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.
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