This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 23rd February 1998, 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 PRINCE?

The Dedication formerly appearing in copies of the "Authorised Version" of the Bible was addressed to "Prince James, King of Great Britain". This apparent contradiction of titles needs some explanation.

During the Middle Ages, and certainly well into the times of the Stuarts "prince" had rather an imprecise meaning. Old chronicles frequently used the expression "prince" in contexts where we would now expect "chief" or "leader". In 1382 Wycliffe translated the reference in Acts IV:23 to the "Chief Priests" as "the Princes".

Furthermore its ambiguity was compounded in that it had no gender. One writer described Cleopatra as "Prince of the Nile" (1594) and later, another made mention of "Prince Mary. Queene of Scots" (1610).

The title lacked precision because literally it means "first" and that word is meaningless unless there is somebody or something identified as "Number One".

Originally that status was enjoyed by the chief senator in ancient Rome, who, was called "Princeps Senatus". Because senators represented the community of Rome, the "first" was obviously the chief representative of the people. This was a distinction which should have been allowed to remain with the people but the Emperor Augustus (BC 27-AD 14) came along and bagged it - as if he hadn't already given himself enough in the way of titles - and so began its illogical identification with royalty.

In England it was not until the time of Queen Victoria (1865) that it took on its present significance: that is - applicable to all royal children and grandchildren. Previously James I (1603-1625) had arranged for every royal son to bear that title but before then it went only to the eldest. It is, of course, frequently associated with Wales but the origin of that title is not as romantic as popular legends would have us all believe. Until the end of the 13th Century, Wales was divided into small units, each ruled over by a man who called himself "Tywsog". In modern english this approximates to "Head of Government" and this is exactly what it still means today in Ireland, where it refers to the "First" or "Prime" Minister, who bears the exact Gaelic counterpart of "Tywsog" - namely "Taoiseach".

An ill-founded tradition has it that Edward I (1272-1307) presented his infant son to the Welsh leaders at Caernarvon Castle ("A prince who cannot speak a work of English") whereas the title "Prince of Wales" came about during an assembly held at Lincoln in 1301 when the boy was over 16! His standing was no higher than those whom he was to supplant and, in fact, a modern historian writing in the "Encyclopedia Brittannica" says, with reference to a later holder of, the title (the "Black Prince") that he was hardly anything more than the Chief Welsh Landlord.

So it is not surprising that while the more elevated title of "king" has furnished countless number of people with their surname, "prince" is comparatively rare.

In most cases involving what are called "status names", they were originally borne by people who worked, for example, in royal households or on a royal estate. It might be noted, in passing, that the custom of addressing certain domestic servants engaged in aristocratic establishments by the same titles as their employers persisted well into the present Century. [i.e. 20th - Ed]

However, because households pertaining to a "prince" would have been smaller in number than those of a "king" very few people would have had the opportunity of acquiring the surname "Prince" on that account. Otherwise the most likely explanation is that is was simply a nick-name. It would have been directed to anybody who put on airs and graces. Today the only status name much used in this respect is "lord" - ("Here he comes trying to lord it over everybody!"). But, in the later Middle Ages, "prince" was also used in this context. In 1590 a "jumped-up" character is a play says "I'll go to courte and prince it out". Shakespeare uses it in "Cymbeline" (Act III Sc. iii) "In simple or low things, to prince it out beyond the tricks of others".

Fortunately it might be of some consolation to people who don't like the notion that they own their surname to an ancestor who was known to his neighbours as somebody whom today we'd call "Lord Muck" that there is yet another explanation of considerably more refinement. Local people, in Mediaeval communities, who regularly played standard roles in Mystery Plays or Pageants were often identified as such: hence the surnames, King, Prince, Pope, Bishop, etc.

It is easy to trace the English word from the Latin "princeps" and it provides an identical form in French. In fact "Prince" is found quite frequently in south-west England and in Sussex which suggests ties with Britanny and France.

The tyranny of the Eastern European Empires compelled certain minorities to assume surnames simply for bureaucratic convenience. Many such names were contrived to be ornamental or elevated and so if there is evidence in a particular family of immigration from Eastern Europe, the name might well be an anglicised version of "Prinz". For the record it is not a corrupt form of "apprentice" (i.e. prentice).

The name is first recorded (1177) in Cumberland - Robert Prince and it occurs frequently in York and Norwich. A Sussex record provides "Robert le Prins" (1327).

The name is not common, but it is fairly evenly distributed across the county. There is however an extremely heavy concentration in Merseyside. This might possibly be explained in that some lingering traditions of "princely" titles could have dwelt in folk memories around North Wales and the adjoining English counties. (For example, "Prince John, brother to Richard the Lion-Heart, is strongly associated with Liverpool). The name certainly prevails in the Wirral, Cheshire, Staffordshire and Derbyshire.

The only personality bearing the name seems to be a Lancashire poet, John Prince (1808-1866) who was greatly admired in his day but is now forgotten.

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From "The Peak Advertiser", 23rd February 1998.

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