This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 2nd December 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 SHIELDS?

A reader in Matlock has expressed an interest in this surname.

The word 'Shield' is used in two ways: either to describe a form of defence against attack; or a protection against the weather. While the first is easily identified as an item of Medieval armour, the second is less so, being an old word for temporary accommodation which is provided for herdsmen in Summer Pastures.

Although the point is not perfectly settled, it would seem that most of the surnames are more likely to have been derived from the agricultural usage. The oldest records reveal that 'Spiel' was the original form but that it had expanded into 'spieling' by the sixteenth century. The word appears to have evolved from the same sources as give 'shell'. Note: 'shelter', though similarly derived, did not enter the language till later (1585).

The need for these 'shiels' was greatest in Scotland and the Northern Counties. Here it was desirable in the summer to allow land on the lower levels to recover from winter usage and to transfer herds to upland pastures. (The technical term is 'transhumance').

The original 'shiels' were provided with roughly-built huts, but as time progressed the units of accommodation for the herdsmen were more robust and, in some cases, permanent. They were very much part of the rural economy and a curious off-shoot is that since a boundary line on moorlands could be very indistinct, 'shiels' were regarded as definitive boundary indicators. In 1532 proposals to build a road in Cumberland 'upon Debatable Grounde' appears to have provoked farmers to move into the their shiels in opposition.

Possibly there were some people living on or near such shiels and this gave them their particular identity. The most likely named sites giving rise to the surname would be either of the "Shields" in Northumberland or Durham. In the records for the Priory of Tynemouth (1291) it is stated that there is nothing there but three 'shiels' - but no doubt the Chronicler was alluding elsewhere!

Although the word is northern dialect, it was known in the south because the earliest mention was in Surrey: Roger atte Schelde (1332). Next in time is Willelmus de Scheles (West Riding: 1379). In Scotland this derivation is declared to be the only source of the surname. The earliest record is to Thomas of le Schele (Traquair: 1274). Also Robert Shiels of Roxburgh who was the able assistant of Dr. Johnson in the compilation of his great dictionary. Note: 'Spiel Water' and other places with similar usage are not related. The old Celtic 'sal' is used here and means 'flowing': (i.e. of water).

How many surnames are derived from `shield' as a means of defence is uncertain. Although it might relate to an 'armourer' that word does not appear until 1400, but it had a limited application to makers of chain mail in 1386. However 'shield-wright' (actually 'scyldwyrhta') appears as early as 1114.

By 'armour' then one must not be misled into thinking that those workers who made shields also included full body armour. Historically in Saxon times and for a while after the Conquest, the only defensive protection afforded to warriors was a leather cap and a round shield, later replaced by one generally described as 'pear-shaped'. The Normans introduced a characteristic elongated kite-shaped model, which being long, narrow and curved afforded maximum protection. Contrary to popular notions, they were often made of leather!

Since much fighting was done on foot, the leather, being lighter than metal, was less of an impediment. Leather for this purpose was highly regarded. It was soaked in oil, then worked into shape. Unlike the French, English soldiers knew that speedy foot-workers, supported by efficient bowmen, wreaked more damage on the enemy than mounted warriors in heavy suits of armour - as at Agincourt in 1415. In fact the elaborate shields and ponderous suits of full-armour came at a later date and belong to jousts and tournaments, and, quite reasonably, were designed to reduce the possibilities of accidents.

It also fell to the shield-makers to adorn shields with the bearers' insignia so some artistic talent was called for. The earliest mention is of Robert Schild of York, 1206.

Families who have connections with Ireland might discover that their name is a re-working of the Gaelic 0 Siadhail. If there is a tradition of medicine in the family, they might well look to Londonderry or Offaly for their predecessors, who produced generations of physicians. The exact meaning of the Gaelic-based name is uncertain, but suggestions are made that it could be akin to the nick-name 'Lazy-Bones'.

Finally, travel in the Middle Ages was facilitated by providing crossing places over rivers, known as 'fords'. Among places most suitable were those where there were stretches of shallow water. In Old English, the name for such sites was 'scald' and this appears in many place names: Shadwell (West Riding) and Scaldwell in Northampton. The expression could have been used to identify a man who supervised such a location or a family living in the vicinity. Except however for place names instances of the surname are rare.

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 2nd December 2002.

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