The Formation of the Fleming Surname

Amy Eberlin
Friday 29 May 2015

Last week’s posting examined the formation of surnames in Britain with a special emphasis on Scotland.  In this second posting, George English looks more specifically at the origins of the Fleming family name.

Toponymics of Nationality and the Surname Fleming

Fleming was a surname which indicated the nationality of its original bearers i.e. natives of Flanders.[1] The name Fleming reflects a Norman French form of the Old French flamenc. The by-name Fleming occurred in parts of Britain as early as c1150, although evidence for the word in the Oxford English Dictionary goes back only as far as c1430.

There are two main groups of people to consider regarding the adoption of the hereditary surname of Fleming: the knights who came over with William the Conqueror, and their descendants; and, other Flemish immigrants, particularly from lower classes, who came to Britain from the 11th century onwards.

The knights essentially became the land-owning or upper class in the society of the day. It is generally agreed that the first people to adopt the surname Fleming in Britain were the grandsons of Erkenbald Flandrensis from Rouen in Normandy. He was a companion of William the Conqueror, who was given extensive lands in Cornwall and Devon. The grandsons included Baldwin, who went to Scotland in 1147 or 1148; others who went to Wales and Ireland; and some who stayed in England.

The theory has been proposed that practically all the Flemings of the British Isles descend from Erkenbald Flandrensis.[2] If this were true, it would mean that almost every other Flemish immigrant who came to Britain without a hereditary surname, adopted a surname other than Fleming.

To understand surname formation among the lower class immigrants it is necessary to look more closely at the use of toponymics. Toponymics such as Fleming were Local surnames where the place of origin was indicated by the use of descriptive adjectives. The surname was evidence that the people had migrated from their place of origin to the place where they became described as the English, Scots or other national group.[3]

There are many toponymics denoting nationality including: English, Inglis, Scott, Irish, Welsh, Walsh and Wallis, with Gales (le Galeys, le Waleis, central and northern forms of Fr waleis ‘Welshman, Celt’). Sayce and Seys are from Welsh sais ‘Saxon, Englishman’.[4] Surnames from French and other Continental places include: French, Al(l)mand, Almond, Allamand and Alliment from OFr alemaund ‘Ger­man’, Tyas, Tyes (OFr tieis ‘German’), Den(n)es, Denness (OFr daneis) and Dence, Dench (OE denisc ‘Danish’) ‘the Dane’.

Fleming, Fleeming, Fleeman, Flamank and Flament, with five other variants, as well as Brabant, Braban, Brabon and Brabham (Flemish Brabant), with Brabazon and Brobson (AFr bra-bancon ‘a native of Brabant’, result from the early medieval inter­course between Flanders and neighbouring Brabant, and England and Scotland. This was so common that in the four­teenth century an English form of the name developed by the addi­tion of -er to the name of the Duchy, Braba(y)ner, which survives as Brabiner, Brabner, Brebner and Bremner. Less commonly, these surnames were local in form: de Brabayn, de Flandria, the latter still in use as Flanders or Flinders.[5]

If virtually no Flemish immigrant, other than the descendants of Erkenbald Flandrensis, adopted the surname Fleming, this would be a substantial deviation from what applied to all these other nationalities. It would require some special circumstances that applied to Flemish immigrants but not to those from other nationalities. No such reason has been found.

The situation is complicated because people did not adopt their surname through a formal system. Lack of records is one of the main difficulties in deciding when an early surname became hereditary.

Immigrants included servants in noble households, teachers and skilled workmen such as weavers, traders and merchants. A major research project has compiled a database of over 64,000 names of people known to have migrated to England between 1330 and 1550. Of the 21,538 people for whom a place of origin was recorded, 1,178 came from Flanders.  Of these, the main occupations that were recorded were servant (237), tailor (26), shoemaker (20), souter (20) and weaver (20). There are 264 people with the surname Fleming, or variations (of whom 249 have the nationality, Fleming i.e. Flemish). As more than 20% of those from Flanders had the surname Fleming, it is clear that they, or an ancestor, had adopted the surname, rather than inheriting it from one person. Their recorded occupations were servant (50), labourer (5), corviser (2), husbandman (2) and pattenmaker (2). It is inconceivable that such a large number of servants were people from the upper classes who had fallen on hard times.[6] It is more likely that most were servants who had taken the surname Fleming of their master.

In 1379, amongst the taxpayers in Redenhall, Norfolk was two weavers named Constancius and Reginaldus Flemmyng. Their distinctive first names suggest they had recently arrived from Flanders.[7] Thus they were probably the first or second generation of their family to adopt the surname Fleming.

