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Saunders History*

Saunders, Sir or Serf?

The name Saunders (and Sanders) is fairly common and wide spread through out the British Isle’s and hence it’s various colonies.  Throughout recent history it has been a name present throughout all levels of society; in aristocratic and peasant communities alike.  Saunders is, interestingly, a common gypsy name in England.  This ubiquity is due to the name being old and having various origins.  According to the Society of Genealogists, primarily it is a derivation of ‘belonging to Alexander’.  The Saxon practice of shortening to ‘Alexander’s’ became Alesanders’s (n.b. the Italic spelling often had a s or ss in place of the x), the word then be coming Saunders, pronounced as “Sahnders” and finally written and most commonly pronounced “Saunders”.   It is useful to remember that surnames only became common in the 12th and 13th centuries.  The reason is not clear, but one theory is that the Normans tended to use only a limited number of first names so family names were introduced to distinguish one William or Robert etc from the others (Hey, D. 2001).

Of course the term ‘belonging to Alexander’ can mean two completely different things.  Firstly, (and most popular amongst people called Saunders), it may mean that the person had shown or wished to show Alexanderian characteristics.  Secondly, (and less popular amongst the Saunders families), it may imply that they belonged to a person or family called Alexander, either as followers, slaves, serfs or soldiers.  The latter category etymologically seems likely and during Saxon and Norman times such usage and bondage was common.  Many of the cur-rent Saunders families may once have been owned or owed allegiance to powerful or notable individuals who used or where honored with Alexander as a first name or title.

In English because of the ensuing problems with plurals a ‘s’ is not lightly put on the end of a name or noun.  So if attached it is there for a purpose and it probably meant to imply that person belonged to, or followed an Alexander rather than just having inherited the name from a forebearer, in which case they would simple be called ‘Alexander’; as many were and are.  The fact that immigrant names like ‘Alysandre’ can be shown to have became ‘Saunders’ (e.g.1 ) may show that the Saunders name was already in existence for the foreign name to be Anglicized into, otherwise the final ‘s’ for such a derivation is difficult to explain.  S ending names are rare in Britain.  I don’t know if it is true but I once heard that the reason there are so many Jones, Hughs and Evanses etc. is because in the mines and quarries most men were illiterate and a foreman such as a Jon, Hugh or Evan would sign for the whole shift!

So it seems the accepted main origin of the name of Saunders and Sanders (either as a given or chosen name or later as a surname) is inextricably linked to the fortunes of the name ‘Alexander’ and its later use in the Saxon-speaking world, particularly in Britain.  After Alexander the Great’s exploits in the 4th century BC, the name Alexander was common amongst Greek and Latin/Italic speaking communities, often given to firstborn sons (Alexander, Alessandro, Alessandri &etc).  Many towns were called Alexandria and the Egyptian city was one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world.  The man and his deeds were widely known throughout Europe, the Mediterranean, Middle East and into India and beyond.  In the latter two areas the name was often used in the context of a fabled archenemy or bogeyman.  As far as the British Isles was concerned for thousands of years Cornwall at least had strong trade links to the Mediterranean (the Phoenicians traded for tin etc.).  The Ancient Britons (as witnessed by their henge monuments in Britain and Brittany) and then the later colonizing Celts had strong cultural links across the Channel.  During the 300 years of Roman occupation knowledge of Alexander and his story would certainly have been common place in Britain.  After the initial conquest and during the consolidation period of Emperor Trajan (98-117), Pope Alexander I (101-115) led the persecuted Christians in Rome, probably ensuring some more fame or notoriety for the name throughout the Empire. During the peak of the Brit-ish Pax Romana Emperor Alexander Severus (222-235) ruled the Empire and the British would have worshipped his ‘numen’ (spirit) in their shrines (British freemen by this time were true Roman Citizens).  The famous and extensive libraries in Dark Age and Medieval England, of which Alfred was perhaps the most famous guardian and benefactor, would probably have contained texts on Alexander.  So the knowledge and use of the straight name for individuals, or as a term for groups (i.e.  ‘Alexander’s’, as in people owing allegiance to the so named), was possibly around in Britain almost since the original Alexander’s exploits were first told by wandering bards.  The name and term would have been there ready to be ‘Saxonised’ when the Saxons arrived in England in the 5th and 6th centuries AD, then taken on as surnames when that practice become common in the 12th and 13th centuries.  The idea that some illiterate and pagan Vikings (who preferred names like Eric Bloodaxe etc) may have introduced the name Alexander or its already ‘Saxonised’ derivations to the British Isles as late as the 8th-11th century is unlikely.

Some say a Saunders was awarded land and a family crest for his part in the Norman invasion of Ireland in 1172 (3).  So by that time at least, one Saunders existed and was working for the Normans, i.e. Richard de Clare, 2nd Earl of Pembroke, this ‘Scottish’ Norman had the good Anglo-Saxon nickname of ‘Strongbow’. The Normans had taken over from the Anglo-Saxon Kings in 1066.  This resulted in the almost complete replacement of the Anglo-Saxon military and land owning aristocracy by Norman French.  Hence Norman French replaced the Old English dialects as the language of the governing classes.  Norman French remained the language of the law courts as late as the 17th century.  It was not until the 14th century that English again became an acceptable alter-native to French in the royal court.  So English, the etymological root of Saunders and Sanders, was at the time of surname adoption a language of commoners!

