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Image Virginia Naming Ways: Anglican Onomastics

After a baby was born in Virginia, a complex set of cultural rituals was put in motion. Among them was the naming of the infant an intricate process which tells us many things about ethical values, family structure, and ideas of childhood itself. The naming ways of Anglican Virginia were different from those of Puritan Massachusetts, and similar to naming customs throughout the south and west of England.

The leading features of this onomastic system might be summarized by a single English example. In 1737, the historian Edward Gibbon was born into an armigerous Surrey family with a strong Virginia connection. He was the eldest of six brothers, and received the name of his paternal grandfather. So important to the family was the survival of the name that the future historian wrote, “in the baptism of each of my brothers my father’s prudence successively repeated my Christian name of Edward, that, in case of the departure of the eldest son, this patronymic appellation might still be perpetuated in the family.” That precaution proved to be necessary, for of the six brothers named Edward Gibbon, only one survived childhood.1

Edward Gibbon’s forename came not from the Bible, but from the king list of ancient Wessex. Three West Saxon monarchs had borne the name of Edward including Edward the Confessor, the last of the line, who personified the values of Royalists and High Anglicans in the seventeenth century. In old English, the name Edward meant “lucky leader” (ead, fortunate; weard, guardian or leader). It remained a favorite in Wessex for a thousand years, and would be heavily used in Virginia for many generations. But in New England the name was very rare; Harvard College enrolled only one student called Edward in its first forty undergraduate classes.2

The onomastic customs which Edward Gibbon personified were widely imitated in Anglican Virginia, both as to the choice of forenames, and the descent of names within the family. Biblical names were less common in Virginia than in Massachusetts. Only about half of all forenames in the Chesapeake colony came from the Scriptures, compared with 90 percent in New England. But the proportion of biblical names in Virginia was almost exactly the same as in the parish of Colyton, Devon. It was broadly similar to naming patterns among both the gentry and the general population in south and west of England.3

Virginians preferred to name their sons after Teutonic warriors, Frankish knights and English kings. Special favorites included William, Robert, Richard, Edward, George and Charles—choices rarely made in Massachusetts during the seventeenth century. The daughters of Virginia received the names of Christian saints who did not appear in the Bible and also traditional English folk names—Margaret, Jane, Catherine, Frances and Alice—as well as the universal English favorites of Mary, Elizabeth, Anne and Sarah. This distribution of names was much the same among native-born Virginians and English emigrants in the seventeenth century.4

This onomastic system was also distinctive in the descent of names. In Massachusetts, as we have seen, eldest children were named after their parents, and younger children after grandparents and other relatives. That pattern was reversed in Virginia: first-born children were named for their grandparents, and second-born for parents. One study of naming patterns in Middlesex County, Virginia finds that only 27 percent of eldest sons and 19 percent of first-born daughters were given their parents’ forenames, compared with more than 67 percent in Massachusetts. But 60 percent of eldest sons in Virginia received their grandparents’ names, compared with 37 percent in Massachusetts. The nuclear naming strategies of New England were subordinated to a stronger concern for the extended lineage in Virginia.5

Once again, the Virginia pattern closely followed the conventions of Anglican families in the south and west of England. Among the Filmers of East Sutton, every first-born son in the male line of the Filmer family was named for his paternal grandfather, and every second-born son for his father:


In the fourth generation, the eldest male Filmer had no issue, and the title descended through a younger brother. Even so, the rhythm of three generation-naming was carefully preserved.6

These naming customs were very common among armigerous Anglican families in both southern England and tidewater Virginia. Another example was the Peyton family of Bedfordshire, Suffolk and Gloucestershire. Its younger sons settled in Virginia during the seventeenth century. For many generations, the Peytons used the same three-generational rhythm as did the Filmers:


The Peytons, like the Filmers, were normally patrilineal in the descent of names. But that tendency varied in different families according to relative social standing of paternal and maternal lines. When Sir Algernon Peyton married Frances Sewster, daughter of Sir Robert Sewster, their first-born son was named Sewster Peyton.7 Here was yet another naming-custom in that culture—the use of surnames as forenames to reinforce connections between families and strengthen the solidarity of the elite. As early as 1634, for example, William Gray of Middlesex County, Virginia, left his land to a nephew called Hugh Stewart on the condition that “the said Hugh Stewart shall name the first male child lawfully begotten of his body Gray Stewart.”8 This custom of using surnames as forenames was mostly used for boys, but it was not unknown for girls. The wife of the leader of Penruddock’s Rising was named Arundel Penruddock.9

Complex patterns of cousin naming also appeared in Virginia, as they also did among the gentry of the south of England. Lateral ties were added to linear ties, to create a complex grid of naming customs. Godparents were closely involved in the choice of names in both Virginia and the south and west of England.

The naming of children was not entirely determined by this calculus of social rank and material interest. Names were also chosen for magical properties. Astrologers were consulted in an attempt to find a fortunate name. The “fortune books” of the first gentlemen of England and Virginia were full of astrological lore on this question.10 This search for a lucky name tempered the use of necronyms in this culture. The Virginians, like New Englanders, tended to repeat forenames whenever children died. But they did so with some reluctance, for when children died young, their fathers feared to use names which had seemed unlucky. Thus, Sir John Oglander discussed in his diary the use of a necronym for his second-born son:

I also named him John, the eldest being also by me named of the same name and died 12 months before, and if this dieth, I will never Christen any of that name more. Sir Richard Dillington and my lady Richards were the other gossips with me.11

In many ways, the onomastic customs of Anglican Virginia were far removed from the naming patterns of Puritan New England. The contrast of cultures began in the first years of life.

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