The Origin of the Surname Nurse - Part 1 - Etymology

Category: Nurse Family
Last Modified: Oct 18 2020

Introduction edited for test

The primary goal in any family history research is to try and determine where the family originated. Sometimes, one is lucky and can accomplish this goal by pursuing the original records – birth/baptism, marriage, death/burial, wills and probate, but more often than not records are either lost or so illegible that the researcher reaches a dead end.

Figure 1 - Compton Dando


This happened to me when researching my Nurse lineage. I managed to trace the family origins with a high degree of confidence to the parish of Compton Dando in northern Somerset, the first reference in that parish being the baptism[1] of James Nurse, son of William and Sarah Nurse in 1735.[2]

A thorough review of the parish records for the parishes of north Somerset showed that the family likely moved to Compton Dando from the Chew Stoke[3]/Chew Magna[4]/Norton Malreward[5] area.

The earliest reference in the parish of Chew Magna is the burial of Joane Nurse of Stoke in 1573[6]. However, due to the poor state of the original records as well as their incompleteness, these conclusions are quite tentative and my research into the Nurse line came to a grinding halt.

The next stage in determining a family’s origin is to carry out research on the origin of the surname, with the hope that it can be shown that the name must have originated from a single source. This is actually very rare, but in the case of Nurse we can develop a few possible scenarios.

So, what is the origin of the surname Nurse?

I will take two different approaches to this question.

  1. The first approach will be to study the etymology of the name, to determine if there is a unique source.
  2. The second approach will be a statistical geographical approach. Through the use of various records we can attempt to determine the geographic location of the surname.

There is a third approach that can be used to trace your paternal ancestry (which in effect is what tracing the history of your surname is) and that is to use DNA.  This type of research is still in its infancy but can be used to confirm that male descendants with a common surname have a common Ancestor.

In this article I will focus on my research into the Etymology of the Nurse surname. I will describe my research into the geographic distribution of the Nurse surname in a future article.

The Origin of Surnames

Domesday_BookContrary to popular belief very few English families can trace their surnames to the “Domesday Book”, and fewer still can go back even tentatively to the pre-Conquest Anglo-Saxon era. Mainly this is due to a lack of records, but it is also due to the fact that hereditary surnames were restricted to the great land owning families.

Most of these surnames were derived from the locality where the family had their chief residence. For example, amongst William I’s barons at Hastings were William de Warenne from Varennes near Dieppe and Ilbert de Laci from Lassy, south of Bayeux.

During the two centuries or so that followed the Conquest most major landowning families and many knights adopted hereditary surnames, especially if they lived in the south of England, most of these hereditary surnames being derived from the place of origin of the family.

One of the largest categories of surnames is that which is derived from personal names. Some of these surnames, such as Paul or Thomas, derive directly from the personal name of the father of the man, who was the first in that line to adopt a hereditary surname. Others have –s or –son added as a suffix to a personal name, e.g. Roberts or Johnson, and yet others are prefixed by the Norman Fitz-, the Gaelic Mac or Mc, or the Welsh ap or ab, all of which mean “son of”.

Another large group of surnames, which became popular amongst the lower classes, is derived from occupations or from an office, rank or status. By the beginning of the thirteenth century, the more common occupational surnames, such as Smith, Taylor or Wright were already numerous.

Etymology of the Surname Nurse

The surname Nurse is derived from the same origins as the related names Nursey, Nourse, Norrish, Nurrish, Nowers, Norreys, Norrie and Norris, with the last being the form most common in recent times. The earliest mention of the variant Nurse appears to be in the early 16th century.[7],[8] There appears to be four different origins for this family of names.[9],[10]

The first origin is derived from the Old French word "norreis" which means "northerner" or "northman". This version of the name was found all over the country but particularly in the Midlands and the South. Some examples are;

  • Robert Noreis, who lived in Hampshire in 1148,[9]
  • William Le Norreis who lived in Gloucestershire between 1163 and 1200,[9]
  • Robert Le Norais who lived in Yorkshire in 1170,[9]
  • Robert Le Norreis who witnessed a charter by Earl Gospatric to the Priory of Coldingham in Scotland in 1166,[11] and
  • William Norrensis[12] who witnessed a charter by Malcolm, Earl of Fife in 1228.[11]

A second related, but far less common derivation is derived from the Old English words "noro" (north) and "hus" (house) meaning someone who dwelt in the north house or someone who lived on the north side of the estate, e.g.

