LEWIS

This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 6th May 2002, reproduced by kind permission of the author, Desmond Holden.

The "What's in a Name" series has been a regular feature in the Advertiser.
Articles are confined to the origins and meanings of surnames and Desmond regrets he is unable to undertake research into the genealogy, descent or family history of individuals.

Editor's Note: Articles are provided for general interest and background only. They are not intended to provide an exhaustive treatise for any individual family history - investigations of which may yield quite different results. Or, in Desmond's own words:

"In the end it must remain with individual bearers of the names to draw upon family traditions and to seek out such documentary evidence as is available to decide the matter for themselves."

WHAT'S IN A NAME … Are you called LEWIS?

Families with Welsh connections and surnamed Lewis know that it is a long-established substitution for their native name "Llywelyn". Both this Welsh form and its English equivalent "Lewis" seem to have run in parallel because the Ecclesiastical Register for St. David's (1437) contains this entry: Llewelyn ap-Madoc alias Lewis Rede. The exact significance of Llywelyn is not certain. For a long while it was thought to be a combination of "llew" (lion) and "eilwn" (like) suggesting: He who is like unto a lion. This interpretation stood for so long that it modulated into the personal name "Leoline" (as in "Christabel" - Coleridge). Later research suggested that it was based on an older Welsh word "llyw" (leader) which in turn could be related to a Celtic god of the name of "lugus". However even more recently explored sources point towards an ancient British name which has been reconstructed as "Luguhwalos" which had probably much the same meaning, i.e. leader, chieftain. Because the use of native Welsh names was not actively encouraged by the English establishment in Wales, the form "Lewis" provided a convenient approximation.

What appears possibly to be one of the few instances of trying to construct a surname on the English pattern by tagging-on the unit "-son" occurs in 1554 where the Archdeacon of Caermarthen is named as "William Lewson". Otherwise Lewis usually stands alone and formations such as Lewson or Lewison are rarely involved. (See further).

English families derive their surname from the same sources which now yield the Teutonic name of Ludwig. It is a combination of two old German words "hlod' (fame : glory) and "vig" (battle : warrior). No doubt it was a name that could be appropriately conferred upon an individual who was admired in the community as being a noble warrior. It makes its first appearance as "Chlodowig" which medieval scribes latinised into "Ludovicus", and which passed ultimately into French as "Louis" and into English as "Lewis." It has remained an exceptionally popular personal name in France, having, for example been adopted by 18 monarchs, but on the other hand has never found much favour in this country. This might probably be that it was too strongly identified with the oppressive Norman invaders after 1066 and it is a fact that no outstanding personality in England has ever borne the name. Indeed the disdain shown for "Louis" is revealed, no doubt, by our stolid refusal to adopt the French spelling until a quite recent period. A popular and widely circulated religious work about saints published around 1830 still referred to "St. Lewis IX of France." Yet curiously enough the author of "Treasure Island" had been baptised with the middle name "Lewis" which he later changed to "Louis" but still retained the English pronunciation!

The earliest reference is dated 1166 in Essex: Lowis le Briton and it is interesting to speculate as to whether this is a significant allusion to its alien character. As a surname it first appears in Lancashire in 1202 and refers to a Robert Lowis.

In the case of families with Scots associations it might have been thought that the Hebridean island of Lewis would have furnished a surname but this is extremely doubtful. The people who actually lived on the island adopted their nomenclature in conformity with their Gaelic traditions and those who crossed over to the mainland don't seem to have taken the name with them. In fact the most authoritative compilation of Scots surnames does not list Lewis at all!

In many cases examples of the surname in either Scotland or Ireland indicate its being imported from England. However it is accepted that in a few cases it might be a reworking of some Gaelic or old Irish personal name. Several sources have been suggested and they all seem to focus on "Lugh" which signifies "brightness". He was a Celtic god and appears as a unit in the place name of Carlisle (Lugodunum) but it must be left to individual families to follow up these leads.

It is remarkable that the basic name, Lewis does not have any parent / child extensions. The most obvious development would have been the addition of "-son" but this is rarely listed and certainly doesn't appear in the local directory. What seem to be instances can usually be traced to surnames derived from the Hebrew "Levy" which yields the familiar "Levis" and "Levison". Refugees from Central Europe settled here and often adopted the name "Lewis" where it approximated to their original Hebrew designation.

There is only one example in the standard biography of "Lewson" and that might appear to provide an exception were it not for the note appended that it was altered from "Leveson" and which suggests a foreign origin.

Out of the 50 or so personalities listed in the Reference Works under the name Lewis it would be invidious to make any selection. Still mention might be made of Matthew Gregory (1755-1818) who is dubbed "Monk Lewis" on account of his spooky novel "The Monk" (1795). It falls far short of later productions such as "Frankenstein" and "DracuIa" and films like "The Exorcist" but it was a leader in the genre.

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 6th May 2002.

URL of this page: http://names.gukutils.org.uk/Lewis.shtml
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