Merchant Ship Names in the 13th-15th centuries

by Sara L. Uckelman
known in the SCA as Aryanhwy merch Catmael

© 2005 Sara L. Uckelman; all rights reserved
last updated 02Aug05

I recently started researching names of ships because ships are one of the models upon which a household name can be constructed. At the moment, the only good article on ships names that is available online is Maridonna Benvenuti's "Ship Names from 1480-01", though at the moment I know of at least one other herald who is working on putting together an in-depth article on 16th- and early 17th-century English ship names.

The data I'm working from comes from three sources: Customs accounts from the port of Exeter 1266-1321 (1), port records from Cornwall 1337-56 (2), and customs accounts from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1454-1500 (3). While most of the ships that came into these ports were English, there were also a number of ships from ports in France, the Netherlands, and Germany listed in the records, with French ships showing up more frequently in the Exeter and Cornwall data, and the Dutch and German ships occurring primarily in the Newcastle-upon-Tyne data.

What is interesting is that despite a range of over two centuries and four countries, the names of the ships are remarkably homogeneous. This makes it easy to recommend patterns of ship names to follow when choosing a good medieval name for your merchant ship, regardless of when or where it was from. (4)

There are five main categories of names in the data I've studied:

Names of Saints and Religious References

Naming your boat after a saint, the Virgin Mary, or some other religious reference was the most popular method. Examples include:

Ship's nameHome portDateSource
la Seynte MarieRomney12861
la halop de Seynt Nicholas (5)12881
le Nostre DameExmouth12891
la Seinte CruzPortsmouth12981
le gogge Seint Thomas (5)Dartmouth12981
la ChristismasseExmouth1304/51
Seint Gylys cogSidmouth1304/51
la TriniteTeignmouth1312/131
la NunneStudlan1312/131
la GracedieuxFowey1339/402
Seynte MariecogWinchelsea1339/402
Seint Saveriscogge1341/422
the Saint IveGroy1494/953
the Grace de DewBullon1494/953

Names of Women

Next most popular was naming your ship after a woman; in some cases, these may also fall under the above, where the ship is in fact being named after a saint, but the appellation "saint" is not included as part of the name. Margaret, Katherine, and Mary and various forms of these were by far the most popular choices.

Ship's nameHome portDateSource
la Bon AnExmouth1302/31
la MaudelynKingston-upon-Hill1312/131
la MargerieYarmouth1315/161
la AlisceoteDartmouth1315/161
la CristianeWeymouth1341/422
le JowanetKingswear1344/452
la KaterineYoughal1350/512
le Mary AleynNewcastle1488/893
the Mare HayrbredNewcastle1494/953
the KatrenDieppe1494/953
the BarbaraBullon1494/953

Names of Men

Less popular (but with a wider range of different names) was naming your ship after a man; again, some of these may actually represent saint's names without the appellation "saint" as part of the name of the ship.

Ship's nameHome portDateSource
la NicholasRingmore1305/061
la LowysAbbeville1310/111
le PeresSidmouth1317/181
le MichelExmouth1317/181
Cog JohnPolruan1338/392
la PeturPoole1339/402
Cog ThomasBristol1341/422
le JorgeLostwithiel1341/422

Names Describing the Ship

This category is substantially more amorphous than the others. In this category I've included names that appear to either describe the ship or to invoke some abstract virtue (perhaps meant to describe the ship's purpose or disposition?)

Ship's nameHome portDateSource
la BlytheHook1312/131
la RodecogTeignmouth1316/171
la CharyteeSt Valéry1316/171
le VertboisLe Vivier1317/181
la Margarete called LangbordExmouth1317/181
le PlenteHook1318/191
la Welyfare (6)Lyme1319/201
le BlytheWeymouth1341/422
le Petit NiefSt Malo1344/452
la Constance (7)Dartmouth1351/522
le BrodhenricDanzig1488/893


Lastly, I have a catchall category, for all the names that don't fit neatly into any category. Within this catchall category are two subdivisions:

Flora & Fauna

Ship's nameHome portDateSource
la HyndeIpswich1310/111
le LyonLymington1316/171
le WhalPolruan1344/452
le Cok (8)1349/502
le RoseGloucester1353/542
the EgleDieppe1499/15003

Other other

Ship's nameHome portDateSource
le MessagerOrford1315/161
le GodyerTeignmouth1317/181
la GoudbiyeteFowey1338/392
le Faucon DieuFowey1346/472
la SavoyeFowey1350/512
le PortourWeymouth1353/542
Welcum to Husse14813
le WorldGow14723
le GlasseGow14723

Concluding Notes

There are two things I want to note in summary, as I must keep this from getting too much longer. First is that it's interesting to note that almost all of the ships in the "other" category are not English, and also that many of the really unusual names are ships whose home port is Gow (for source 3) or Fowey (source 2); I have no idea if this is significant or not. The second is a point about gender: While modernly all ships are feminine, this does not appear to have been the case during these centuries. Not only do you find both le (masculine) and la (feminine) used when naming ships, you'll also find ships with feminine names using the masculine article, and vice versa. Now there's gender equality for you!

References & Footnotes

(1) Kowaleski, Maryanne, ed. & trans., The local customs accounts of the port of Exeter, 1266-1321 (Exeter: Devon and Cornwall Record Society, 1993.)

(2) Kowaleski, Maryanne, ed., "Havener's Accounts of the Duchy of Cornwall, 1337-1356" in The havener’s accounts of the earldom and duchy of Cornwall, 1287-1356 (Exeter: Devon and Cornwall Record Society, 2001.)

(3) Wade, J.F., The customs accounts of Newcastle upon Tyne, 1454-1500 (Durham: Surtees Society, c1995.)

(4) I will note that preliminary data collected by Margaret Makafee shows that patterns of names of warships, while they overlap with patterns of names of merchant ships, do show some differences.

(5) The cog and the hollop are both types of ships.

(6) I'm not completely certain of my identification of this name with the word welfare.

(7) This may also be a woman's name.

(8) This may actually be a variant of cog rather than a reference to the bird.

Thanks to Bogdan, Brighid ni Chiarain, Elias Gedney, Merouda Pendray, Simon Morcar, and Stefano d'Amato for help in tracking down information about merchant ships in 14th-century England.