This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 6th December 1999, 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 MORTEN?
(Variations: Mortan, Mortin, Mortyn, Morteyn, Mortain, Morton)

A reader in Broken Cross (Macclesfield) asks about this name and mentions also Mortin. There must be many families which originally bore the name but have unwittingly converted to surnames such as Moreton or Morton. These are location-names and, along with the personal name Martin provide a ready source of confusion.

As a starter, the name Morten is derived from a place called Mortain in Northern France (Manche). Geographically it stands on the southern part of the Cotentin Peninsula and in the Valley of the Selune about 25 miles east of Avranches and St. Michael's Bay into which the river flows. According to the guide books it is "picturesquely situated". The name is believed to be a corruption of "Mauritania". It takes that form in a reference dated 1096 to a Mauus de Mauritania.

It is truly intriguing to speculate how the name of a province of the Roman empire (now Morocco and Algeria) occurs in Normandy. Of course, it might also be related to St. Maurus who was the leading disciple of St. Benedict. He was especially active in France and forms of his name were adopted and very popular among the Normans. In passing, both "Mauritania" and "Maurus" evolved from the classical expression "maurus" which evolved in English as "Moor".

This was the general description in England for a dweller in North Africa until about the beginning of the 18th century. (Hence "Morocco" which means "The Land of the Moors"). Its ultimate origin is probably from a word in the Old Phoenician language, "mauharin", and which signifies "eastern". However, in the case of "Mortain" it must be left to specialists in French place-names to provide a more comprehensive discussion as to its precise origin and meaning.

Continuing our account of the name "Morten" and its introduction into this island, it can be stated that people called Morten - or any of its variations - can have a very convincing claim to be associated with a predecessor who really did "come over" with William the Conqueror in 1066.

Of course many families love to believe that they have origins in the landing of the Norman Duke. These families rely heavily on the inclusion of their name in the register of all the companions of William who confronted the English at Hastings. This register is called the "Battle Abbey Roll". It is now accepted that for the gratification of vanity, the Custodians of the Roll were not averse to taking back-handers and interpolating names. Like the genealogies published in "Burke's Landed Gentry" (1837) which a distinguished authority on the subject (Professor Freeman) described as "wild nonsense", the same professor called the Battle Abbey Roll a transparent fiction". "Well, perhaps he was being a bit severe but it is a fact that the Roll appears to have been compiled some 400 years after the event!!

However in the case of "Morten" there is no dispute. The ancestor here is Count Robert de Mortain. Not only is he specifically mentioned in the chronicles of the Norman invasion but is even depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry. It isn't everybody who can not only lay claim to a Norman ancestor but produce his portrait as well!

Robert de Mortain took an active part in the landing and at the Battle of Hastings and was rewarded most lavishly by William for his support. His possessions in England were more extensive than any other follower. Most of them were in the south-west - so much so in fact, that he was once mistakenly given the title "Earl of Cornwall". He was the lord of nearly 200 manors in Yorkshire.

Since it was very much in order during the Middle Ages for those who worked for great lords to adopt their names, it must follow that many people who bear this aristocratic name can only attribute it to this practice. Even so, it would have been a natural consequence, taking into account the extensive possessions of the Count de Mortain, for the name to have been more widely distributed than actually happens.

Even allowing for modulations into "Moreton" or "Martin" the name is thinly distributed and only one place-name incorporates it: that is "Marston Moretaine" (sometimes "Morteyne") which is about 6 miles south of Bedford. The addition of the family name occurred about 1383 so the bearers of the name seem to have enjoyed some standing in the vicinity. Otherwise the family appears to have faded from sight.

Apparently Count Robert's son, William, joined in an insurrection against King Henry I, and was defeated in the Battle of Tinchebrai (1106). Losing favour, he forfeited the title. No doubt better informed historians of the period can fill out details.

For some reason the spelling "Mortin" is listed among names special to Derbyshire, but otherwise the name is rarely encountered except in Cheshire. Even in the south-western counties and also around Bedford, the local directories include few entries.

The Derbyshire connection dates from 1219 and refers to a Eustace de Mortaine. The name has no Scots or Irish counterparts. Apart from the original bearer of the name, Robert, Count of Mortain, who died about 1091, only a - certain Thomas Morten (1836-1866) of Middlesex is mentioned in the standard biographies. He was a popular artist and his illustrations for an edition of "Gulliver's Travels" (1864) were well-received.

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From "The Peak Advertiser", 6th December 1999.

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