Old English personal names look unfamiliar to modern eyes, because only a few examples remain in common use today, mostly in their Middle English spellings (for example, Edward, Edmund, Alfred, Edith). However, Old English personal names follow a fairly straightforward pattern.
Old English seems to have had a stock of words that were considered suitable for forming names, often words that had positive connotations such as happiness, riches, strength, courage, power, wisdom, security, nobility and so on. Perhaps the idea was to bring good fortune to the recipient, or perhaps it was just more appealing to call a baby something nice.
Old English personal names are commonly formed by combining two components from this stock of name-words.
- Some name elements were used only for the first part of a name, e.g. Aethel- (noble, royal), Ead- (happy, rich, fortunate)
- Some name elements were only used for the second part of a name, e.g. –weard (guardian, protector)
- Some name elements could be used in either position, e.g. ric (strong), swith (strong), wine (friend), wald (power), here (army), hild (battle), burh/burg (stronghold), raed (counsel, wisdom)
The second element was usually a word of masculine gender in men’s names and feminine gender in women’s names, but not always.
Single-element names are based on a single word, rather than a combination of two. Masculine names commonly end with –a, e.g. Penda, Adda, Imma. This can be confusing to speakers of modern English, as we are used to the Latin convention of –a denoting a feminine ending. This confusion is reinforced by later Latinised forms of Old English women’s names such as Hilda (from Old English Hild). In Old English a single-element name ending in –a is more likely to be a man’s name.
Some two-element names can be shortened to single-element names, e.g. names such as Cuthbert or Cuthwulf could be shortened to Cutha. Hild may be a shortened form of a two-element name (see below).
Single-element names tend to be less common in the written sources than two-element names. Two-element names may have been more popular among the upper classes, and to have become more common over time (although caution is in order, given the scarcity of early sources).
Family connections – alliteration
There were no surnames in Old English. People were identified by a single personal name. Family connections could be signalled by alliteration, i.e. by choosing names within a family that all began with the same letter. Several examples of this can be seen in royal genealogies:
- The seventh-century king of Mercia, Penda, had a father called Pubba or Pybba (Historia Brittonum ch. 60) and a son called Peada (Bede Book III ch. 21);
- The seventh-century Northumbrian prince Hereric had two daughters called Hild and Hereswith (Bede Book IV ch. 23);
- The genealogy of the West Saxon kings in the Anglian Collection lists a succession of eight kings with names beginning with C-, Cerdic, Creoda, Cynric, Caewlin, Cuthwine, Cuthwulf, Ceolwald, Cenred;
- In the ninth and tenth centuries, the West Saxon king Aethelwulf had sons called Aethelbald, Aethelbert, Aethelred and Alfred (later The Great); Aethelred had sons called Aethelwold and Aethelhem; Alfred had sons called Edward and Aethelweard and daughters called Aethelflaed, Aelfthryth and Aethelgifu; Aethelflaed had a daughter called Aelfwyn (Asser, Life of Alfred Part II; Anglo-Saxon Chronicle 919 AD).
Family connections – common name element
Another way to indicate family connections was by using one of the elements of the father’s and/or mother’s name as an element in the child’s name. Where the shared name element was the first one, it would automatically produce alliteration as well. Again, several examples can be seen in royal genealogies:
- The seventh-century Northumbrian prince Hereric was married to a lady named Breguswith. They had two daughters called Hild and Hereswith (Bede Book IV ch. 23). Hereswith has a name combining the second element of her mother’s name (-swith) and the first element of her father’s name (Here-). It is quite possible that Hild was originally called Hildiswith (taking the second element of her mother’s name and a first element that alliterated with her father’s name), which was shortened to Hild for some reason;
- The seventh-century kings of Northumbria were (successively) the brothers Oswald and Oswy, who also had other brothers called Oswine, Oswudu, Oslac and Offa (Historia Brittonum ch. 57). Oswy had a daughter called Osthryth (Bede Book III ch. 11);
- The seventh-century king of East Anglia, Raedwald, had a son called Eorpwald (Bede Book II ch. 15), whose name contains the same second element as his father’s name (-wald);
Some name elements were extremely widespread over a long period of time. For example, Aethel- names appear in the royal family of Kent in the sixth century (Aethelbert, Aethelburh) (Bede Book II ch. 9), Northumbria in the seventh century (Aethelferth) (Bede Book I ch. 34), Mercia in the seventh century (Aethelred) (Bede Book III ch. 11), Wessex in the ninth and tenth centuries (see above), and East Anglia in the seventh century (Aethelwald, Aethelthryth) (Bede Book III ch. 22; Book IV ch. 19). It is perhaps not surprising that a name element meaning ‘noble, royal’ was so popular among families who claimed royal status.
Sometimes both alliteration and common name elements seem to be in use in the same family. For example, the seventh-century king of East Anglia, Raedwald, had one son called Eorpwald (Bede Book II ch. 15), who has the same second name-element as his father, and another son called Raegenhere (Bede Book II ch.12), whose name alliterates with that of his father. If we did not have Bede’s History to tell us that both Raegenhere and Eorpwald were the sons of Raedwald, there would be nothing in their names to connect them with each other. Whether the different name patterns reflected different family connections (for example, perhaps Raegenhere and Eorpwald were the children of two different marriages), family traditions (Raedwald had a brother called Eni; perhaps there was a tradition of having names in R- and E- in each generation), or just resulted from idiosyncrasy, is open to interpretation.
In Paths of Exile, I sometimes used alliteration and common name elements when choosing names for the fictional characters to signal family relationships (obviously, I retained the names of historical figures). For example, Eadwine’s name is recorded, and the name of his nephew Hereric is recorded, but Hereric’s parents are unknown. I chose the name Eadric for the fictional character of Hereric’s father, Eadwine’s elder brother in the novel, because the two name elements in Eadric link to the two known names (Ead- shared with Eadwine, and –ric shared with Hereric). I chose the name Heledd for Hereric’s mother, a fictional princess of the neighbouring Brittonic kingdom of Elmet, because it alliterated with Hereric’s name. Hereric’s name is thus imagined as alliterating with his mother’s name and sharing a second name-element with his father’s name. (It is, of course, entirely possible that Hereric was the son of a sister of Eadwine and a man called H-something or Here-something. I picked the first combination for storytelling reasons).
Anglian Collection, available online
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, available online
Asser, Life of Alfred, available online
Bede, Ecclesiastical history of the English people. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price. Penguin Classics, 1968, ISBN 0-14-044565-X.
Historia Brittonum, available online