Surname Formation in Britain

This is the first of two postings, authored by George English, that address the issue of how surnames became established in Britain, with particular reference to Scotland. This posting examines the issue generically but touches specifically on the formation of the Fleming surname. This latter issue is addressed in more depth in next week’s posting.


Flemish immigrants have been coming to England, Scotland and other parts of Britain since the early 11th century. Many of the early settlers came without a hereditary surname and took on the surname Fleming, its variants, or another surname.

In the 1881 census, Fleming was the 91st most frequent surname in Scotland; 619th in England; and 704th in Wales. In the 1901 Census, Fleming was the 129th most frequent surname in Ireland.[1] So the surname Fleming was adopted by a number of immigrants in all these countries. Today Fleming is the 86th most common surname in Scotland.[2]

This posting investigates how hereditary surnames emerged in Britain, particularly in Scotland. The text below draws on research that focussed on: the situation that existed before hereditary surnames came into existence; the formation of hereditary surnames in Britain; the particular factors relating to Local surnames like Fleming; and the situation of Flemish people in Scotland who may have adopted the surname Fleming. A significant difficulty in deciding when an early surname became hereditary is the absence of documentation, in particular before the mid 12th century, and for ordinary people.

Before Hereditary Surnames

There were no hereditary surnames in Britain in 1066 when the Norman Conquest took place. Most Normans lacked a hereditary surname then, apart from some nobles, who had had such a surname for a generation or more.[3] The Normans had originated in Scandinavia. In AD 911 Vikings were given land in northern France in return for token obedience to the Frankish crown. The local term for the Norsemen evolved into the word ‘Norman’.

The most common way of naming in most of medieval Europe was by the use of a by-name, that is a surname that describes an individual in some way. The Scandinavians, unlike the Anglo-Saxons, had a habit of using the same personal name in different generations and branches of the same family. The result of this custom was that in time there were so many men bearing the same name that it was found necessary to distinguish them by a nickname or by-name descriptive of some physical charac­teristic, some habit or a reference to some particular incident.[4]

Another example was the to-names prevalent in the fishing towns and hamlets on the northeast coast of Scotland. All local people were descended from a few common ancestors, so to-names were used to distinguish them from each other. In Buckie, there were twenty-five George Cowies, including: George Cowie, doodle; George Cowie, carrot; and, George Cowie, neep.[5]

By-names – both English and Scandinavian – were found in England before the Conquest.[6] Most medieval by-names were straightforward: a father’s name, a home village, an occupation, or perhaps some notable personal characteristic. Examples of Norman by-names were Roger de Montgomery and Roger de Toeni.[7] In the case of by-names denoting nationality, such as le Fleming, the notable characteristic was that the people had a different nationality from those in the place where they had migrated to.

The Growth of Hereditary Surnames in Britain

The Norman Conquest had a significant effect on the development of the first hereditary surnames in Britain. In 877, Emperor Charles II had sanctioned the heredity of fiefs in the Capitulary of Quierzy-sur-Oise. This led gradually to the adoption of hereditary surnames in northern France, which some Normans brought with them to England in the years following the Conquest.[8] Some who came with William the Conqueror had a name that referred to where they came from. William had enlisted 60 Flemish knights and some of these bore the name le Fleming and variations of the name. That name would have been given to them in Normandy. There would have been no need when they were living in Flanders as it would not have distinguished them from the rest of the native people.

The development of hereditary surnames was a long and complex process. There were marked regional variations and differences between one social class and another. The change was propelled by a variety of forces, including the feudal system, literacy, fashion and convenience.[9]

All surnames fall into one or other of four classes (alternative terms in brackets):

1. Local Surnames (Locational, Locative, Toponymic, Territorial, Landed) e.g. Wood, Sutherland, Scott.
2. Surnames of Relationship (Patronymic, Fealtic) e.g. Wilson, Robertson, MacDonald.[10]
3. Surnames of Occupation or Office (Occupational, Official, Trade) e.g. Smith, Taylor, Hunter.
4. Nicknames (Descriptive, To-Names) e.g. Noble, Brown, Campbell, Cruickshank.[11]

Fleming is a Local Surname, which is the largest class of surname. Local surnames include a wide range of types of place. Such surnames accounted for up to 50% of all surnames in many areas.

