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On our holiday last week we stayed at historic Gurney Manor — sometimes called Gurney Street Manor — in Cannington, Somerset.

It is a very special place.

Rescued by the Landmark Trust in the 1980s, much of the fabric dates to before 1400, with substantial additions in the mid-to-late fifteenth century.

Because it largely came down in the world after the seventeenth century, many of its ancient features, including the fifteenth century covered passage across the inner courtyard linking the old kitchen to the hall, have survived.

Unsurprisingly, it proved quite a good hunting ground for names, which are almost text-book examples of the typical names through the centuries, demonstrating fluctuations in fashion both generally, and across the social spectrum.

The original owners — and the family who gave their name to the manor — were a branch of the baronial family of Gurney, the founder of which came to England with William the Conqueror. Only a few names are known from this earliest period, emerging from the fog of remote history; a RICHARD de Gurney, flourished in 1243, when he put in a claim on the mill, then in possession of his “kinsman” WILLIAM, son of PHILIP.

Richard had a son called ROBERT.

By the end of the thirteenth century, the property appears to have been owned by JOHN de Gurney, who was alive in 1327.

The last of the line at Gurney Manor, and probably the one responsible for much of the parts of the hall dating to the late fourteenth and early fifteenth century, was HUGH, who succeeded to the estate in 1358. Either he, or a son of the same name, was there in 1401, with a wife called BEATRICE.

He had no son, and so the manor passed to his daughter JANE — an unusual name at the time, when the usually feminine form of John was Joan. She married ROGER Dodesham.

Responsible for most of the fifteenth century additions was their son, another WILLIAM, who was a lawyer as well as a landowner.

William had sisters called JOAN and ELEANOR, and on his death in 1480, the Gurney Street Manor passed in trust to Joan’s daughter, AGNES, wife of WALTER Michell, who died in 1487. Agnes and Walter had three sons, who each succeeded in turn, WILLIAM, JOHN, and THOMAS.

Thomas, whose wife was called MARGARET, died in 1503, when the manor passed to his son, another THOMAS. He also had a daughter called ISABEL.

Thomas made a number of improvements and refinements to the house, adding fine windows and new chimneys — but it all came to an abrupt end on December 13, 1539, when he murdered his wife JOAN and sister-in-law ELEANOR, seemingly at Gurney Manor, before killing himself.

He had two known children, another JANE, and another RICHARD.

Richard, who married an ELIZABETH, died in 1563, leaving the manor to his son, TRISTRAM.

Tristram, meanwhile, died in 1574, when the manor passed to his brother, Sir BARTHOLOMEW.

On Bartholomew’s death in 1616, his lands were split between his daughters, JANE and FRANCES. Gurney passed to Jane, wife of WILLIAM Hockmore.

William had considerable property elsewhere, and Gurney’s owners no longer lived there; the house and its acres was let to tenants, so that by the late nineteenth century, it was regarded as just a (large) farmhouse.

The names of most of these tenants is lost, but we still know the names of the house’s owners, and their families.

Jane and William Hockmore, for instance, had six children, SUSANNAH, GREGORY, CHARLES, WILLIAM, FRANCES and RICHARD, not all of whom lived to adulthood.

Gregory, married to MARY, inherited in 1626, dying in 1653, when the estate passed to his son, also called GREGORY (he also had a daughter called JANE).

Gregory II, married to HONOR, also had two children, a son WILLIAM, and, quelle surprise, yet another JANE.

William, who inherted sometime between 1676 and 1680, married another MARY, and had three daughters, MARY, JANE and HONORA; only Honora survived to adulthood, becoming William’s heiress on his death in 1707-08.

She married DAVIDGE Gould (his mother’s maiden name was Davidge) around 1713, and had five children who survived to adulthood: Sir HENRY (d.1794), RICHARD (d.1793), HONORA (d.1802), WILLIAM (d.1799) and THOMAS (d.1808).

