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General, Saint or Sinner?

 By Terry Walls

A Short History of Names 

Hereditary surnames are really not that ancient in the scheme of things.  They appear to only have been adopted by the landed classes (aristocratic and otherwise) in order to prove ownership of land during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.  Apparently by about 1250 most of the wealthier classes had adopted surnames and that serfs and others began to adopt them shortly after.  By about 1350 most people had hereditary surnames. 

According to McKinley, R.A., A History of British Surnames, Longmans, London UK, 1990, there are six different types of surnames common in Britain, namely locative surnames; topographical surnames, derived from personal names, occupational surnames; surnames from nicknames and surnames of relationships.  Of course there will also be surnames that come from outside Britain. Mass migration through Europe in the early part of this millennium brought many foreign words and names to Briton and names were scattered throughout the fledging duchy’s and countries of Europe.

 Irrespective of the language in which people were named McKinley argues that they all followed the following categories:

 Ø      Locative: London, Grantham, Ashby, Billingshurst and Steyning (in Sussex), Doncaster, Attwater.  McKinley points out that in some cases the same name of a town or village might occur in quite a few places which means that the same name would have developed in different parts of the country at the same time and the families would not necessarily have been related.

 Ø      Topographic: Hill, Brooks, Fields, Marsh, Fell, Ford; words ending in “hurst” a name for a wood in Sussex and only Sussex has become a location as well as a topographic. 

Ø      Personal:  That is all of those names which have come from “first” names or Christening names such as Paul, Peter, Johns(on), Richards(on).

 Ø      Occupational:  Baker, Smith, Abbott, Bishop, Turner, Fisher, Mills, Baron are obvious but some are not.  Occupations where the names have changed or in fact disappeared such as Bridger, Cotter, Newbond. 

Ø      Nicknames: Short, Stout, Proud, Redman, Pardew – and many which have sexual or other connotations such as Hancock. 

Ø      Relationships:  Cousin, Brother, are obvious.

 One must remember that there are always exceptions to any rule.  In fact, because you carry the name Bishop or Proudfoot this might indicate that their co-villagers were insulting your forebears.  They might have been a pompous and overly righteous do-gooder or a small and slinky creep.

 One theory on the derivation of the name Wall or Walls is accepted as someone who lived near or built town walls.  Another version refers to the Baron de Val, a member of Norman the Conquerors landing party in 1066.  My own preference is for the Baron line, but I suspect that we were already in England at this time and using our hands to earn a feed by building walls.

 If you want to get a good feel of the complexity of tracking and tracing surnames, then you can’t go past McKinley’s book. 


The issue of who can and who cannot utilise arms is governed by strict rules.  One can only use them if you can prove that the Royal College of Arms has granted a direct descendant the right.  It should also be recognised that a particular name may have a variety of approved arms and that the owners of the arms might not be related.


 The First Boniface – The Last of the Romans

Edward Gibbons, in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, (published 1776-1788 abridged version 1979) mentions Boniface as being one of the last Romans and covers his exploits between 423 - 455.  At this stage the Empire was in its final throes.  The Goths and the Vandals were making significant inroads into the remaining realms.  There territories in Briton, France and Spain were very shaky and apparently they were only just holding onto territories in the east and north Africa as well.

 Rome at this stage was Christian.  The emperor was Theodosius.  Although the Goths and Vandals held large parts of the western empire, he decided to appoint Valentinian (aged 6) (under the name of Augustus) king of the western empire.  His mother, Placidia, ruled in his name for 25 years.

 “Amidst the decay of military spirit, her armies were commanded by two generals, Aetius and Boniface, who may be deservedly named as the last of the Romans.  Their union might have supported a sinking empire; their discord was the fatal and immediate cause of the loss of Africa.  In the melancholy season of her exile and distress, Boniface alone had maintained her cause with unshaken fidelity; and the troops and treasures of Africa had essentially contributed to extinguish the rebellion.”

Boniface then inadvertently got involved in a conspiracy contrived by Aetius.  “He secretly persuaded Placidia to recall Boniface from the government of Africa; he secretly advised Boniface to disobey the Imperial summons; to the one he represented the order as a sentence of death; to the other, he stated the refusal as a signal of revolt; and when the credulous an unsuspected count (Boniface) had armed the province in his defence, Aetius applauded his sagacity in foreseeing the rebellion which his own perfidy had excited.”

