The Anglo-sphere is huge, thanks to the British Empire, and English names are common across the world as a result.
Britain as we know it has been going since 1066, but prior to that had a different history.
On this page we look at how English names evolved, how the Norman invasion completely changed what we think of as traditionally English names, and we also list the most popular English names being given to newborn girls and boys
The Office of National Statistics records births and deaths, and also issues a yearly list of the most popular names registered for newborns in England and Wales.
Here are the most recent English baby names:
Britain was originally a Celtic nation, which got conquered by the Romans in AD 43 by the Emperor Claudius, and remained part of the Empire till AD 410. It was the Romans who named the area south of Hadrian's wall, Britannia, and called the native Celts Britons. (The area north of Hadrian's wall was referred to as Caledonia).
The Romans tended to appoint local chieftains as Roman governors, whose job it was to collect taxes, maintain the roads and keep the trade routes open. All law and business was conducted in Latin, and many of the governors took on Roman names.
As for the rest of the population, their names are a mix of celt and roman. A survey was done based on names on coins, tablets, headstones and pottery from this 400 year period.
It shows names such as "Bellicus", found all over the place, from tablets in London to tombstones in Cheshire. What is interesting is that the prefix, "bel" is Celtic, meaning "strong or powerful". Then they've romanized it by adding the "cus" at the end. The name Bellicus is not found anywhere else in the Roman empire, meaning it's a Celtic-Roman invention.
Another example is "Catus" found in Yorshire in the north, as well as Somerset, in the south. It derives from the Celtic word "katu", which means "battle", and they've just changed the spelling and added the ubiquitous "us" at the end to romanize it. This name isn't found anywhere else in the Roman empire either. But the female form "Cata" or "Catia" is also found in Britain at this time.
You find the same thing with female names, such as "Lucile" and "Lucilia". It derives from the Celtic word "luko" meaning "wolf" and they've added the latin suffix "illo". And of course it's not found anywhere else in the Roman empire of this period - but modern Brits will recognise it as the origin of the name "Lucy" and "Lucile".
The Celtic languages continued to be spoken, though only Latin was written down during the Roman era.
After the Romans leave, there follows two centuries known as "sub-Roman Britain" during which life pretty much continues as before, but with locally made produce and no more goods are imported from the rest of the Roman empire.
After this lull comes the next invasion - the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, who came from Angelyn (land bordering Denmark and Germany), Saxony (northwest Germany) and Jutland (currently northern Denmark) respectively, start pushing into Britain from the east coast, pushing the Celts westwards.
You can see from the map, right, that the current north-south divide in England is taking shape, with Angles to the north and Saxons to the south.
The language of the Angles dominates the land, however the Anglo-Saxons are illiterate and have to be taught by the Celts (shown as "the Britons" in the map) how to write. Celtic scribes tend to continue to write everything in Latin, even when writing for the new Anglo-Saxon kings.
A study of royal charters, written mainly in Latin but some in Old English, from the 7th century AD to 1066 reveals the following English girls names (spellings were variable back then, so each line shows different versions of the same name):
- Adelburga, Aethelburg, Ethelburga, Ethelburge from which we derive the modern name "Ethel"
- Ceolwen, Ceolwenne, Ceolwin
- Cille, Cillan, from which we get "Cilla"
- Cynethryth, Cinedred, Cynedritha, Cynedryd, Cynedrytha, Cynethrith, Cynethrythe, Kynedrithe, Kynethryt
- Eadgyth, Eadgytha, Edgithe, from which we get "Edith"
- Emma, Æmma
- Godgifu, Godgife, Godgyue, now remembered mainly in the story of Lady Godiva
- Leofflæda, Leoflæde, Leofled, Leofleda
- Mildrede, Mildrithe, Mildrythe from which we get "Mildred"
- Selethryth, Seledrith, Selethrythæ
- Sigeburh, Sigburgæ, Sigeburge
- Wenflede, Winfled, Wynflæd from which we get "Winifred"
There's not a single Cata or Lucille amongst them, which shows that the Celts had been driven out of this area, along with their names. But of the Anglo-Saxon names, only Emma survives unaltered today, though some of the other names survive in modified forms.
Combing through Bede, who wrote the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles in the 8th century AD, you get the following male names:
- Bertwald, Berctuald
- Ceolwulf, Ceoluulf
- Egbert, Ecgberct
- Oswald, Osuald
- Sigbert, Sigberct
- Swefred, Suefred
- Wilfrid, Uilfrid
- Wuffa, Uuffa
Of these names, only Oswald and Wilfred have survived, and they are quite rare. Somehow I don't see a revival with people naming their babies Wuffa, though it was pretty popular back then.
