When asked to state our name, traditionally we English respond with at least two different ones – John Smith for example. We consider we have two kinds of name: a name given at birth or baptism, and an inherited family name or surname. We say them in that order, while written lists are sorted by the surname: Smith, John.
Birth names seem to go back in history as far as we can go – everyone has always had a birth name. But surnames are different: an Anglo-Saxon baby might be Cuthbert or Hilda or a choice of many others, but only one! Sometime in the Middle Ages we acquired second names, family names, surnames or whatever you want to call them. And Worcester Cathedral Library and Archive has a great collection of them in thousands of contemporary records of local people. All the examples shown here come from Worcester Cathedral Muniments B Class Leases and Charters.
This is a deed from the collection, catalogued B913. It is quite small, about 14.7 X 9.6 cm, written on vellum with the remnant of a seal at the bottom. The catalogue dates it from the middle of the thirteenth century and the language is Latin. And to make sure of its legality, the deed has been signed by quite a number of people. Here are some examples:
Benedicto de Hordewik or Benedict of Hardwick: Hardwick was a manor over the river from Worcester and Benedict was its lord.
Petro Colle or Peter Colle: the appellation Colle may be a simple description of his appearance meaning coaly or coal black.
Roberto filio Nigelli or Robert Son of Nigel: surnames ending in -son are very common and this is how they started.
All these appellations describe the person in some way: from his father, his land, his job or his appearance. But they were not inherited surnames like our modern ones. People had different descriptions at different times and in different places, and they were certainly not inherited. Robert’s son would not have been called Son of Nigel.
Other interesting examples include Johanne Priche, perhaps reflecting Worcester’s position near the border of England and Wales. It may be an abbreviation of the Welsh John ap Richard, meaning John son of Richard as in the modern surname Pritchard. And there is Alexandro Cementario – Alexander the mason. The description Pargamenare or parchment maker may be related to modern Pargeter or plasterer.
And here is our old friend Johanne Fabro which is Latin for John Smith. The Johanne part has been shortened by the scribe with a macron – horizontal line – over the h and e.
Many local place names appear, often with quite different spellings which are clues to their own history. The Abbot of Persore (Pershore), John Ombrisley (Ombersley), Reginald de Marteleye (Martley), Thomas Throkmerton (Throckmorton) and Thomas de Braunsford (Bransford) are all thirteenth and fourteenth-century Worcestershire examples.
Senter and Billiter are two unusual modern surnames that have a common origin, as was shown some time ago in a blog on medieval bell foundry. Norman French Saintier and Middle English Belyeter both refer to the trade of bell casting or more widely of working with molten metal.
Here are some more examples of descriptive names which eventually became surnames in the modern sense. They can be based on appearance, character or ability: Pratt came from a word for cunning, and Gilbert le Hopere or Hopper may have been a good dancer. And this signature Ego Johannes Murieweder or John Merryweather may have meant a cheerful or happy fellow.
Names from jobs include Shearman, modern Sherman or sheep-shearer, and Cotele is the equivalent of modern Cutler or knife-sharpener. John de Leye, modern Leigh, and Gilbert de Heie, modern Hay, perhaps both lived in the forest, John in a cleared space and Gilbert in a hunting enclosure. And some are from their fathers’ names, like Godfrey son of Gilbert and Gilbert son of Geoffrey. Modern equivalents are of course Gilbertson and Jefferson.
And what about your surname? Have you seen it here? Could it have been a thirteenth-century Worcester name? There are many useful books on the subject, such as A Dictionary of British Surnames by P H Reaney. And the source documents used here are listed on the National Archives website in the collection Worcester Cathedral Muniments B Class Leases and Charters.