Happy (belated) International Women’s Day! To mark the occasion I wanted to look at an aspect of late medieval/Tudor family life that interests me – the names chosen for children.
It was surprisingly common in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries for siblings to be given the same Christian names – something which would be largely unthinkable now. It is perhaps no surprise that names were re-used after the early death of a child. For example, at Blickling Church in Norfolk there is a memorial brass to Anne, the eldest daughter of William Boleyn and Margaret Butler, who died young. This Anne Boleyn was the elder sister of another Anne Boleyn (the Lady Shelton of Henry VIII’s reign), who was born after her death. Clearly, cases such as these were about the commemoration of the dead and ensuring that an important family name remained in use (here, Anne was the name of William Boleyn’s mother, to whom he was close).
Sometimes two children born close together were also given the same name – for example, Catherine Howard’s lover, Thomas Culpepper and his brother, Thomas, who was close to him in age. Obviously this was not intended as an act of commemoration of the elder, still living, sibling, but, in an age of high infant mortality, it was probably done to ensure the continuation of the family Christian name in a similar way to the re-use of the name of a deceased child.
What I am particularly interested in, however, is the re-use of a name when the elder sibling had already survived infancy and would be considered to have a good chance of survival. This was often the result of a parents’ remarriage. Elizabeth Woodville, the queen of Edward IV, had two sons named Richard: Sir Richard Grey, the younger son of her first marriage and Richard, Duke of York, the younger son of her second. As queen, Elizabeth may have had little input into the decision to name her youngest son after her husband’s father. However, even here there is a sense that the re-use of a name was considered acceptable amongst half-siblings.
This seems particularly likely where the siblings concerned were paternal half-siblings. Fathers had a great deal of authority over their families in the period and would have been largely in control of selecting their child’s name. The first Anne Boleyn, who was the second wife of Geoffrey Boleyn, Lord Mayor of London, was the daughter of Sir Thomas Hoo, Lord Hoo and Hastings. Her father remarried when she was an adult, producing a further three daughters: Anne, Alianore and Elizabeth. The younger Anne, who was the eldest child of this marriage, was born in 1448, some years after her elder half-sister’s marriage. The re-use of the elder Anne’s name was therefore not connected with concerns that she would not survive to adulthood – she already had.
The Hoo family were particularly keen on re-using names amongst half-siblings. I have been recently studying a chancery case brought by Anne and her half-siblings which, highlighting the confusion that could arise, refers to the ‘said Anne, Anne, Alianore, & Elizabeth’ as daughters of Sir Thomas Hoo. The sisters’ father, Sir Thomas Hoo, also had a paternal half-brother named Thomas Hoo, Esquire, with both brothers named after their father. This pattern was also not solely a Hoo family tradition. Elizabeth Howard, the mother of Queen Anne Boleyn, had much younger half-sister named Elizabeth who also survived to adulthood. These are only the examples in the Boleyn family. There are numerous examples from the period: the Imperial ambassador, Eustace Chapuys, famously, was horrified when he heard rumours that Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn’s new daughter was to be given the name Mary, which was already borne by her elder half-sister.
So the question must be, why was a Christian name re-used by a parent when their child was still living and had survived infancy. The policy was considerably more common amongst half-siblings and it appears that the answer was that such families were considered as distinct units from each other. When a man or woman remarried and started a new family, this really was considered a new family, with the ability to once again commemorate ancestors or re-use favourite names. Although half-siblings recognised each other as siblings, and would refer to each other as ‘brother’ and ‘sister’, there was also a distinction between them.
I would argue that this distinction was due to the fact that, although inheritance in England was largely through the male line, the importance of lateral kinship was also very high. A person was considered to be the product of both their mother and their father’s families. So, for example, when Anne Boleyn reportedly threatened to marry Princess Mary to a low-born man, she would be debasing the throne-worthiness of Mary’s children due to the lack of status of the husband. Similarly, for Anne Boleyn, her links to the Howards were very important to her status – a family connection that came through her mother. When challenged on his plans to marry Anne, Henry Percy, heir to the Earl of Northumberland, defended her by pointing out her links to the Dukes of Norfolk and the Earls of Ormond, both of which came through female lines in her family.
Inheritance in England also passed through the full blood in the medieval and Tudor periods, with half-siblings rarely being heirs to each other – this was why Queen Anne Neville’s mother was able to inherit from her full brother, the Earl of Warwick, with her elder paternal half-sisters receiving nothing. This was also the rationale behind the mention in Edward VI’s Device for the succession that Mary and Elizabeth were only related to him in the half-blood.
Since lateral kinship was so important in the period, it is no surprise that, with each remarriage, a man or a woman was considered to start a new family, which was distinct from their previous. This accounts for the re-use of a Christian name.
For anyone interested, there is more on Anne Hoo and the other women described above in my book, Boleyn Women, which is available from July.