Names: The Rise and Fall of ‘Thomas’

I’ve always been interested in names, what they mean, when they became popular and why they fell from favour and ‘Thomas’ is a particularly interesting example. Thomas was one of Jesus’s twelve disciples, called ‘doubting Thomas’ because he refused to believe that Jesus had been resurrected until he saw Jesus for himself. The main New Testament male names, (Peter, Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Thomas, Matthew, Simon and Paul) were largely ignored as names people were actually called. In England, they were seen as religious names and set apart.

The most common boys’ names in the 12th century were William, Robert, Ralph and Richard – all of which had arrived with William the Conqueror in 1066 and swiftly supplanted the Anglo-Saxon names, with the exception of Edward and Edmund, both names belonging to Anglo-Saxon kings who were also saints.

Canterbury Cathedral: the setting for a horrible murder

The Catholic Church tried in vain to persuade parents to give their sons a saint’s name from the Gospels but they only succeeded with John, the apostle Jesus was closest to. By the 13th century, it was Henry, John, Richard, Robert and William which made up 38% of all men’s names but, gradually, the other Gospel names began to be used.

But what about Thomas? The sudden jump of the name Thomas from almost nowhere to one of the top three names (with William and John) is due entirely to one man, Thomas Becket (1118-1170), who became Chancellor to King Henry II, brokered a number of useful deals for the king and skilfully supported Henry’s foreign policy. The King and Becket became very close until Henry pushed the unwilling Thomas into becoming Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162. Henry hoped that this move would help him to rein in the might of the Catholic Church. But Thomas, once archbishop, refused to play ball. He resigned his chancellorship and stood aggressively by his new master, the Church, instead.

17th century print of St Thomas Becket, martyr.

Henry was furious and the resulting quarrel turned to bitter recrimination; Becket was forced to flee the country; Henry confiscated Thomas’s property and banished his friends; in return, Becket excommunicated him. Becket eventually returned to Canterbury at the end of November, 1170. But not for long. Becket’s continued intransigence  exasperated the King who, reportedly exclaimed, ‘Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?’ Four of Henry’s knights took up the (supposed) challenge and murdered Becket in front of the altar of Canterbury Cathedral on 29th December, 1170. The shock of the Archbishop’s murder reverberated throughout Europe and, almost immediately, eager pilgrims began to attribute miracles to Thomas’s intervention. Becket was hailed as a Christian martyr and, in 1173, he was canonised as St Thomas of Canterbury. In 1174, King Henry II himself was forced to do public penance at his tomb.

A lead tourist’s souvenir of St Thomas’s murder in front of the high alter in Canterbury Cathedral: Thomas is kneeling before the altar, the knights are attacking him.  

A magnificent shrine was erected, together with a number of important stations in the cathedral where pilgrims could visit, pray, and leave offerings: the site of Becket’s murder before the high altar; the place where his body rested the night after his murder; the crown of his head, sliced off by one of his murderers; his skull; the hair coat which he had been wearing under his archbishop’s cope; as well as the tomb in Trinity Chapel where his body was finally laid to rest. Pilgrims, which included many English Kings and Queens, left money, gold and silver vessels, jewels, bees’ wax candles, wine, and so on.

Canterbury Cathedral became one of the most famous sites in Christendom and a major draw for pilgrims – as commemorated by the poet Geoffrey Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales. Thomas’s murder made the cathedral immensely rich.

The name ‘Thomas’ shot to the top three boys’ names and remained there for centuries;  research into the compulsory registration of baptisms between 1550 and 1799 shows that the names William, John and Thomas accounted for over 50% of all  names given to boys.

King Henry VIII after Hans Holbein the Younger, courtesy of Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

And that looked set to continue – but, instead, there was for one major blip: King Henry VIII and the Protestant Reformation.

King Henry VIII had come to the throne as a Catholic King – he had even been granted the title of Defender of the Faith by Pope Leo X. But the failure of his wife Katherine of Aragon to provide him with a living son (though, poor woman, she had given birth to five boys who were either stillborn or died when infants) turned his thoughts to divorce. He was desperate to remarry and sire a son and heir. Katherine’s parents were the formidable Ferdinand and Isabella of Castile who prided themselves on being ‘los reyes católicos’ and the pope backed Katherine and refused to annul Henry’s marriage.

Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540) Executed. Artist unknown, courtesy of Wikipedia

Thomas Cromwell, a Protestant sympathizer and King Henry’s close advisor, suggested to Henry that he made himself Head of the Church of England which would facilitate his divorce. It didn’t, but it led Henry to authorize Thomas Cromwell to begin tackling the inordinate wealth of the monasteries. Henry very soon realized that this was, potentially, a huge goldmine and, between 1532 and 1535 the Dissolution of the Roman Catholic monasteries effected one of the largest exchanges of property the country had experienced since the Norman Conquest in 1066. Money from dissolved monasteries, abbeys, nunneries etc. poured into Henry’s coffers; valuable lead was stripped from roofs, shrines were broken up as idolatrous, and their gold and jewels seized for the Crown. And those properties which Henry didn’t want for himself, went to his supporters – and Thomas became immensely rich.

Chapel of St Thomas’s Hospital, originally dedicated to St Thomas of Canterbury, re-dedicated to St Thomas the Apostle by royal decree in 1138

Kings do not forget insults and Henry VIII was particularly anti Thomas Becket, a hated reminder of an overbearing Catholic Church with far too much power – who had humiliated his forebear, Henry II. Becket’s shrine was stripped of all its gold and precious stones in 1538, and then destroyed. Any church which had been dedicated to St Thomas of Canterbury – and there were many – was ordered to change its dedication to St Thomas the Apostle instead. For example, the chapel attached to St Thomas’s Hospital which had originally been dedicated to Thomas of Canterbury, and was rededicated to St Thomas the Apostle.

Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (1475-1530) Arrested for high treason but died on his way to London to face the charges. Unknown artist, courtesy of Wikipedia

But something else happened which I discovered in a conversation with my historian brother; after 1532, the name ‘Thomas’ as a Christian name disappeared almost entirely. Suddenly, ‘Thomas’ became a politically charged name and one which was dangerous to bear; it hinted at a refusal to turn Protestant, and maybe at a lack of support for the King’s wish to divorce Katherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn to get a male heir. Katherine was popular and there was much public sympathy for her.

Archbishop Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556) by Gerlach Flicke, Burnt at the stake. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

I listened incredulously: as any reader of Hilary Mantel will attest, the 16th century was full of men named Thomas: Thomas Cranmer, Thomas Cromwell, Thomas Wolsey, Thomas More to name but a few. My brother calmly pointed out that they had all been christened before 1532. After that date, and for Henry’s lifetime (he died in 1547) and possibly Edward VI’s lifetime, too, it was simply unsafe to call your son ‘Thomas’ – and, for a generation, people, on the whole, didn’t.

Sir Thomas More (1478-1535), executed. Portrait after Hans Holbein the Younger, courtesy National Portrait Gallery

Together with the name ‘Thomas’, a number of other names of non-Scriptural saints fell into disgrace, and disappeared – names of the early Church Fathers for example: Austin (from Augustine), Basil, Bennet (from Benedict), Gregory, and so on (though Austin and Bennet survived as surnames). Even ‘Peter’, the name of the first apostle and the founder of the church, dropped in popularity. It was simply too papist. And there are surprisingly few ‘Pauls’.

What happened next is very interesting. The puritans Protestants, who were eager to sweep away all evidence of Roman Catholicism, decided that the Old Testament names were the only really safe ones – in a way, they almost counted as Protestant: the owners of such Old Testament names as Joseph and Isaac didn’t need a priest to mediate between themselves and God, as Roman Catholics did; they dealt with Him directly – like good Protestants. Old Testament names like Samuel, Benjamin, Joseph, Jacob, Josiah, Isaac, David, Jonathan and Abraham, were ready to take the place of the now dodgy saints’ names and quickly became absorbed into the name pool: witness Samuel Pepys, Isaac Newton, Josiah Wedgwood, Jonathan Swift, to name but a few.

On the continent, Old Testament names were viewed as exclusively Jewish, and their use had not extended to Christians, but that was not the case in England. In 1290, King Edward I had exiled all the Jews from England, probably for religious reasons, so the Old Testament names were freed up, as it were. Ordinary people knew many of the names, anyway, partly through the numerous wall paintings inside churches depicting Old Testament stories, like Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son, Isaac, and God sending him a ram caught in a thicket to sacrifice instead, but also because of the popularity of Medieval Mystery Plays acted by various guilds, which also staged Bible stories, for example Noah’s Flood.

Time passed, Henry VIII died in 1547; his son Edward VI, another staunch Protestant, died in 1553; and the name ‘Thomas’ resumed its pre-eminence as one of the nation’s most popular names – until the 20th century. In 1850, a comfortable 788 in every 10,000 boys born were named Thomas. By 1900, that had shrunk to 452 in 10,000; by 1925, it was 254 per 10,000 boys; but by 1960, that had shrunk to only 39 Thomases every 10,000 boys.