It is my understanding that he was attacked by the forces of the west and finally decided try and forge an alliance with the Vandals.  He later relented and returned to fight the Vandals who had come across the straits of Gibraltar at his invitation.  Aetius treachery was exposed and Boniface was accepted back into the Roman fold.  He continued to fight the Vandals and lost moving to Hippo Regius, which was then put under siege for 14 months.  Placidia request help for Boniface and an eastern army was dispatched to assist him.  He marched against the Vandals – won the first but lost the second battle which “irretrievably decided the fate of Africa.”

He returned to the palace of Ravenna and accepted with gratitude the rank of patrician and master-general of the Roman armies.  However, Aetius found out his treachery had been exposed and returned from Gaul at the head of an army made up primarily of “barbarians”.  Boniface met him and Aetius was beaten but Boniface received a fatal wound that killed him with a matter of days.

 The Boniface Popes

Boniface I - According to George Boniface’s research, published in 1987, Saint Boniface I was born in Rome and died on 4 September in 422 also in Rome. “He was elected Pope by a majority of Roman electors (bishops). His reign was troubled by followers of the anti-Pope Eulalius, elected Pope by the followers in opposition to Boniface. The rival claims resulted in chaos in Rome but after 15 weeks Boniface gained support and re-entered Rome. His reign was noted for its peaceful yet firm diplomacy and his maintenance of the church's teachings. Feast Day - 4 September.”

Boniface II       - details to be obtained.

Boniface III  - The son of John Cataadioce was a Roman.  He elected in 606 consecrated and died in the year 607

Boniface IV      - details to be obtained

Boniface V       - details to be obtained

Boniface VI – Son of the Bishop of Adrian – elected 896.  He died 15 days after his election.  In 898 Pope John IX had his election invalidated on the basis that at the time he was a defrocked sub-deacon.

Boniface VII        - details to be obtained

Boniface VIII     -1235–1303, Pope (1294–1303), an Italian named Benedetto Caetani.  Boniface became Pope after the abdication of Celestine V, and, to avoid schism, he imprisoned Celestine for life.  Trying to assert Papal authority, Boniface interfered unsuccessfully in Sicily and further aggravated the quarrel of the Guelphs and Ghibellines. He was involved in a bitter struggle with Philip IV of France. The pope tried to prevent Philip from his illegal levies on the clergy with the bull Clericis laicos (1296), but was forced to back down. The struggle was renewed after new troubles, and Boniface issued Ausculta fili (1301) and Unam sanctam (1302), the latter being an extreme statement regarding the duty of princes to be subject to the pope. As a result, Philip sent an agent to depose Boniface at Anagni, but after the agent's companion struck the pope, the outraged townspeople drove the emissaries out. Boniface died soon afterward and was succeeded by Benedict XI. Philip later forced Pope Clement V to repudiate many of the acts of Boniface. An able canon lawyer, Boniface issued (1298) a new revision of the code called the Sext. (Source Microsoft Bookshelf).

Boniface IX – Formerly Pietro Tomacello.  Pope between 1389 and 1404.

Saint Boniface – The Briton Cleric

According to the web site, (not working?),  “On a warm day in the year 724, a tall, stern, blue-eyed Englishman walked into a clearing near (the) town of Geismar in Hesse, Germany.  The man – Wynfrith was his name – was a cleric who had only recently returned from Rome and an audience with the holy father in which progress reports on the Christianizing (sic) of the northern peoples has been duly reported.  Having been appointed a bishop on the grounds of his tireless enthusiasm in unmasking and discrediting of false prophets, and summoning of public sinners to repentance Wynfrith was now returning to the north to correct a malady that had crept into those distant swamps during his absence.”

“Wynfrith had spent some years among the barbaric tribes of the lowland countries known as Friesians, a fish eating people long thought to be such a low and unimportant state of the life that the Roman exploratory expedition of the year 47 considered the territory to be, like Ireland to the West, not worth the trouble of conquest.”

The Friesians killed him on 5 June 754 and buried at Fulda.  He was made a saint as a result of his martyrdom.

There is some dispute about where he was actually born.  Some say that he was probably born in the southwest of Wessex.  Other claim he was born in Devonshire.  George Boniface supports this view and states that he was born at Crediton in Devon.  His birth was probably about 672 or 675 – maybe as late as 680.  His mission to Friesland commenced in 716.

Derivation of the Name

In his “Brief Historical Notes On The Name of Boniface”, George Boniface included the following: Latin roots: Bonum - good,  face - I do = "I do good". 

I had been lead to believe that the name meant an innkeeper and there is evidence to support this usage of the surname.  However, I have to support George’s view.  My wife Anne, who has a good understanding of language and a traditional education, is sound when it comes to the Latin roots of words.  Without hesitation she said to me one evening whilst she was preparing dinner that is was obvious where the name comes from – Bono – good and face – to make; that is, to make good.  Manufacture is a word which has the same roots.

