Copyright © 2013, updated 2019 Jane E. Wilcox, Forget-Me-Not Ancestry, Albany, NY www.4getmenotancestry.com.
In the early 2000s I researched the origins of surnames in England and of the surname Wilcockson in particular to include in a chapter of my book on the origins of Puritan William Wilcockson of Biggin by Hulland, Derbyshire, and his wife Margaret probably Harvie of Ilkeston, Derbyshire who immigrated to New England in 1635. The following is my research for that chapter as prepared in 2013, with DNA evidence added in 2019, debunking the Welsh nobility origins myth that was presented by Thomas Wilcox in his two 20th century genealogies and showing that the surname Wilcockson in England is polygenetic.
In early Britain and around the world, only one name was used to identify a person. This was true on the island whether the person was of Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, Viking or Norman origin. At that time there was a difference between the spoken name and the written name: spoken names were always in the native tongue and written names were always in Latin because the only people who could read or write were clerics and very few other educated people. Remember, the Christianity of Britain during this time was based in Rome, and Latin was the native language there. Even masses held in the local parish churches in England were recited in Latin during this time—and all around the Roman Catholic world.
By the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066, a few people in Britain had a second name by which they were identified. These second names–or as one historian called them, by-names—usually came into use by people outside the person’s family or village. Some clerk or cleric would need to better identify one or more people with the same name, so one John might became Johannes filius Robertus which means “John, son of Robert”; another John might have become Johannes de la Poole which means “John who lives by the pool,” and so on.
Second names sprang from several sources: relationships, locations, occupations and nicknames. A surname derived from a relationship identified the person usually by the name of the person’s father, i.e. John Williams or William Johns or John Roberts. This is called a patronymic surname. There are a few English surnames that come from a mother’s name, called metronymic. Surnames derived from locations used the name of a village or other place name or identified the person as living near a certain place or object like a pool or a tree, i.e. John Matlock or John York or John Oakley. Names derived from occupations or offices are easy to spot: Cooper, Smith, Clerk/Clark, Hooper, or Knight. Those names derived from nicknames sometimes described personal attributes of a person: Redhead, or Barefoot.
After the Norman conquest in 1066, more and more people began to have another or second name by which to identify themselves. P.H. Reany believes this came about because Britain became feudal under the Normans, and this system needed to have a good record-keeping system in order for the lords of the manor to keep track of who did or did not pay taxes and of who owed what service to the lord. Another historian disagrees with this theory. David Hey believes the Norman nobility brought the newly-developed practice of using hereditary surnames with them, and it became fashionable for the nobility in England to have surnames. He also believes that using surnames was especially important for the English and Norman nobility in England because they needed to have a means by which inheritance and possession of property could be more easily determined during the uncertain times of the early Norman period in England. Many of these surnames, which came into use in the first two centuries of the Norman period, were derived from places of residence.
Hey believes the use of surnames by common folk began originally when a person’s neighbors created a by-name to refer to the person–rather than an official record keeper needing to record a tax. Hey cites the fact that the pool from which parents chose a first name dwindled between 1150 and 1300, which meant that there were many more Johns and Williams and Richards than there were in the past. Neighbors started referring to each other with a by-name in order to distinguish which John or William or Richard they were talking about. In addition, many of the common surnames were derived from nicknames or diminutives, which a scribe would not have used for record keeping.
 P.H. Reany and R.M. Wilson, A Dictionary of English Surnames (London: Routledge, 1991), xii.
 Ibid, xlv.
 David Hey, The Oxford Guide to Family History (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1993), 17.Posted on by Jane Wilcox