The following article is about choosing RenFaire names, often meaning names from the 16th century and earlier.
However, many regency romances feature family names that are ancient (to England), or at least hereditary for many generations (suggesting respect for tradition, if not actual wealth).
So, the following article may be helpful.
FAIRE NAMES FOR ENGLISH FOLK
There are not many easy sources for people wishing to choose a character name specifically for Elizabethan England. Here is an attempt to provide one. This article contains a list of solidly documented names from 16th century England, along with some insights into how names were chosen and used.
WHERE BABIES’ NAMES COME FROM
If you were born in Elizabethan England, you would be named by your parents when you were baptized. Usually this was just a few days after your birth. It was *not*, however, your parents who actually presented you at the church; it was your *godparents*: ideally, two women and a man if you were a girl, two men and a woman if you were a boy. It was very common for parents to try to get godparents who were higher in social status than themselves, such as local nobles or prominent people in town. Many parents also asked the baby’s grandparents, aunts or uncles to serve as godparents.
One reason the choice of godparents was important is that you would most likely be named after one of them. According to Scott Smith-Bannister’s recent study (see Sources section for references) about 75% to 85% of children were given the name of a godparent, in the cases where we know both the children’s and the godparents’ names.
His data also show that if you were not named for a godparent, you would probably be named after a parent or another close relative. You were especially likely to get the name of a particular godparent or relative if they had a lot of money or status. You and the person you were named after were referred to as “namesakes.” Thus, parents clearly did choose a child’s name with care, but usually only a few names were possible, or considered, for any one child.
Your first name, the one given to you at baptism, was your “Christian name” or “given name.” It remained the same all your life, though you might, of course, go by a nickname (Molly for Mary, Tom for Thomas).
An Elizabethan character would NOT use what we now call a “middle name,” which is essentially an extra given name (as in Katherine Anne Cox or John Francis Ferrer). Double given names were slowly spreading on the Continent, but the custom had not yet reached England, and in fact did not become really common in English-speaking countries until much later, as late as the 19th century in places. We know of literally only a couple of dozen cases in all of Elizabethan England (before 1600), and most of them are among the nobles or people who were born abroad, such as Jane Sybilla Grey, who was born in France during Queen Mary’s reign.
As for last names, the most common type was the kind we use now, a surname or family name inherited from your father; if he was Edward Langley, you would be Mary Langley.
Interestingly, your last name was not quite as fixed as your first name. For instance, occasionally a family name might change. (As with many naming customs, money or status was often involved.) The family of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, was originally named Sutton; when they acquired the Dudley lands and title, most family members began using Dudley as their surname. The change was not quite complete in Robert’s generation, and he was sometimes referred to as “Robert Duddeley alias Sutton”.
You might also be better known, especially in your local village, by a “byname” than by an inherited surname. A baker named Jeremy Staple might be known as Jeremy Baker or Master Baker rather than Master Staple. In some cases this might be passed on to his children and become the new family surname. Or if there were several Jeremys in the area and one was especially tall, short, red-haired, disabled, etc., or came originally from elsewhere, he might be called Jeremy Little, Lame Jeremy, or Jeremy Bristol.
SWIMMING IN THE NAME POOL
In the twentieth century we draw given names from an unusually large “name pool.” A name pool is a list or concept of what members of the culture feel are appropriate things to name people. For instance, we would probably accept that Alisha or Devin or Jothan or LaShalla are “names.” But while “moon” and “unit” are perfectly okay English words, Moon Unit Zappa doesn’t seem like a person’s name to us; these words are not in our name pool.
The Elizabethan pool of given names was MUCH smaller than ours. There were only about 30 to 40 common names in circulation for each gender, with perhaps another 100 or so that you would run across from time to time. According to Janell Lovelace’s statistics, eventy percent of all women were named Elizabeth, Joan, Margaret, Anne, Alice, Agnes, Mary, Jane or Katherine. More than one out of every four men was named John, and 70% of all men were named John, Thomas, William, Richard, or Robert.
The name pool for surnames was much larger. This booklet lists over 1,000 surnames and is by no means comprehensive. One reason is that while given names traditionally came mainly from a limited number of popular European saints, surnames come from a much greater variety of sources: place names (Nottingham, Boston), occupations (Chandler, Osteller), a father’s or ancestor’s given name (Philips, Johnson), or other bynames (Cristemas, Prowd, White).
