The Norman conquest of England in 1066 brought about an almost complete change in given names. Most people are not even aware that not only surnames, but given names, are a relatively recent procedural custom in Western civilization when you consider the whole history of civilized progress. William the Conqueror took power of England after the Norman Invasion and quickly amassed a list of all of Britain’s citizens, known as the Domesday Book. In order to avoid confusion of each person and his possessions for the purposes of taxation, each was asked for two names – the given name and the surname. This is how Robert the Carpenter became Robert Carpenter, and David the Baker became David Baker. Not only were surnames derived from a person’s trade, but also by the landscape or place (i.e., Woods, Knolls, Sutton), by color (White, Green), by nicknames (Fox, Armstrong), or by baptism (son of William became Williamson). Before the Norman Conquest of Britain, people did not have hereditary surnames – just personal names or nicknames.
As a result, the given name became an important differentiator within communities of common surnames or within a family itself. This was the name given rather than inherited (i.e, the surname). Given names in England followed the naming patterns popular in all of European Christian countries, particularly influenced by the spread of the Roman Empire centuries beforehand. Hebrew names derived from the Bible were very common, as were Greek and Latin names. Celtic traditions also influenced names in England. Following the Norman invasion, many of the English first names of Germanic/Celtic origins gave way to their French forms derived from Latin. By the 1500’s onward, in the time of Shakespeare and the King James Bible, most English names became anglicized into Modern English. It is these versions that are most familiar to Americans.
The naming trends in England are very similar to those of American history. Two hundred years ago, the most popular names in England (John and Mary) belonged to over 20% of all babies born in a given year. Today, the two most popular names are only given to 3% of the new born population. As in the United States, there is growing diversity in the naming patterns of England. The people of England are becoming more creative in their naming practices, and are heavily influenced (like the U.S.) by pop culture, music, and characters from literature. Nonetheless, there are still distinctly “English” sounding first names that bring a sense of erudite superiority from across the Pond.