The Story So Far ...

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Anglo-Saxon Names

I wrote a blog some time ago about why I thought it was that the Anglo-Saxon era is one of the less popular. 

It's not often studied in schools - indeed, I had to wait until my degree course before I was offered the opportunity to study it - and it's a bit, well, far away. Not as far away as the Romans, though, or the Ancient Greeks.

What probably doesn't help is the names.

In an average day's writing, I can find myself with at least one Aethelwold, an Aelfhere, a couple of Aelfric's, an Aelfsige, an Aethelweard and several Aethelreds. Aelthelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, was far from being the only woman of this age who was given that name.

Of course, I know who they all are. Just as you might know one or more people named Michael; you will be able to distinguish them in your mind. So much so that you hardly notice that Michael from the office, who drives you mad with his habit of tapping his pen on the desk while he works, has the same name as your lovely Uncle Michael who always brings presents when he visits. So it is with me: I know that Bishop Aethelwold of Winchester, formerly abbot of Abingdon, is a completely different person from Ealdorman Aethelwold of East Anglia. And that neither of them has anything to do with Aethelwold, son of Aethelred, who fought at the battle of the Holme in 902 and held a nun hostage...

'Aethelwold' silver penny
To be fair, the Anglo-Saxons were no different from any other age in this regard. Pick up a book set in the later middle ages and you will find the pages littered with Williams, Richards and Edwards. Henry is quite popular too. I believe one or two kings even bore the name 😉

Later on, in the Tudor age, try getting away from folks named Thomas - Thomas Wolsey, Thomas Cranmer, Thomas Cromwell, Thomas More, Thomas Tallis...

Parents or teachers today will see the same trends in the classroom. When my children were little, it seemed like every other male child was named Matthew or Daniel, and common girls' names were Hannah and Bethany.

The main problem with Old English names is that they are Old English. They're not familiar, because they essentially come from another language. In written form, they look odd. I haven't used the diphthongs but if I did, they would look even more 'foreign.'

Æ and æ turn the name Aethelflaed into Æthelflæd, which looks better to me, but I imagine it's more difficult to read if one is not used to the OE alphabet characters. Turn it into Æðelflæd and it looks even worse!

Charter of Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians and Aethelred, her husband

So what do these names mean?

Most OE names of this period are composites. The Aethel, or Æthel prefix means 'noble'. 
We also have the prefix Ælf, which means 'Elf'.
Ead, as in Eadred or Eadgar, means 'blessed'. This prefix is very common, and is the original prefix of names such as Edward, Edwin and Edgar.

The endings of names have meaning, too.
Wine means 'friend', so Aethelwine translates as 'noble friend'.

Red, or more properly ræd, means 'counsel'. Thus we have the most famous of all puns on a king's name. Aethelred the Unready, whilst he might always have been caught a bit unawares by boatloads of Danes, was not actually named thus because of his inability to anticipate the Viking raids.

Originally his epithet was a play on words: His name, Æthelræd, means noble counsel. Unræd means badly or ill-counselled. So in OE, Æthelræd Unræd  was 'noble counsel, ill-counselled. He was, as in the title of Ann Williams' biography of him, Aethelred, the Ill-counselled king.

Charter of Aethelred the Unready (detail) note all the 'Æ' names

Stān, meaning 'stone', when added to Æthel, gives us the name Æthelstān, or Athelstan, a fitting name for a king: 'noble stone'.

Other name endings include 'thryth', or ðryth, which means 'strength'. 
Thus, Queen Ælfðryth, or Aelfthryth, has a name which means 'elf strength'.

Many noblewomen's names end in gifu, meaning gift, and pronounced 'yiva'. Perhaps the best known of these is Lady Godgifu - modernised to Godiva (from Godyiva)

These names, by and large, are reserved for the 'upper classes', and are prevalent in the later portion of the period. Go back to the seventh and eighth centuries and you find more variety in the personal names, partly as a result of there still being separate kingdoms, with family, tribal and linguistic traditions. Thus the royal house of Mercia had two branches, known as B and C, with names such as Burgred on one side, and Ceolwulf on the other. Going back further still, the names get even stranger, but even so, patterns are detectable. Penda, Peada and Pybba were all from the same family. (And all male, which might seem strange to us - as was King Anna of East Anglia.)

