25th March 1616.

There were once the non-hereditary by-names or nicknames: Sweyn Forkbeard, Rolf Bluetooth, William Longsword.

Then Edward I introduced surnames to give some variety to Princes of the Blood, designated by place of birth: Harry of Avonmouth, John of Gaunt, Thomas of Woodstock. 

Shakespeare, (like Longstaff), is an example of a ‘nickname’, surname, derived in this case from a spearman who brandished a spear. Spelt in many variations, it gives an indication of the then erratic nature of orthography.

The Last Will and Testament of William Shakespeare dated Today in 1616, shows one such erratic signature for each of the three pages.(1)


download (19)

Surnames come in four main categories: patronymic (after one’s father) such as Johnson, Stephenson, Fitzgerald, Ap Pryce, MacMillan and O’Brian.

Then locative (toponymic/topographical), after a settlement or landscape feature.

One of the surviving lines of the de Ferrers family, the Shirleys, is Toponymic, being named after Shirley, the Derbyshire village.(2)

Many came from isolated moorland settlements and hamlets as Shackleton, Saltonstall and Sunderland, even from farm houses as with Akroyd.

Many surnames names reinforced territorial rights, by addition to pre-Norman settlements, as with Roger de Montgomery and Marston Montgomery (Derbyshire) and Acton Burnell named after Robert Burnell, (Chancellor to Edward I).

Stanton Harcourt, Leicestershire, was named after the Harcourt’s and Mavesyn (Malvoisin) which prefixes Ridware in Staffordshire.

The Gresley family appended their name to a castle site (Castle Gresley) in Derbyshire. The Zouch family owned the area around the Leicestershire town of Ashby-de-la-Zouch.

Topographical surnames are found in those such as, Hill, Dale, Park and Toft, and many similar, of a more plebeian nature than those above.

Then we have the occupational and nicknames, as the peasantry needed to distinguish say all the ‘Johns’, and so acquired surnames associated with, personal characteristics and trades from the 1500s in England.

Trade surnames have come down to us in Baker, Fisher, Chapman, Smith and Tailor and others.

Then we get nicknames such as Pettit (small), Newman (new arrival), Verity (truthful): Broadhead, Crookshank, Redhead, Short and Strong speak for themselves.

One complication was that priests and monks were wont to change their names to that of a benefactor or local holder of estate.

In 2001 the top three surnames in England and Wales, were Smith (getting on for a million) along with popular Jones and Williams of the Welsh.

(1a) Of the six verified signatures of Shakespeare we have spellings: Wilm Shaksp; William Shaksper; Wm Shakspe; William Shakspere; Willm Shakspere and ‘By Me’ William Shakspeare.

(1b) From Middle English: Schak(k)en to brandish.

(2) The Norman nobility up to 1400 were designated, in documents, ‘de’ as with de Ferrers, whereas in speech ‘of’ was used.

Ref: ancestry.uk.com/topographical-names.

Ref: surnamesdb.com/shakespeare.

Ref: businessinsider.com/latter-name-meanings-in-england.

Ref: Wikipedia.org/wiki/spellings_of_Shakespeare.

Ref: wikipedia.org/de Gurdon.

Ref: Universal Magazine Vol. 42 p 150.




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About colindunkerley

My name is Colin Dunkerley who having spent two years in the Royal Army Pay Corps ploughed many a barren industrial furrow until drawn to the 'chalk-face' as a teacher, now retired. I have spent the last 15 years researching all aspects of life in Britain since Roman times.

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