Henry, married ELIZABETH, and had two daughters, another ELIZABETH, and HONORA MARGARETTA. Elizabeth married TEMPLE Luttrell; Honora Margaretta, who died in 1813, married General RICHARD Lambart, 7th Earl of Cavan.

And Gurney passed through her to the Earls of Cavan.

(Temple Luttrell was an interesting character; an MP, he was reputedly also a smuggler, and built a folly, called Luttrell’s Tower, at Eaglehurst near Southampton. On his death in Paris in 1803, Luttrell’s Tower passed to the Earl of Cavan too. By pure coincidence, Luttrell’s Tower is also now owned by the Landmark Trust.)

Richard and Honora Margaretta had five children:

  • RICHARD HENRY ROBERT GILBERT (1783-85)
  • HONORA ELIZABETH HESTER (1784-1856)
  • ALICIA MARGARETTA HOCKMORE (1785-1818)
  • SOPHIA AUGUSTA (1787-98)
  • RICHARD HENRY (b. and d. 1788)
  • GEORGE FREDERICK AUGUSTUS (1789-1828)
  • EDWARD HENRY WENTWORTH VILLIERS (1791-1812)

George, who died before his father, married the simply named SARAH, and had five children:

  • HENRIETTA AUGUSTA (d. 1874)
  • ALICIA (d.1913)
  • JULIA (d.1897)
  • FREDERICK JOHN WILLIAM (1815-87)
  • OLIVER GEORGE (1822-98)

Frederick John William’s wife was CAROLINE AUGUSTA, and they also had five children:

  • MARY HYACINTHE (d.1933)
  • SARAH SOPHIA (d.1914)
  • FREDERICK EDWARD GOULD (1839-1900)
  • OCTAVIUS HENRY (1855-1919)
  • ARTHUR (1858-1937)

Frederick Edward Gould’s wife was MARY SNEADE (Sneade was her middle name — her surname was Olive), and their children:

  • FREDERICK RUDOLPH (1865-1946)
  • ELLEN OLIVE (1867-1945)
  • MAUD EDITH GUNDREDA (1869-1940)
  • LIONEL JOHN OLIVE (1873-1940)
  • HORACE EDWARD SAMUEL SNEADE (1878-1950).

Frederick Rudolph had no children by his first wife CAROLINE INEZ; by his second wife, HESTER JOAN, he had two daughters; the first, ELIZABETH MARY was born in 1924.

The following year, Gurney was sold to its tenants of more than thirty years, the Bucknells, and with it an unbroken line of descent, if not of inhabitation, of at least eight hundred years, was finally severed.

The Bucknells were a thoroughly English Victorian middle class family; the father, a classic “gentleman farmer” was a solid and respectable JAMES, his wife an equally establishment MARY ANN. One daughter was ELIZA HARRIS, the other, OLIVE MARY (possibly named in honor of the Countess of Cavan), and they also had a son, BENJAMIN JOHN.

In 1901, there were also three servants living with them at the manor: FRANK, EMILY and MABEL.

Gurney’s time once more owned by its inhabitants was short-lived; the Bucknells sold in 1934, and by the 1940s it had been subdivided into flats. By the 1980s, it was in a sorry, neglected state, with most of the flats empty, but then the Landmark Trust bought it, and the rest is (more!) history…

No-one lives there for more than three weeks at a time anymore, but it has been fully restored to its medieval glory and I think the place rather likes the variety of ever changing faces coming and going, and basks in their rapt admiration.

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Yesterday I looked at some of the most interesting (to an English eye) of the girls’ names currently in the French top 500.

Today, it’s the turn of the boys.

Arda. Turkish boy’s name meaning “stake” and “chisel,” which has started to take off in the last couple of years. A good example of how the modern French collect names from everywhere.

Côme. French form of Cosmo.

Joris. Dutch form of George.