Other OE names have a similar composition to the later, noble names, but are easier on the eye: compound names beginning with Wulf, for example, such as Wulfstan, Wulfric, and Wulfnoth. 

Older compound names are less easy for our modern eyes to read: Cynewulf, Cynethryth, and Cynegils, for example.

Some are simply delightful because they incorporate what we would refer to as nicknames.
Eadulf Cudel was an eleventh century nobleman from the north east. Cudel means cuttlefish.

Eadwig Ceorlacyng's nickname translates as 'king of the peasants' although we don't know why he was known as such.
Athelstan Rota was so named because he was Athelstan the Red, and so, presumably, red-haired.
It's fairly safe to assume the reason why Æthelweard the Stammerer was so called. Or how about Godwine the Driveller?
Possibly the most infamous was Eadric Streona - whose name translates as Eadric the Grasping, but one of my favourites is Æthelmær se greata - Aethelmaer the Fat.

Ladies, too, had their nicknames, although goodness knows whether Æthelflæd Eneda's nickname 'the duck' was meant as a compliment or an insult.

Another Æthelflæd was known as 'The White' (se hwita), perhaps to describe the colour of her hair? We must assume that Eadgifu Pulchre was rather beautiful, since her by-name means The Fair. 

The name Eadgyth Swan-neck (swanneshals) conjures up images of a beautiful, long-necked woman, perhaps someone like Audrey Hepburn, but it's a shame that somewhere along the way, many of these OE names became modernised in real life and yet, at the same time, unfashionable - Eadgyth becomes Edith. 

Then there's Cuthbert, Wilfrid, Mildred, Audrey (yes, there she is again, although Aethelthryth Hepburn doesn't have the same ring to it), and even, though it was never an OE name in and by itself, Ethel. Some, however, retained their popularity and their noble bearing - Alfred, Edmund, Edward.

I like them all - although I stopped short of naming my children after any of them! And pronunication? Well, take your pick:
Many people call her Ethelfled, Lady of the Mercians. But I have also heard her referred to as Athelflat. I know which I prefer. 

The difficulties with these OE names, and the evidence for the use of by-names or nicknames, helped shape my decision to modernise some names in my novels, and to give several characters nicknames or pet names.

So I gave my Aethelflaed a nickname: Teasel. If you want to know why, pick up the book - the pet name leads to some confusion...

To Be A Queen - the Story of Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians


  1. Or, as 1066 And All That would have it, a 'wave of Egg-kings: Eggberd, Eggbreth, Eggfroth etc!' the dipthongised (I think I made that word up) versions always looks better to me. I have often wondered whether Eadric Streaona was a proper full name or whether it was a soubriquet given to him for his wicked ways - and whether anyone ever called him that to his face. And how long they lasted if they did....To be serious for a change - I agree that the names could be offputting - dipthongs or not - to schoolchuildren, but, like you, my schooling dealt pretty sparsely with those times. Which is great shame.....

    1. I'm absolutely sure no-one would have dared called Eadric 'grasping' to his face! I loved the way Cnut dealt with him ('Pay this man what we owe him'...) Yes, I think the diphthongs are rather lovely. I only recently gave up spelling Medieval 'Mediaeval' :)

  2. I have read that "Aethelflaed" may have been pronounced "Athel-vlad" and I like that one!

  3. Yes, that's nicer than Aethelflat! :)

  4. Totally ignorant of this period, I found the blog very interesting. The diphthongs etc. look like the symbols we had to study in phonetics. I have a hard time pronouncing unfamiliar words so wouldn't even try. Enjoyed learning the meanings and about the families where all the names began with the same letter.

    1. Thanks - I'm glad you enjoyed the post. I'm also glad that I don't have to pronounce the names too often!

  5. Really useful post, and fascinating as I'm always delving into name meaning. Currently engrossed in the various Viking names, which of course varied from Iceland to Denmark. Thanks.

    1. Thanks Roland,
      I'm really glad you enjoyed the post. I've not looked much at Old Norse names, beyond noting that there was a prevalence for by-names in that culture, too.

  6. My schooldays were back in sixties. We did skim Angelo Saxons and Danes; Canute and Alfred. Looking back I can see that Romans and Greeks fed into Englightenment and politics, philosophy as well as history. I agree Saxon/Danes were neglected but so were other periods. I think the interest was there but not the knowledge, we were taught Vikings were violent raiders wearing horned hats! I feel our knowledge of this, and other eras, has increasd and we have better resources available now, thanks to people like you who were able to pursue their interest.

