Introduction Sources of Evidence Late Roman Britain The British Kingdom of Elmet Anglo-Saxon West Yorkshire Religion in the Anglo Saxon and Viking period
Viking Rule in West Yorkshire The impact of the Norman conquest Timeline Photo Gallery


Personal names are not just a matter of fashion. They reflect ethnic and social identities. They are absorbed into surnames and occur as elements in place names. Whilst it is true that not every Anglo-Saxon has an Anglo-Saxon name or every Norman a Norman name, looking in detail at personal names may help us to see the distribution of Anglo-Saxons and Vikings across the British Isles.

Many names that were common in the past are now almost forgotten. Others are still used today. The lists below give you some of the most common names used between 400 and 1100 and where possible the modern equivalent and some notes about their meaning.

Anglo-Saxon Names
Old spelling       Modern spelling       Meaning
Aelfred       Alfred       This name is composed of two parts alf (elf) and red (advice) and therefore means advised by elves. It is perhaps an unfortunate name to have been given to Alfred the Great, one of the foremost English Christian kings.
The red element of the name is also remembered in the nickname of another Anglo-Saxon king, Aethelred the Unready. The implication is not that Aethelred was unprepared, but that he was ill advised.
Eadmund       Edmund       From the Old English word Ead (meaning rich or happy, also occurring in names like the modern Edgar and Edith) and mund (meaning protection). This name was given to several Saxon kings, notably St Edmund, King of the East Angles whom the Danes martyred by shooting him with arrows in 870. A medieval wall painting of the martyrdom can be seen inside Pickering church in North Yorkshire.
Eadward       Edward       Eadward also starts with the personal name element ed meaning rich or happy. The second element is ward meaning guardian. This too was a popular name with English kings, including Edward the Confessor, whose death in 1066 signalled the start of the conflict between Harold and William for the English throne.
Norhman       Norman       From the Old English word for Northman. The word was used both as a personal and a cultural name. According to the Domesday survey of 1086 there were several people of the name of Norman living in Britain before the conquest of England by the Norman people.

Viking Names
Old spelling       Modern spelling       Meaning
Karl       Karl or Carl       Free man
Swegn       Sven       Young man
Yric       Eric or Erik       The second element of this name is a Scandinavian word meaning ruler, but people are not sure about the first part. It could possibly mean one or alone. Eric Blood Axe was the last Viking king of York. He was killed fighting on the Stainmoor in North Yorkshire in 954.

Norman names made popular after the Conquest
Old spelling       Modern spelling       Meaning
Henrig       Henry       From the Old German meaning house ruler. Henry was very popular as a name after the Conquest. Henry de Lacy, for example, held the Honour of Pontefract, a large medieval estate taking in much of what is now West Yorkshire.
Roger       Roger       From the Old German, and probably equivalent to the Old English name Hrothgar. The first part of the name means fame and the second element means spear. This is an example of a name which was given continuity in a more fashionable continental form. A similar process was followed by the names Richard and Robert
Wilhelm       William       Derived from the Old German name Wilhelm. A helm is a large helmet and the first part of the name means will. This is one of the most popular names of the medieval period. For example, William of Warrenne was given the extensive estates which make up the Manor of Wakefield.
Ymma       Emma       From the Old German meaning universal. Emma daughter of Robert of Normandy married the Anglo-Saxon king, Aethelred the Unready in 1002 and then his Danish successor King Cnut in 1017.

A loss of names
It is striking how, outside the Welsh-speaking world, so few Celtic personal names survived in popular usage after the Norman conquest. This reflects a similar absence of Celtic place names in the North of England, and is presumably indicative of the wholesale takeover of the North by first the Anglo-Saxons and then, to a lesser extent, the Vikings. Even after the Conquest when the Arthurian stories were revived and names derived form the Welsh had a literary vogue they were not common in real life. Even in medieval romances they tended to have either a Latin or a French form: e.g. Bedivere for Bedwyr, Merlin for Myrdynn, and Ywain instead of Owen

A similar process took place in the years after the Norman conquest when many Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian personal names went out of use. Some do survive, incorporated into family names, some of which are still relatively common (e.g. Bruning which has become Browning or Wada which has become Wade).

The process of change cannot have been straightforward, nor should it be assumed that a person with a Norman name may actually be of Norman descent. In some instances the Rodgers, Richards and Roberts mentioned in Domesday and other early documents may have decided to use the nearest Norman equivalent to their given name for the sake of 'keeping up with the Joneses'. In other cases, Anglo-Saxon fathers may have given their sons Norman names in the hope that this would help them to 'get on'. This seems to have been the case at Crofton, near Wakefield, where one of the principal landlords in the 12th century was called Sweinn, a Scandinavian name. He gave his sons the names of Adam and Henry. At Emley in 1086 the landholder was called William son of Godric; showing that someone with the commonest English name at the time gave his son a Norman name. The English descent is further obscured in the next generation where William's son (another William) chooses to be known by the very Norman sounding name of William Fitzwilliam.

Saints' cults
The only English names to have remained widely popular throughout history are Eadward and Eadmund, presumably because of the popularity of the medieval saints' cult that grew up around the relics of the two martyred kings. Bury St Edmund's in Suffolk in particular became a destination for many pilgrims.

A revival in fortunes
It was not until the 19th century that many Anglo-Saxon and Viking names were revived through interest in the historical fiction of the day. Perhaps the most influential of these was Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe. Published soon after the Battle of Waterloo, it told how the native Anglo-Saxons fought for justice against their Norman French oppressors. Such was the popularity of the story that a mechanical clock depicting a scene from the novel was set up in the King's Arcade off Briggate in Leeds.

More modern uses of Anglo-Saxon names
The AE at the beginning of names like Aelfred is what linguists call a diphthong, that is two letters which should be pronounced as if they were one. The use of diphthongs at the beginning of names should be quite familiar to those people who have read J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Tolkien was a scholar of the Old English Language and used many Anglo-Saxon sounding names for the Riders of Rohan to make them seem distinct from the other ethnic groups in the novel. It is not the only concept that Tolkien has taken from Anglo-Saxon names. Another Anglo-Saxon name Aelfwine (modern Alvin) means elf friend, which is the name by which he describes Elrond in both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. In fact Tolkien acknowledged that the Lord of the Rings was a conscious attempt to give England a mythology that he felt had been lost with the Norman invasion. There are references to many ancient Northern European legends and myths within the book.

Tolkien is not the only modern author to use Anglo-Saxon names in a modern fantasy novel. Eadwig, the name of Harry Potter's owl is also an Anglo-Saxon name.

Related topics
Sources of evidence

Further reading
Henson, D., 2002, A Guide to Late Anglo-Saxon England
Withycombe, 1973, The Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names