The Hereditary Surname Fleming in Scotland

Surnames started to come to Scotland during the reign of King David I (1124-53). David grew up in England at the court of Henry I and absorbed the Anglo-Norman values of the English nobility.  So, the ruling Norman elite was influential in Scotland too, and surnames arrived no more than a generation or two later than occurred in England.[8]

The process of name formation began with some Lowland landowners in the late 12th century. But the fashion took longer to take hold than in England and was not generally completed until at least the sixteenth century. The surnames and by-names used were similar in character to those across the border in England, where the dialect and culture had much in common. Gaelic surnames varied locally and between class. They were little known further south until after 1746 and the Battle of Culloden.[9]

Fealtic surnames were much more common in Scotland, where they were a feature of the Clan system, than in England. A man, and his family, would take the name of the chief of a clan to show their fealty and service to him, in return for protection, even though they had no blood relationship.

The earliest Fleming in Scotland was Baldwin of Biggar, the grandson of Erkenbald Flandrensis.[10] In 1155, Henry II passed a decree expelling all Flemish people from England. This increased the number of Flemings in Scotland. In addition, Malcolm IV invited others to come.[11]

Some Flemish families took Scottish place-names as toponymics, like the Douglas, Murray and Leslie families, while others merely used the generic term Fleming.[12]

The People of Medieval Scotland database (see Appendix below) records 57 people with the surname Fleming between 1140 and 1314.[13] Almost all of these are from the upper classes. There are too many for it to be likely that they all were related.

The first name recorded was Mainard the Fleming, who was the provost of St. Andrews in the mid 12th century. He had been brought north from Berwick-on-Tweed to supervise the layout of St Andrews.[14] It is unlikely that he was descended from Erkenbald Flandrensis. By that time, there were four distinct communities in St Andrews – Scots, English, French i.e. Normans and Flemish.[15]

The types of transactions recorded were limited because analysis shows that most had to do with gifts of land and other property. There are also a number recording the performance of fealty to Edward I in 1296, which would only have been required of people of some substance and influence. There are a number of blood and close relationships recorded:

Michael Fleming, father of Marsilius
Berewald Fleming, father of John; grandfather of Walter
Bernard Fleming, uncle of Nicholas
Simon Fleming, son-in-law of Richard; father of Hugh and Simon
Robert Fleming, husband of Matilda
Michael Fleming, son of Michael Fleming; father of Alexander II, king of Scots
Archibald Fleming, son of Michael
Robert Fleming, brother of Michael

In 1347, all Flemings were banished from Scotland.[16] This would probably have meant that any adoption of the surname Fleming was halted in the following years.

Apart from the surname Scott, other toponymics denoting nationality in Scotland include Welsh, Inglis and Bremner. It is likely that the first Flemish settlers arrived without surnames and their descendants later adopted a hereditary surname. It is not until the 15th century that a significant number of people with the surname Fleming appear in records. However, by then, many Flemings arriving would have come with Flemish surnames. Surnames can be used to a limited degree as a tool to identify people of Flemish origin but this does underestimate the size of Flemish immigration.[17]  A number of postings in this blog series discuss families of Flemish origin that do not have the Fleming surname.


The adoption of the hereditary surname Fleming by the descendants of Erkenbald Flandrensis in various parts of Britain, including Scotland, is well documented. His descendants are likely to account for a large number of Flemings alive today. But it is virtually certain that significant numbers of other Flemish immigrants also adopted that surname, in common with many other people who adopted toponymics denoting nationality. There are a number of strong indicators of this but the lack of records for the period makes it difficult to find unequivocal examples of proof. It is to be hoped that the ongoing DNA work being carried out in association with the Scotland and the Flemish People Project will shed further light on the topic in due course.

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 9 Glebe Avenue, Mauchline, Ayrshire, KA5 6AF or by email at [email protected].

