Elizabethan names

Finding the right name for a character is one of the most important stages in writing a book, particularly when it comes to historical fiction when names must feel authentic.  I’m often asked where I found the name Hawise (pronounced Ha-wees-a) and the answer is in the 15th-century will of Hawise Aske which I read for a seminar long before I even thought about writing Time’s Echo.  It would have been an usual name by the late 16th-century, when Time’s Echo is set, but for some reason it stuck in my mind and it never occurred to me to call Hawise anything else.  However, so many people puzzled over the pronunciation that I have called the heroine of The Memory of Midnight Nell, a name I don’t see causing similar problems.

A page from the Wardmote Court Book*

For other names, I unashamedly pillaged the wardmote court records which I’ve been working on for so long.  I didn’t want to name my main characters after real individuals but several of the secondary characters, or those who make fleeting appearances in the story, were real people who lived in York in the 1570s and 1580s: William Beckwith, Lancelot Sawthell, John Harper, Christopher Milner, Richard Lydon, Anne Ampleforth, Miles Fell and Nicholas Ellis.

In some ways it feels uncomfortable to use real people’s names and make up stories about them, but I like to think that most of them would have enjoyed the idea that they have not been completely forgotten.  Miles Fell would probably have objected, of course, but there’s always one …

Originally Francis was called William Bewlay, until I found a real William Bewlay in the records and decided to change the name (which was fine until I did a search and replace for Will and William and ended up with all sorts of odd sentences beginning ‘Francis you go to market?’ and so on).  It was important that Ned Hilliard came from outside York, so I deliberately picked a name that wasn’t in the records … or so I thought until I came across a ‘Mr Hilyerd’ recently.  It gave me quite a turn.

For other characters, I tend to pick a surname from the records at random.  For men, there are a surprising number of unusual Christian names to choose from.  Besides the ubiquitous William, Robert, John and Thomas, the wardmote records contain a number of names that feel anachronistic – Brian, Martin, Gregory, Anthony, Miles – as well as several that clearly stem from the popularity of courtly romances: Lancelot, Arthur, Tristram, Percival and a smith called Gawain Bensdine.  Other unusual names include Sir Valentine Brown, Marmaduke Wyman, Samson Percival, Ambrose Awne, Augustine Dockam and the wonderfully named Hercules Welbourne.  If I didn’t think readers would think I was pulling their leg, I’d like to put them all in a book one day!

Female characters for the Elizabethan period are much harder to name.  There are far fewer women named in York’s civic records, and when they are presented for an offence, they are usually referred to by their title (Lady, Mrs or ‘uxor’) or simply as a someone’s wife.  Occasionally a prostitute or scold is named but the range is limited: Anne, Isabel, Joan, Margery.

I had better luck looking through the Calendar of Assize Records for the second half of the 16th century, which gives Christian names for women indicted or mentioned as witnesses.  Here I found Elizabeth, Agnes, Alice, Ellen, Joan, Jocosa, Martha, Cecily, Mary, Margaret, Margery, Catherine, Juliana, Benedicta, Jane, Silvestra, Constance, Anne, Thomasine, Rebecca, Isabel, Emma, Charity, Christine, Petronella, Sarah, Dorothy, Avis, Mabel, and Edith.

Interestingly (or something else!), I found no Eleanor, which is Nell’s full name, although Ellen and Helen are closely related.  Perhaps it will turn out that Nell, like Hawise, is named for a grandmother, although it was more normal at the time to call a child after a godparent or, in the case of girls at least, the midwife.

* A list of parish constables and churchwardens appointed in the Walmgate wardmote court, April 1581.  YCA E31, p.87. By kind permission of City of York Council Archives and Local History. www.york.gov.uk/archives

16 Responses

  1. Tess says:

    Thanks for the post, I really enjoy learning about all sorts of interesting names.

    I love the Welsh name for Ambrose, which is Emrys. The female name that I love in your list is Juliana, because my husband’s name is Julian.

