The advice for writers, especially those writing historical fiction, is to choose the first names of your characters with care, making sure that they are of their era, and not another. And not to use the same name twice. This works well but what happens when your novel is a blend of fact and fiction, as is the case with my series: ‘The House of the Red Duke’. I needed to choose fictitious names hailing from England, Scotland, and France which caused no problem and was quite fun. However, things became tricky when I was writing about real characters from the early Tudor period. As Chris Laning points out in his excellent article on names in Elizabethan England, the Tudor name pool was exceedingly small compared to the one we use today to name our children.
Picking the names of saints as suitable choices back then perhaps corresponds to the recent official permitted register of names that used to exist in many countries in modern times. I experienced it first-hand when I had a baby in Germany before the rules were relaxed, happy that being British meant I was exempt from the official book of German names. Just as well because a glance at another mother’s book soon showed me that both my new son’s names were forbidden! It is no surprise to find an Apple, a Saint, or a Harper in our modern world, but in the Tudor era, there were probably only about 30 to 40 first names in circulation. There were almost no middle names, a tradition which was spreading slowly in countries across the so-called Narrow Sea, but did not reach English speaking countries until as late as the nineteenth century. So sadly no Henry Junior or Annie-B ( Boleyn) to make my life easier.
In my case, in the first part of my novel, I was left with two Henries and three Thomases, with no real way of distinguishing between them. More on that later, but first here is a glimpse at what the 1519 name chart might have looked like compared to today. As you can see, neither the 2019 American boys or girls lists give much of a nod to the Tudors, apart from James (and Oliver that was a rarer name back then), for the boys, and Emma (in the Tudor top 50) and Isabella for the girls. The UK have Charles, James and Henry covered (albeit in shortened forms), as well as George.
Arthur made it into the Top Ten. In Tudor times, Henry VII’s first-born son, Prince Arthur was deliberately named to link him in people’s minds with both the legends and Wales. The UK girls have the solitary Isabella carrying the green and white Tudor mantle.
I have to thank Amy Licence for the Tudor list, and although I have written 1519 because it dovetails so nicely with our own recent time, and with the time of my book, as Amy points out, the same names “continued to be murmured over the baptismal font” throughout the Tudor era, in a different order in the list, and with different spellings, depending on the parish clerk.
If you think about it, two of Henry VIII’s wives were called Anne, three Catherine, and one Jane. That’s not a great deal of variety. You can imagine a whispered Tudor conversation out of reach of potentially treacherous ears. “Do you mean Anne who lost her head? Or Anne who lost her crown? Katherine who lost her crown, Catherine who lost her head or Katherine who managed to survive?” Thank goodness for different spellings.
In my novel, we have Anne Boleyn’s father, Thomas, Anne’s uncle, Thomas, and Anne’s grandfather, Thomas. Coming a close second after England’s patron saint, George, Thomas Becket, a martyr-saint, was very popular and gave his name to (far too?) many a Thomas.
So, how did the Tudors choose their names? And why?
In his book, ‘Names and Naming Patterns in England, 1538-1700’, Scott Smith-Bannister examined the baptism records of forty parishes, spread right across England. He discovered that the popularity of names could be affected by geographical region and social status. Not only did baby names follow family tradition by using the father or grandfather’s name, a grandmother, aunt or uncle, but in an age of high mother and infant mortality, the same name was often re-used. Over the NarrowSea in France, Guillaume Gouffier, Admiral of France (who also makes an appearance in the novel), was so enamoured of his monarch François I that he named all three of his sons, François. How confusing would that be in a household?“It wasn’t me, Mum. It was François!”
An interesting point here is that I included Alison Weir’s Thomas Boleyn as the heir to the Boleyn inheritance, “whose grave in Penshurst Church, Kent, is marked by a cross and the date 1520.” It made sense to me that an ambitious man like Thomas Boleyn, or “Bullayne” as she calls him (again the free choice of spelling) would want to continue the tradition of naming his first born son after him. So Thomas (called Tom) is in my novel, along with his younger brother, George.
According to Scott Smith-Bannister, names of godparents were also favourites to be chosen: two women and a man if you were a girl; and two men and a woman if you were a boy. It helped if the godparent in question was higher in status, rich and famous. Elton or Oprah anyone?
If you were named after someone, you would be called ‘namesakes’.
A brief word on Tudor surnames.
Adams. Andrews. Child. Gascoigne. Grey. Spicer etc; Far more of those than first names, of course. The interesting thing about surnames is that they were not quite as fixed as first names. So, (for the lucky few), for example, you might inherit a castle and a title, and you would change your surname accordingly. Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, Elizabeth I’s favourite, was born a Sutton, but became Dudley after being gifted the Dudley lands.
You might be known by your local village or profession such as Baker. If there were several villagers with the same name, you might be distinguished by your appearance or place. John Little, Lame John or John Chester. My surname, Brereton, is an old Cheshire, Staffordshire or West Yorkshire name. It is also a civil parish in Cheshire. And with a surname like that, a famous ancestor of mine might well have been William Brereton, executed in May, 1536 by Henry VIII for supposed ‘adultery’ with Anne Boleyn. Honestly, those Tudors….
Finally… So how did I solve my own problem with three Thomases and two Henries in Part One of my book? Namely, Henries VII and VIII; and Thomases, Howard, Wolsey and More. A friend of mine read an early draft and unsurprisingly found the repetition rather confusing – hence the advice to use different names in any book on how to write historical fiction. Although I’d already shortened Thomas to Tom in the case of More and Wolsey, I saw it wasn’t enough. It came in handy that the central character, Thomas Howard, a grand old man of nearly eighty, didn’t suffer fools (or those who stood in his way) gladly so I came up with the idea of his using rather unkind nicknames. From then on, Henry VII who’d had Thomas thrown in the Tower (after Bosworth Field) became ‘Goose’. As for Henry VIII’s loyal servant, Thomas Wolsey, he was the upstart who definitely put Thomas Howard’s long nose out of joint when he “first slithered into the service” of Henry VIII. He became ‘Snake’, and I only hope it has made all my Thomases and Henries easier to follow. It certainly simplified matters for me.