Swedish naming practices

What was Helena’s family name before she married?

I’ve come across more than one variant of this question on the Internet. It’s difficult to answer because it assumes that Swedish 16th century naming practices were the same as the ones we use in English today. They weren’t.

Swedish naming practices in the 16th century were similar to naming practices in modern Iceland. Everyone had a baptismal name (occasionally more than one). We don’t have any records, but Helena was almost certainly baptised as
Elin, which is the Swedish version of Helen, and which was Anglicised as Helena when she came to Elizabeth’s England.

Everyone in Sweden was commonly known by their baptismal name coupled with the their patronym (father’s name). So before her marriage Helena was known as Elin Ulfsdotter (Helena Ulf’s daughter). Her father was Ulf Henriksson, her mother was Agneta Knutssdotter and her brother was Jörgen Ulfsson.

The practice was the same for everyone regardless of their social status. Helena’s first mistress was Princess Cecilia Gustavsdotter, the Princess’ eldest brother was King Erik Gustavsson and the old king, Ulf Henriksson’s lord and commander, was King Gustav Eriksson.

Members of the gentry and the aristocracy were also members of greater clans or families. These families identified themselves with badges that were used on shields and coats of arms. Whether the symbol gave its name to the clan or the clan chose the symbol from a name that was already current is a moot point. Ulf Henriksson’s coat of arms displayed a red boat and his clan name was Bååt (sometimes Bååth). Helena used the same symbol and it is carved on the tomb she shares with her second husband Thomas Gorges in Salisbury Cathedral.

These clan names were not surnames or family names in the modern sense, but modern Swedish history books often identify the clan to which a specific person belonged by adding the clan name to the person’s given name in parentheses. So Helena’s father is Ulf Henriksson (Bååt) and her mother is Agneta Knutssdotter (Lille), but it would be a mistake and an anachronism to think that Helena’s ‘real’ name was Elin Bååt.

During the latter part of the 1500s it became increasingly the fashion for Swedes in the upper levels of society to use their clan names as surnames. This may have been in imitation of practices elsewhere in Europe. By 1600 it was certainly more usual for a Swedish aristocrat to identify himself with both his patronym and his clan name.

Perhaps because there were a lot of people in the Bååt clan, Helena’s family seem to have adopted the name Snakenborg.

There is little evidence that Helena herself ever made use of the Snakenborg name. The evidence that exists suggests that even as late as 1571 the Swedish family were still following traditional naming practices. In 1571, when Helena married William Parr, her brother Jörgan came to visit his sister. He is identified by English observers as “George Wolf”, which seem only likely to have happened because he was introducing himself as Jörgen Ulfsson, not Jörgen Bååt or Jörgen Snakenborg.

Leave a comment

Comments are always welcome!