A History of the Bown Surname

by Pete Bown

There are several theories concerning the origin of the Bown surname. However, one thing is clear, it does not derive from Brown, Bowen, Bone or Bowness.

The pronunciation of Bown does not seem to vary around the world. It is always pronounced to rhyme with down or brown.

I have carried out some research of my own into the origin of the name and have concluded that I subscribe to the most romantic theory. It would appear to me that it dates back to a Norman-English family of nobility called de Bohun, probably originating from a French settlement of the that name. This family arrived in England along with William the Conqueror, having probably fought alongside him at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. The earliest record of a de Bohun can be found in the Norfolk section of the Domesday book, where a Humphrey de Bohun was recorded as owning land. Over the next three centuries they grew to become one of the most powerful English dynasties of the middle ages.

I am almost totally convinced that de Bohun would have been pronounced with a silent 'h' as the family had Norman-French origins and the French would not sound it. In fact, most 13th and 14th century documents that contain information about the family omit the letter 'h' altogether. The Matthew Paris shields roll I c.~1240 lists one Henricus de Boun, comes Herefordie, the St. George's roll c.1285 lists one Fraunc d'Boun. Most interesting of all, a copy of Thevet's version of the Falkirk roll c.1298, held at the British Museum, lists as second in command of the English at the Battle of Falkirk, one Humfray de Bown, Counte de Hereford, Constable de Engleterre. Note the spelling of the latter surname. This suggests to me that Bohun was actually pronounced Bown. Boon could be the Scottish and medieval northern English pronunciation i.e. brown being pronounced broone.

The reason for the different spelling is quite simple. Seven hundred years ago there was no such thing as a dictionary or a spell checker. There was no correct way of spelling, people wrote phonetically, (as it sounded) and it was perfectly acceptable to spell the same word different ways. All medieval texts also show differences in regional accents. The name can also be seen spelt as Boune and Boone, later Bowne and Boon. The name Bohun has continued on, but is now very rare in the UK.

In addition to the changes in spelling, the surnames of Bown and Boon can be traced back using coats of arms. Both surnames can be traced back to the Earls of Hereford, although there are other coats of arms of unknown origin. One should not get the medieval arms confused with the pseudo arms created in the 18th century, the latter ones bear no resemblance or historical link to the 13th century arms. Medieval coats of arms, by definition, often make subtle changes from one generation to the next, sometimes even incorporating both parents' arms, especially if the holder inherited titles and land from both parents. Each member of a particular family held a slightly different variation of the principal arms. If a son inherited his father's title, he also inherited his father's arms and disposed of his own. Modern day Bowns and Boons can not therefore claim, for example, the de Bohun of Hereford arms, as this may only be used by the heir. However, I see no reason why one can not use a derivation of the arms if you believe that you are related to the Herefords; Although, technically, it has to be handed down to you.

The de Bohun family appears to have gathered power during the mid 12th century. Throughout the 13th and 14th centuries, various members of the family claimed Earldoms of many English counties including Herefordshire, Northamptonshire and Essex, plus minor seats in Midhurst and Brecon.

The most powerful dynasty of all lasted 174 years from 1200 until 1373. They were known as the Earls of Hereford, Constables of all England and were heavily involved in the 'Braveheart' story. At one time, the Earl of Hereford was possibly the third most powerful man in England, carrying the banners of 17 knights to the Siege of Caerlaverock in July 1300, this compared to King Edward's 33 and 23 for the King's son. The de Bohuns' coat of arms was an azure blue shield with a thick diagonal white or silver band and six rampant gold lions, three in each half of the blue; An example of which can be seen in the east window of Bristol Cathedral. Their badge and seal was a white or silver swan. At jousting tournaments and during battles, the de Bohuns decorated themselves and their horses in azure blue clothing adorned with rampant gold lions and bands of white or silver and gold. Note: Medieval texts often confuse silver and white.

I have included a brief and incomplete history of the de Bohuns of Hereford. If you have any more information about this or any of other the lines, please let me know.

...and before you ask; There is no book on the subject. This information was gathered and cross-referenced from over thirty texts.

As written on the Falkirk Roll...
Humfray de Bown, Counte de Hereford, Constable de Engleterre
porte d'azur ou ung bende d'argentou vi leonceaux d'or ou deux coutice d'or.
carried (arms) of blue with a band of silver, 6 small lions of gold with two edgings of gold