Is Thomas on its way out? That would be a pity. My own father was named Thomas after his grandfather. My parents considered ‘Thomasina’ for me, but my mother, ever practical, said, ‘Supposing she lisps?’ The idea was dropped.

How is Thomas doing in the 21st century? In 2019 it was still in the top hundred but only just, at number 89. Some of the Bible names I mentioned, for example: Benjamin, James, Isaac, Jacob, Josiah and Andrew were still there though well down the list. William and John have disappeared. Henry is there but we probably have Prince Harry to thank for that. What will the future hold for Thomas?

Elizabeth Hawksley

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10 thoughts on “Names: The Rise and Fall of ‘Thomas’”

  1. That’s so interesting! I’d never really thought about unpopularity of names in a historical sense, apart from the obvious (you don’t get many Adolfs these days). I don’t think it’s gone away completely: a few years ago we had some building work done, and the plumber was called Tom. So were both of his apprentices. We called them all Tom-Tom.

    I knew a few Toms at school and I’m sure I know a few parents who’ve named their son Tommy—diminutives, especially ending in Y or IE, are all the rage round here. Maybe that’s the answer: there aren’t many Thomases, but there are plenty of Toms and Tommys.

    (Signed Kate, whose parents never shelled out for the full Katherine)

    1. Thank you for your comment, Kate, and welcome to my blog. I think that there are a fair number of adult Thomases around, but not many babies and children. You are right, though, about Tom and Tommy being used as independent names, and that’s happening with other names, too, like Sam instead of Samuel, and Charlie instead of Charles.

  2. Fascinating. I love names too and their historical descent. I knew about the puritan deluge of Old Testament names, but had not considered the demise of Thomas due to Becket.
    My copy of The Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names is well thumbed.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Elizabeth – my own copy of The Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names is well-thumbed, too, as well as Leslie Dunkling and William Gosling’s various books about names in the 1980-90s. L.D. founded The Names Society in 1969 and he and W.G. did a lot of useful research into the usage of names. Alas, I think the Society is now defunct.

      I hadn’t realized that there was a slump in the number of Thomases until my brother told me – but it fits. And all the Thomases I featured in the post came to a sticky end – though that, of course, was a coincidence. Still, for a generation, it was not a lucky name.

  3. Fascinating post Elizabeth.
    To add to earlier posts, a week or so ago my granddaughter was telling me about a Year 2 classmate friend of hers called Billy. I said that his name was short for William, or that it could alternatively have been shortened to Will.
    But no, she insisted it is Billy, and it seems she is correct!
    For classification purposes, I suppose Billy has now to be counted separately from William.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Douglas, and welcome to my blog. That’s increasingly the way things are going with first names: Sam, Billy, Tom, Tommy, even Archie count as individual names. It seems a pity to deprive a child of the full name, which can add gravitas if wanted, as well as offering other options. If, for example, there are a lot of Elizabeths in the class, an Elizabeth can choose to be Bess, Betty, Lizzie, Lisa, Elsie etc. and choose whichever pet name they liked best – which could change as they grew up.

      1. I spent quite a chunk of my childhood explaining to people that whilst I knew Kate was short for Katherine, my name was in fact Kate. It appears my parents were ahead of their time! (I was always annoyed, because for obvious reasons I’d rather have been Cat).

        1. I sympathize with your annoyance, Kate. If your parents had named you Katherine, it would have been a win-win situation. You might have had to put up with being called Kate as a child but, once you were grown up, you could have insisted on being called Cat – or Kitty, of course!

  4. Thanks for another really interesting blog – whatever the subject I’m always drawn into the subjects you choose to write about (it’s the way you tell it!). I’m another ‘names enthusiast’ /family historian who has always taken a keen interest in naming habits and patterns, but I’d never noticed the Thomas trend; I shall check my long paternal line of Thomas Smiths to see whether they suffered from the post-Tudor fall from favour! I’m also a Catharine who has always been a Katie and has spent a lifetime explaining my various versions to HMRC, bank staff, and the world in general, so I sympathise with Kate Johnson…

    1. Thank you for your interesting comment, Katie, and welcome to my blog. I’m delighted that you enjoy my posts. With regard to ‘Thomas’, I myself only learnt about the sudden decline in its use from my Medieval historian brother and I was at first rather sceptical. But Henry VIII actually sent out orders to the clergy that boys were not to be christened ‘Thomas’ any more. And the penalties for disobedience were extremely unpleasant.

      I note the spelling of your name ‘Catharine’ an interesting and probably more linguistically accurate variation on the more usual ‘Catherine’.

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