History of Surnames in England

6 May 2022

Surnames – often overlooked in the present day as just a family name with no real meaning – were historically associated with an individual’s profession, status, role in society, geographic location, or other characteristics. Despite this, however, it was only since the invasion of the Normans in 1066 that hereditary surnames were introduced to England.

Keep reading to find out more about the history of surnames in England – we’ll touch on why they were introduced in the first place, how they affected society during medieval times, and even look at some examples of old English surnames and the meanings behind them!

So, why were surnames introduced to England?

Following the invasion and subsequent occupation of the Normans in England in 1066, hereditary surnames were to be introduced by Norman barons.

Before 1066, however, Anglo-Saxon “surnames” were held strictly to an individual and often came in the form of an adjective describing the person. They could be picked up, dropped, and changed on a whim, unlike the more modern Norman system where a surname is not only fixed but also hereditary.

So, what made the Normans introduce structured surnames to England? Well, with rapid population growth, there had to be a way to distinguish a “William” from another “William”. So, the solution was to give a second name, which not only described the individual in some way, shape, or form, but also allowed you to differentiate between members of society with identical first names.

The introduced surnames often described individuals in a few ways; they could be nicknames, describe the person’s occupation, describe the person’s status, describe the person’s geographical location of living, or other ways to identify unique traits of the individual.

By 1381 most families in England had adopted hereditary surnames, which, from there on out, were passed down throughout the generations. It is important to note – many of the originally non-hereditary Anglo-Saxon surnames were passed down using the new system; “Smith” being a popular example!

In 1483, Edward V pushed for all citizens of England to have a surname to better identify themselves.

Some examples of old surnames, and their meanings!

So, we’ve looked at why surnames were introduced to England, now let’s look at some still-existent examples! As mentioned, many surnames were used simply to describe attributes associated with an individual – particularly if they were a craftsman of some form.

Alfredson – Meaning “son of Alfred”, many surnames with “son” at the end mean “son of”.

Fields – This surname was given to people that lived near or on a pasture or field.

Hart – Meaning “male deer”, the surname Hart was often given to someone who bore a resemblance to the animal, or to someone that lived near a location where harts frequently visited.

House – Given to someone who worked in a house.

Hunter – Given to someone who was a hunter by trade.

Knight – Given to someone who was a knight.

North – Surname given to someone who lived in the North.

Shepherd – Given to someone who was a shepherd by trade.

Small – A surname was frequently given to someone who was small in stature.

Smith – When people think of surnames associated with professions, for many “Smith” comes to mind. As to be expected, this surname is derived from the word Blacksmith. Currently, it is the most popular surname in Britain as a whole!

Truman – Meaning trusty man, this surname was given to those that people believed to be trustworthy.

Waterman – A surname was given to someone that lived near a body of water, or alternatively to someone that worked on a boat.

Wood – Given to someone that lived or worked near or in a woodland/forest.

Wright – A surname was given to someone that was a craftsman.

As you can see, many of these surnames are straightforward and simplistic – a definite trend of early surnaming. Along with this, many of these names persist through to the current day; in fact, the most popular surname in the UK in the present day is “Smith”!

So, there’s your quick rundown of how and why surnames were brought into full force in England, with a few examples – who knows, maybe your surname is one that originates from the time of the Norman invasion!

For further reading on topics to do with genealogy, take a look at our other blogs!

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