Every Mordaunt reading this has heard regularly something like , "That's an unusual name. Is it French?" or "That's an unusual name. Where does it come from?" The answer is, unfortunately, that we do not know with any certainty.
Origins - the Normans, and others
All Mordaunts know that the Mordaunts are of Norman-French origin, but are they? Half of William's army was from neighbouring Bretagne and Flanders, knights and soldiers borrowed from the Conqueror's allies and needing to be rewarded just as much as his own Norman followers. The French surname 'Mordant', if they are of any past relationship at all, is first recorded in all three areas: Normandy, Brittany and Flanders.
For some centuries, the Kings of England were senior members of the French aristocracy for whom England was no more than a wonderful source of taxation and manpower to help maintain their position and strength in France. I live in Gloucester; interred in Gloucester cathedral is Robert, Duke of Normandy, the eldest son of William the Conqueror. When he died, William divided his lands between his sons. Robert the eldest, of course, received the most valuable bequest, the Duchy of Normandy. He left his second son, William Rufus, his second most valuable possession, the kingship of England. To William the Conqueror, being Duke of Normandy was more important than being King of England! (To sidetrack onto the rivalry of the three brothers, to finance his part in the First Crusade, Robert mortgaged his duchy to his brother. He was on his way back from that crusade when Rufus was mysteriously killed and Henry, the youngest son, took his opportunity and claimed for himself the kingship of England. When Robert returned from the crusade he invaded England to take the country off his brother but was defeated and withdrew. Henry then invaded Normandy and defeated Robert again and had him imprisoned in Cardiff Castle until his death when he was buried in, what was then, the abbey church of St Peter, in Gloucester). This is the clearest possible example of the relative unimportance of the kingship of England to the Norman way of thinking. The kings visited the country no more often than they had to. King Henry II (1154-1189), for example, was a French nobleman whose domains covered the whole western half of France, from the Mediterranian to the Channel, and just happened to include England. When his son, King John, lost most of the Plantagenant lands in France he earned the nickname 'sans Terre,' or in English, 'Lackland'. He was a French nobleman with no lands - England didn't count.
The first Mordaunt in England could, therefore, have come from anywhere in northern and western France. An interesting French website also investigates the name and origin of the name Mordant/Mordaunt and suggests one possibility of a Breton/Frankish village, Mordan, which no longer exists but in the 9th century was in the parish of Grand Fougeray, currently in the départment of Ille-et-Vilaine, north east of Rennes, and links the village with the family names Mordan and Mordant in Brittany. Elsewhere in Brittany the municipality of Plestin-les-Côtes d'Armor has identical arms to the English family of Mordaunt as had the family Mordant de la Villecochard de Langourian, cited in the 17th century at Erquy, Côtes d'Armour. What we can be more certain of is that the first Mordaunt in England and his descendants for perhaps two or three hundred years would have been French speaking, as were the kings of England and all the ruling class almost up until the time of King Henry IV in 1399.
Notwithstanding these possible complications, for an introduction to the 'Normans' and the feudal system they introduced, this brief extract from an excellent history of the British Isles may be helpful.
We do not know when the first Mordaunt(s) arrived in England. Did he come with the Conqueror or did he follow after? The name is not found in any list of combatants of the Battle of Hastings (1066) but this tells us very little. Modern histories number the size of the Norman army as anything between 5,000 and 12,000 depending which book you read, although a lower figure is more likely. Only 15 followers of William are definitely known to have taken part with another 5 or so probables. The Battle Abbey roll, the Falaise roll and the Dives roll offer alternative lists of up to 400-odd combatants but with good reason the authenticity of these lists is questioned by scholars. Even so, many thousands who took part are unnamed. The future Henry Mordaunt, 2nd Earl of Peterborough, published in 1685 his "Succinct Genealogy of the House of Mordaunt" under the pseudonym Halstead in which he made the highly fictitious claim:
So, did the first Mordaunt arrive with the conquest or sometime after? If after, would that have been a short time after or a long time after?
In the year 1066, against which Providence had prepared so great a change for the people and governance of England, as did ensue by their subjection to the total conquest of a victorious prince. At that time, among the other heroes, who joined their hopes and assistance to the fortunes of the famous William, Duke of Normandy, there was a noble knight, called Robert of Saint Giles, in the Latin tongue Robertus Sancto de Ægidio, who brought to his service fourscore knights out of the south parts of France, and joined himself to the Duke's other troops, at the embarkation for this great undertaking. Of this Robert of Saint Giles, no more is extanct of what he was, than the assurance that the sovereign earls and princes of Toulouse, did all at that time, use the name and appellation of of Saint Giles, or Sancto de Ægidio: That the attendance of fourscore knights was an equipage suitable for a prince adventurer, and that after his labours for this war, he was rewarded by the generous Conqueror, with great lands and possessions. How long this Robert of Saint Giles lived, or remained in this kingdom, we cannot tell: but we find his son, Eustace of Saint Giles, did survive his father, and possessed his acquisitions, by a charter, wherein he gave to his brother Osbert, (who from some occasion was called le Mordaunt, and was the beginner of this house and name) the Lordship of Radwell, in the county of Bedford, and other lands that were his father's partition. And from this Osbert all the Mordaunt's do derive. ..... He lived after to a great age; and being engaged in assistance with the first conquerors of Ireland, we find him to have received from the gift of Hervey de Montmorency, who is titled Marescallus Domini Regis totius Hibernae*, the Lordship of Balinæeros, Tobenere, and many great possessions. When, and where he died does not appear.
