Medieval English Surnames- Origin and History

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A surname indicates a persons tribe or community. A surname denotes the last name or the family name. In Europe, up to the year 1000, individuals had the same name, it was only after the 13th century that surnames were introduced. In medieval times, a surname indicated a person’s occupation, topographic origin, patronymic and nickname.  These factors were the basis for Medieval English surnames.

Let us read about Medieval English Surnames- Origin and History.

1) Surnames weren’t widely used in Europe

During the middle ages, most of the Europeans were farmers and lived in small communities. In this way, most people knew each other so there wasn’t any need of a surname. This however changed as the population started growing. Suddenly there was a necessity to distinguish between people.

A picture of medieval Europe

2) In England for example, individuals did not use surnames but instead used personal names. However, after the Norman conquest of 1066, the population of the country grew. Hence, it became essential to identify and distinguish between people.

A picture of the Norman conquest of 1066
The Norman conquest of 1066

3) Most of England’s population lived in small villages under the feudal system, but after the invasion of an army of Norman, Breton, Flemish and men from other regions of France, the population grew exponentially. This growth called for a system to identify and distinguish people more precisely.

A picture of increase in population in medieval europe

4) Subsequently, the Norman nobles introduced new Christian names in the country, as a result, many individuals had the same name. Hence the use of surnames became a necessity.

A picture of the Norman nobles
The Norman nobles

5) Medieval English surnames were derived from various sources. However, they are grouped into four main categories: A person’s occupation, locative, on a patronymic basis or a person’s nickname.

A picture of Medieval English Surnames

6) Medieval English Surnames were based on a person’s occupation

The medieval surnames of individuals were often derived from what they did for a living. For example, Thomas Baker indicates his occupation was a baker or the name John Knight indicates that he is a knight, or Richard Smith meaning he is a blacksmith.

A picture of a medieval knight
A medieval knight

7) Locative medieval English surnames

Locative surnames are based on a person’s topographic origin, where they stay, the land they own or their place of work. For example, Sarah York, meaning ‘Sarah who works in the town of York’ or Jack Underhill, a reference to the hill where he might have lived.

8) Patronymic

Patronymic medieval surnames were usually based on the Father’s first name. For example, John’s daughter Elizabeth would have become ‘Elizabeth John’. Or if John adopted a son named Richard, he would be called Richard Johnson a.k.a ‘John’s son’.

9) Surnames derived from nicknames

A nickname or characteristics such as Little, Short or Big were often the basis for a person’s nickname. Another basis for surnames was complexion such as white or red(which became reed).

10) The usage of surnames continued long after, additionally, an increase in immigration saw an implementation of new surnames.

11) The unification of Wales and England in 1536 brought in an English system of surnames.

A picture of the union of Wales and England
The unification of Wales and England

12) The guild system of medieval surnames

A way to transfer surnames was via the guild system. This system was based on apprenticeship. During the 13th and 14th century it became mandatory in London for an apprentice to use his master’s surname, either temporarily or permanently.

A picture of Aprrentice and master

13) Hereditary surnames

The rise of hereditary surnames was attributed to the creation of the ‘Domesday Book‘. According to records, the nobility and the upper classes created surnames in the 12th century. The rise of hereditary surnames in the upper class took place towards the end of the 13th century.

A picture of the Domesday Book, which kept record of Medieval English Surnames
The Domesday Book

14) The Parish Registers

The introduction of the Parish registers in 1538 denoted a more distribution of family name. These registers made account of baptisms, marriages and burials by the church. As a result, surnames became hereditary so as to keep a record of that the family’s history and genealogy. However, at the same time, it was common to see that an individual was baptised under one name, married into another name and buried under a third name.

A picture of the records of baptisms in a parish register, showing a record of Medieval English Surnames
Records of baptisms in a parish register

15) Surnames amongst the royalty

During the 11th century, the feudal royalty and gentry were the first to make use of surnames. Once the Norman nobles arrived in England, they often affixed a ‘de’ (of) before the name of their village. Or they used the father’s name preceded by ‘Fitz’ (from French word fils ‘son’). However, eventually, they dropped this practice and started using surnames based on their new England holdings.

A picture of the nobilty

16) In nobility, surnames indicated lordship and ownership of properties and regions. They often took the name of the most important castle they owned as their surname.

A picture of a castle

17) In spite of the nobility being the first to use surnames, they often made use of titles (Warwick, Northumberland, Suffolk, Norfolk, Gloucester, York, Lancaster) which often changed.

18) The nobles like dukes or earls were known by their titles. The titles of the nobility would be passed down to the heir, though often not inheritable by daughters. Additionally, if the heir was not in the direct line then he would change his name to that of the original family name.

19) Additionally, most of the high medieval ancestries only date to 1000, mainly due to the changes in naming patterns. Before that time patronymics did not exist and all individuals had one name.

20) Surnames and Monarchy

During the middle ages, the monarchs did not have surnames. Instead, they used their baptismal names or their regnal names. Their regnal names were often followed by a regnal number which was a Roman numeral, for example, Charles VI of France or Henry V of England. Additionally, their surnames originated from the dynasty they descended from. For example, Richard I from the House of Plantagenet.

A picture of Richard I who used the Medieval English surname Platagenet
English King Richard I

21) The first English ruler to use a hereditary surname was Edward IV.

A picture of King Edward IV who was the first to use a heriditary medieval english surname
King Edward IV


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