They are tricky partly because they come from what is essentially a different language. But then so do Spanish and French names, and we don't struggle so much with them. I think the main reason Old English names are difficult is because they use letters which we don't use any more, such as the Æ diphthong, which is very common.
|Æthelwulf of Wessex|
And, the 'Anglo-Saxons' didn't have surnames. If you were to talk about Henry VIII's various advisers and members of the court, and take away their surnames, you'd find an awful lot of people with the exact same name. Wolsey, Cranmer, Cromwell, More, Tallis, Wyatt, Boleyn: all had the name Thomas.
Apparently, when Henry the Young King (eldest son of Henry II) held his Christmas court in Normandy in 1171, it was said that the guests included no fewer than 110 knights all called William.*
I know that the Æthels and Ælfs can be utterly confusing but sometimes it helps to look at the second part of the name, where, unlike the Thomas' and Williams, they alter slightly. Mostly, the Old English names are compounds, and Æthel means noble. So Æthelwine has two elements, noble being the first, and wine (friend), being the second, while Æthelred, or more properly Æthelræd, means noble counsel (ræd = counsel). I wrote a post a while ago about these various names, but this time I want to talk about what historians have gleaned, or surmised, from looking at these names; in particular, alliteration.
There was certainly a tendency for various royal houses to have alliterative names. Names beginning with Cyne or Cen can often be associated with the kingdom of the West Saxons, which is why King Penda of Mercia's wife Cynewise is often presumed to have hailed from there. It doesn't always work, for there were plenty of Mercians with those names too, but often they are assumed to have descended from a branch of the family descended from a West Saxon.
Alliteration can help with identification in some cases. Because all these people came from the royal family of Kent - Eormenred, Eorconeberht, Eormenhild, Eorcongota, it's likely that a bishop named Eorcenwald did too.
If the name is Sigeheard, Sigered, Sigeric, Sæberht Sexred, or Saeward, then they're probably a member of the East Saxon royal house. But there were plenty of 'Siges' who were Kentish nobility too, so it doesn't always work.
|St Seaxburh - image attribution link|
In seventh-century Mercia, King Penda, menitoned above, had rather a lot of offspring. One of his sons had an odd name, which has the element walh, which can mean Welshman, foreigner, or even slave. It's unlikely that this man was a slave, but he might have been Welsh. Anyway, historians have sometimes argued that he couldn't have been Penda's son because his name, unlike another of Penda's sons, Peada, didn't alliterate. Personally, I don't think Merewalh, for that was his name, was Penda's son, but not because of the alliteration argument, which falls down when you look at all of Penda's other children:
sons Wulfhere and Æthelred, and daughters, Cyneburh, Cyneswith and possibly Cynethryth. There may have been two other daughters, Saints Edith and Eadburh and another possible daughter, Wilburg.
So not much alliteration there really, certainly not with Penda's name, and only one Æthel too! **
However, Merewalh's family certainly all belonged together. By two wives, he had:
daughters Mildburg, Mildrith and Mildgyth,
and sons, Merchelm, Mildfrith and Merefin.
Alliteration can, then, indeed indicate close family ties. But it shouldn't be relied upon. One historian looked at the circumstances of one of Penda's daughter-in-law, a lady by the name of Osthryth, who married Penda's son Æthelred. She was the daughter of Penda's enemy, Oswiu of Northumbria and the reason for, and the timing of, the marriage are somewhat hazy. The main thing about Osthryth is that she was killed (by Mercian nobles), and no reason was given in the chronicles.
A tribe of the midlands, the Hwicce, originally had their own kings, who gradually got demoted to subkings of Mercia. Some of them had alliterative names, such as Oshere, Oswald and Osred. One historian suggested that these people were somehow related to the Northumbrian kings, Oswald and Oswiu. Oshere of the Hwicce was also a possible murder victim and the argument was that the Hwicce royals were all members of a branch of the Northumbrian royal house, trying to overthrow the Mercians, and that Osthryth was part of that plot, and was murdered because of it. It's not a theory that is given much credence by other historians.
In other cases, non-alliteration can be powerfully suggestive. Alfred the Great did have plenty of legitimate children and those who survived beyond infancy were:
Æthelflæd, the first-born daughter, Edward, who ruled Wessex after his father, then two more daughters, Æthelgifu and Ælfthryth, and another son, Æthelweard. Interestingly, the only one there who is neither an Æthel or an Ælf is Edward. It has been suggested*** that he was named after his Mercian maternal grandmother, Eadburh. (Edward would have been spelled Eadward, so the first element of both names would be identical.)
|Margaret arrives in Scotland|
Edward, Edmund, Ethelred, Edgar and indeed Matilda is said by some to have been christened Edith.Surely no one in the Scottish court by this stage could have thought for a moment that Margaret and Malcolm's children had any chance of sitting on the English throne, nor is it at first glance likely that Margaret thought of herself as English. And yet, she did much to help displaced Englishmen, and her biographer, who also happened to have been her chaplain, said that her first language was English. Was the naming of her children a nod to her English heritage, a reminder of her illustrious ancestry or was it perhaps even a signal of defiance?
Although Edgar, Edward and Edith are easier names there were still a lot of Æthels and Ælfs in the later period, but in time the Danes came along and helped a bit, bringing some Harolds and Sweins into the mix.
But no, it's not easy making head and tail of Old English names. Sometimes they can provide a clue to family identity and sometimes they can't. Alliteration is fascinating, but it can't be relied upon. Surnames though, well, they'd have definitely helped.
*Thanks to Charlene Newcomb for this nugget.
**However, it must be said that Penda's wife was called Cynewise, so maybe the daughters, the ones we're sure about, were all given names that alliterated with hers. For more on who Penda's children were, and whether they were full or half-siblings, see http://mybook.to/MerciaRiseandFall
*** By historian Pauline Stafford