Historical Timeline
Western European Surnames

This is an attempt to introduce the reader to the wonderful world of surnames, the study of which, is a fascinating glimpse into both human and societal evolution. With a goal towards being specific this article will stick primarily to Western European naming traditions and how those traditions have evolved largely due to large scale changes in those societies. Surnames are inexorably linked to history and as such, as western societies morphed and changed so did the need for a surname.

The Roman empire, was one of the first societies to use a surname or patronymic name (meaning a name derived from a male ancestor.) Several surnames from this time period still exist today, “Cornelius” being one such name. It was established in 485 BC, and can be seen as the foundation for hundreds of families in existence, such as the Barons of Cornielje of Holland who trace their ancestry back to the founder of the Cornelius clan. It should be noted patronymic naming practices of the Romans, all but died with the fall of the Roman empire. By the time of the fifth century AD almost all vestiges of the Westernmost portion of the Roman empire were now under the control of Germanic speaking peoples with segments of Eastern steppe tribes such as the Alan peoples of the Caucus region along with Hunnic tribes occupying large swathes of Gaul aka France. With Visigoth tribes migrating southwards and creating what would eventually become the first Christian kingdom of Spain. With the fall of the Roman Empire, this naming convention died or failed in most places and retracted to isolated communities in France, Italy and Romania.

In the latter half of the 5 century AD, Saxon tribesmen from what today would be south-eastern Germany, traveled north-west to the Baltic coastline and migrated to England. Today this is referred to as the Saxon invasion. The melding of the extant Celt-Roman culture and the Saxon Germanic language is the basis for the English language today. During this same time period, roughly from the 5th century AD to the 9th century AD southern and western area of the region north of Hadrian’s Wall, saw invasions by the Scoti tribesmen of Northern Ireland. Their occupation of the land and settlement there created what is recognized today as Scotland. Along with Norse invasions both Britain and continental Europe in the 7th through the 10th centuries AD gave rise to world and cultures we know today.

Names which became prominent in the 5th through the 11th centuries AD are very Norse/Germanic sounding to modern readers such as, “Hrolf, Gils, Eadjmund, Birnijir, and Agni.” It is only with the latter addition of the Normans who came in the latter half of the 11th century (1066 AD specifically.) did Britain begin to truly evolve linguistically to the region we see today.

In the last portion of the 11th century, England was ruled by Edward I or the “Confessor.” His designated heir was Harold Godwinson. (an interesting surname in of itself.) Who while sailing off the coast of France, floundered and almost drowned. The Duke of Normandy William, rescued Harold, and in the process, Harold swore allegiance, and fealty to the Duke of Normandy. Which meant the Duke was now his feudal lord. Upon the death of Edward the Confessor, Harold was to pass the crown to William Duke of Normandy. He did not. This medieval slighting of the practice of fealty was an inexcusable offense to William, and he subsequently invaded England in the fall of 1066 AD.

Harold Godwinson’s own brother Tostig and the Norwegian King Harald Hardrada also invaded the North of England in and around York at the same time. Harold managed to defeat his brother and the Norwegian King. He took a portion of his armies marched south to Hastings, and died in combat. (Legend says, he received an arrow in his eye.)

The resulting victory by the Normans resulted in what is arguably one of, if not the greatest change in the culture of England. What had been a Germanic sounding culture was soon to have a Norse-Latin feudal system overlaid on top of it. The Normans themselves were part of the Norse invasion of continental Europe. They had changed and adapted to local customs. Normans had converted to Christianity, their language had changed to from one of purely Norse words to one that was primarily medieval French with Norse words kept primarily in place names, and patronymic names. It was the Norman custom to give their names to the places they had conquered by force of arms. The Norman nobles denoted a place by using the diminutive “de” in their surnames, such as de Arcis, de Brus*, Levit, Olifant, and de Warene. It should be noted the name de Brus, belonging to one Robert de Brus was the Norman knight and several times grandfather of King Robert the Bruce of Scotland. It was at this time, the first occupational names came into existence such as Baker, Brewer, Smith, Thatcher, and Weaver.

