Today the naming of babies is a serious business. Parents-to-be can choose from a wealth of books and websites dedicated to the topic and every new celebrity arrival seems to be flagged up on internet search engines. Anything seems acceptable as a name these days: places, food, objects, colours; the field is vast. Parents can choose to endow their offspring with pretty much whatever name they fancy and it can take a while to choose. Yet go back five hundred years and name-giving was a far more simple matter.
Throughout the Tudor dynasty, the same names remained in favour. John, Thomas and William topped the chart for the boys, whilst Elizabeth, Mary and Jone were regularly chosen for girls. Old favourites such as Richard, Henry, Robert and George, Alice, Anne, Margaret and Joanna continued to be murmured over the baptismal font, although the vagaries of Tudor spelling led to a wide range of variation, dependent upon accent and the relative education of parish clerks. Family tradition played a big part too. It was common to find the same name given to fathers and sons or bestowed to honour the memory of a grandparent. The Rayners of Burnham, Essex, regularly named their sons Grene or Green while the Peekes opted for John, usually spelt Jhon. The names of children who succumbed to an early death were reused, so a family might christen two or three Thomases before one survived.
The royal family were not particularly daring with their choices. Henry VII’s first son was named Arthur and born at Winchester, in an attempt to realign the dynasty with traditional legends and Welsh roots. After that, the king bestowed his own name on his second son, with two other short-lived boys named Edmund and Edward, after the Queen’s father. Their first daughter was named Margaret, like the king’s mother, followed by Elizabeth, Mary and Katherine, the absolute staples of early Tudor popularity. Henry VIII lost at least three Henries before the arrival of Edward VI and showed little more originality when it came to his daughters, also choosing Mary and Elizabeth. In this though, he can hardly be blamed. Unlike today, Tudor names were not intended to be original; they spoke of loyalty to family, religion and the monarchy. In the same way, they could go out of favour. In many Essex parishes, Katherine and Anne were popular choices during the 1520s and 30s, with many ladies in waiting at the court naming their daughters after the relevant Queen. Katherine of Aragon’s close friend Maud Parr gave birth to a daughter in 1512, which led to the pleasing symmetry of Henry VIII’s last wife being named after his first. Katherine and Anne suffered a lapse in popularity in the middle of the century though, forever associated with the unhappy fates of Henry’s wives.
Choices would have been affected by family history, dynastic loyalties and geographical location. Favourite names were repeatedly passed down, causing confusion in parish registers where three generations might share the same pair of names. Analyses of baptismal records reveal that communities tended to develop their own name pool, passed on by word of mouth. The more movement and migration a town experienced, the greater access they may have had to unusual names. Thus Burnham on the river Crouch had Barnabe, Lenarde and Jasper, Susan, Annes and Sara while in the nearby city Colchester, the names Winken, George and Ralff, Esther, Prudence and Frances occur more than in other places. Colchester as on the main pilgrimage route towards Walsingham and as with many centres of devotion to the Virgin, Mary remained the favourite choice. Further up round the coast, Clacton was unusual in throwing up some exotic listings; boys there might find themselves baptised as Clement, Augustine or Bartholomew, although interestingly, the most flamboyant names of Silvester and Hercules were bestowed on illegitimate sons. The Clacton registers also include the names of a large community of Dutch immigrants, ensuring regular new entries into the lists.
Similar names were given among all ranks of Tudor life, although the tradesmen and yeomanry became notably more experimental towards the end of Elizabeth’s reign. In Colchester in the 1540s, only ten female names were reused with regularity; the 1550s saw the introduction of four more, while seven joined the list in the 1560s. After this though, a rapid expansion seemed to take place, with names arriving each month; new trends brought Lettice, Ursula, Faith, Rhoda, Judeth, Stace, Parnell and Thomasine. The same was true of boys’ names, whose initial field was even narrower. In the 1540s, parents in Colchester only used six male names with any regularity but by the 1590s, they could choose from over fifty. In this they were only keeping up with the Sir Joneses. The aristocracy were never averse to throwing something unusual in among their pool of Thomases, Johns, Marys and Annes; Berkshire families used Bartholomew and Marmaduke, Honoria, Coleberry and Frideswide.
Modern parents seeking to bestow their offspring with a Tudor name might follow the Essex trends and opt for the solid, enduring choices favoured by the royal family or else take the plunge with a Martha, Maude or Ursula for their daughters and Raynold, Walter or Gilbert for the boys. It might prove difficult though, to find those on key rings and Christmas stockings. In any case, to avoid embarrassment they should be wary of those which have switched gender. Tudor girls might have been proud to be called Clement, Julian, Bennet, Christian or Dennis but their modern counterparts may not be so appreciative.
Here in full is the Tudor top ten:
1 Mary/Marie John
2 Elizabeth Thomas
3 Jone/Jane/Joan William
4 Margaret/Margery Richard
5 Ann/Anne Henry
6 Agnes Edward
7 Alice/Alis Ralf/Ralff
8 Joanna/Johanna George
9 Susan Robert
10 Annis Humfrey