The Table below shows an analysis of the distribution of classes of surnames in some English counties, cities and towns.[12] This has been constructed from various sources between 1066 and the early 14th century. The main source is the Subsidy Rolls which were records of taxation in England made between the 12th and 17th centuries. By their nature, these were primarily confined to prosperous householders.

This limits the analysis to an extent because many surnames, particularly of lower class people, were seldom recorded. However, the general findings are probably correct. These show that 40% of surnames in London, Sussex and Lancashire were local surnames. The average was around 1/3 across England. Clearly therefore there are many precedents for the formation of a surname like Fleming.

In the north of England, e.g. Yorkshire and Lancashire, a larger proportion of the men than elsewhere had no surname.[13] Surnames began to come to Scotland in the mid 12th century but were not in general use until many years later.[14]

Why Did Surnames Become Hereditary?

The rise of surnames was heavily influenced by the Norman Conquest. William the Conqueror was accompanied by knights and other volunteers from various parts of wes­tern Europe, including Flanders. Some of these had hereditary surnames but most did not. There were also archers and mercenaries who fought at Hastings, few of whom had such a surname. Some of the knights received their reward in land and their names are recorded in the Domesday Book. Ten Flemings are listed in the Domesday Book.[15] Some land-owners took names from the district from which they had come, while others adopted by-names from the names of places on their newly-acquired English estates. For example, Robert de Stafford adopted that name because of his large holdings in Staffordshire, although he was the son of Roger de Toeni (who came from Flanders). There were some new settlers who had probably had a hereditary surname for a generation or more – for instance William de Warrenne – named after a small settlement in Seine-Maritime.[16]

After the Conquest immigrants included a steadily increasing number of attendants in noble households, teachers, and skilled workmen, traders and merchants. Their names were seldom noted until records became more frequent in the 13th century.[17]

The development of the feudal system was a driver in the adoption of hereditary surnames. It became important that the king should know exactly what service each knight owed. Lawyers and officials made sure that the parties to payments both to and by the exchequer – e.g. for transfers of land or those con­cerned in criminal proceedings – could be clearly identified. Mon­asteries drew up surveys with details of tenants of all classes and their services. Later, many people were assessed in the Subsidy Rolls. The upper classes, which were mostly illiterate, were those with whom the officials were chiefly concerned. They were the first where sur­names became numerous and hereditary.[18] Surnames were seldom allocated by officials but began as by-names.[19]

The move from an oral to a written culture in the medieval period was important in the adoption of hereditary surnames. For most people, a surname was not needed when the spoken word was the main form of communication.[20] Fashion became a large factor in the spread and speed of adoption of surnames. When others had surnames, it became something that people felt they had to have.

When Did Surnames Become Hereditary?

Surnames gradually became hereditary over the 300 years following the Norman Conquest. In England, family names were first intro­duced by the Norman barons, some taken from their French fiefs, but also from the name of an ancestor or from a nickname. The system was found useful by officials and lawyers who gradually extended it to men who held no land. But for the middle and lower classes, fashion and convenience were key influences. From the 12th century there was a steady increase in the growth of family names among land-holders. Peasants started to develop fixed surnames about 1225 and they were in fairly general use about 100 years later. The north of England was slower to follow this.[21] In Scotland, it took even longer, particularly in the northern or Gaelic areas.

The variety of names steadily increased as new immigrants came in from northern France, Flanders and other parts of Europe.[22]

Surname Formation for People from Flanders

A turning point was when immigrants from Flanders started coming to Britain already having a hereditary surname as opposed to just a by-name or other description. The earlier immigrants would have adopted their family name after coming to live in Britain. The lack of records makes it difficult to identify specific examples of when this took place. An indication of when hereditary surnames may have been generally adopted in Flanders is given by an analysis of the mention of merchants from Flanders in the 14th century in the Exchequer Rolls of Scotland.[23]