It was in 1087 the “Great Survey or Doomsday Book” book was created. It was the first comprehensive survey of all aspects of medieval life and culture in 11th century AD England. It recorded the names, occupations, and property of serfs, tenants, tenants-in-chief, knights, lords, and barons, with all degrees and instances between. It has proven to be of incalculable aid in researchers studying surnames, personal histories, and medieval culture.

One of the other major developments in western European surnames was the advent of the Crusades. Pope Urban in 1095 at the council of Clermont preached for a religious crusade to secure the holy sites of the christian faith from those followers of Islam. He also hoped his crusade would also benefit a possible reunion between the Roman Catholic faith and what was to be eventually called the Eastern Orthodox faith. It should be noted most knights and nobles of this time period were not illiterate. Many learned their bible lesson in Latin, and Hebrew, as at the time of the crusading period, there was not a unified Latin version of the bible. As crusaders returned from the Holy Land or Levant, the soldiers and knights brought back with them names which were Hebrew in origin but had become Christianized, names such as, “Adams, Issac, Jacob, Lott, and Luke.”

The next major development in surnames comes from the time of the Avignon Kings of England, Henry II, Richard “The Lionhearted”, and King John. They instituted a continuance of the taxation system started by William the Conqueror. There tax records were kept initially in large vellum scrolls, referred to today as the “Great Pipe Rolls.” The pipe rolls in themselves became the established basis for English and later British taxation practices for six hundred years. The records were kept current and up to date from 1233 AD to 1833 AD. During this period of record collection, one of the great societal changes in European history occurred. It came in the form of the “Black Death or Bubonic Plague.” Fully a quarter of the world’s population died in seven years time, from 1346 AD to 1353 AD.

The “Black Death” reorganized medieval culture, by providing an opportunity for peasants, serfs and similarly bonded people to leave the lands which saw their birth. Agricultural workers were for the first time in medieval English society allowed to travel and more importantly charge wages for their services. This fluidity in medieval society and the concept of working for wages, gave rise to a burgeoning middle class of skilled labor, craftsmen and future bureaucrats all who worked not because they owed allegiance or fealty to a lord, but for their own enrichment. Locator names previously in use only in records such as the “Pipe Rolls,” were now coming into their own as a way to differentiate people of the same first name from everyone else. Location names popular at the time, usually referred to a major city or shires such as, “Atwood, Birmingham, Hemphill, Hull, London, Lichfield, Lancaster, Pool and York.”

This spread of surnames slowed during the time of the 100 years war between France and England, and with the English specifically it slowed once more during the first English civil war, historically referred to as the “War of the Roses.” from 1455 AD to 1487 AD the princely houses of “York and Lancaster,”-incidentally both place names, vying for the throne of England.

By the time of the Tudor Dynasty’s establishment the basis and basic usages of surnames had come into full force of use and were being recorded as such in both litterateur and legal documents. This was the time period which gave rise to such literary notables as, “William Shakespeare, and Christopher Marlow.” The age of discovery which followed several years after Queen Elizabeth’s death in 1603 AD, was the first widespread dissemination of surnames in the English speaking world.

It is at this point what we would recognize as a formal first name and surname came into everyday occurrence. What follows for researchers is the unenviable task of deciphering multiple spellings of the same name, oftentimes from the same region. Names were often spelled phonetically, or as close to as possible per the person writing the name or the educational level of the clerk or official recording the surnames. The other stumbling block to many researchers is when a family who has immigrated to a different land chooses to differentiate their own name from other members of the same family with a late 18th century example, “Menteith, Monteith or Montooth” All three Scottish surnames, found in the Boston, Massachusetts records and belonging to two brothers and a first cousin, who wished to strike it out on their own, with their own surnames.

Researching surnames is an extremely fun way of learning world history and the role our ancestors played in those events. It can also be frustrating and hard to track down facts, names, birth dates and other vital statistics. However it can be done. It is worth the effort in finding out where you came from, and the oftentimes fantastical odds our ancestors had to overcome in order to bring future generation into existence.

