The Anglo-Saxons were migrants who settled in England during the fifth and sixth centuries. They were made up from many small groups, or kingdoms, each one would have their own laws and customs. For this reason, the way that the Anglo-Saxons named their children could vary slightly between different areas.
Very few Anglo-Saxon first names are still in use today, although some of them may have evolved into modern names and may still be recognisable.
Unlike most other cultures, both ancient and modern, the Anglo-Saxons didn’t have an extensive list of names which they would choose from to name their children.
Instead, names were compound names and would be ‘designed’ for each person, giving them a name made up from two parts, a first part and a second part. Each part would have a meaning and this meaning could be very important to help them decide which name their child should be given. Different words were used to make up names for males and females, although some words could be used for either gender.
For example, an Anglo-Saxon may decide to name their son Aethelwulf. The name Aethulwulf means ‘noble wolf’. The two parts of the name are Aethel meaning noble and wulf meaning wolf. A daughter could be named Aethelflaed, meaning noble beauty. The first part of the name is the same as for the son (Aethel, meaning noble), but the second part flaed means beauty.
During the Anglo-Saxon period many people had only one name, which was their first name. A surname, or second name was not given to a child at birth as it is today, and the majority of people simply didn’t need a surname.
If the Anglo-Saxons wanted to distinguish between two people with the same name, they would add either the place the person came from, or their profession to the person’s first name.
For example, if a woman named Godgifu lived in the town of Tonbridge, she would be known as Godgifu of Tonbridge, or just Godgifu Tonbridge. Likewise, if a man named Godric was a blacksmith, he may be known as Godric the Blacksmith, which could be shortened to Godric the Smith and become Godric Smith. Many of the surnames that we use today are still based on place names and occupations.
Nicknames, or bynames were also commonly used as a way of distinguishing two people with the same first name. Evidence suggests that people were more likely to have a nickname that they used than a surname, quite different from today.
These bynames were not given at birth and would be assigned to a person at some point during their life, much like nicknames are given today. These names would usually be based around a physical or personality trait of the person. However, some of the bynames found are quite strange and we don’t really know why a person may have been given that name.
Some known names from the time include Athelstan Rota, which means Athelstan the red, (presumably he was called this because he had red hair?) Aethelmaer se greata, which means Aethelmaer the fat and Aethelflaed eneda, which means Aethelflaed the duck, (not sure why she would have been given this name, or if it is a compliment or an insult).
Most of the bynames that we know existed have been found in various publications from the time, such as the Doomsday book, but it can be presumed that there would be an infinite list of words that could have been used as bynames at the time.