Henry de Bohun
1st Earl of Hereford
Lord High Constable of England
1200 - 1220
Born about 1176
Title bestowed upon him on 28 April 1200 by King John.
Married Maud de Mandeville, Countess of Essex.
Henry's grandfather, Humphrey had inherited the greater part of Miles de Gloucester's possessions on the extinction of the male line, by marrying his eldest daughter Margaret de Pîtres.
Henry was the nephew of King William the Lion of Scotland. His mother, Margaret of Huntingdon was King William's sister.
Henry and other nobles summoned King William to do homage at Lincoln in 1201.
Supported King John (Lackland) when Normandy was reclaimed by France in 1204.
Took part in the revolt of the barons which resulted in the signing of the Magna Carta at Runnymede on 12 July 1215. Henry was one of the signatories and was as one of 25 barons elected to police it.
When the revolt restarted, King John had Pope Innocent III excommunicate Henry de Bohun.
King John died on 19 October 1216 but Henry de Bohun did not ally himself with the new king, Henry III. He was taken prisoner at the Battle of Lincoln on 20 May 1217.
Henry de Bohun died on 1 June 1220 while on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. His body was returned and buried at Llanthony Secunda Priory, Gloucester.
Henry's arms appear on Matthew Paris shields I: Henricus de Boun, comes Herefordie
Humphrey de Bohun V
2nd Earl of Hereford and Essex
Lord High Constable of England
1220 - 1274
Born before 1208.
Inherited from his father. Humphey's older brother, Henry died young before inheriting the titles.
Married Maud of Lusignan (died 1219) then Maud of Avebury
Known as 'The Good Earl of Hereford'.
1227 Joined forces with six other Earls, compelling Henry III to make provision for his brother Richard and to restore the forest charters.
Inherited Essex on 28 April 1228 through his mother, Maud, daughter of Geoffrey FitzPiers (Geoffrey de Mandeville).
Defended Simon de Montford's administration in Gascony 1252
Joined the baronial opposition to Henry III and was one of 24 men who drew up the Provisions of Oxford in 1258.
In 1263 he returned to the side of the King.
Taken prisoner along with King Henry III by Simon de Montford at the Battle of Lewes 14 May 1264. His son was wounded.
Humphrey died on 24 Sept 1274 (possilbly 1275). His body was buried alongside his father at Llanthony, Gloucester.
His only son, Hunmphrey de Bohun VI died on 27 October 1265, the titles therefore passed to his grandson.
Humphrey de Bohun VII
3rd Earl of Hereford and Essex
Lord High Constable of England
1274 - 1298
Born about 1248
Grandson of the 2nd Earl.
Inherited Brecon from his mother, Eleanor de Braose, daughter of William.
Married Maud de Fiennes
Forced King Edward I to sign the Confirmation of the Charters 1297.
Commanded at the Battle of Falkirk 1298 alongside King Edward I and Henry de Lacy, Earl of Lincoln. Defeated Sir William Wallace.
Listed on the Falkirk Roll as: Humfray de Bown Counte de Hereford...
Died 31 December 1298. Buried as Walden Abbey, Essex
Humphrey de Bohun VIII
4th Earl of Hereford and Essex
Lord High Constable of England
1298 - 1321
Born 1276
Married Princess Elizabeth, daughter of King Edward I, at Westminster Cathedral on 14 Nov 1302.
Fathered 11 children.
Fought at Falkirk alongside his father, 1298.
Bore arms at Caerlaverock, Dumfries 1300. One fifth of the English army were his men.
Bore at the first Dunstable tournament 1308.
Took part in the execution of the hated Piers Gaveston 1312
Confronted King Edward II on several occasions concerning the King's advances into Wales. Humphrey insisted that the King should ask his permission as he was Constable of England, responsible for all military operations and many of the attacks were on his territory. Forced the King's messenger to eat his communications along with the wax seals.
Was at the Battle of Bannockburn 1314 despite being in open opposition to the King, although he arrived late to make the King sweat. Went his own way on arriving at Bannockburn, crossing the stream lower down than the rest of the English army. Made a vigorous attempt to penetrate into Stirling Castle. Robert the Bruce, King of Scotland came down just in time to throw himself between them and the walls. Sir Henry de Bohun, Humphrey's nephew, who had pushed his way forward at the head of a force of Welsh infantry, was slain and his troops dispersed. Legend has it that Henry was personally killed by Bruce with a blow to the head with an axe. Humphrey was taken prisoner by the Scots and was later exchanged for Elizabeth de Burgh, Robert the Bruce's wife.
Humphrey went on to bear arms at Llywelyn Bren's uprising, Glamorgan in 1316.
Killed at Boroughbridge, Yorkshire, fighting on the baronial side against King Edward II and the Despencers, on 16 March 1321, by a Welsh pikeman who was hiding under a bridge.
His land was forfeited by order of the King as a punishment for insubordination and possibly out of spite for the loss of Scotland at Bannockburn. Despite this, Humphrey was honoured at Westminster Abbey. His swan badge, dated 1322, can be seen in the floor there. An effigy of Humphrey, also dated 1322, can be seen at Exeter Cathedral. His body was interred at Friars Preachers, York.
The land was returned to the de Bohuns in 1326 after Edward II was overthrown.