(* Marshall of the Lord King of all Ireland)
This account has been denounced as 'one of the most daring and successful concoctions intended to provide an ancient house with a Conquest pedigree,' (Quoted from "British History Online). In so many ways it does not add up, such as the facts that there is no corroberating evidence from the official record in the Domesday Book, 1086, and that Osbert would have been at least 70 or 80 years old at the time of the Norman invasion of Ireland (1169). But it achieved Henry's objectives; every gazetteer of Peerages and Baronetages published since to this day has reproduced as fact all or some of the detail.
We do not know if the name was adopted before or after the arrival in England.
Surnames, as opposed to patronyms, had not been widely used in Europe since the Roman Empire but began to be used in France in the late 11th Century.
Halstead suggested the name arose from the French word for death, mort but that bears as little scrutiny as does his early genealogy. Nearly all modern dictionaries of surnames suggest the derivation of the name Mordaunt comes from the French verb mordre - to bite, the present participle of which would be biting, or mordant in modern French, possibly refering to the the sarcastic or biting sense of humour of the original. This idea seems to come from the the work of the Victorian etymologist, Canon Charles Bardsley and his work 'Dictionary of English and Welsh Surnames,' 1901 and later editions. I do not know what his evidence was for this and suspect it is an intelligent guess, some 800 years after the event. There are occasional references suggesting that the name began as ‘le Mordaunt’ which, perhaps, could have been translated “the biting (person)."
The inclusion of the letter 'u' possibly arises from Norman French/Anglo-Norman spelling and pronunciation. French of the Norman period differed from modern French as Chaucer's English, say, differed from modern English. And, as with English, there was no standardised speech at this time. Local dialects would have varied and Norman French would have inevitably had Norse language influences. A search of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) gives other examples of the use of the 'u'. For example, the definition of 'mort d'ancestor' gives several examples of alternative spellings from Middle English 'mort de auncestre, mortauncestor, mortauncestour, mortaunceter, mortdauncestor, mortdauncestour'. The OED also gives mordant and mordaunt as alternative spellings in Anglo-Norman for the tongue of a buckle which evolved in Middle French and French mordant as the metal part of a belt (c1200 in Old French). (Could this be an alternative derivation of the name?).
So, everything about the family and name is uncertain. All that can be stated with any certainty is that the first Mordaunt(s) arrived in England sometime between 1066 and 1197 when Gilbert de Radwell recognized the right of Eustace Mordaunt to one virgate of land in Radwell which his father Osmund had held. 'A Dictionary of English Surnames' (OUP) gives two earlier references, a William Mordaunt in Winchester, Hampshire, in 1148 and a mention of probably the same Eustace in Berkshire in 1176. This does suggest wider land holdings, the records for which have not survived. The fact that Eustace married an heiress to a reasonably wealthy estate suggests the family had been established long and successsfully enough to achieve some standing.
Mid 18th Century
From 1197, the line of eldest sons is recorded in ever increasing detail over time. The early records for the first five centuries ignore the younger sons of younger sons who did not inherit a share of family estates but from Tudor times there is increasing evidence of other Mordaunts whose kinship to the main recorded branches is unclear. By the early 1700s there were increasing records of 'poorer' Mordaunts, such as Patrick Mordaunt, indicted at the Middlesex Sessions in 1709 and Elizabeth Mordaunt, whom the records of the Old Bailey, London's central criminal court, show, was sentenced to 7 years transportation for stealing 10d. and later may have been executed for other thefts.
So, by the mid 1700s, the state of the Mordaunts, as I have discovered to date, was that the direct aristocratic line was dying out and had only 65 years before extinction. The family of their distant cousins, the baronets of Massingham Parva, was apparently much more fecund and their extended family was spread around the country, from the fashionable West End of London to the Midlands, especially in Warwickshire around the family seat of Walton Hall, and in Somerset. Elsewhere in England Mordaunts were spread thinly. There were family groups in London's East End, some wealthier than others, and families in Cumberland, Devon, Lancashire, Sussex and Wolverhampton. In Ireland a substantial family group was well established in County Wexford around Gorey and, possibly, Dublin. A few Mordaunts were already established and already well spread out in the American colonies. This wide and scattered spread, more than anything else, resulted from religion and the adherence of many Mordaunts to the Catholic faith through 150 years of persecution and then a further 150 years of discrimination. It explains why families escaped to, what were then, remote areas such as Cumberland, Lancashire, Devon and Ireland, where persecution was less rigourously enforced.
On other pages you may find this glossary of archaic terms useful, also accessable through the index column on the left, and perhaps this map.
Henry Mordaunt - January 2010