Late Sixteenth Century English Given Names


by Talan Gwynek
(Brian M. Scott,
© 1994, 1999 by Brian M. Scott; all rights reserved.
Revised 24 Aug 1999


According to the COED, the Prerogative Court was `[t]he court of an archbishop for the probate of wills and trial of testamentary causes in which effects to the value of five pounds had been left in each of two (or more) dioceses within his province'. Volume III of the Index to Administrations in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCCA), covering the years 1581-1595, is an excellent source of late sixteenth century English given names. It lists, in alphabetical order by surname, the persons concerned, the date of the action, and the folio number of the record. In most cases an address of some sort is also given, usually a parish and county.

Because this is a secondary source, it is possible that the spellings of some names have been normalized. In this connection it is noteworthy that a number of common names like Robert and Elizabeth for which variant spellings can be found in contemporary parish records appear in PCCA only in their standard forms. Against this must be set the fact that many surnames are given in a variety of spellings, and some given names, like Margaret and Susanna, appear in as many as four forms. On the whole it seems likely that the forms in PCCA are at least a good indication of official usage in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, though local usage may often have been less uniform.

For this article I have tabulated all of the given names found in PCCA. In a few cases I am fairly sure that the same person has been counted twice, but the number of such cases is small, and they do not materially affect the statistics. In one case it was possible to be almost certain that two entries referred to the same person, and I counted that forename only once; see the note for the name Roman. In the several cases in which one person was listed with two alternative given names, I have counted each of those names once. The result was 6645 names distributed among 345 different forms. As is usual in such records, most of the persons named were men. In this case about 5986 of the names, a little over 90 percent, refer to men. (A few entries include information from which we can safely infer the sex of the person named. In most cases, however, the only clue is the given name itself, so the exact numbers of men and women cannot be obtained.)

As may be seen from the frequency data, the late sixteenth century was not a time of great diversity in English naming. For both men and women the 15 most frequent names account for about 80 percent of the persons named, and in each case adding the next 15 names brings the total to about 90 percent. In general there seems to be a bit more variety in women's names. The most common man's name in these data is John, accounting for fully one in five of the men named. At only 13.7 percent Elizabeth, the most popular woman's name, does not approach this frequency; it is comparable in frequency to Thomas (13.4%) and William (13.1%), the second- and third-ranked men's names. Similarly, only five men's names achieve frequencies of five percent or more, compared with seven women's names. As a result, about five of every eight men bear one of the five most frequent men's names, but the top five women's names account for only about half of the women. The effect is not pronounced, however, except at the very top of the frequency lists.

It is also noticeable that despite the reliance on a relatively small repertoire of popular names, there are a few new names in the stock. The most obvious are the transferred locative surnames, names like Warham, Bellingham, and Wombell, of which there are probably nine. There are also the so-called Puritan names Faith and Charity, with which we should include Abacuck (Habakkuk) and perhaps a few other Old Testament names, and the altogether unexpected feminization Georgette.

Apparent examples of double given names are exceedingly rare in PCCA, and at most two of these examples are at all likely to show double baptismal names. The rest are Welsh, and the second given name is therefore much more likely to be a true patronym. (See the Addendum on Welsh names.) The two exceptional examples are Richard Harry Yonge, of Hoxton, Middlesex, and John Harry Younge, of Quinboroughe, Minster, Kent. Even these could be transplanted Welshmen: Harry is otherwise found only in identifiably Welsh names in PCCA, and the surname Yonge is also found among the Welsh data.

Names listed by frequency
Names listed alphabetically (with derivation notes)
Abbreviations and Bibliography

Editted & published by Arval Benicoeur