What can your family name tell you about your medieval ancestors?
Firstly, it may be able to tell you something about the occupation, parentage or location of a distant ancestor.
My Collier name comes from the occupation of charcoal burner, or coal seller, so (assuming there has been no illegitimacy) at least one of my ancestors from about 700 years ago worked in this industry.
Robinson is another name that appears in my tree, and so I can assume that another 13th or 14th century ancestor was called Robin or Robert.
Finally, my Blatchford ancestors take their name from Blatchford in Devon and so another branch of my tree would have been living there in about 1300.
The meanings of other surnames are harder to interpret. Was the first Mr Lilley the son of Elizabeth, a child with a fair complexion or from Lilley in Hertfordshire or Berkshire?
There are many surname dictionaries published and one very useful online site The Internet Surname Database. These offer suggestions of the meanings of surnames, but it is worth remembering that these sources are continually updated as the study of surname origins is continuous. As more information becomes available, more accurate definitions can be given to a surname.
But surnames can give more information about your ancestors than simply its meaning.
A study has been done of the surnames recorded in the 1881 census. These are published online at Great British Family Names. Here, all names that had more than 100 bearers in 1998, have been mapped by (modern) postcode district.
A similar map can be found on the Ancestry website, using data from the 1891 census.
Searching the map shows how surnames were distributed throughout the UK. This can be an interesting exercise, as even common names, such as Collier, have densely populated areas, and areas where they don’t occur at all.
The Collier name was distributed along the western side of England, from south Lancashire to Dorset but, with the exception of Yorkshire, was rare in eastern England.
Although Robinson is also a relatively common name, its distribution was heavily weighted to the north of England. So I can now say that there was a likelihood that my ancestor called Robin/Robert lived in the north of England in c1300.
And, as anticipated, the name Blatchford was rarely found outside of Devon and Cornwall, confirming that this branch of my family line was almost certainly from south-west England.
Although there was migration in the UK before 1881, there is a surprising level of consistency between where a surname is based in 1881 and where it originated. Looking at the distribution of a surname can help to narrow down the options of where the surname began and where your medieval ancestors lived.
One relatively new way to help determine a surname’s origin is to use DNA testing. Using the Y-chromosome, which is passed from father to son in the same way that surnames are, can help to show whether bearers of a surname are related along their paternal line.
There is room for error, as what’s called non-paternity events can mean a surname does not reflect a direct male line (for example illegitimacy or adoption). However, if a reasonable sample of a surname is taken, it can help to identify how many origins the surname might have and can put people in touch with other family members who share their male line.
Sharing their family history research could help to identify their shared ancestor.
We haven’t yet tested the Collier DNA, but as prices come down and the number of DNA samples collected increase, it is increasingly worth considering having it done.
Further reading: Surnames, DNA and Family History by George Redmonds, Turi King and David Hey.