I was recently interviewed for the BBC’s The One Show regarding the introduction of surnames into England at the time of the Norman Conquest. Here I expand on the short interview to give you a better idea of the complexities of this subject.
At the time of the Norman Invasion, surnames were a new concept; unknown in England and in their infancy on the continent. A very small minority of the Norman knights who came to England at this time actually had what we would term ‘surnames’; that is a hereditary name to be passed on to successive generations. All of these made reference to the name of the estates they came from in Normandy
Today, surnames are one of the main ways by which we identify ourselves, but in the 11th century people in England were known by their first names and then a ‘byname’. Bynames and surnames were very similar, but a byname was not passed down to the next generation. Both were based on similar ideas; identifying someone by the way he or she looked, their personality, occupation or the place where they lived, for example, a feature in the landscape or the name of an inn.
Although William 1 was victorious at Hastings in October 1066 he was then faced by the arduous task of bringing the rest of the country under his control: no easy feat. One way of doing this was to re-distribute all the land in the country. From this point onwards all land technically belonged to the King and he in turn granted use of the land to men he believed would be loyal to him. These vassals did homage to their king and provided military service when required. In return the lords would require homage and services from those people who lived on their estates. Despite the fact that the new ruling classes were Norman, experts believe that one reason for the growing use of surnames among them was to strengthen their association with the land which they had been given. These were uncertain times and no-one felt secure!
Surnames did not suddenly come into use overnight! While we can pinpoint their origin among the landed classes at this time, it was not until the 13th century that surnames started to come into general use. By the end of the 14th century most people had one, but the rate at which the practice of using a surname became the norm differed around the country and many surnames from this time did not remain stable. There are many examples of different ‘surnames’ being passed down to siblings throughout the ensuing centuries.
The Normans did not just introduce surnames to England; they also brought a new pool of Norman-French personal names. If you have ever sighed in frustration over the plethora of people you find with the same name first and last name when researching your family history, you may thank the Normans! Over time, the wide-ranging stock of Old English and Anglo-Norse names such as Egbert, Wulfric, Harold, Ulf, Alfred and Edgar gradually fell out of favour with a few exceptions. They were replaced by the much more limited range of Anglo-Norman names such as Robert, Henry, Richard and William and later popular saints’ names such as John and Thomas. This had a knock-on effect on surnames since many surnames were to derive from Christian names spawning names such as Roberts, Dickinson, Williamson, Johnson and the like.
It is fascinating to study the names of the knights who came over with William both before and after the Battle of Hastings. It’s easy to see links between the names borne by those men and our modern-day surnames, but we must remember that in most cases the surnames we bear today would not have evolved for another 200 years or more. If your surname is Warren or Warrener, for example, you are likely to be descended from someone whose job it was to look after the rabbit warrens on the local lord’s estate, rather than from William de Warenne the companion of William the Conqueror! Many surnames appear to be of ‘French’ origin but they can be deceptive. My own surname, Heritage, is a good example. Most surname dictionaries define it as referring to someone who inherited land from an ancestor, rather than holding land from the lord. Most give its origin as ‘Old French’. Yet there is no similar surname on the continent, which is strange. A more likely interpretation is that it derives from the Old English word heretoga which originally meant a war leader, but by the time the surname evolved probably referred to a local community leader.
Surnames in Ireland, Wales and Scotland have different histories and I will look at them another time. For more on the evolution of surnames and how to interpret them, my recommended reading is George Redmond’s book Surnames and Genealogy: An Introduction available second hand or in good libraries.