Lancaster is an habitational name from Lancaster in northwestern England, named in Old English as “Roman fort on the Lune,” from the Lune river, on which it stands, and the Old English term cæster meaning “Roman fort or walled city” (Latin castra meaning “legionary camp”). The river name is probably British, perhaps related to the Gaelic term slán meaning “healthy.”
The name is first recorded in 1175 when William de Lonecastre is registered in the "Cartulary of Staffordshire." On July 4th 1635, one Gowen Lancaster, aged 28 yrs., embarked from London on the ship "Transport" bound for Virginia.
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It has been determined that the Lancaster name is of Norman origin, and was first found in Lancashire where they held a family seat as Constables of Lancaster Castle (shown above) from very ancient times. One of the first records of the family was found in Litherland, one of the ancient manors of Aughton. "About the middle of the twelfth century, it was granted to Warin de Lancaster, chief forester, by the serjeanty of keeping the lord's falcons."
The chapelry of Milburn, Westmorland is also of significance to the family in early times. "The chapel dedicated to St. Cuthbert, was founded by William de Lancaster, about 1355. Many vestiges of encampments are visible. Howgill Castle, formerly the seat of the knightly families of Lancaster and Sandford, and which, with Grange Hall and Lownthwaite, belongs to the Earl of Thanet, lord of the manor, occupies a commanding situation, half a mile east of the village; some of its walls are 10½ feet thick."
Over the centuries the spelling of the Lancaster surname has changed and developed. Lancaster appears in the records spelled as Lancaster, Lancashire, Lancester, Lancoster, Lancastell and Lanchester, with spelling variations even occurring in documents referring to the same person.
There are several explanations for this situation. Latin, as a language used by educated men, and the language of the Anglo-Saxons, both had a profound impact on the spelling and pronunciation of Norman names. On the other hand, the Norman language affected the development of English.
As the English language developed from its Germanic roots into Middle English (which was influenced by Norman French) we find a period during which spelling was not standardized but roughly followed phonetic pronunciation. During this time names were spelled a variety of ways depending upon local dialects. Thus the Lancaster name, as well as the Anglo-Saxon names, were recorded in many different ways.
Norman surnames such as Lancaster have been mistakenly considered to be French. The Normans were more accurately of Viking origin. In about the year 911 Vikings settled in the region named after them, Normandy, in what is now France. The word Norman is derived from "Northmen," as the Vikings were called.
While in Normandy these Vikings merged the language of the local people with their own, creating a distinct dialect of French. Throughout this period England also suffered Viking invasions, however, they were successfully repelled by the Anglo-Saxons until 994.
While the Danes ruled England, the Saxon royal family lived in Normandy and intermarried with the Duke of Normandy's family. This situation made it possible for William II, Duke of Normandy to claim the English throne when his cousin Edward the Confessor, the restored Saxon king, died without an heir.
At the Battle of Hastings, depicted above in the Bayeux Tapestry, William and his army defeated his rival, the elected King Harold Godwinson. Because Harold did not belong to the royal family William's claim to the throne was legitimized.
Despite the success of the foreign "conquest," English nobles were permitted to keep their land until they rebelled, after which William granted their lands to his followers.
One of these Norman nobles is believed to be an ancestor of the Lancaster name. Records reveal that the Lancaster family established themselves in Lancashire where they were recorded as a family of great antiquity seated in that shire where they were the Lords of the manors of Lancaster, Unsworth and Heaton Gate in the parish of Prestwich.
They also branched in very early times to Polefield. They were directly descended from Ethelred (Fitz Renfrid), third son of Ivan de Tailebois of Angevin Normandy who was granted the Barony of Kendall by William the Conqueror about 1068, a reward for his assistance at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.
The barony survived William's 'wasting' of the north country in 1070, when he subdued his rebellious nobles. It is claimed that Ivan, who died in 1114, was a relative of William the Conqueror. Ethelred's descendant changed his name from William Taillebois to William Lancaster when he became Constable of Lancaster Castle about 1150 and from him was also descended the Viscounts Gormanston and the Lords Tara.
During the 13th and 14th century they intermarried with the Scholes and with the Greaves of Irlam Hall to whom they lost many of their estates. The Baron Lancaster, Lord Lancaster, was called to Parliament in 1334.
They later acquired estates at rackhouse in Cumberland, Rainhill near Liverpool, and Richmond in Yorkshire. Junior lines bounded throughout Lancashire and adjacent counties during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.
Notable members of the family at this time include Sir James Lancaster (died 1618), a prominent Elizabethan trader and privateer; and William Lancaster D.D. (1650-1717), an English churchman and academic, Provost of The Queen's College, Oxford.
The Great Migration
The New World beckoned a people weary of the turmoil at home. Despite the dangers of the journey, bearers of the Lancaster family name sailed to the newly discovered colonies in the Americas in order to start a new life.
Today there are approximately 32,000 bearers of the name Lancaster in the United States.