Thanks to an interesting article published by Ancestry.com, we now know that many of us have surnames passed down to us from ancestors in Britain.
Apparently, last names weren’t widely used until after the Norman conquest of England and Wales in 1066, but as the country’s population grew, people found it necessary to be more specific when they were talking about somebody else. Thus arose descriptions like Thomas the Baker, Norman son of Richard, Henry the Whitehead, Elizabeth of the Field, and Joan of York that, ultimately, led to many of our current surnames.
“Come and see the violence inherent in the system!”
They still name people after their profession in Wales. Our long lost but much loved cousin Roger, who started a life as the owner of a footwear business, was known universally as Roger the Shoe. Until he sold the shops and took up a smallholding, at which time he became, proudly, Roger the Pig.
Apparently there are perhaps 45,000 different English surnames, but most had their origins as one of these seven types.
Occupational names identified people based on their job or position in society.
Calling a man “Thomas Carpenter” indicated that he worked with wood for a living, while someone named Knight bore a sword.
Other occupational names include Archer, Baker, Brewer, Butcher, Carter, Clark, Cooper, Cook, Dyer, Farmer, Faulkner, Fisher, Fuller, Gardener, Glover, Head, Hunt or Hunter, Judge, Mason, Page, Parker, Potter, Sawyer, Slater, Smith, Taylor, Thatcher, Turner, Weaver, Woodman, and Wright (or variations such as Cartwright and Wainwright) — and there are many more.
This kind of name also gave a clue about whom a servant worked for. Just adding an S to a name indicated a feudal relationship with someone else. So someone named Vickers might have been a servant to Mr. Vicker, and someone named Williams might either have served a William or been adopted by him.
From the obscure fact department: in medieval England, before the time of professional theater, craft guilds put on “mystery plays” (“mystery” meaning “miracle”), which told Bible stories and had a call-and-response style of singing. A participant’s surname — such as King, Lord, Virgin, or Death — may have reflected his or her role, which some people played for their whole life and then passed down to their eldest son.
Describing a personal characteristic
Some names, often adjectives, were based on nicknames that described a person. They may have described a person’s size (Short, Long, Little), coloring (Black, White, Green, or Red, which could also have evolved into “Reed”), or another character trait (Stern, Strong, Swift). Someone named Peacock might have been considered vain, and so on.
From an English place name
A last name may have pointed to where a person was born, lived, worked, or owned land. It might be from the name of a house, farm, hamlet, town, or county. Some examples: Bedford, Burton, Hamilton, Hampshire, Sutton. Writer Jack London’s ancestor, for example, probably hailed from London.
From the name of an estate
Those descended from landowners may have taken as their surname the name of their holdings, castle, manor, or estate, such as Ernle or Staunton. Windsor is a famous example — it was the surname George V adopted for the British royal family to replace their original German name Saxe-Coburg-Gotha during World War I, because they had a home at Windsor Castle. Another Royal anglicised his name from Battenberg (a small town in Germany) to Mountbatten for the same reason. The Queen’s current husband, Prince Philip, also adopted the name Mounbatten, even though he was originally Philip Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg. Quite a mouthful.
From a geographical feature of the landscape
Some examples are Bridge, Brooks, Bush, Camp, Fields, Forest, Greenwood, Grove, Hill, Knolles, Lake, Moore, Perry, Stone, Wold, Wood, and Woodruff. Author Margaret Atwood, for example, is probably descended from someone who lived “at the wood.”
Patronymic, matronymic, or ancestral
Patronymic surnames (those that come from a male given name) include Benson (“the son of Ben”), Davis, Dawson, Evans, Harris, Harrison, Jackson, Jones (which is Welsh for John), Nicholson, Richardson, Robinson, Rogers, Simpson, Stephenson, Thompson, Watson, and Wilson.
Matronymic ones, surnames derived from a female given name, include Molson (from Moll, for Mary), Madison (from Maud), Emmott (from Emma), and Marriott (from Mary).
Scottish clan names make up one distinct set of ancestral surnames. These include Armstrong, Cameron, Campbell, Crawford, Douglas, Forbes, Grant, Henderson, Hunter, MacDonald, and Stewart. Anyone with these names has Scottish heritage hiding in their history somewhere.
Some surnames honored a patron. Hickman was, literally, Hick’s man (Hick being a nickname for Richard). Kilpatrick was a follower of Patrick.
And how the hell did we end up with the unusual name Yolland, Dear Reader, which we have been patiently spelling to people over the phone for half a lifetime?
Well, originally this was a West Country Saxon name something like “Attenoldelande” which means “lives at or nearby the cultivated land”. There is some record of a family seat in Lancashire, and there is a Yolland Wood in Devon, near Plymouth. And that’s about it.
So once upon a time, all the Yollands, Yoldelondes, Yelands, Yolandes, Yealands, Yellands, Yeolands, Yallands, Yellens and all the rest were … well, serfs, basically.
Although they may have been free tenant farmers under a Saxon lord. But more likely serfs.
Anyway, before we launch into more quotes from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, we simply note that our lineage has been around a very long time, and we have mud under our fingernails.