In the Origin of English surnames 1: work and status, I included a general summary of the history of English surnames, and how they came into being in 11th century AD, and became normal, in the 13th and 14th centuries, for the whole English population.
The first post in this series was about surnames deriving from occupations, work, trades, and status.
Just as in the case of people named after their trades (John the Baker, or Henry the Carpenter) a father’s name was often used to tell different people with the same name apart. So a village might have had John, son of David / Davidson as well as John the Baker and John from-another-village.
As trades turned into surnames, the son of John the Baker came to be known as Henry Baker, even if he made barrels for a living. Similar, John Davidson’s son became Henry Davidson, instead of Henry Johnson.
Adding -son to the end of a first name
In England, the most common patronymic (or matronymic, as some surnames derived from a mother’s name) surname was to add “son” to the end of a name.
If the father’s name was a long-ish one, such as Andrew, Simon or William, it was often contracted over time in the surname. The following “son” names are all among the most common 100 surnames in England today:
- Anderson (Andrew’s son)
- Harrison (Harry’s son)
- Simpson (Simon’s son)
- Thompsom / Thomson (Thomas’ son)
- Watson (Wat was a common name in the 14th century, for example, Wat Tyler, leader of the Peasants’ Revolt in the 1380s. Wat was sometime short for Walter, sometimes a name on its own)
- Wilkinson (son of Wilkin, often short for William)
- Wilson (son of Will or William)
Contractions of “son”
Sometimes the English “son” suffix just became an “-s” or “-es” at the end of a surname. Both version often survive, so “Harris” and “Harrison” or “Roberts” and “Robertson” are both found frequently, and were often used by the same family interchangeably in the 14th or 15th centuries.
The “s” or “es” endings were more common in Wales, so many modern surnames with this ending are either more Welsh than English in origin, or are both. “Jones” is an example of a surname which is usually thought of as Welsh (and there are one hell of a lot of Welsh Joneses) but it was also sometimes used in England instead of “Johnson”.
The following surnames are in the top 100 today:
- Adams (English)
- Davis (son of David, also sometimes Davies, both English and Welsh)
- Edwards (occasionally Welsh, more often English, probably because Edwardson is a bit of a mouthful)
- Evans (son of Evan, a mostly-Welsh first name originally spelled Ifan, and a version of John)
- Griffiths (son of Griffith, a Welsh name and /or title meaning “Lord”" or Master”)
- Hughes (son of Hugh, English and Welsh)
- Jones (son of John or Jonathan, also a very common Welsh surname)
- Matthews (mostly English, can be Welsh)
- Phillips (mostly Welsh, but a few English origins)
- Roberts (English sometimes, more often Welsh in origin)
- Rogers (English)
- Stevens (son of Stephen, mostly English, sometimes Welsh)
- Williams (both English and Welsh)
The Norman “Fitz”
The Norman word “fitz”, similar to the French “fils”, for “son of” was commonly found in 11th and 12th century families.
It wasn’t always used in relation to a first name, though. Henry II, for example, was often known as “Henry Fitz Empress” before he became King, because his mother, Matilda, had been Empress of the Germans by a first marriage.
Some surnames developed out of this, such as the current UK names Fitzgerald and Fitzalan, neither of which is particularly common, but both of which certainly still exist.
The use of Fitz as a patronymic surname was most often retained by Anglo-Irish families, for some reason.
Over time, “fitz” came to be used as “son of royalty” rather than son of any old person. It was used for royal bastards, often. Examples include Richard Fitzroy, illegitimate son of King John, Henry Fitzroy, illegitimate son of Henry VIII and some of Charles II’s many bastards. “Roy” in this sense derives from the Norman French for “King”.
Welsh surnames from a father’s first name
Welsh surnames deriving from a father’s first name (or, occasionally, a mother’s) often used the “s” or “es” suffix as above. Others used “ap”, meaning “son of”. There are still some examples of UK surnames with “ap” in them, for example, the Welsh actress Llinor ap Gwynedd, and the BBC Wales journalist Iono ap Dafydd.
More frequently, the “ap” became subsumed into a single surname, such as the following which are still surnames in the UK today:
- Bevan (from ap Evan)
- Bowen (from ap Owen)
- Price (from ap Rhys, or Reece)
- Pritchard (from ap Richard)
- Probert (from ap Robert)
- Pugh (from ap Hugh)