According to George Boniface, “the name is tremendous in European ancient and mediaeval history, including two Saints, more than a dozen Popes, a King, an Archbishop of Canterbury, a leader of the Fourth Crusade and a Roman Governor of Imperial Africa. If our family name came from distinguished origins it is most likely from France through Boniface I of Montserrat or Boniface of Savoy, whose descendants could have spread the name through France, some of who could have become Huguenots (French Protestants), fled from France during the persecutions and settled on the Sussex Coast.”

Hugh Boniface wrote in 1984 that the name Boniface as a surname is likely to have developed from the Saint's name given as a Christian name which later became a surname in the 12th or 13th century.  Reaney's "Dictionary Of Surnames" gives the earliest instances as Tomas Boniface (Yorkshire 1190) and Alis Boneface (Hampshire 1200)

He said that “if it is derived from the Saints name, the original spelling is probably BONIFACE but common variants are:-BONNIFACE, BONEFACE, BONNYFACE, BONNEYFACE and BONYFACE. The form BONIFAS is occasionally used but seems to refer to families of Huguenot origin.”

Hugh states that in certain areas (especially his own area of N.W.Sussex) the abbreviated forms BONNEY, BONNY, BONNI OR BONY were also used.  “These appear even in parish registers, ( sometimes as "BONNEY or BONIFACE") census returns and on birth and marriage certificates.  He believes that “there is probably a separate surname of Bonney as it occurs in parts of the country where no Boniface’s are found. Some of the Bonneys in S.W.Sussex may be a family not derived from Boniface as Bonney is used in the earliest entries in the 16th century.”

Popes were being named Boniface some 250 years before the English Wynfrith was born.  

It seems quite likely that an Englishman who was out and about “doing goods works” among the pagans of Europe and who was appointed a Bishop was given the name Boniface by the Pope.  It seems reasonable to assume that the first Englishman to be called Boniface was the Saint from Wessex/Devon.   

The European Boniface’s were obviously named after the Popes and the saint – the Huguenots more than likely after the saint seeing he worked so vigorously in and around their homeland.  George Boniface covers this in his paper:  “Following the reformation, French Protestants grew in numbers during the 16th and 17th century under Francis I and Henry II (King of France). Under Francis II, they developed a region-political organization headed by the Bourbon family, notably the King of Navarre and the Duke of Conde. They were opposed by a Catholic party headed by the guises another noble and powerful French dynasty. A long series of religious wars began in 1562”.

 “Civil rights were granted to the Huguenots by Henry IV in the Edict of Nantes in 1598, but this was revoked by Louis XIV in 1685. The Huguenots were then persecuted and many fled from France. The French revolution of 1789 gave complete civil and religious equality to all denominations. The Huguenots were harassed during the civil wars following 1562 and 1685 and many escaped to other countries. Some landed on the Sussex coats and settled in Brighthelmstone (later Brighton) and other fishing villages. This is the most likely line of our own family name of Boniface - originally French (and Roman) and of great antiquity. Today there are a number of Bonifaces in the Brighton and Eastbourne area.”

Other Bonifaces

King Boniface of Montserrat died 1207. One of the leaders of the Forth Crusade (1202 - 1204). After the crusaders conquered Constantinople, he became King Boniface I of Thessalonica, a land including Macedonia, Thessaly and part of Thrace.

Boniface of Savoy died 1270. Administrator and soldier, a son of the Count of Savory. Although not then an ordained priest, he was elected Archbishop of Canterbury (1241) through the influence of Henry III who married Boniface's niece. He proved to be a powerful Archbishop.

English place names

George Boniface wrote in 1987 that the places named after the Saint “include Bonchurch, the Isle of Wight which has a tiny church dating back to c.1040, which holds one services a year on 5th June - St.Boniface Day, also a large more modern church of the same name, holding weekly services and much activity. The great hill behind Ventnor, Isle of Wight which dominates the island and has radar stations is Boniface Down. There is a statue of St.Boniface in the park at Crediton  which was unveiled by Princess Margaret. There are a number of churches throughout England and the world bearing the Saint's name.”


Well what conclusion have I come to?  I am contending that the spread of the name through England and Europe more than likely has the same sources.  The name was known to the Romans and to the early Church.  Popes adopted the name because of its fundamental meaning – “Good Works” – “To Make Good”.   Also although the name already existed in England prior to the arrival of the Normans, additional Boniface lines would have arrived with each subsequent migration of Europeans resulting in a number of separate lines – some of which might have later inter-married.

Comments most welcome
Founding Member 4. Terry Walls
Internet Member

October 1999

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