    1. Thanks so much for your comments; you're absolutely right - one period of history does feed into another. I was lucky, and chose my degree course because of the content offered, so I suppose even then, (82-85) opportunities to study this period were rare.

  7. Very interesting article Annie. Thanks for demystifying the names.

    1. You're welcome, Linda. I'm glad you enjoyed the post :-)

  8. That's really interesting. Most of what I know about the Saxons I learned from the television version of "The Last Kingdom". This is all the more shameful as I live in what was Wessex. I'm really tempted to find out more, but I love the fourteenth century too much.

  9. The fourteenth century is another period that's overlooked in teaching, I feel. So keep on keeping on! :-)

  10. Really interesting post, thank you. This is something I engage with in my own novels too. The very small pool of names used by the West Saxon royal family really isn't helpful; nor is the fact that modern pronunciation of the letters is so different (e.g. Eadgyth is E-ad-yith). Nor - to be honest - is the way that some of the names just sound silly :-) I couldn't call a major character Bugga or Tigga, could you?

    1. I'd advise against, it, certainly! Funny to think though, how although English as a language won out over French post-1066, the names didn't.

  11. Thank you for your article. I find Anglo-Saxon history to be fascinating. I wish I had gone on to be an archaeologist and historian, rather than the career I chose. But I still find great joy in my continuing study of the Anglo-Saxon times and even earlier. There was such a richness in this culture and era. I find the language of the Anglo-Saxons as a thread woven through the tapestry which is the English language.

    1. Thanks Katherine, I'm so glad you enjoyed the post. You're absolutely right that the core of the English language spoken today is Anglo-Saxon. That it survived the conquest when so many other cultural aspects of English life didn't, is amazing. I wrote an article about the development of English over on the EHFA blog. The system doesn't allow live links in these comment boxes, but if you are interested, type this in and it should become a live link:

  12. Lovely article. Thank you. You hint at some regional distinctions, as to which names are more common in certain areas, that I find very interesting. I've done a lot of reading over the last fifteen years trying to research for my own historical fantasy novel, but I've never been able to pin down regional distinctions. Mostly because I don't have access to the wonderful UK university library system.

    1. Hi Sean,
      Thanks for your comments; I'm glad you enjoyed the article. You'd need to speak to an expert about the regional differences in names, but it's possible that what one finds is more of a family connection than a regional one - thus the particular Mercian family whose names began with P etc. Certainly by the later part of the period, where almost everyone has a name beginning with Aelf or Aethel, it's harder to spot regional differences (with the exception of the Norse influence in the Danelaw). What is true, of course, is that there were different dialects, thus Mercian 'Anglo-Saxon' was different from Wessex 'Anglo-Saxon', but the West Saxons prevailed, ultimately.

  13. My entire comment just disappeared into the internet ether, so I'll have to start from scratch. SIGH.... Now to try to remember what I said.

    Thanks for writing this fascinating post. How did you know I wanted to know all these things? Are you a mind reader? :-) As an American, I didn't study any of it. Any world history we covered in school for this time period glossed over the "big guys" like Charlamagne. The fact that Britain had a history before the Battle of Hastings never crossed my mind until the last couple of decades when I started reading historical fiction. Now the Saxon era is one of my favorites, though I've got a LOT of learning to do.

    You touched on one thing briefly, but you didn't go far enough to answer a question I've always wondered - the name-part Wulf. Does it mean the obvious? As in a wolf, the terrifying four-legged, night-stalking, growly, fangy, howly animal? Or is it something not so obvious?

    Agree I would never have been tempted to name my children any of these, but I do have a friend who named her guinea pig Aethelflaed. :-)

    1. Hi Stephanie,
      I'm so glad you enjoyed the post. It really began as a bit of a 'doodle' and was not my intended topic for that day, but somehow it just grew and grew as I got into my stride on one of my favourite subjects! Yes, Wulf is simply the OE for Wolf, so a man named Aethelwulf would be Noble Wolf and Wulfstan is Wolf-Stone.

    2. Ah, well, it was a wonderful doodle! Thanks for the explanation!