THOSE WILD AND WACKY PURITANS
People sometimes get the impression that Biblical and “virtue” names were common in England at this time, especially among Puritans. This is only partly true. Smith-Bannister’s study shows that a few names from the Bible, like Mary, John, Elizabeth and Thomas, were indeed common, and had been so for generations. And Charity and Grace do make it into his top 50 women’s names. But the more exotic names, like Bathsheba or Ezra, and most of the “virtue” names like Prudence or Reformation, were not much thought of until the 1630s and 1640s — two generations after Queen Elizabeth. And Smith-Bannister’s studies of individual counties show that even in the most heavily Puritan districts, only about one out of six children was given either of these types of names.
MEN’S GIVEN NAMES
The list of the most common men’s given names in England stayed pretty nearly constant from the 1530s through 1700, especially the top four or five names, though the exact order changed a bit. It’s notable how dominant the top few names are; the top five names account for 70% of all men studied. The figures from Janell Lovelace are:
- John 29%
- Thomas 14%
- William 14%
- Richard 7%
- Robert 6%
- Henry 3%
- Nicholas 3%
- Edward 2%
- Walter 2%
The top 50 men’s names listed by Scott Smith-Bannister for the 1560s and 1570s (a larger sample, with a more specific date ocus) follow this trend fairly well. Reading down from the first column, in order from most common to least, they are:
Some additional, slightly less popular names are:
WOMEN’S GIVEN NAMES
The top five to ten women’s given names are somewhat more variable from decade to decade, and not quite so dominant. It takes nine names rather than five to account for 70% of all women studied, and Elizabeth, the most common women’s name, is only about half as common as John is for men. The figures from Janell Lovelace are:
- Elizabeth 15%
- Joan 12%
- Margaret 11%
- Anne 9%
- Alice 8%
- Agnes 6%
- Isabel 4%
- Katherine 3%
- Mary 3%
- Jane 3%
- Margery 2%
The top 50 women’s names listed by Scott Smith-Bannister for the 1560s and 1570s follow this trend fairly well. In approximate order from most common to least, they are:
Some additional, slightly less common names are:
SOME PRE-1600 ENGLISH SURNAMES
I have edited Janell Lovelace’s list of surnames with an eye towards Faire. Some of the spellings have been modernized so the names are recognizable, and so that it’s clear how to pronounce them, since names at Faire are more often spoken than written. I’ve removed duplicates, and a few names have been dropped because they have very strong associations with one or more famous people from Elizabeth’s reign — a theatrical decision, not a historical one. There are still over 1,000 to choose from: (or you can skip this long table.)
A WORD ABOUT THE WELSH, SCOTS AND IRISH
Note that if you are from Wales, Scotland, or Ireland, the name pools you draw from may be quite different, along with the common methods of forming names. A few notes may help.
Wales had its own distinctive naming practices and a largely separate name pool. The usual form of surname was a patronymic (derived from your father’s given name). For a man, this is: [given name] ap [your father’s given name] (such as Owein ap Griffith). For women, [given name] verch [your father’s given name] (Myfanwy verch Eynon). There were also some areas of Wales that had been under English law for 100 years or more, where English names and name patterns were more common (such as Owen Tudor, King Henry VIII’s grandfather — an English-pattern name using Welsh components).
Scotland is actually divided into two rather different cultural areas. In the lowland and urban parts of Scotland, your naming practices and name pool would be very similar to the English (though with some regional differences). The common language spoken in these parts of Scotland was Scots, a version of English (or a language close to English) and not Gaelic. In fact, the Scots-speaking culture has in some ways more affinities (dress, customs, etc.) with English culture of the time than with the Gaelic culture in the Highlands.
In the Gaelic-speaking Scottish Highlands, the type of “clans” we usually think of, with fixed, inherited surnames, didn’t appear until long after our period, in fact not till about the 18th century. During the reign of Elizabeth in England, by far the commonest form of surname in Gaelic-speaking areas is a patronymic. For a man, this produces a name like: [given name] mac [possessive form of your father’s given name], such as Eoin mac Donnchaidh. For a woman, [given name] inghean [possessive form of your father’s given name] (Dearbhorgaill inghean Dhomhnaill). Patronymics account for the overwhelming majority of the period Gaelic surnames we know or can guess at (though unfortunately, very few Gaelic names are recorded in Gaelic in Scotland).
In Ireland, also a Gaelic-speaking country, these same patronymics were used as well, and were formed in basically the same way.
However in Ireland there was also another common alternative: the clan byname. The pattern for clan bynames for men is [given name] ó [clan ancestor’s given name] (Conmhaol ó Conchobhair). For women, [given name] inghean uí [clan ancestor’s given name] (Siobhán inghean uí Mháille). The clan ancestor referred to would be the man, usually several generations back, after whom the clan was named.
