers which were often meted out in abstentia, since the magnate's domains were usually widely scattered through several distant counties, or he might even be back in Normandy. This was a first crude attempt at administrative organization, by no means perfect, but at least it changed the complexion of the land and was not a replication of the loose structures in Normandy. Nor was it inherited from the Saxon system in which there was an earldom consisting of many counties strung together, such as Wessex, thus making the Earls what amounted to petty kings. But the new system would inherit its own problems.
So, in post Conquest England, in Europe, the Anglo domain name created new surname identities for younger Norman sons in particular, taking all the trappings of this vicious art form into their pastoral settings. The Normans overran Europe like a plague unto themselves. The domain surname became more firmly established as a protocol. Undoubtedly, their ancient Coat of Arms also found new roots. But this did not prevent them from tripping off to the fairs and jousts, particularly at Bruges, in addition to plundering the English countryside. They continued the Norman practice of contributing to Abbeys, monastries and churches to atone for their sins.
It was in this environment that the surname was born, a symbol of ownership, possessions, pride and greed. It would carry the posterity of the family name down though the centuries from the Orkneys to the Holy Land. The Norman surnames would have more opportunity for growth since they represented wealth, ownership and title, and were more motivated to establish posterities which would continue well into the distant future, for their dynasties and their descendants. They would fare better through the pestilences simply because they would be better equipped to resist. And the Norman strain bred like rabbits. They were accustomed to breed sons for the battle, and a little on the side for their own posterity. Many of these warriors died young, but suprisingly, many lived to be very old. Nevertheless, the spirit of the ancient family names prevailed. To quote noted anthropologist ErikTrinkaus of the University of New Mexico "It takes only a very subtle difference in life style to make a big difference in terms of evolutionary success".
For those interested in some of the thousands of Domesday holdings, Norman domains, and biographies of the Norman tenants in chief, and the many domain sites which could have been adopted as surnames by Norman settlers in England, please go to:
Surname Index / Homepage
The following are Domesday links:
Cheshire and the Domesday Book
Lancashire and the Domesday Book
Oxfordshire and the Domesday Book
Somerset and the Domesday Book
Warwickshire and the Domesday Book
Lady Godiva and the Domesday Book
Derbyshire and the Domesday Book
Devonshire and the Domesday Book
Shropshire and the Domesday Book
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last updated on: September 13 2018
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