Ancestor surname : do you belong to an ancient noble family?
by Jan-Olov von Wowern

The purpose of this article is to show what you should look out for if you are searching for an ancestor’s surname and want to know if it is noble.

The most common noble predicates are “von”, “de”, “di” etc. (meaning “of”) before the surname. A predicate among your ancestors is by no means proof of nobility, and some families have wrongly assumed predicates to make themselves appear to be noble. In some countries the noble families do not have any predicates, but are noble nonetheless. A predicate is an indispensable part of a surname if the surname was originally constructed with it – if it has been assumed later (after the family was ennobled or generally recognised as noble) it is sometimes called a “prefix”.

A surname of a noble ancestor with a predicate or prefix should properly be registered on the first letter of the main name, not on the predicate or prefix. Hence my name, von Wowern, is registered under “W”, not under “v”.

Many noble surnames include words such as “gold-” or “golden”, “silver-“, “sword” or symbols which are used on the family’s coat of arms. Among your ancestors you may also find names constructed from animals (“Wolf”, “Lion”) etc. Noble surnames often, but not always, seem unusual and different (which of course was a way to make it stand out).

An incholate is typically the geographical predicate attached to a noble family. E.g. for the Prince of Wales, “Wales” is the incholate. Incholates in another sense can be used by Church dignitaries, e.g. “Titular Bishop of X Y “. In many cases the incholate was the family’s domains, but later developed into a titular attribute. In some families the loss of the geographical domain caused them to write the nobiliary title between their first name and the surname – hence it was no longer “Count X Y”, but “X Count Y”, as the family name became the new incholate. Any incholate found among your ancestors should be carefully examined.