Appendix Surname FLEMING in People of Medieval Scotland Database

12th Century
Mainard Fleming Grieve of St Andrews Grant of tofts. Royal moneyer.
Baldwin Fleming Confirmation of Loquhariot church by King Malcolm.
Theobald Fleming Gift of the land above Douglas.
Michael Fleming Father of Marsilius. Gift of forest of Furness etc.
Berewald Fleming Grandfather of Walter, father of John. Donation of Innes, toft.
Bernard Fleming Uncle of Nicholas Fleming.
Nicholas Fleming Nepos of Bernard Fleming.
Marsilius Fleming Son of Michael Fleming.
Jordan Fleming Gift of half ploughgate; toft & croft in Orde.
Simon Fleming Brother of Simon; father of Hugh. Gift of ploughgate in Kennethmont.
Richard Fleming Father-in-law of Simon. Gifts etc – Melrose, Arbroath, Kelso.
William Fleming Gifts etc – Forfarshire, Kelso.
Everard Fleming Gifts of land etc.
13th C -1333
Michael Fleming Sheriff of Edinburgh.
Robert Fleming Husband of Matilda. Gifts of toft & croft.
Matilda Fleming Wife of Robert Fleming. Gift of toft & croft.
Simon Fleming Son-in-law of Richard Fleming. Arbroath Abbey Agreement.
Michael Fleming Son of Michael Fleming. Father of Alexander II, king of Scots. King’s clerk.
Archibald Fleming Son of Michael Fleming. Grant of succession of land of Gilberton.
John Fleming Son of Berewald Fleming.
Walter Fleming Son of John Fleming. Succession of Innes. Toft.
Thomas Fleming Steward of Seton (10m E of Edinburgh).
Hugh Fleming Brother of Simon Fleming.
Alexander Fleming Settlement of dispute between Chapter of Moray and Alan Durward.
John Fleming Dominus (Lord/Sir), knight.
Hugh Fleming Son of Simon Fleming. Gift of lands of Dalnottar etc.
Bartholomew Fleming Knight. Gift of toft, land ‘Rauengille’. build chapel of Wardhouse.
Stephen Fleming Baillie of Carrick, justiciar of Lothian. Inquest.
Patrick Fleming Quitclaim of Eddleston, Peeblesshire.
Walter Fleming Dominus (Lord/Sir).
William Fleming Dominus (Lord/Sir) of Stanhouse.
Adam Fleming Quitclaim of land on The Ness in Berwick.
Peter Fleming Donation of Bishop Richard. Landholder.
R. Fleming Agreement: bishop of Aberdeen & Alan Durward.
Duncan Fleming Obligation to pay £20. Dominus (Lord/Sir).
William Fleming Burgess of Dumbarton. Gift of Dalquhurn.
R. Fleming Quitclaim of toft in villa of Dumfries.
Robert Fleming Brother of Michael. Lord of Wardhouse. Gift of land.
Michael Fleming Brother of Robert. Gifts: Montrose etc. Fealty.
Simon Fleming Gift of land in Tranent. Agreement: Paisley Abbey & John. Kt.
William Fleming Of Barochan, RNF. Obligation to pay £20. Fealty.
Robert Fleming Kt. Dispensation by pope of Affrica Lichen marriage.
William Fleming Gift of two pennylands in Argyll.
Alan Fleming Performance of fealty to Edward I, king of England.
Patrick Fleming Co. Dumbarton. Fealty. Dominus. Sworn man.
Walter Fleming Co. Lanark. Fealty to Edward I.
William Fleming, Fermer of Dumbarton. Fealty to Edward I.
William Fleming Of Seton. Fealty to Edward I.
John Fleming Fealty to Edward I. Inquest into death of le Rous.
Copin Fleming Acknowledgement of debts owed to him. ERA.
John Fleming English Royal Administration (ERA).
Walter Fleming In 1296 plea roll of English army for abbot of Lindores.
Matthew Fleming Witness to gift of 6 marks.
William Ridel Lord of Flemington. ERA (prisoners).
William Fleming Steward of Lennox. Witness to gift.
B[…] Fleming ERA (prisoners).

A There are no entries for surnames starting FLAND e.g. Flandrensis or FLAM e.g. Flamang, Flameng.


[1] Black, George F. (2004) The Surnames of Scotland. p. 268.

[2] Fleming, F. Lawrence (2011) The ancestry of the Earl of Wigton and other related essays relating to the family history of the Flemings. Rotherstorpe: Paragon. pp. 36, 43, 69, 132.

[3] McKinley, Richard A. (1990) A History of British Surnames. p. 28.

[4] Reaney, Percy H. (1967) The Origins of English Surnames. p.54.

[5] Ibid. pp. 73-74.

[6] England’s Immigrants 1330-1550. Research project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Available online

[7] Redmonds, George, King, Turi and Hey, David (2011) Surnames, DNA, and family history. p. 21.

[8] Davis, Graeme (2010) Research Your Surname and Your Family Tree. p. 105.

[9] Redmonds p. 54.

[10] Whyte, Donald (2000) Scottish Surnames.

[11] Black, p. xviii.

[12] Hammond, Matthew H. (2005) A Prosopographical Analysis of Society in East Central Scotland, circa 1100 to 1260. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow. p. 104. Available online

[13] People of Medieval Scotland 1093-1314. Database of all known people of Scotland between 1093 and 1314 mentioned in over 8600 contemporary documents. Available online

[14] David Dobson. The Flemish on the Firth of Tay – Part 2. Scotland and the Flemish People. Available online.

[15] Davis. p. 105.

[16] Letters to the Chamberlain of Scotland and other officials, 12 November 1347. Regesta Regum Scottorum, VI, Acts of David II [Edinburgh, 1982].

[17] David Dobson. The Flemish on the Firth of Tay – Part 1. Scotland and the Flemish People. Available online.

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