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

The Road Back

Origins of the Saul Name

By Les Saul

This article was originally published in the November 1998 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society.

'A History Of English In Its Words' by Craig M. Carver, regarding nicknames states: 

Surnames were not common in England before the thirteenth century, so it was customary to give an additional informal name to a person. This name was originally called an 'eke' name literally an additional name, from eke meaning additional or increase. The indefinite article an, was of course used with the expression 'an eke name'.

Of course, the English would corrupt this in no time flat to a nickname. So names have had a storied history.

Although I fully recognise that surnames were not common or hereditary in 1068 when the Domesday Book was compiled, it is not beyond the realm of possibility. Research into a number of sources indicates that some names, particularly those originating in other countries, have a tendency to take on a life of their own. As a career journalist for 50 years, I learned early on that it was unwise to have a closed mind to plausible alternatives to what appears to be a rock solid position. I have taken that approach with my involvement with genealogical research.

My principal interest at the moment is in tracing the origin of the family name. There are now thousands of SAULs around the world. Did the name originate in ancient Britain or elsewhere? It is unlikely that I will make that determination beyond the shadow of a doubt but it's fun trying. Therefore fellow genealogical researchers will appreciate my reaction on my first bit of "digging" to the following:

HAMPRESTON. Saul held it before 1066. It paid tax for 2 hides and 1 virgate of land. Land for 2 ploughs, of which 1 hide is in lordship; 1 plough there; 2 slaves; 5 villagers and 4 smallholders with 1 plough and 3 virgates and 6 acres. Meadow 40 acres; pasture 1 league long and 5 furlongs wide; woodland 2 acres; 1 cob; 15 cattle; 11 pigs; 40 sheep. It pays 50s.

Such was the translation from the Old English enscribed in William I's 'Domesday Book ‑ Personal Names, History from the Sources, gen. edition, John Morris, DOR 1. 19: Hampreston.'

To a career journalist and neophyte family historian with the name of SAUL, the information was electrifying. To a lifelong reporter, accustomed to digging up background for a news story, this was "manna from heaven" and opened up all kinds of "leads". One of them was the Victorian 'History of Wiltshire, Vol. 11' that states

"Long before 1066, great estates, other than those of kings, earls and churchmen had come into being. Many were scattered over several shires and though more loosely bound together than the fiefs of the Norman Age, they are comparable in extent with the larger post­Conquest baronies, even when the lands of commended men are not taken into account."

It had been assumed, in my branch of the SAUL family, that the name had been French and originated with the Norman Conquest, or possibly with the Huguenots. Here, it seemed to me, was proof positive backed up by a similar reference found in the Victorian History of the County of Dorset, Vol. Ill:

"In Canendone Hundred, a thegn held 2 hides and 1 virgate at farm of the king. This is the hidage of Hampreston which William Belet held of the queen according to Exon Domesday and which Saul held T.R.E. (in the Reign of Edward)."

So clearly, Saul was a property holder, a substantial one at that, of this part of England before the Normans came ‑ at least old William's Normans ‑ and it is suggested that the estate could have been a grant from the King of Wessex. That's another step back in time.

It was an archaeological article in Canada's national newspaper, the 'Globe and Mail' which appeared to provide another "lead". It stated that archaeologists in Britain, studying prehistoric monuments, came to the conclusion that the prehistoric stone circle of Stonehenge and "the massive earthwork ritual enclosures in Wiltshire and Dorset were constructed around 2600 BC. It may well be that much of southern England was quite literally taken over by conquerors from western France between 2800 and 2600 BC." The foregoing was taken from the comparative research of one of Britain's leading pre‑historians, Aubrey Burl. It was published in the 'Journal of the Wiltshire Archaeological Society', and was part of a feature article written for the newspaper by David Keys in March 1997.

That's 2,600 years before Julius Caesar's legions came to England and 3,600 years before William the Conqueror. So, is the SAUL name of French origin, from one of those early invading Frenchmen or did it perhaps originate with a Jewish conscript to the Roman army who decided to stay in Britain when the Roman troops went home? Rodney Legg, in his book 'Romans in Britain' says that many Roman troops settled in Britain. The 'Origin of English Surnames' by P. H. Reaney, (1967) says:

Isaac. Samuel and Saul were rare but had sufficient vitality to produce surnames. They were not confined to Jews and are found both as Christian names and surnames at a time when the Jews had been expelled from England.

Pending further name‑origin revelations, I have turned my attention to Hampreston itself and discovered that the village or town still exists north of Bournemouth in Dorset. An enquiry of the Dorset Family History Society as to whether there was any Saul­Hampreston connection still in existence revealed a Janet Saul Bessey. So now the search is on.

My objective is twofold. To try and find a link between the SAULs of Hampreston and the SAULs of Norfolk especially the Stalham area, and to pinpoint the origin of the family name, admittedly a long shot. I would appreciate hearing from anyone who might provide a lead to my search. Thanks to John Slaughter and others, I do have a basic family tree commencing with John Saul of Stalham, 1752. To do him justice, Mr Slaughter, a veteran at the game, is very sceptical respecting my search. I suppose it is somewhat unconventional and the kind of thing that serious researchers do not usually undertake. But I ask that the Sole Society bear with me.

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