NOTE that both Irish and Scottish Gaelic have a complex grammar that has major effects on how names are pronounced and spelled. Dictionaries and name books are generally not very helpful with this. It’s a very good idea to consult someone knowledgeable about the languages (and about historic naming practices in these languages), in order to get a Welsh, Scottish or Irish name right.
CHOOSING A NAME FOR RENAISSANCE FAIRE
Consider the pattern of names you would expect to find in your Elizabethan village. You would probably meet many Margarets, a few Dorothys, perhaps one Maud, and probably no one named Tamara or Chastity. As twentieth-century humans, we have a natural tendency to pick a name that is “different” in order to emphasize our individuality. But Elizabethans seem instead to have chosen names that were common in their families and communities, apparently as a way of expressing their family and community ties.
This is a very different mind-set and it is worth trying to understand it. It can also be a source of some good theatrical “bits” — Who were your godparents? Who are you named after? How many Catherines are in your guild, and how do you tell them apart? (Here’s where bynames come in handy.)
Also, before you get too attached to one particular name, try your chosen first and last names on several of your friends to see how you like them, whether they’re easy to say, and whether there are any obvious bad jokes on your name that you won’t want to live with. (For instance, William Bates might not like being addressed as Master Bates!)
MAJOR SOURCES AND HELP
The names and information in this article come from several very good statistical studies of Elizabethan names.
A good (though rather dry) recent study of given names is Names and Naming Patterns in England 1538-1700, by Scott Smith-Bannister (Oxford Historical Monographs, Clarendon Press, 1997, ISBN 0-19-820663-1).
Name lists that are not from Smith-Bannister are originally from the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology’s index to its brass rubbings collection at Oxford University. The compilation I’ve used is by Janell K. Lovelace and is available on the World Wide Web at <http://www.panix.com/~mittle/names/arval/brasses/>.
A similar study by Brian M. Scott, titled “Late Sixteenth Century English Given Names,” is available at <http://www.panix.com/~mittle/names/talan/eng16/>.
The Academy of S. Gabriel at <http://www.s-gabriel.org/> is an excellent name resource, although Elizabethan England falls at the end of their time period. Their focus is on the best possible historical accuracy. The Academy also offers a consulting service if you have in-depth questions about a historically accurate name (they will help you with Welsh or Gaelic names, for instance), although due to their small and completely volunteer staff, a response may take several weeks.
For Scottish and Irish names, before you do anything else please read “Scottish Names 101” and “Quick and Easy Gaelic Bynames”, both by Sharon Krossa, and available at <http://www.stanford.edu/~skrossa/medievalscotland/> or through links from the S. Gabriel Website.
For Welsh names, Heather Rose Jones has written “A Simple guide to Constructing 16th Century Welsh Names in English Contexts,” also available through the S. Gabriel Website.
All these authors can be contacted through S. Gabriel if you have questions about names in their specific languages and cultures. I am also greatly indebted to them for helping me with this project, although any mistakes are, of course, my own.
I’m also available to field questions about Faire names in general. My focus, like St. Gabriel’s, is on historical accuracy. I can be contacted at <CLaning@igc.apc.org>.
OTHER HELPFUL BOOKS
It doesn’t have much to say about naming as such, but for a detailed and fascinating discussion of Elizabethan birth, baptism, and godparents, I recommend David Cressy’s Birth, Marriage and Death: Ritual, Religion and the Life Cycle in Tudor and Stuart England. (Oxford University Press, 1997, ISBN 0-19-820168-0)
If you are interested in a possible name that is not in this article, probably the best and most easily accessible standard name references that cover this period are the following. Most large libraries are likely to have them.
Withycombe, E.G., The Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press.
Reaney & Wilson, A Dictionary of English Surnames, Oxford University Press, 1995. Or the earlier edition: Reaney, P.H., A Dictionary of British Surnames, 2nd ed., Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1976. This will also tell you correct 16th-century spellings for names in this article’s surname list, some of which are given in their 14th- or 15th-century forms.
Ekwall, Eilert. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-names. Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1989. A good source for anyone who wants an English surname taken from a place-name.
Copyright 1999 by Chris Laning. Unlimited reproduction of this article in print or electronic media for nonprofit educational purposes is permitted, provided it is reproduced in full including this copyright notice, and no money is charged beyond the cost of copying. All other rights reserved.
O Chris Laning
+ “Mistress Christian Ashley,” Guild of St. George,