Kenzo. Anywhere but France, this is a Japanese boy’s name, with numerous meanings depending on the kanji used to write it. In the case of Takada Kenzo, the owner of the Kenzo brand, it combines “wise” and “three.” Its use in France, however, is perhaps inspired by the feminine Kenza, an Arabic girl’s name meaning “treasure,” which is also popular.

Keziah. Names change gender in France too, but why the biblical Keziah “cassia” has gone baby-blue in France is definitely one to pass a few idle hours over.

Lilian. No, you didn’t read it wrong. It really is Lilian. Keziah isn’t the only name which is feminine in the English-speaking world and male in the French, but even my laissez-faire jaw hit the floor when I saw this. It first appeared in the 1920s, growing in popularity since the 60s. Even French websites say it was probably coined as a “masculine” form of Lily.

Others include Alix, Andrea (Italian form of Andrew), Ange (French for “angel”), Eden, Jessy, Joan (Catalan form of John), Lois (Galician form of Louis), Mae and Marley. They almost deserve a post all of their own…

Loan. A shorter form of Elouan. Loann and Lohan are variants.

Lubin. The name of an obsucre sixth-century French saint. The Latin form of his name is Leobinus, and is probably from the Old Germanic name Leobwin, cognate of the Old English Leofwine “dear friend.”

Merlin. Officially more popular in France than anywhere else, where it ranked 427th in 2009. In the UK, it was 1911th in 2010, and in the US, I don’t know exactly, but I do know there were only 22 of them.

Nolan. The Irish surname, weirdly also spelled Nolhan and Nohlan in France, as well as Nolann. Other Irish names also in vogue in France include Aidan, DonovanKevin, Kylian, Liam/Lyam, Logan, Malone, Oscar, Ronan, Ryan and Sullivan.

As may be becoming apparent, the ending –an is the must-have ending for French baby boys these days; with the traditional –en is distinctly languishing. Others, of various sources, often foreign, include Adrian, Alan/Allan, Alban, Ayman/Aymane, Brayan, Bryan, Christian, Dan, Dorian, Dylan, Elouan/Eloan, Erwan/Erwann, Esteban, Ethan/EtanEvan/Evann, EwanFlorian, Gaétan, Ilan/Ilann/Ylan/Ylann, Iban, Ilhan, Ilian/Ilyan, Imran/Imrane, Ivan/Yvann, Johan/Johann/Yohan/Yohann, Jonathan, Jordan, Julian, Kenan, Kylian, LILIAN, LOAN, Lohan, Maelan, Marouane/Marwan/Marwane, Milan/Mylan, Morgan, Nathan/Natan, Noan/Nohan, Rayan, RomanSean, Sevan, Sofian/Sofiane, Soan/Soane/Sohan, Souleymane, Stan, Stéphane, SWAN, Titouan, Tristan, Yann, Yoan/Yoann.

Octave. Actually, the French form of Octavius, rather than the musical term. Popular a hundred years ago, and on the rise once more.

Swan. Believe it or not, more than one French baby name website lists the origin of Swan as the English “swan” — i.e. the beautiful but somewhat unfriendly large bird. Since its use is modern, this really might be the truth of it, but the variant Swann, hints at the English surname, which actually comes mostly from the same source as the modern Scandinavian Sven “boy.”

Timeo. Seems to be treated as an adoption of the Greek for “I honor God.” , Timeô is a variant of the more usual timaô “I honor”; while in Latin, timeo means “I fear.” Very, very au courant, only registering on the French radar since the millennium. Var: Tymeo.

