Mallett Surname Origins — 1066
Earliest Known Use of the Name
The Domesday Book, compiled in the year 1086, gives us the first recorded instance of the Malet surname in England, and it is quite clearly written as "Malet". The image to the left is an actual excerpt from the Domesday Book¹ indicating that Robert Malet held the village of "Wellebrune" (modern day "Wellbourn") in Lincolnshire. There are many more such entries, and the name is always spelled the same way.
'Malet', as written, is obviously very close to the most common modern day spelling in England of 'Mallett', but would the pronunciation be the same for both? In modern English, for the English branches of the family at least, Mallett is pronounced with a short 'a' sound in the first syllable, like 'pal' and a short 'e' sound in the second, like 'pet'. The emphasis is on the first syllable, and the 't's are pronounced at the end.
But how would 'Malet' have been pronounced 1000 years ago? We can't be certain, but a clue lies in the fact that the Domesday Book was undoubtedly written by Clerics, putting the spoken word to paper in "Ecclesiastical Latin"². According to those rules of pronunciation the 'a' in the first syllable would have an "uh" sound, like the second 'a' in area, but otherwise it would be the same as modern English: the emphasis would have been on the first syllable, the 'e' in the second syllable would have been short, and the 't' at the end would have been pronounced. Perhaps this accounts for the "Mollett", and "Mullett" variants found in the British Isles today, but even though the pronunciation of the two names is not exactly the same, they are still quite close, and as English pronunciation changed, the pronunciation of Malet would have changed with it.
As stated above, the Mallett surname is a rather simple phonetic construct, and the spelling has been relatively stable over the intervening years since its inception, probably as a result of that. There are three variants (used by a family for several generations³): 'Malet', 'Mallet', and 'Mallett'. The box on the right is an image of the earliest known signature of a "Malet" that we have; of Baldwin Malet; appended to a legal document, along with his seal in the year 1519. It's rather difficult to interpret because of the flowery handwriting, but close inspection reveals it to be "Malet", with one 'l' and one 't', as in the original Domesday rendering above. Baldwin was a member of the "Malet of St Audries" line, descended from the Malets of Enmore, Somerset.
The second box contains the signature of Oliver Mallett, gathered by the Heralds during their "Visitation of Devon" in 1620. Oliver was the head of the "Mallet of Ash" family located in Iddesleigh, Devon, also descended from the Malets of Enmore. It isn't just the fact that 100 years had passed that accounts for the difference in spelling — the Malets of St Audries seem to have maintained the "Malet" spelling throughout their history, right up to the present day. The Mallets of Ash settled on "Mallet" (dropping the second 't') as their family's version of the name sometime in the late 19th century, and their descendants hold to that spelling today. Up to that point though, they seem to have spelled it as "Mallett" (with two 't's), as Oliver did in 1620.
Many families spun out of the Mallet of Ash line and established themseleves in Devon and Cornwall. Most of them spell the name as 'Mallett', with two 'l's and two 't's, but some use 'Mallet' (two 'l's and one 't'). There are also many "deviant"³ spellings that have been found in the public record, but it must be remembered that these recordings of the name were made by third parties, such as census enumerators, possibly dealing with illiterate "Malletts", and neither party knew how to spell the name for certain. There are many examples of these spellings in the 1851 Census, but they occur in such small numbers that they can't be considered to be true variants³.
Surnames were not in general use in England prior to the Norman Conquest of 1066. They were introduced by the Normans, who had only just begun to use them themselves³.William Malet, Sire de Graville (Normandy), was one of just a handful of Norman Barons who can be proven to have been at the Battle of Hastings. After the Conquest, King William made large grants of English land to his followers, and William Malet and his descendants became major land holders in England. William Malet's son Robert was granted the "Honour of Eye", in Suffolk, that included holdings in 8 counties, but the bulk of his holdings were in Suffolk and Norfolk (East Anglia). He held this property at the time of the Domesday Survey in 1086, and was one of the largest landholders in England at that time. Robert was banished from England after the death of William Ⅰ (he backed the wrong horse in the power struggles that followed the King's death), but the Malet name continued to appear in the historical record in East Anglia after that time, so apparently they weren't all kicked out.
