I'm studying the customs of medieval Europe to gather information for a novel I'm writing and a question has arisen about how the nobles, especially the royal family, identified themselves. Did they use their surname/family name or did they use the country/kingdom to which they belonged? For example, if we were in the Middle Ages, Anne (the daughter of Queen Elisabeth II) would be Anne of the United Kingdom or Anne Windsor/ of the House of Windsor. And if both are correct, which would be the most common? My doubt arises because for example Queen Elisabeth (wife of Edward IV) was called Elisabeth of York (York was the royal house to which she belonged), while Queen Catherine (first wife of Henry VIII) was called Catherine of Aragon (Aragon was the country to which she belonged). It may also be that this is due to the names that historians have subsequently chosen. If this is the case I ask again how they were usually called in their time. As I understand it, the nobles, who did not belong to the royal family, did use the family surnames. All this has come up to me because I am a big fan of Game of Thrones, which is also slightly based on the Middle Ages, and there all the characters (or almost all of them) are identified with their first name + their family surname; and I wondered if in medieval Europe this also happened. I don't want my novel to be a copy of Game of Thrones and that's why I prefer to base it on what really happened in the Middle Ages.

If you could inform me about Spain and England in the years 1400-1500. And if it could be that they were not examples but the common way in which nobles and members of the royal family were identified in their time.

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    "Medieval Times" spans more or less 600 A.D. to 1500 A.D., roughly 800 years, and from Lands' End to Warsaw. Customs and traditions varied in both time and space. Please narrow down to a specific locality (say one specific major language or dialect) and one century of partiicular interest. Nov 2, 2020 at 13:29
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    – MCW
    Nov 2, 2020 at 13:59
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    Monarchs and the high nobility generally identify themselves by their titles, which remains the case today (see e.g. the styles of the British peerages). The distinction that you're making in your question is probably less clear cut than you might think: noble houses very often take their names from their titles. The Habsburgs are named after their ancestral castle, but referred to by contemporaries as House of Austria. The Robertians were called the House of France.
    – Semaphore
    Nov 2, 2020 at 14:39

1 Answer 1


The Dynasty that ruled England from 1154 to 1485 is called the Plantagenet Dynasty.

The first king of that dynasty, Henry II, was the son of Geoffry, Count of Anjou and Duke of Normandy, and Matilda of England. Count Geoffry had the nickname of Plantagenet.

Centuries later, in the 15th century, members of the Plantagenet dynasty started to use Plantagenet as their surname.

Richard of York, 3rd Duke of York, adopted Plantagenet as his family name in the 15th century. Plantegenest (or Plante Genest) had been a 12th-century nickname for his ancestor Geoffrey, Count of Anjou and Duke of Normandy. One of many popular theories suggests the blossom of common broom, a bright yellow ("gold") flowering plant, genista in medieval Latin, as the source of the nickname.[1]

It is uncertain why Richard chose this specific name, although during the Wars of the Roses it emphasised Richard's status as Geoffrey's patrilineal descendant. The retrospective usage of the name for all of Geoffrey's male-line descendants was popular during the subsequent Tudor dynasty, perhaps encouraged by the further legitimacy it gave to Richard's great-grandson, Henry VIII.[2] It was only in the late 17th century that it passed into common usage among historians.[3]


So no members of the Plantagenent dynasty actually used the surname Plantagenet until just few decades before the Plantagenent dynasty became extinct in the male line.

Many members of the plantagenet dynasty were call "of" a place. And that place was usually not the main fief that they ruled but their birthplace. For example King Edward III (1312-77) was known as Edward of Windsor after his birthplace at Windsor Castle.

His sons included Edward the Black Prince, Prince of Wales, William of Hatfield (1337-1337), Lionel of Antwerp, 1st Duke of Clarence (1338-68) born in Antwerp in The Holy Roman Empire, John of Gaunt, first duke of Lancaster (1340-99), born at Ghent in the Kingdom of France, Edmund of Langley, first duke of YOrk (1341-1402) born at King's Langley Palace, Thomas of Windsor (1347-48), William of Windsor (1348-48), and Thomas of Woodstock First Duke of Gloucester (1355-97) born at Woodstock Palace.

In the eastern Roman of "Byzantine" Empire nobles began using surnames by about 900 or even 800. The first Emperor to have a surname for several centuries after the use of Roman style family names ended was probably Romanus I Lekapenos (c. 871-948). Other eastern European rulers influenced by the "Byzantine" empire also used surnames, often a string of several surnames.


  • The Plantagenet family were all of either York or Lancaster, as I recall, thus the ensuing War of the Roses between the two branches of the family. Nov 2, 2020 at 15:58
  • That nickname comment got me wondering about the etymology of "plantagenet." "from Latin planta genista ‘sprig of broom’, said to be worn as a crest by and given as a nickname to Geoffrey, count of Anjou, the father of Henry II." Which came first, the nickname or the crest? ("Dude... you look skinny as a broom stick or maybe a branch! Plantagenet! Plantagent!" kids can be so cruel...)
    – JBH
    Nov 2, 2020 at 18:08

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