Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Of Wimseys and Wellesleys: Name Changes

Today's post isn't about titles of the nobility, but about how malleable surnames were in Britain 200 years ago.

I mentioned in a previous post that Wellington's last name up into his 20's wasn't Wellesley, but Wesley. And his paternal grandfather wasn't born a Wesley, but a Colley. (Or a Cowley. The further back in time you go, the less consistent people were about spelling even their own names.)

So, how did a Colley become a Wesley? It was a matter of inheritance. When Richard Colley inherited an estate from a Wesley cousin on his mother's side, he changed his name accordingly. Note that he inherited property, NOT a title. With very rare exceptions, titles can't pass through the maternal line, but as long as property isn't entailed (a subject for a different post), one could leave it to pretty much whomever one liked. There wasn't a requirement to change one's name upon inheriting from a differently-surnamed relative, but it was commonly done. You can see something similar in Jane Austen's Emma, in which Frank Weston is adopted by his wealthy maternal grandparents and becomes known as Frank Churchill.

Two generations later, how did the Wesleys become Wellesleys? Basically, Wellington's oldest brother Richard decided he liked Wellesley better, and the rest of the family followed suit. Wellesley was indeed the original form of the name, if one went up the family tree a few generations.

Name changes of this kind were perfectly legal and didn't require the formal bureaucratic process a similar change would entail now. As long as you weren't doing it with intent to defraud someone, the powers that be didn't care.

Another form of name change you see a good bit in the 18th and 19th centuries is hyphenation, upon informal adoption, inheritance, or marriage. The second of the Wellesley brothers, William, inherited estates from a cousin by the name of Pole and is known to history as William Wellesley-Pole. He had a son, also named William, who married an heiress named Catherine Tylney-Long. When a woman brought a lot of money and/or family prestige to a marriage, sometimes her husband added his name to hers...which in this case led to the exceptionally unwieldy moniker of William Pole-Tylney-Long-Wellesley. For reals.

Next time, we'll go back to titles proper.

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