Tom. English Tom ranked 12th in France in 2009 — five places above multi-lingual Thomas. The French fascination with names popular in the English-speaking world applies to boys’ names as well as girls. Others in the charts include: Aaron/Aron, Alex, Andy, Angel, Anthony/Antony, AymericBrandon, Calvin/KalvinCameron, Cedric, Charlie/Charly, Chris, Christopher, Colin, Dany, Eddy, Edgar, Elijah, Eliot/Eliott/Elliot, Ewen, Gregory, Hayden, Hugo, James, Jason, JeremyJimmy, Kenny, Lenny/LenyLucas, Marcus, Marlon, Matt, Matthew, Melvin/Melvyn, Michael, Nelson, Neo, Noah, Owen, Rudy, Sam, Sacha/Sasha, Steven, Teddy, Tim, Tony, Warren, William, WesleyZachary. Like the Girls, there are also French forms of “English” names, such as Léo and Théo.


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For the last month, I have been in France — for much of that time, in Provence.

It is a region with a much deserved reputation for spectacular scenery and picturesque villages. In the region where we stayed, these clung as though by magic to impossibly steep hillsides gazing idly down dramatic gorges, draped in pines, evergreen oaks, olives and vines.

It is also an exceedingly historic region, always set a bit apart from the rest of France. Once, the people didn’t even spoke French, but Provençal, a dialect of Occitan — a language closer to Catalan than to French — although Provençal is sometimes used to refer to Occitan in general, and the langue d’Oc of medieval troubadours.

Unsurprisingly, it has a whole collection of names and variants of names unique to the region.

And it was in Provence that names like Isabella and Eleanor first arose.

During our stay, I kept my ears open, but was disappointed that, by and large, the names I encountered — particularly among the children — were little different to the rest of France. The fashion in France at present is for names of foreign origin, and the favored region for more unusual native monikers is Brittany.

But we did encounter some, especially among my own generation.

I love the fact so many Provençal girls names end in -o; it makes a refreshing change, and is very contemporary.

Here is a selection of my personal favorites. Some, like Zouè, are relatively recent — others, like Azalaïs, are medieval.

GIRLS:

  • AgatoAgatha
  • Aïs — diminutive of ANAÏS and/or ALAÏS
  • AlaïsAlice (features in Kate Mosse’s 2005 novel Labyrinth); ultimately from Adelaide
  • AlienorEleanor
  • Anaïs — in Provence, used as a form of Anne or Agnes — not actually found prior to the nineteenth century
  • Anetoun — a double diminutive form of Ano (Anne)
  • AzalaïsAdelaide (Alice)
  • Babeleto — diminutive of Eisabèu/Isabèu (Elizabeth/Isabella)
  • BergidoBirgitte
  • Bielo — diminutive of Gabrielo (Gabrielle)
  • BregidoBridget
  • CelinoCeline
  • Chantaloun — diminutive of French Chantal
  • Clareto, Claroun — diminutives of Claro
  • ClaroClare/Claire
  • CloutildouClotilda
  • Delaïdo — diminutive of Adelaïdo (Adelaide)
  • Eliso — diminutive of French Élisabeth (Elizabeth)
  • EstefanoStephanie
  • Fanfan — probably a diminutive of ESTEFANO. Made fairly well-known (at least in France) by the 1952 film Fanfan la tulipe (remade in 2003) — in which Fanfan is a man — and Alexandre Jardin’s 1985 novel Fanfan, filmed in 1993.
  • Fino — diminutive of Delfino (Delphine) and/or JÒUSEFINO
  • FlourFlora/Fleur
  • GlaudioClaudia
  • IoulandoYolande
  • Janetoun — double diminutive of Jano (Jane/Jeanne)
  • JòusefinoJosephine (the name of our villa’s housekeeper!)
  • Jóuselet — variant/diminutive of JÒUSEFINO
  • Laïdo — diminutive of DELAÏDO
  • Lali, Lalìo — diminutives of Eulalìo (Eulalia/Eulalie)
  • Laloun — diminutive of LALI
  • Lìo — diminutive of names ending in -lìo, such as Eulalìo (Eulalia/Eulalie), Natalìo (Natalie), Rosalìo (Rosalie)
  • Lisoun — diminutive of ELISO
  • Lodi, Loudi — diminutive of Eloudìo (Elodie)
  • Madaloun — diminutive of Madaleno (Madeline)
  • Magali, Magari — probably Magaret, but possibly a variant of Madaleno (Madeline — from the original Magdalene)
  • Maïoun — diminutive of Marìo (Mary/Marie)
  • Marioun — diminutive of Marìo (Mary/Marie)
  • MelioEmilia
  • Mirèio — coined by the poet Frederic Mistral for his poem Mirèio (1859). From the Occitan mirar “to admire.”
  • Naïs — diminutive of ANAÏS
  • Ninoun — pet-form of Catarino (Katherine)
  • Rieto — pet-form of Enrieto (Henrietta)
  • RosoRose
  • SoufioSophia/Sophie
  • SoulanjoSolange
  • Talìo — diminutive of Natalìo (Natalie)
  • Teldou, Tildeto — diminutives of names containing –tild– or –teld-, like CLOUTILDOU
  • VitòriVictoria
  • ValorìValeria/Valerie
  • Zeto, Zetou — diminutives of JÒUSEFINO
  • Zouè Zoe

