20+ Most Popular British Last Names [2020]

What’s in a name? Well, when it comes to English surnames (and there are over 45,000 different ones), they are based on physical attributes, trades, or place names.

So what’s the history behind British names? Does the Royal Family play a part in names? What are the most common English family names? Let’s dive into it.

History of “Great Britain”

Although the Norman Invasion had a major effect on England in every aspect, linguistically speaking, the Anglo-Saxons who took over the elite had an influence on the name “England” itself. “Engla land” meant “land of the Angles (people from Germany). It wasn’t until 1603, during the reign of King James I of England that the term “Great Britain” was used and in 1707 when “United Kingdom” was formed. “Uniting of Kingdoms” was formed by the Act of Union that created one kingdom with one parliament, which is what we have today. The United Kingdom as we know it today is made up of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The Royal Family: The Past and the Present

Once upon a time, every country had royal families. This was to develop a history with their country’s roots and to show the value of family and unity, especially in times of war. Over time, countries started to grow out of this “royal family” thing. Britain didn’t.

The British Royal Family as we know it today as reigned the United Kingdom for over 1200 years and over 37 generators. In 1917, King George V made an order that the Royal family would change their surname from the German Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor.

So now, the Under the throne of Queen Elizabeth II, the royal line of succession goes as follows: Queen Elizabeth II and her husband, Prince Philip, had two sons, Prince Charles and Prince Andrew. Since Charles is the oldest, we follow his line and his marriage (and divorce) with Princess Diana and their two sons, Prince William, and Prince Harry. Prince William, the oldest son, married Catherine the Duchess of Cambridge and had three kids, but the oldest Prince George will probably take the throne at some point.  Prince Harry married Meghan Duchess of Sussex and they had a child, too, but they recently left the Royal Family and evidently, the Royal House in Windsor, and are thriving on their own in Canada.

British Last Names

Names with Variants

Some British surnames are also variant spellings of Old French, German, Scottish, and Welsh surnames.


  • Jones
  • Evans
  • Thomas
  • Hughes

Old French:

  • Lewis


  • Harris
  • Robinson


  • Smith
  • Brown
  • Walker
  • Wright
  • Thompson

Old English Names

The origin of these surnames come from old English, and besides being very common surnames they can also be first names, too! Here are some examples:

  • Ashley (no matter the spelling) –“ash tree clearing”
  • Howard“warden or “guard”
  • Nixon“son of Nicholas”
  • Payton (no matter the spelling) – “peacock town”
  • Todd“fox”
  • Wayne“wagon maker”
  • Berkley (no matter the spelling) – “birch tree clearing”
  • Colton“coal town”

Middle English Names

Along with the Welsh surname “Jones,” the French surname “Lewis,” and the Scottish surname “Smith”, these are some Middle English names that are incredibly common:

  • Taylor
  • Williams
  • Roberts
  • Wright
  • Thompson
  • Martin
  • White
  • Green
  • Wood

Professor Richard Coates is an English linguist with special interests in the origin and history of personal names and place names. In other words, he does research on the occupational names and locational surnames from Old or Middle English. For example, “Green” was someone who lived by the village green or “Wood” was someone who lived near the woods. “Wright” was someone who wrought (or made) things, or, the more obvious one, “Taylor” was someone who was a tailor. In the Middle Ages, wool was cleaned and thickened by pounding it in a mixture of clay and water, and the people who did this were walked “Walker”, which is another occupational name.

Another thing to note about English family names is that a lot of them derived from nicknames based on appearances. For example, “Black” was a dark-haired man, “Lamb” was a meek person, “Newman” was the arrival of someone new in a place, “Longfellow” was a tall person, “Swift” was a quick runner, and “Twigg” was a thin person. These ironic “nickname” surnames were/are really that simple!

If you dive through the Oxford Dictionary, you’ll find the family names of your ancestors dating back to the 19th century. You can also find whether or not your British last name is Gaelic/of Scottish origin, or considered to be an Irish surname too because as mentioned before, the United Kingdom consists of Scotland and Northern Ireland!

So, what’s your family name?

About the author
January Nelson is a writer, editor, dreamer, and occasional exotic dancer and a collective pen name. Read more articles from January on Thought Catalog.

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