People named Prowse are lucky in having a rare surname. It's not in the top 1,000 UK surnames. It should ease any Prowse family history research. Despite that, I believe that we did not all descend from one common Prowse/Prouse ancestor. The more I research about surnames and history in general, the more confident I am in believing that there are multiple, unrelated Prowse family lines. There will be many Prowse lines that trace back to their own respective common ancestors. However there will be many others that do not. This email sets out a summary of my general research to date.
Although tracing ancestors via surnames (family names) is vital in family history research, it is easy to place too much reliance on those surnames. The use of surnames was progressively introduced in England after the Norman invasion and was substantially completed by 1400. Prior to the adoption of surnames there was no easy way to uniquely identify people, unless they were noteworthy, such as a member of the aristocracy. Most people could neither read nor write. As a result, no records exist for the vast majority of people born before 1400. They are invisible in family history research.
Even when surnames were adopted, many were not inherited by children . Surnames could change from generation to generation. Most surnames and family names with English roots tend to fall into at least one of these seven name categories:
Patronymic or matronymic. Eg. William, son of John, becomes William Johnson
Place names. Eg. William of Elmwood becomes William Elmwood
Occupational names. Eg. William Miller occupation was milling grain.
Characteristic names. Eg. William Short was of short stature
Geographic surnames. Eg. William Wood lived in a wood or forest
Estate surnames. Eg. England’s royal family adopted a surname derived from their estate at Windsor.
Patronage surnames. Eg. Hickman meaning Hick's man, where Hick is a pet form of the name Richard
So, up until the fourteenth or fifteenth century, most peoples name’s (excluding perhaps notable people, such as the aristocracy) did not include a surname, and even if they did, it was unlikely to reflect their paternity.
Since the fifteenth century, it has been the custom for a woman, upon marriage, to use her husband's surname and for any children born to bear the father's surname. It was made a legal requirement in England by King Henry VIII who reigned 1509–1547. However, there were exceptions, even after it was made law, including as follows:
If a child's paternity was not known, or if the putative father denied paternity, the newborn child would have the surname of the mother.
When a man from a lower-status family married an only daughter from a higher-status family, he would often adopt the wife's family name.
In the 18th and 19th centuries in Britain, bequests were sometimes made contingent upon a man's changing (or hyphenating) his family name, so that the name of the testator continued.
Similarly, even when a priest kept a record of a baptism, marriage or burial, he may have spelt a name differently to another priest, as standardised spelling did not really arrive until the 19th century. Some known variants of Prowse include:
Prows, Prouse, Prous, Prouze, Prouz, Sprouse, Prou, Prue, Preece, Price, Prus and more.
A family name based on one of these variants, such as Prouz, may have evolved over generations to become Prowse. Similarly, a family initially named Prowse may have had their name evolve over generations to become one of these variants, such as Price.
Additional problems have been created by the many individuals and families who have changed their names or adopted an alias at some time in the past. This could have been for legal reasons, or simply on a whim.
So what impact does all this information on surnames have on family history research?
Broken Ancestral Lines: The lack of surnames, surnames that have evolved, and surnames that were changed, can all frustrate and/or mislead researchers
Invisible People: There are no records for the vast majority of people prior to the start of baptism, marriage and burial records in the 1500s and 1600s. Only records for notable people exist. So the choice between the Stable Boy and King is not even necessary. Only records for the King are likely to be found. We always need to remember that “Absence of Evidence does not mean Evidence of Absence”
Biased Deductions: Where clear data cannot be sourced, researchers need to make a judgement on the correct connection. In many cases, this judgement is coloured by researcher’s enthusiasm to find connections to notable people. So, in choosing between the King and the Stable Boy, the King may be favoured.
False Common Ancestors: If two researchers A and X find they are DNA matched based on the following simplified family trees:
Both believe that their research has been validated. However, what if they have both made a mistake in identifying D, say due to biased deductions. They both believe that common ancestor D is a King of England. In reality, they do have a common ancestor, but D may be the Stable Boy rather than the King. DNA matching does not indicate who the common ancestor is, it just indicates that one exists.
Our Prowse paternal ancestry may be traced with:
High confidence for the 19th and 20th centuries when birth, marriage and death records exist. Records include participants ages, places of residence and details of the parents.
Only moderate confidence for the 17th and 18th centuries when baptism, marriage and burial records exist, but the marriage records do not include details of the parents of the bride and groom, and/or the baptism records do not include the name of the mother.
Low confidence for the 16th and 17th centuries, when only some baptism, marriage and burial records exist, but with little detail.
Very little confidence for the 16th century and before, when no population-wide baptism, marriage and burial records exist. Only notable people, such as the aristocracy, are mentioned in any available documentation, such as Tax records, wills and probate, or records of allegiance. The majority of ordinary people are effectively invisible.
No confidence prior to the introduction of surnames (Which occurred in the three hundred years after 1066). Only some notable people are documented in any form.
Am I missing something obvious? What do you think?