BOYS:

  • Amiel – said to be the Provençal form of French Emile
  • AudouardEdward
  • BartoumiéuBartholomew
  • BerenguiéBerenger
  • Calendau — from the Latin kalends, used of the first day of a month and, in Provence, for Christmas Day.  The hero of Mistral’s poem Calendau (1867)
  • CharleCharles
  • Charloun — diminutive of CHARLE
  • Ciprianet — diminutive of Ciprian (Cyprian)
  • DàviDavid
  • Deri — diminutive of Frederi/Federi (Frederick)
  • Dovi — dimunituve of Ludovi (Ludovick/Louis)
  • Estève, EstièneStephen
  • GabrieùGabriel
  • Glaude, GlàudiClaude, Claudius
  • JaufretGeoffrey
  • Jaume James
  • JòrgiGeorge
  • LuLuke
  • Luquet — pet-form of LU
  • Maïus — curious name of uncertain origin. In use in Provence since at least the late nineteenth century. Possibly conceived as a masculine form of MAÏOUN.
  • MasMax
  • MiquèuMichael
  • OuliviéOliver
  • PascauPascal
  • PèirePeter/Pierre
  • Pierroun — diminutive of French Pierre
  • RafèuRaphael
  • RoubinRobin (yes, the English Robin — one of the foreign names embraced by the French in the twentieth century)
  • Savié — probably Xavier, but possibly Savior (best known as a name in the Spanish form Salvador)
  • SilvanSilvanus
  • SimounSimon
  • TeoudorTheodore
  • Titoù – Either Titus or a diminutive of Batit (Baptist)
  • Titoun — diminutive of TITOÙ
  • ToumasThomas
  • Ugue, UguesHugh
  • VincènVincent
  • VitourVictor
  • Zavié — variant of SAVIÉ
  • — diminutive of Joùseù (Joseph)

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I’m not one who generally goes in for “sibsets” much, but there is one large family which has fascinated me since a visit to Chatsworth as a child, and today I thought I’d break the mould a bit and head off down the sibset road for a change.

That family is the Mitfords.

There are, of course, probably hundreds of families around the world called Mitford — but the Mitfords refers to one very specific clan.

The children — principally the girls (there was one boy, Thomas, killed in World War II) — of David Freeman-Mitford, 2nd Baron Redesdale.

Also known as “the Mitford sisters”, the Mitfords were at the heart of the British upper class social scene in the first half of the twentieth century. Their names are quite an eclectic mix of the literary, mythological, puritan, biblical and informal, which might startle some.

I, for one, don’t think Lord and Lady Redesdale worried too much about how well the names all “went together.” It just isn’t the sort of thing the British aristocracy does. “Very non-U,” as Nancy would say.

