The Sole Society, a Family History Society researching Sole, Saul, Sewell, Solley and similar names

The Origins of the SEWELL Surname

By Michael Sewell

This article was originally published in the March 1996 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society.

I read with interest the article by Don Steel about the origins of the SEWELL surname. My survey of the situation in Yorkshire seems to rein­force the notion that the SEWELL surname generally originated from the personal name and not from the place.

I have gone through the indexes of some of the publications of the Yorkshire Archaeological Society and have extracted references to SEWELL, SOLE and SAUL up to 1750, involving the diocese of York, which covered the pre 1974 three Ridings of Yorkshire and also Nottinghamshire. Although these are not enough examples to provide absolutely firm conclu­sions, we are nevertheless able to detect some trends so far as SEWELL is concerned and which, to some extent, bear out Don's findings.

In the 13th century, we find SEWAL(L) being used as a first name, a good example being Sewal de Bovill, who was Archbishop of York from 1255 to 1258.

In Yorkshire, in an area near the confluence of the Rivers Aire, Derwent, and Ouse, we can perhaps see a transition of SEWALL from first name to surname. In 1286 Adam, son of Sewall of Newland was a member of a jury. A man of the same name was recorded on juries in 1293 and 1295, when his abode was Drax and then Airmyn. All of these places are in close proximity, so the records probably refer to the same man and SEWALL seems to be used as a first name.

In 1323, John Sewal of Drax was a witness to a deed, SEWAL now being used as a sur­name although there is a slightly earlier example in 1301 when Ricardo Sewall of Great Crakehall, North Riding, contributed 8d to a lay subsidy. Confusingly at the same place and time, there was ‘Alicia relicta Sewall' ‑ 'Alice, widow of Sewall' ‑ who also contributed 8d to the lay subsidy. This may be an example of the name being used interchangeably.

The next record is over a century later when the will of John Sewall of Hull was proved at York in 1459, and John Sayuell of Bubwith in the East Riding was involved in a land deal in 1493.

The SEWAL(L) spelling was still being used in the early 16th century as, for example, in 1527 when John Sewall of Tankersley, West Riding was involved in a riot. From the records I have found the SEWELL spelling starts in the mid16th century, the earliest example being the will of Christofer Sewell of Stillingfleet, East Riding in 1553. Thereafter, the SEWELL spelling is the norm in Yorkshire wills up to 1750, except for a late SEWALL spelling in 1746 in the will of Richard Sewall of Little Sheffield.

There was a Nottinghamshire variation spelt and presumably pronounced SAYWELL or SEYWELL, which is still in evidence today.

There are fewer instances of SAUL or SOLE and they occur later than SEWELL. The earliest SAUL will at York is that of Nicholas Saull of Doncaster in 1681, although there is an inventory for Edward Sawle of Bugthorpe, East Riding in 1635. There are only three references in other publications: John Saule of Pontefract in 1376, John Saul of Tadcaster in 1419, and Henri Saull of Linton­-on‑the‑Wold, North Riding in 1570.

The earliest SOLE will is that of John SowIl of Spaldington, East Riding in 1572 and in other records I found only one SOLE, namely Richard Sole of Barkesland, West Riding who was a witness to a deed in 1557.

I didn't come across any obvious crossovers between SEWELL, SOLE or SAUL, as op­posed to what Don Steel has found regarding possible links between SEWELL, SOWELL and SOLE. I have examined a Yorkshire Parish Register Society transcript of the registers of Aughton, East Riding, where we find as follows:

SOWLE                                 1657.

SOWELL                               1662,1664,1666.

SOUL                                     1705.

SOWLE                                  1708, and 1734 to 1740,

I think that we can safely say that we are dealing here with SOLE as also in the ad­jacent parish of Bubwith, where there are records under the name SOWELL, SOWLE and SOUL between 1668 and 1766.

Similarly at Thirsk, North Riding the IGI lists between 1571 and 1708, SEWELL and SEWHELL which change to SEWHILL and SEWILL. Here, clearly the people concerned were named SEWELL, as we would now say, with no ambiguity as to whether SOLE or SAUL is involved.

I have found a few records that seem am­biguous at first sight. The first is the in­ventory of Thomas Sawell of South Cave, East Riding in 1559. Is this SEWELL being pronounced SAYWELL or is SAUL? If we cross‑reference with the IGI, we find Peter and Agnes Sawell at the same place in 1558 at nearby Holme‑on‑Spalding Moor, but also Alison Sawell at the same place in 1561. To confuse the issue there is Thomas Soule in 1579 and Margret Soule in 1581. Similarly at Howden, which is about 5 miles south of Holme‑on‑Spalding Moor, we find a con­fusing situation as follows: 

Willm. SOULE                       1551

Jennett SAULLE                   1552  

Jennett SAWGHELL            1575

John SAULLE                       1582

Mgaret SAWGHWELL         1603

Nicholas SOWELL               1610

Anthonie SAULL                   1611

Ralf SEWELL                        1614

Isabel SAWLE                       1614

In those days Howden was a quite important market town and the parish was a big one, so it could be that we are dealing with several different families and different surnames. I will have to do some more work on this southwest corner of the old East Riding, as I have found SEWELLs, SAULs and SOLEs that need sorting out.

Of course, the principal barrier is the problem of spelling and pronunciation. I think that much would depend on the degree of literacy of the person writing down the record. I expect that the skills of the clerks in the Archbishop's court would have been of a higher standard than say, a parish clerk or even a country parson, and in the list of York wills the root name in each case is clearly in the SEWELL, SAUL or SOLE group, al­though the names as spelt in parish registers are more open to interpretation.

Perhaps more important would be the accent or dialect of the person telling the scribe what the name was. This still holds true today. If I give my name to someone, I habitually spell it before I am asked. Now, I know how to spell it, but all those years ago they were dependant on the judgement of what might have been a semi‑literate parish clerk in the days when there was no standardised spelling anyway, and local dialects were much stronger.

In these parts we say SOO‑WULL which is a near as I can make it; the main point is that the first syllables pronounced SOO and this seems to have been the pronunciation as far back as the early 18th century, where we find the spelling SUELL or SUELLS in North Lincolnshire, which eventually turns into SEWELL spelling by the late 1720s. Today, we have no difficulty, in separating SEWELL, SAUL and SOLE and it seems that they found the same in North Lincolnshire in the early 18th century and in the diocese of York as far back as the 14th century.

My, own view is that most of us who bear the SEWELL name come from those who bore the old English SIGEWEALD or more probably old Norse SIGVALDR personal name or nickname 'Victory ruler'. I go for the Norse option because of the concentration of the SEWELLs in East Anglia and the Lake District, both historically and at the present time. Both of these areas were heavily settled by the Vikings.

I think that even if it was possible to find out, it is unlikely that we are all descended from one person. I believe that there are also some SEWELLs who are descended from people who were of one of the SEWELL 'seven springs' villages, but these are a minority. I also have a feeling, although it is difficult to prove, that SEWELL always has been a separate name and any present or future crossovers with other names can be put down to pronunciation and particularly, spelling vagaries. That there appears to have been so few proved crossovers so far might bear this out.

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