Medieval English Surnames

Key Facts & Summary

  • Surnames in the Middle Ages derived from various sources. These sources include lineage, location, physical attributes, character traits, jobs, and nicknames.

The Origin of Medieval Surnames

If you’ve ever wondered where surnames come from, there is an explanation, and their use is relatively recent. The use of surnames in Britain developed almost one-thousand years ago: following the Norman conquest in 1066, the population in Britain began to develop exponentially.

Initially, before the conquest, the inhabitants of Britain lived in small groups in farms and villages. However, because of the Norman conquest and the consequent rapid demographic growth, a new need came about: i.e. that of identifying people in a more precise manner.

Initially, surnames were nothing but a description of a person. One can view them as an adjective, or a sort of extension to one’s first name that provided additional information. In fact, surnames indicated who the father of the subject was, or they were related to the type of career they carried out. Surnames such as Robertson, Anderson, Johnson, indicated that the person was the son of Robert, Andrew, or John. Other surnames such as Webster, Baker, or Wood, indicated that the person was respectively a weaver, a baker, or someone that worked with wood. However, if a person changed career, then also his surname changed accordingly. In fact, it is useful to view the first surnames as fluid. For example, Geoffrey Fletcher (i.e. Geoffrey the maker of arrows), could become Geoffrey Taylor (i.e. Geoffrey the maker of clothes).

On the other hand, apart from their occupation, surnames could also be formed from a person’s physical attribute, look, nickname, or geographical provenance.

Surnames began to become hereditary in 1538, thanks to the introduction of parish registers.

Below is a categorised list of English Medieval surnames. Some of these are still popular today, and you may very well know someone that still carries this last name.

Surnames that derive from a trade or an occupation

Abbey – someone that workes in an abbey

Arkwright – a person that makes arks

Baker/ Baxter – a bread maker

Bauer – a peasant

Bell – a bell-ringer

Brewster – someone that works in a brewery

Chamberlain – someone that looked after rooms and mansions

Chandler – a candlemaker

Chapman – an individual that sold products at the market or a shopkeeper

Clarke – a teacher, a scholar, a secretary, or a priest

Collier – a coal miner

Cooper – someone that made wooden buckets

Dempster – a judge

Fish/ Fisher – a fisherman or a fish seller

Gardner/ Gardiner – A person that owned a garden or that cultivated flowers and vegetables