Nancy was the eldest of the Mitfords, born in 1904. Just Nancy. Well, the Honourable Miss Nancy. She became a well-known novelist and biographer, best known for The Pursuit of Love (1945) and Love in a Cold Climate (1949). She died in France in 1973.

Nancy is a long established pet-form of Ann(e), found in independent use since at least the nineteenth century. Americans probably associate it most with Nancy Reagan (whose birth name is Anne). There’s also the tragic Nancy of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist (1838), while the eldest daughter of British Prime Minister David Cameron is called Nancy Gwen (b.2004).

Next is Pamela, born in 1907, probably the least controversial and well-known of the family. She died in Italy in 1994.

Pamela was created by Sir Philip Sidney in the late sixteenth century for a character in Arcadia, and is generally interpreted as a coinage from the Greek pan “all”+ meli “honey.” It was a favorite of the British aristocracy in the early twentieth century — another notable bearer was Churchill’s daughter-in-law, born in 1920.

The third daughter was the infamous Diana (1910-2003), a celebrated beauty, whose second husband was the British Fascist leader, Sir Oswald Mosley (1896-1980). Leaving no-one in doubt of where their sympathies lay, when they married in 1936, it was at the home of Nazi Joseph Goebbels in the presence of Hitler.

Diana, the name of the Roman Goddess of hunting and the moon, was another name embraced with gusto by the British upper class in the early twentieth century. Lady Diana Spencer, later Princess of Wales, being the example par excellence.

Fourth was Unity Valkyrie, born in 1914. Her name was particularly ominous, as she embraced Nazism even more than her sister, and was rumored to have been a lover of Hitler himself. Some even claim she had Hitler’s child. She died in 1948.

Unity “unity” was first used by Puritans in the sixteenth century, though was unusual until the twentieth, when it probably saw its most use.

Valkyrie — a “Valkyrie” of Germanic mythology — was first used as a given name in the late nineteenth century, probably inspired by the works of Wagner.

Fifth Mitford was Jessica “Decca” Lucy, born in 1917. She gravitated to the other end of the political spectrum, and became an ardent communist. The rest of the family nicknamed her the “red sheep.” Her first husband, Esmond, who fought against Fascism in the Spanish Civil War, was related by marriage to Winston Churchill, and the couple emigrated to the States before the Second World War. Esmond returned to fight at the outbreak of war, and went missing in action in 1941, but she remained in America for the rest of her life, working as a political activist and investigative journalist, until her death in 1996.

Jessica has become so ubiquitous it is difficult to contemplate a time when it was still a literary rarity, but when Jessica Mitford was born, it was firmly in that category. Coined by Shakespeare — probably from the biblical Iscah (“he beholds”) for a character in The Merchant of Venice  (c.1596-98).

Last is Deborah “Debo” Vivien, borin in 1920. She married Lord Andrew Cavendish, the younger son of the Duke of Devonshire. The older son, William, Marquis of Hartington married Kathleen Kennedy, sister of JFK. Both Kathleen and William died tragically young, and on his father’s death, Andrew inherited the Dukedom and the Cavendish estates — including Chatsworth, one of the most famous English stately homes. Aged 91, Deborah, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire still lives on the Chatsworth estate.

Like Jessica, since the Hon. Deborah Mitford was born, Deborah has gained a life of its own, but it was still quite a rarity in 1920, with a distinctly aristocratic edge. Another English toff, the Hon. Vita Sackville West, used it for the name of her elderly heroine in All Passion Spent (1931).

Vivien is a rarer form of Vivian, ultimately from Latin vivus “alive.” In some British circles in the first half of the twentieth century, Vivien was considered the “correct” form for girls, and Vivian for boys, but it is clear from the records that in practice, Vivian was considerably more popular generally for both.

Nancy, Pamela, Thomas, Diana, Unity, Jessica and Deborah — a most interesting early twentieth sibset, as I’m sure you’ll agree.

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