High status secular surnames in early modern Cornwall

If your name is Knight or Bishop does this mean you have a long-lost ancestor who was a mounted warrior or a bemitred ecclesiastic? Sadly, in most cases, the answer is no. In my The Surnames of Cornwall I opted for the possibility that these names might have been given to those who were servants of such high-status people. However, as explained in a more recent blog, in the light of the lack of actual evidence for this, it is probably much more likely that surnames like these originated in a nickname, given to somebody who had the characteristics of a knight or a bishop.

In fact, Knight was the most common high-status surname relating to a secular rank. As a member of the lower nobility in the Middle Ages it is possible that a few Knight lines could have originated in an actual knight. Similarly, Lord is another surname that is argued to have a possible origin in an actual landowner. In the medieval period the descriptor ‘lord’ was not confined to the peerage but applied more widely to any person of standing. But the name Lord was not that common in sixteenth century Cornwall, located in just three districts.

Barons were the lowest rank of the peerage in the British Isles. The surname was well-known in Cornwall by the 1500s, being found scattered over the landscape. Indeed, none of the surnames from high-status positions display the concentration found in surnames from places and suggests they all had multiple points of origin.

Earls were of higher rank, regional governors such as the Earls of Cornwall before 1337. Several instances of this surname were recorded in the 1500s, all but one in east Cornwall.  In addition, the surname Hearle is usually supposed to have derived from Earl. Yet Hearle is as likely to have evolved from Harell or Horell, which looks to have another, more obscure origin.

The earldom of Cornwall became a Duchy in 1337, with a duke at the helm. Dukes were rulers of provinces with a status only surpassed by princes and kings. The surname Duke was exceedingly thin on the ground in sixteenth-century Cornwall, despite the presence, or more usually absence, of the real Duke of Cornwall. Dukes of Cornwall and elsewhere appeared regularly in the Cornish language saints’ plays and it may be significant that the three examples of this name in the 1500s were all in Cornish-speaking districts where such plays could have been viewed in earlier centuries.

Finally, what of Noble, a surname indicating no specific rank but given to someone with airs and graces? Examples were not common in Cornwall but do suggest at least two points of origin in the west with a scattering along the Tamar and into Devon.