Pope Alexander II (1061-1073) was reigning at the time of the conquest and had blessed the Norman invasion; Alexander I, King of Scotland (1107-1124), was named after this Pope.  Scottish followers and the Nor-man French patrons of Alexander I (1107-1124) and Alexander II (1214-1249), could not have become ‘Alexander’s = Saunders’, as they would have spoken Gaelic and Norman French, in which case the phonetics and etymology do not work. The first record of some Lowland Scots speaking a dialect of English (known as Lallans), does not occur until the very end of the 13th century.  By that time it appears that many Scots had already adopted surnames, e.g. Sir William Wallace (1272-1305), Robert Bruce (1274-1329), Sir Colin Campbell (knighted 1286), the McLoads (13th century) and other clan names etc.  So there was little room for a native Scot to gain such an anglicized name as Saunders or Sanders.  The native Scots who aligned themselves with these kings may have become the numerous families ‘Alexander’.  English speaking mercenaries, however, employed by these Scottish Kings may have become ‘Alexander’s men Saunders’.  Many such southern mercenaries would have been employed as the Kings Alexander I & II spent much of their reigns fighting against other Scots.   This was at the time when family surnames were starting to be adopted, and it might explain the wide geographic occurrence of Saunders and Sanders as a name.  Mercenaries often become settlers in conquered lands or the employer’s lands, but the majority usually return to their various points of origin.  Because of the ascendancy of the Normans at this time such an Anglo-Saxon sounding name would probably not have been chosen by anybody with an eye on moving up the social ladder!

Alexander of Hales (c. 1185-1245), the English theologian and philosopher, who lectured in Paris and introduced Aristotelian principles into Christian theological discussion, is also notable enough and in the right time period to be a candidate for English speaking followers to become Alexander’s = Saunders.
The above 1172 instance of a Saunders making the annuals of history predates the first aristocratic re-cords of the name Alisaundre and Alisandre in England in around 1250; these were sons of a continental immigrant. Not all Saunders origins are necessarily associated with a person called Alexander.  Britain, and England in particular, has been the destination for European immigrants and exiles for most of its history, often their names would become anglicized.  The German Zander (actually a Germanic derivation of Alexander), French Sandre and Cendres and the Spanish Sandrez etc. could have become Saunders.  There is a rumor that my own paternal Great Great Grandfather was either a gypsy or Spanish itinerant!  Sir Harloven Saunders (spelt Saundres or Saunder), who came to England about 1370 (e.g. 2 ), was of non-Saxon heritage and therefore his name was probably not derived from the word Alexander (he was the first individual of a Southern German /Austrian family to be called Saunders or a close spelling thereof).  Again the phonetics and etymology for the Alexander derivation to Saunders are hard to work outside the English (nee Saxon) language.  At this time the English language was coming back into usage in aristocratic circles and such a name was probably no longer a handicap to acceptance in such company!

Often an individual or family would be named after a raw material or product that they dealt with, fashioned or cut. The Middle English for the red sandalwood was sanders or saunders, after the Old French for sandal, ‘sandre’.  The common group of herbs, horse-parsleys, had the Medieval Latin name holus atrum or ‘black vegetables’ (modern scientific name Smyrinium olusatrum).  Holus atrum was phonetically corrupted to alexandrum to alexander and hence in the same etymological way as above it became the ‘saunders plant’.  It was widely cul-tivated for use in salads until replaced by celery (4 & the Oxford English Dictionary).  The pigment and chemical indicator cendres bleu phonetically became ‘saunders blue’ in England.  It is plausible that some sandalwood merchants, horse parsley growers or pigment makers may have taken on the Saunders name through these routes.

Until about 200 years ago the nobility tended to be the only people whose existence was recorded, so these have a prominent place in genealogies. Human nature insures that most Saunders will link their name to these nobles.  However, the Saunderses named because they were chattels or followers of somebody else, an an-glicised immigrant, or were named after a type of wood, dye or a plant, did not leave any record to be traced.  Just as an example, such quotes as ‘Sir Robert Alysandre of Meltsham, Wilts, was the ancestor of the Wiltshire, Warwickshire, Hertfordshire & Irish Saunderses’(1) is probably a simplification.  It can be imagined that there would have already been a population of ‘common’ Saunderses within these counties.  Likewise the family of the 1172 officer of Strongbow’s army was already in Ireland, probably together with some unrecognized and unrecorded commoners with that name who had migrated there with or after the Norman invasion.

If you are called Saunders or Sanders your family name’s genesis is possibly more than eight hundred years old, possibly had inauspicious or subservient beginnings and most probably developed in an Anglo-Saxon (English) speaking community, therefore probably England (as attested by the regional frequencies of the name).  And its origins are complex enough to pick and chose your earliest roots and spin quite a yarn.


*Email article from: Steven James Saunders, Papua New Guinea, steve@global.net.pg   (Feb 4, 2004)