A'Bear Family History
The Origin of the Family Name
Return to genealogy page
The earliest Family legend has it that an early ancestor first took his name as A Bearer because he was the Norman Standard Bearer at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. This notion has been generally dismissed, not least because the words standard bearer do not originate from the Norman-French language but from the Anglo-Saxon. However, family legends are often based on at least an element of truth, and the Norman invaders were, of course, unsuccessfully fought off by Saxon men. For now, though, the possibility is put aside as there is no hard evidence to support the notion, and because other more likely derivations should be considered.
In old English, especially in the South, the word for a grove of trees was BEARU and its dative form was BEARA or sometimes BAER. In Southern England a man who lived at a copse where pigs foraged would have been called ATTE BEARA or ATTE BAER. In Wales, though, the word bere meant high ground, such as a hill, and we should not discount the possibility that the name originally came from here.
The first known record of the surname Atte Bere dates to around 1230 when a John atte Bere owned Ibsley & Malshanger in Hampshire. Soon afterwards in 1247 a Nicholas atte Bere appears in the Subsidy Rolls for Somerset. Atte Beres then appear in several other southern English counties before their first appearance at Wargrave, Berkshire in 1325.
Matters are made more complicated by our likely connection with the de la Bere family, who appear in Wargrave for the first time around the same time as the first records of the Atte Bere family. The de la Beres are believed to have arrived with the Norman Invasion in 1066. Records stretch back with certainty to around 1200, and confirm the family to have had status then and throughout their long and colourful history. A comprehensive study of the family was undertaken by David Nash Ford, and his findings may be viewed at http://www.mayfamilyhistory.co.uk/abear/ Clearly this surname appears to be the French equivalent of the Saxon surname, and a detailed study confirms that both surnames were used at times within the same family group and even for the same person. See Delaberes & Atteberes
Therefore in our search for our true roots we are left asking the question "Which came first, the Saxon name which became normanised or the Norman name which became saxonised?" The answer might at first seem obvious, since the name seems to have arrived with the Normans, but the answer may not be that simple. As my father Stanley George ABear suggested in his study of the Family History, it is conceivable that the Saxon name was taken over to Normandy by an Attebere serving in the army prior to 1066, and changed to Delabere to become acceptable to the invading army. See The Delabere Connection My father's suggestion throws up another possibility that seems equally credible. Despite examples of the surname being changed in other areas after the Norman invasion, perhaps the Atteberes of Wargrave had been resident in their district long before then and were truly Saxon. It seems feasible that by 1325 the head of the family John Attebere had become a freeman of the village, and as such could have chosen to put his son John in the army. [This opportunity may have arisen out of his success at farming during the austere years leading up to the Great Famine]. His son may have shown great potential serving King Edward in the battles against the Scots where he may have rubbed shoulders with the Norman nobility who preferred the French sounding name. It could have been him who returned home to Wargrave prior to 1318 when, recorded as John de la Bere of Wargrave, he with others broke into the Earl of Lancaster's park at Ashridge.
A study of the early references which relate to both names reveals that de la Bere is by far the more frequently recorded surname. However, this does not necessarily mean that the Saxon form derives from the French, as the records by nature mainly relate to more prominent people whose deeds were recorded to a greater extent than poor humble farmers.
Thus at this juncture we really do not know if the name had a Norman or Saxon derivation. For some people finding an answer to this question is of little concern since, in either case, after the invasion we all became one nation. However, research often throws up unexpected results, and there is another avenue to explore, namely the derivation of the name de la Bere.
Delaber or De la Barre are considered to come from La Barre in the Cotentin, (the Cherbourg Peninsula). The name was constantly abbreviated to De Bere or Bere, in which latter form it appears in Duchesne's copy. (Ref: Battle Abbey Roll)
At the time of writing there is little evidence amongst family records to support this notion, although our surname is recorded as de la Ber and de La Bere (with a capital L) and (possibly) Walter de la Barre, all in the 13th century. Also in 1357 a Thomas A. Barre was a sheriff of Herefordshire together with Richard de la Bere. (Ref: TAFOW pg35)
La Barre is the French for a bar or piece of land jutting out into the sea, so de la Barre makes perfect sense as a name for someone living on a peninsula. It is therefore quite feasible that a soldier named de la Barre, possibly a Richard de la Barre, fought for William the Conqueror and perhaps even distinguished himself in 1066 at the Battle of Hastings. He soon settled in England, and before long the family surname became corrupted by speech and/or writing to the nearest Saxon English equivalents de la Ber or de la Bere, falsely suggesting to future historians that our ancestors were Saxon pig farmers or from the Welsh hills. At times, further corruption could have changed the French de la to the English atte, more particularly amongst the working classes and village communities, and far less amongst the higher ranking ruling class where the French prefix stood firm.
The above suggestion makes sense and fits well with what we know. It even includes an element of truth regarding the family legend that our name does stem back to the Norman Invasion but it remains unproved. And even if it is true, it remains quite possible there were true Saxon atte Beres living both before and after the Norman Invasion, some of whom probably appear amongst the collection of medieval references found to date; and which could still include our own ancestors.
But in the search for our ancestry before the atte Beres were recorded in Wargrave in the early fourteenth century, we cannot escape the fact that both names, atte Bere and de la Bere, each occur twice in the same place at around the same time, almost as if the two different names were either recorded deliberately to declare the connection between them or to make a distinction between them; and that place happened to be Wargrave itself where are family history begins with far more certainty.
In time to come, both names would survive, de la Bere becoming shortened to Delabere, a family still in existence in Geneva today, and atte Bere becoming shortened to Abere. There seems little doubt about this contraction, for the name atte Bere continued in and around Wargrave until at least 1413, and the first record of the surname A Beyre appeared there by about 1470. Indeed, by 1478 the first Abeare reference appears.
The reason for the contraction and misspelling is uncertain, but two observations come to mind.
Firstly, by about 1440 feudalism had all but ended and the population of England was on the way to becoming more 'modern' in the way we now understand the term. For the fifteenth century not only saw a crucial shift in English Society but a rise in the usage of English as its language. This had begun towards the end of the previous century with the Lollard movement - a group of radical dissenters who had demonstrated against the forms and practices of the Catholic Church, particularly in regard to their choice of Latin as the standard language. Their unlicensed preachers travelled far and wide, preaching in what they considered to be their native tongue, which appealed to the new English proletariat - the class of peasants who had benefited from the new opportunities of work and education which had, by then, arisen. With workmen also now free to move around and negotiate in their search for labour, one wonders if together this sparked a trend towards the change of surnames to a more convenient and English sounding alternative.
Secondly, perhaps the choice of surname came about because 'del aberes' and 'att eberes' were all considered to be one family - the Aberes for short? Though this is pure conjecture, it does lend support to the notion that the families were then considered one and the same.
So finally we come to the present spelling of our surname "A'Bear", which even today is commonly misspelt by those writing down the name. In particular the apostrophe - which certain current branches of the family choose to omit - often causes more trouble than it seems worth, and begs the question "Is it actually correct?" It is there to signify missing letters, which presumes the Saxon derivative and not the Norman one to be true. Without it, the introduction of the capital B would certainly be incorrect, and either way the spelling of the last three letters disagrees with all the early records. A more suitable substitute would surely be Abere, which was quite common back in the seventeenth century.
Yet in some way it seems fitting that our strange, seemingly incorrect surname stands as a testament to an ancient family that, despite much research, holds on to its deepest secret - that of its own true origin.
* * * * *