    Besides having the name be historically correct, do you ever choose names because of their meanings?

  2. I can’t say I think about a name’s meaning, Tess. I tend to go more on its feel and the personal associations it has for me. I want to call my next Elizabethan heroine Jane, because its plainness suits her, but I’m thinking of calling her flighty sister Juliana …

    And thanks for the snippet about Emrys/Ambrose – am filing that little fact away for the future! I know an Ambrose, in fact, but it sounds better in Welsh, don’t you think?

    • Tess says:

      I think Emrys is a lot more romantic and mysterious than Ambrose..plus it’s Welsh! My husband is Welsh. I love it so much that when we were contemplating having a baby my name choice for a boy was Kai Emrys, but my husband’s choice was Rowan (no children for us though).

      Also, There was an historical Emrys whow was known as Merlin, but he wasn’t the historical Merlin of course. I’m sure that’s why in the BBC show Merlin they sometimes call him Emrys.

  3. Julie Parker says:

    Interesting post thanks Pamela. I would really like to know how you came up with the name ‘Hap’ for the dog. I remember in the book there was a mastiff which bit someones leg and that this incident had actually been recorded. That was just fascinating!

  4. Thanks, Julie. In my first draft, I called Hawise’s dog Lucky, but a medievalist friend queried whether lucky would have been used in the same way at that period. She suggested hap, meaning chance or fortune (good or bad) as an alternative, and I actually like it much better as a name, so Hap he became.

    Miles Fell did indeed have a mastiff that bit Nicholas Ellis on the leg in York in 1577. That was the incident that inspired the whole book, in fact. Sadly we don’t know that dog’s name!

  5. Julie Parker says:

    Oh yes, Hap is a great name! I loved little Hap and when he was killed it was dreadful! (Sorry, I’m so used to writing on FB or texting I am finding it hard to control my use of emoticons and may be overusing!) How many drafts do you write? Do you write the whole thing as it comes, or plan the whole story first then write it? Your work as Jessica Hart is very different isn’t it – is it difficult to separate your writing styles?

  6. I was fond of Hap too and I got quite emotional when he was killed as writing the scene reminded me so much of when my own old Westie, Mungo, had to be put to sleep.

    As for writing process … I try to plan before I start, but in practice I never stick to it, and most of the plotting happens as I write. I do a rough draft (a shitty first draft) which is more or less stream of consciousness, and then go back and start a proper draft. I never look at the rough draft again and always wish I could skip that part of the process, but it seems to be important! The proper draft is usually pretty agonizing too, and I would expect to go back and rework a lot of it before submitting anything.

    I go through exactly the same process when I’m writing as Jessica Hart, in fact, although the stories and the style are quite different. I couldn’t write two books at the same time as some authors do as my mind needs to be in quite a different mode for each genre. It is a struggle sometimes, yes!

  7. Do you mean it would have been an *un*usual name by the 16th century (first paragraph)? It’s a lovely name, and a great story.

    • P.S. I see the name derived from Hedwig (like Harry Potter’s owl), which morphed into Havoise in Normandy, then Hawise in Norman England, and then Avis or Avice.

      • Interesting! I didn’t know origin of the name, Megan, so thanks for that. I’ve come across Avis quite a few times in the 16th century records but didn’t realise the name was related to Hawise.

        I’m away from home at the moment so can’t access (or rather, don’t know how to!) the original post to answer your query about whether Hawise usual name in the 16th century but it sounds as if I misstyped. I certainly meant that it was *un*usual by the 16th century, but whether I actually said that or not is another matter! I love the name Hawise too, but won’t make the mistake of giving my character an unusual name again!

  8. Lyn Millman says:

    There are quite a few recorded Hawises throughout medieval history, usually interchangeable with Avice, sometimes Avis. As you will know, names and spellings weren’t set in stone back then – look at all the Mauds/Matildas/Mallts who often turn out to be one and the same – and there are usually French (Avice) and English (Hawise) versions of every name.
    Av-iss/How-iss: this seems to imply that it’s pronounced ‘How-iss’ and not ‘Ha-wees-a’.

