The origin of English surnames 2: patronymics or father’s first name

By , July 21, 2009 2:20 am


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

Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond, illegitmate son of Henry VIII

Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond, illegitmate son of Henry VIII

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:

  1. Anderson (Andrew’s son)
  2. Harrison (Harry’s son)
  3. Jackson
  4. Johnson
  5. Richardson
  6. Robertson
  7. Robinson
  8. Simpson (Simon’s son)
  9. Thompsom / Thomson (Thomas’ son)
  10. 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)
  11. Wilkinson (son of Wilkin, often short for William)
  12. 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:

  1. Adams (English)
  2. Davis (son of David, also sometimes Davies, both English and Welsh)
  3. Edwards (occasionally Welsh, more often English, probably because Edwardson is a bit of a mouthful)
  4. Evans (son of Evan, a mostly-Welsh first name originally spelled Ifan, and a version of John)
  5. Griffiths (son of Griffith, a Welsh name and /or title meaning “Lord”" or Master”)
  6. Hughes (son of Hugh, English and Welsh)
  7. Jones (son of John or Jonathan, also a very common Welsh surname)
  8. Matthews (mostly English, can be Welsh)
  9. Phillips (mostly Welsh, but a few English origins)
  10. Roberts (English sometimes, more often Welsh in origin)
  11. Rogers (English)
  12. Stevens (son of Stephen, mostly English, sometimes Welsh)
  13. Williams (both English and Welsh)

The Norman “Fitz”

King Henry II, often known as Henry Fitzempress before he became King

King Henry II, often known as Henry Fitzempress before he became King

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:

  1. Bevan (from ap Evan)
  2. Bowen (from ap Owen)
  3. Price (from ap Rhys, or Reece)
  4. Pritchard (from ap Richard)
  5. Probert (from ap Robert)
  6. Pugh (from ap Hugh)

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St. Swithin and predicting English weather in the summer

By , July 19, 2009 4:00 am

English summer weather and the legend of St. Swithin’s Day

England, it is sometimes said, doesn’t have climate,  it has weather. There is quite a lot of truth in this – while it is obviously colder and darker in the winter than in the summer, on any given day it could be bright and sunny in December, or grey and pouring with rain in August.

So over the years, a large number of myths, legends and signs have been said to foretell what the weather will be.

There is an old legend, trotted out  every year, that the summer’s weather can be predicted by observing what happens on St. Swithin’s saint’s day, 15th July.

Stained glass window of William of Malmesbury, who wrote about St. Swithin in the 12th century

Stained glass window of William of Malmesbury, who wrote about St. Swithin in the 12th century

If it rains on St. Swithin’s Day, the tradition says, it will rain every day for the next 40 days.

Not great news for London, as it rained pretty heavily on 15th July this year. Oh, and it’s rained every day since, so far!

A traditional version of the weather forecasting properties of St. Swithin’s Day says:

St Swithun’s day if thou dost rain
For forty days it will remain
St Swithun’s day if thou be fair
For forty days ’twill rain na mair

In the 18th century, John Gay recorded the ancient tradition thus:

Now if on Swithun’s feast the welkin lours
And every penthouse streams with hasty showers,
Twice twenty days shall clouds their fleeces drain
And wash the pavement with incessant rain.

A plan of Winchester Cathedral from 1911 - St. Swithin was Bishop of Winchester

A plan of Winchester Cathedral from 1911 - St. Swithin was Bishop of Winchester

Who was St. Swithin / St. Swithun / St. Swithhun?

St. Swithin (the most common spelling) was an Anglo-Saxon, and was bishop of Winchester from 852 AD until he died in 862.

In 9th century records, not a lot is said about him. He was one of the two main advisors of Egbert, King of Wessex. He signed a few charters which are still extant, and his death was reported in the Anglo-Saxon chronicle, and that’s about it.

There are a lot more sources about him from the 10th century, but how much they actually knew and how much was just more or less made up is anyone’s guess!

Winchester Cathedral is still dedicated in part to him – to the Holy Trinity, St. Peter, St. Paul and St. Swithin.

How the legend came about

William of Malmesbury, an 11th and 12th century historian, wrote about St. Swithin in his 1125 book Gesta pontificum Anglorum (Deeds of  English Bishops). William said that, when dying, St. Swithin said, “ubi et pedibus praetereuntium et stillicidiis ex alto rorantibus esset obnoxius”, or that he should be buried outside the Catherdral, where passers-by  could walk and raindrops fall on him. This indicates that the rain-forecasting potential of the saint was already know by the 12th century.

In the 10th century, over 100 years after his death, St. Swithin’s body was “translated”,  or moved. Most of his body was buried in a new shrine to him in Winchester Cathedral, but later his head went to Canterbury, and an arm to Peterborough Abbey.

It is supposed to have rained heavily on the date of the translation of St. Swithin’s relics, and the legend may originate from this.

Any truth in this saying?

Malmesbury Abbey, where William of Malmesbury was a monk

Malmesbury Abbey, where William of Malmesbury was a monk

To some extent, yes. Obviously, it’s not the case that the 15th July sets out the weather for the next 40 days for sure.

But there is a pattern whereby the weather in mid-July sets the stage for what is to follow.

The jet-stream’s position, for example, greatly affects British weather in the summer, and its position is often fixed by mid-July for several weeks thereafter.

So the weather for a week either side of St. Swithin’s Day is indeed a general indication of what the rest of the summer’s weather may be like.

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