Tracing Your Norman Roots

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One of the most obvious changes to English culture after occurs in the names people called themselves. Most Saxon and early Celtic personal names disappeared quite quickly after the Norman Conquest.

Famous Norman Family Ancestors

French names like William, Robert and Henry become popular among the general population — and for the first time, surnames start to appear. But they did not have inherited surnames — these arrived with the Normans. This can be seen in that most Norman of creations, the Domesday Book. In many landowners were simply referred to by their Anglo-Saxon first names, but by surnames are included.

Robert the baker or Robert at the wood. Some surnames — like Smith — pre-date the Norman Conquest. However, some names from before the Norman Conquest survived long enough to be inherited directly as surnames, such as the most common Anglo-Saxon surname, Smith. The Norman counterpart to smith would have been a farrier, or ferrier , a worker in metal, which appears in surnames like Farrah or Farrar, whereas the Celtic version of the same occupation is gobha , from which come the surname Gow, Gowan and Gove. But remember, if you have a French surname, it does not necessarily mean your family came from France.

Most people were and continued to be of English descent, with only a small number of Norman nobles and their retainers living in England. Instead a French derived name might have been taken for status, or because you were working for a Norman noble who listed your occupation in French, such as John the charpentier or Carpenter, which in English would have been Wright.

However, if you have a surname which comes from a French place name you are much more likely to be descended from a Norman forebear. Take our quiz and discover your allegiance. Editors note: this post has been edited to properly attribute the building of Iron Bridge to Abraham Darby, rather than Thomas Telford.

Please check your facts as this is quite a popular misconception. What about Norse influences? Also, slaves took on the surnames of theit masters , so , some people got their last names that way, like Jackson , for example. Sadly he died before it was finished. Telford was involved later in his capacity as roads and bridges engineer for Shropshire.

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Twopenny was ascribed to a trade name for a money changer, rather than the Norman Tupigne, and so also Magnapeigne, Norman surnames which settled in England and Scotland. And who could associate Taylor as a big Norman name, a hero at Hastings, Taillefer, instead of the obvious Saxon tradesperson? While a Norman origin is arguable, up to this point in time the Norman side of the argument has not been fully presented because of the fixation on a need for a Saxon origin, somehow remotely connected by distant mind-set to "King Arthur?

Unthinkable that a commoner name such as Cartwright or Carter could be associated with Norman nobility. Perish the thought.

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It was obviously a trade name, and Saxon to boot. However, if it was a trade name there are a few arguments "au contraire". We are reasonably agreed that surnames took shape progressively between and In England, trade occupations such as carters and cart wrights, were largely associated with the delivery of stone and other materials for the erection of Norman castles during that period.

These castles were being demolished almost as fast as they were erected. This was by far the biggest 'industry' of the time if we remove agriculture and ship building. Wales is known for the highest saturation of castles and their ruins per square mile in the world.

And the re-construction exercise provided the Normans with advanced architectural skills, in a big hurry. These many minor Saxon entrepreneurs, carters, etc. The Saxons of this time had a long way to go before any real recovery of lands was effected. Taxation caused a need for surname identification, but land rights, fishing rights, and their produce were much more tangible as taxable assets to the King.

Taxation on services was much more complex and entrepreneurial, and an administrative problem which crossed many boundaries. The tax collector had not yet learned to effectively deal with the complexities of profit and loss. Some say this expanding trade was the real inspiration for the first Crusade, largely a Norman effort. It is most likely that most of these 'carting' operators in this distribution network throughout England were still on a 'font' first name basis, and also most likely for them to have been lost in history as a genealogical chain.

The larger businesses of haulage contractors did not arrive until centuries later. Perhaps, the only exception might be that when a cartage operator was brought before the courts, his trade might describe him, but this was not usually the custom, since a trade was a poor identification, easily forged. In the absence of a surname, far better to describe the person as being from a town or village, but this identification would most usually only be used for court purposes. It would not have any relationship to a domain name; a jealously guarded entitlement of the Norman settler and his bloodline, and any unauthorized use of that name may diminish his entitlement, both to himself and his successors, and result in putting the offender to the gallows.

And in , according to the Justicair of England, 'every little knight in England had his seal" which protected those domain rights. In reality, it is difficult to accept the simplistic explanation that services or trades played a very important role in the creation of surnames, if surnames went hand in glove with domain ownership for the King's taxation purposes. Of course, we cannot discount the later copy-cat evolution of surnames as a social custom but the acid test at this time was ownership of land, largely Norman, including a sizable contingent of Breton, Flemish and French.

The very few nominal Saxons, who retained their lands, usually had a strong Viking or Danish heritage, and had become allied to the Norman way of life in one way or another. However, it should be remembered the seeding of England by Normans since the year could give many records a distortion by describing Domesday holdings as being held by the 'the pre-Conquest holder" and actually still be Norman, or even Danish, rather than Saxon.