    • You may be right about the pronunciation, Lyn. I just took the pronunciation I’ve heard medievalists using, and not being a linguist struggled to find a way to convey that sort of catch of breath after the ‘s’ – maybe that last ‘a’ in Ha-wees-a is misleading as I’ve written it. I intended it to be a swallowed sound rather than a drawn out ‘a’; really just wanted to indicate the name wasn’t pronounced Haw-wise, as my first editor read it!

      I hadn’t registered the connection between Avis and Hawise before, I must say, so thank you for that.

  9. Geoffrey Tobin says:

    Names often skip a generation, for instance a man may name a daughter after his mother, which, curiously, is genetically sound, X-chromosomally. Duchess Hawise of Brittany was named after her grandmother Hawise of Normandy, a sister of Duke Richard II and of Emma, twice Queen of England.

    “Hawise” is a Germanic name said to translate literally as “battle fight”: many German women’s names are martial in character. The modern form, Avis, is a homonym for the Latin word for “bird”. Puns and allusions like this often reflect Breton influence.

  10. Geoffrey Tobin says:

    Emrys Wledig is a Welsh name for the early-to-mid sixth century polemicist Gildas’s historic British military leader and hero Ambrosius Aurelianus: “Wledig” rather grandly means “emperor”, though if he is identical with his contemporary Riothamus (flourished 468-471) whom the Romans called High King of the Britons (the literal meaning of “Riothamus”), then he was an emperor of sorts, with extensive territory on both sides of the Channel.

    Ambrosius’s ancestry may be alluded to by the 11th century epitaph of Alan Rufus, leader of the Bretons in England. The Latin adjective “rutilans”, meaning brilliant red-gold, is used to describe Alan. Gold suggested to me a reference to the name Aurelius. When I looked up the Aurelius gens (clan) of Ancient Rome, I learnt that the dictator Julius Caesar’s mother was named Aurelia Cotta and her mother was Rutilia. The Breton dukes claimed a familial connection with Caesar, so this may be it

    The Aurelii are fascinating because they were plebeian, i.e. commoners, but nonetheless provided many consuls and emperors. The Hypogeum of the Aurelii in Rome tells us more about them: they were early adopters of Christianity, and they weren’t fussy about name order: the apparently garbled form “Aurelius Ambrosius” is a perfectly standard variation of the name Ambrosius Aurelianus.

    Coupling this with Gildas’s statement that his hero’s parents “wore the purple” strongly suggests what Ambrosius’s ancestry was, and why Riothamus was a close and loyal ally of the Romans despite Britain’s (and Brittany’s) declared independence.

  11. Donna Graham says:

    I have just started reading “Time’s Echo”, yesterday, and cannot put it down. I love the way you move from the present to the past, flawlessly. I love the story and the names of the characters you have found. Doing a bit of family history it is surprising to see unusual names, and from not that far back really, Providence, Sampson/Samson and Jabez have been found, and side-tracking the family lines, because you hit a brick wall – found Snowball – a first name of a gentleman, all these are from families around 20-60 miles from York. I just love the book and although interested in how names are pronounced, not going to take anything to literally. I have an Aunt, we live Yorkshire called Doreen – pronounced “Dooreen”, but a work colleague who came from Cumbria pronounced her name “Dureen”. So, as all things, it depends where you come from and where you live as to how you pronounce it.
    This is the first book of yours I have read and an definitely going to look out for more. I love a good book and not all authors can produce page turners you can’t put down (C J Sansom is another favourite).

    • Thank you so much for your kind comments, Donna. I am so pleased that you’re enjoying Time’s Echo. Am envious too of your Yorkshire connections and those interesting family names. I have never heard of a Snowball before – am sure there must be a story there! Happy reading – and researching!

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