The Penguin Dictionary of Surnames simply defines ‘Relf’ as a Sussex name, but in fact the name is now spread pretty widely. Certainly the first trace of the name so far discovered is of a John Relf listed In the 1197 Subsidy Rolls for Sussex (Lewes Record Office). The next trace is in the 1397 Sussex Subsidy Rolls. ‘Subsequently, the name crops up fairly regularly, and a large number of Relfs still live in Sussex. but the name can also be found in most parts of the world where European influence has achieved significance. There is even rumour of a black branch in Africa though I have no direct knowledge of it; certainly there is evidence that it extends to the North American Indians and Relfs have married into Burmese, Sikh and other diverse cultures. Nevertheless, I am frequently asked where Relfs come from and whether they are all related; I hope that the short article which follows may answer some of those questions.
Up until the Norman Conquest (AD 1066), hereditary surnames were almost unknown in England; a single name was normal for each person and was not necessarily passed onto successive generations. Hereditary surnames probably originated in Scandinavia where a long standing tradition had it that a man’s spirit was embodied in his name and could be passed on from father to son. Naturally, this sometimes led to a multiplicity of similar names in one locality, but it was possible to avoid confusion by adding a second name or by name which over several generations became itself inherited and confused.
The name Relf is indubitably also of Scandinavian origin. It is found in Old Norse as Hrolfe, in Old Swedish and Old Danish as Rolf, and means ‘wolf’. It was imported into France during the various Nordic invasions, where it became an hereditary surname encouraged by the legalization of hereditary descent of fiefdoms; In AD 877 it became permissible in law for a son to inherit the fief of his father and with it he usually took also the family surname. In AD 911, Rolf (spelled Relf in some sources) became the first Duke of Normandy and it became a fashionable name. No doubt a number of Rolfs followed close behind William the Conqueror on the march against England in AD 1066, and later settled in the plundered lands; others would follow later to join their relatives, and for this reason to this day most Relfs and similar names are found In the south east of England.
Of course Relfs did not stop entering the country after 1066. Things are never this simple. In practice there have been several waves of immigrants from the continent since the Norman Conquest and many of them contained Relfs. The most important, for our purposes at least, were the various Huguenot immigrations. A number of Relfe families usually spelled with the ultimate ‘e’ entered the country this way and important families descended from them can be found not only in the southeast but also in the Spitalfields area of London, the north of England around Carlisle in particular, and in Hull. A number of Huguenot family trees are on record including some details of John Relfe, Clerk Assistant to the House of Peers, who received a grant of Arms in Jan 1692~. This John was the author of 2 tomes which are still standard references on procedure in the House of Lords.
It will be clear to you by now that all Relfs are not necessarily related. Furthermore, there are several reasons why it is unlikely that any of the various family trees will ever be provable much further back than the fifteenth century prior to which surnames were not rigidly inherited; in later years apprentices frequently took the name of their master, and many records have not survived. Before the advent of printing, there was no standard reference for spelling and the great majority could neither read nor write. The learned clerk would therefore do his best, if required, to write down the name as he thought it was pronounced dialects as well and variations on the name were common. Phonetic spelling cannot differentiate between ‘f’ and ‘ph’; similarly, ‘0’, ‘al’, and ‘au’ can all be pronounced ‘or’, and even ‘ow’ can be pronounced ‘of’ by a German, French, or Scandinavian speaker of which there has been no shortage in England over the last 1000 years. And so the original Rolf can now be found as Rawle, Raul, Rolls, Rolfe, Rowe, Ralph, and of course Relf among others. It is also interesting to note in passing that it was fashionable in educated circles during the middle ages for women to add ‘e’ to their husbands surname to form from the Latin the feminine, and to add ‘es’ to denote their widowhood; alternatively, a clerk might do it for them.
In medieval times there were several concentrations of Relfs in the southeast particularly in Sussex and Kent which at that time comprised the industrial heartland of the country prior to the revolution which later developed the north. Inevitably, a number of Relfs were men of substance, iron founders in particular. In 1634, the Heralds Visitation to Sussex recorded a grant of arms to William Relfe of Mayfield and a pedigree covering 5 generations of his descendants is on record with the College of Arms in London. Mayfield was in fact one of the largest concentrations of Relfs in the 17th century. Others lived close to Ashburnham and in 1637, William Relf purchased the Lordship of the Manor of Ashburnham but was forced to sell it only a few years later.
With the eventual destruction of the forests which had fuelled the foundries, smelting gradually ceased; the last foundry in the southeast of England closed in 1765. The Relfs turned from smelting to agriculture and a number of farming family histories are on record. Brightling was another great centre for Relfs and this change from iron founding to agriculture can clearly be seen in the family trees rooted in the village and so clearly charted by Steve Chapman. However, not all felt able to make the change and during the 17th and 18th centuries a number of families moved further afield in search of work. A number of Relfs were among the early settlers in the New World often changing the spelling of their name.