  • Adam de Northus who lived in Essex in 1206.[9]

The third origin of the name, which is again quite common, is from the Old French word "norice", or "nurice" and the Latin "nutrix"/"nutricis" meaning wet nurse or foster parent. Again this version of the name is widespread throughout the country. Examples of people with the name with this origin are:

  • John "Le Norreys" who was one of an inquisition to inquire if Walter Biset was seized in the manor of Ulvington, Scotland at his death in 1251,[11]
  • Richard Norreys of Berwickshire who rendered homage to the King in 1296,[11]
  • Robert Le Noris of Yorkshire in 1297,[9] Alice La Norisse in Essex in 1310,[9] and
  • John Norice in Kent in 1317.[9]

The last origin of this family of names is derived from a family that came from Normandy with William the Conqueror; de Noers (and its variations, de Noiers, de Nuers). It is this last variation that most closely resembles the name Nurse, requiring only one letter to be moved.

At least one soldier named "de Noers" came with William the Conqueror and is on the Roll of Battle Abbey, in the Domesday Book.[10] The actual derivation of this name seems to be “de Noyers” after the name of a place –“Noyers”- in Normandy. As discussed earlier, surnames were only just beginning to be used in the 11th and 12th centuries; most people were referred to as John from some town (de Noyers in Norman French) or John the Smith (blacksmith).

There are records from Normandy to support the view that the family had its origins there. Here are a few:

  • Gilbert de Noyers witnessed a charter of Duke Richard to Fontanelles in 1024 A.D.
  • Richard, Gerald, and Gervase de Noiers, 1180-95 in Normandy
  • Andomar and William Norensis, 1180-95 in Normandy

While there is no evidence to suggest any connection to my ancestors, it is interesting to look at some of the people through the ages who have carried the name Noers, Norreys, Norris or Nurse. In a future article I will tell the story of William de Noers, Steward of King William I (The Conqueror). It is possible that William de Noers was a descendant of Gilbert de Noyers, listed above, but we have no proof that this is the case.

Bibliography and Notes

[1] - Parish Register for the Parish of Compton Dando Somerset, 1652-1900. Microfilmed by the Church of Jesus Christ Of Latter-Day Saints, Film No. 1526553.

[2] - James Nurse was baptized on 15th June 1735.

[3] - Parish Register for the Parish of Chew Stoke, Somerset, 1663-1789. Microfiched by the Somerset Record Office, Taunton, Somerset.

[4] - Parish Register for the Parish of Chew Magna, Somerset, 1569-1812. Microfiched by the Somerset Record Office, Taunton, Somerset

[5] - Parish Register for the Parish of Norton Malreward, Somerset, 1666-1812. Microfiched by the Somerset Record Office, Taunton, Somerset.

[6] - Joane Nurse of Stoke was buried on 19 Nov 1573. At that time Chew Stoke was part of the parish of Chew Magna.

[7] - International Genealogical Index, Rev. Jan 1988, Gloucestershire County, Page 16,867..

[8] - Boyd's Marriage Index for Somerset, Society of Genalogists (

[9] - A Dictionary of British Surnames, P. H. Reaney, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1958.

[10] - An Etymological Dictionary of Family and Christian Names, William Arthur, Shilds Blakeman and Co, 1857.

[11] - Norensis is the Latin variation of the name Noreis

[12] - Surnames of Scotland, George Black, New York Public Library, 1946.

Recent Articles