William, Agnes, among the most common names in medieval England


A study of personal names recorded in a major English medieval record source has revealed that ‘William’ was by far the most common name among the men listed in it. Meanwhile, ‘Alice’ and ‘Matilda’ are almost tied for most common female name.

Beth Hartland, one of the Research Fellows on the AHRC-funded Henry III Fine Rolls Project at King’s College London, has compiled lists – available on the project blog – of the personal names, both male and female, which occur in the Fine Rolls between the dates 1216-1242.

Using the individuals recorded in the Fine Rolls as the sample, these lists reveal something both of the diversity of personal names in use in England in the early thirteenth-century, and the frequency of those names.

Dr Hartland comments: ‘Whether William will increase in popularity as a boys’ name in the aftermath of the Royal Wedding this month or not, its popularity in early thirteenth century England is undoubted’.

The Fine Rolls reveal that 14.4 per cent of men mentioned were called ‘William’. The second most popular name – at 7.9 per cent – was ‘John’. As other studies have shown these names increased in popularity into the fourteenth century.

‘Katherine was not as common a name in thirteenth century England as it is now, nor as it is projected to be following the Royal Wedding’, adds Dr Hartland.

‘Though fewer women occur in the Fine Rolls, they reveal a greater diversity of names. Compared with 57.8 per cent of the men, only 51.8 per cent of the women had one of the top ten names. And 9.44 per cent of the women had names that occurred only once, whereas 3.38 per cent of the men had names that occurred only once.’

Top Ten Medieval Male Names

1. William
2. John
3. Richard
4. Robert
5. Henry
6. Ralph
7. Thomas
8. Walter
9. Roger
10. Hugh

Top Ten Medieval Female Names

1. Alice
2. Matilda
3. Agnes
4. Margaret
5. Joan
6. Isabella
7. Emma
8. Beatrice
9. Mabel
10. Cecilia

About the Henry III Fine Rolls Project

With funding of £1 million from the Arts & Humanities Research Council, the project, formally known as ‘From Magna Carta to the Parliamentary State: The Fine Rolls of King Henry 1216-1272’ has been a joint venture between scholars at three institutions – King’s College London, The National Archives and Canterbury Christ Church University. The pioneering technical work has been carried out by the Department of Digital Humanities at King’s.

This three-year project has brought to life remarkable material which is now freely available to everyone. The rolls, containing two million words in 40,000 separate entries, have been translated into English and encoded electronically, creating indexes and search facilities.

The website (www.finerollshenry3.org.uk) has digitized images of all the rolls and it is possible to look through them membrane by membrane and zoom in on a particular entry.

The Fine Rolls of Henry III (1216-1272) are preserved in the National Archives at Kew, and, as well as recording ‘fines’ – which are essentially an agreement to pay money for a concession – they contain a wealth of other material. Examples include the taxation of towns, the seizure of lands into the King’s hands because of rebellion, and even Henry III’s sense of humour.

Source: King’s College London

Sharan Newman