1066 and all those baby names

Bayeux Tapestry: Harold with an arrow through his eye King Harold died after being shot in the eye, and William the Conqueror was victorious

Norman names such as William, Henry and Alice have been popular for 1,000 years. Why did the English copy their invaders?

The date 1066. William the Conqueror. King Harold with the arrow in his eye. Soldiers in those nose-protector helmets.

But many people will struggle to come up with more than these sketchy facts about how the Normans invaded England and overthrew the Anglo-Saxons on one bloody day almost a millennium ago.

But it was then the seeds were sown for the English language as it is today, including names.

"If you ask where did the Normans come from and what was their impact, most people run out of steam pretty quickly," says historian Robert Bartlett of the University of St Andrews.

"It's not like the Tudor era, which people are much more familiar with thanks to TV dramas and historical novels."

Further wreathing the 11th Century in mystery, says Professor Bartlett, is how unfamiliar the names of the Anglo-Saxon protagonists are to modern ears - Aethelred, Eadric, Leofric.

By contrast, the names of the Norman conquerors quickly became popular, and remain common to this day - William, Robert, Henry, Alice, Matilda.

Back in time with the BBC

  • Prof Robert Bartlett presents BBC Two's The Normans, starting 4 August, 2100 BST
  • Other documentaries will focus on King Arthur, the Domesday Book, Norman walks and chapels

As these French-speaking, wine-drinking, castle-building conquerors swiftly took over England and intermarried with Anglo-Saxon women, it was not just newborns named in their honour.

"The ruling elite set the fashion and soon William was the most common male name in England, even among peasants. A lot of people changed their names because they wanted to pass in polite society - they didn't want to be mistaken for a peasant, marked out with an Anglo-Saxon name."

Look at baby name league tables today, and the Old English name of Harold languishes far below the French-derived Henry in popularity. William, meanwhile, was the second most popular name for boys 200 years ago, the most popular 100 years ago and has held its place in the top 10 in England and Wales since 2000.

In Scotland, where the fiercely independent rulers invited Norman lords in but refused to assimilate in the way the English had, the name William maintains a respectable mid-table result at number 34 (20 places above Robert in the most recent baby names list).

William, Alice, Robert

Prince William, and actors Alice Eve and Robert Pattinson
  • For a long time after 1066, English boys were named after William the Conqueror
  • William means 'resolute protector'
  • Other Norman-era names like Alice and Robert remain popular
  • But not Norman itself, except as surname

It soon became necessary to distinguish between all these Williams and Roberts, and so the Norman tradition of surnames was adopted. As well as family names derived from one's occupation, surnames with the prefix Fitz date from Norman times.

"Fitz comes from the French 'fils', meaning 'son of'. So Fitzsimmons once meant 'son of Simon' and Fitzgerald 'son of Gerald," says Prof Bartlett, whose own first name Robert is solidly Norman in origin.

And it is a legacy of the Normans that modern English has many words with similar meanings, as French words were assimilated into everyday language. The same goes for the long-standing association of all things French with the upper classes, and all things Anglo-Saxon with coarseness.

"Pig is English in origin, pork is French. Sheep is English, mutton is French. Cow is English, beef is French. When it's in a cold and muddy field covered in dung, it's named in English. When it's been cooked and carved and put on a table with a glass of wine, it's referred to in French."

Start Quote

Robert Bartlett in the Fens, site of a rebel uprising against the Normans

When it's in a muddy field, it's named in English. When it's cooked and served with wine, it's named in French”

End Quote Robert Bartlett

Not only was there an almost immediate impact on English names and language, the landscape changed rapidly as the new Norman elite set about building stone castles and churches across the land - robust defensive structures like nothing seen before on these shores.

And just as few traces of the less permanent Anglo-Saxon structures remain today, the same goes for Old English.

"English was scarcely written down in this time - writing acts as a brake, and a language that isn't written down changes much faster. The grammar simplified, case endings were lost, and many French words were absorbed," says Prof Bartlett.

Within 150 years of 1066, English had changed almost beyond recognition. "Just think of pre-Norman texts such as Beowulf or Anglo-Saxon laws - you must study Old English to be able to read these. But by the time of Chaucer or Shakespeare, it's a lot more familiar."

Even their names are reassuringly familiar (and Norman in origin) - Geoffrey and William.

Below is a selection of your comments.

