Early Origins of the Name FINCH
FINCH is a name now common to several thousand people in England. It seems to be one of a group of surnames that relate to birds, such as Peacock, Partridge and Thrush. The name also survives in English place names such as Finchley, Middx. (which means literally Finch’s clearing), Finchampstead, Berks. (Finch’s farmhouse), Finchingfield, Essex (Finch’s settlement field), Fincham, Norfolk (Finch’s settlement). These English placenames derive from the period around 600 AD, and indicate the name is of great antiquity.
To understand the origins of the name Finch, it is important to understand some of the history that gave rise to the English people. The earliest inhabitants of the British Isles were the Celts, ancestors of the Welsh and Irish. But even as early as Roman times, paid German mercenaries had been garrisoned in Britain and their stories of a fertile country sparsely populated must have been widespread in their homelands. Celtic kings relied on such military help in several domestic wars, but around 450 AD, Germanic tribesmen landed in England, intent not on serving the Celts for a price, but on taking land from them. One of these tribes was the Saxons who came originally from Saxony (the area around modern Dresden). Many tribes followed, including the ‘Angles’ after whom the whole country became known (‘Angle-land’). The Saxons settled an area that broadly corresponds to the Home Counties, and the modern county boundaries still relate back the way in which the various tribes divided the land between them. For example, Sussex, Essex, East Anglia refer to the lands of the South Saxons, East Saxons and East Angles respectively. The hybrid Germanic people are today described as ‘Anglo-Saxons’. Finch appears to be a Saxon name since the distribution of placenames that include Finch seems to correspond to areas settled by the Saxons. In addition, in the 16th century (before travel became easy) the name Finch was concentrated in the same counties. The surname ‘Fink’, meaning Finch, still survives in Germany today.
The system of surnames used today, where a name passes from father to son, is a relatively recent innovation and was foreign to our earliest ancestors. In those days surnames denoted parentage (e.g. Johnson = John’s son), occupation (e.g. Smith, Baker etc.), some physical attribute (e.g. Cruickshank meaning bow-legged), a nickname or the place of origin of the person concerned (e.g. London, Clapham, England etc.). Surnames were not necessarily passed from father to son and some people had more than one surname. For example John the Baker, son of Richard may have been called John Richardson or John Baker depending on whom you spoke to. Finch may be one of a group of names that relate to family emblems, along with names such as ‘Peacock’. Some have also suggested it is a nickname indicating that the owner was a half-wit, since the Finch is a bird often associated with stupidity! In some cases the name may have derived from shortening of place names. For example, in the Capell manuscripts in the Hertfordshire Records Office, there is a 12th Century deed which mentions one party called John of Finchingfield (in Essex) and a second called Geoffrey of Finch’. It seems clear that Finch’ here is an abbreviation of Finchingfield. Not everyone with the name Finch is necessarily related.
Earliest Documentary Records – the period up to 1400
Our earliest traceable record of the surname comes from documents relating to the early English government. As the Anglo-Saxons had conquered the Celts, so did the Normans conquer the Anglo-Saxons, defeated in 1066 at the Battle of Hastings. If the earliest Finches had land and status before Hastings, the Normans confiscated it. By the time that substantial historical records come into existence, the Saxons were a dispossessed people, working the land but not owning it, subject to Norman overlords. The oldest surviving public record, the Domesday survey of 1086, contains no mention of a Finch, even among references to land owned before the invasion.
Although fragments of documents survive from as early as the 9th century, the earliest continual record of government in England starts ~1200. It is among these documents – the products of the Norman civil service – that we find our first fleeting references to members of Finch families. It is important to stress that there were no formal records of birth, death or marriage – these references derive from records kept for other purposes – to prove ownership of land, to resolve disputes over rights of passage or service, or to enforce law. One of the earliest surviving series are the records of the King’s court (Curia Regis Rolls), beginning in 1198, which record judgements made by the King on a variety of disputes. At this time there was no Parliament or democratic judiciary – the word of the King was final. In 1198, the first year for which we have records, the Curia Regis rolls record that a Hugh Finch is required to perform service to the King.
Over the next two hundred years there are similarly fleeting glimpses of Finch families around the Home Counties and further afield which shed some light on the sort of life in Medieval England that our ancestors enjoyed. In 1264, Jordan and Geoffrey Finch were indicted for killing a stag in Essex; in 1363 William Maple the younger of Clapham was indicted for having stolen 8 sheep from Roger Finch of Wandsworth. These records reflect a period up to three hundred years after Hastings, a period in which some integration of the Anglo-Saxon and Norman peoples had taken the place. A hybrid Anglo-Saxon/Norman French language had developed – English – and intermarriage had led to a reduction in the racial segregation of English society. Anglo-Saxons, after centuries of subjugation, had by now achieved some degree of autonomy and we now see more and more people of Saxon origin being recorded in public records.
Following individual families through this early period of history is problematic. First the documents that were kept refer only a tiny minority of the people of England – the King, his immediate entourage and the people with whom they did business – a select and privileged few. Most of the Anglo-Saxon population, (such as the Finches) were bondsmen, that is to say that they possessed few or no rights and were subject to the will of an overlord. These bondsmen were not represented among the records of an aristocratic government that had little or no interest in them and considered them akin to property. Second the documents concerned were not written with family links in mind but for other purposes. It is unusual to find a reference to any form of family relationship unless that is relevant to the matter being discussed. For example the passage of land from father to eldest son may be noted on the death of an important father, but any younger sons are ignored. Third, surnames in this period were not necessarily passed from father to son. For example, Robert, son of John Finch may have been called Robert Johnson. However, if ‘Finch’ was a family emblem, it is more likely than other types of surname to have passed through families in a manner analogous to modern surnames.
As the period concerned approaches the present day, the volume of material with which to work steadily increases. The products of central government, which represent our record up to ~1300, are increasingly supplemented by documents referring to a progressively greater percentage of the population. For example, subsidies (lists of people who paid taxes) record the names of the medieval middle-classes – those with enough to be taxed but who were not instrumental in government – and manorial documents record the internal administration of local farmsteads overseen by a ‘Lord of the Manor’. It is difficult to say when in history coherent genealogies of particular families can start to be drawn – that is dependent on the area in which the family lived and its social status. The Royal Family claims unbroken genealogy to the 6th century but this is unique. Some families claim lineage from knights who came to England with William the Conqueror, but these claims often do not live up to serious scrutiny. Genealogy in this period is achieved by the painstaking analysis of fragments of information and in many cases definite proof of family relationships is simply not possible. This is an unpalatable fact that some family historians ignore.
Finches seem to be widespread across Essex, Sussex and Hertfordshire, but key (influential) groups of Finch families can be resolved from the earliest records. Deeds for the Finches of Rye and Winchelsea (Sussex) date from the mid-1250s, Essex Finches are recorded in taxation lists from 1332, and Finches are found in taxation lists from Hertfordshire as early as 1295. Many other occasional references to the name Finch occur throughout the country. What is clear is that a number of major families become recognisable with established rights over land.
FINCH Familes that have been studied
FINCH of Watford (1500-1850)
English Origins of FINCH of New England (1630-1700) (Second Report written 2001)
FINCH of Winchelsea