But some of this carefully planned, what is now believed to be extensive pre-Conquest Norman recruitment backfired. For instance, before the Conquest, Edward the Confessor recruited Gilbert Tesson Tyson note the use of the pre-Conquest family surname one of the most powerful Barons of Normandy, and offered him the great barony of Alnwick in northern England that he accepted and brought with him many knights. It may be suspected that this was King Edward's method of neutralizing the influence of the two northern Earls, Edwin and Morcar. Ironically, by the time Hastings rolled around, Gilbert had switched allegiances, and fought alongside King Harold and his Saxons.

His fellow Normans killed him, Gilbert, and many of his knights. This, however, did not prevent Gilbert's son William from later becoming the Lord of Alnwick and Malton, such was the power of this family who were distant kin of Duke William. Brother against brother. Here we find the beginning of a crude Norman surnaming protocol.

The immediate descendent was never allowed to use the scion's surname during his lifetime. This might jeopardize the old man's rights to his crown jewels and estates. So, Ralph Tesson must have been alive at the Conquest and shortly thereafter, but he must have been a very old man. His son added the numeric II.

The grandson, the III.

High house prices? Inequality? I blame the Normans

All with the continuity of the same surname but distinguishable one from another. This was a far better procedure than the Fitz protocol that we will discuss later, and which was also used by some Norman families of the time. The Normans even introduced the Sr. Many have questioned the disproportionate distribution of surnames.

So how, you might ask, and why, did there get to be so many Carters or Cartwrights in this present day world of ours? Why shouldn't the Plunks, and many other 'one-off surnames' be right up there with them? Why the disproportionate representation? And this is the 64K question everybody wants to avoid. We can call it inexplicable, accidental human evolution, and leave it at that. In the interests of the equality of the human race, and the complete anonymity of humanity, perhaps we should leave it right there.

On the other hand, the differentials might be important to our genetic composition. Theoretically, one person living at the time of the Conquest, over thirty generations, could produce millions of descendants of the same surname and, although we are not suggesting this happened in any ordered fashion, the possibility exists. Robert the Bruce of Scotland Norman heritage was a good example of the latter. He is said to have had 28 children on the right side of the blanket, as they say, and an equal number 'outside the blanket'. His descendants are said to number over two million but, obviously, not necessarily the entire surname Bruce.

On the other hand, it is equally preposterous to claim a single source origin for all surnames. But let's not throw out the baby with the bathwater with this and other glaring, well-publicized examples. Two of the first identifiable relics of surname association were the family seal the knight's legal bank card and the Coat of Arms. The latter was recorded for posterity much more than the former.

For the sake of simplicity, let's consider the surviving Coat of Arms for the family name Stapleton, for instance, a reasonably common surname, which reveals over 30 Coat of Arms, registered to different people of that surname, different branches of the family name throughout history. All but two carry the main theme device, a silver field charged with a black lion rampant.

This year historical time span of the surname records would have been huge demographic phenomena of random coincidence if purely accidental. Foreign intruders into the surname over this year period would surely have been expected to have a been strongly represented by "foreigners", Burns-like renegades who changed their name to Stapleton. So let's consider this surname Stapleton.


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Nowadays it seems like a very ordinary surname that thousands enjoy. It was big in the 14th and 15th centuries, Barons, Lords, knights, and the like, but all that's passed into history. Few remember, or care to. Nevertheless, maybe there is a much stronger argument for kinship within a family surname than we care to acknowledge.

Investigate your origins

As mentioned previously, modern research is proving we have more identifiable differentials in the genetic blueprint in general than we have similarities, or equalities. In fact, one of the prime objectives in genetic research and the DNA is to isolate these differences.

The larger question is "Are these differentials governed more closely with "family name" relationships, history and origins than we care to admit? He ran a check with the Public Records Office and found the top fifty most populous surnames.

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He found that from the earliest records, a century before, and these surnames had a growth rate that far exceeded the average for the population growth for the whole country. This growth rate was carried consistently from year to year by family surnames. The narrow time frame, the number in the sample, mostly eliminated the possibility of the assumption of a surname for any particular or peculiar reason.

How do we explain the gross variations in the populations of different surnames? Leaving Smith and Schmidt out of the discussion for a moment, other surnames have growth rates far in excess of national averages. In those olden days the Farmer outnumbered the Smiths about ten to one. With apologies, what happened to those Farmer guys?

Here was a trade name that bit the dust. Many other surnames die on the vine, and have been doing so for centuries, ever since surnames came into being. And there are other people whom, when on vacation, open the hotel phone book in a compulsive search to find another of the same name.

Or, we could close our eyes, chalk it down to accidental marital relationships, and leave it at that. Possibly we could suggest that there may be more to this genetic blueprint than meets the eye. Maybe it carries an innate compulsion to procreate which is a variable within each surname. Once we admit this, however, we get beyond the mere physical composition of the genetic blueprint, genetic codes and the DNA as a one-dimensional flat profile.