Another interesting subversion of the language that exists today is to look at how curse words changed. Some that are now quite well regarded and widespread come from Latin or Norman origins, whilst those still considered highly vulgar are more Germanic, Norse or Old English in origin. As I was told in my first French lesson, the sign of integration and understanding of a language is when you start using their curse words...

Rob, Cornwall

I may be wrong, but wasn't the Conqueror's name actually Guillaume? And is not William something of an Anglicisation?

Jennifer Foster, Salisbury UK

Guillaume is the French version of William. Even then, the Normans tried to differentiate themselves from the rest of France, maintaing strongly their own customs. This is also why we often have to similar words in English for almost the same thing - one from Norman French and one from French. Examples: Guard and Ward, Guardian and Warden, Guarantee and Warranty.

Chris, Swindon, UK

Aethelred, Eadric, Leofric - unfamiliar, but maybe only hidden under a weak diguise. Maybe we're looking too closely at this - names and pronunciations change over years and spellings too. Aethelred - Albert (perhaps... weak example), Eadric - Eric or Edward, Leofric - Leonard, Lenny or Leo?

Dave H,

OK, so there are about five Norman names listed here as popular and a few more eccentric Anglo-Saxon names listed as not used. This is misleading as it suggests Anglo-Saxon names are no longer used. What about Edmund, Daryl, Jeffrey, Gareth, Aidan, Alfred, Ann, Chelsea, Daisy, Tracey, Whitney, Stewart, Lynne, Megan, Gordon. You get the idea - Anglo-Saxon names are far from forgotten.

Simon, Aston

Simon lists Aidan, Gareth, Lynne, Gordon, Megan and Stewart as Anglo Saxon names when they all have Celtic origins. The Norman conquest didn't quash the Anglo-Saxon reputation for claiming ownership of something here before them. By the way, Tracey and Daryl are of French origin too.

Andrew Deathe, Swansea, Wales

There is no doubt that the "English" language is highly multi-cultural; just like our history over the last two millennium. This article answered one question which has always puzzled me why there were two very different names for some cooked and uncooked meat. What about venison?

Paula, Horsham, West Susex

Re venison. This is also from French, but meant hunted animal or game. Use of this word as for food came much later.

Ray, Frinton, Essex

The Normans also invaded southern Ireland, where the Fitz-surname prefix is widespread. What gave the Normans their drive and regional invading zeal? Is there any link to their name Norman, believed to be a corruption of "Northmen"? The Normans had in their time invaded France from the north - ie were originally Vikings themselves. Nice that they picked up a bit of "je ne sais quoi" en route.

Madeleine, Dublin, Ireland

The Normans never conquered Scotland yet William and Robert were the names of two strong Scottish characters famed for their defiance of the English i.e Wallace and Bruce.

Jason, Market Drayton

Jason, Scotland was never directly conquered by the Normans, but David I imported large numbers of French, Norman, English and Flemish knights to control the kingdom in the 12th Century. They formed a new Scottish aristocracy. So Wallace comes from the family have been imported from Wales. The Bruces or "de Brus" take their name from a town near Cherbourg and were imported from there by David. Hence the prevelance of French names in Scotland.

Gordon, Aberdeen, Scotland

And you'll also be aware that Robert the Bruce was a Norman by descent, his family being from Brieux in Normandy.

James, Glasgow, Scotland

This article misses one very important point: that most Norman names were Frankish-Germanic and had an Anglo Saxon-Germanic equivalent, e.g: Robert = Hrodbert; Roger = Hrodgar; Humphrey= Amfridh; Geoffrey=Godfrey etc. so it was very easy for them to be assimilated.

AA Foster, Leigh-on-Sea, Essex

The Norman invasion can be seen as a 'Year zero' for the English. By the time of Domesday Book (30 years after the Conquest), almost all major English landowners had been replaced by Norman French. The ordinary peasantry seemed to have been forced to labour on the construction of the Norman castles that existing in every major town. The Normans seem to have deliberately replaced all Anglo-Saxon buildings (including churches) to make it clear that the new Norman monarchy was there for ever. The English resistance (Hereward the Wake etc) went on for decades and was met by ruthless Norman reprisals against the English. The year 1066 is well remembered because it represented a catastrophe for our Anglo-Saxon civilisation.