In the 9th century we start to see Viking forays into Britain, and at one point, Wessex in the south was conquered by Vikings (Canute was a Danish Viking). While the Anglo-Saxons only gave one name to their children, the Vikings brought with them the practice of adding a second name ending with "son" to denote the father.
1066 is pretty much "Year Zero" in British history. The Norman invasion was fierce and unforgiving, the most frightening thing to happen to Britain in it's entire history.
You could say the Roman invasion was the easiest, in that they didn't really replace the Britons, they just co-opted them into Roman society, with locals in charge as governors. If people got romanized it was because they were dazzled by Roman civilization and willingly adopted all the Roman styles. They weren't forced into it - the Romans didn't really care how you lived as long as you paid your taxes on time and sent centurions when Rome needed manpower for it's many battles.
The Anglo-Saxon invasion was more a battle for territory between two equal peoples - the Celtic Brits and the Anglo-Saxon invaders, and the later Viking invasions added to this, with the island being shared out by different people in their zones living separately.
But the Norman conquest was about total domination and subjugation. They replaced all the top jobs with their own people, land was confiscated on a grand scale and given to William's acolytes, and the rest was taxed heavily in a way that made the Romans look like pussycats. Not for nothing was the Doomesday Book so named - it was a land and property registry of the whole of England, compiled so the Normans knew how much people were earning, right down to the amount of wool they produced and how many sheep they owned, so they knew whom to extract tax from.
In 1114, fifty years after the conquest, a farm lists it's workers as Alric, Ailwin, Godwin, Lemar, Ordric, Rainald, Saroi, Soen, Ulviet and Ulfac - Anglo-Saxon names. But these names start to disappear. Just a few years before the farm list got compiled, there is a record in the town of Whitby where a boy called Tostig has officially changed his name to William because he was being bullied.
This is a frightening period where your name marks you out as conquered or conqueror, and so people start to take on new names so as not to stand out.
Here's a list of names taken from tax rolls from 1292 to 1319 in order of the frequency each name occurs:
John, Adam and Peter are biblical - but all the others are Norman names - which are familiar today, as they still dominate English naming conventions.
Here are girls names from 1450 to 1600:
- Agnes, Agnus
- Alice, Alys
- Alisceon, Alison, Alisone, Allison, Alson, Alyson, Alysone
- Amfelice, Amphelice, Amphelicia, Amphillis
- Ancreta, Ankerita
- Ann, Anne, Anna
- Avice, Avis
- Beatrix, Beautrice
- Dorothy, Dorythye
- Elen, Elene
- Elizabeth, Elizabethe, Elysabeth, Elyzabeth
- Ellin, Ellyn
- Emma, Emme
- Felice, Fillys
- Helen. Helene
- Isobel, Issobell
- Janet, Jenet, Jennet
- Joan, Joane
- Joanna, Johanna
- Johne, Jone
- Katerine, Katherine
- Kateryn, Kateryne, Katheryn
- Margaret, Markaret
- Margareta, Margarita
- Margat, Marget, Margyt
- Margerie, Margerye
- Margery, Marjorie
- Maud, Maude, Mawde
- Olyff, Olyffe
- Roos, Rose
- Sybill, Sybyll
For about 400 years after the Norman conquest, the language of the court, law and business was French (indeed what we think of as English common law today was actually laid down by the Normans and their Plantagenet descendants, it should really be called Norman common law - even the Magna Carta is a Norman document, written by Norman barons to control the power of a useless king (King John). Though English continued to be spoken by ordinary people in England, (and in Wales, the Celtic Britons continued to speak Welsh after their conquest in the 12th century by Edward I), neither English nor Celtic Britons had any prospects of promotion, and hence their languages continued to be considered second-class.
Two things changed this.
First the black death of 1348 wiped out a third of the population, leading to rapid promotion and higher earnings for those who survived, and for the first time, English people started to hold some key positions in the towns and cities across the land. Secondly, the Normans started to lose their French territory beginning with King John (they had owned Normandy, the province of Anjou (which neighboured Normandy) and had acquired Aquitaine through marriage with Eleanor of Aquitaine, plus other territory won in various wars).
So the connection with France was severed.
By the time a cunning Welshman, Henry Tudor, managed to capture the English throne in 1485, despite having no claim to it, the primary language of the nation's business was English. Henry's son Henry VIII married Anne Boleyn, an Englishwoman, and when her daughter Elizabeth ascended the throne, for the first time since before 1066 the monarch was related to a good many English tradespeople in London (Elizabeth liked to say she was "merely" English).
But despite the resurgence of the English language and English people in positions of power after being shut out for four centuries, old Anglo-Saxon names never really revived, apart from a few popular names like Emma. The bulk of English names continue to have Norman roots.