Effigy of Sir Humphrey de Bohun, d 1322
South Quire Aisle, Cathedral Church of St. Peter in Exeter.
John de Bohun
5th Earl of Hereford and Essex
Lord High Constable of England
1326 - 1335
Born 23 Nov 1305
Grandson of Edward I (Longshanks) on the female line.
Married Alice FitzAlan 1325
Fought in Scotland and France.
Died 20 January 1335 at Kirkby-Thore. Buried at Stratford Abbey, London.
Left no surviving issue. Titles passed to his brother, Humphrey
William de Bohun
Earl of Northampton
1337 - 1360
Born about 1311
Title bestowed upon him by King Edward III as a reward for battles won in France.
Younger brother of John and Humphrey de Bohun VIII. He was the fifth son of Humphrey de Bohun VII.
Grandson of Edward I on the female line
Married Elizabeth de Badlesmere, widow of Edmund, Lord Mortimer.
Bore at the second Dunstable tournament along with Edward of Hereford 1334.
Commanded many battles in France between 1334 and 1346. Won at Brest, Halidon, Morlaix where he was promoted to the king's lieutenant and captain-general, the Siege of Calais and the Battle of Crécy where he led the second division.
Elected Most Noble Order of the Garter 1349.
Died 16 September 1360. Buried at Walden Abbey, Essex.

William de Bohun, Earl of Northampton
Photo courtesy of www.toy-miniatures.com
Humphrey de Bohun IX
6th Earl of Hereford and Essex
Lord High Constable of England
1336 - 1361
Born 6 December 1309
Inherited from his brother, John de Bohun
Younger brother of John, elder brother of William
Fought in Scotland and France
Granted a licence to crenellate (fortify) Walden Castle, Essex, 1347
Elected Knight of the Garter 1365 in place of Sir Miles de Stapleton - one of the original 12.
His Garter Plate remains in his Stall at St. George's chapel, the 9th at the Sovereign's side.
Died 15 October 1361 at Pleshey. Buried at Friars Augustine, London
Left no surviving issue. Titles passes to his nephew Humphrey de Bohun X
Humphrey de Bohun X
7th Earl of Hereford and Essex and Northampton
Lord High Constable of England
1360 - 1373

The swan seal of Mary de Bohun, mother of King Henry V
Born 24 March 1341
Son of William de Bohun, Earl of Northampton.
Inherited Hereford and Essex from his uncle, Humphrey in 1361 aged 20.
Married Joan FitzAlan.
Humphrey died at the age of 31 in mysterious circumstances. It is thought that King Edward III had Humphrey secretly hanged. Rumours abounded that, during his service in France, he was involved in the supposed poisoning of the 3rd Earl of Warwick.
Humphrey died (or was killed) on 16 January 1373. He was buried at Walden Abbey, Essex.
His wife, Joan outlived the rest of the family and spent the rest of her life at Hinton Castle, Berkshire (now in Oxfordshire due to boundary changes). She died on 7th April 1419.
Humphrey left two daughters and no male heirs:

Eleanor de Bohun
Born about 1366.
Married Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester and son of Edward III.
Eleanor became a nun at Barking after Thomas was murdered in Calais 1397.
She died on 3 October 1399 and was buried at Westminster Abbey, London

Brass rubbing of Eleanor de Bohun, Duchess of Gloucester, 1399,
Westminster Abbey, London

Mary de Bohun
Born about 1369.
Brought up at Hinton Castle, Hinton Waldrist, Berkshire.
Married Henry of Bolingbroke, Duke of Buckinghamshire, Edward III's grandson, in 1380. Mary was aged 10, Henry was 13.
Her husband became King Henry IV of England in 1399.
Mary was the mother of six children including King Henry V of England and Philippa, Queen of Denmark, Sweden and Norway.
Mary died whilst giving birth to Philippa at Peterborough Castle on 4 July 1394 aged 24 and never became Queen of England. Her body was buried at Trinity Hospital, Leicester on 6 July 1394
Her son, King Henry V added the de Bohun swan to that of the Royal Standard in her honour.

The Royal Standard of King Henry V
As Humphrey de Bohun X, 7th Earl of Hereford did not leave any male heirs, the de Bohun inheritance descended into the Dukes of Buckinghamshire and the Crown. Other possessions devolved upon the House of Lancaster.
An engraving of the last known de Bohun of nobility can be seen at Latton Church, Essex. The engraving, dated 1465, depicts the wife of Sir Peter Ardene. Chief Justice and Justice of the King's Bench, during the reigns of Henry VI and Edward IV. She can be seen wearing a dress adorned with the bands and rampant lions of Hereford. 


The first page of the Matthew Paris shields roll II c.1244
The arms of 2nd Earl of Hereford can be seen
second from the left on the second row.
Top left, is that of King Henry III.

The most famous Bown in history.
The famous incident on the eve of the battle of Bannockburn when the lightly-armed King of Scotland, Robert the Bruce nimbly avoided the charge of the English knight Sir Henry de Bohun and felled him with a blow from his axe. [Hence the inherited migraines! Ed.]
The coat of arms in this illustration is slightly incorrect. Firstly, the diagonal band is in the wrong direction. Secondly, the arms can only be carried by the Earl himself. Sir Henry would have carried a similar shield, but with additions to show his relationship to the Earl. I'm happy with the horse's decor, although the lions appear to be the wrong way round as well. The original sketch may have been reversed.