|John: not a popular king, but a very popular name. |
Illustration from Cassell's History of England (published 1902)
via Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.
Are you affected by the name you are given? Was the boy in my primary school class who was called Stone any more of an original thinker because of his unusual name? (I remember vividly that there was an ‘Easter garden’ competition, every child making a garden the size of a small tray. Everyone – myself included – went for the traditional moss-and-flowers look. Stone went for sand. Minimal & brilliant – at the age of about 7. And he won.) Conversely, did my 6 fellow pupils in a 7-strong ballet class I attended as a teenager mind that there was only one girl in the class who was not called Sharon? (Although all 6 names were pronounced the same, there was some variation in spelling: a Sharron, for instance, and a Charron too.) Is your name an unusual or a common one? And, either way, are you - as they say - bovvered?
As I mentioned in my post last month, I have been fascinated by first names for decades. Each year I read with interest the news item reporting the most popular baby names for the past twelve months. In the chart for boys’ names, Jack had a remarkable run of 14 years in the number-one spot, until in 2009-2010 it was overtaken by Oliver and, last year, by Harry. Still, it has dropped no lower than 3rd place. Jack - now most often given as a name in its own right - was originally a diminutive of John. The linguistic origins of this connection seem, from my internet delvings, to be the subject of some debate, though it is clear that both Jankin and Jenkin were diminutives of John, and it’s not such a big leap from there to Jackin or Jack. (Incidentally, I find it interesting that the –kin ending survives these days in such forms as ‘bunnykins’… a different use for a truly ancient form of ‘pet’ name!)
In recent times the dominance of Jack has puzzled me. Not that it isn’t a nice name – it is. But for one name, however appealing, to top the charts year in year out seems both surprising and intriguing. Picking up George Redmonds’ excellent book Christian Names in Local and Family History, however, made me realise that 14 years is nothing: I was fascinated to discover that the dominance of John (in one form or another) goes back century after century.
Redmonds has made a study of names contained in the poll tax records of ten English counties for the years 1377-81 (and the lists make fascinating reading). More than a third of the men counted during this period were named John. Yes, really. More than a third. It dominated right across the regions, from Yorkshire to Sussex, from Devon to Essex, and crossing social boundaries too. According to Redmonds’ research, the name John had risen to popularity in the early 13th century and remained at the top for centuries - despite the fact that England’s one and only King John enjoyed such a bad reputation. It was only in the 19th century that John was overtaken at certain times by William (the name, incidentally, that had occupied the no. 2 spot in every region in 1377-81), but even then it fell no lower than second place.
That level of dominance is surely remarkable (and no, huge apologies, but I can’t offer to explain it – I can only bring it to you as an Interesting Fact, like a cat proudly laying a mouse at your feet). This popularity existed not only in England, for the parallel names Iain in Scotland and Ieuan in Wales, plus equivalents elsewhere in Europe, show strongly in the records too, as well as surnames meaning ‘son of John’ such as Jones and Johnson.
What, then, is the equivalent for women? The answer seems to be that there isn’t one. Joan, Jane & Janet (the latter originally a diminutive) were all very popular names, but none achieved the dominance of John. It seems that from medieval times to the present day it has always been the case that parents are happier, by and large, to choose from a somewhat wider pool of names for girls than for boys. One statistic mentioned by Redmonds did surprise me, however. I would have expected the name Mary to have represented quite a large chunk of the pie in the 1377-81 poll tax records. Not so. There are only nine Marys amongst the 10,000 people counted in that 1377-81 sample - making the name more unusual than Godelena, Idony, Avice and Denise.
One reason for the continuing popularity of a name within any family is of course inheritance. We are all, no doubt, familiar – even if only at a distance – with the idea that eldest sons in a certain family might traditionally bear one particular name. Or one of two – Redmonds mentions that sometimes families alternated, e.g. between Henry and Hugh. (No doubt that helped reduce confusion – a little.) My own maternal grandfather’s family, which had the tradition of naming the eldest son William, got around the problem with the habit of the Williams being known by their middle names – my grandfather, for example, christened William Donald, was known as Don.
(But I must add that this habit surfaced in my grandmother’s family too, quite separately from any eldest-son considerations - both my grandmother and one of her sisters were known by their middle names. Can anyone shed light on this – was it a popular practice at a certain time?)
From the medieval period through to the 17th century, however, it was not just eldest sons who might bear matching names – quite often siblings were called the same name too. This, as Redmonds wryly points out, is “disturbing now to family historians”. Though no confident explanation can be given, child mortality rates, multiple marriages (with the eldest son of each wife being given the father’s name, for example) and children being named after godparents, are all possible explanations. Certainly godparents – who in many cases chose the name – as well as kinship groups and ties related to patronage were strong influences on naming habits; when Redmonds mentions the will, made in 1500, of Dame Jane Strangways, who left money to her 5 god-daughters – all called Jane – it puts me in mind of the young Mary Queen of Scots surrounded by her four companions, all called Mary.
Demonstrating your connections via your child’s name mattered – so too, often, did aspirations. Today, parents might be influenced by films, the media or books (does Harry’s place in the no.1 spot currently have anything to do with J.K. Rowling, do you think?). Though the technology has changed the basic instinct is far from a new phenomenon. In the 14th century, names such as Percival, Gawain and Tristram were taken up from Arthurian tales, and it was a clear piece of aspirational propaganda when Henry VII – seeking to strengthen the image of the all-too-new Tudor dynasty – called his eldest son Arthur (even making sure that the baby was born at Winchester, where the round table reputed at the time to have been King Arthur’s was kept).
Delightfully, one 15th-century wealthy landowner, Robert Bolling, called his three sons Tristram, Rainbrown & Troilus. Redmonds comments: “His reasons must surely have had something to do with his status as a gentleman and the names would certainly have drawn attention to his family right through the neighbourhood… [The prestige of Tristram in particular] would have helped to authenticate the Bollings’ claim to a long & distinguished pedigree…”
Christian Names in Local and Family History, by George Redmonds, is published by The National Archives.
H.M. Castor's novel VIII - a new take on the life of Henry VIII - is published by Templar in the UK, Penguin in Australia, and will be published by Simon & Schuster in the US next year.
H.M. Castor's website is here.