England Pre-Norman Conquest Surnames (National Institute) Genealogy - FamilySearch Wiki

We now have to admit that the surname carries with it many more intangibles than the straight physical blueprint of the human body, and we open a can of worms that would not be socially acceptable, not even for a sly peek at this point in time. Perhaps, some time in the not too distant future, there'll no such thing as a generic drug, and that each will be tailor-made to one's own genetic line and eliminate many of the sometimes-dangerous side effects of the generic prescription drug.

The "family name" commonality suggestion becomes almost imponderable. It deals with genetic survival rates baked into the genetic blueprint, and the impact of the environment. The plagues, the pox, cholera, and bunch of other deadlies, including the soldier's deadly enemy, dysentery, have hammered away at the human race. Pandemics from the first known big plague in Athens in B. C, to the English historian Bede's reported plague of England about A.


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Lesser waves of the pestilences eroded perhaps many more of the human race. Some of these pandemics killed as much as one third of the world's population at the time, particularly the Justinian event. The flu bug was no slouch either; it killed well over 20 million in the U. But these ancient pestilences hit the poor the hardest. They had no place to run, no place to hide.

The wealthy, even moderately well heeled, moved ahead of the pestilences. They let the castle portcullis down, and nobody entered. They built barges on the rivers, and took the gangplank away. They moved to 'clean villages' and quarantined, a practice started in Italy in the 15th century.

Some of the pestilences had different blends, grew stronger, endemics which returned with even more power, and survival almost became synonymous with the strength of their immunity and the degree of a person's wealth. Antonia Fraser's well-written and excellently researched "The Weaker Vessel" is recommended and gives a clearer, more detailed picture of 15th, 16th and 17th century hysteria. It describes the desperate drive to produce heirs at all costs, and, one suspects, even to the implied murder of an infertile wife, not just by Henry VIII, but also by lesser lights.

The fertile woman became a baby factory from the age of 15 through 38 or so 'enjoying' an annual pregnancy ritual. Very few landowners relished the idea of their estates reverting back to the King. Survival, then, was to slip through the mini-mesh screen of life pestilential hazards, and produce a line of winners. And there, we'll leave you with that thought. You piece it together. Those of you who are still amongst us can stand up and salute the innate strengths of your ancestors. We made it here at this time. Millions, billions, didn't, exponentially.

Anyway, back to the subject at hand. If these Normans handed us the surnaming protocols and played such a prominent role in our surviving Anglo and European races, we'd better understand a bit more about them, the Normans, that is, even at the risk of repetition.

Unlike the previous Viking bounty hungry marauders who flitted around the oceans with fleets of up to one hundred ships, stinging here, ravaging there, wintering, gathering treasures which would help them gain power in their home domains, the Normans had achieved a new territory, converted Vikings who had firmly planted their roots in northern France.

They became skilled military commanders who did not confine themselves to naval warfare and allied strategies, although these basic skills never left them. On land they were as dangerous as they were on the sea. They developed a hierarchical network of top down intermarriage, betrothals and cross-pollination that always seemed to work to their advantage. As we have said, the Norman seeding of Britain took place over 50 years or more from about A. Elaborating, perhaps one of the most significant early seeds was Emma.

Emma was the daughter of Richard 1st, Duke of Normandy, born He was only 21, she a year-old 'veteran', and already had three children by her first husband, Aethelred of England, a weak King, probably totally dominated by Emma, and who had died the previous year. One of those children was the future King of England, Edward the Confessor.

Both he and Alfred went off to Normandy, an investment in futures. Emma had commenced the seeding of England with Normans in , by inviting Hugh, a Norman adventurer, and endowed him with the city and castle of Exeter. There followed many more examples that can be found in the Norman chronicles. At this time Emma must only have been a young girl of 16, but she was a Norman who knew where she was going. Although Cnut, her new husband was a tyrant he extracted the huge sum of 80, pounds from the Saxon people in his first year of reign his new wife was even more ruthless.

Emma continued her Norman ways. During the reign of Cnut, and her son Harthacnut, she had amassed many estates and domains and held a fair chunk of the English treasury. When Harthacnut was having difficulty establishing his claim to the throne, her youngest son Alfred suddenly appeared on a visit from Rouen, Normandy. This didn't work out so well. Earl Godwin the leading Saxon Earl, decided enough Normans were enough. He trapped Alfred and his mercenaries at Guildford, and that was the end of Alfy.

Alfred had tried once before with the help of Robert, Duke of Normandy when they had gathered a fleet to invade England but got caught in a storm that washed them up in the Channel Islands. When Hathacnut was eventually crowned, Edward the Confessor , Emma's other son, arrived from 26 years exile in Normandy but probably not with Emma's approval.

Not all Normans got along with each other, either. Edward must have been Emma's least favored son. Harthacnut died. Following year Edward was crowned. But Emma was allowed to live on in peace. Later, Edward, in an act of repentance, restored some of her estates and a small pension. His successor would eventually become King of Scotland.

Although he officially and ostensibly 'attended' the Queen, he went to Scotland almost immediately. Nevertheless, he managed to get back to the Conquest and join his Norman father and elder brother, William, at Hastings, 16 years later.



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