This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 27th September 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 WORTHY?

Among the contributions made by medieval scholars to the learning of their day was the assembling of lists of outstanding events, personalities and constructions. And if these could be linked to mystic numbers, so much the better. Hence these scholars produced the "Seven Sages of Greece", and the "Seven Wonders of the World".

The figure nine was especially significant because it was three times three and this could be made to fit into a historical pattern whereby the great stages of western civilisations could be catalogued: The Ancient World, that of the Old Testament and that of Christendom. They selected three personalities from each - Alexander, David and Charlemagne, for example. They described such a list as naming "The Nine Worthies of the World" .

In a later century, Thomas Fuller (1608-1661) put together a remarkable compendium of biographies of the most eminent Englishmen which was entitled "The Worthies of England". It is still admired and referred to.

Hence it can be seen that the expression "worthy" had much greater force of meaning than it has at present. In modern English "worthy" is certainly in current use but it is either extremely bland (e.g. "a worthy attempt", "collecting for worthy causes" (or it is merely facetious (e.g. "...in the saloon bar, several worthies were seen propping up the counter...").

The word itself is derived from the same sources which yield "worth" in the sense of "value" and it is related to the Latin "virtus" which provides the English term "virtue" signifying "merit" or "excellence". At this point it is desirable to mention that "worth" and sometimes "worthy" often appear in place-names but they have a different meaning and a completely separate origin. They have, of course, generated similar surnames but discussion of them must be postponed for the time being and will appear in a later issue of the Peak Advertiser.

So, among our medieval ancestors, to have been designated as "Worthy" was not only a compliment and a mark of high esteem but there are also persuasive indications that it closely approached a status-name. Exactly where "Worthy" stood in a medieval Table of Precedence is no longer easy to determine, but there are sufficient indications that it was an acknowledged designation.

The suggestions that follow in support are, it is willingly conceded, based only on inferences. The first is derived from an Act of Parliament dated 1485, wherein the inhabitants of a borough are listed in descending order. It concluded "...Burgesses, Worthymen and the Commonality". This could be interpreted as being that a "Worthyman" occupied a position somewhat below that of a "Burgher" - the plural of "Burgher" is "Burgesses" in this case - who was an inhabitant who owned property and had a vote and participated in the running of the place.

Equally so a "Worthyman" stood higher than a member of the "Commonality" - that is a peasant, or as Shakespeare said " a rude mechanical". The lowly status of a "Worthyman" is revealed by taking a look at a Book of Etiquette produced in 1460. The writer directed his advice to those new members of great households who had come from suitable backgrounds and were required to work their way upwards on the social ladder.

Bear in mind that even young noblemen performed lowly tasks to prepare them to move towards higher offices and that rank and status were rigidly observed among our medieval ancestors, Hence in this manual of etiquette, while it is suggested that a "Worthyman" was not of sufficient elevation to occupy a place at the higher tables, nevertheless he stood higher amidst the other lower servants with whom he took a meal.

The relevant passage, in modern spelling reads: "If you find yourself sitting next to a Worthyman, even if you had taken your place sooner, nevertheless allow him to help himself first to what is on the table".

All this goes to suggest that many members of our medieval societies who were safely positioned in their particular echelon were ready and willing to acknowledge that there were members of the "Commonality" who displayed good sense and wisdom and were marked out specifically as "Worthymen". The poet Chaucer (1380) seems to show something of this when he refers to "Worthy Women of the Towne" as being on terms of equality with a Franklin - a man who held his land free of feudal servitudes.

Why "Worthy" dropped out of use is not apparent. Probably it was superseded by "Gentleman" which was accorded a significance that was slightly less indeterminate. Curiously it became prevalent at a time when surnames were becoming more established and as a surname is rather uncommon. (Stamp enthusiasts will know of David Gentleman, the designer of Commemorative Issues).

In passing it may be noted that similar circumstances attach themselves to "Esquire" the use of which, in modern times is rapidly falling into disuse. It is affected nonsense anyway!

The word still survives in the term "worship" (i.e. Worthy-ship) when addressing magistrates or alluding to "His Worship the Mayor". Its use as a suffix tends slightly to play down its original significance, as in conjunction with "credit-worthy" or "road-worthy".

So people whose surname is "Worthy" can take it that even if it did not originate as an acknowledged status-name, then it was conferred upon a medieval predecessor as a mark of affectionate esteem among his neighbours. The circles in which "Worthymen" moved did not lend themselves to much in the way of writing and in fact no record of the name in this sense can be traced - the few that are available are based in Hampshire and derived from the place-name "Worthy".

An attempt to create a Scots equivalent in the form McWorthy, etc. is spurious. It is a misrendering of Mackworth near Derby - also a place-name.

No personality called "Worthy" appears in any of the Standard Biographies. It seems to be rather localised and there are, in fact, about 30 in the local directory. Readers in this area, especially Matlock, will recognise our friend Alan Worthy of Lumsdale Removals and Storage.

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 27th September 1999.

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