Vol. 1, p.77, ref. to ‘Taskyno, mercatori de Brudgis’ in Berwick, 1327.
Vol. 1, p.93, ref. to ‘Lamberto Povlyn, mercatori Flandrensi’ possibly in Edinburgh, 1328.
Vol. 1, p.95, ref. to ‘Beydyno Wlf et Lancio de Castro, mercatoribus Flandrie’ in Inverkeithing, 1328.
Vol. 1, p.97, ref. to ‘Clays Onterlotis, mercatori Flandrie’ in Perth, 1328.
Vol. 1, p. 173, ref. to ‘Clays de Tore, mercatori Flandrensi’ in Berwick, 1329.
Vol. 1, p. 211, ref. to ‘Johanni Raynerson, mercatori Flandrensi’ and ‘Johanni de Hayel, opidano del Slus’, 1329.
Vol. 1, p. 239, ref. to ‘Johannis Wolcopper, mercatori Flandrie’, 1329.
Vol. 1, p. 371, ref. to ‘Petri machenarum et Petri Dafhalle, mercatorum Flandrie’ in Berwick, 1331.
Vol. 1, p. 531, ref. to ‘Cristiano Clerico de Flandria’, 1343.
Vol. 2, p. 51, ref. to ‘Petro Buste, Flemynge’, 1360.
Vol. 2, pp. 79, 90, 91, 128, refs. to ‘Ade Metten Eye, burgensi de Bruges’, 1361, 1362, 1364.
Vol. 2, p. 80, ref. to ‘Pauli Metten Eye’, 1361.
Vol. 2, p. 263, ref. to ‘Jacobo Paulo Meteney, in Flandria’, 1366.
Vol. 2, p. 131, ref. to ‘Johanni Pres, mercatori Flandrie’, 1364.
Vol. 2, p. 133, ref. to ‘Johanni Ondcorne, mercatori Flandrie’, 1364.
Vol. 2, p. 214, ref. to ‘Dionisii de Munt, Flemingi mercatoris’, 1367.

The early names may have been by-names, e.g. Taskyno, and possibly Lancio de Castro, Clays de Tore. However, soon the names took on the first and last name format of hereditary surnames e.g. Johanni Raynerson, Johannis Wolcopper, Petri Machenarum. Few, if any, of these particular surnames are found among the Flemish people who settled in Scotland. However, Flemish and other surnames were often changed over time to ones that rolled more easily off the Scottish tongue. Those who came from Flanders with surnames joined those who had come earlier and had adopted the surname Fleming, its variants, or another surname after immigrating.

George English
May 2015

George English is a director of the family history service Research Through People ( He has undertaken extensive genealogical and historical research and published work in United Kingdom, United States and Europe. He can be reached at


[1] Origin of Surnames (2015) Forebears. Available online:
[2] 100 Most Common Surnames. National Records of Scotland. Available online:
[3] Richard A. McKinley, A History of British Surnames (1990) pp. 26-27.
[4] Percy H. Reaney, The Origins of English Surnames (1967), p. 121.
[5] George F. Black, The Surnames of Scotland (2004), p. xxx.
[6] Reaney, p. 314.
[7] McKinley, p. 26.
[8] Reaney, p. 300.
[9] McKinley, p. 25.
[10] i.e., son of Donald.
[11] Reaney, p. 20.
[12] Distribution of the Classes of Surnames in Middle English. Reaney, p.23.
[13] Ibid., p. 23.
[14] Black, p. xiii.
[15] Reaney, p. 65.
[16] McKinley, pp. 26-27.
[17] Reaney, p. 65.
[18] Ibid., pp. 314-315.
[19] McKinley, p. 32.
[20] George Redmonds, Turi King, and David Hey, Surnames, DNA, and Family History (2011), p. 57.
[21] Reaney, p. 315.
[22] Ibid., p. 129.
[23] The Exchequer Rolls of Scotland, Vol. II, 1350-1379 (Edinburgh 1878). Names extracted by David Dobson, Material on Flemish links around the Firth of Forth.

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One Response to Surname Formation in Britain

  1. John Brebner says:

    In my case, born into the fishing communities of Peterhead (mother) and Torry, Aberdeen (father) my by-names were patronymic I suppose. In PD, I was “Binie’s, Tiddy’s John” i.e. Benjamin Buchan’s, Lydia’s, John. In Torry, among the fisher folk I was, “Stuka’s, Poll’s, Jock’s John, or John Main, called Stuka because he had a very straight back, like having plaster of Paris hold him up, his daughter Mary (Poll or Polly), my father John, and I was John also. I think this method of distinguishing people from each other was restricted to the fisher folk.

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