Many of our modern surnames have their origins in the middle ages. Some names indicate clan or family linage such as all of the Scandinavian and Scottish names ending in son meaning “son of” or those beginning with the Norman French “Fitz” such as Fitzmichael ( Son of Michael). Scots and Irish Gaelic surnames frequently begin with Mac (son of ) or O’ ( descendant of) are also quite well known examples of the name declaring the family line.
Some relate to the area of a person’s origin e.g. Flemming (from Flanders), Scott, Munster, English etc. The German and Dutch Von and Van also give a place of origin; though in the case of the German Von it generally means that they owned the place in question e.g. Ulrich von Lichtenstein was the ruler of Lichtenstein.
In the Abbey Museum collection you will notice a few items gifted to JSM Ward from Mary of Teck, who just to complicate matters was born in England and not Teck, which was in the Kingdom of Württemberg, which is now part of Germany. Her name comes from her father Francis of Teck, whose proper name and title was Furst (prince) Franz Paul Karl Ludwig Alexander Graf (duke) von Hohenstein, who was born in Croatia, educated in Austria, served as a staff officer in the British army in Egypt, retired to Italy and appears to have spent very little time in Germany, let alone Teck! His daughter Mary of Teck was christened Victoria Mary Augusta Louise Olga Pauline Claudine Agnes but decided to use the her second name Mary when she became Queen Consort of the United Kingdom and British Dominions and Empress Consort of India, when her husband ascended the throne as George V. To further complicate matters she was not known by either of her given names Victoria or Mary to her family who called her May after her birth month! To put things into perspective Mary of Teck was grandmother of Queen Elizabeth II and pretty much everything called “Queen Mary”….., including the famous ocean liner and a hospital were named after her.
Other non-noble names give a clue to what profession their ancestors followed such as Miller, Smith, Carter, Baker, Fletcher, Bowyer, Brewer, Wheeler, Cooper, Tailor, Farmer, Mason, Potter, Carpenter, Weaver are some of the more obvious examples and have their counterparts in pretty much all European languages. Butler, Sherriff, Reeve, Clark, Groom and Stewart (or Steward) would have indicated what position someone would have held in a Lord’s household. Now the bad news; if your last name is King, Bishop, Knight, Lord or Abbott it means that your ancestor was a king’s man or a bishop’s man etc. (holding land directly from) and not a king or bishop!
Others tell you something more about the personality of the person who bore it. The most famous is probably Richard Coeur de Lion (the Lion hearted) who got a much better deal than his brother King John who was known as John Lack- Land or John Softsword. Charles the Bold, Alfred the Great and Charles the Hammer certainly had a better PR machine than Stephan the Weak, Ralph the Timid and Charles the Mad! Enrique the Bastard and Pedro the Cruel were half-brothers and rivals for the throne of Castile in the mid 1300’s.
Fans of the TV show Vikings may be surprised to know that Ragnar Lothbrook literally translates as Ragnar Hairy-Pants, which relates to his using a cow hide to make some snake-proof trousers. Though seeing his children included Ivar the Boneless (probably because he was double jointed), Bjorn Ironsides and Sigurd Snake- in –the- eye, it seems that interesting names ran in the family. According to the sagas Ivar also went on to defeat a cow possessed by a demonic spirit, but I suspect that sub plot won’t appear in Vikings!
A change in circumstance could also result in a change of name; William the Conqueror of England started out as William the Bastard of Normandy, though with the combined might of England and half of France as his to command one suspects that people didn’t call him the Bastard to his face.
Not to be left out we also have Willemus Smalbyhind, Louis the Universal Spider (Louis IX of France who wove webs of intrigue across Europe) Charles the Mad and Alphonso the Slobberer of Leon. A special category can also be made for Henry the Impotent of Castile (too much Spanish wine perhaps?) and Duke John the Babymaker of Cleves who boasted of 63 illegitimate children.
To finish of this short look at medieval naming practises I would like to present my two favourites: Sir Roger God-Save-Ladies, whose descendants still proudly bear the surname Godsave and Sir Humphrey Goldenbollocks whose descendants probably wish to remain anonymous!
And next time you are visiting the Abbey Museum check out the gifts of Mary of Teck.
By Damien Fegan