Nothing throws me out of a piece of historical fiction more quickly than inappropriately named characters. A historical heroine called Jade? No, no, no! In the past, calling a woman a jade was an insult.
Until comparatively recently, English given names were drawn from a relatively small pool. There were exceptions, such as Brilliana, but a writer would need a convincing reason to give a heroine such an unusual name. Wanting her to stand out isn’t enough; good characterisation should do that.
Before 1066, Anglo Saxon names such as Alfred, Edmund, Edward, Aethelflaed, Edith, Mildred were common. In eastern England a proportion of the people were of Scandinavian descent. They might be called Olaf or Raegnald or Thurketil.
After the Norman Conquest the Old English names quickly fell out of favour, not enjoying a revival until the nineteenth century. Norman French names such as William, Thomas, Robert, John, took over and have remained the most popular boys’ names ever since. By the end of the Middle Ages Anne, Mary, Elizabeth were established as among the most popular girls’ names.
In the eighteenth century, when the Hanoverian kings were on the throne, bringing German princesses to England as their wives, names such as Caroline or Charlotte became popular. The name Victoria was introduced into England in 1818 when Edward, Duke of Kent, married Victoria of Saxe Coburg. It did not become really popular until much later in the nineteenth century, by which time their daughter, also Victoria, had been on the throne many years.
Suitable names for historical characters can be found in historical records. Tax returns for Cumberland in the 1330s list people such as Aldonsa, relict of Richard, Agnes de Burghe, Thomas de Ravenwik, William Rotheland, Adam, son of Henry and William Walker.
Returns for the City of London in 1541 include Elisabeth Malyn, Ales Lupsed, Margaret Throme. Among the men are John Rookes, Thomas Bartilmewe, Ambrose Barker. John Hevans suggests that perhaps the Cockney ’h’ was established by the reign of Henry VIII.
It was usual for the eldest son and daughter to be named after their father and mother. Second and third sons and daughters were named after their grandparents. Subsequent children were often named after other relatives. The result could be families of cousins all with the same names.
That would not work in historical fiction, of course, where characters need to be easily distinguishable. However, short forms of names were commonly used in the past. Queen Victoria’s three eldest children were known as Vicky, Bertie and Affie. One could have a heroine known as Bet, her Aunt Lizzie, and a grandmother, also named Elizabeth, but who, if she was a widow, might never be referred to by her first name by anyone.
Then there are nicknames, the origins of which have been long forgotten. Anyone who has ever done any family history research will have spent time searching for Great Uncle John, only to discover that his name was really William. Or have always thought that Great-Grandma’s name was Peggy, when in fact she was baptised Louisa.
And a case of mistaken identity involving two cousins with the same name, or someone who is known by a name other than his or her baptismal name, could make an interesting premise for a novel.