How Criminals got new names in Medieval England

If you were deemed a criminal or a delinquent in medieval England, you might find yourself with a new last name.

The creation of surnames or last names was a slow and fluid process in medieval England. It would not be until about the mid-14th century that it became the usual practice to have a family name carry on between generations. Prior to that, there could be some very unusual ways that a William or a Henry could find themselves with a new last name.


Dave Postles, one of the leading historians of medieval English society, has looked into how names developed during the High Middle Ages. His book Naming the People of England c.1100-1350 tracks some of these developments, and notes how nicknames were often used as last names. Postles believes that in some cases these names were “imposed by local society on errant individuals as a disciplinary measure, as a kind of labelling of miscreants. It was the next best action to complete ostracism.”

By examining eyre and other criminal records from the 13th and 14th centuries, Postles came across many examples of people who received unflattering last names. They include:


Roger Laweles in Cumberland was accused of taking a man named Gilbert from his bed and beating him.

Agnes Daythef took sanctuary in a London church, where she confessed to stealing a surcoat and many other things. She abjured the realm, being exiled to France.

Henry Golichtly was known to be a robber in the town of Coventry.

Walter Litlegod fled the village of Bretby after killing a man.

William Suerdsliper was ordered to be arrested in Wakefield after going night-walking while armed.

Nokekina Hoggenhore was one of six prostitutes found in a brothel.

Henry Brendcheke was outlawed for theft in Newcastle

Godwin Haluedeuel fled to a church in Oxford where he admitted to being a thief.

John le Fatte raised the suspicions of his neighbours over his wealth, because he ate well, drank well and dressed well. While no evidence was presented of any wrongdoing at the time, he fled his home six years later after being accused of stealing pigs.

Henry Euilchild was acquitted of breaking into a house and beating Avice de la Mora.

John Maufesour (‘wrong-doer’) was hung for theft and murder, including having stolen a horse and one-and-a-half bushels of oats in Wakefield.


Other names that Postles uncovered include Maurice Stangethef, William Cuttepurs, Geoffrey Wolvesheved and Robert Brokenheuedknaue.

Postles adds that there were two significant reasons for the local community to impose a name on such a person, first to make sure he or she was identified within the community, and second to ‘label and shame’. He writes:

the imposition of compound, insalubrious descriptors on others must have involved the dominant group intending humiliation of a perceived ‘deviant’ within their midst. Nicknames (last names) of this form were thus discursively produced to regulate and control, to shame and humiliate, to reinstate and reinforce the norms of morality of the dominant group.


Dave Postles’ book, Naming the People of England c.1100-1350was published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing in 2006.

Top Image: British Library MS Additional 49622 fol. 153r