Bowles DNA Project
The Bowles of Canada and their Roots in Ireland and Great Britain

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The Origins of the Bowles Name 

While researching your family's roots try not to get stuck on the spelling of the family name.

Today's Bowles, Boles, Boales, Boals, Bolles, Bowls, Bowels etc. and maybe even some Bolds started out centuries ago as Builli, Busli, Buelle(s), Boelle(s), Bolle(s), Bol(s), Bole(s).  Sometimes several of these spellings can be found within the same family at the same time.  For example Roger de Busli (sometimes de Bully or de Bulli) of Tickhill, York (ca. 1038-1099) was the brother of Ernold de Builli (sometimes de Bully) who was the ancestor of John de Boeles who settled in Bedfordshire by the 1200's.  Sometimes John was recorded as de Boueles but some more modern historians, trying to be helpful, have transcribed his name from the original documents in Latin, as de Boweles.  His descendants have been traced to Boweles and Bowles in Bedfordshire by the 1500's.

It's only now in the modern age that the spelling of our name really matters.  In the past it didn't matter much how the record keepers decided to write a name down.  The church official or the land or immigration clerk could hear a name and then write down whatever the name sounded like to them regardless of any correct spelling of the name for that family, many of whom could not have spelled their name if asked anyway.  Many of our ancestors signed their name with an X, some even into the 1900's.  So if you're researching Boles don't ignore a registry entry for a Bowles or a Boals etc.  In the 1800's in Canada we have examples where a father was recorded as Bolles while one son appeared in their church registry with the Bowles spelling and another appeared as Boles.  However, that was mainly true in the less educated majority of the population of England.  The Nobility were literate or could afford to employ clerks who were.  The standardized spelling of their names was important by the 1800's.  But even for them, it wasn't in the early days.

In 1889 The Duchess of Cleveland made this comment in her analysis of the Battle Abbey Roll:

"We live in an age when people are punctilious and fastidious as to the way in which their names are spelt; when we should wound the susceptibilities of Mr. Smijth, Mr. Smythe, or Mr. Smyth, if we inadvertently mistook them for Mr. Smith; when any one whose patronymic began with two little f's would be roused to just indignation by seeing it written with one large F. But it was far otherwise in mediaeval times. Men wrote their names—when they could write at all—in any way that occurred to them at the moment, for there was neither rule nor precedent to guide them. Mr. Henry Drummond, in his 'Noble British Families,' quotes eighteen different ways of spelling Nevill that he had met with in deeds and records; Nash, in his 'History of Worcestershire,' gives us twenty-three versions of Percy: and this uncertainty, if we are to judge by the example of Shakespeare, still continued in the sixteenth century. Again, al and au, beau and bel, mau and mal, are synonyms; and val and ville (at least in the Roll) are treated in a similar way. V and F, S and C, C and G, G and W, V and W, W and M, are also used indiscriminately to produce the same sound. Nor should we fail to remember how easy it is to confound one letter with another in the old black letter character. The u and n are there as undistinguishable as they are in the "running hand" of our own times."

The presence or absence of the 'w' in the name is particularly irrelevent as the letter 'w' was not even known in the English alphabet until the 16th century and even then only rarely.  Around 1530 the famous grammarian Valentin Ickelshamer wrote “poor w is so infamous and unknown that many barely know either its name or its shape, not those who aspire to being Latinists, as they have no need of it, nor do the Germans, not even the schoolmasters, know what to do with it or how to call it."

It is quite likely that the roots of this surname are as complex as the various cultures which made up England and Ireland.  Angles, Saxons, Celts, Vikings, Normans.  All combined to form today's Bowles, Boles etc.

A Bowles living today may have descended from a Saxon Boles (for which some possible roots are Boll (a steward), 'le Bole' (the bull) or 'les Bolles' (from an area called The Bolles)) or a Viking named Bolla, a Norman named Busli or Builli, or possibly from a Scot named Boal or Boyle who may have descended from a Norman named Boelles or from a Celt named Ó Baoighill (O'Boyle).

See a special note on The Origin of the Bowles Surname in the Northern Counties of Ireland

While the most common theory held by most Bowles descendants seems to be that they had a Norman ancestry, probably somehow through an Alleyn Bole, Lord of Swineshead, of the Bolles of Haugh family tree, and there are many claims to proofs of that theory, although none of them that I have seen stand up to close scrutiny.  I personally believe that there is more evidence that the Bolles of Swineshead had a Norse or Saxon origin as I discuss on that page and they were quite certainly not Lords of Swineshead.  See The Question of the Bolles as Lords of Swineshead

However, I have found and can document a line of de Buelles that originated in York and spread to Bedfordshire and some other counties, who actually did have a Norman origin and later used the Bowles spelling.  Their ancestor was Ernold de Builli, brother of Roger de Busli of Tickhill, Yorkshire, one of the principle Norman Barons and a personal companion of William the Conqueror whom he joined on his conquest of England in 1066.

I have also documented a Bolles line in Chartham, Kent which was originally thought to have descended from the Bolles of Swineshead but which I have traced back to the 1200's in Ickham, Kent with references that strongly indicate a Middle-English origin for that particular line.

   Notes on the Norman origin and my Notes on the Middle English origin of the name Bole.


Some Origin of the Bowles Surname References Online

A good Bowles Surname Origins site which I believe summarizes several other sites

In Irish Ancestors enter the name Bowles in the Search box

Bowles Surname History by Evan Bowles

Excerpt from the book: Irish families, Great and Small by Michael C. O’Laughlin

Excerpt from Family History: VA Genealogies #2 1600-1800 Genealoglies of Virginia Families Volume IV the Bowles, Anderson,and Shelton families as related to William Sims Of Union Co. SC

Excerpt from The Surnames of Ireland by Edward MacLysaght

Possible roots of the name Bolds and Bowles in Oxfordshire from A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 12

This site was last updated 03/05/20