For those who live in America, every major political upheaval or protracted war since the Thirty Years War (1618 to 1648 ) has resulted in immigration to North America and points father south. Almost every culture in Europe and most of the ones in Africa now have a representational populace in the United States of America. To study names and their origins is to study the history of the world at a small and personal scale. I hope this brief article has helped to give you a starting place for the timeline and development of surnames. Please do not hesitate to contact our staff with your questions.

Westernmost portion of the Roman Empire collapses from internal strife, and successive wave of Barbarian invasions.376 ADRome invaded, sacked and burned by Visigoth forces.410 ADLast great battle of the Roman Empire happens at Challons Gaul/France between Roman Legions, Germanic Allies, fighting Attila the Hun and Hunnic forces. Estimated casualty count conservatively tops 100,000 dead or wounded<451 ADWestern Europe falls into a period called the “Dark Ages.”500 AD through 800 ADThe rise of “Kings” and feudalism replaces Roman civil authority in Gaul, Britain, Spain.410 AD through 8 ADSaxon Tribes leave south-eastern Germany travel north to the Friesian coast and embark on invasion of Romano-Britain.456 ADScoti tribes from Northern Ireland invade southern Scotland north of the Hadrian’s Wall. Establish Dal Riada and The name later becomes known as “Scotland.” Pictish people of Southern Scotland displaced by Scoti invasion raid into northern England/ Wales region seeking a homeland for themselves and their people.510AD to 530 ADUmayyad Moslems from North Africa invade Spain displacing Christian Visigoth Kingdom.711 AD to 788 ADUmayyad Moslems from North Africa invade Spain displacing Christian Visigoth Kingdom.711 AD to 1492 ADUmayyad forces invade the Frankish Kingdom of Gaul. Invasion is stopped and Moslem forces are defeated in battle outside of Tours, by Charles “Martel” or (The Hammer) Duke and Prince of the Merovingian Franks. The battle of Tours marks the high water mark of Islamic invasion of Europe. The battle also ensure the majority of Western Europe would remain Christian.

*Charles Martel although not a King, establishes the Frankish Kingdom, and brings about the age of Feudalism. Considered the father of the Medieval period, his grandson Charlemagne, becomes one of the greatest Kings of Europe and later the first Holy Roman Emperor.

