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The surname and people who share it

Origin of surnames, generally

When we lived in small communities and travelled little, circles of acquaintance were very limited and people were known just by one name. As communities grew, and especially where two people may have had the same name, it became necessary to be a bit more specific, so a description would be added. This might be a nickname (John the Red head); it might relate to a trade (John the Butcher), it could be an art, a place, or a feature of the landscape where the person lived or just about anything else that would distinguish one John from another.

These descriptive names were not fixed or inherited. John's son might not have a red head and might not be a butcher. He might have been William (who lived by the) River or William, John's son.

Following the conquest of William in 1066, the Normans imported from France the concept of more enduring surnames. To begin with, some were still changed and even dropped but after a while they became more or less permanent and inherited. In this way nicknames, trades, places and so on became surnames in the way we now know them.

This did not happen overnight. Surnames continued to be formed in England well into the 15th century. Wales did not adopt the surname system until the countries were unified in 1536.

Origin and meaning of Titherly / Tytherleigh

Ours was one of the surnames that came from the place, which in turn was named after a feature of the landscape. According to the Dictionary of English Surnames (P. Rearny & R. Wilson, 1997, Oxford University Press) the surname Titherly appears to have come from the village of Tytherleigh in Chardstock, Devon or Tytherley in Hampshire.

Old spellings of the name include Tederlea (1168) and Tiderlega (1219). Tiderlega is old English for 'young wood'. The word Tiderlega has two components. The first seems to come from the old English 'tiedre' meaning weak or fragile, and the second is 'leah'. 'Leah' probably comes in turn from the old Norse 'Lo' and the Latin 'Lucus'. Leah, Lo and Lucus all mean 'grove' or 'thin wood', or more precisely 'an open place in a wood with the trees scattered (naturally rather than cleared) in such a way that grass can grow'.

The village of Tytherley, Hampshire, appears in documents dating back to the Doomsday Book (late 11th century). Several old maps of Hampshire show East Tytherley and West Tytherley, to the west and slightly south of Winchester and close to the boundary between Hampshire and Wiltshire (see below).

Tytherleigh, south of Chard, now in Devon, first appeared in documents dating back to 1201.

Spelling variations

Until relatively recently, most people were unable to read or write. Most of the time a name was spoken rather than written.

If a name had to be written down, such as at a census, or for the registration of a birth or a death, a representative of the church or the crown would usually do the writing. The name would just be said and it was up to the clerk to decide how to spell it. Different clerks might spell the name in different ways.The same person could have their name spelt different ways by different scribes and certainly there would be variations over time.

It is not difficult to understand how name spelling varied in these circumstances. With a name like ours, just look at the morning post to see how easy it is to introduce spelling variations!

As time went by, literacy rates improved and variations decreased, but by then many spellings had already been introduced. 

The will of Christian Tytherleigh proved in 1548 had 3 different spellings of the name and place.

The spelling of place names varied similarly. Just as with the surnames, scribes would decide the spelling, which could vary even within the same document.

Spellings of place names on maps were also inconsistent. Maps were largely the efforts of a single person and someone drawing a map would not necessarily refer back to a map drawn by someone else at an earlier date.


Just one origin?

Perhaps the records alone will never tell us whether all people who share the surname descended from the same family but we can consider a number of possibilities.

The name appears to be based on a place, Athelwoldus of Tiderleigh being one of the first known people with the name. It is possible that the community in that place already included unrelated people, more than one of whom took the suffix "of Tiderleigh" or similar. There are undoubtedly many origins for the names based on occupations, for example, so more than one origin of the original Tiderleigh must be possible.

It is also possible that there were families 'of Tiderleigh' in Devon and a different family 'of Tytherley' in Hampshire.

One of the best pointers is the Heralds Visitations (see box).

Jane Tytherleigh, whose enormous efforts have given us much of what we now know about the history of the name and the family, explains that the early records and the Heralds Visitations do not support the notion of a Hampshire origin. The descent of the family of Tiderleigh is described in the Visitation of the County of Devon in 1620. This is the origin of the oldest part of the family tree from Athelwoldus and links the name to Devon, back to about 1300AD. Another two descendancies described in Visitations were of the families Tytherleigh and Tetherlegh described in the Herald's Visitations to Hampshire and Dorsetshire in 1634 and 1565 respectively. Even the Hampshire one has a link back to Tiderleigh in Dorset. (The Dorset / Devon boundary moved).

Another pointer is the evidence of family connections in the early centuries after surnames were adopted.

Heralds Visitations (See also the 'Coat of Arms' page)

Heralds from the College of Arms made visits around the country in the 16th and 17th centuries to check whether families were bearing arms legitimately. In other words, to make sure that no-one was using a coat of arms or a title that they were not entitled to use.

The Heralds would check the 'pedigree' of the family to confirm the link from the person being visited by the Heralds to the person originally given a right to use a coat of arms, or a title such as 'gentleman'. These proofs of pedigree sometimes went back hundreds of years and were not necessarily always accurate. This is evident from the differences that appear in the same family line between different Visitations.

The Heralds would also sketch the Arms, seals etc of people, places and organisations (such as colleges, guilds and towns) and describe the area - usually including the geography as well as the commerce and so on. This information, including the proofs of pedigree, was all written down. Original copies of the Visitations of these Heralds, with their records of families and places, are in Museums and some were published in the late 19th century.

Sometimes people 'disclaimed' rights to use a Coat of Arms or a title that they had been using when the Heralds came. This may be because they were unable to prove their pedigree and did not want to apply for a new 'grant of armorial bearings'. It may also have been because they were using the arms or title illegally. The Visitations list people who disclaimed or were stripped of their right to use arms or titles.

Because of the purpose of the Visitations, they only included details of people who were entitled to bear arms or titles or were stripped of those rights. They did not need mention the 'common folk'.

The family trees and the stories in the 'Snippets' all indicate a family presence around North Devon, in areas such as Langtree, Hatherleigh, Chulmleigh and Frithelstock, but there does not appear to be such strength around the Salisbury and Winchester areas of Hampshire.

Something else to consider is that many (but not all) Ti(y)therle(igh)ys who appeared in the 1901 census can be linked into the family tree from William (about 1550). In fact, a huge number only have to go back to Philip Crispin Titherly, born in 1747, for a direct link.

Perhaps, with some more work on the trees we will be able to tell if everyone with our name is related. If there were more than one source for the surname, perhaps the lines of the others came to an end and every who now shares the name is descended from the line that did endure.

Even if it turns out that we are not related by blood, we do at least appear to be related by geography, and the geographical link is tending to point to Devon.

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