This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 18th October 2004, reproduced by kind permission of the author, the late Desmond Holden.

The “What's in a Name” series was a regular feature in the Advertiser over the period 1993‑2004, taking a refreshing look at the derivation of some typically Derbyshire surnames.

Articles are confined to the origins and meanings of surnames, and do not indicate any particular interest on Desmond's part in the genealogy, descent, or family history of individuals bearing the surnames featured.

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 MORRIS?

This surname is constructed on the personal name "Maurice" and which occasionally appears as a surname - e.g. Frederick Denison Maurice (1805-72) the great social reformer. This name was extremely popular in the Middle Ages as witness Maurice, Bishop of London and Chancellor to William I. Also the celebrated Welsh scholar named Maurice who flourished around the year 120.

In Latin the name was rendered as "Mauricius" and it has settled now on "Morris" as the surname, whereas the form "Maurice" has been more favoured as the personal name.

The name is related to the word "moor" which was once a general description for the inhabitants of north-west Africa. It first appeared in English in 1390 and is familiar in its Shakespearian context: Othello, The Moor of Venice. It still survives as a building term: Moorish architecture. Its origin is not perfectly settled. It evolved in the late Latin word " Mauros" which might be derived from the Byzantine Greek for "dark" or "swarthy" which was also "mauros".

It certainly generated the personal name "Maurus" and this is to be found fairly frequently in the later Roman empire. It was borne by several Christian Saints which no doubt enhances its acceptability as a given name. The best known is St. Maurice (22nd September). He was a commander of a legion and was journeying through the alpine regions when he and his companions were slain by the orders of the emperor Maximian for refusing to observe Pagan rituals (c. 286 A.D.) The Swiss resort of St. Moritz is named after him. A lesser known Saint is St. Mauru commemorated on 15th July and to whom are attributed many miraculous cures and the ability to walk on water! He was associated with an abbey bearing his name, St. Maur and from which it is understood the name Seymour has been derived.

One of the most highly regarded activities of medieval society was the presentation of miracle plays and pageants. The local people who organised them took the same part year after year and it is on record that they became so inseparably identified with their character as to be given a corresponding nickname. Hence we find Robert le Moreys (1273) in Somerset who is on record for his impersonations of a Moorish Warrior. A similar case is that of William of Suffolk (1274).

It should also be remembered that our medieval forebears spent much of their time in the open air so weather-beaten and tanned complexions were not unusual. Hence a man whose black hair and exceptionally dark countenance would combine in the choice of his nickname which would result in him being dubbed "moor" or "moorish" as, for example "Ottwell Morys" of York (1379).

The universality of the name "Morris" is evidenced in that although it was not exactly introduced into England by the Normans, they accelerated its distribution. The presence of the name in Scotland anticipates the Conquest and as the Normans did not exercise any ascendancy in that country its antiquity and independence is verified from such examples as Arthur Mauricius who is recorded in 1364. The spelling "Morrice" prevails in Scotland. Gilbert Morice of Irvine is known also as "Moris" (1540).

The Normans did however have a stronger influence in Ireland and in the form "de Maries" and "de Marisco" established themselves in Galway. The form "de Marisco" modified into "Morrisey". The Gaelic equivalent to "Fitz" (son of-) is "Mac" and " FitzMaurice" modulated into "Mac Muiris" and belongs to County Kerry. It is interesting to note that Shakespeare took the name " Macmorris" as typically Irish in "Henry V".

Even prior to the Norman invasion, spelled as "Meurig", the name was known in Wales some 500 years previously.

Variations in the name are usually self explanatory: Morrison is clearly "son of Morris". The only instance of obscurity is found in the name "Morse" with which the inventor of the invaluable "code" is associated. It is illustrative of this point that Sir Christopher Morris (1490-1544) who was master of ordnance is variously named as either "Mores" or "Morice."

The name is widely distributed across the islands: there are more than 200 entries in the local directory as well as over 30 in the standard biography. Just even to mention some of the "headliners" would be overwhelming but perhaps William Morris (1834-1896) the artistic designer might be excepted. Older readers will recall the presence in our homes of the indoor Air Raid Shelters (1941) named after Mr Herbert Morrison an outstanding and memorable M.P. and public servant from the 1920s to 1960.

The term "Morris Dances" is derived from "Moorish Dances." At one time the sensible contribution of the actors playing the "Moors" degenerated into sheer buffoonery, which involved leaping and cavorting around without much order. Later the dances were better organised and remodelled on older and better disciplined movements, though still retaining the name!

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From "The Peak Advertiser", 18th October 2004.

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