Vertical Timeline
The Roman Empire, Roman families create surnames, referred to as Gentes/Gens. Family names which have survived to modernity include: Cornelius, and Aurelius. 27 BC to 496 AD
Emperor Flavius Honorius tells Britain to “Look towards their own defense.” 410 AD
Charlemagne crowned Christmas Day as first Holy Roman Emperor 25 December 800AD.
Britain undergoes successive waves of colonization by Saxon Germanic tribes. Angle (Local Celtic/Latin people) become subservient to Germanic Saxon Lords. The very beginnings of the English language start to emerge. 800AD through 1100 AD.
William Duke of Normandy, after rescues Harold Godwinson from drowning off the coast of Normandy, Earl and later King Harold swears fealty and allegiance to Duke William. Swears to give England to Duke William for his assistance in saving his life. Edward the Confessor dies, Harold does not pass on crown to William. William invades in September, subsequently Harold dies at the Battle of Hastings, and William becomes King of England, and is crowned on Christmas day Westminster Abbey. 1066 AD.
The Great Survey otherwise known as the “Doomsday Book” the first comprehensive accounting for all property and peoples in England is collected and collated for Tax purposes. However there are regions left out of the Great Survey, such as Durham which was run by the Church and not subject to William the Conquerors Taxes. London and similar royal holdings are not recorded. 1087 AD.
“Boldon Book” Created to help asses and govern large tracts of land and people within Church properties. 1183 AD.
Pope Urban preaches and calls for the first Crusade in the holy land at the Council of Clermont. 1096 AD.
Returning soldiers bring with them new surnames originally from Hebrew sources such as, Issac, Jacob, Luke and Adam 1099 AD to 1444 AD
The Avignon Kings Henry II, Richard the Lion Heart and King John continue with the tax rolls established by William the Conqueror. With King John establishing what are later to be called the ”Great Pipe Rolls.” Which for seven hundred years provided the most comprehensive tax and governance records in the history of England. The rolls or records, are of incalculable help for researchers collecting information on early, middle, and late medieval life, surnames, and property listings. 1130 AD to 1533AD.
The Black Death or Bubonic Plague strikes Europe in successive waves, and decimates a full quarter of the human population on the entire planet. Estimates range from Seventy million to two hundred million dead world wide. It also changes and alters medieval feudal society in western Europe. Surnames come into widespread usage in England, Wales and portions of southern Scotland for the first time. 1346AD to 1353 AD.
Occupational surnames such as, Baker, Thatcher, Weaver, Smith, Barber, Brewer, come into usage. Along with locator surnames such as, York, London, Atwood, Lichfield, Mares, Pool and Butts. 1350 AD to 1495 AD.
Hundred Years War is lost, and most of the English possessions in France with the exceptions of the Cinque ports revert to French control. The aftermath of the loss of French holdings spawns the dynastic war of possession of the English throne later called the War of Roses. 1455 AD to 1487 AD
France launches its North American colonial and commercial venture in what the French called Canada. Later to be the province of Quebec. 1487 AD to 1603 AD
England under Henry VII and his son Henry VIII and later Granddaughter Elizabeth I enter into a period of isolation, with costly expenditures of coin and capital with their ongoing conflicts in Scotland and France. This period of redeveloping England’s economy after the Black Plague, and subsequent Dynastic struggle only end with last years of Elizabeth’s reign. 1607 AD
Jamestown, commercial venture along the Eastern Seaboard of North America, later to be called Virginia is founded. Names associated with Jamestown:Archer,Brookes, Bruster, Crofts, Clovil, Dixon and Gore. 1620 AD 1697 AD
The second colonial venture in North America is founded by religious separatists later to be called Pilgrims. Pilgrims established the Plymouth Colony. Its success lead to further commercial and religious ventures in North America. Names associated with the Plymouth Colony: Alden, Allerton Bradford, Brewster,Standish, Smith
The Thirty Years War, which was a direct result of the Protestant Reformation, was until the advent of World War II the single most devastating conflict Europe had seen. The aftermath spurred the great powers into creating vast overseas ventures, in both the New World, India, China, Africa and South East Asia. It also caused a large migration of both internal and external populations. 1618 AD to 1648 AD
Incidentally at the same time, The Huguenot Wars of Rebellion wracked France. This was a conflict based on religion, the Huguenots were French Protestants. There was at least three major rebellions which resulted in large scale immigration to neighboring countries and French holdings abroad. 1620 AD to 1622 AD
1620 AD to 1622 AD
1627 AD to 1628 AD
England in its desire to create an overseas trading, and colonial empire, makes an alliance with the French Crown, to prosecute a war against the Spanish Habsburg holdings in North, Central and Southern America. After a protracted and fruitless campaign, British forces besiege and take possession of the Island of Hispaniola. The British rename the island and call it Jamaica. 1657 AD
With their Jamaica holdings, British authorities expand their holdings in the Caribbean, and with those expanded properties a Sugar Cane Planter society soon developed. Large number of Former French subjects, primarily Huguenots (Protestants) were allowed to leave to France and moved to British oversea holdings. 1629 AD to 1670 AD
South Carolina (Carolina) became one of the larger holdings in the growing British Colonial/Economic sphere of influence in North America. It was chartered by Sir Robert Heath. French Huguenot families established in Jamaica and other Caribbean properties were amongst some of the first colonists to the region. *French immigrants arrived in three successive waves. Prominent names are: Ravenel, La Salle, and Gerard. 1670 AD
