What’s in a Name? (Saul)

By Richard Saul

This article was published in the December 2020 edition of Soul Search, the Journal of The Sole Society

In the past the Society has considered that many of the Sauls, Saules, Salls etc. derived their names from the places they lived. In this article Richard Saul gives us an alternative origin of the surname by proposing it comes from the occupation ‘Sall’, a person who worked in, or close, to a monastery or a manor house.

There have been a number of articles in Soul Search about the origins of the Saul surname. Some of my recent research has led me to give further thought to this. I now believe that the majority of Sauls have their surname from being workers originally known as Salls who lived and worked near a manor or abbey.
The availability of DNA tests has given us some indications that quite a number of Saul groups do not have common ancestors and are likely to be unrelated families. Surnames became widespread after William the Conqueror’s invasion in 1066 and the are generally considered to have come from occupations, birth place, or physical appearance.
After 1066 the Norman influence spread across England and Ireland and the country was managed on a manorial basis with landowners who had a variety of tenants and servants. The manorial system had originated in France and had spread to eastern England well before 1066 and William rewarded his soldiers and supporters by giving them land and manors. In the 12th-16th century many manors became part of the lands owned by the abbeys and monasteries that mushroomed to become the major basis of the rural economy. When the abbeys were built many Lords and landowners, including royalty, endowed the abbeys by donating the lands and the income from them to the abbey. These manors and abbeys relied on local people to provide the workforce and the workers were often given surnames describing the kind of work they did or the place where they were farming. The administration of the manor or abbey was conducted in the Sall (or Salle) which was the great Hall of the building.
Many of the surnames in use today are associated with abbeys are names derived from French words; e.g.
Abbot(t) – The administrative head of the abbey French word: Abbot
Chamber(s) – Servants looking after the abbey rooms French word: chambre
Ostle(r) – host/hosteller looking after visitors welfare and horses French word: ostel
Messenger – French word: messagier
Drap(e)(r) – producer of cloth French word: Drapier
We also find that in old French a Sall (or later Salle) was ‘a person living or working in or close to a manor’. This applied before the abbeys were built and would apply to each manor. The surnames Sall and Salle appear together with Sauls, particularly in The Sole Society’s Cumbrian Saul charts. Saul charts cover almost every county in England, as well as southern Scotland and eastern Ireland and all were areas in which the abbeys evolved during the 12th century. However there is little indication from the charts or from DNA that these families can be traced back to a common source.
It seems possible therefore that some of the Sauls – including Salls, Salles, Sawles etc. who existed at the dissolution of the abbeys and monasteries in 1536-42 were local inhabitants who had worked in or near the Abbey or its associated manor. They would have been lay brothers providing food and services for the Abbey. They would meet with others in the Great Hall of the abbey (Grande Salle) to conduct their business. It is a possibility the operation in the Salle was conducted by a Sall. It is also possible that each Grange or Manor of the abbey had a Sall who might be a yeoman farmer, shepherd or cowman or a tenant farmer, weaver or keeper of abbey woodlands, fisheries, salt works etc.
Previous studies reported in Soul Search have raised the possibility of Saul being a surname based on being from a specific place such as Saul in County Down or Salle in Norfolk. When looking at this I think it is necessary to look at dates, bearing in mind the surnames came mainly after 1066 with the Norman influence.
The village of Saul in County Down could be the basis for Sauls: Saul was the site of St. Patrick’s barn in the 5th century. However surnames were not used until centuries later.

St Patrick's Church in the village of Saul, County Down

St Patrick’s Church in the village of Saul, County Down. Image by Mkooiman, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

The village of Salle in Norfolk – pronounced Saul but recorded in Domesday Book as Sall could also give rise to place related Sauls. It is also possible that this was an early Norman settlement connected with the wool trade that took place between Norfolk and what is now France and which was already known as Salls from around the 9th-10th centuries. So maybe Sall in Norfok was named after the occupation long before it became a surname.
The village of Saul in Gloucestershire (also recorded as Salle) was not recorded until late 13th century by which time surnames would have been coming into existence. As it is recorded as a manor of Gloucester it may be that it is a place named after its inhabitants, Salls, who worked at the manor house.
Saulseat in Stranraer was a 12th century Abbey whose first Abbot was reputedly named Saul but no record is to be found. Perhaps this fits in with my thinking that most Sauls are named according to occupation rather than a specific place
When we study the many Saul charts we find many where the early ancestors in the 16th Century were living close to abbeys or monasteries. For example, when we look at the Sawles of Cornwall we find that they are believed to originate from the Manor of Penrice which was given to a Norman Knight by William the Conqueror; they would be those working or living at the Manor. It should be noted that the Sawle spelling is found on other Saul charts from Gloucester up to Cumbria along with the other forms such as Sall and Sale and Saule.
It will be interesting to examine early records and link these to DNA results from Sauls descended via the paternal line. If you have records of your early ancestors before 1650 and have your paternal haplogroup identified perhaps you would like to share these with The Sole Society so that we can see what links might exist between Saul groups.