At some point in the first half of the 12th cenury (c. 1130) a Malet family (it's not certain who or when) arrived at Curry Mallet in Somerset and held large estates there, including the towns of Shepton Mallet, Quainton Mallet, Sutton Mallet and the aforementioned Curry Mallet. The line in Curry Mallet died out, but a related line continued on in Enmore, Somerset, and continues to this day. It has always been assumed that this family was related to the Malets in East Anglia, but this has never been proven beyond reasonable doubt.
In addition to the lands in England described above, the Malets continued to hold their original lands in Normandy after the Conquest, and had a presence in the Channel Islands, located between England and France.
So, as the accompanying map shows, the Malets were established in 3 major locations by the early part of the 12th century. There are many bearers of the Mallet(t) surname who today can trace their ancestry back to Normandy, and also to the two areas of England where the Malets established themselves after the Conquest.
Geographic Distribution in Modern Times
A comprehensive study of all occurrences of the Mallett (and variants) surname found in the 1851 census of England, Wales, and the Channel Islands shows that the two largest concentrations of the name in England were in the same two geographic areas where the family established itself 1000 years ago; the east and the southwest. This strongly suggests that there is a definitive connection between the Malletts alive today and the "original" Malets from the 11th and 12th centuries.
This is not to say that everyone who carries the Mallett surname is a direct descendant of William Malet of 1066. In fact, the results of the Mallett Surname DNA Study prove beyond doubt that we cannot all be. If we're not all "genetic" cousins, does it necessarily mean that the name itself has multiple origins?
Origin and Meaning of the Name
Debbie Kennett, writing in "The Surnames Handbook" 3 suggests that all surnames fall into four main categories: "Locative", or "Toponymic", based on a geographic feature (e.g. "Hill") or location (e.g. "Newton"); "Patronymic", based on given names or pet names (e.g. "Martin"); Occupational (e.g. Smith); and Nicknames — sometimes with an obvious meaning (e.g. "Little"), and otherwise a catch-all for any name whose meaning has been lost, and doesn't seem to fit any of the categories.
P.H. Reaney, writing in "A Dictionary of British Surnames" 4 suggests that Mallett might fall into either of two of the above categories, Patronymic or Nickname:
- "Maleit is OFr [Old French], past participle of 'maleïr' ie 'cursed'" [Nickname].
- "The three Domesday Book tenants-in-chief, frequently mentioned and invariably as Malet, may have brought with them a Norman patronymic, a diminutive of Malo, the popular form of the name of St Maclovius, a 6th century Welsh monk who worked in Brittany, which survives in St Malo and in the church of Saint-Maclou in Rouen. Malo, Malet and Maclou survive in France, the latter particularly in Seine-Inférieure, Eure and Calvados." [Patronymic]
- "Tradition claims that the surname of William Malet, founder of Eye Priory, arose 'ob bellicam fortitudinem eo quod in praeliis hostes ut malleo contunderet' [basically he liked to use a mace in battle]. This is supported by the form Gulielmo agnomine Mal(l)eto in Orderic and William of Poitiers. …Knight expert in the use of…mace, the mailz de fer of the Chanson de Roland. OFr maillet, mallet, a diminutive of mail, mal (Latin malleus) 'hammer'. cf. OFr mailleor 'hammerer', smith", and V. MARTEL." [Nickname]
- "In England the chief source of the surname is Mal-et, a diminutive of Mall (Mary) [an early example is given; Maleta (Yorkshire 1219)]. Mallet may also be a late development of Mallard." [Patronymic]
Reaney obviously favours number '4' as the main source of Mallett, but the geographic distribution of the name suggests otherwise. While it is clear that not everyone with the Mallett surname is a direct descendant of the early Norman Malets, it still seems likely that the name derives from them. There are many reasons why someone who bears a given surname does not share the genes of the founder of that name; i.e. adoption, illegitimate birth, etc., but that doesn't change the facts surrounding the origins of the name, or that person's connection to it.
November 21, 2014.