1680 AD
1690 AD
It should also be noted, planter society in the southern colonies, created one of the largest markets for African slaves second only to Brazil. The first slaves arrive in Jamestown, Virginia in a Dutch trading vessel. (The first slaves to the Americas were indentured servants, not African slaves. Indenture ends after a set period of time. Slavery ended with the civil war.) 1619 AD to 1865 AD.
The dawn of the 18th Century saw a significant number of German immigrants to American Colonies of New York and Pennsylvania. By the time of the American Revolution, German Mercenaries from the Hesse-Cassel region were hired by King George III to help maintain order in the American Colonies. It is estimated 30,000 troops served, with less than half returning to Germany. The remaining soldiers asked permission to become citizens of the new United States. German immigrants to America, continued until well after the post Civil War era.German Surnames make up the largest names by percentage in the United States of any Western European ethnicity. * 1695 AD to 1782 AD
General immigration to North America, originating primarily in western Europe. 1784 to 1845
Irish immigration to North America, Australia, and New Zealand, and South Africa have continued to this day. The Irish have left Ireland as colonists, immigrants and soldiers since the Cromwellian wars of religion in the middle half of the 17th Century. Oftentimes referred to as the Irish diaspora, Irish immigrants and forced immigrants (famine victims and convicts) have moved to the farthest stretches of the globe. 1700 AD to Present.
Fully a quarter of the Irish population relied solely upon the potato to feed themselves. When the potato blight struck Ireland roughly one million Irish were forced to immigrate overseas in an seven year period. It is estimated fully another million died of starvation. * Although it should be noted food production leaving Ireland bound for oversea ports actually increased as there was a surplus of foodstuffs for sale in export markets. 1845 AD to 1852 AD.
California Gold Rush and Transcontinental Railroad. With the discovery of Gold at Sutter’s Mill, sparked a massive migration of Americans and immigrants from Europe and Asia, in hopes they might exploit the riches in the California gold rush and subsequent silver strikes in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, hastened the construction of the Transcontinental railroad. Post Civil War American society became xenophobic, Anti-Chinese legislation was enacted, and Chinese immigrants were forbidden from entering the United States of America. (Proposed in 1870 finally ratified in 1905) 1848 AD to 1868 AD
European immigration to America from Central and Eastern Europe. With the unification of Italy, under Garibaldi, Italian immigration levels to America spike. Russian Pogroms against Eastern Jewish populations result in large scale movement to both the United States and Canada. Czech, Romanian and Croatian Miners, imported to American western mining concerns. Large population of German and Irish workers move westward to work on rail roads, and farming industries. 1880 AD to 1925 AD
Immigration to the Americas slows during pre and post World War One. With the onset of the Great Depression immigration levels drop once more. The new arrivals who do make it to America, after the war originate mostly from Eastern European countries such as, Poland, Lithuania, *Ukraine (Which was then a large part of the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics.) 1930 AD to 1939 AD
World War II-saw little or no allowable immigration from continental Europe. Asian immigration was also not allowed during the war period. 1939 AD to 1945 AD
Post WWII, witnessed one of the largest migrations of populations in Europe since the dark ages. Eastern European countries were occupied by USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) forces, in attempt to expand their influence abroad.Western Europe, specifically Germany, Italy and Austria were shattered, and had to be largely reconstructed. Those fleeing communist expansionist policies moved into Western Europe.

Large scale immigration waves, were seen in the United States of America, Canada, and Australia. With a large population of Death Camp survivors moving to British controlled Palestine, where three years after WWII would see the Jewish War of Independence and the foundation of the state of Israel.

America now accepts most immigrants from around the world regardless of sex, political affiliation or religious creed. It should be noted it is increasingly difficult to migrate abroad as ever increasing costs and regulatory restrictions are now in place.

1945 AD to Present.

All of our very best!
John Lehman

For those wishing to look up their family name, finding as many spelling variations in your name as possible is essential. It will help you narrow your focus on particular locations you might be able to discover via historical records, or immigration lists. There are some fortunate few who have clearly delineated ancestors who because of fame, fortunes of war, or being born into a politically astute family are able to trace their names to the earliest portion of the medieval period, namely the 8th through the 12th centuries with the barest minimum of spelling variations. The Talbot Earls of England, and Ireland are one such family. Talbot family fortunes were established with the Invasion of England by William the Conqueror in the 11th century, specifically 1066 AD, with the 22nd and current heir still living in England and occupying a seat in the House of Lords.

For those who’s ancestors were not initially in the ranks of those who belonged to the noble ranks of medieval society, most men and women at the time, used their first or given name.

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