Harper – an individual who either played the harp or made harps

Inman – an innkeeper

Jenner – a maker of military machines or engineer

Kemp – a jouster

Kitchener – a person that works in the kitchen

Knight – a knight

Koch / Kocher – a cook

Lister – a dyer

Miller – a person that works in a mill

Packard – a person that sells illegal drugs or stolen goods

Page – a young servant, an attendant

Payne – a pagan

Palmer – a pilgrim

Parker – the keeper of the park

Porter – the doorkeeper

Rolfe – a peasant

Ryder – a warrior

Saylor – an acrobat or a dancer

Scrivens – a writer, a clerk, or a scribe

Sommer – a farmer that had to pay taxes in the summer

Smith – a metal worker

Spinner – a person that spins wool

Steele – a person that works steel

Stoddard – a horse keeper

Swift – a messenger

Taylor – a tailor

Tinker – a person that mends kitchen utensils

Toller – a person that collected taxes

Wainwright – a person that made carts

Walter – a water bearer

Ward – a guardian

Webb – a weaver

Surnames that describe character traits or a condition

Aimar – a famous or noble individual

Bigge – a big and strong individual

Bennett – a blessed individual

Blythe – happy or joyous

Bonner – kind or courteous

Bullard – someone that is deceitful

Chance – a lucky person

Curtis – an elegant person with good and courtly manners

Dear/ Dear – a person that is loved

Devine – someone that behaved in a divine manner

Daft – someone with a mild or meek character

Everett – someone brave and strong

Fish – a good swimmer

Fox – a crafty person

Grant – someone tall or great

Hardy – bold, daring

Hawk – someone with a fierce temper

Hendman – a handsomw or courteous person

Keen – bold, brave

Lightfoot – someone that walks rapidly

Mannering – a manly person

Moody – a bold and brave person

Mundy – a person born on Monday

Peacock – the nickname for a proud or arrogant person

Power – a poor person

Pratt – the nickname for a trickster or prankster

Proude – a person that is vain or proud

Pruitt – a brave and valiant individual

Puttock – a greedy person

Quick – the nickname for an agile person

Rey – an individual who acts like a king

Rose – a nickname for a person with a rosy complexion

Russ – a person with red hair or a ruddy-complexion

Selly – a blessed, happy, or lucky individual

Sharp – a clever, smart person

Short – a nickname for a person that was not tall

Sommer – a cheerful person

Sparks – a lively individual

Spear – a nickname given to a thin person

Stern – someone that is stern, harsh, or that has a severe character

Swann/ Swan – a nickname that was given to people known for their purity

Sweet – a nickname for a sweet and pleasant person

Tait – someone cheerful, happy

Terrell – a suborn individual

Truman – a trustworthy person

Wallace/ Walsh – a Celt, or a foreigner, stranger

Wild – wild, uncontrolled

Surnames that describe physical attributes

Black – someone with black or very dark hair

Blanc – a person with blonde hair

Brown/ Browne – someone with dark coloured hair or skin

Cameron – a person with a crooked nose

Campbell – a person with a crooked mouth

Cheeke – a person with a prominent jaw

Cruikshank – a person with crooked legs

Dunn – someone with dark coloured hair or skin

Fox – an individual with red hair

Grey – someone with grey hair or with grey clothes

Kennedy – someone with an ugly head

Morrell – a short person with a dark complexion

Root – a person that is cheerful and happy

Russell – a person with red hair

Sullivan – a person with one eye or with a very good eyesight

Ware – a person that is astute or prudent

Whitehead – a person with blonde hair

 

Surnames that indicate family lineage

Anderson/ Andrews – son of Andrew

Atkinson/ Atkins – son of Atkin (i.e. Adam)

Bryson – son of Brice

Danielson – son of Daniel

Davis/ Davies/ Davidson – son of David

Erickson – son of Erick

Hughes – son of Hugh

Jameson/ Johnson – son of John

Meredith – a person that descended from Maredudd (a sea lord)

Morrison – son of Morris or of Moorish descent

Robertson – son of Robert

Simson – the son of Simon

Williamson – son of William

Surnames that have a topographic origin

Abbey – someone that lives near an abbey

Attaway – an individual that lives close to a road

Bell – an individual that lives near a town bell

Bridge – someone who lives by a bridge

Forest – someone who lives by a forest

Hill – someone who lives by a hill

Knapp – someone that lives at the top of a hill

Lancaster – a person that comes from Lancaster

London – a person that comes from London

Norton – a person that lives north of a town

Park – someone who lives by the park

Rose – a person that lives in an area where there are many roses

Shaw – someone who lives by the woods

Sommer – a person that lives in a sunny area

Townsend – someone who lives on the outskirts of the town

Tuft – someone that lives near many trees and bushes

Tracey – an individual that comes from Tracy-sur-mer (in Normandy, France)

Yohe – an individual that lives near a stream

York – a person that comes from York

Epithets

An epithet is an adjective or a phrase expressing the quality or attributes regarded as characteristic of the person mentioned,

Royalty – would add to their first name epithets such as the Great, the Conqueror, the Kind, the Mean

Knight – would add to their first name epithets such as the Brave, the Cowardly, the Strong, the Hardy

Monks – would add to their first name epithets such as the Blessed, the Holy, the Pious

Bibliography

[1.] Behind the name (no date). Medieval English Submitted Surnames. Available from: https://surnames.behindthename.com/submit/names/usage/medieval-english

[2.] Newman, S. (no date). Names for the Middle Ages. Available from: http://www.thefinertimes.com/Middle-Ages/names-from-the-middle-ages.html

[3.] Tekeli (no date). Medieval English Surnames. Available from: https://tekeli.li/onomastikon/England-Medieval/Surnames.html

Image sources:

[1.] https://live.staticflickr.com/3859/14596639757_42fa05d576_b.jpg

[2.] https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/43/Medieval_and_modern_times%3B_an_introduction_to_the_history_of_western_Europe_form_the_dissolution_of_the_Roman_empire_to_the_present_time_%281919%29_%2814782654212%29.jpg

[3.] http://www.medievalists.net/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/list-of-names.png