Andrew Constantine, Twickenham, Middlesex

The Normans didn't overthrow the Anglo-Saxons. It was a coup d'etat that replaced the Anglo-Saxon ruling elite with a Norman one. The bulk of the population remained (and remains) Anglo-Saxon. So the main Norman legacy was an "us and them" class system which survives to this day.

Matthew Howes, Brentwood

The Normans were not really French anyway, they were Viking invaders - Norman = Norseman. The Franks referred to in another comment were the incumbent population prior to the Viking invasions in the 9th and 10th Centuries. The first Duke of Normandy was a Viking (Rollon) who only seized power in 911, so come 1066 (just 150 years later) the Normans were still very much Viking influenced.

Gareth, St Peter Port, Guernsey

Like the word "fight", that's English; "surrender", that's French.

Jon Wise, Ashton-under-lyne

In detailing the differences between Saxon words for animals in the field and the French equivalent of meat on the table, Professor Bartlett is essentially quoting from the opening passage of Ivanhoe, Sir Walter Scott's novel. However, it is a misquote of the passage in Chapter One, a conversation between two Saxons, Gurth the Swineherd and Wamba, the jester, where the parallels are drawn; swine, pork; ox, beef; calf, veau (veal). "He is Saxon when he requires a tendance, and takes a Norman name when he becomes a matter of enjoyment."

Ian Jenkins, Bristol, UK

While English did indeed change after the conquest, absorbing words from (Norman-)French at a far faster rate than it would otherwise, I think some element of continuity should be stressed. Old English words account for about 20% of all those in modern English and they are the words we use every day. Everyone who has studied Old English will probably remember Bruce Mitchell and Fed Robinson's infamous sentences drawn entirely from the Old English lexicon: "Harold is swift. His hand is strong and his word grim. Late in life he went to his wife in Rome"; or perhaps "he swam west in storm and wind and frost." As to the simplification of English grammar: the increasing use of prepositions to mark case in favour of inflexion and a growing disregard for grammatical gender had already begun to characterise Old English well before that fateful day in 1066.

Mervyn Wulfson,

The Normans gave Britain the Channel Islands, possibly the only places left where Norman French can still be heard.

Kirsten Morel, Jersey

To suggest that England had not seen robust defence overlooks the work of the Romans. Their construction skills are still very evident today in places like York & the Borders.

David Spencer, Leeds, W Yorks

Good article. I have researched my surname and it's origins are Irish as well as French - I believe it means cap maker in French. From what I understand, it has undergone numerous changes as it shuttled back and forth from Norman England and Ireland. It also has roots in Old German, which, unless I'm completely wrong, may have made its way into the French language to begin with. So, my first name has Greek origins and my surname is a mishmash of old Eurpoean interpretations. Like many others.

Andy Barrett, Sidcup

The comments I have read confirm that nearly everyone assumes that what we now think of as England could be accurately described as "pure" Anglo-Saxon pre 1066. The truth is far more complicated. We seem to have ignored the substantial Danish element in the country's ethnic mix. Both Harold (and indeed Hereward the Wake too probably) were at least as much Danish as they were Anglo-Saxon. Edward the Confessor was a cousin of the Conqueror, had more Danish and Norman in his ancestry than Anglo-Saxon. There was a pretty definite class-structure in place too in the century preceding the Invasion. So that is not a Norman invention. Finally on the basis of my understanding the Conqueror had a better right to the throne than Harold. But at least I have one decent Anglo-Saxon name - Wilfrid.

John Wylde, Castor, Peterborough

I have been researching my family name and has turned out to be stranger than it sounds, as it's a Norman name. It stands for lost land or colourful land. Why Melhuish?

Arthur Melhuish, Norfolk, England

Arthur, the surname database (http://www.surnamedb.com/) says Melhuish indicates the origin of your surname is pre-Norman from a lost village in Devon. This is corroborated by the National Trust's surname map of 1881 (http://www.nationaltrustnames.org.uk/default.aspx).

Colin,

Arthur, as someone with some knowledge in Dutch, in the end part of your name, huis means house.

Kristina,

The history and development of names is something I've always loved, but I've never been able to fully understand the origin of my surname. The National Trust is of no help, since as far as I'm aware, there are only a handful of Havergals in the world, let alone in Great Britain. It would be interesting to see how the movement of languages and cultures during the medieval period have shaped my name, but I'm not holding much hope for any Norman involvement.

Charlotte Havergal, Nottingham, UK

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