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What is the oldest English name?

Names are an important part of culture and identity. As English developed over the centuries, certain names rose to prominence and have remained popular throughout history. In this article, we will examine the oldest English names that have stood the test of time.

The Origins of English Names

Modern English names trace their roots back to the 5th century AD when Germanic tribes like the Angles, Saxons and Jutes invaded Britain. These tribes spoke Old English, which gave rise to many classic English names we know today. After the Norman invasion in 1066 AD, Old English merged with the Norman French language to produce Middle English, which introduced many French and Latin-based names.

As Middle English evolved into Early Modern English by the 14th century, surnames also started being used. Fixed hereditary surnames were widely adopted by the 16th century. This marked the emergence of common English surnames that are still in use today.

The Oldest English Names for Males

When it comes to male names, the oldest and most enduring English names include:

  • John – Meaning “Yahweh has been gracious”, John has been the most popular name for boys in England since the 14th century. It has Biblical origins and has been borne by 23 popes and innumerable saints.
  • William – Derived from the Germanic elements ‘wil’ meaning desire and ‘helm’ meaning protection, William was the most common name in the Middle Ages. It has been borne by kings of England like William the Conqueror.
  • Thomas – Greek for ‘twin’, Thomas was likely introduced by Normans in the 12th century. It was among the top 5 names for boys in the 20th century.
  • Richard – Means “brave power” from Germanic elements ric “power” and hard “brave”. Richard was popularized by kings Richard I and II in the Middle Ages.
  • Charles – Derived from the Germanic name Karl, meaning “man”. Charles has remained a royal favorite for kings of England and France.

These masculine names have origins dating back centuries but have endured thanks to royal patronage and cultural influence.

The Oldest English Names for Females

When it comes to historic female names, these age-old names stand out:

  • Mary – The English form of Maria, Mary derives from Hebrew and means ‘bitterness’. It has been the most common female name in the West since the 18th century.
  • Elizabeth – A Hebrew name meaning ‘oath of God’, Elizabeth has been popular among European royalty like Queen Elizabeth I and II.
  • Margaret – Derived from the Greek word margarites meaning ‘pearl’, Margaret was brought to England by Norman nobility in the 11th century.
  • Alice – Short form of the Norman name Adalheidis, meaning ‘noble’. Alice was among the top 10 names in the 14th and 15th centuries.
  • Joan – The Medieval English feminine form of John, Joan was common during the Middle Ages. Its popularity surged again in the 20th century.

The longevity of these feminine names over centuries can be attributed to their elegant meanings and noble associations.

The Oldest Surnames

When surnames emerged in the Middle Ages, these were some of the earliest English family names:

  • Smith – Occupational name for metalworkers and the most common surname in the English-speaking world.
  • Taylor – Referring to tailors, the second most common occupational name in medieval England and Scotland.
  • Brown – Derived from the color, one of the earliest English surnames dating back to the 12th century.
  • Wilson – Patronymic meaning “son of William”. Still among the top 100 most common surnames.
  • Johnson – Similarly, another patronymic meaning “son of John”. Johnson remains the 7th most common surname today.

These surnames indicated occupations, lineages and origins. Their popularity endures as they were widely adopted early on as hereditary surnames.

Oldest Names in Literature

We can also examine the historic use of old English names in seminal works of literature over the centuries:

Literary Work Old English Names
Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (late 14th century) John, Thomas, Alice, Margaret, William
Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare (1597) John, Peter, Thomas, Anne, Margaret, William
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813) Elizabeth, Mary, Charles, Jane, Anne, William

The recurrence of these old English names across seminal literary works of their eras demonstrates their enduring popularity and cultural significance.

Revival of Oldest Names Today

While many old English names fell out of fashion in the 20th century, some are being revived today and remain staples:

  • Classic boys’ names like William, James, Alexander, Daniel, Benjamin remain in the top 20 names today.
  • Traditional girls’ names like Olivia, Amelia, Charlotte, Ava, Abigail are again gaining popularity.
  • Vintage names like Arthur, Violet, Ada, Cleo are also seeing a resurgence.

The strong meaning and heritage behind these old names give them an enduring appeal that stands the test of time. Their revival speaks to a new generation honoring traditional English names and culture.


The oldest English names provide a fascinating glimpse into the country’s cultural history and evolution of language over centuries. While numerous names have fallen in and out of favor, a select few like John, Mary, Elizabeth and William have demonstrated incredible staying power and remain popularised even today. Their prevalence across history and literature underlines their timeless popularity.